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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Aug 17, 2018


Hélène Lawler has been working with animals her whole life — she started by training her cat to use the toilet when she was 12! Since then she’s spent years heavily invested in both training and the rescue world. She’s dabbled in nosework, tracking, and Search and Rescue, and then began training agility in 2004, followed by herding in 2005. It didn’t take long before she was hooked.

She won the Ontario novice herding championship in 2008, after just two years of training with her dog Hannah, and together they went on to become an Open level team while simultaneously competing in agility to the Masters level and qualifying for the AAC Canadian Nationals. Today, she runs a working mixed livestock farm, with sheep, goats, horses, and poultry … and she recently agreed to do a webinar for FDSA on herding and how to train it using positive reinforcement techniques!

Next Episode: 

NOTE: In the podcast I announce Sarah Stremming, who will actually be one week further out; we rescheduled last minute. 


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 Helene Lawler.

Hélène has been working with animals her whole life — she started by training her cat to use the toilet when she was 12! Since then she’s spent years heavily invested in both training and the rescue world. She’s dabbled in nosework, tracking, and Search and Rescue, and then began training agility in 2004, followed by herding in 2005. It didn’t take long before she was hooked.

She won the Ontario novice herding championship in 2008, after just two years of training with her dog Hannah, and together they went on to become an Open level team while simultaneously competing in agility to the Masters level and qualifying for the AAC Canadian Nationals. Today, she runs a working mixed livestock farm, with sheep, goats, horses, and poultry … and she recently agreed to do a webinar for FDSA on herding and how to train it using positive reinforcement techniques!

Hi Helene, welcome to the podcast!

Helene Lawler: Hi Melissa. Thank you so much for having me here. I’m really excited.

Melissa Breau: Did I get the name pronunciation right there?

Helene Lawler: Yes, you did.

Melissa Breau: Yes! Score! So, to start us out, do you want to share a little bit about each of your dogs and anything you’re working on with them?

Helene Lawler: OK, sure. Yes, I can always talk about my dogs. I currently have eleven, so this might take a couple minutes.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough.

Helene Lawler: First of all, I have Hannah, who you mentioned. She’s 12-and-a-half. She’s my main working dog on the farm these days. She’s still going strong. I don’t compete with her anymore, but she’s still quite active being my working partner and running the farm with me.

I bred her once and I have two of her pups, Desiree and Clayton. They’re now 5. They both do work on the farm as well, and are advancing their herding skills. Desiree is training to be my next agility dog and fill her mother’s shoes in that respect. We’re hoping to start competing in the fall.

I had another fantastic bitch who also helped me run the farm, and I unfortunately had to say goodbye to her last week for health reasons, Kestrel. I’ve actually lost three dogs in the last four months, so it’s been a difficult transition time for us all. But Kessie left me four wonderful pups from two different breedings, so I have Griffon and Raven, the bird puppies, who are two-and-a-half. They both have started their herding training and are showing great promise. I’m really pleased. Griffon is also doing … he’s been very slow to mature, so we’ve been doing Rally. He’s been my introduction to Rally, and I’m really enjoying that a lot. We have a lot of fun with that.

And then I have Kestrel’s second litter of pups. I kept two back from that litter as well, Breganz and Jest. They’re 7 months old, so they’re showing lots of interest, but they’re not old enough to start training yet. So right now they’re just being feral puppies on the farm and having a good life.

And then I have Aoife, who I imported from Ireland last year. She’s a Border Collie, and I think I mentioned all the others were Border Collies as well. Aoife is 14 months old, and I’ve just started working with her, and I’m really excited about her prospects as a working dog. She’s totally new lines to me, and something completely new and different and really fun and great, so I’m very excited about her.

And then I have my Kelpie, Holly, who is the one who has put me on this whole journey of positive reinforcement herding training. She is 8 and still going strong and doing well. We do some stock training around the farm, and she’s really good at nosework, and we’ve been dabbling in barn hunt, and she’s also very athletic and loves to do tricks.

And then finally I have my guardian dogs, who are maremmas, Mikey, and Juno. They live full-time outside and patrol the property, and care for the sheep and keep them safe, because we have an awful lot of wolves around here, so I need some good guardians. They’ve actually been a lot of fun. They’re good farm dogs, but they’re just as trainable as the Border Collies, so I have some fun doing foundation stuff with them as well.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. You mentioned a lot of wolves. Where are you based?

Helene Lawler: I live in eastern Ontario, rural eastern Ontario. We have bush wolves. They’re coyote-wolf hybrids. They’re probably about a 65-pound animal, and they have very little fear of humans and a taste for livestock. I have taken the approach of having a good, hard defense, so I use electric fencing and guard dogs, and that’s been working quite well to convince them to just go and raid other farms. So it’s working quite well.

Melissa Breau: How did you wind up in this world? What got you started, and what got you started specifically in herding?

Helene Lawler: Well, it’s a long story. I’ll try to make it brief. When I was an undergrad, I had a neighbor who had a dog who … undergrad student didn’t take very good care of his dog, so I used to sneak over and take the dog for walks when he was away at classes. I fell in love with the dog, and then he very wisely rehomed the dog, and I didn’t know that was happening, so I didn’t get a chance to ask for her.

So I went out to look for my own dog, and I ended up finding a Border Collie puppy who I named Jake, who ended up being the love of my life and my best friend. Together we went on an incredible journey for 14 years, travelled extensively and … you know how some people get the really challenging dog of their life upfront? He was the perfect dog for me. He was just super-smart and he was this incredible teacher, so I learned so much from him about training.

He was like the littlest hobo, the campus dog, he used to come to class with me and sit outside and wait. Back in the day, this was 1989, the laws were not quite as restrictive as they are now with dogs, so he was everywhere with me off leash. We’d go to the pub, we’d go shopping, he’d wait outside stores. I took him everywhere, and he was one of those traditional, old-school Border Collies that fell into place and did everything I needed him to do without me having to know much about training.

He was like my live business card — everywhere I went, people would be like, “Wow, your dog’s so well trained. Can you teach me?” So I started getting into teaching other people because of Jake, wasn’t necessarily the most effective way of teaching, but I figured it out. So I did end up teaching other people, and I got into it quite seriously for a while of being a dog walker and trainer, and then went in a different direction after that, after doing that exploration for about a year or two.

One day, while I was traveling across the country with Jake — because we traveled extensively all over North America, a girl and her dog — we were at a truck stop, and of course Jake was off leash, as usual. He was sitting on the picnic bench next to me while I was having lunch, and suddenly he just took off — very unusual for him. I raced after him, and what he had taken off after was a big tractor-trailer load of sheep that had pulled into the truck stop. He did an outrun and stopped the tractor-trailer, and I had in that moment the realization that my dog had missed his calling, and I had a pang of regret that I was never able to let him do what he was bred to do. So I promised myself and Jake, in that moment, that my next dog would get to work sheep. At that point, Jake was 8 and we were living in big cities, and it was just not an option for him.

But I did hold true, and so fast-forward a few years later, I guess it was about five or six years later. I was living in London, Ontario, at the time, and Jake had passed away, and I was looking for my new Border Collie, and I found Hannah. She was working bred, and her breeder lived about 45 minutes from me and had offered to train me to do stock work with her because she wanted to see her puppies out working sheep. So that’s how I got started.

I was actually so excited about it that I took lessons for a year before Hannah was ready to get started. Before she was even conceived I started taking lessons, waiting for the breeding and then waiting for her to grow up. I went and I worked the farm with her breeder and learned how to manage sheep without a dog, which is actually an invaluable skill for anybody who wants to herd. I strongly recommend it. And I never looked back.

Melissa Breau: What got you started in positive reinforcement training? Have you always been a positive trainer with that approach, or do you consider yourself a crossover trainer? How did that piece of it come into play?

Helene Lawler: Yes, I would say that I’m a crossover trainer. Back in the 1980s, when I first started training, it was all alpha rolls and collar pops, unfortunately. However, I have always used some positive reinforcement in my training. I was one to always use lots of praise and food and things like that. So I guess technically I would be considered a balanced trainer, by today’s definition. I don’t love that term, but I know that’s how it’s used today. But I definitely was not exclusively positive in my training by any stretch back in the day.

After Jake died in 2004, I wanted to do something in his memory. I did a bunch of research and I found Glen Highland Farm Border Collie Rescue in New York state, which was close to me where I was living at the time, and I thought I wanted to make a donation in his memory. So I went to check them out and ended up falling in love with the place and staying and doing a bunch of volunteer work. There’s a long story around this that I won’t go into right now, but I ended up adopting one of the dogs, not surprising when I was there, Ross.

And Ross was … he passed in April of this year, so we’re still kind of adjusting to that change in my life, but he was a huge, tremendous influence in my life around positive reinforcement. He was a dog that had an unknown background, that showed incredible fear and a lot of rage, a lot of anxiety, and a strong willingness to try and control the world through a lot of bluff, bluster, and aggression.

I quickly figured out that he couldn’t tolerate anything other than positive reinforcement in his interactions with me. I had to build trust with this dog. He was just so ready to be defensive about everything. And I just had to figure it out with him. I didn’t even really know what positive reinforcement training was, in any sort of clear definition of the word or even as a philosophy. It was just how I had to relate to him. Looking back, I now see that’s what it was.

He really got me to think outside the box of how to work with him, and working with him also got me hooked on rescue. And so I started doing work more locally to me at this point in Ontario with other rescue groups and found a terrific mentor. Her name is Cindy Boht, and she runs Border Collie Rescue Ontario, and she really opened my eyes to a lot of positive reinforcement methods. She is completely — she still is to this day — completely dedicated to this philosophy of working with dogs. She taught me an awful lot, and that’s how I really got launched on the path.

Melissa Breau: So today, how would you describe your current philosophy, or your current training approach, I guess?

Helene Lawler: Today I try to be 100 percent positive-reinforcement-based in my training. I have to admit that I’m not always there, but that is my intention and my goal and I’m always striving for it.

Working on a farm, running a farm, there are always things that happen that are beyond my control, as much as I try and manage things, so I try to have really good fencing, I try to have a very good system. But I have livestock and I have Border Collies and sometimes things go south, so sometimes I’m not always successful in being completely positive in my approach. But whenever I do encounter that, I see that as a failure on my part and then I spend some time thinking about how I can make sure that doesn’t happen again, how I can work through it, how I can train it, how I can better set up my management. So my general philosophy is to be 100 percent in practice. It’s something I’m striving for.

Melissa Breau: I know on your website you talk about “force-free herding,” and you have this write-up about it. Can you explain what that phrase means to you and where it came from?

Helene Lawler: Sure. Force-free herding is a term that I came up with in discussion with some other people around it. We were trying to find the best way to describe what we’re trying to accomplish here with developing a new method of training dogs to herd stock.

I almost think that fear-free might be more apt than force-free, because sometimes we might actually use … depending on how you define force. For example, I will actually use a long line for some of the work that I do, so the dog is not completely at liberty. So it depends how strictly you want to stick to the term. But the general idea is to avoid the use of aversives or punishment when teaching dogs to work stock, so that’s my main goal.

That has come about because, when I was training my dogs to work sheep, basically there’s a lot of aversive pressure used on the dogs to get them to do what we want to do. The reason for that is that they get into these fairly high states of arousal, and we need them to be able to think clearly and respond to our cues. And to do that, we need their brains to be in gear and functioning. So a quick and dirty way to do that is to use aversives to keep the dogs a little bit afraid or a lot afraid, depending on the dog, to keep their levels of arousal under wraps and so that they can pay attention and listen.

If you don’t want to do that, which I do not want to do that, then how do we get our dogs to keep us in the picture when we’re working? That’s the challenge I’ve been facing with trying to develop a method of teaching my dogs how to work sheep without using pressure or any types of force or aversive or punishment.

Melissa Breau: You started to answer this a little bit already, but next I was going to ask you how your approach is different than that traditional approach to training a herding dog. Can you just go into that a little bit more?

Helene Lawler: Sure. Traditionally, like I said, people will use an aversive punishment or some level of pressure on the dog to get the dog to keep the handler in the picture.

You asked how does what I’m doing differ from how somebody would traditionally train. It really depends on the trainer. I know some excellent trainers. I would say there would be very little difference, because everybody understands that it’s really critical for the dog to be confident and to have a good experience around stock, and I don’t think there’s anybody who would disagree with that. So people are not wanting their dogs to become afraid around sheep.

The challenge, like I said before, is that we need to keep their level of arousal in check so that they can focus on what we’re asking them to do, and sometimes, a sharp, well-timed correction can be very clear and give the dog the information that it needs to be able to do the job properly. The really great handlers can do that and not have fallout from using a correction. But for the rest of us, and I certainly count myself in that group, I can’t use corrections and not have fallout, and I have certainly tried and failed many times.

I don’t want to take that risk and have that damage to my relationship with my dogs, so what I try to do is find different ways to work with my dogs’ arousal levels. That’s really the key to developing a dog who can work stock without having to use the aversive methods, and that’s what I focus on with my training. So I look at trying to be able to clearly communicate with them and keep myself in the picture through working with their arousal levels around stock, and that can take a lot of work prior to ever going to stock.

So I think that’s one of the biggest differences perhaps that you’ll find in how I train from how I trained before, and how I’ve trained with other people, is that I put a lot of foundation work into my dogs before they ever go to sheep, as a way of making sure that we have that clear communication, and they have those skills to be able to keep themselves in a state of arousal that is sufficient to do the work, but not so high that they can’t hear my cues and respond to them.

Melissa Breau: I’d imagine, as somebody using positive training in a field where it’s … not yet … hopefully the norm, there have been times when you’ve been facing an uphill battle. What obstacles would you say you’ve had to overcome in the process of learning and now teaching herding using positive reinforcement?

Helen Lawler: The biggest obstacles have been, well, first of all, not having a mentor to learn from, so having to figure this out from scratch. That’s been quite a challenge. I do have wonderful mentors in the positive reinforcement world, and so I’ve been studying what they’re doing and then trying to extrapolate from that and then putting into play in the herding setting. So it’s not like I’m working in a complete vacuum. Obviously I’ve got lots of material to work with. It’s translating that to the herding world that’s been the big challenge.

A couple of other things that have been challenging for me is that I have yet to find a really systematic approach to follow to try to replicate. Everybody I’ve trained with in herding has their own method, which is similar to dog sports, but I feel like in agility in particular, which I know fairly well now, there really is a systematic way of training your dog, and you can break your training into small pieces, you can split, you can break it out. If you want to teach tight turnings on jumps, you can start that sitting quietly in your bathroom with a cone and have your dog just learn how to go around the cone, and then gradually build up to running in the field at high intensity.

But with herding, you can’t really do that, and so I’ve had to figure out how to break down what my dog is doing into pieces that I can then take away from the sheep, take away from the field, and train them away and then bring it back. That’s been very challenging because there’s very little of that going on, and so it’s all things that I’ve had to figure out on my own. So that’s been quite a process.

The other thing is trying to really know what I’m looking for when working with the sheep. What is it that it needs to really look like, and what does my dog need to be doing, and what is the picture supposed to be? Even understanding that is quite challenging. It takes years and years and years to be able to see what’s going on and really understand it and know that the dog is doing things correctly. When is the dog correct, when is the dog incorrect? The dog is usually correct a lot more often than the handler is. So as a green handler, I was learning along with my dog. That was tremendously difficult. It’s like a green rider on a green horse. There are just so many things to try and figure out in tandem that your brain short-circuits, so my poor dogs, they’ve had to learn along with me.

Now, I said I haven’t had real mentors to follow, but my dogs have been incredible teachers, and I think they have taught me as much or more than anybody else, because they really show clearly when they’re confused, when they’re stressed, when they’re clear and confident, when I’m doing something that’s aversive to them. I’ve had to spend a lot of time studying my dogs and their reaction to what I’m doing to understand if I’m doing something that’s aversive, if I’m not clear, if I’m confusing to them, when they get it.

I will do something, and my dog — you can see the light go on, and that tells me, Oh great, I figured out how to communicate this to the dog. What did I just do? And then I have to break that down. So one of the advantages of having, because I have quite a few dogs and I also work with other people’s dogs, is that I have all these fantastic canine teachers. And so really the dogs have led me through this, in particular my Kelpie. She’s really been the one who spearheaded this whole process.

Melissa Breau: When you are facing one of those problems where most trainers who teach herding, or who train herding with their dogs, would turn to punishment or fear, how do you start to work on coming up with a positive solution instead? Do you have a method that you use, or a thought process you have in place? I’d love to hear a little bit more about your process.

Helene Lawler: Sure. The first thing I do … as I mentioned earlier, sometimes things kind of go south around here, so my very first process when I do that is I go, OK, let’s just hit the brakes here. So I’ll usually end up picking up my dog and carrying it into the house, or whatever, and just stopping the whole scenario and thinking, OK, what just happened here? I then say to myself, OK then, use your big brain. You’re the one with the big human brain, so that’s what you have it for. Figure it out.

I say that to myself all the time: Use your big brain. That gets me into a good analytical mode, and I think about it. I think, OK, What is training? I see training as essentially three things. It’s communication, it’s motivation, and it’s ability.

My dogs are all very strongly working bred, so motivation is pretty much never an issue with my particular dogs. It can be with other dogs, but I don’t have to struggle too much with motivation. They’re keen. They want to work.

So then I have to look at communication and ability. Am I communicating to the dog? Is the dog understanding what it is that I am saying or trying to express to them? If the answer is no, which it would be if they’re not doing what I’m asking them to, then I always assume that they are not doing it most likely because they don’t understand what they’re supposed to do. I don’t ever see my dogs as being willfully disobedient. I just don’t think they are. I think they’re just not clear on what they need to be doing.

So then I go, OK, how can I better communicate? So then I really brainstorm. What can I do, and rarely do I ever mean verbally. It’s like, can I set things up better? Can I change the environment to make things more obvious? Can I use different sheep? Can I use some props? Can I use fencing more effectively? How can I better communicate what I want the dog to understand here? That’s a big part of my process is really trying to break it down.

The other part of the process is does the dog … as I said, they have communication, motivation, and ability. Does the dog have the ability to do what I’m asking them to do? That can mean things like is my dog fit enough to not be tired while we’re working? Do they have the physical capability?

I mentioned I have two 7-month-old puppies. They are crazy keen. They do not have the ability to physically do the work that I want them to do, nor do they have the mental ability to stay present while I’m working with them. So if I put them out on sheep right now, I can put out a group of sheep that will be quieter and move slowly, so that their soft muscles and not fully developed legs can still outrun the sheep. I would keep sessions really short and not ask anything of them, just let them work on instinct and let them drag a short line on a harness, so that when we’re done I can just stand on it and walk them off the field without expecting anything of them other than just working on instinct.

I know that they’re not capable of really responding to me until their brains have fully developed, and sometimes that can be until they’re 2 or 3 years old, so I have to be aware of where the dog is at in terms of their physical and mental ability, If I feel like that is not where I need it to be for the type of work we’re doing, I’ll pull them off stock and do things away from stock for a while until we get to that point, be that fitness, be it more mental work.

I mentioned my dog Griffon, who I do Rally with. When we go out to stock, there’s nobody home. He is just one big, fluffy, black-and-white ball of instinct, and so I can’t really ask him to do anything. Fortunately, he’s got lots of natural ability, so he doesn’t get into trouble, but I can’t really progress his training at this point, so I’ve just done other things with him. We do lots of hikes, we do Rally, we do lots of fun things while his body and brain develop, and if we don’t get seriously into training until he’s almost 3, so be it.

So those are my approaches with my dogs. We look at communication, motivation for some dogs but not mine, and then really looking at their actual ability to do it.

Melissa Breau: We were talking a little bit here about how you approach things, and I know you mentioned that you do more foundation work than some other trainers might. Can you share a little bit about how much of your training methods are foundation work — that is, before introducing or using stock, and how much of the training is done on stock? And maybe a little bit about the skills you teach as foundation behaviors?

Helene Lawler: Sure. When it comes to my approach to using positive methods for herding, I should be clear: we don’t actually teach dogs to herd. I don’t teach my dogs to herd.

I’ll step back for a second. As I said, my dogs are very strongly working bred, so they instinctively know how to herd. They have more herding ability in the tip of their tail than I have in my whole body and will learn in my entire life, so I am not teaching them to herd.

Now, some breeds and some dogs actually do need to learn the skills, and those dogs we would train more mechanically. That’s a different ball of wax, not really what I’m talking about here. What I work with are dogs that are just big balls of instinct, that just want to get out there and work, and so I’m shaping that instinct.

What I’m actually working on with the dog is how to put their natural instincts on cue. So there’s an awful lot of capturing, basically, and helping them with their arousal level so that they can put two and two together and they can recognize that my cue is asking them to do certain things, because often we’re going to be asking them to go against their instincts. So that’s what we’re really working on.

The foundation training that I need them to do is an awful lot around building my relationship with them so that they want to partner with me. I want to look at their ability to manage their arousal levels on stock and keep me in the picture. I keep saying that, but that’s what’s really critical. If they will respond to me, if they can keep their arousal level such that they can hear and respond to my cues, then there’s no need to ever use an aversive. So I do a lot of work around arousals, often at quite a distance from the stock, often without even stock around to start, and you build gradually to that. So that’s a really big part of my foundation work.

And then for actual skills, they need a stop, so that can either be a stop on their feet or a lie-down and a recall off stock. Those are the two critical skills that they need before they start doing any formal training. As long as they have that, I can pretty much work with anything else. So I do a lot of work on lie-downs in growing levels of arousal and around distraction and then recalls.

And I do a tremendous amount of Premack. Premack goes through everything. All my training, I use Premack as my method for building my skills and my dogs’ because typically they don’t want anything else that I can offer. I can’t give them food or toys when they want to work sheep. They want it that badly. So I use the stock as the reward, and that is an extremely effective way, actually, of building these basic skills. So I have a bunch of exercises that I do, first off stock and then I bring it to stock, but outside the fence so they’re within view, and then we gradually build up to working right directly on the sheep.

But the two critical skills are the stop and the recall, and the rest is all arousal training. And then there are little things like shaping a head turn, and a few little odds and ends, but those come in time. But the critical foundation pieces are those three.

There’s another critical piece that I should mention, and that is that we need them to have … I like to use the term “dynamic impulse control,” which to me means the ability to control their impulses, have self-control, whatever you want to use, whatever terms you want to use, while the dog is in motion. We do an awful lot in sport training around having a dog who can hold still around distraction. But in herding we really need them to be able to stay, to maintain their impulse control while in motion, and that is also a key piece of the foundation training that I do with my dogs.

Melissa Breau: I compete in treibball, so I work a German Shepherd, who is obviously a herding dog, in treibball, and it’s interesting to see the tie-ins to some of that stuff. It’s really interesting.

Helene Lawler: I know people who say that that would be a good foundation sport to do. I’ve never done it myself, but I think that that could teach your dog some good skills that would be translatable, from what I know of the sport.

Melissa Breau: It’s definitely not the same, but it’s interesting from a … a lot of dogs do have arousal problems around the ball, especially herding breeds, and there’s just lots of interesting pieces there that I could see having some carryover. I’ve never had the chance to test my dog on stock, but I think that would be a lot of fun to take her out because she’s got the treibball training, so it would see how much it holds up.

Helene Lawler: Yeah, that would be really interesting to see. I didn’t have sheep for Hannah until we were already competing at the Open level, actually, and so I never told anybody this because I would have been laughed at, but I used to take a basketball out and she would herd the basketball. I used it to lengthen her out runs. I have no idea if that actually translated, but it gave me something to do at home, so I would just send her and she would do an out run on a basketball and lie down and flank back and forth around the basketball. It really brought out the instincts, so I thought, OK, I’m going to work with that.

Melissa Breau: That’s so interesting. I know you’re doing a webinar for FDSA on this stuff. It’ll be next week when this airs. Would you mind sharing a little bit about what you plan to cover and give a little insight into the topic?

Helene Lawler: Sure. The webinar is going to be diving deeper into what I’ve just been talking about: looking specifically at the intersection of sport training and herding, what crossover there is, how we can apply what we know from sport training to prepare our dogs for stock work, and also where some of the pitfalls might be. Some of the sport foundation training might actually be counterproductive to stock work.

And at the same time, how stock work can help with dog sports, which is something that I have found. When I first started doing herding training, I had also recently discovered agility. What ended up happening was I did both sports with Hannah, and I couldn’t tell anybody in the herding world that I was doing agility, because they all thought it would ruin her for herding, and I couldn’t tell anybody in the agility world that I was doing herding, because they would all say that it would ruin her for agility. So I just kept my mouth shut and did both sports completely separately, and what I found was that they were very complementary.

Hannah’s confidence in our teamwork just blossomed through agility that translated to working on stock. Her ability to focus on me, her dedication to the job, her start line stays, all these sorts of things were just phenomenal from herding when we took it to agility. So I found that the two sports really complemented each other beautifully, and I think more and more people are discovering that now.

However, there are also pitfalls, and there are things that we do in both that can have some fallout. I think that that might be good insight for us around how to change our training across the board, and so that’s what I want to talk more about as well.

Melissa Breau: Now obviously during the webinar you won’t be able to cover everything …

Helene Lawler: No, I can talk for hours and hours and hours!

Melissa Breau: Hey, most of us dog people can, especially about our sports. But I know you have your own site where you talk about some of this stuff. Do you want to share where folks can go for more information?

Helen Lawler: My site for my dogs is I also have a Facebook page with the same name. And I’m just getting up and running my dog-training site,, which may be live by the time this airs. I’m hoping. I also have been in discussion and planning about starting a Fenzi herding group on Facebook, so that will hopefully be a great resource for people down the road in the near future.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, that would be awesome. So the way I tend to end every episode with a first-time guest — I’ve got my three questions here. The first one is, what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?

Helene Lawler: I had to think long and hard about this, and I have quite a few I’d love to discuss, but in keeping with the discussion around herding, I’m going to focus on that. My proudest moment in herding was competing at Grass Creek Sheep Dog Trials, which is actually ongoing this week.

I was there two years ago with Hannah. It was the competition we moved up to Open in, and it is one of the most difficult and prestigious sheep dog trials in North America. There are no novice classes in this trial. It is just purely Open. People come from far and wide, and even overseas, to compete in it, and you’re in there with the best of the best. So it was very, very intimidating, and really I was just proud of myself to be able to find the courage and have a dog who I knew I could count on, and that we were such a strong team that no matter what we faced out there, I knew that we would hold it together and do a good job, do our best.

So I went out there with Hannah knowing I could count on her, Miss Cool As A Cucumber in the field. This dog, she just loves to compete when I don’t, so she really helped me with all my trial nerves and so on and so forth. She’s just amazing. She just loved the crowds, and she just loved the attention and the cameras and so on and so forth.

So anyway, at this competition you get to run twice. The very first time we went out, it was early in the week. It was on Wednesday, and there weren’t that many people watching, and it was the workweek, so we just went out and we worked our dogs.

I said, OK, I’m just going to pretend like I’m at home, and I set myself three goals. The first one was that I wasn’t going to lose my dog. I didn’t want her going out and losing her sheep and running after them, and me having to walk down the field to go get her. I didn’t want to lose my sheep and have them go bolting off into the woods, and I didn’t want to lose my cool. So I sent my dog and she’s so great. She got her sheep, and she didn’t lose her sheep, and she didn’t go running off after them back to the setout. She brought them to me and I was so proud of her.

But I have to say, I was pretty stressed, and so by the time she got them to me and I was just so relieved, but I started stressing enough that I started losing my cool. So I thought, OK, I’m just going to call it quits here. I turned to the judge and I said, “Thank you,” and I exhausted the sheep, and I told my dog how great she was, and we left and we celebrated.

And I thought, OK, this was great, that was good, but the next run I’m going to add one more thing to my list of things I don’t want to lose, and one of that was I was not going to step off the field until we either ran out of time or the judge asked us to leave. So no bailing, we are going to do the whole course the next time.

I showed up, and it was Friday of the competition, and I should say about 10,000 people come to watch this competition over the course of … yeah, it’s a big deal. I wasn’t really prepared for that. I showed up at the competition and there was this huge crowd, and there was an emcee and all sorts of stuff, and I was like, Oh my goodness. I was so overwhelmed. So I thought, OK, let’s do some breathing, and then I thought, OK, here’s my issue. I’m out there with the big hats. I need a bigger hat. So I went and bought myself a big hat.

I put on my big hat, I walked to the post, I sent my dog, she got her sheep, she brought them to me, we made it around the course, and we got a score of numbers, not letters, because in herding you either get a score or you get a retire or you get a disqualify DQ, so the goal is to get numbers not letters. We got numbers, not letters, and I was just so thrilled with my dog, I was really pleased with my own ability to overcome my own inner challenges, and it was this very wonderful moment. I was thrilled. So that was a huge accomplishment that I’m quite proud of.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. My second question here is usually my favorite, but what is the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Helene Lawler: Again, one I had to think long and hard about, and I know other people have said two, so I’m also going to say two, but they’re nothing new. They are “Train the dog in front of you,” and “It’s all behavior.” Those two, I just tell myself that over and over and over and over and over again. It’s been absolutely critical in everything I’ve been accomplishing.

It’s “Train the dog in front of me,” every day it’s different, forget the dog that my dog was yesterday, especially forget the dog that my dog was a few years ago, which I tend to still hang on to, and just work with the dog I have in this moment right now. What does she need, what are we doing, where is she at? That has just been so critical for my own ability to improve my training.

“It’s all behavior” is so important for staying calm, cool, and collected, and just being analytical and detached and really taking emotions out of the training, which can be a real challenge in herding, in any kind of dog sport, I’m sure, as you and I’m sure all the listeners know. But in herding it’s really easy to lose your emotional cool, so just saying “It’s all behavior” and understanding that at a deep level has been really, really helpful for me.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. The last one: Who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Helene Lawler: Lots and lots of people. Again, I’ll keep this focused on herding. I’m going to say Amanda Milliken. She is one of the giants in the herding world. She is local to me, which I’m very lucky about that. She is the person who has put on the Grass Creek Trials that is running right now, and her dedication, passion, and commitment to the sport and her breed, her commitment well beyond her own performance, has just been amazing. She’s just an incredible woman for all that she has accomplished in herding and with Border Collies in general. I’ve really admired that, and I’ve taken inspiration from how hard she works and how hard she’s trained.

I bought my first Border Collie from her in 1989, and she was competing back then. She’d already started Grass Creek. That was 29 years ago, and she’d already run it for two years. So she has been in this for the long game, and I just love to see people be successful and know that persistence pays, and so I’ve learned a lot from that.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I really appreciate it.

Helene Lawler: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been such a pleasure and an honor to be here.

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

We’ll be back next week with Sarah Stremming, to talk about her household’s latest new addition — a Border Collie puppy named Watson.

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.


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Aug 10, 2018


Nancy Tucker is a certified pet dog trainer and behavior consultant in Sherbrooke, Quebec. She teaches seminars, webinars, and workshops on dog training, dog behavior, and the business end of training 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 also written numerous articles on dog behavior and is a regular contributor to Whole Dog Journal. At FDSA, she teaches a great class on separation anxiety, another on desensitization and counterconditioning, both of which are coming up in October, and a more lighthearted class on door greeting manners, which is currently running.

Next Episode: 

To be released 8/17/2018, featuring Helene Marie, talking about R+ Herding.


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 teaches seminars, webinars, and workshops on dog training, dog behavior, and the business end of training 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 also written numerous articles on dog behavior and is a regular contributor to Whole Dog Journal. At FDSA, she teaches a great class on separation anxiety, another on desensitization and counterconditioning, both of which are coming up in October, and a more lighthearted class on door greeting manners, which is currently running.

Hi Nancy, welcome to the podcast!

Nancy Tucker: Hi Melissa.

Melissa Breau: So, to start us out, can you just share a little information to remind everybody who the dog is that you share your life with and what you’re working on with him?

Nancy Tucker: Yep. We’re a single-dog family, and I know that this is sometimes shocking and even an alien concept to lots of people, especially a trainer who has only one dog. “What? Just the one dog? Oh no, what happened?” Nothing happened, we just have the one dog, and I just find life far more enjoyable and easier to manage with just the one dog.

He’s a 1-year-old Border Terrier named Bennigan — or Benni, for short — and we’re not involved in any dog sports or organized activities. I work on run-of-the-mill pet dog behaviors with him, and of course he’s my demo dog for lots of teaching videos, so sometimes I end up teaching him behaviors I’ll never ask of him again. But he loves to learn and he’s total eye candy on the video because he’s crazy-cute.

Melissa Breau: I cannot believe he’s already a year old. It feels like you just got him.

Nancy Tucker: I know!

Melissa Breau: I do understand he has his own fan club.

Nancy Tucker: He does. He has his own Facebook page called Bennigan’s Shenanigans. It’s where I post lots of silly things, like our pretend conversations between us, or photos and videos of some of his activities. And I’ll sometimes post some really easy training videos, especially when his fans ask how I trained a particular thing he was doing in another video they saw. I really like doing “how to” videos for pet dog stuff because it gets people to interact with their dog in a way they’ve never done before.

I didn’t realize just how popular Benni was until I was teaching a seminar in another city a couple of months ago on separation anxiety for trainers. I had photos and videos of Benni in my presentation, and after hearing me refer to him as “my dog, Benni,” one of the participants looked up suddenly and said, “Oh my god, you’re Benni’s mom?” It was a really humbling experience. She was more excited about that than my presentation. So I’m thinking I should probably put that on my business card: Benni’s mom.

Melissa Breau: How’s his door behavior looking these days?

Nancy Tucker: Pretty good, actually. We’ve come a long way with Benni, because his greetings are super-expressive, especially when me or my husband walk through the door.

To be honest, I let it slide for the longest time because it’s incredibly easy to let these things slide with little dogs. When a large dog greets you by jumping up or weaving between your legs, you can’t ignore that. But when a little guy does it, it’s cute and far less dangerous, of course, so we let it slide a lot more often.

But we worked on his door greeting skills a lot more this summer and he’s a star now. He still needs some help remembering what to do once in a while, and we still use management sometimes, which is normal, but overall he does me pretty proud.

Melissa Breau: Nancy’s class this session, for anybody who doesn’t know, is on just that — getting a calm door greeting, instead of the crazy chaos I know I tend to have at my house when someone gets home. Looking at the syllabus, Nancy, it looks like the first few lectures are heavy on management. Why is managing this behavior such an important step in starting to fix it?

Nancy Tucker: The first step in modifying behavior is doing everything we can to prevent the old behavior from being practiced. Every time a dog gets to do that behavior, it gets reinforced by something, and that means that we’re actually helping to maintain it somehow.

Reinforcement, in this case, can be in the form of getting immediate access to somebody at the door, or sometimes it can also be attention from the person at the door, or attention from us. Even if we’re yelling or grabbing at our dogs to corral them or try to move them out of the way, we could inadvertently be reinforcing that behavior.

Obviously the dog is getting something out of that behavior, or he wouldn’t keep repeating it. If we can prevent it by using some management, we’ll at least stop reinforcing it.

Melissa Breau: Is it possible to manage it forever without actually working on it?

Nancy Tucker: Yeah, for sure. In some instances I’d even recommend it, if the circumstances make training a new behavior more challenging than simple management. My goal is always to find a solution that will make life better for both the human and the dog, so yeah, if management is the best way to obtain that result, then I think it’s perfectly fine.

On the other hand, polite door greeting is actually a fairly simple behavior to teach. It can take some time, especially if the dog has been practicing an unwanted behavior for a long time. But once we’ve got some polite behaviors in place and we continue to reinforce them, it’s so nice to not have to worry or scramble when someone comes to the door.

Melissa Breau: As folks progress from management to training, what are their options? What kinds of alternative behaviors do you like to teach?

Nancy Tucker: Contrary to popular belief, reducing a dog’s access to the door area is not the most effective approach. I talk a lot about this in class. We get the feeling that we need to control our dog’s access to the door, and to get him to stay somewhere else and to stay quiet, and that’s actually really hard.

My goal is never to create robot dogs who stay away from the door and give all visitors a really wide berth. I want to allow dogs to check out who’s coming into their home. I want to encourage interaction. But I also want to help people teach their dogs more appropriate interactions in that context.

So while we do cover some behaviors that essentially send the dog away from the door area when someone walks in, because that can be really handy at times, we’ll also be teaching our dogs that one of the most effective ways for them to get access to visitors is to keep their paws on the floor or to carry something in their mouth. This one’s really good for happy barkers or dogs who get mouthy when they’re excited. And we’ll use nose targeting and other fun games that allow the dog to regain some composure before he interacts with someone at the door. So it’s not about reducing access to visitors. It’s all about adding a little finesse to their greeting behavior.

Melissa Breau: I’m going to guess that some of those things are initially taught away from the door. After all, as with all dog training things, we want to start small and then build up. So how do you go about making the door “small”? How do you break something down like that?

Nancy Tucker: You’re right, we’ll start by working on all the new behaviors in a more neutral area of the home with very little distractions, just like any new behavior. And then we move the whole thing over to the door area, but with nobody coming or going. We’re just helping the dog generalize the behavior to a new location. And then we’ll start introducing the door into our training sessions by first we’re just opening and closing it with no one else around. Again, it’s all about adding an element of difficulty very gradually.

And then we’ll go out and come back in and practice the new behaviors, which really, when you think about it, is not at all exciting to the dog. He’s thinking, “I just saw you two seconds ago. This is boring.” And this is what we want. We want the dog to be able to practice the new behaviors when he’s not excited.

And then, when the dog is able to offer those behaviors in that context, we’ll ask someone else to practice the exercises with us, someone familiar to the dog who has already greeted them, spent a little time with them prior to practicing these exercises — again, we’re trying to make it least exciting possible for the dog — and then we’ll gradually make our way to having a stranger enter the home. That’s the Holy Grail.

I know it can be very difficult for people to find, or they think it can be very difficult for them to find somebody to help them with these types of exercises, especially if they live in a more rural area, for example. But in the past, people have asked neighbors to help play this role, or they’ve invited a co-worker to stop by, and people are generally really happy to help.

Melissa Breau: You’re also covering multi-dog households, right?

Nancy Tucker: That’s right.

Melissa Breau: How does adding extra dogs into it further complicate all of it?

Nancy Tucker: When you have a door-greeting issue with a single dog, that’s usually a pretty basic situation to handle. But when you have multiple dogs, you sometimes need Ninja-level management and handling skills just to even get to your door. So we’ll be handling multi-dog households the same way we train any other behavior with multiple dogs, and that means one dog at a time.

In the lecture that introduces multi-dog households, I talk about the instigator dog. Every multi-dog household has one of those. He’s the one that usually sets the others off by being the first to respond to a sound or other stimulus, and anyone who has more than two dogs can probably already recognize which one of their dogs I’m talking about here. Anyway, we’ll be working with one dog at a time, and ideally we’ll start working with the instigator dog first. And then those handlers can work with each of their other dogs also individually, just like any other training session.

And then, once each dog has learned the new behaviors and they’re doing well with them, we can start working with multiple dogs at the door. But that’s an advanced level of difficulty, and there’s no rush to get to that point. So it’s always best to work systematically with one dog at a time before putting them all into an exciting situation where they can’t possibly succeed.

Melissa Breau: It feels like you’ve got lots of pieces in here. I know you also cover door dashing. Personally, I think door dashing is super-frustrating, in addition to being incredibly dangerous in some situations. Any thoughts on why dogs do that, why they build a habit of dashing out the door?

Nancy Tucker: In most cases, dogs push past us at the door because they’re in a terrible rush to greet whoever is there. Those that run out for an unauthorized adventure when there’s no one there to greet — they’re simply getting out there to have a good time, whether that means exploring the neighborhood or going into the yard down the street to meet up with their buddy.

Sometimes it can be a sign that maybe the dog is a little bored or his needs aren’t being met, but most of the time, as long as we’re not talking about a dog who is aggressively running out the door — and we’ll talk about that a little later as well — but most of the time it’s just to have a good time, or because we’re taking too long to open the door. They want to get there quick.

Melissa Breau: How do you approach that? How do you start to work on door dashing and what do you want the dog to do instead?

Nancy Tucker: I like to teach the dog that an open door is not an invitation to step outside, and I make it really attractive and rewarding to stay put, even while the door is wide open and they can see or hear or smell the outside world.

Naturally, we get there gradually through a series of exercises, but it really doesn’t take that long to teach. I’ve got a couple more exercises that I like to add to the end of this process that makes it even more likely that a dog will stick around close to the door, even if he does manage to step outside. But you have to take the class to know more about those.

Melissa Breau: Some dogs may have years of practicing bad door habits — you mentioned this in passing earlier. Do you find that it can take a really long time to retrain? Obviously every dog is different, and people should move at their dog’s speed, but still, over the course of six weeks, what kind of progress can people expect to make?

Nancy Tucker: You’re right — how long a dog has been practicing a behavior can affect how long it might take to change his behavior in any given context. But generally, once we get rolling with practicing the new games and exercises, people begin to see a shift in their dog’s response to the usual signs that someone’s at the door. Within a few weeks they often see reduced barking, or a faster response to the simple cues that they’ll be working on.

For some people, they’ll get a handle on the door greeting part pretty quickly, and then they’ll spend a few more weeks after the class is finished to work on the dog’s interaction with guests after they’ve come inside and are visiting for a while. You get the dogs that stay excited and happy and are constantly trying to get visitors’ attention, but by then the students have lots of tools and ideas to work with to tackle that part of the problem. That’s kind of outside of the scope of the class, but the things that they learn during class will definitely help with that as well.

Melissa Breau: What if we kind of … you know, secretly LIKE that our dogs are so excited to see us when we get home? Is training control in this situation going to change that?

Nancy Tucker: If you’ve ever taken a training lesson from me, or followed one of my classes, you’ll probably have figured out that I actually like normal dog behaviors. I’m far from one to create super-quiet robot dogs, and I use the term robot dogs a lot. I like natural dog behavior. I think dogs should be allowed to greet guests, and so my goal here is not to take the fun out of it for them, but to at least take the chaos out of it.

If, by the end of the class, your dog is running to the door to greet you or your guests with a super-wiggly body and a toy in his mouth with four paws on the floor and nobody’s tripping over each other and the door can be left wide open and nobody’s running off, then I will consider that a massive success.

Melissa Breau: It sounds like my idea of success. I know you’ve got a note at the bottom of your class description about who is and isn’t appropriate for the class. I wanted to ask you about that. Can you share, along with a bit more information on who might want to consider signing up?

Nancy Tucker: This is a super-important note. I want people to recognize that this class isn’t for the dogs who are fearful of strangers coming through the door, or dogs who might bark and lunge aggressively toward guests. Those dogs that bark at someone walking through the door and at the same time they’re backing up or they’re avoiding eye contact — they’re not happy to see or greet somebody. And that’s a whole other topic. That’s not what we’re addressing in this class.

This class is for the dogs who are so excited about greeting someone, and their behavior is a little over the top, but they don’t know what to do with themselves when someone walks in, or they push past you when you go to open the door, or they knock you out of the way, or they’re jumping up on the door before you even get a chance to open it. These are dogs who are happy to greet someone, not fearful or upset about seeing somebody at the door. So this class is for those happy, excited dogs.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. So one last question — my new “last interview question” — what’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Nancy Tucker: A-ha. Well, this summer I was reminded about how training a behavior in one context, like in one location maybe, doesn’t mean that our dog will know how to behave in a different context.

It’s funny you bring this up, because this just happened again last night, but it’s a pretty simple concept and you would think that I would know this by now, but when the summer weather arrived and we started eating our meals outside on the deck, I realized that I had to teach Benni table manners all over again. He knows what’s expected of him when I’m eating at the kitchen table, or on a coffee table in the living room, or even when I’m sitting at my desk in my office, because we’ve practiced those. I eat all over the house, basically, and we’ve practiced those behaviors, and he’s really, really polite and he’s got this down pat.

But when I sat down … we have an outdoor couch with a table, and when I sat down on the outdoor couch to eat my first meal on the deck this summer, Benni had no manners and he was all up in my face. It only took us a few repetitions to straighten this out, but it really reminded me about the importance of not assuming our dog knows something just because he can do it in another context or another location.

It’s easy for us to forget that and to get frustrated with our dog because he’s doing a behavior that we don’t like, and we think, Well, he knows this. He knows he shouldn’t do this. But the context has changed, and it’s a good reminder that we just need to brush up on our training when we change the context or location.

Melissa Breau: For anybody who is thinking about signing up, class registration closes on the 15th, so that should be in just a couple of days. This will come out, I think, on the 10th, so you’ve got just a couple of days before things close. So if you want to hop in, go over and do that. Also, we are going to be back next week with Helene Marie to talk about a topic that gets asked about a lot: herding in an R+ way, so using positive reinforcement to train herding behaviors.

Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Nancy! This has been great. I’m glad we got to chat through all this.

Nancy Tucker: This is so much fun! I love chatting with you on podcasts!

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

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


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Aug 3, 2018


Dr. Jennifer Summerfield is a veterinarian and Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA), with a focus on treating behavior problems including aggression to humans or other animals, separation anxiety, and compulsive behavior disorders. She also teaches group classes and private lessons in basic obedience for pet dogs, and coaches students getting started in dog sports such as agility and competitive obedience.  

Jennifer is proud to be a member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). She is a passionate advocate for positive, science-based methods of training and behavior modification, and loves helping pet owners learn to communicate more clearly with their dogs.

Links mentioned:

Next Episode: 

To be released 8/10/2018, featuring Nancy Tucker, talking about how to stop your dog from going crazy at the door.


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. Jennifer Summerfield.

Dr. Jen is a veterinarian and Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA), with a focus on treating behavior problems including aggression to humans or other animals, separation anxiety, and compulsive behavior disorders. She also teaches group classes and private lessons in basic obedience for pet dogs, and coaches students getting started in dog sports such as agility and competitive obedience.  

Jennifer is proud to be a member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). She is a passionate advocate for positive, science-based methods of training and behavior modification, and loves helping pet owners learn to communicate more clearly with their dogs.

Hi Jen, welcome to the podcast!

Jennifer Summerfield: Hey Melissa. I am excited to be here.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you share a little bit about your own dogs, who they are, and anything you’re working on with them?

Jennifer Summerfield: Definitely. I have three dogs at the moment. They are all Shelties.

The oldest one is Remy. He just turned 10 years old this year, so double digits now. He’s my old man. We were really excited this past summer because he just finished his PACH, which so far is our highest pinnacle of achievement in agility, and it only took us ten years to get there, so, you know, better late than never! So that’s been really exciting for him. And I finally just got the courage worked up to enter him in AKC Premier in the next trial that we’re entered in, in August. It’s a bit of a new adventure for us because we’ve never tried that before, but I figure what the heck.

My middle dog, Gatsby, is 4-and-a-half years old, he’ll be 5 this November, and he is working on his agility titles as well. He currently is in, I want to say, Master Jumpers and Excellent Standard. His agility career has been a little bit slower than Remy’s. He’s had some stress-related weave pole issues that we’re working through, and he also had some really significant dog-reactivity issues when he was younger, so we spent a lot of time when he was about a year and a half to 2 years old or so just working through that to get him to the point where he could even go to agility trials successfully without having a meltdown. So for him, just the fact that he has any titles at all and can occasionally successfully trial is a pretty great accomplishment. But I have him entered in a couple of trials this fall as well, so hopefully we’ll keep building on that.

And then my youngest dog, Clint, he is 4 years old now, and his history was a little bit different. He came to me as an adult, almost a year old, because I really wanted a dog to show in conformation. When I got Gatsby as a puppy, he was supposed to be my conformation dog. That’s what we were hoping for, but … I don’t know how much you know about Shelties and conformation, but the height thing is a killer. It looked like he was going to be in size on the charts and everything, and then when he got to be about 6 months old, he was over. So I got Clint a little bit later at a year old from his breeder, and he was already a finished champion at that point, so he knew what to do, which was perfect because I was a total beginner. So I had a really good time showing him for about a year after I got him. We finished his Grand Championship together, so that was really cool. And now we’re branching out and he’s starting to learn some agility and some other things as well.

So that’s my guys in a nutshell.

Melissa Breau: I’ve got a bit of a chicken-or-egg question for you here. Did dog training come first, or did becoming a vet come first? How did you get into all this stuff?

Jennifer Summerfield: Funnily enough, I’ve been interested in dog training and dog behavior from as early as I can remember, even before we had a dog. When I was a kid, I was really crazy about dogs, and I was fascinated by dog training. I had books and books and books, just shelves of books on training dogs, obedience training, and also a bunch of random stuff, like, I had books on Schutzhund training, and books on herding training, and books on service dog training, and just everything I could get my hands on.

One of the really formative experiences of my childhood was that my aunt took me to an obedience trial that was at that time … I don’t remember what the name of the kennel club is, but our local kennel club in Charleston — I live in West Virginia — used to have their show at the Civic Center every year, and they would have an obedience trial as part of that. And so my aunt took me one year. I must have been 8 or 9, something like that, and I just remember being absolutely riveted by watching the dogs in the obedience trial, which I guess is maybe a funny thing in retrospect for an 8- or 9-year-old to be riveted by, but I was. I remember watching that and thinking it was absolutely the most amazing thing I had ever seen, and I wanted to do it more than anything, hence all the books and all of that stuff.

I wrote to the AKC when I was a kid to ask for a copy of the obedience regulations, because I had read that that was how you could get them. This was back before everything was online, you know, this would have been the early ’90s. So I wrote to the AKC and I remember being super-excited when they sent the manila envelope back that had the obedience regulations in it. I read them and I was just super-fascinated and I knew that was what I wanted to do.

We got my first dog when I was about 16, and he was a Sheltie named Duncan, so I did a lot of training with him. We were never very successful in the obedience ring, which was completely my fault, not his. But I’ve just always been really fascinated by the idea of being able to communicate with another species that way, being able to have that kind of relationship with a dog where they understand what you want them to do and there’s all this back and forth communication going on to do these really complicated, fancy things.

So when it came time to start thinking about what I actually wanted to do with my life, around junior high school, high school, getting ready to go to college, I always knew that I wanted to do something related to dog training or dog behavior, and I thought about several different ways of going about that. I considered the idea of just being a professional dog trainer straight out, but I was a little bit nervous about that because I wasn’t quite sure if it was easy to make a living doing that, or how one got established, and I was a little bit concerned. It didn’t feel very stable to me, but who knows, but I wanted something that felt like there was more of an established career path for it, I guess.

Of course I thought about veterinary medicine, because that’s one of the most obvious things that everybody thinks about when they want to work with animals. And I did actually give some thought in college to going to graduate school and getting a Ph.D., and then possibly becoming an applied animal behaviorist that way, but there were two reasons I opted not to go that route, and one was that I discovered in college that research is really not my thing, and I knew that unfortunately that was going to be a big part of life getting a Ph.D., so that was kind of a strike against it.

So what I ultimately decided to do instead was go to veterinary school, and what I liked about that idea was that I felt like I would always have something to fall back on, regardless. I knew that I could do behavior, hopefully relatively easily, I could get into doing that with a veterinary degree, but I could also just be a general practice veterinarian too, if need be, and actually I really like that aspect of my job right now. So that’s how I ended up in vet school, but it really was always kind of a back door way to get into the world of behavior.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. It’s fantastic that that appealed to you at such a young age. I think that a lot of people who listen to this podcast can probably relate to that.

Jennifer Summerfield: I think this was probably the audience that would relate to it. It’s only in retrospect that I realize what a strange little child I probably was.

Melissa Breau: Hey, you’re not alone out there.

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: That’s right!

Melissa Breau: So how did you become interested in it from such a young age? Were you always a positive trainer? Is that how you started out, or did you cross over at some point? How did that happen?

Jennifer Summerfield: I do consider myself to be a crossover trainer, and I think a lot of that has to do with the kind of information that was out there at the time that I first started getting interested in these things and I was first collecting all my books and reading everything.

This was the ’90s, for the most part, so positive training I know was starting to become a thing around that time, but it wasn’t, as I recall, super mainstream, at least not where I was, and in the things that I was reading and the classes that I was going to. Most of the books I had, of course, probably like a lot of people at that time, were pretty correction-based, and they talked about how you needed to be in charge, and you needed to make sure that your dog knew who was boss, and that you had to be really careful about using cookies in training because then your dog gets dependent on them, and of course you don’t want your dog to just be working for cookies, you want them to be working for you, and I thought all that made a lot of sense at the time.

When I was first working with Duncan, I had this book that was about competitive obedience training, specifically, and I remember working through this book and just working religiously on doing everything it said. I remember teaching him to heel, and the way that the book said that you taught your dog to heel was you put a choke collar on them and you walked around in circles in the yard, and every time they got in front of your leg, you gave a leash correction and you jerked them back and you just did that until they figured it out. That’s how Duncan learned to heel, and obviously if I had it to go back and do it over again, I would do it differently. But he was a good dog, and he learned, and it worked reasonably well. Like I said, we never got to the point of having any great successes in the obedience ring, for probably a lot of other reasons besides that, but that’s kind of how I got started.

As I got older and I started reading more things, one thing that I remember that was a big turning point for me was reading Jean Donaldson’s book The Culture Clash. I know that probably a lot of your listeners are familiar with that book, because I know it’s kind of a classic in the world of behavior, but it’s very much about how most of the things our dogs do that bother us are just dog things. They’re just doing things that dogs do, and those things happen to bother us, and that’s reasonable sometimes and we can teach them not to do those things. But that was such a revolutionary thing for me to think, like, You mean it’s not all about that my dog is trying to be in charge and he needs to know that this stuff’s not allowed. She just made so much sense. At that time I had never heard anybody put it that way before, and I want to say that was really the first time that the idea of positive training was presented to me in a way that made a lot of sense.

As I got older, of course, and started to learn more about the scientific side of things — you know I’m a huge science nerd, as probably most people are who go to the trouble of getting a veterinary degree — and so as I learned more about the scientific side of things, then I was sold, because obviously the scientific consensus is unanimous that clearly there’s a way to do things that works a lot better than using correction-based techniques, and that there’s lots of really valid scientific reasons to use positive reinforcement training. So I would say by the time I started vet school, I was pretty solidly in that camp.

The other thing that probably cemented it for me was seeing the difference in how quickly Duncan learned things, for one thing, once I switched. He learned to heel the old-fashioned way, but he learned to do his dumbbell retrieve with a clicker, and he loved his dumbbell retrieve. He would find his dumbbell, if I forgot to put it away after a training session, he would find it and bring it to me and sit, and he just had an enthusiasm for it that he never, ever had for the things we learned when I was still teaching the old way. And then, when I got my dog Remy, who was the second dog I had, the first dog after Duncan, who by that point I was pretty solidly in the positive reinforcement camp, and he learned to heel with a clicker. Looking at the difference between the two of them, both in terms of how technically good their heeling was, but also just looking at their attitude differences and how much they wanted to do it, I knew, I think, after I had done a little bit of work with Remy and seen that kind of difference, that I would never train another dog with corrections again.

Melissa Breau: Sometimes the proof really is in the pudding. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t go back.

Jennifer Summerfield: Yeah, and I guess that’s a pretty common experience, I think. I feel like I hear a variation of that from a lot of crossover trainers, that it’s a combination of understanding the science, but also when you see it, you see the difference in your own dog or in a client’s dog and you say, “Why on Earth did I ever used to do it a different way?”

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I’d imagine that being a vet and a dog trainer, you’ve got a lot of knowledge there. How does one body of knowledge inform the other, and how have they both influenced your career?

Jennifer Summerfield: I’m really glad, looking back, that I did make the choice to go to vet school, because I think that’s a good skill set to have. Obviously I like being a vet. I am in general practice. Even though I spend a fair amount of my time seeing behavior cases, I do general practice stuff too, which I really enjoy. But that skill set is definitely useful for seeing behavior cases because there are a lot of behavior issues dogs have, and training issues, that have a physical component to them, and it’s very handy to have that knowledge base to fall back on, so that if somebody comes in and they say, “My dog’s having house training issues all of a sudden again, and he’s always been house trained, but now I don’t know what’s going on,” to be able to say, “Well, you know, your dog might have a urinary tract infection,” or “Your dog might have Cushing’s disease,” or “Your dog might have diabetes.” These are things that sometimes people think they have a training problem or behavior problem when actually they have a medical problem. So it’s definitely useful to have that knowledge base to be able to say, “Well, actually, maybe we should look at this.”

Both being a veterinarian and being a dog trainer are fields that I think people feel like they have to do with dogs, or they have to do with animals, I guess, more broadly, being a veterinarian. And that’s true, but what sometimes I think people don’t realize, if you’re not in one of these two professions, is how much they have to do with people, because all of the animals come with a person, and it would be rare, being either a dog trainer or a veterinarian, that you’re dealing much directly with the animal.

Your job in both of those fields is to coach the owner on what they need to be doing and figuring out what works for them, and engaging in some problem-solving with them and figuring out what they’re able to do with their lifestyle, whether it’s training their dog not to jump on people or whether it’s managing a chronic disease like diabetes. So I think that in a lot of ways that skill set, the people skills part of things, is something that has gotten to be strengthened and developed by doing both of those things. So I think all in all it worked out for the best.

Melissa Breau: The last guest we had on — you’ll be right after Sue — the last guest we had before that was Deb Jones, and we were talking all about that piece of it, just the idea that if you’re a dog trainer, you’re training people, you’re not training dogs. It’s such a big difference.

Jennifer Summerfield: Yeah. We do Career Day periodically for a lot of the elementary schools, but also junior highs and high schools in the area, because everybody wants a veterinarian to come for Career Day. And it’s amazing, of course, the common thing that you hear from people sometimes is, “Oh, I want to go into veterinary medicine because I really like animals but I don’t like people.” I say, “Well, then, I don’t know if this is the career for you, because it’s very, very, very, very people-centric. It’s all about people, so you really need to like dealing with people and enjoy that aspect of it too.”

Melissa Breau: To shift gears a little bit, I know you’ve got a webinar coming up for FDSA on behavior medications, so I wanted to talk a little bit about that stuff too. At what point should someone start thinking about meds versus training for a behavior problem?

Jennifer Summerfield: What I always harp on about this, and I actually have a blog post that I wrote a while back on this topic specifically, is that I really wish we could get more into the habit of thinking about behavior medication as a first-line treatment option for behavior issues. I see so many cases where I think people want to save that as a last resort, like, “Well, we’re going to try everything else first,” and “We’ve been working on this for a year and a half, and nothing’s helped, and maybe it’s time to consider meds.”

I totally get where they’re coming from with that. I know that there are a lot of reasons people are nervous about medication. But it makes me sad in a lot of ways because I see so many dogs that I think, My goodness, their quality of life could be so much improved with medication, or The training plan that they’re working on could go so much smoother, and be so much less stressful for both the owner and the dog, if they were willing to consider medication earlier in the process.

So for me, when I see behavior cases, certainly not every single one do we go straight to medication, but I would say that, gosh, probably a good 70 or 80 percent of them we talk about medication on that first visit, because usually if there are things that are legitimate behavior issues rather than training problems — which I can touch on here in a second, too, if you want — but if it’s a behavior issue that is enough of a problem that the owner is willing to schedule an appointment for it and pay for the consultation and sit down with me for three hours and talk about it, chances are that it’s something that could benefit from medication of some kind.

I see so many dogs that do better on meds, and there’s very few downsides to them, so in general not anything to be scared of, and not anything that you have to feel like you have to avoid until nothing else has helped. I think of it more as it’s just like if your dog had an infection. You wouldn’t say, “Well, I really want to try everything we can possibly do until we put him on antibiotics.” Or if he had diabetes, “I really don’t want to use insulin. I just really, really don’t want to use it.” I think we just think of behavior medication differently, which is too bad in a lot of ways, and I would love to see the mainstream thinking about behavior medication move more towards the same way that we use medication for anything else.

Melissa Breau: You said you could touch on the behavior stuff in a second. I’d love to have you elaborate. What did you mean?

Jennifer Summerfield: As far as determining whether you have a behavior problem versus a training problem, which I do think can be a little bit of a muddy line sometimes for owners, the way that I usually try to break that down for people is that if you have a training problem, this is usually your dog is normal. Your dog is doing normal dog things that happen to be annoying to you or to other people, which is fine. And that’s legitimate, that’s still definitely something that we want to address, so I’m not saying that as like, “See, this isn’t a problem.” It’s totally a problem if your dog is flattening old ladies when it tries to say hi, or something like that. That’s a problem, but it’s a training problem. If your dog is friendly but otherwise normal, it’s not something that we would treat with medication, because this is just something that we need to teach your dog a different behavior to do in that situation.

Whereas things that we think of more as behavior issues are things that have some kind of emotional component to them, so things that have an anxiety component, that’s probably the most common. The vast majority of behavior issues that we see do have an underlying anxiety component. But it’s that, or it’s a compulsive behavior issue, or it’s something that’s not normal, a genuinely abnormal behavior that the dog is doing. That’s when at that point that we think they’re more of a candidate for medication.

Melissa Breau: That makes sense. It’s kind of, “Is this a normal behavior or is this …”

Jennifer Summerfield: Exactly, exactly. I can’t remember who it was, but I know one year I was at a conference and I was listening to a talk on behavior medication, and I remember the way that the speaker put it, which I really liked, was one of the ways they look at whether it’s a true behavior problem that needs medication or not is, Is it something that’s bothering the dog, or is it just bothering you? Which was a great way to word it.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, I like that. I’d love to include a link to the blog post that you mentioned that you wrote a while ago in the show notes. Would you be willing to shoot me over a link to that when you get a chance after we’re done?

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: Absolutely, yeah, I could definitely shoot that over to you.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. To get back to the behavior meds thing, what are some signs that medications might really have a positive influence on a behavioral problem? Is there something about a problem that you go, “Oh, that, definitely. We can work on that with medication”?

Jennifer Summerfield: Yeah, I would say a little bit of what we touched on a minute ago, in that anything that we think has a significant anxiety component to it, which is a lot of things. That encompasses things like separation anxiety, or thunderstorm phobia, or dogs that are generally anxious and constantly on edge and have trouble settling. Anytime we get the sense that,
“Hey, this dog seems to be abnormally fearful or worried about things that are pretty normal in life that a ‘normal’ dog shouldn’t be fearful or worried about,” then that’s a pretty good indicator that medication would probably be helpful.

The other big thing that makes me think, We should consider meds here is if the people have already been doing some work as far as training or behavior modification that’s appropriate, something that’s like, “OK, that sounds like a pretty good plan,” and they’re just having a really hard time making any headway, that, to me, is a strong indication that we could probably help that process along quite a bit with medication.

The problem with a lot of dogs, especially if we’re working on something like, say, leash reactivity, for example, where we know how important it is from a behavior mod standpoint, how important it is to keep the dog below threshold while we’re working with it, for some dogs that are just so sensitive, that’s incredibly difficult because it doesn’t take anything at all to send them over threshold, and it can be really hard to find that little window of opportunity to even start working on training in a way that’s going to be successful. So in a dog like that, for example, medication can be really helpful to just bring things down enough that the dog is able to think, that you’re able to get that little toehold of space where the dog is able to see the trigger and not react so that you actually have some room to do your training.

Melissa Breau: If somebody is considering this, they’re looking at medication or they’re thinking it might be good for their dog, what are some resources that they can use, or that they can turn to, to learn more about some of the options out there and the meds, or even just behavior modification training specifically?

Jennifer Summerfield: That is such a great question. I think in terms of learning about behavior modification in general, there is some great stuff out there. There are tons of obviously really knowledgeable people in the field who have blogs and podcasts that are easy that anybody can access for free. You can find some great webinars through, of course, FDSA, but also through organizations like the Pet Professional Guild or the Association of Professional Dog Trainers or the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. There are online courses you can do.

I really think that for a lot of dog owners, they might even consider, if they’re into this kind of thing, attending a conference like ClickerExpo or the APDT National Conference, or something like that, if it’s nearby. I find that a lot of dog owners sometimes don’t think about that, or don’t realize that they can go to things like that, but anybody’s totally welcome at those conferences.

I know the last couple of years when I’ve been at ClickerExpo, certainly the majority of people there, I would say, are professionals in the field of one kind or another, but there’s always a good smattering of people who are just dog owners who want to learn more about this stuff, and I think that’s really cool. So lots of opportunities to learn more about behavior science and behavior modification.

On the behavior meds side of things, I actually wracked my brain trying to come up with some good resources that are available for dog owners for that, and there just really are not a lot, which is one of the reasons that I’m excited to do this webinar, because I do think there’s a lack of good information that is easily accessible for people about behavior meds, other than the very basic stuff, like, “Hey, behavior meds are a thing, you might consider it for your dog.” But beyond that, it is difficult to find much information.

Melissa Breau: Now, I know you specialize in behavior. If somebody goes to their average veterinarian, is that person going to have enough of an understanding to start that conversation, or should they really be seeking out somebody who specializes? What’s the guideline there?

Jennifer Summerfield: The answer is that it really does depend quite a bit on your veterinarian and whether that’s something that they have an interest in or not. That’s true in general of general practitioners about really anything, so I don’t mean that at all to sound like, “Well, if your vet doesn’t know this stuff, they’re lousy.”

Believe me, if you are a general practitioner, you cannot know everything about everything. All of us have areas that we know a lot about and then areas that we know very little about. I know anytime somebody comes to my clinic and they have questions about orthopedic issues, or their dog has a broken leg that it needs pinned or something like that, I send that out the door so fast because I know nothing. That’s not my area and I’ll be the first to say so, and there are some general practitioners who are fantastic at it.

So behavior, to me, is a lot like that. There are some GP’s who are going to be great at it and really know their stuff and going to be really well-versed in all the medication options, and then there are others that that’s just not an area that they deal with much, they may not know a lot.

But one option that is available that I think a lot of pet owners don’t always realize is an option is that if you don’t have a veterinary behaviorist nearby, or a veterinarian who is good with behavior and sees behavior cases, and your vet says, “I’d really like to help you, I just don’t know that much about this stuff,” many veterinary behaviorists will do a remote consultation with your vet, which can be super-helpful.

They can’t do it directly with you, and that has to do with the legalities of the Practice Act and things that we legally cannot make recommendations directly for an animal if we haven’t met them in person. But what they can do is they can talk to your veterinarian, and your veterinarian can give them the whole write-up and details of the case, and they can say, “Oh, OK, I understand. Here is what I would consider as far as a behavior modification plan. Here is what I would consider as far as medication for this dog.” And then your vet can take that information, and they’re the ones who are actually in charge of doing the prescribing and overseeing the case directly, but they can keep in contact with the specialist about the case and make changes as needed and all that kind of stuff.

I think that is a really underutilized service that sometimes people don’t realize is out there, but it is. So if your vet’s not super-well-versed in this stuff, but they’d like to help you and you’re willing to do something like that, talk to them about it, because they may not realize it’s an option either. But I think that can be a really good happy medium sometimes if you don’t have somebody in your area who you can work with in person.

Melissa Breau: I think that’s an awesome thing to have you mention on something like this, because like you said, maybe people don’t know that it’s an option out there. I certainly wouldn’t know.

Jennifer Summerfield: Yeah, definitely. I know I am going to talk a little bit about that in the webinar as well, so I’ll have more details on how that can work and on how people can specifically seek that out, if it’s something they’re interested in.

Melissa Breau: Obviously, during the webinar, you’re not going to be able to give dog-specific advice. Like you said, you have to see the dog, hands on the animal in order to do that. But I would love to give people just a little more of an idea on what you plan to cover, especially since I know we’re doing two webinars back-to -back in the same evening. Can you talk a little bit about what you want to cover?

Jennifer Summerfield: Yes, I’m super-excited, and I guess this is kind of unprecedented for FDSA to do the double-header.

Melissa Breau: It’s our very first one.

Jennifer Summerfield: It’s going to be great. It’s going to be a behavior pharmacology extravaganza, and I could not be more excited.

The first webinar is going to be an introduction, basically, so meant for people who want some basic information about behavior meds. It’s going to talk about things like how do you know if your dog might benefit from medication, because I know that’s probably a question that a lot of people will have who are watching the webinar. I’m assuming a significant portion of people will be watching because they have a specific dog in mind that has some issues. So we’re definitely going to talk about how to decide that for your own dog, is it something that might be helpful.

We’re going to go over all the different classes of drugs that we use for behavior cases, because there are actually quite a few different options now. It just to just be Prozac and Clomicalm, but there’s a lot of other options out now, which is really cool. We’re going to talk about what our goals are when we use behavior meds, so how that works with a training plan and what kinds of things to expect that way. We are going to spend some time also talking about natural supplements and calming aids and things that can help either by themselves or as an adjunct to medication.

In the second webinar, that one is going to go into more detail as far as things like how do we actually choose for real specific cases what medication to use, because there are a lot of options. So we’re going to go into factors that we look at to help us decide what medication we think is going to be best for this particular dog. We’re going to talk about combinations, because for a lot of cases we do actually use more than one medication together, so we’re going to talk about how that works and how you decide whether you want to go down that road, and if you do, what things can go together, what things can’t.

We’re going to have several case studies to go over, and examples to use for discussion, which I’m really excited about, because I think that’s where sometimes you get the most information is seeing how it applies to some actual cases rather than kind of getting everything in the abstract.

And we will be talking in that second webinar, because we know that the FDSA audience obviously is a lot of performance dog people, we are going to talk specifically about considerations for performance dogs, so things like how do behavior meds impact learning and memory, are there any ethical questions that we need to consider when we’re thinking about medicating dogs who are actively showing and competing, that kind of stuff. So I think that will be a really interesting discussion too.

Melissa Breau: That sounds so interesting. I’m actually really excited to dig into it.

Jennifer Summerfield: Me too. I’m so excited!

Melissa Breau: In addition to the webinars and your work as a trainer and a vet — you’re a pretty busy lady — you also blog, and you’ve recently started podcasting. I wanted to point listeners to those resources a little bit. Can you share a little bit on what you write about and talk about, maybe some of the recent topics you’ve covered, and where they can find that stuff?

Jennifer Summerfield: Sure, definitely. My blog is Dr. Jen’s Dog Blog, so you can search for that and it will come right up. I’ve been doing it since, gosh, I think July of 2016, maybe, so I’ve got quite a few posts on there. I think the most recent one I did was on accidental behavior chains that sometimes we teach without realizing to our dogs, which was interesting. I know some of the posts I have had in the past on that blog that people have found really helpful have been on things like I have a post on behavior euthanasia, which actually a lot of people have written to me about and said was helpful for them. I have a post on fear periods and single event learning, which I think a lot of people have found pretty interesting. And then I have some posts on specific topics like leash reactivity and odor-directed aggression and things like that. So if anybody’s curious about those topics, a lot of times I do try to include case examples when I write about those too.

Melissa Breau: Lots of sticky issues.

Jennifer Summerfield: I know, I know. They are sticky issues, but actually those are some of my favorite things to write about because I think that sometimes there’s a lack of honest conversation about some of those things, and I think it’s sometimes useful to just say, “Well, here is something I deal with every day in my job, and here’s some thoughts, here’s my perspective on it.” And I know that I do get a lot of e-mails from people about those sticky topics that they found them helpful, which is really nice to hear.

The podcast is pretty recent. I just started that here earlier this year and it’s been super-fun so far. I only have a few episodes of it out so far, but of course I’m actively doing that and the blog, so there will be more coming. The most recent one I did was on teaching reliable recalls to your dog. That’s a topic I get a lot of questions about and a topic that we troubleshoot a lot in our Basic Manners classes. And I’ve had some past episodes, I know I did one on car ride anxiety, and then I’ve got some basic topics like puppy socialization and housetraining and that kind of stuff.

I guess I should probably mention here I do have a book out as well, if it’s something that people are interested in. The book is called Train Your Dog Now, and it is basically a reference guide, like a handbook to pretty much anything that might come up, behavior- or training-related, with a dog. So it has sections on teaching basic obedience cues and tricks, but it also talks about how to teach your dog to cooperate for grooming and handling — nail trims and teeth brushing and ear cleaning and that kind of stuff — and then there is a whole section on behavior issues. So it does talk about leash reactivity, it does talk about odor-directed aggression, it talks about aggression to visitors, and there is … it’s a brief section, but there is a section in the book also about behavior medication and supplements. So for people that like to have a hard copy of something they can look at in their home, that might be a good option to consider.

Melissa Breau: To round things out, since it’s your first time on, there are three questions I try to ask every guest their first time on the podcast, and I’d love to do those. So first off, what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?

Jennifer Summerfield: I would have to say, and there are so many, that’s always a question that’s hard to narrow down, but honestly, if I had to pick one, I would probably say getting my dog Remy’s CD would be my biggest accomplishment.

From the time that I went to that obedience trial when I was a kid, and I watched the dogs and I just wanted to do that so bad, and with Duncan we muddled along and we did a little bit, we dabbled very briefly in competitive obedience and it didn’t go super-well, but I learned a lot from that, obviously. And then with Remy I did things a little differently, and it still took us a long time to get his CD finished, but the day that we finished it was just like … I went back to the crate and I cried. It was such a big deal for us. And I know obviously, for a lot of your listeners, they have much, much higher accomplishments in the obedience ring, but for us, that was huge.

Sort of the second part of that, I guess, obviously finishing the title itself was such a big thing for me because it was something that we worked so hard on. But one of the things that kind of was the cherry on top about that trial was I remember when we were packing our stuff up and getting ready to go back to the car, there was a woman that came up to me. I didn’t know her, but I guess she had been standing around, watching the obedience ring, and she came up to me afterwards and she congratulated me on finishing my title. I said, “Thanks,’ and she said, “I just wanted to tell you how much fun I had watching you and your dog because he looked so happy,” and that was huge. I probably still feel the greatest about that of everything that we’ve done in our competition career or anywhere. So that was a great feeling.

Melissa Breau: That’s amazing, and I just want to encourage everybody who’s listening, hey, listen, people remember when you say that kind of stuff about them and their dog. It’s worth it.

Jennifer Summerfield: I don’t remember very much about that lady now except that that was what she told us, but she made my whole year, my whole decade. So thank you, whoever that lady was, if you’re listening.

Melissa Breau: And if you see somebody have a really awesome run and you feel something like that, absolutely step up afterwards and let them know how awesome it was.

Jennifer Summerfield: For sure. It makes a big difference.

Melissa Breau: It’s such an amazing thing to hear. That’s just awesome.

Jennifer Summerfield: Thank you.

Melissa Breau: So my second question here is, what’s the best piece of training advice you’ve ever heard?

Jennifer Summerfield: What I would have to say — and this is not technically dog training advice, I guess I’ll preface it that way, but I think it can apply to dog training, and I think about it in regards to dog training a lot. It’s actually a quote from Maya Angelou. It gets paraphrased a lot, but the actual quote is, she said, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

That has always struck me as being such a great way to look at life, a lot of things about life in general, but specifically about dog training, because I think for probably a lot of us who are crossover trainers, I think it’s probably a pretty widespread thing to have some degree of regret or guilt, maybe, about how we did things with our first dog, or how we taught some things that we wish if we could go back and do it differently.

I love that quote because it’s so true that there’s no reason to feel guilty or to feel ashamed about doing the best that you knew how to do at the time, and that’s all any of us can do. But when new information comes along and you realize that there’s a different way to do things, that you just adjust your behavior and you do it differently.

So I’ve always found that really helpful in terms of thinking about myself and my own choices, but I also think it’s so helpful to keep perspective when I’m thinking about clients and the people that I work with in my job as well, because I think it’s so easy for those of us who do this professionally, and we know all the science and we do this day in and day out, it’s so easy to get a client and to feel like, “Oh, can you believe this person’s been using a shock collar on their aggressive dog,” or “This person’s been alpha-rolling their dog,” and these things that are things that obviously are probably not the ideal way to handle whatever behavior issue they’re having. But I think it’s so helpful to remember that people are just doing the best they can. That’s so powerful, that people are just doing the best they can with what they know, and that’s all any of us can do.

We all were there at one point, too, and that thinking about it from that perspective, that our job is to say, “Hey, you know, I totally understand where you’re coming from, and I understand why that seems like it makes sense, but let’s look at some other ways to address this that hopefully are going to be a little bit more effective and don’t have some of the side effects that those methods have.”

I think about that frequently, both in terms of my own life and also working with clients, just to try and keep that perspective that it’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt that we’re working with, too, and remember that everybody is just doing the best they can with what they know.

Melissa Breau: For our last question, who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Jennifer Summerfield: All three of your questions are very hard because there are so many choices. I have two for this one, if that’s OK.

For the first one, as far as being a really well-known public figure in our field that I have always looked up to, I would have to say Dr. Sophia Yin for that. For veterinarians especially, she was such a pioneer of changing the way that we deal with dogs in the clinic, and of course she did a lot of behavior stuff besides the low-stress handling as well. But I think she was such a tremendous role model for all veterinarians in the way that she dealt with animals and the way that she dealt with people, and so I look up to her tremendously, and I think she did great things for the field.

The other person that I would have to mention, she’s not overly famous, I don’t think, but she is a great clinical applied animal behaviorist that I worked with when I was in veterinary school, and her name is Traci Shreyer. I worked pretty closely with her through the four years that I was there, because she was very involved in the puppy class program at that school, which I worked with quite a bit, and then she was involved in teaching some of our classes, and things on behavior as well, and working with us, the behavior club setups and some things with her, and so I dealt pretty closely with her the whole four years.

What I loved about her and really took away from that experience is she was great with dogs and animals in general, she was fabulous, but she was also so, so great with people, with clients, and she was always reminding us … I think, again, for many of us in this field, being empathetic towards the dogs is easy, that’s kind of what drew us in in the first place, but I think it’s so, so important to remember that we have to have empathy for our human learners too, that what we’re asking them to do is hard, and that they deserve just as much consideration and kindness and respect as our dog patients do. She was probably the single best example of that that I have ever seen. She was fantastic, and that is a lesson that I definitely took away from working with her. So I would say she’s the other person that I still really look up to in the field.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome, and that’s such a great compliment to have given somebody you learned from, to say that they are so empathetic and so good with people.

Jennifer Summerfield: Yes, it’s a hard skill, such a hard skill, but it’s so important.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast Jen.

Jennifer Summerfield: No problem. I’ve had a great time!

Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week with Nancy Tucker, to talk about getting better door behaviors. 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.


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jul 27, 2018


Sue Ailsby is a retired obedience and conformation judge. She has been "in dogs" for more than 54 years, having owned and trained everything from Chihuahuas to Giant Schnauzers. She has trained for virtually every legitimate dog sport including — and guys, this really is quite the list — sled racing, schutzhund, hunting, tracking, scent hurdle and flyball, carting, packing, agility, water trials and herding, rally, conformation, obedience, and nosework.  

Sue is an internationally known speaker on the subject of humane training for dogs and llamas, and has been fundamental in introducing clicker training to Canada.

Links mentioned:

Next Episode: 

To be released 8/3/2018, featuring Sue Ailsby, talking about Rally. 


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 Sue Ailsby. Sue is a retired obedience and conformation judge. She has been "in dogs" for more than 54 years, having owned and trained everything from Chihuahuas to Giant Schnauzers. She has trained for virtually every legitimate dog sport including — and guys, this really is quite the list — sled racing, schutzhund, hunting, tracking, scent hurdle and flyball, carting, packing, agility, water trials and herding, rally, conformation, obedience, and nosework.  

Sue is an internationally known speaker on the subject of humane training for dogs and llamas, and has been fundamental in introducing clicker training to Canada.

Welcome to the podcast Sue!

Sue Ailsby: Thanks Melissa. It’s great to be here.

Melissa Breau: I’m super-excited to talk to you today. To get us started, do you want to tell us a little bit about the dogs you have now and what you’re working on with them?

Sue Ailsby: I have Syn — that’s for synchronized, not for bad — who is a Portuguese Water Dog, 7 years old. She’s finished with conformation and Rally and drafting, and she’s now working on nosework and the highest level of water trials.

Serra is my yearling Giant Schnauzer who’s probably going to be a puppy until he’s 6 or 7. He’s doing foundation work through the training levels. He’s learning to swim and do nosework, and he’s working really, really hard on remembering not to french-kiss people.

Melissa Breau: That would be a good thing with his size to learn not to do!

Sue Ailsby: Yeah, it would be nice.

Melissa Breau: So I was hoping today to talk a bit about today, since I know your Rally 1 class is back on the schedule. Obviously I read that huge list — you’ve competed in a lot of different dog sports. How did you get started in Rally?

Sue Ailsby: Well, when you do everything, you have to try everything that comes along, and once you’ve tried it, then you can decide whether it’s going to be fun for the current team you’ve got or not. And every one of my dogs has really enjoyed Rally. It is fun. Since I had dogs already with obedience titles, it’s an easy transition to get into Rally, so we got into Rally and they enjoyed it and we did it.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. What is it about Rally that appeals to you that’s led you to go through the whole process of developing a course on it?

Sue Ailsby: Well, as I said, it’s fun. And a lot of the behaviors in Rally are really foundation behaviors for all dogs, like sit and down and come and walking on a loose leash and brief stays.

A lot of people try it because it looks easy, and then give up because they don’t have a swing finish or the attention they need from the dog. Since those are behaviors that make life with a dog easier anyway, I just want to spread the love.

One of the things I really like about Rally is how casual it is. It’s great to qualify, it’s great to get a good score, it’s really great to impress people with a good run, but it’s easy to fail, too. So failing becomes sort of normal, like you’re not in there going, “I lost more than 2 points, so I’m a failure and my dog’s a failure.

Out of non-qualifying performances, if out of ten non-qualifying performances, I’ll bet my dog has screwed up twice and I’ve screwed up eight times. After one of my performances, a judge stopped me to address the audience before I left the ring, and she said, “That was truly one of the best 1-2-3 step backwards I have ever seen! I hope you were all watching. It was so good! Unfortunately, that wasn’t the exercise the sign called for, so this is not a passing score.”

Melissa Breau: That’s so funny!

Sue Ailsby: People come in and say, “But what if I fail?” No big deal. Everybody else has failed. Why shouldn’t you?

Melissa Breau: Right. You mentioned in there that it’s friendly and fun, and I think that’s certainly one of the things that most people find about Rally that appeals to them. It’s a little more friendly maybe than some of the traditional obedience venues, for lack of a better phrase, I guess.

Sue Ailsby: It can get kind of competitive sometimes.

Melissa Breau: A little bit, a little bit. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about some of the similarities and differences between the two sports, if somebody is debating which one they want to compete in, or which one they want to compete in first.

Sue Ailsby: OK. You don’t have to decide between Rally and obedience, because practicing for Rally, if you’re aiming for obedience, you can practice for Rally and it’s certainly not wasted practice, and if you’re doing obedience, you’re learning stuff that you need to learn for Rally anyway, so you can start working on one or the other, or both at once, and decide later which you want to do, if you just want to do one of them.

Obedience, the difference is in the focus of the sport. Obedience competition is about precision. Rally is about lots of different behaviors in a flow, more like you’d use for going for a walk. As a former rider, I’d say obedience is like dressage: Can you make this movement perfectly? Rally is like western trail class: Can you do this behavior here and then that behavior over there? Can we get through this course together? It’s the togetherness that brings on a good performance, so you’re working on a team, basically. Which you are in obedience, too, but I think it comes a little more naturally in Rally.

Melissa Breau: Some people start in Rally and then move into obedience, or like you said, you got your obedience title first and then you went back and did the Rally titles for fun. Kind of interesting how they’re different but similar.

Sue Ailsby: Mm-hmm.

Melissa Breau: I can’t talk about a sport without getting into foundations. I feel like every interview I do, that’s the word that comes up, over and over and over again. I’d love to hear your take on that for Rally — what skills you consider foundation skills, or what are some of the skills that dogs need before they begin training for Rally?

Sue Ailsby: One of the things that I really like about being part of the Fenzi Academy is that none of the instructors do things exactly the same way, and yet, more than any other group of instructors that I’ve ever met, the Fenzi instructors believe in foundations right across the board.

You don’t start with fancy stuff, you start with the foundations, and the fancy stuff grows naturally out of it. As a foundation to begin Rally, I’d like the dog to know what the clicker’s for. A general understanding of sit and down and focusing on the handler. A dog who has those skills already is going to progress.

Really, for any sport, focus is a foundation. When I don’t have the dog’s attention, I’m not working on anything but focus. If we’re doing a pivot, I’m trying to teach her a pivot, and the dog’s brain is on a kid walking by, we’re not working on pivots. The fact that I wanted to work on a pivot is really irrelevant. We’re working on focus. Until we have focus, there’s no other work happening.

Focus is the primary indication of teamwork between the dog and the handler. I’d rather walk into the Rally ring, or any other ring, with a focused dog who knows nothing else than with a dog who knows all about the sport behaviors but isn’t on my team yet.

Melissa Breau: That’s something a lot of people overlook. They do train at home, or whatever, and they get a lot of skills on their dog, and then they go out in the real world and they can’t replicate those behaviors because they’re missing that piece of the puzzle.

To put aside the dog for a minute, though, I know that you also talk a little bit about handler skills, and you mentioned earlier that goofing up at the Rally ring, there’s a good chance it wasn’t the dog’s fault. What are some of the things that handlers need to teach themselves in order to do the sport?

Sue Ailsby: There are sport-specific things and there are training-specific things. I’ll talk about the training-specific things first. Pay attention to the dog. Look at the dog. Think about the dog. Ask the dog. Believe the dog. Respond when she asks you questions. Take her questions seriously. You don’t understand her question? That’s OK. She doesn’t understand you half the time, either. But she’s still in there trying. Let her know that you’re trying too.

If she keeps asking you a question and you keep giving her the same old answer, you’re not answering her question, because if you did, she wouldn’t have to keep asking it. It drives me crazy when some dog is sitting there, “I don’t understand you! What are you doing?” and they keep going “Sit, sit, sit.” It drives us all crazy, actually.

As to what the person as a handler needs to learn in Rally is the rules, like you do for any sport. But the hardest part is walking into the ring and having to read the signs. The judge is not telling you what to do. You walk up to a sign on the course and the sign will say, “Sit. Down. Sit.” That means you have to get your dog to sit and down and sit back up again. When you’ve done that, you walk on to the next sign, and it can be really hard to remember to take your dog with you, to read the sign, to get the dog to do what he’s supposed to do before he does something he’s not supposed to do. It gets really complicated. For that reason, once a week we have a practice course in the class, based on the behaviors that the dog’s been working on that week.

Melissa Breau: I certainly imagine getting in there and trying to read on your feet and stick with things — it can throw you for a bit of a loop sometimes if you forgot what comes next or misread a sign in your haste or because of nerves.

Sue Ailsby: And since you’re doing this all on your own, you think about walking on, and suddenly you realize you’ve walked past the previous sign, and then you either skip it and don’t qualify, or you have to back up and hope you can see what it says on the sign or try to remember it. It’s really not as easy as it looks without practice.

Melissa Breau: I know in the syllabus for the class you have a comment in there about mirrors, and you recommend students invest in a few cheap mirrors. I wanted to ask how that comes into play or what that’s about.  

Sue Ailsby: That’s about looking at your dog. Your eyes are 5 feet off the ground, your dog is 18 inches off the ground, and there’s no point in wondering later why the judge took five marks off for crooked sits when you have no idea whether your dog’s sitting crooked or not, and you can’t see from where you are. If you have a mirror 5 feet away from you, you can actually see what the judges is seeing from fifteen feet away. So you can see crooked sits. If you can see a crooked sit, you can work on crooked sits and maybe not lose those five points. Or lose them. That’s the nice thing about Rally. If you want to say, “You know what? My dog’s having a good time, I’m having a good time, I don’t care about those five points,” then you don’t have to work on them. But at least you know that they’re happening.

Melissa Breau: The Rally 1 class is the first in a series. I was curious how you’ve broken down what people need to know into the different classes and what specifically falls into that Rally 1 class, what students should expect to learn the first session.

Sue Ailsby: The first class is about foundations — back to foundations. The behaviors that we meet in a novice-level Rally test are really based on basics, foundations, focus, learning how to handle courses, training for the dog and the handler.

In the second class we get into advanced competition behaviors, heeling while walking backwards instead of forwards, drop on recall, around and over and through different objects, the two-dozen different ways to change heeling sides and turn around. That’s where it really gets to be fun.

Melissa Breau: How do those skills then progress as students go through the series?

Sue Ailsby: That’s one of the things I like best about Rally. Every behavior in the advanced levels is based on the foundation behaviors from the novice levels. It was really well set up that way. You and your dog are heeling. You and your dog do a 180-degree turn to the right or to the left. That’s novice. In an advanced level the question is, can you turn left while your dog turns right or vice versa? If you can do that, can you do it twice in a row?

As you may have realized, my middle name is “foundations,” so my training is all about getting the novice stuff solid so you don’t have to be desperately trying to get a more advanced behavior later. The advanced stuff, as I said, should flow naturally from what the dog already knows. So we start with an easy behavior, and then we make it more difficult and more difficult as you go up through the levels.

Melissa Breau: I believe when I was reading over the description you also said that there’s a lot of crossover between the different venues. Is that right? You cover skills that cross venue, right?

Sue Ailsby: Right. It’s not specifically for the different Rally that we have in Canada or in the United States, or people in Europe have taken the class because they wanted to do online Rally. I went through as many different Rally venues as I could find, read the rules, picked out the behaviors, and there are places where in one venue you have to stop before you do this, but that’s a rule change. That’s not really relevant to how the dog is trained. We’re pretty much using behaviors that are across the board, so it should be useful for anybody, no matter where they are.

Melissa Breau: Anything else you want to share about the class — either what you’ll cover or who should take it?

Sue Ailsby: We’ve had classes where most of the dogs already had a Rally title or two, and we’ve had classes where very few of them had really any training at all. So what we get is what we’ll handle. We’ll go with the flow and hope we can show everybody how much fun they can have in the Rally ring.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I’ve got one last question in here for you, Sue. What’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Sue Ailsby: Oh, I’m always getting reminded of things that I forgot. I don’t want to be boring, but I have to go back to foundations.

My Portuguese Water Dog has been on bed rest for three weeks, and yesterday I discovered she has completely forgotten the idea of stay. She’s 7 years old, she has titles in five different venues, and she can’t remember how to stay. My Giant Schnauzer, we’ve been camping for two weeks, he’s been walking with my husband on leash in the forest, and he has completely forgotten that he used to have a beautiful loose-leash walk. I would be absolutely hysterical about both of these problems right now if it wasn’t for the foundations.

My Porti has water trials coming up in a month for which I have to travel large distances. The Giant Schnauzer puppy weighs 100 pounds and I just had shoulder surgery. I need those behaviors. The good part is that I’ve put a lot of effort into foundations. I know that I can shoot back to the beginning and I’ll have those behaviors back in less than a week. I don’t have to get all excited about it and “Oh, oh, oh, what am I going to do, what am I going to do?” I’ll have them back in less than a week.

So the one thing that I always am reminded of is “Do not forget your foundations.” That’s it.

Melissa Breau: I think that’s a good reminder, and it’s nice to hear that I’m not the only one who struggles sometimes occasionally when the dog seem to forget that they have a skill. My German Shepherd’s notorious for that particular bouts of memory loss.

Sue Ailsby: Yes.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Sue. I really appreciate it.

Sue Ailsby: Thank you Melissa.

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

We’ll be back next week, this time with Dr. Jennifer Summerfield to talk about behavior medications, chat about them before she has a webinar on those the following week, so you guys can get a sneak peek.

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


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jul 20, 2018


Dr. Deborah Jones — better known around FDSA as Deb Jones — is a psychologist who specializes in learning theory and social behavior. An early innovator in the use of clicker training, she has owned and worked with a variety of breeds and has earned top-level titles in agility, rally, and obedience over the last 25 years.

At FDSA, Deb offers a wide range of popular classes, including a number of excellent foundations classes. Her focus is on developing training methods that are enjoyable and effective for both the dog and the trainer.

Links mentioned:

Next Episode: 

To be released 7/27/2018, featuring Sue Ailsby, talking about Rally. 


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. Deborah Jones -- better known around FDSA as Deb Jones.  

Deb is a psychologist who specializes in learning theory and social behavior. An early innovator in the use of clicker training, she has owned and worked with a variety of breeds and has earned top-level titles in agility, rally, and obedience over the last 25 years.

In 2004, Deb worked with agility trainer and World Team member Judy Keller to develop the FOCUS training system. FOCUS stands for Fun, Obedience & Consistency lead to Unbelievable Success. Deb has also worked with Denise Fenzi, co-authoring the “Dog Sports Skills” book series, and authored several other books, with more in the works!

At FDSA, Deb offers a wide range of popular classes, including a number of excellent foundations classes. Her focus is on developing training methods that are enjoyable and effective for both the dog and the trainer.

Hi Deb! Welcome back to the podcast.

Deb Jones: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me back again. It is always fun to be here and get a chance to chat with you.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you just reacquaint listeners with the furry friends you currently share your household with?

Deb Jones: Of course. I never pass up an opportunity to talk about my pets. First of all, there’s Zen. Zen is my nearly 11-year-old Border Collie, and it’s impossible that he could be nearly 11. I tell him every night that he needs to stop getting old right now, because I’m not going to allow it. Zen is perfect in practically every way. He’s fun, he’s smart, he has done a lot in his life, and he still enjoys a lot of things, like hiking with me.

The second dog I have is Star. She’s a 7-year-old black-and-white Border Collie. Star has done quite a bit of demo work in classes, as well as we are starting out on working nosework, doing nosework with her as well. She’s also another hiking buddy of mine.

Tigger is the 2-year-old tiny little Sheltie. He really belongs to Judy Keller, but I get to share him. Tigger is fun and he’s funny. He’s very fierce for someone who weighs 7-and-a-half pounds, and he tells you all the time that he’s the biggest dog in the house.

And finally, we also have Trick, the kitty. Tricky is now about 8 years old, I think. Trick has been in a lot of videos. He loves to train just as much as the dogs do, and he’s actually a whole lot of fun to train and a challenge. It’s different. It’s not quite the same as training dogs. But every time you get ready to tape a video, Tricky is here, so he usually gets involved in some way or the other.

So that’s our household right now.

Melissa Breau: I asked you on today to talk about something we haven’t talked about before on the podcast: teaching people. Professional dog trainers are typically training people to train dogs, not actually training the dogs themselves, and even those who aren’t professional trainers often find themselves asked for advice, or maybe they just want to be a positive ripple in their area.

Based on your background, you seem like the perfect person to ask, plus I know you have a class coming up on the topic. I think most of our listeners probably realize you teach for FDSA, but some of them may not realize you also taught psychology at Kent State University for 20 years. Did you always want to be a teacher? What got you started on that path?

Deb Jones: I’m actually pretty surprised that this topic of teaching has not come up until now. It seems to me it’s pretty central to everything we’re doing here at FDSA, so I’m really excited about starting a program for teachers.

Let me go back a little bit and talk about my background in teaching, and give you first of all a personal confession is that I never wanted to be a teacher. That was so far away from anything I ever thought I would do with my life. It was never any kind of consideration for me.

There were some, I think, pretty clear reasons why that was the case. I grew up fairly isolated. I was an only child, I lived way out in the country, we didn’t have a lot of people around, but we did have a lot of animals. Especially across the street from us there was a large farm. They always had chickens, pigs, and lot of horses. So I spent lots of time over there with the animals, and I interacted with the animals very easily. With people not so much. So that started out my idea of spending time animal training, because I was simply much more used to them and more comfortable being around them.

Also something that I know about myself and I’ve come to learn over the years is I’m a pretty strong natural introvert. I’m relaxed and comfortable alone or with a small number of people around. When you start to get a large group of people, that takes a lot of energy from me in terms of interaction. It’s just not quite so natural for me to interact with large groups, which is pretty funny considering that I teach very large classes sometimes.

That was not at all what I would ever have guessed I would have done. It’s something that I learned how to do over the years. It became a role that I could play. But it’s not who I am. There’s a big difference between the role of what we’re doing and our personality, and it’s very clear to me that I’m not a natural teacher, but I could learn how to teach very effectively, and I think it’s something that anybody can learn how to do, if that’s what you want.

I never chose to teach when I went college. I didn’t go back to college until I was about 30 years old. I went back as an adult and I had no idea what I was going to do. My plan was to take one college class and see what it’s like, and that one class happened to be Intro Psychology. So I took my psychology class and that was it — I was hooked. That was the thing I was most interested in. All through undergrad I never really thought about what I would do with this degree, except I realized a bachelor’s in psychology doesn’t get you anywhere. You really have to go on to graduate school, and you really need to get a Ph.D. And so I thought, OK, I could do that. I liked a lot of things about research, so I figured I’d be a researcher, and I saw myself working alone in a lab somewhere, spending a lot of time doing my own individual work and then socializing with people every once in a while. I didn’t really see myself interacting with large numbers of people on a daily basis.

Since I was older when I went back to college, I got to know my professors a little better maybe than some students of a traditional age might have, and they were really, really influential in my decision on what to do and how to go about approaching my career. There are two in particular, Marion Cohn and Anne Crimmings, who were the psychology professors that I worked with as an undergrad, and they both encouraged me strongly to go on to graduate school. In particular, Marion was a really strong influence on me. She was a behaviorist. She trained under somebody named Ivar Lovaas. Anybody in the ABA world probably recognizes the name Lovaas, who pioneered doing behavioral work with people with autism. So she was very much influential in the fact that I knew I wanted to go into something that had to do with behavior and that everything I found there made a lot of sense to me.

So I headed off to graduate school. I had no plans to teach. Again, I thought I would be doing research. But once I got to graduate school, they have an expectation of your work for them. You will work for them 20 hours a week in addition to your class load, and you’re going to be assigned to be either a research or teaching assistant. What I discovered was that research assistantships were harder to get, and usually that happened for the upper-level students. I was pretty much told, “You’re going to be a teaching assistant,” and it was not a happy day for me. That was not what I wanted to hear.

It got even worse, though, because I was going to be a teaching assistant for a statistics class, and I don’t like statistics. There is nothing about it that I cared about in any way. I squeaked through it as an undergrad, but I never felt confident in it or felt like I understood it. I just managed to get an A somehow, and it seemed to me like it was luck as much as anything else.

Since stats didn’t make sense to me, I didn’t want to do it. I’m going to have to teach something I don’t understand, and the final straw there was that it was going to be an 8 o’clock lab, an 8 a.m. lab, and I’m like, I hate everything about this. There was nothing that sounded like a good plan. I seriously considered dropping out of graduate school. I’m glad I didn’t, but at the time it did not seem like this was going to lead me anywhere down a career path that I wanted to go. Just the opposite. It seemed like it was taking me away from what I wanted to do.

But in the end of it, what happened was I learned a really, really important lesson, and that was that in order to teach something, if I had to stand up in front of a group of people and be the expert on something, I really needed to understand it completely. In order for me to understand statistics, of all things, I needed to break it down into tiny little parts and basically split it, is how we talk about it in training now. I needed to split it down, and it needed to make sense to me first before I could use it to make sense to anybody else.

I spent a lot of time that first year learning statistics myself. I would take the lesson I learned the night before and present it to my class the next morning. What happened was my students liked it and they did well. They liked the way things were broken down. They liked that things were very clear and understandable to them. As we know, many times you get a professor who really understands the topic, but they can’t make it understandable to the student. With my own struggles I was able to do that right off the bat. I was able to find ways to make it understandable to others.

We keep it sort of a secret among teachers that many times we’re barely ahead of our students in the material. We may have been reading that textbook right before we went in the classroom to teach it. So you become, again, play your role. You become good at projecting confidence, even when you may not totally have it. But that’s part of the teaching role that we take on.

I finally did get away from teaching statistics in grad school. I got to teach a lot of other classes as well, though my career in teaching altogether I taught statistics every single semester for 20 years. It kept me employed because nobody else wanted to do it. It became very easy for me to do over time, and they were very popular classes, so I always had full classes, which was good. But I taught a lot of other classes in grad school.

Once I got my master’s, I taught at a few different area colleges and I started to feel like I was getting control of this, or understanding how to develop material and how to teach it. Of course, when I decided to get a job, then I found out that any job I got was going to be mainly teaching. If there was any research involved, it was going to be minimal.

Academic jobs at the time I was looking were very competitive and hard to get, so I was lucky that I had a good friend, Lee [Fox], who is going to be teaching this teaching class with me at FDSA, and I’ll talk about her more in a bit. I was lucky that she had gotten a job at Kent State a few years before me and come up here. So she knew about the opening, she connected me to an opening here, I got the job at Kent State, I decided I’d probably stay for a year or two. Twenty years later, here I am, just retiring from Kent State. So things kind of take on a life of their own.

But I’ve been really happy here. I moved from the big Kent campus down to a regional campus called the Stark campus, which is in Canton, Ohio, where my classes were small, I knew most of my students, I had good colleagues, so it’s been a really good career and a really good experience. But I was ready to get away from it. Probably for about the last four or five years I’ve been really done with college teaching. It takes a lot of energy and it does burn you out over time.

At the same time I was also starting to teach more and more for FDSA and I saw a couple of things. One of those is that, gee, this thing is going to continue growing. It’s not going to be something that lasts for a year or two. It just keeps expanding, and FDSA has a lot to offer the dog training world. I knew I wanted to get more and more involved here, but I still had a full-time job there, so finally I was in a position, luckily, that I could make the decision to focus my teaching efforts more at FDSA and go ahead and retire from Kent State.

That was a long-winded way of telling you where I came from.

Melissa Breau: I think that’s all good. You mentioned a bunch of things in there, though. One of the things you talked about were some of the skills that go into being a good teacher, and obviously there’s a difference between being given a job as a teacher and really learning how to teach. Can you identify what some of those skills were? What skills do teachers need that someone might not think about until they are actually in that role?

Deb Jones: There’s a lot of on-the-job learning typically involved in teaching, and that’s not always a good thing. In fact, we’d be much better off to have more preparation, but we don’t get that often. We get knowledge of the material. So you come in to teach something, you’re teaching it because you know it, because you understand it, or you do well at it.

If we switch from college teaching to talk about dog trainers a little bit — we understand how to train an animal. Once you get that, people are going to encourage you to teach others, which is a good thing. We should share that knowledge. We shouldn’t keep it all to ourselves. But if you’re only good with animals and you don’t know how to teach people, it’s not going to go well for you.

People skills, being able to communicate very clearly and effectively with the person, because animals come with people attached. Whether we like it or not, we need to work with the person to change the animal’s situation or to change their behavior. So learning how to communicate with another human, as opposed to communicating with an animal of any species, is much more difficult. People are more complicated, much more complicated.

I’ve also come to see that our job is not just to present information. We really are there to motivate and support students, much more than just give them info. That is probably one of the biggest things I’ve learned over my career is that I need to be, and I am now more than I was, a motivator and somebody who’s there for support when the person needs it.

As a teacher, being able to take theoretical information, and an understanding of that information, and make it into something that the student can use and apply right away. Some of us are good at book learning. That’s why I’m an academic, because I like that kind of stuff. But if I give all that to my students, I’m going to overwhelm them very, very quickly. So I need to be able to take what I know from theories and pull out the important pieces of information and use those appropriately. I don’t want to overwhelm students. We don’t want to flood students with new information, and that easily happens sometimes, especially with new teachers. You tell them everything, and everything is too much.

In college teaching we’re still in the model of lecture. I lecture to you, you listen to me, and then I test you on what you remember from the lecture. That’s the whole mode. It’s not really the best model for learning, probably, but it’s a very strong tradition of that in academics, so that’s not going to go away anytime soon.

But in dog training it’s different, because if I lecture my students for very long, they’re bored and they’re finished. I need to be working with them. I need to take information and make it into something that you actually physically do. That can be hard, because I do things without thinking about every little detail and every little step, and when I have to think through that, all of a sudden something that I thought was very simple to teach takes ten times longer because I have forgotten all those details that go in along the way.

I think we’re really good at FDSA with this is we approach students differently. It’s not “the instructor has all the power, the student has none” relationship and all the information flows from me to you. It’s much more interactive, it’s much more about the information flow coming from the student as well. I learn as much as I ever teach a lot of people. And it’s much more about how to support our students and help them, as opposed to just give them information. I think those are very different things that we’re doing here with dog training than I do in college teaching.

Melissa Breau: How did you learn some of those skills? Where did those abilities come from?

Deb Jones: We learn on the job, which is not the best way. Trial and error. When I first started teaching at Kent State, when I got hired at Kent State, one of my first classes was 500 people. It was 500 people, Introductory Psychology class. That’s daunting, and nobody tells you what to do or how to do it. You are basically left on your own: “Here you go, here’s your class, teach Intro Psychology.” And I’m like, OK, I know Intro Psychology, but I’m standing on a stage in an auditorium, which is like my worst nightmare ever, trying to figure out how do I keep these people interested, how do I give them what they need to know, and how do I control this group? Because now I’ve got this large group of people I have to somehow control. So it’s very much sink or swim, trial and error, and I don’t think that’s a good way to do it at all.

And so what happens? Some people do well. Some people learn how to teach, they figure it out, they thrive, they have a career out of it. But other people don’t. They hate it, they do poorly, either they quit or they find a way to avoid teaching as much as possible, which is actually true of many college professors. They teach as little as they possibly can.

If you have somebody to support you and mentor you, that can be helpful, but that’s not something always that occurs. It’s not a big deal in most colleges. They’re more interested in research than in teaching. Teaching is seen as something we have to do, but that’s not their focus for a lot of people in college. You’d think it would be, because that’s what a university is all about, but oftentimes it’s much more about doing research. So there’s not much effort put into supporting teachers, or showing people how to teach, or giving instruction.

So we tend to model, I think, mostly after how we were taught. You probably had a professor that you really liked, and a professor that you felt like you got a lot from their class or classes. And that’s what we tend to do — we model after them. That’s good if you had a great professor, and if that happens to work for your personality and for your topic, but it doesn’t always work out quite that way.

That’s one of the reasons, I think this is the main reason, we thought about first offering a class on how to teach. Because it can be a very painful, difficult experience if you don’t know what you’re doing, and hopefully we can save people from some of that. You can learn from our pain. You don’t have to have your own. We can show you and help you along the way, and that’s why we’re doing this.

Melissa Breau: I think a lot of dog trainers, when they decide to become professionals, like you’re saying, they jump right into it, so it leads to a bit of flying by the seat of their pants, for lack of a better term. I’d love to hear a little bit about how much of teaching can be, or has to be, that ad hoc, that fly by the seat of your pants, and how much it really requires careful planning and should require that careful planning. What’s the balance like there?

Deb Jones: That’s an excellent question, because I think everything requires planning. I’m not a big believer in spontaneity. Part of that is my personality, but part of it is also my experience of teaching for about 25 years now. Very few people … now there are some who can be spontaneous and it goes really well, but they’re not a lot. For most people, when you’re spontaneous, things start to go off the rails pretty quickly. It’s also frightening, it’s pretty scary, to not have a plan, so I’m a total big believer in planning.

You may be very good at what you do with animals, but you may need much more work on how do I take that and make it into something that is going to be understandable to humans. Lots of times, students never see the preparation stage of teaching. They have no idea it exists, because it’s invisible. They don’t know how much work we put in behind the scenes before we even get to interacting with them.

I know you’ve taught a class or so, and you’re going to be teaching classes, and you know now a little bit about how much work goes on before you ever get there. There’s a lot that needs to be done. We don’t just jump into class on the first day and go, “Ah, I wonder what I’m going to do today.” I know what I’m going to do for the entire session. I have it all planned out, and even if my plan falls apart somewhere along the way, at least I had a plan to start with. I often in my college classes make up a schedule, I always make up a schedule, for every day of the semester for the four months that we would be there. I knew exactly what I was going to do before the class ever started.

Whether or not I stuck to that plan is something else. That’s where the spontaneity might come in, where I have to change things because I moved faster or slower than I thought I would, or I needed some more time to talk about a particular topic. So I can change things as I go along, but I need the plan first. That, to me, is just vitally important, and for all the good teachers I know, that is the case. They know what they’re doing. They always know every single day. It’s not, “Huh, I wonder what I feel like teaching this morning.” It’s very much “This is where we go now in the lesson plan.”

It helps a lesson plan to be sensible and to be logical and to build one thing on the next. If you’re just jumping around from one topic to another, that feels disjointed and people don’t like that so much. So more planning never hurts. This is what I always say: Plan everything. You can never over-plan. It’s fine. Do as much as you think you need to do. Then, once you have the plan, now you can be flexible. Now you can be a little more spontaneous, if you see the need arise. But don’t just go into it cold, because that’s unlikely for most people to end well.

Melissa Breau: That leads directly into what I was going to ask you next, which obviously, no matter how much planning you do, there are going to be times when you have to think on your feet and you have to respond when something unexpected happens, especially if you’re dealing with a dog training class in person, where you have students and you have their dogs and you never know exactly what crazy things could enter somebody’s head, or a dog’s head, in a given moment. How did you learn to handle that aspect of the job — handling the unexpected — and any advice you have, of course.

Deb Jones: What do they say, “Expected the unexpected.” Things are going to happen that you could never have planned for or predicted. That’s always very, very true. Things that in your wildest dreams you would not have imagined they’d occur, happen, and I think with new teachers we’re terrified of those possibilities. We’re very worried that something is going to happen, out of my control, I’m not going to know what to do about it. And it will. There’s no question it will.

So what do you do? You can panic. You can kind of lose your ability to think and process information. I’ve had that happen now and again. I’m thinking about instructors in early teaching of anything. You’re often worried that you’re going to get questions that you can’t answer. That’s an interesting fear to have, because it is reasonable. There will be questions that I don’t know the answer to because I don’t know everything in the world. I have no idea what the answer might be to certain questions. But I usually can figure out where to find that information. It might not be something I can answer right away, but just that fear that people are going to ask me something I don’t know — I don’t worry about that so much because usually my answer to that is something like, “Well, that a really interesting question and I haven’t really thought about that. So let me think about it a little bit and we can talk about it later, or let me go do some research on it and next time we’ll discuss it.”

So you don’t have to answer everything right now. You don’t have to know everything in the world, even about the topic you’re teaching. You can only know your part of it. There’s nothing wrong with that when it happens, and it will happen.

The other thing that sometimes happens that’s unexpected is you made your plan for class, you know what you’re going to do, you’ve got it all figured out, and when you get there, that plan is just not right for that group. It may be that my material is too simple, and my group is beyond where I thought they would be. The more likely the problem is my material is too complex, and the group is not ready for this level of material that I was planning to give them and talk about and work on that day. You have to be able to figure out when do I need to go back and go to an easier level, or when do I need to add some challenge that I wasn’t necessarily expecting I was going to have to do here.

So my lesson plan is sort of a suggested outline for what is going to happen in a class. That can always be changed. If I have that dog that does something I didn’t expect, either good or bad — either they do much better than I thought they would, or they’re nowhere near ready to do what I had planned for them that day — that’s when I do have to be flexible and be spontaneous. We develop, as we go along with training, ways to deal with that: What am I going to do when I get into that situation?

Let’s say you have the dog and the owner that show up to your advanced class and they’re not advanced. They’re barely beginners, and somehow they ended up in your advanced class. This happens all the time. So what you planned for them to do is absolutely not possible for them. Now the question is what do you do at that moment? We want to very quickly drop back down to the level where they can be successful and start them there. That’s all you can do in the moment is to give them something to work on that they can succeed with. Trying to hold them to the same level as everybody else in the class is just never going to work. It’s going to be frustrating for all of you.

After the fact, it might be they don’t really belong in that class, but that’s not something to address immediately. You can address that privately at the end of class. Maybe that the class is not right for them, they don’t have the background or the skills that they need, but we can’t derail the whole lesson and say, “OK, because Joe and Fido are having this problem with reactivity and it’s an agility class, we’re all going to stop and I’m going to work with him on this problem.” We can’t do that either.

We have to think constantly about the group. What is the group here to be taught? What did I say I was going to teach? I have to do that. Like I say, I can try to alter things as much as I can for somebody who’s not quite fitting, but in the end they may or may not be right for that particular class. We can’t be all things to all people all the time, and we can deal with that after the fact.

The other issue, the opposite issue of that, is you get somebody in class who is well advanced of what you’re teaching. This can be disconcerting, especially if you’re a new instructor, because now all of a sudden the student knows more than you do, and you don’t know what you have to offer them. In these cases, with experience, you start to learn to add challenges for those students who are ready for them as part of what you’re doing in the class.

Judy used to complain when she had her first agility dog, Morgan, who was Mr. Perfect. Morgan did everything right all the time. Morgan would do an agility sequence perfectly, and they’d be, “That was great, OK, next.” And then the next dog comes up and they’re having trouble, so they get three or four tries at the agility sequence and much more of the instructor’s time. When you get something like this, you’re not real happy if you’re the person who has the perfect dog, because you haven’t been challenged in any way, and you really haven’t gotten the time from the instructor that you should have.

So knowing I have to give the same amount to each of my students and I have to meet them or start where they are. Even though I have this general idea of where they ought to be, I’m working with them from where they are right now, which is exactly the same thing we do with dogs. We work from where they are right now. It’s the same with people.

Melissa Breau: As somebody who has taught in both a traditional classroom setting and who has taught people to train their dogs, what similarities or differences pop out at you?

Deb Jones: This is a really interesting distinction to make between teaching my college classes and teaching my dog training classes because I’ve done both for over 25 years. In terms of preparation, I think they’re pretty much the same. I prepare the same way no matter what the topic is that I’m teaching, whether it’s dog training classes or college classes.

Some of the issues you’re going to see that are similar include just dealing with people — interpersonal issues, group dynamics that you have going on. How do I deal with this large group of people effectively? Most of us don’t know naturally how to do that, so that’s something we learn. In dog training, though, it’s interesting because you would think you’re training the dog. That’s what it’s called. It’s called dog training, so our focus is on training the dog. But we all know, who have taught for any time at all, what you’re actually doing is teaching the person to train the dog. So I, as the instructor here, have a double job. I’m teaching a person, also making sure the dog gets trained at the same time.

Many dog trainers would say, “The animal is easy, the person is hard,” and that’s probably true. I feel like I could train the dog very quickly, but that’s not the job. The job is to teach the person to train the dog, and that’s not going to be as quick and easy.

If you’ve ever learned how to ride a horse — I spent a lot of time when I was younger with horses and riding horses and at stables — oftentimes when you take lessons, what happens, you get a new person who’s never ridden a horse before, and we give them what’s called a school horse. The school horse is usually the one that’s going to be very easy. That horse is experienced. It knows what’s going on. The person knows nothing, but at least the horse knows. And so the horse is pretty easy going, it’s used to beginners, it’s not going to hurt anybody, everything will go along OK. As you get better as a rider, you get the horses that are less trained or more difficult to work with.

We don’t do that with dogs. We don’t have school dogs. I think that would be a really good idea, if you had these well-trained dogs that people could practice on before they work with their own. I think that would make things simpler. But we don’t have that. We’re teaching a person and an animal brand new things at the same time, which makes it difficult.

We’re also teaching … in dog training, the difference is that’s a physical skill, and it involves a lot of motor skill, and it involves timing, observational skills. These are things I don’t teach in college classes. I teach information. I teach material. I talk about academic stuff out of books, theories and ideas. That’s very different than teaching somebody how to click at the proper moment. That’s a whole different set of skills. Or how to manage a clicker and your treats and your dog and your leash and all those things at one time. This is a lot of mechanical stuff that we work with when we’re teaching animals different behaviors. And again, things I don’t think about. I just do them. So when I have to start to think about how to explain it to somebody, then I have to break it down into tiny little parts.

I remember when I first started thinking about teaching FOCUS. I didn’t know how I taught FOCUS. I just did. I just somehow had it with my dogs. There were a lot of things I was doing, but it took me a while to think through all those and to actually be able to verbalize them to other people, because I felt like it’s just what you do, it’s just how you are with your dog, it’s how you live with your puppy. But clearly it’s not, because everybody wasn’t doing those things. Once I started to verbalize it, it just kept growing and growing. It’s like, I do a lot of things I never said or I never even recognized.

That’s a lot of what happens in dog training. We have to go, we do this and it works, but how do I tell you to do the same thing? We get students … because we’re working with physical skills, we all end up with students who have difficulty with those skills, who have trouble following direction, or who have some sort of issue with something that I might think is simple. I might say, “Turn to your right,” and to me that would be a simple cue that I would give a person, but that might be very complicated for them. They might struggle with the difference between left and right. So I have to break it down and make it easy enough for that one particular person in my class, and then I have, say, ten of those people, and I have to do that for every single person that I’m working with.

Those are challenges, those kinds of things that I didn’t see in college teaching. I just had a group of people sitting in chairs, looking at me. I got to talk to them, which was fine, which was easy, but you didn’t get that intense one-on-one that you do with dog training.

Melissa Breau: To kind of flip the switch there, you talked about “The animal is easy, the person is hard.” What are some of the similarities or even the differences, I guess, between teaching your actual dog and teaching those human students? Are there things that stand out?

Deb Jones: I think there are a lot of similarities. I mean, the general rules of learning still apply to everybody. I always say they apply to all species, and I don’t say “except humans.” They apply to all species. We all learn in the same way, and we all also need to consider motivation, emotional responses, and reactions to things. I need to consider those in my human students as well as in my animals, and sometimes as teachers we forget about that stuff. We think about it with the animals, but we figure the people must be motivated or they wouldn’t be there, so they must be able to figure it out and they want to do it. But not always. We can have a big effect on their emotional responses and on how much they try and how hard they work.

Lots of times, something I see that is challenging with people in animal training, and especially for those of us who are positive-reinforcement-based trainers, is that what I’m teaching you pretty much contradicts your previous learning. It does not agree with what you think you know or what you know about dog training, and what I’m telling you is completely different. So we’re getting into space here where we have to be very, very careful. Even if I’m just implying everything you’ve done up to now is wrong, just listen to me and I’ll tell you what’s right, people don’t like that. They become defensive. They go, “No, wait a minute. I know what I was doing. I wasn’t doing anything wrong,” or “The fact that you’re implying I was doing something wrong is bothersome.”

So we have to be very delicate in how we present information that we know is going to disagree with the way that they have always done things. The last thing we want our human students to do is become resistant to learning our ideas. We want them to be open to it, so we need to be very, very careful that I’m not implying to you that everything you’ve done up to now is wrong, thank goodness you found me, because otherwise you’re just messing up left and right. That’s not going to go over well.

When you first learn about positive reinforcement training and you’re so excited about it, it’s easy to let that creep in, that this is the right way, everything you’ve been doing is the wrong way. We need to be careful about that as teachers, or we’re not going to convince anybody if we take that approach.

Also with humans what I’ve come to see is it’s not my job to convert anybody to believe what I believe about animal training. I feel very strongly about the way I train and teach, and I feel like it’s the right way to go about it. But my job is not to convert the world. My job is to do what I do to the best of my ability. When somebody’s ready to hear what I have to say, they’ll be there. They’ll find me, and then they’ll be ready to make the changes that are necessary. But I’m not going out, pulling people in, trying to make them see how right I am. I think that is something that just turns people away from us, so we need to be careful about that.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that students sometimes are at different places in their learning, and I’m curious how, when professional trainers are dealing with a new class, I think they often struggle with this idea of how you break things down into tiny pieces so the dog can be successful without frustrating their human learners. Do you have any advice or suggestions around that?

Deb Jones: Oh, of course I do. I definitely do. This is something I think about a lot. As animal trainers, we’re always talking about the importance of splitting things down into small pieces and making it easy for our animals to learn. We know that lumping things together is going to lead to confusion and frustration. It doesn’t help in the bigger picture. We apply that to animals pretty well, but oftentimes as instructors we have difficulty applying that to our human learners.

One of the problems I see here is that our human students come in with unrealistic expectations about how much progress they’re going to make in a class or over the course of a session that you have. They expect a lot more than is realistically possible. I think one of our jobs as instructors is to help them set those expectations more realistically. They want to see some big change right away, and we know that it’s not about big change. It’s about a whole lot of little tiny bits of incremental change that eventually lead to the bigger change. So one of our first jobs, I think, is to convey this information to them, that what you’re seeing here, this is progress. This is what we’re looking at, how do we know it when we see it, and then they can start to look for it a little more as well.

The other thing that often happens in classes, and it’s often with new instructors, is that you just feel like you have to give your students everything you know. Give them so much information that it becomes overwhelming to them, and they tend to shut down and stop hearing you pretty quickly. You can only process so much information at a time. We want to tell them everything, we want to give them everything they need to know, but we need to edit that. We need to keep that to a point where it’s enough for now and I can give them more later, so enough to be successful, and then we can build on that in the future. But when we flood people with large amounts of information, it’s not useful to them in any way, and it does make them feel overwhelmed and frustrated, so that’s not helpful as a learner.

If you have students in class, as I sort of mentioned this already, lots of different places, some are more advanced than others, finding the level of material and difficulty to give them can indeed be difficult. You’ve got the new pet person in a class along with the experienced dog sport trainer. How am I going to make them both happy? That’s a big challenge, and you’ll probably never feel like you do it perfectly.

Perfect and teaching do not go together. Those are not two words that happen. We do our best. We do our best every single time we teach. Later on, you’ll think, Oh, I wish I’d said this, or Oh, I wish I’d done that instead. Next time. Now you know. Next time you can do it that way. But we learn more, we do better. We don’t expect ourselves to be perfect all the time and hit it exactly right for every single class. You’ll have absolutely great classes and then you’ll have absolutely awful ones, and it may or may not have much to do with the material at all.

Back to this idea one more time, because I’ll say it again because I think it’s important: More material is not better. It’s flooding. New instructors go into too much theory, too much detail. Narrow things down for your audience. What do they need to know right now? I think that’s the best way to find a balance here. If you have somebody who you really feel like is interested in more and wants to learn more, or is ready to learn more, then you pull out the extra stuff you have for them and give them a little extra instruction in that and give them a little extra challenge.

Melissa Breau: I think that so often new instructors are a little bit … I don’t want to say unconfident, but to a certain extent it’s, OK, I’m going to prove you can trust me by telling you all the science that I know to prove that I know the science, so that we can do this thing and it’s going to work. But obviously that’s not, like you said, more information is not better.

Deb Jones: Right, and the science is something we can talk about with our colleagues. We’re behavior geeks, a lot of us. That’s why we do this. We love to talk about the science of things. But we have to know our audience. Is my audience one that wants to talk about all this science or not? So save that for the right situation.

Melissa Breau: For those who are listening who maybe don’t actually plan to become a teacher, but inevitably, as positive trainers, they find themselves questioned about their training and their techniques, do you have any advice for ways that Joe Schmo or the average positive trainer can maybe bridge that gap and help educate others around them?

Deb Jones: Yeah, this is going to come up for you. If you train with positive reinforcement, people are going to be curious, especially if they’ve had more traditional training techniques. That’s all they know, so they’re going to want to know what you do.

I’d say a few things that I think can be helpful here. First of all, your first job is to be a good example of positive reinforcement training. Nobody expects you or your dog to be perfect. I know I and my dog are far from perfect in our training. Many positive reinforcement trainers actually have very challenging dogs and that’s why they made this switch to more positive reinforcement, because they found it worked better for them. So you don’t have to be perfect, but do your best to actually train your dog so that they’re a good example of what you can do.

If you can get a lot of hands-on experience with more dogs, that’s all the better. There are a lot of people who are very good at the theory and the science, and they understand it cognitively, but they can’t apply it to their own animals or to anybody else’s. I’ve seen that more than once, where somebody talks a very good talk, but when you see them try to train an animal, they haven’t bridged that gap yet. They’re not capable of taking from one to the other.

When I first started teaching at Kent State, there was another professor who’s very well known in the world of learning theory. He’s written textbooks on learning, and he came to one of my dog training classes. He was my worst student. He was terrible. He understood the theory better than anybody in the room. That didn’t help him when it came to the hands-on stuff. So I think just because we like the theory and we think all that part of it is interesting, we also need to have a lot of hands-on training of a lot of different animals.

So train your own dogs. Train any dog you can get your hands on — your family’s, your friends’, the neighborhood dogs. Train. If you can find a good positive reinforcement trainer to apprentice under, do that. The more animals you can work with, the better. Volunteer at a shelter, do rescue work, lots of dogs. The more dogs, the more you will learn, there’s no doubt about it.

You can’t really teach other people until you’ve had a wide variety of experiences. Working with one type of dog does not always translate into helping people with other problems and issues. So getting that variety in.

I think one of the best things that ever happened to me was training so many different types of dogs so early in my dog training career. I got a little bit of everything, and I got to see the differences as well as the similarities.

Then, once you’ve got that as a positive reinforcement trainer, when people ask you for advice and information, this is kind of a dangerous moment because we want to help so much. When somebody asks me for help, I want to help them. I want them to take my advice, I want my advice to work, I want everybody to be better, I want everybody to be happy.

But that’s not always how it ends up working out. People often ask you for advice, and do they take it? No, they do not. Or they apply it very poorly. Or they mix it with something somebody else told them to do and it doesn’t work out. Especially if it’s family, then almost always they’re not doing what you tell them to do, because you’re family, what do you know? So my general rule for other people asking for help and advice and information is I don’t put more effort into solving their problem than they are putting into it.

Oftentimes we put so much into it to try to get them fixed. That’s not my job. My job is to give advice. If I choose to — I don’t have to, but if I choose to — my role is to give advice. I’m not responsible for their issues. I like to give enough advice that they can find more help, they can find more hands-on help. And maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but again, I have to let them be responsible for that. I can’t take responsibility for everybody who has a problem and comes and asks for help with it.

So don’t get too invested in any one single person. Have an idea of how much time am I willing to spend working with somebody, especially if they’re not paying you. How much time are you willing to spend, because if they’re not paying you, often they think it’s not very valuable, and then they don’t take you very seriously.

Melissa Breau: I mentioned earlier, and it’s come up a couple of times, that you have a class coming up on all this, so I wanted to talk about that briefly. What led you to create the class, and maybe if you can share a little on what it will cover, that kind of thing.

Deb Jones: Sure, yes, I’m very excited to talk about this. This class, and actually we have a series of two set right now and maybe a third one, enough material for a third one sitting in the works somewhere. About two years ago, my friend Lee and I went to Florida for a vacation. You wouldn’t think we’d be talking about teaching when we’re on vacation, but we are.

My friend Lee is also a social psychologist. She’s the person who got me the job here at Kent State. We were roommates when we were in graduate school. We’ve known each other for a long, long time. I’ve probably known her longer than I’ve known any other friend, as far as I can remember, except from high school.

Lee and I went on vacation together, and we were talking about the fact that I was looking forward to retirement at some point, hopefully in the not too distant future. Luckily, that worked out really well for me and I was able to retire, but what would I do? She actually asked the same thing. She did not choose to retire, and part of the reason is she doesn’t know what she would do. I said, “There has to be something we can do together that would be interesting to us and that would use our skills.” What do we know how to do? We know how to teach. That’s what we do. Between the two of us we’ve been teaching for something close to 55 or 60 years, if you add it all together. That’s a lot of teaching.

We started talking about this, and I had also been talking about the classes at FDSA and how much I enjoy online teaching, and I see that as the big wave of the future. In fact, most colleges now have a lot of online classes as well. Lee and I have both taught online classes at Kent State too. But we saw that, again, nobody tells you how to do it. There’s no sort of teacher training happening. So here’s an area where there’s a need that’s not addressed, and this is something we thought we could do.

We started talking about it, and we had, like, an 18-hour drive home from Florida. We started taking notes, whoever wasn’t driving was taking notes, and talking about it helped us pass the time, anyway. But by the time we got back, we had an outline for a class pretty easily. From there, we started to get more specific and spent some time together last summer working on pulling together actual lesson plans and getting much more thoughtful about, OK, we took this vague idea, now what are we really going to do with it?

Melissa Breau: Do you want to just share a little bit on what type of material you’ll be covering in the class and who should be a really good fit, if they’re interested?

Deb Jones: Yes. As I said, we have two classes planned right now. The first one’s completely done. We’re just finishing up some of the videos on that. The second one’s written. We’ll still have to do the videos that we’re going to do for that one. Possibly a third going on here.

Our focus is on how to teach, not on what you teach. Not on the content, but on the process. This could apply to any area of training, whether you’re interested in teaching classes in agility or obedience or nosework or rally. Whatever the dog sport or activity, pet classes as well, whatever the dog sport or activity, it’s going to be how do you approach and teach something. Not exactly what to do — that’s your part of it to bring to the table is the information itself.

As always, of course, we’re splitting it down into little parts, as we would do in beginning stages for anybody, teaching being not a natural thing for most people.

Now there are a few people who are very extroverted who enjoy talking in front of groups, but most of us do not. Most of us find it somewhat aversive and difficult. But if you’re going to do it, you need some practice at it, and you need to be able to have a safe place to practice and get some supportive feedback. That is what we are planning to offer. Breaking it down into some little pieces, having you work on small assignments that take a minute or so to present and to show, and then letting us give you some feedback on the clarity of it, what might be changed, just as we do with all FDSA classes, how can we make this better, what can you do to improve this thing.

Of course, there’s no formula for teaching. Everybody can approach it in different ways and be successful at it. But we are going to give you some structure and some guidelines for what has worked well for us over time.

Let’s see … what can I say? Most people … I talked about being stressed, so how can we deal with that? We deal with stress by being prepared. So preparation. The class will give you, hopefully, confidence. If you take this class, you go through the materials, you work through the exercises, we have both written and video exercises to do. Once you work through those you’ll come to get more comfortable teaching something, presenting something. We put you under a little bit of time limitation in terms of how long you have to present certain information, which forces you to narrow it down and to not get too big, and that’s a really important thing.

So we’re going to work on those kinds of exercises, thinking about what you’re going to teach, how are you going to convey to your students it’s important, how are you going to start at the level that the student is at. We go through talking about these kinds of questions and how we start our interactions with students, how we basically start to get them to buy into what we want them to do.

Practice … something that, as dog trainers, those of us who train and teach have done a lot is I have a demo dog, and I’m demonstrating with my dog while I’m explaining to the class what’s going on. That can be really, really hard to do. That in itself you’re asking somebody to do two things. I’m asking you to pay attention to your dog and use the proper mechanics to get them to do this thing, and at the same time pay attention to an audience who’s watching you do this and tell them exactly what you’re doing as you go through it.

Something that sounds easy like that, it’s not so simple in the beginning. If they’re both difficult for you, you’re going to become flustered. If you’re good at one, and typically we’re pretty good at the dog part, then we can concentrate on the other. But putting those kinds of things together in terms of having a demo dog and how useful they can be for certain things, and how to do and talk about what you’re doing at the same time.

Something that we’ve added in here that I don’t think a lot of dog trainers think about at all, but I believe it’s really important — we think about it all the time in academics — is where do you get your resource material and where are you getting your information from? In college, of course we have textbooks or journal articles, and so that’s where we get the information that we teach, and then we supplement with many other things.

But in dog training, where is our information coming from that’s going to be our class? Lots of stuff in dog training is common knowledge, public knowledge, and you can’t always figure out where this idea or this technique came from. But when we can, when we can know something, when I know where I learned something, or I know somebody who is working with this and has done a certain application of it, we want to give them acknowledgement and say, “OK, I learned this from …” and “Here’s another way you can use it that I saw in a video by …” whoever is doing that. So we talk about giving credit, we talk about finding valid and accurate sources, we talk about avoiding plagiarism, things that we think about much more in academics than the dog training world, but I think it has a place.

The other thing that, at least in this first set of classes, we’re going to address is how to take on that role. I mentioned teaching being a role, so how to take on that role of teacher so that it’s still authentic to you, that you’re not being fake about it. It takes part of your personality and also then takes on the necessary demands of the role of being a teacher. How do you combine those things together? Because I say all the time I’m not a natural teacher, but I do it well. How do I do it well? I figured out how to mix these two together. So that’s something we’re going to talk about and have people work on as we go through the course as well.

Of course, we’re trying not to overload people in the first course, so in the second one we get more into things like how do you develop a syllabus and lesson plans for a six-week class, how do you deal with challenging students — I won’t say difficult — challenging students to manage, and group dynamics, classroom setups, things like that.

Of course I’m going to say, who should take this class, I think everybody. But particularly if you’re instructing anybody, even if you’re instructing one other person, knowing how to do that well, I think, is a really important skill, and if you are ever intending to teach a group, I think it will be really, really helpful. You’re adding the teaching skills set to your training skills set and that can be a very valuable thing to have.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely, and it sounds like it’s a very full, chock-full class of lots of different bits and pieces. I’ve got one last question for you here, and it’s my new “last interview question” for everyone who comes on. What’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Deb Jones: Oh, there are so many lessons. The thing I would probably say here right now, the thing that I’ve learned, is that we’re never done learning. There’s absolutely no end to how much we can learn as dog trainers. No matter how much you think you know, there’s always something more out there. These days I define somebody as an expert, and I think somebody who’s an expert in what they do, they’re still learning. They’re a lifelong learner. So if you’re an expert, you should still be learning as much as a beginner does.

Melissa Breau: I like that, and it’s very on theme for us today.

Deb Jones: Yes, it is, actually. Excellent.

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

Deb Jones: Thank you Melissa. I always enjoy it.

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

We’ll be back next week, this time with Sue Ailsby to talk about training for Rally.

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


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jul 13, 2018


Stacy Barnett is an active competitor in Nosework, Tracking, Obedience, Rally, Agility and Barn Hunt, but Scent Sports are her primary focus and her first love. She is an AKC Judge and contractor, as well as an instructor at FDSA. She hosts the Scentsabilities podcast and blogs regularly on nosework topics at

Links mentioned:

Next Episode: 

To be released 7/20/2018, featuring Deb Jones, talking about teaching people to teach dogs. 


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

Today we’ll be talking to Stacy Barnett. Stacy is an active competitor in Nosework, Tracking, Obedience, Rally, Agility and Barn Hunt, but Scent Sports are her primary focus and her first love. She is an AKC Judge and contractor, as well as an instructor at FDSA. She hosts the Scentsabilities podcast and blogs regularly on nosework topics at — I’ll be sure to include a link in the show notes for anyone who is interested.

Hi Stacy, welcome to the podcast.

Stacy Barnett: Hi Melissa. Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat. To start us out, can you just remind listeners who the dogs are that you share your life with?

Stacy Barnett: I have four crazy hooligans who live in my hut. They are; they’re nuts. I’ll start out with my older dogs. I have an almost 11-year-old Standard Poodle named Joey. He’s a brown Standard Poodle. He’s absolutely wonderful. I absolutely love him.

I have a 7-year-old miniature American Shepherd, which is, you know, a mini-Aussie, named Why, and Why is actually his name. He came with it. I always have people ask me, “Why is his name Why?” And I always say, “Why not?”

So I have Why, and then I have my two Labradors, who I refer to as my Dream Team. My Labradors, I have Judd, who’s almost 9 years old. He is my heart and soul. He’s actually the one that really got me going in nosework and is the reason why I ended up quitting corporate and pursuing a whole job in nosework. He’s my baby, he’s my Labrador, my 9-year-old Labrador.

And then I have my youngest, who is a major hooligan. She is about 15 months old and she is a Labrador, a little shrimpy Lab. Her name is Brava, and I absolutely adore her. She’s the only girl in the house, so she’s like my soul sister.

Melissa Breau: I’m sure she gets a little spoiled being the only girl in the house.

Stacy Barnett: She does, and the boys love her. They absolutely love her. They fawn over her. We all do. We think she’s wonderful.

Melissa Breau: Alright, so I know you’ve been on the podcast a few times now to talk about different aspects of nosework, but today I want to focus our conversation on how handlers can tailor nosework training to their specific dog. Is there a particular type of dog or particular skills or maybe a personality type that really lends itself to helping a dog become a strong nosework competitor?

Stacy Barnett: There are, but at the same time I also want to emphasize the fact that every dog can do this sport. Maybe not every dog can compete in this sport, it really depends on the dog, but every dog can do this sport.

There are certain aspects of the dog’s personality or what is intrinsic to the dog that will help the dog to become a really strong competitor in terms of being very competitive, or a dog that will really gravitate toward the sport and really, really love the sport. In my experience, all dogs do love the sport, but there are some that just seem to live and breathe for it.

And the ones that seem to live and breathe for it, there are a couple of different things that contribute to that. Number one, the dog is a little bit more independent. If the dog is more handler-focused, I say if the dog is really into you and really cares what you think, those dogs tend to not be as gung-ho for the sport. The dogs that are a little bit more independent but have a nice balance between environmental and handler focus seem to do a little bit better.

Above all, they have to have a natural love of scenting. Now, most dogs do have this natural love, but there are some dogs that just really, really love it. Those are the dogs I would say make the strongest nosework competitors.

Melissa Breau: What other factors may influence how well a dog does when it comes to nosework?

Stacy Barnett: One of them has to do with how motivated they are for food and toys. We tend to use food and toys as primary reinforcers for nosework. It’s very easy to reinforce with food, for instance, because it’s very fast. This is a timed sport. You have a certain amount of time to do the search, and typically, at least in the U.S., the fastest dog wins. If you can reward very quickly with food, you’re going to be at an advantage. Toys work really well too. Dogs like toys, they tend to work really hard for toys, you can use toys for a reward, but having a motivation for either food or toys is a real advantage.

Another thing is the dog’s ability to think on their own and to problem solve. This goes hand-in-hand with dogs being independent, so if you have a more independent dog that can do some problem solving, you can do really well. I look at Brava, for instance. Brava, and I actually put a video of this on my Facebook page, knows how to open doors. She is a problem solver. The latch doors, the lever doors, she knows how to push down on the door and pull on it and open the door, which is really kind of amusing in some respects but kind of scary in other respects. But having that problem-solving ability can really help in nosework.

The third thing that is not a requirement but is definitely helpful is physical fitness. Physical fitness is not a requirement. You know, this is a really great sport for older dogs, for infirm dogs, that sort of thing, but having that physical fitness can give you an edge in competition. There’s different sorts of physical fitness. There’s also fitness related to stamina. Stamina is important from both a physical perspective and a mental perspective. If you can have that mental stamina or that physical stamina, and I’m also thinking nasal stamina, dogs that can sniff for a long period of time, can help in competition.

Melissa Breau: To dig a little more into it, you were saying about nosework being good for many different types of dogs. Can you talk to that a little bit more? What are some of the benefits of doing nosework?

Stacy Barnett: Oh, there are so many benefits of doing nosework, and in fact I think we could do a whole podcast on this. I think we really could. I’m thinking of three different groups of dogs that really benefit from nosework from a therapeutic perspective.

One of them is reactive dogs. For a reactive dog, what it can do is you can develop a positive conditioned emotional response to odor, and then if you have very mild triggers while the dog is experiencing — and I’m talking extremely mild, where the dog is under threshold — and the dog has a positive conditioned emotional response to odor, your dog’s reactivity level can actually go down.

With my dog Why, for instance, he used to be extremely dog-reactive, and he was dog-reactive out of fear. So I started to train him in nosework, and he started to really enjoy nosework. At the same time, in doing nosework and having fun in doing nosework, he was also exposed to the smell of other dogs, not necessarily dogs in his surroundings, but the smell of other dogs. The end result was actually lowering of his reactivity level, which was really fantastic. So now he can be within about 8 feet of another dog, which is unbelievable.

Older dogs. Older dogs are really super. It can keep their mind active. If they can’t physically do all of the things that they used to be able to do, they still have an active mind. They still want to do things. They may not be able to do agility or heavy-duty obedience or IPO or whatever, dock diving, I don’t know, whatever you’re doing. Even barn hunt. Barn hunt requires a certain amount of physical ability because they have to jump up and down hay bales. These are all dogs that when they get older they still want to work, they still want to do stuff.

So if you do nosework, it exercises the mind and it keeps them busy because olfaction, the olfactory lobe, is one-eighth of the dog’s brain, so you’re really, really using the dog’s brain and they can stay engaged. I’ve seen it do incredible things for dogs with cognitive dysfunction who have gotten older. We have seen some amazing, amazing things with the older dogs.

Then you have the young dogs. Young dogs, their joints are young, you don’t want to stress out their joints, you don’t want to over-exercise them, but yet you still have these energetic young animals who need an outlet. And it tires them out, which is super, because it does use so much of their brain. In AKC, for instance, you can even trial your dog as young as 6 months old. For a lot of dogs that may be too early, based upon their emotional maturity, but you can do this when they’re young and it’s not going to tax their bodies. So you can protect their bodies but you can still get them tired, which is a really, really great thing, trust me.

Melissa Breau: Especially when you’ve got a drivey young dog.

Stacy Barnett: I do, I do. She’s about 15 months old right now, and I have to tell you, nosework has been amazing for my sanity and for her sanity.

Melissa Breau: I think most people probably start out teaching nosework by following a class or they’re using somebody else’s training plan. But at some point, all these different kinds of dogs, handlers need to tailor that training. How can a beginner handler tailor their training based on their dog’s stage of learning and their temperament?

Stacy Barnett: You have to be in tune with your dog’s emotions. So whether or not you’re a beginner or not, you can still read your dog. You can still tell if your dog is confident, if they’re feeling motivation for an activity. You have to be able to read that confidence and that motivation because that’s really the core. Those are sacred. Confidence and motivation are sacred in my book.

Once those are in place, you can start to build on skills. But you have to always think about having like a little meter on the back of your dog, like a little meter that says how confident they are, how motivated they are. But based upon that confidence and that motivation, you can tailor what you do with your dog.

Maybe you want to build the confidence, or your dog is having some confidence issues — and I don’t just mean confidence in the environment, by the way. There are three different kinds of confidence that I talk about. There’s confidence in skills, which is basically does the dog believe in themselves. There’s confidence in the environment. That’s is the dog comfortable in the environment. Is the dog comfortable in new places. And then there’s confidence in the handler, and this is something that I think a lot of people don’t think about. That’s basically does your dog trust you. Does your dog trust that they’re always going to get their reward for the work that they do.

Basically you need to evaluate all of these things and always check for that confidence and that motivation. If you have that, then you can work on the skills, because the skills should be secondary to the confidence and motivation.

Melissa Breau: I know you’re a fan of Denise’s book, Train the Dog in Front of You. Can you share a little bit about how that concept applies to nosework?

Stacey Barnett: Yes, I love that book. I love, love, love, love, love that book, and I’m not just saying that because she’s my boss. No, I really do, and I tell everybody it’s not a nosework book, but that doesn’t matter. It is such a good dog-training book, and especially chapters 2 and 3 — notice I even know the chapters — chapters 2 and 3 are especially applicable to nosework. Those are the chapters that relate to whether or not the dog is cautious or secure, and whether or not the dog is environmental versus handler focused. Because those are two really core things that affect the dog’s ability to do nosework. If the dog is cautious, for instance, you might want to work in a known environment. If the dog is more secure, maybe you want to work in more novel environments.

The same thing goes with environmental versus handler focus. You’ve got to think of these things as spectrums. It’s not an either/or, it’s not whether the dog is handler or environmental focused. It’s on the spectrum. So if the dog is more environmentally focused, you might have a slightly different way of handling the dog, where you might be thinking more about distractions and how you’re going to work with distractions, or if the dog is more handler focused, you might want to be thinking about how to build independence.

Actually there’s three different kinds of focus, although this is not in the book, this is more my interpretation. There’s environmental, there’s handler, and there’s search focus. So if you can understand where your dog falls on these spectrums that Denise talks about in terms of environmental and handler focus, you can figure out how do you then reorient your dog onto the search focus.

Melissa Breau: Denise opens the book by asking handlers if they are handling their dog in a manner that builds on his strengths while also improving his weaknesses. I was hoping we’d get into that a little bit. Can you share some examples of how a dog’s personality or strengths might influence their nosework training? For example, if a dog is super-confident or less confident, how would that impact training?

Stacy Barnett: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I always talk about my pyramid. I have a pyramid of training, and that pyramid of training, there’s confidence on the bottom, then there’s motivation is the next layer, then skills, and then stamina.

Basically, if you have a confident and a motivated dog, you can work on harder skills, because confidence and motivation, again, it’s sacred. You can also work on their personality strengths. If your dog is confident and motivated more naturally, maybe you can work on harder skills, or maybe you can work in new environments.

The other thing is that it’s also important to really evaluate the dog’s resilience. From a resilience perspective, that will help you to identify whether or not your search is too challenging or not challenging enough. So you need to think about the dog’s natural drive levels, the dog’s resilience, and that can help you to understand how challenging of a search that you can make for your dog in order to keep the dog from … because you don’t want anxiety and you don’t want boredom. You can actually find a sweet spot based upon the dog’s resilience and the dog’s drive levels. But again, the basis, of course, is confidence and motivation.

Melissa Breau: Funny enough, I was debating whether or not to announce it here, so I guess I will. We started a new Facebook group specifically for the podcast, and we’re going to encourage people to listen and then ask some questions, so maybe if anybody has a question, I’ll have to tag you.  

Stacy Barnett: That sounds great.

Melissa Breau: Come dish out a little more. I know you enjoy talking about this stuff.

Stacy Barnett: I love this stuff. I love this stuff. I eat, sleep, and breathe this.

Melissa Breau: What about natural arousal states? How might a handler tailor training based on those?

Stacy Barnett: Arousal is one of those things that … don’t fear arousal. If your dog is high arousal, don’t fear it. Embrace it. Arousal is actually the key to really successful nosework trialing.

What’s interesting is that dogs have a natural arousal state, so dogs either have what I call an arousal excess or an arousal gap. If you think about what your dog does when they’re at rest, where that arousal state is compared to their arousal state when they’re in drive, that will tell you whether or not you have an arousal excess or you have an arousal gap. The size of that gap is going to indicate how much work you have to do, because some dogs are a little bit closer to the ideal than other dogs.

But what you want to do is when you train them and you’re actually working them, you always want to make sure that your dog is in drive — in drive approaching the start line and in drive while they’re actually searching. You can condition this arousal, because arousal is a habit, and if you can always work your dog in the right arousal state, you’re going to find that your dog is going to come more naturally to the start line and in the right arousal state, and the right arousal state is when the dog is in drive. That’s at the peak arousal.

If we think about the Yerkes-Dodson Law, like the curve, it looks like a bell-shaped curve, for dogs who have an arousal gap, we want to increase the arousal to the point that they’re in drive. For dogs who have an arousal excess, we want to decrease the arousal to get the dog into drive, because just because you’re peeling the dog off the ceiling doesn’t mean that they’re in drive. And that’s not what we want. We don’t want the dog that we have to peel off the ceiling. For those dogs, we have to lower the arousal so that they can focus and they can really think. And working in drive really becomes a habit, so you always want to work the dog in drive and always want to work the dog in the right arousal state.

Melissa Breau: Of course, if handlers are doing this well, as training progresses their dog will improve; but I think it’s common for trainers in all sports to find they are training the dog they used to have instead of the one that’s in front of them right now. How can handlers evaluate their dogs as they go along and avoid that misstep?

Stacy Barnett: That’s really interesting, and I refer to something called typecasting. If you’re familiar with typecasting and you think about the movies, there are a couple movie stars that I can think of off the top of my head that definitely get typecasted. Typecasting is something where you have an actor who might be casted in a very similar role, regardless of the movie that they’re in. Two of the major type-casted actors that I can think of are Christopher Walken and Jim Carrey. Christopher Walken, he’s always kind of that creepy, funny dude. He’s always kind of creepy, he’s always kind of funny, he’s always in those creepy roles, he’s always in just this weird role, and then Jim Carrey is always in the role he’s very kind of a slapstick, silly, funny, not very serious role. And for type-casted actors, it’s very difficult for those actors to break out into another type of role.

So it’s very possible that you have type-casted your own dog. If you think about Judd, he used to have a nickname. I used to call him Fragile Little Flower. He was my fragile little flower, and he had a hard time in obedience and rally and agility. He’d be the dog stuck at the top of the A-frame and that kind of thing, just very nervous, very shut down. He is no longer that dog, so I had to divorce that typecast of his. Now he is “I am Judd, hear me roar.” He’s this really great search dog. So I had to break that typecast, because if you have a preconceived notion about your dog, you can train to that preconceived notion and you can actually impose restrictions on your dog. So think about whether or not you can break that typecast.

The other thing is have a framework. I suggest my pyramid, and I mentioned my pyramid before, earlier, where you have confidence, motivation, skills, and stamina. So always reevaluate your dog in every search session. Every time you do a search, is your dog confident, is your dog motivated, that sort of thing, especially confidence and motivation, what is the dog’s right arousal state. And sometimes recognize that your dog is going to have an off day. So reevaluate your dog with every search, but also, if you have an off day and all of a sudden your dog doesn’t seem very motivated, there could be something else that’s going on. Maybe say, “All right, today is not our day, and tomorrow’s a different day.”

Those are the things I would do to make sure that from a handling perspective you’re always reevaluating your dog and you’re always training the dog in front of you.

Melissa Breau: I’m not sure who said it, but somebody at one point mentioned if the dog doesn’t do something you’re pretty sure they’ve been trained to do, let it go. Happened once, don’t worry about it. If it happens two or three times, then it’s time to start thinking about how you can change your training.

Stacy Barnett: Absolutely. Absolutely. Whoever said that is a genius.

Melissa Breau: Are there any dead giveaways — or even something maybe a little more subtle — that indicate it’s time to go through that process in your own head and reevaluate the dog that you have and maybe your training plan a little bit?

Stacy Barnett: Absolutely, absolutely. Things like if your dog is bored, or if your dog is anxious, these are the things where perhaps you’re not evaluating your dog’s resilience level or your dog’s drive level well enough. Because depending upon the dog’s drive level and the dog’s resilience level, you could easily put your dog into an anxious situation. Or if the dog is bored, then you need to reevaluate and say maybe you’re making your searches a little bit too hard, or maybe you’re making them a little bit too easy. Maybe the challenge level isn’t right compared to the dog’s skill level.

The other thing is look for changes in the dog’s attitude, and whether or not they’re positive or negative, and then modify your approach based upon that, because you always want the dog to come thinking, This is the most fun part of my day, and if your dog isn’t having fun, you need to reevaluate what you’re doing, and maybe you need to reevaluate what your dog needs, so maybe your dog needs something different from you.

Melissa Breau: To round things out, I want to give you a little bit of time to talk about some of the exciting things on the calendar. I know you’ve got a webinar next week on Setting Meaningful Scent Puzzles for Your Dog. Can you share a little bit about it, what the premise is?

Stacy Barnett: Oh, absolutely. I can’t wait for that one. The keyword is meaningful. Because it’s not just about setting scent puzzles. We can all set scent puzzles. Scent puzzles are basically our way of creating problems for our dogs to solve so they can learn and build skills, and it’s all about skill building. However, it’s really, really important that we think about the word meaningful, and meaningful really refers to the resilience and the drive of the dog.

For instance, I’m not a big fan of … sometimes we see this in seminars and it actually bothers me, where a clinician may set out a really, really hard hide and have green dogs work the hard hide. What you end up with is a dog that might lose their confidence or lose their motivation.

So it’s really important that you set the right challenge and right challenge level for your dog, based upon the dog’s resilience and natural drive levels. That’s really what I want to talk about is based upon the dog’s natural drive levels and resilience, how do you know you’re setting a meaningful scent puzzle that’s going to build the skills at the same time as caring for the dog’s confidence and motivation. So it’s not just about building the skills, but rather it’s about how you build the skills so that you can preserve that.

Melissa Breau: What about for August, what classes do you have coming up? Anything you want to mention?

Stacy Barnett: Oh, I have three classes coming up. I’m teaching 101, so if you want to get into nosework and you haven’t started nosework, join me in NW101, that’s Introduction to Nosework. I’m also teaching NW230, which is polishing skills for NW2 and NW3. And the one that I want to mention today and talk a little bit about is Nosework Challenges. That’s NW240. That’s a series that I haven’t taught in a while, and I’m going to bring that series back. NW240 is Nosework Challenges. It’s a lot of fun. It’s going to be focused on skills, but at the same time what I’m going to do is I’m going to add in elements of this discussion around resilience and drive, so that we can make sure that we’re doing the puzzles in the right way.

Melissa Breau: One last question for you. It’s my new ending question for people when they come on. What’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Stacy Barnett: You have to actually train, which sounds kind of funny, but nosework can seem so natural, so it can be like, well, the dog is just scenting, they know how to find the hide, they have value for the odor, so they go out and they find the target odor.

Well, that sounds great and all, but you really have to train, because it’s very possible now, with nosework being a lot more popular than it used to be, now with the addition of AKC out there and some other venues, there’s a lot of trialing opportunities and it’s very possible to get into a situation where you’re trialing more than you’re training. If that’s the case, that’s going to have a negative impact on your trialing. You’re going to find that having that competitive mindset instead of the evaluative context is going to be a detriment to your training. So it’s really important to work your dog while you’re evaluative versus competitive, if that makes sense.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. That’s great. I like that a lot. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Stacy! I really appreciate it.

Stacy Barnett: I’ve had so much fun with this. This is a really great topic, a really, really great topic, and I really enjoyed this. Thank you so much for having me on.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely, and I hope some folks come and join you for the webinars.

Thank you to our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time we’ll be back with Deb Jones to talk about becoming a better teacher for the human half of the dog-handler team. If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jul 6, 2018


Donna has had a lifelong love affair with dogs and is fascinated with dog behavior. She has broad practical experience in the dog world: volunteering and working in kennels and shelters, dog sitting and walking, fostering rescue dogs, teaching behavior modification privately, and teaching reactive dog classes. She also has a background in zoology and teaching.

She is active locally as co-founder and professional member of Vancouver Island Animal Training Association (VIATA) and the founder and instructor for the Service Dog Training Institute.

Donna has competed in agility, flyball, and rally O and teaches people to train their own service dogs.

Next Episode: 

To be released 7/13/2018, featuring Stacy Barnett talking about tailoring your nosework training (or really any training) to your dog's unique strengths. 


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 Donna Hill.

Donna has had a lifelong love affair with dogs and is fascinated with dog behavior. She has broad practical experience in the dog world: volunteering and working in kennels and shelters, dog sitting and walking, fostering rescue dogs, teaching behavior modification privately, and teaching reactive dog classes. She also has a background in zoology and teaching. She stays current in dog behavior and learning by regularly attending seminars by top trainers and researchers.

However, she is probably best known for her YouTube videos. I’ll make sure to include a link to her YouTube channels in the show notes so listeners can check her out.

She is active locally as co-founder and professional member of Vancouver Island Animal Training Association (VIATA) and the founder and instructor for the Service Dog Training Institute.

With her own dogs and other pets, Donna loves to apply learning theory to teach a wide variety of sports, games, tricks, and other activities, such as cycling and service dog tasks. She loves using shaping to get new behaviors. Her teaching skill is keeping the big picture in mind while using creativity to define the small steps to help the learner succeed. That is to say, she is a splitter!

Donna has competed in agility, flyball, and rally O and teaches people to train their own service dogs.

Hi Donna, welcome to the podcast!

Donna Hill: Hi, how are you doing?

Melissa Breau: Good, good. I’m excited to chat today. To start us out, can you refresh everyone’s memories by sharing a bit about your dogs and what you’re working on with them?

Donna Hill: OK. Jessie is a little, sensitive, German Shepherd dog, possibly Min Pin mix, that’s 11 years old. She’s getting a little bit of gray on her, we used to call her milk chin, now it’s moving up on her little face. We got her from the city pound at 7 months, so we’ve had her quite a while. Lucy, my other dog, is a really drivey, 9-and-a-half-year-old Border Collie mix that we got at almost 2 years of age off of an unfenced acreage, which totally relates to the topic today.

Right now we’re experimenting with using a combination of shaping and mimicry for training, and one of my longtime behaviors I’ve been working on — and I haven’t had a whole lot of success, but I’m starting to now with that combination — is working on their rear paw nail file. So think about that. You’ve got the back feet of the dogs, and not only do they have to have back-end awareness, they have to have awareness of their nails, not just their pads, scraping the area. So it’s been a tough one. So for the last couple of nights … well, for the last while, we’ve been bringing out the scratchboard and trying something new, and it’s actually been a fun process, and we’re almost there.

Melissa Breau: That’s pretty neat.

Donna Hill: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Lucy’s consistently digging with her one back paw, and Jessie’s about halfway there. She’ll do, like, half a scratch. So she’s starting to get there.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. We didn’t get to chat about it much last time, but you’re very involved in the service dog world. I mentioned in the intro you run the Service Dog Training Institute. Can you share a little about that?

Donna Hill: Oh, absolutely. Service Dog Training Institute is an online community for people who are training their own service dogs. We offer self-paced online classes that of course they can check out 24-7, and we have web-based coaching sessions, so they can get on their webcam and chat face-to-face with me, and a few webinars, we haven’t done a whole lot yet, and we also have a new program called Fast Track Training, where people can get either daily help or twice-daily help for the period of a week.

Melissa Breau: Wow, that’s kind of awesome.

Donna Hill: Yeah. We also offer in-person training, and that’s fairly recent. I’ve actually added another trainer to help with those, and she also helps with the online Fast Track Training too. But the key thing people want to know is there’s tons of free resources on my website. I’ve got over 300 training videos, I’ve got a blog, I’ve got general information like laws and stuff about service dogs, so their best bet is to check out the website and read through, click on every link, and see what’s there, because there’s tons of information there.

Melissa Breau: I know you mentioned owner-trained service dogs. Are there advantages and disadvantages to owner-trained service dogs? Would you be able to share your perspective on that whole thing?

Donna Hill: Absolutely. There’s both advantages and disadvantages. I feel a person needs to carefully consider if training their own service dog is right for them. It’s a huge time and energy investment, and even though you are doing most of the training, it still costs money. You need to do group classes with other dogs, and every trainer, whether they’re a professional trainer or an owner who’s training, they still need to get some help at some point in time, whether it’s a fear period or they’ve run into a situation that sort of went south, those kinds of things. One of the biggest problems for a lot of people, they do it because they want to save money, but lack of funds are a super-common issue for owner-training teams.

The other thing that I find is tough for a lot of people is the lack of focus to take the time to do the job right and not rush the dog through the process. Because of course everyone wants their dog trained yesterday, but it can take up to two years or sometimes longer, depending on the dog that they’ve chosen.

The big advantage is that you can train the dog of your choosing, so if there’s a specific breed that you’re interested in that you think would work better for you and your lifestyle, then that’s a choice that you can make. You also get to learn the process of how to train, so when down the road your health changes and you need additional tasks, now you know how to do that, or at least you can figure it out or you know where to get the help to do it. Whereas if you get a program-trained dog, some of the programs actually tell you not to train your dog at all. They just want what the dog is already trained to do. So that can make a big difference. And of course one of the big bonuses of training your own dog is that the bond starts from the day you bring the dog or puppy home, so you don’t have to wait for two or more years for the program-trained dog.

Thinking on the disadvantages side, it takes a lot of time and energy and focus to do it, and not everyone’s got that ability. I always say, just like it takes a community to raise a child, so does it take a community to raise a service dog. And it’s so true because there’s all the pieces that need to come in. Your caregivers need to be on board with helping you in the way that you need help, you need to have trainers lined up for assistance, you need people to act as distractions, and you have to go get resources and all those kinds of things, so you have to know how to go out and get those resources.

Finding the right dog is another huge barrier for many people. They’ll go out, they’ll find a dog that they immediately fall in love with, and it’s not necessarily the best service dog candidate. So they have to be really careful. For that, I recommend bringing in someone who’s less emotionally related, someone like myself, who can help them assess and look at the weaknesses and strengths of that particular dog before they move forward.

The other disadvantage is that, owner-trained or not, sort of an educational component here, is that the handlers in general need to take on an education role at any time, because the public really doesn’t know much about service dogs. Many people want to interact with all dogs they see, including your service dog. Whether it’s in training, whether it’s professional, they don’t care. And of course you’re doing all of this while you’re living with a chronic medical condition that requires the need for the service dog, so that can certainly slow the process. It can throw some glitches into the gears.

So it’s a real balancing act, and you have to seriously look at is it a good thing for you, is it a bad thing for you, would a program-trained dog be better. Maybe there’s even other alternatives. Some people jump immediately to the dog aspect when sometimes there’s assistive technology that might be a better choice for them, and they don’t have the responsibility of maintaining the dog or keeping the dog.

It’s a big-picture thing, and you have to sit back and look at your lifestyle, look at your family, and see if that would all work out, and if you can in fact wait the approximately two years until the dog would be technically ready for public access and be able to go with you into places.

Melissa Breau: Right. You talked a little bit in there about evaluating your dog. What are some of the important traits that people need to objectively evaluate their dog for, if they are considering training it as a service animal?

Donna Hill: This applies to whether you already have a dog in your home or whether you’re going to look for a dog. The first and foremost is a known health history of both the dog and his parents, if you can at all possibly get that, and also looking at getting the pups and the parents and also your dog at 2 years of age medically tested for the common diseases that their breed suffers from. Oftentimes they’ll take it to the vet and the vet goes, “Yeah, looks fine.” Well, there’s a whole lot that the vets can’t see unless they take the proper tests and the proper scans. Yeah, the vet says it’s good, but two years down the road, three years down the road, hip dysplasia “appears” out of nowhere. Well, it was probably there, but they just didn’t look for it.

Hip dysplasia, epilepsy, cancer, heart conditions — those are common health reasons why a dog is pulled from service after it’s been trained. It’s heartbreaking. You spend two years, or whatever it is, to train this dog, and then you get maybe a year and a half, or if you’re lucky, two or three years, and then suddenly, “Oh, sorry, you can’t use that dog anymore because of health conditions.” So that’s one thing.

Another characteristic you look for is a calm temperament. Basically a dog that’s unflappable, meaning nothing fazes them. You really, really want a dog like that, because things like a sheet metal dropped in the next aisle, or a baby screams on the plane in the seat right next to you, your dog should be aware of it but not really worried about it. Both of those things a lot of dogs will react to, and it may take them a while to calm down from. So we want a dog that would notice that, certainly, and be aware that it’s happening, but go, “Oh yeah, no worries. I’ve seen it, done it, been there.”

We also know that there’s a number of things that affect temperament, so the more you know about the history of a dog, the better. For example, genetics has an important role to play in both fear and aggression, as well as a solid temperament too. You’ve got a solid-tempered mom, more likely you’re going to have a solid-tempered puppy. The mom’s stress level during carrying the puppies, how good a parent the dog mom is, and also the physical and emotional environment the puppy is raised in, as well as the physical and emotional environment the adolescent dog is raised in. So you’re seeing before the puppies are even born, and then you’re seeing while the puppies are with the litter, and then what happens to the puppies after they’ve left the litter. Those are three key components that can really affect the future of this dog.

There’s a couple of other things. People-oriented. We want a dog that has the ability to bond strongly with the handler and yet he’s friendly with strangers, and that can be a tough one if you’re looking at some of the protection breeds. Some of them are very protective by nature and their family is very highly regarded but strangers are not, so that’s a safety issue for emergency personnel and things like that, that are dealing with them in public.

You want an animal that’s good with other animals, so dogs, cats, birds, prey species, ideally ignoring them when in public. It makes your life a whole lot easier if you don’t have a dog with a really high prey drive, like Lucy does. Trust me — been there, done that, for a lot of different things, so I have to be on guard, and as a service dog you don’t want to have to be on guard to protect other people or other animals from your dog, and likewise from your dog doing damage to someone else’s animal. That can be a real stressor in itself, so that’s one of the key things you look for as well.

The sensitivity level’s a real interesting thing. You want a dog that has a sensitivity level appropriate for the person that they’re helping. We want them to be sensitive enough that they notice changes in their handler, but not so sensitive that the dog mirrors the emotions of the handler, like anxiety. This is a common issue that I find with people with PTSD and anxiety is that they tend to pick dogs that are very sensitive, and then they end up with an emotional mess that they can’t use as a service dog, so that’s a toughie.

A dog that’s food-motivated/willing to learn, those come together, it’s much easier to teach complex behaviors, we know, to a dog that’s food-motivated, of course using clicker training, marker-based training, whatever you want to call it.

And medium to low need for exercise. That’s assuming this fits the lifestyle of the handler. The vast majority of people out there really don’t want to take the time and energy, or they don’t have the energy, to take a really high-exercise-need dog out for an hour or two a day for exercise, so you really want to make sure that that’s going to meet your needs. Unless you want a dog for competition, and you want an active dog if you’re out and about and your disability doesn’t stop you from hiking two hours a day or whatever it is, then that would be fine, as long as the dog can learn to calm down in public.

The last one I’m going to leave you with is a quiet dog. If a dog barks or causes a disturbance in public, a team can be asked to leave. So you want to make sure you’re not choosing a breed that tends to be on the barky side, because then you’re fighting a losing battle because the dog is going to really want to bark, and it’s harder to inhibit something that’s a genetic trait, once it’s brought out.

One of the other things that I do want to mention is that the breed of dog can be important because public perception plays a huge role in how some service dogs are accepted. For example, any dog that’s not a typical service dog breed tends to draw more attention to the team. So if you’re out and about in public and somebody keeps approaching you, “Oh, you have such a wonderful,” “Oh, isn’t that unusual,” and you get stopped every five seconds just because you have this stunning Dalmation, or something that causes people to notice more than usual, that can play a role as well.

Tiny breeds is another example. They may be commonly dismissed as fakes. Or if you’ve got a protection-breed dog, people are fearful and they’ll give you wider birth. So those kinds of things are important when you’re choosing the breed of the dog as well, or a breed mix. What the dog looks like has an important impact on the public.

Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting. I think a lot of people probably don’t think about that piece of it. They think about suitability, maybe, for the tasks and don’t always think that extra step to do they really want to deal with the public’s reaction to that specific dog or that specific breed. So I think that’s a great thing to bring up.

Donna Hill: And there is a lot of prejudice as well around certain breeds. There’s a lot of grey lines with service dogs on when you need permission to get to bring your dog to work, for example. If an employer decides that they don’t like the look of your dog, or they feel that your dog is an aggressive dog or aggressive breed, they can do a lot of things to make sure that your dog can’t come to work with you. They can put a lot of barriers in place. It just happens, unfortunately.

People are really creative when they don’t want something to happen. I’ve had that happen with kids taking dogs to school, I’ve seen that happen at a government level, where a person was taking a service dog to their government agency and they end up getting isolated just because of the breed of dog, but the minute that they get a more accepted breed, suddenly they’re allowed access everywhere. It can make a huge, huge difference, and so I always recommend to people: think really hard about the breed and the look of your dog. You know your dog is a soft mushy, but people look and they make snap judgments, and those judgments can last for a long time.

Melissa Breau: Moving from traits or temperaments and those kinds of things to the core skills: What core skills do service animals need that owner handlers or anybody training a service dog will need to train, in addition to those special behaviors that are medically necessary for whatever their condition may be?

Donna Hill: The two most common I tell everybody is loose-leash walking and settle. That’s because service dogs spend most of their time in “hurry up and wait” mode. It is, seriously. So loose-leash walking gets them from Point A to Point B, and it’s a critical skill so the handler doesn’t have to focus on them all the time as they’re loose-leash walking from Point A to Point B. It’s not a formal competition heel, it’s a loose-leash walking. They can walk within 18 inches to 2 feet of the handler, the leash is at a loopy, U-shaped kind of thing, and the dog can be ahead or behind or beside, it doesn’t really matter.

A lot of people mistake that and think, Oh, the dog has to have this formal competition heel. Well, we at FDSA know that dogs can only maintain that focused heel for a very short period of time. It takes a lot of concentration to keep that desired precision. So a loose-leash walk is acceptable. We don’t have to ask for 95 percent of precision all the time. It can be 80 percent, which is more reasonable to expect a dog to stay within a zone within the handler. It’s really the distractions that are the tough thing, you know, the dog’s not going to the end of the leash to pull to go see another dog, for example. It’s ignoring that dog and moving on. With loose-leash walking that’s kind of the focus. It’s learning to ignore distractions.

Now, the settle or relax, which is the other main skill, it’s not the same as the sphinx-down that’s also used in competition. It is a settle, it’s a relax, let the dog chill out. As long as they’re staying on a single spot, maybe it’s a mat or maybe a defined space under your table, the dog needs to be able to get up and move and turn around, if you’re going to be sitting there for an hour and a half to two hours. It’s not fair to have the dog hold that sphinx-down. We want to give them a bit of latitude that, yeah, it’s OK for you to get up and move around. As long as you’re right here close to me and you’re not getting up and walking away, that’s close enough.

The other key thing is that a service dog needs to learn to assess the situation, because we don’t want, as handlers, you don’t want to have to give your dog a cue for every single behavior. The dog starts to learn to recognize, Oh, in this situation I know we’re going to go sit, I’m going to go lay under the table, OK, no biggie. They start using the environment as the cue for what behavior’s expected, so we end up getting a lot of default behaviors. Sits and downs, leave its, and eye contact are the important ones in general. If the dog’s uncertain what to do, what does he do? Look back up at his handler and say, “Hey, what do you want me to do?” They look back and they just might point to the ground. Guess what. That means settle. So it keeps it simple, and the communication’s really clear, and the dog’s always looking to the person for guidance.

Melissa Breau: Those are all also skills that even if we only have a pet dog, they would be fantastic skills to have well taught for a good pet dog. They’re not necessarily unusual skills to try and teach, but it’s really important, if you’re training a service dog, that they’re taught to a high fluency.

Donna Hill: Absolutely. And it is a fluency difference between a well-trained pet dog and a service dog.

Melissa Breau: So the other topic I was hoping to chat about today for a bit is recalls, since you have a class on it coming up. I think recalls are often touted as perhaps the most important behavior we can teach our dogs. First, do you agree? And second, why are they an important skill?

Donna Hill: That’s a great question. I’m not sure if I agree or disagree. I think it depends on the living situation the dog is in, and how often she or he finds herself off leash. For example, a recall for a service dog is actually pretty low on the importance scale, since in public the dog is rarely if ever off leash, so why would you need a recall if the dog is not off leash. If they are off leash, usually it’s only to perform a trained task, and when dogs get to that level, they’re so focused on the task that a recall is not important, or the recall may be part of the whole behavior, like in a retrieve. You’ve sent your dog off to get something, he’s got to come back to bring it to you, right? So if it’s trained really well, there’s your recall right there. Or if they’re trained to go get somebody, they go get the person and they bring the person back, so there’s sort of a recall in there as well.

For pet or sport dogs, absolutely a recall can be critical, especially if the dog is given a lot of freedom on a regular basis. So you want to know that your dog is going to reliably respond when you call. If she does respond, there’s a potential for so much more freedom for the dog, for one thing, and also if the dog is going to be in environments like agility trials, you don’t want the dog taking off after distractions, or if he happens to, then you know that he’s going to come running back to you when once you realize that he’s taken off, you give the cue and he comes bolting back to you. So you really need that. But the more freedom you give them, the more freedom that they can have as well, so it’s a hand-in-hand kind of thing.

There’s also alternative behaviors that can be taught that might be more appropriate in some situations as well than a recall, so something like a sit or a down at a distance. Your dog’s taken off across the street after a rabbit, and when he finally comes back, you want him to sit on the other side of the street because there’s a car coming. You don’t want him to come dashing across in front of the car. So if you can sit or down your dog at a distance, in that situation that would actually be better than a recall. So I guess my answer is, it depends. Which is kind of funny coming from someone who’s training a recall class.

Melissa Breau: Hey, it’s honest! I think that obviously at FDSA we see lots of sports dog handlers specifically, so in competition obedience they have a formal recall with a front and all that. For those who compete, how would you handle that in training that recall?

Donna Hill: Distance is a real distinction between a competition recall and a real-life recall. For most competitions there is a limited, finite distance within the ring that the dog will be doing the recall, and there is relatively few distractions in that ring. I know some would beg to differ because there’s some nightmaresituations been seen, and I’ve been in the ring and seen that as well.

But in real life, when your dog is at even a greater distance that you can … you may or may not be able to control, depending on the dog. Lucy is another classic example. She will happily run 500 yards away and not think twice about it, whereas Jessie stays much closer, so Lucy’s the one that I have to keep an eye on, and I have to make sure I interrupt her running that far away, because at that distance I don’t have as much control as I do if she’s, say, 100 yards away.

The distance can make or break a dog’s recall success. If a cyclist rides between you and your dog at a junction, or a rabbit pops up and runs across the trail, that definitely can make a difference. In real life, distractions happen between you and the dog, not necessarily around the outside of between you and the dog, so while a recall is a recall, the dogs do distinguish between different working environments.

Because the competition ring tends to be pretty consistent-looking, there’s rings around, or there’s fences around the outside, and there’s certain equipment that are in, the dogs get to know, Oh, OK, I know which kind of recall you want, so they quickly start learning, OK, it’s that form of recall that you want me to run to you, and stop, sit in front of you, and wait for a release to go back to heel, and then the final release at the end of the exercise. So they definitely know the difference between an informal recall that you would do out in the field versus a formal recall that you do in the ring, for sure.

And honestly, most people are happy enough, in a real-life recall, just to be able to have their dog close enough to grab the harness and then otherwise tell the dog what to do. So you don’t have that whole longer chain.

Melissa Breau: For somebody that is working on their recall, and they work on that real-life situation, would you expect to see some carryover that might strengthen their more formal performance?

Donna Hill: For sure. The distraction levels are key in any environment that you’re training. Doesn’t matter what it is that you’re doing, whether it’s a recall, teaching your dog to ignore distractions is the absolutely important thing.

Because any chain of behaviors — and of course a recall is a chain of behaviors — can be broken into smaller bits, each part of the chain can be isolated, so that’s the approach that I take in my recall class. If your dog returns to you slowly, you can work on speeding up just that part of the chain. Or maybe the missing piece is the dog doesn’t reorient to you in the face of distraction, You can work on just that too with little games and using controlled distractions. Once you have those improved, then you can add the pieces back together for either the competition recall or the real-life one. But it definitely would benefit both types of recall.

Melissa Breau: I know you get pretty into the science of training, and I’ve heard a lot of talk about what they’re calling a “classically conditioned” recall. That’s the phrase that’s recurring all over. Can you explain it for us?

Donna Hill: I’ll try. A classically conditioned recall is when the dog reacts to a cue without thinking. Classical conditioning: Think of a cat that comes to the kitchen when he hears the can opener. That’s a classically conditioned behavior. The cat’s not thinking about hearing the can opener. He just hears it and he runs for it because he knows it means food. Or maybe the dog that hears the scrape of the spoon on the bottom of the bowl and he just suddenly appears at your feet, even though he’s not supposed to be begging. That’s a classically conditioned reaction. He hears the sound and it triggers a behavior. He’s not even thinking about it.

I remember years ago with a previous dog, and this was long before I knew much about training dogs, certainly not as much as I know today, he was walking ahead of me on the trail, and out of the blue, for some reason, I don’t even remember why, I decided to call out to him and say “sit.” He was probably about 50 feet in front of me, if that. He didn’t go very far and I told him to sit. As soon as I did, his bum plunked down and he looked around like he was startled, going, Hey, who did that? Just bizarre. He had this startled look on his face. That would be an example of a classically conditioned sit. I must have been practicing in that time period so much that it was “sit,” bum go down, “sit,” bum go down. He wasn’t even thinking about it. Just “sit,” bum go down. So even he was surprised.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.

Donna Hill: I was pretty thrilled. And of course when I got these two dogs, I thought, OK, that’s my goal. I have to be able to teach these two dogs. Of course, now I know how to do it much, much better, and much more effectively, and it comes much faster, but I’m still thrilled when it happens, anyway.

We want the recall to happen that way ultimately. We want the dog not to think. We just want him to automatically, when he hears the cue or sees the hand signal, because it could be both, it could be a hand signal, it could be a verbal sound that the dog hears.

For dogs who are in a really, really high state of arousal and who haven’t had a chance to practice chasing or catching prey, that can be a really hard level of training to get to. The level of adrenalin overrides everything else and they go into that tunnel-vision mode where they literally go deaf and they can’t see anything other than a really narrow vision right in front of them.

But if we stick to the training, and we keep doing it and doing it, and vary how we are doing it, and add different distractions, and work the dog around higher and higher-level distractions, we can actually increase the threshold so that while they still are under the effects of adrenalin, they can still function at higher arousal levels, so that tunnel vision will be further open, perhaps like the tunnel that they see will be a bigger tunnel. Maybe they can actually still hear you, rather than not being able to hear you. So that’s a big part of it is just learning to increase that arousal level, but lowering or, I guess, increasing the threshold so that the dog can still function at that higher arousal level, I guess would be a better way of putting it.

I’ve got a funny little story about Jessie, my current little dog here. She has a funny combination of an operant and a classical conditioned recall. She actually does both, and one of them is very conscious. She actually sets me up for operant recalls.

She’s a dog that will stay quite close. She’s in general … until we got Lucy, she was quite fearful of being out in the bush or out in the woods by herself with us. She’s very much a city dog and very comfortable in the city. She actually learned … I taught her by starting the capturing the eye contact, which is one of the things we do in class. She would run ahead, and she stops and she’s facing away, and you know she’s waiting for something just by her body position and posture. She’s waiting for something. Sure enough, I give the cue, so that’s what she’s waiting for, and as soon as she hears it, she takes off like a rocket towards me. She does this turn on a dime and bolts right back to me. So she’s set me up for a recall.

She does this a lot, and I thought, You know, this is good. For a dog that’s so fearful and she couldn’t respond because her level of fear was so high, I’m just thrilled that she would do that and she’s actually setting me up. Finally, in the last I would say year or so, we’ve finally done enough of the operant recalls that it has become classically conditioned. I’ve actually been able to call her off chasing a deer in a classical conditioned response. So I’m pretty happy with that.

Melissa Breau: That’s excellent. That’s everybody’s goal, to be able to have their dog in the middle of a chase, and call and have the dog say, “OK, I’d prefer to come back to you.”

Donna Hill: It wasn’t even a preference. It was just a reaction. It was just a response. She heard that and she just turned on that dime, and it’s because we’ve practiced and practiced. I kind of stacked my helping, because she likes high-pitched sounds, she’s very much into squeaky toys, she likes movement, so I stack my success by throwing all of those things together, and I guess it was enough that she was not thinking anymore. It was like, “Yay, Mom’s calling me. Woo hoo!” It becomes a classically conditioned response rather than a thinking or operant response.

The tough thing, though, is, is it a reliable … could I repeat that? I honestly can’t say, because we don’t have enough situations where we encounter deer on a regular basis to purposely test that out. I do know that I can now call her off mice, I can call her off squirrels, and I can call her off grouse. Those are much more controllable situations, and we do run into those a lot more often on our walks on the logging routes. So far, both dogs have stopped when any of those situations arrive, and, lucky for me, they’ve also stopped when we see bears, and I can cue the recall after they stop. So, so far, cross our fingers, no bear chasing. I don’t know whether they stop and they go, “Oh, that’s a big black animal that I’m not sure whether I want to interact with or not, oh, Mom’s calling, OK, the good distraction.”

Melissa Breau: Right, right, definitely don’t want the dogs taking off after the bear.

Donna Hill: So I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily classical. I would say it’s probably more operant, and they’re actually thinking about it and going, “OK, this is the better choice.” But I’m still happy with that too. I don’t want them bringing a bear back to us.

Melissa Breau: Right, right. Often, people start working a recall, they do it at home, they do it in class, and then they just expect it to work everywhere. Most of our listeners probably get that that’s unrealistic, especially if you’re a sports trainer, you know that there’s a little bit more involved to making any cue become that reliable. I think even pretty sophisticated handlers may struggle to build up distractions in a systematic way when it comes to recalls. How DO you simulate things like motion from prey animals, or those reallllllly good smells that a dog just can’t seem to come away from, when you’re training?

Donna Hill: You have to get really creative and you use what you have in your environment. You have to think about what triggers your dog. Is it the scent? Is it the sound? Is it motion? How can you replicate those? Maybe even not to the degree that happens in real life, but certainly at a lower level that you can start building up to that in real life. I start thinking along things like, OK, for scents, I think about how can I get a sample of something similar that my dog might be really interested in, or can I recreate it in a controlled setting with a helper or a decoy animal or a toy that moves.

Those are actually the kinds of secrets we’ll be exploring in Part 2 of The Recall, but I’ll give you an example just to get your juices going. Start where your dog is at. If your dog can’t turn away from rabbit poop, for example, and I know both of my dogs, when we started, rabbit poop was pretty high on their interest list because it smells like rabbits, it’s something that they can eat, so it’s self-reinforcing, So what I did was I went and I found some fresh stuff somewhere in the city. I literally went hunting, we collected some, I wore rubber gloves, I scooped it up, I put it in a container, and I used that sample to train a “leave it” at home to the point of a default “leave it.” They smelled the rabbit poop, Oh, look at Mom, what’s going on here.

So I had a nice little default behavior, and that’s the starting point to get your dogs. If they learn that they can call off of it, that’s where you need to start from. And of course this is not asking for any distance. This is literally the treat … the treat! … OK, rabbit raisins were in a container on the ground right in front of me and right in front of the dogs, so all the dogs literally had to do was look at it and look back at me. I’m not asking for any distance. It’s just “Look at me after you sniff the rabbit poop.”

That’s the kind of small detail where we start, and then we can add motion, maybe we get the dog to have to make the choice to have to turn around back to us, then the dog has to turn around and take two steps to us, and we slowly build it back up until we actually have a recall where the dog might be walking around the yard, and unbeknownst to him, I’ve planted my sample in the yard earlier, and he comes across it, and as soon as he smells it, he does a quick head check-in, and the check-ins as well are another piece, and then I happen to see that and I give my recall and the dog comes flying out. It’s about focusing again on the one piece of the chain at a time and build them up.

Yeah, and I have to admit some of us are that dedicated to our dogs to go and search out things like rabbit poop and bring it home.

Melissa Breau: That’s funny. I like that you called it rabbit raisins.

Donna Hill: That’s more “call-it-able.” So don’t worry, but for those of you listeners, the other ideas in class are not as gross as that.

Melissa Breau: It’s just a good example! I was looking over your syllabus for the class for August, and I noticed you had acclimating on your list of skills for a recall, and I guess it caught me by surprise. Can you explain how that fits into the picture of a recall?

Donna Hill: Yeah, absolutely. Acclimation is the process a dog goes through to become comfortable with the environment. You give them a chance to go into the environment, and you anchor yourself and they have 6 feet of leash, so technically they can probably move about a 14-foot circle diameter and check out that environment.

Sometimes we might want to acclimate them by letting them lead us around a certain space, we usually define that space. But what we find is once they’ve acclimated to that space, then they can focus on what we’re asking them to do. By giving them time to acclimate when they first arrive at a location, we’re giving them a chance to satisfy their natural curiosity that might otherwise distract them from being able to pay attention to us. That’s pretty standard what we do for sport dogs and for service dogs and all that kind of thing.

What I find is that the more we allow them to acclimate in each new location, the more they come to realize that the environment is actually less interesting than interactions with us. So by giving them the chance to go check it out, they go, “OK, I checked everything out,” they look back at us and go, “What now, Mom?” They learn that it always pays for them to orient to us, whether or not we ask for it, or whether they just give it as a default behavior. That’s one piece of it. So that orientation is something we work on. We can’t get the orientation until the dog is acclimated. That’s the first step again.

As well, giving them time to acclimate allows us to identify what they find interesting, and we can use those interesting things to our collection of reinforcers. So by watching our dog sniff a rabbit trail or look up a tree at a squirrel — those are obvious ones — we can actually go, “Ah, that’s something that I can use as a reinforcer because that’s something that I can control.” So we might send them over to sniff a very interesting mole hole that they saw earlier as part of the recall, or maybe they can go greet the person that’s standing over there, if they’re a really people-oriented dog. We can give them more meaningful reinforcers that they really want, rather than what we think they want, and they start to see us as a gateway to the reinforcers. That’s part of the process of building the bond that’s strong enough to be able to call them away from things like deer.

Melissa Breau: You have the class broken into two parts right now, Part 1 and Part 2. You mentioned earlier that some things are in Part 2 that aren’t in Part 1. Can you talk a little bit about how you’ve broken that down?

Donna Hill: Part 1 focuses on the basic recall with low to medium distractions in the form of games. So here’s the basic structure of the recall, let’s add some distractions in, and that is a really important piece, because if your dog doesn’t have that fundamental foundation, it certainly isn’t going to be able to do a recall off of higher-level distractions. Part 2 ups the ante to adding a higher-level distraction in controlled settings so that the dog learns, Yes, in fact I can call away from those exciting things.

I previously offered it as a single class, but it was too overwhelming for me, and I think for some of the students, because there’s just so much involved in those two levels. So I split them into the two parts to make it easier to really focus on the pieces that are needed.

Melissa Breau: I know some of the classes have a lot of material and there’s no way you’re going to get through this in six weeks. It makes it a little bit more real time, for lack of a better phrase, so people can work through the class as you’re releasing stuff. Is that the idea?

Donna Hill: Absolutely. The first time I ran it, it just felt too rushed, and while it was fine in that it offered some support for people who were not as far along in the recall, those who already had it were able to zoom ahead. But then it became really confusing to try and watch both ends of the scale, so this just simplifies it that we’ve got to focus, it’s on the basic recall, and then we’re going to add the higher-level distractions in Part 2.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to ask if you’d be willing to share a game that listeners might be able to play to work on their recall, to give them a taste of the things you’ll be doing in the class.

Donna Hill: OK. One of my favorite ones that has come over time is I have a game that’s a building speed game, because of course we want the dog not only to come to us, we want the dog to come to us really fast.

I’ve seen this develop with my girl Lucy, the Border Collie mix, and it’s so awesome to be able to see her just run as hard as she possibly can to come back to me. It’s awesome to see that eagerness and that enthusiasm. There’s literally dust flying up behind her when she comes back to me. I tried to get it on videotape last night, and I’m going to try and get it before the class so I can show a clip of it. I might even use it as part of the promo for the class. It’s just hilarious, because it’s been so dry, and the road, we’re on one of these logging roads, and it’s a really new, dusty road, so she’s running. literally there’s these plumes of dust every time she hits the ground that pop up. It’s heart-rendering, I guess, to see your dog do that.

Anyway, so this game we play between two people and we start close up, and once we start adding distance, we can actually start capturing speed because we can select only the fastest responses we’re getting from the dogs. If the dog sort of meanders towards us, OK, not a big deal. We’re not actually recalling, so we don’t have to click and treat, but as we’re playing this back and forth game it sort of turns into intermittent reinforcement so that we can choose the faster responses get the click and the treat, and so what the dog quickly does is starts to offer us faster and faster recalls, so it’s really cool.

In combination with where we happen to live, there’s a lot of hiking trails/biking trails. What I like is finding a narrow trail that looks like a roller coaster. They go up and down, they go side to side, and sometimes you can even find ones that zigzag back and forth down the side of a hill. Once the dog’s built up some good speed for recalls, you can have a person at the top and a person at the bottom, and even going up the hill, which by the way is a really good cardio for your dogs, they build up some pretty good speed. You watch them and they do look like a cart from a roller coaster going back and forth, going up and down, and you can just watch their bodies as they’re flying towards you. It’s really cool to watch. That’s my favorite thing. And they’re learning foot placement and they’re weight-shifting to allow them to careen off the trail banks. You can see they’re having fun with it. I’m having fun with it. I’m not sure if it would be considered agility or parkour, but you’re using the skills of both.

Melissa Breau: Right, right, and everybody’s having a good time and you’re working on those skills. That’s the important part.

Donna Hill: That’s what it’s all about.

Melissa Breau: So one last question and it’s on a different topic because I’ve taken to asking it at the end of all my interviews for guests that have already been on once and done the traditional three questions already and that way I don’t have to repeat them. So the new question is, what is a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Donna Hill: OK. But it’s not about the dogs. It’s about the people. I’ll give you an example. I recently had a client make the realization that her service dog is not a robot. She had come to work with us because her dog was fearful working in public. She had told us, “My dog is fearful about working with the public. She’s scared of people. She’s even scared of strangers coming in our own home.”

What we had seen was a dog that had been shut down and was robotically walking through life when working, and this lady didn’t see that. That’s what she had been told that the dog should be working like. She sort of felt something was off, but she wasn’t sure, and she’d never had a service dog before, so she just trusted what she had been told.

After working with her for about four weeks, we were so thrilled when she came to us and she said, “Oh my god, she doesn’t have to be a robot.” That’s literally the words that she used. That’s why I used those words. She has changed what she does significantly. We’ve helped her learn to reinforce the dog when the dog is doing what she wants her to do, help build confidence in the dog, and it’s going to be a long haul because this dog has a long history of being like this, but the handler now has joy in interacting with her dog, and the dog now has joy at interacting with her human, and that’s not what we were seeing when we first had her come to the classes. So we were both giving them their life back, basically.

Melissa Breau: How awesome is that. That’s got to feel so good.

Donna Hill: Yeah. So if we can teach the people that dogs have needs and emotions just like we do, and those needs have to be met for the dog to be comfortable, I think that we go a long way to strengthening the bond and improving the life of both the people and the dogs.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Donna! This has been great.

Donna Hill: You’re very welcome. You really got me thinking.

Melissa Breau: That’s a good thing, I think.

Donna Hill: Absolutely. Don’t forget to check out the Build A Bond recall class that’s coming up.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week with Stacy Barnett to talk about tailoring your nosework training to your specific dog’s strengths and weaknesses. 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.


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jun 29, 2018


Julie Symons is owner and head dog trainer at Savvy Dog Sports and she joined to break down what it's like to compete in a nose work trial, plus we talk introducing handler scent to your nose work dog.

Next Episode: 

To be released 7/06/2018, featuring Donna Hill, talking about owner-handler trained service dogs and what it takes to get a fantastic recall.


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

Today we have Julie Symons, owner and head dog trainer at Savvy Dog Sports, to talk about scentwork.

Welcome back to the podcast Julie!

Julie Symons: Hi Melissa. It’s great to be here again.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat. Just to refresh everyone’s memories, can you share a little bit about who you are and the dogs that you share your life with?

Julie Symons: I’ve been training since the early to mid-1990s. Started out, I think, obedience, like most people probably did, and then agility came on the scene, and then I got my first purebred dog. What I was really drawn to from the very beginning was the versatile sports that I got into with my dog and how much I enjoyed the cross-training. I’ve stayed with the Belgian breed so far and really enjoyed that journey, and starting to look at some other breeds as well. I also incorporated my Savvy Dog Sports training, I have my own training center now, and I just very recently, haven’t really gone public with it, gave my notice at my corporate day job that I’ve been at for 30 years, and my last day is July 6, so that’s pretty exciting for me. A lot of change going on.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. Congrats. That’s so exciting.

Julie Symons: My two dogs that I have, Savvy, who I can’t believe is 10-and-a-half. She’s done everything I wanted her to do. She is a breed champion, she has her MACH 2, she has her TDX, she has her UD, and she has her Elite 1 nosework trial. Right there it shows my love of versatility, and how well dogs enjoy and that we can train across different sports. Obviously all this occurred over her lifespan up to now. I didn’t do it all in one year, obviously. But we’re focusing on nosework now and enjoying trialing her at the Elite level, and just want to see how far I can go with that before she’s just not able to trial.

And then I have my baby dog, who’s not really a baby anymore, Drac, who’s a Belgian Malinois. I got him because I thought having two different genders would work out better in the household, and it really does. They get along great. He’s 2-and-a-half, and he’s out of most of his hormonal peak. He was a late bloomer, I think, and I think with boy dogs they mature a little slower. I’m really, really seeing the days of adolescence in our past, and really see the potential in how I can get a little bit more … not that I wasn’t serious, but more serious and formal with his training coming up, so I’m really excited about that. We trialed in nosework and confirmation so far with him.

Melissa Breau: Awesome, and that’s reassuring to hear, considering I have a year-and-change puppy, a boy, still definitely maturing.

Julie Symons: I wrote a blog about that, I believe, and I saw somebody recently asking and I haven’t had time to reply, but I am experiencing the first time for myself having an intact male. The last year I’ve been busy with other stuff, I’m still training him, but I didn’t put any pressure on him or myself, and he’s really come along. For example, in agility classes I couldn’t get his nose off the ground. Now he stays in the whole class without sniffing the ground. It just was waiting that out and working with him, letting him acclimate, and not putting the pressure on either one of us.

Melissa Breau: So, I wanted to talk about trialing in nosework. I know you have this webinar coming up on achieving nosework trial day success, so I was hoping you might start us out by walking us through what a nosework trial looks like. I know it’s super-different than some of the other sports that are out there. What that looks like, how it works, and when everything goes well.

Julie Symons: Absolutely. One thing that’s interesting about it, at least in the Nosework Association, which is the main venue that most of us got involved with, is you get maybe 30 to 40 dogs, total, at a trial, and you are staying in your parking lot with the dogs inside because they usually are in locations where it’s not like a training building and you can’t crate anywhere else. So you have to get used to working out of the car, and your dog does have to get used to hanging out in the car all day long. You have to deal with, handle the different temperatures and weather concerns you may have, and when you get there, especially with the Nosework Association, they don’t want a lot of dogs hanging out and wandering around because, as many people know who do nosework, a lot of it is geared toward supportive reactive dogs.

In the AKC venue it’s just like a regular AKC trial, but most people are still very courteous of that. A little bit different situation in their locations, but for the most part you’re at a school or maybe a Boys Club of America or something that you’re just going to be waiting outside with your dog.

They have a running order, and there’s a briefing, so you meet with maybe the host, the judges, and they talk about some of the logistics and the situations of how the day is going to run. They tell you if there are back-to-back searches, are you going to run and then go back to your car, and then they take you on a walkthrough. So you go on a walkthrough — most trials you get a walkthrough, some of them you don’t, depending on the level — you get a look at your search areas, and then you come back and ask questions about the areas, if you have them. And then the judge or the certifying official, depending on what venue, will go over how many hides you have, if it’s a level of known hides, and your time limit that you have to search.

Except for AKC, where they do a lot of spectators if there’s room, you are generally in there searching, nobody else can watch. There’s a few people in the room that are timing and judging and videoing and things like that. It can be a very low-key situation. For some dogs it can be a little worrisome, when you go into this empty room with one or two people can actually be more concerning for a dog, versus having people around all the time, and then you’re just working in that environment.

Those are some of the “how a typical day goes,” and you end up sitting outside your car and you meet your parking lot neighbors, because you usually don’t know a lot of people, especially if you go out of town. Of course I know a lot more, and everybody does as you go to more and more trials, but it’s not like you go with your friend who also entered, because the odds of two people getting in, most of it’s a lottery system, is not likely, so you’re usually traveling by yourself and meeting new people. It’s a good question you asked, because it is a very different trial day compared to other sports.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned in there how hard it is to get into trials, and looking through some of the webinar description and some other stuff, it seems like maybe that leads people to sign up for a chance to compete even if they’re not sure they’re really entirely ready. How can a handler ensure their team is truly ready to trial? What advice do you have there?

Julie Symons: I would say luckily at least I know my students are prepared to enter. I’m always happy when some of them are even unsure if they’re ready, and I assure them that they are in most cases. They have the skills, they may be concerned about the level of difficulty or the differences, and I’m also proud of some of my students who realized, I shouldn’t move up in AKC, because you can get your novice title on the weekend and move up in the Sunday afternoon trial, but you might not have taught multiple hides or the second odor. So I really admire my students who realize, Why would I move up? I’m just going to run bumper legs and go home early because I don’t have those skills. Why would I put my dog in there?

But I do see the occasional teams, now that I can spectate in AKC, I hate to see the teams that aren’t prepared, either the handlers or the dogs, and I’m hoping it’s less of an issue. I think more of it is, as you said, getting into trials is challenging, so when you can only get into maybe two trials a year — and that’s changing, so I don’t want to scare people off with that type of cadence — but you can’t make the same mistakes in those two trials a year that you have.

Back to being ready for trialing, if you have a good foundation and you know the skills that are required at that level, I would say that you’re ready to enter. We all run into something that we haven’t expected, or just not had a good trial day, but it’s mostly just know what’s expected and make sure you have trialed in those novel situations that can prepare you, because all of the trial situations you’re going to be in are novel and new, with new people around.

Melissa Breau: I know you’ve also talked about the importance of taking inventory of training gaps and handling mistakes. How can a team do that before the actual trial, especially if, like you said, there’s maybe two trials a year that they’re going to compete in?

Julie Symons: You definitely see your training gaps. They usually surface when you’re trialing, because that’s when we’re nervous and so we’re acting a little different, or the place is novel and we just aren’t our normal selves. That’s something that we do have to, as best we can, combat that, like, develop good mental strategies and just realize that everybody’s nervous. If you go there with the idea of, depending on what your goals are, if you just go there and do your thing and not worry about passing or whatever, you actually usually do pass when you take that pressure off of yourself.

When you do trial and some of these training gaps surface, you know that by purchasing the trial video. So how you can inventory your gaps is either videoing your blind training searches, if you’re in classes or whatever, or definitely your trial video. What you can do, and this is what we did in my Shoulda Woulda class, is we had people review some trial videos that didn’t go as well. A trial I would say doesn’t go as well is if you don’t find all the hides, or if you get a no from the judge — you called an alert and the judge said no. And that’s the worst thing to hear at a nosework trial.

So you watch those videos of those experiences, and you take inventory. You say, “Oh, I was crowding my dog, I talked my dog into a hide,” or “You know, I never taught my dog to search over 4 feet, and that’s why that’s a gap I have.” By watching your trial video is where you’re going to really see those gaps, and then you literally want to write them out, list them out.

One of the neat things about that class that I didn’t really anticipate was it kind of … not forced people, but it had them go back and kind of organize their trial videos. They went back and re-watched them with a fresh set of eyes, and they said, “Wow, I sometimes don’t watch them a second time,” or “I haven’t watched all these.” It was eye-opening to them to go back and not just watch them to watch them, but to watch them with a purpose of saying, “What didn’t go well here?”

We also of course in the class go over what goes well, because we want to stay positive and be aware of how well we’re doing. But since we’re focusing on trialing better, you have to know what didn’t work when you trialed and how to not do that mistake again when you go to your next trial that you got into.

I just was reading something on Facebook that somebody said. We were like, “We always remember that one mess-up that we had, and we can’t let go of it.” And somebody said, “You know, I drove eight hours, I didn’t sleep the night before, I was busy at work, the first one in my day I just blurred an alert, and all that stress and tiredness and everything, it was over.” So we need to be in a better state, go there with the right, I guess, tools and strategies to start off the trial well.

Sometimes it’s that first search that is the most stressful, definitely, and maybe we’re going to make some mistakes. So if we just can hold it together and learn to be in that moment and having a plan, and that’s what we did in the class is people had trials coming up, it was really cool, and we said, “What are your goals? What are your goals for your next trial? What are you going to do differently? What are you going to do the same?”

These people are going to trials and passing and placing, and I’m getting goose bumps talking about it, and it was such a rewarding experience because we were looking at the trial experience not in a different way but just in a specific way to inventory and to just know it’s OK. We need to own our mistakes. Somebody actually shared with me that it was so refreshing to have this topic in the class, because every time they talked to somebody who went to a trial, they would always blame the trial site, the hide placements, the people, the dogs. Sometimes we need to own where we have training gaps and how we can improve our handling instead of blaming other things.

Melissa Breau: What were some of the common “holes,” or some examples of the holes that people discovered? Maybe if you’d just walk us through a little bit of problem-solving?

Julie Symons: Yeah — this is neat. I had a guest, a lecturer, Holly Bushard. From a judge’s perspective, she listed what she believed were the common handler mistakes. But these are my list, so if you want to know what Holly thinks, there’s definitely some overlap.

I also just had a recent judging assignment, as my first AKC judging assignment, in North Dakota. It was fun. You’re in the best seat in the house, and I was nervous because I was, like, I want my high placements to be good, and I want the dogs to be able to find them.

So this is what I saw there, as well as I see when I’m teaching. I think the number one hole that we have is not covering the search area. Just to back up a little bit, sometimes your gaps are your handling. Our handling is the problem. If you cleaned up some of your handling, then that’s going to go better. Some of the other, and I can get to those later, are actually your dog’s skills. Those are the types of gaps that we would find: our handling and our dog’s skills.

The number one hole is not covering the search area. What happens is our dog shows interest in an area, and it could be pulling odor, which means odor has blown, maybe you even found that hide, but then it also collected further down into an area. Or you say, “This would be such a great place for a hide,” and your dog maybe showed a little bit of interest, maybe it wasn’t because of picking up some odor there, and you’re sure there’s something there, so we stay there and we stay there and we stay there.

I just did a class recently, and most of the people in the class stayed about a minute and a half in one-fourth or third of the search area, having not even covered the rest of the area, and there was no hide there. I always tell people, “If there was a hide there, your dog would have found it within a minute and a half, and even if there was a hide and they didn’t, you need to leave, cover it, and you can always go back.”

So that’s the number one. I saw that at the trial, not very many, there were a few teams that got convinced that there was a hide somewhere, and every dog that left that area and walked about 8 feet found the other hide. So they just were convinced, and you just need to cover your search area. And sometimes I think people are nervous, they don’t realize the search area, sometimes you don’t get a walkthrough, or it’s covered so fast that you forget, and again, when you’re nervous, our mind’s a little fuzzy. I have actually asked during a search when I was trialing, “Remind me, is this in the search area,” so that in case I forget, to make sure that I am covering it.

The second thing that I notice a hole in training is crowding our dogs. Again, when we get nervous, I’m not sure why we do this, but we stand closer to our dog. Maybe it’s a security thing for us too, but what happens is you could be affecting the dog’s access to a hide. You could actually be blocking a hide or affecting the airflow. But what generally that says to the dog is because when we’re training and we know where the hide is — this is actually one of my topics in my current class, Nosework Coaching — is we need to be good actors when we are running known hides. When we know where the hide is, almost everybody is fishing food out of their pocket. I catch myself doing that. And so then at a trial, when you walk in, because you’re nervous, you’re crowding your dog, the dog goes, I smell odor, and my handler’s coming in really close to me, and I’m a little nervous with this environment, and the dog offers some type of an indication and you call it. So you talk your dog into a false alert by crowding your dog, because to the dog it contextually can mean, Oh, this is normally when I get fed because I find something.

The third thing which plays into that is you can talk your dog into a hide. That’s a very common mistake because you’re convinced that somewhere you’re crowding your dog, you’re nervous, and sometimes our dogs give a little bit weaker indications at a trial and we can so easily talk our dogs into a hide.

The last thing I came up with, there’s many more, but the more difficult one that I’m seeing, I see in training and when I was judging, is when to let your dog drive the search and when you need to intervene. That’s why I always say that we’re 50 percent a teammate to our dog — we both have half of a role in the job to do. Sometimes it’s better to let the dog drive, and then there’s times when you have to intervene and get the dog to a different search area, or cover an area, or refocus them if they’re distracted. We won’t always get this right, but what I generally see, I know where the hide is because I placed it, and the dog is heading right to the hide, but the handler goes, “Oh, you didn’t cover these chairs over here.” Now, that’s not necessarily a bad decision, because maybe you have a dog that doesn’t have time to search the whole area twice. You need to cover this area. But it happens more than not where that area was cold and the dog was going right to odor and you just pulled him off.

It’s not the easiest call to make in the moment, but I also did this in one of my Elite trials where Savvy was going to a hide. I pulled her off, but when I took her back to where I went, she found a hide and ended up finding all the hides in that search area. So even if you pull your dog, I’m not talking about literally some dogs, the dogs are building a sign that says, “The hide is here,” and you pull your dog off. I’m talking about your dog is working their way toward the area where the source is, because they’ve picked up odor, and then you interrupt them on their way and say, “No, come check here.” Sometimes that works in your favor, but sometimes it’s, “Oh shoot, the dog was headed right to source.”

So sometimes I feel like if the dog is actually working and moving, and you can tell, some dogs will pick up speed because they pick up odor, and again, we’re not going to always get that right, but it’s something that we need to, I think, continually improve in when to intervene and when to let the dog drive.

And again, by videoing and by reviewing that, that’s how you’re going to progress with that, and maybe getting another set of eyes to review. I have some of my colleagues review my videos, because I don’t go to a regular trainer, or a training buddy, just somebody else that can view your work and say, “Hey, did you notice you did this?” can be very helpful.

Melissa Breau: Are there other issues that usually are overlooked in training, and even when prepping, that tend to pop up just in that trial situation?

Julie Symons: I think the main thing, if you truly are prepared, you know the rules, the thing that tends to pop up is a novel situation, a surface you never got your dog on before, or a distractor that they’ve purposely put in a container, or even an unintentional distractor in the environment. That’s usually something that pops that can catch you off guard, and of course in that area you want to train in as many novel locations with as many novel distractors as possible. You’re not going to ever train for everything, but as we know, as long as you generalize, for the most part, and when the dog has confidence with the job, they do overcome these novel situations.

But I noticed with my dog Savvy, I didn’t realize one year she had no problem going across a laquered gym floor, but the following year she bellied to the ground. I think it was a visual thing, with age, maybe, I don’t know, and I’ve had to work that afterwards.

Melissa Breau: I want to shift from talking about trialing to, I guess, the other end of the spectrum — those early steps. I know we’re in the middle of … recording this, we’re in the middle of the June session right now, and you’re teaching Intro to Nosework this session, and then next session you have Intro to Handler Scent Discrimination in August. I wanted to ask you what the difference is between those two classes.

Julie Symons: They’re quite similar in the approach, I mean, a target odor is a target odor. So we teach a target odor pretty similarly. We do use the same games, very similar games, that make sense for each of the areas.

With HD there’s just some different considerations, like, is it a problem searching or training in your area where you live and spend a lot of time in it, ended up not being a problem. But what I found was that I did a lot of nosework searches in my house so that sometimes I could tell my dog was like, I’m looking for oil, and I don’t know I’m supposed to be looking for your scent. So we worked through that basically with the two different target odors. We developed different start line cues and different search strategies.

I think the biggest difference between the two is I go into handler discrimination with a different search strategy, a different start line. One of the different strategies is I’m going to probably direct my dog a little bit more, because handler scent is going to be heavier and it’s going to drop, so dogs are going to pick that up more low. Also the hide placements, they’ll go as high as the oil searches, so your dog generally doesn’t have to, depending on the dog’s size, they don’t have to search as high.

So those are the different things. And I think the biggest difference is just our brain realizing that our dogs can find our handler scent just as easily as oil, but they disperse into the area differently, and dogs have to be a lot closer to the handler scents, I found with watching many dogs run, than they do in oil searches.

Melissa Breau: Are there additional skills that the dogs need to learn specifically for handler scent discrimination? Is that an issue for it?

Julie Symons: I haven’t noticed that there was a need for a new skill as much as we need to train HD a little bit more frequently to solidify the understanding. We have to stay with it, and then if I were at a trial, I would have to refresh and remind them. Whereas oil, at the point where my dogs are, if I just did a real cursory session before a trial, they’re going to be pretty strong.

The other thing I’ve noticed with HD, though, is it sounds kind of strange, but the dog really has to be using their nose. I think with nosework, oil is so strong, and it’s so different for a dog to learn wintergreen or birch that they just notice it, like, I know there’s something about this funny-smelling birch over here, so they pick that up. But when you start doing handler scent, we start with gloves and dogs want to retrieve them, if they’re retrievers or they’ve done tracking.

So there’s, I think, with handler discrimination there’s a little bit of context overlap, but it’s doable to train across the different sports. They just have to get past the context that you normally think it is. It’s a little different, and we have some really neat games to work through those, like put the socks right in the bowl if the dog wants to retrieve them, because the dog has never seen a sock in a bowl in tracking or in obedience scent articles. So we just need to get them to use their nose, and if they want to retrieve the sock, then we actually start getting it covered inside of a container. That’s generally the difference.

I do a neat little thing that’s different is a lot of people pair a food with the odor, it’s very common with scent articles, but I’ve found the pure shaping of only the target odor, so what I do is to get dogs to actually use their nose when they have four or five socks, because in handler discrimination we use a cotton sock or glove. I rub food on the cold items, completely opposite of one of the methods, and I tell you, it works wonderful, because the item with your scent on it happens to get food crumbs and food smell on it because we’re refreshing it with our food hands and dropping crumbs on it and stuff, so what becomes unique about a hot sock is that they are cotton, they all have some food smudge on it, but only one of them has your scent, and it gets the dog using their nose. Even with scent work with oil, I find some dogs we have to kick-start them using their nose, not their eyes, not thinking the container is a pivot box or what to do with a box. But generally, and I find it more with handler discrimination, where we need to find a way to jumpstart their seeking sense over their retrieving.

Melissa Breau: Are false alerts more common when training handler scent discrimination, especially since so often we’re probably training in a “usual” training environment where maybe handler scent is all over?

Julie Symons: I thought that was the case from training at home. I did find when I went outside into the fresh air and I was doing exteriors with this little, tiny cotton ball, I was amazed at how well the dogs did. I think the airflow probably helped, and maybe being outside of where I live. But I never had my dog truly false. They would false where I had placed the hide just before it, since I’m lingering handler scent.

I think false alerts are comparable across the two, and I would say if you’re not prepared for handler discrimination, but you’re a nosework dog and you enter a trial too soon and the dog sees these boxes out, which contextually for years has meant oil, and you send your dog out there and they’re thinking, I’m looking for oil, and they just aren’t clear that it’s your handler scent, and they might false because they can’t find anything. And then there is a judge’s scent there, and I do think sometimes they false for the other handler’s scent, if that’s not thoroughly trained, because it’s sometimes hard to get access to other people scenting socks for you.

But in general I’m going to switch the other way and say in nosework oil work we do containers for the rest of the dogs’ lives, and in handler discrimination for AKC you only do containers for Novice and then you’re out of there. You get three legs in Novice, and it’s like everybody has a party because we want to get out of the boxes with our socks, and we get into interior searches and we get that scent outside of a box. Whereas in nosework oil searches, you have container searches in every level, and I do believe containers have the highest false alert rate, and because boxes become such a context of being reinforced, so dogs who are nervous or unsure, or if there are distractors, they do tend to false on containers. So I think it’s comparably they have the risk of false alerts.

Melissa Breau: I know the class discusses both UKC and AKC. I was curious what some of the differences are in the different venues.

Julie Symons: UKC only does HD in a box, so they never move to scent outside a box, and in Novice it’s only your scent. There’s no discrimination with the judges having a scent out there. Another thing that’s different with UKC, actually similar to SDDA in Canada, is you have to indicate your dog’s alert behavior. In UKC you also have to say what your search command is, how you’re going to cue your dog to search, and that might be how they start, maybe they start the timer, I’m not sure.

In the Novice class they don’t judge that part, but you still have to provide it. When you get into Advanced and Excellent, they are going to judge you on that you used the search command you said that you do, and that your dog alerted in the way in that you expect to call it.

Those other search levels, though, every box has a discrimination scent, so in Advanced, the judge puts a scented glove of theirs in eleven of the boxes and yours is the hot in the twelfth. In the Advanced level, each of the competitors that are there with you provide their scented sock, and they’re all out there when you search. So everyone else’s sock is out there, and they must group them by groups of twelve or whatever.

I haven’t trialed in UKC, there’s just none in my area. So it’s kind of neat that that’s a little different. But then that ends there. They don’t search for this outside the box.

Melissa Breau: That’s all super-interesting. I’ve got one last question, though, here for you, and it’s a little bit different. It’s a new question that I’m asking returning guests each time they’re on the podcast, because hopefully it’s a question that you can actually answer more than once and have a different answer. My question is, what’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Julie Symons: I thought about this, and because I’m now training more locally, and I have either returned to sports I used to train or I’m extending into some other areas, is that dog training is dog training, and no matter what sport you do, or if it’s a pet class or a puppy class, you have the same foundation skills. You need the same skills and concepts as your foundation. So many of them apply to other sports.

I always knew that, but since I started delivering the curriculum and talking to different groups of people that are coming in with different goals, I’m teaching the same thing. I’m teaching the same thing to them as a foundation. That was something that I very recently was reminded of — how it’s not really that different what you need across the different sports, and even for a pet dog, but it’s acclimating, it’s your mechanics, it’s building your dog’s motivators, it’s having good cue control. All of those things are common across all of the sports.

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

Julie Symons: You’re welcome. I enjoyed it.

Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with Donna Hill to talk about owner handler trained service dogs and teaching a recall.

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


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jun 22, 2018


Sue Yanoff graduated from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, N.Y, in 1980.

After three years in private practice, she joined the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. While on active duty, she completed a 3-year residency in small-animal surgery at Texas A&M University and became board certified by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons.

She retired from the Army in 2004, after almost 21 years on active duty. After working for a year on a horse farm in Idaho, she returned to Ithaca to join the staff at the Colonial Veterinary Hospital as their second surgeon. She then retired from there in December 2009 — her on-call schedule was interfering with those dog show weekends!

The following month, she started working for Shelter Outreach Services, a high-quality, high-volume spay-neuter organization. About the same time, Sue joined her colleague, a physical therapist and licensed veterinary technician, to start a canine sports medicine practice at the Animal Performance and Therapy Center, in Genoa, N.Y. The practice is limited to performance dogs. That means that’s basically all she does these days, performance dogs, so she knows her stuff.

She also teaches a class on Canine Sports Medicine for Performance Dog Handlers here at FDSA.

Next Episode: 

To be released 6/29/2018, featuring Julie Symons, talking introducing handler scent discrimination. 


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 Sue Yanoff.

Sue graduated from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, N.Y, in 1980.

After three years in private practice, she joined the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. While on active duty, she completed a 3-year residency in small-animal surgery at Texas A&M University and became board certified by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons.

She retired from the Army in 2004, after almost 21 years on active duty. After working for a year on a horse farm in Idaho, she returned to Ithaca to join the staff at the Colonial Veterinary Hospital as their second surgeon. She then retired from there in December 2009 — her on-call schedule was interfering with those dog show weekends!

The following month, she started working for Shelter Outreach Services, a high-quality, high-volume spay-neuter organization. About the same time, Sue joined her colleague, a physical therapist and licensed veterinary technician, to start a canine sports medicine practice at the Animal Performance and Therapy Center, in Genoa, N.Y. The practice is limited to performance dogs. That means that’s basically all she does these days, performance dogs, so she knows her stuff.

She also teaches a class on Canine Sports Medicine for Performance Dog Handlers here at FDSA.

Hi Sue, welcome back to the podcast!

Sue Yanoff: Hi Melissa, it’s good to be back.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat. To start us out and refresh our memories a little bit, can you share a bit about the dogs that you have at home now?

Sue Yanoff: Yes. I have two Beagles. The older Beagle is almost 13, and she’s retired from everything except hiking and having fun. She’s a breed champion, she has her UD, her Rally Excellent MX MXJ and TD.

My younger Beagle, Ivy, is 6. Most people know her from FDSA classes. She’s also a breed champion. She has her MACH. She recently finished her CDX and we’re working on Utility. She has her Rally Novice and a TD.

Melissa Breau: That’s a lot of titles there, lady. Congrats.

Sue Yanoff: Thank you.

Melissa Breau: So we went back and forth a bit before this call on topics to talk about today, and I want to start out by just talking about some of the basics. What is the difference between a sports specialist and a regular vet?

Sue Yanoff: In veterinary medicine, in order to call yourself a specialist, you have to meet certain requirements, and that includes completing a residency in whatever area you’re a specialist in, passing a very long and difficult certifying examination, and being board-certified by the specialty board that oversees your specialty. So if you’re a specialist in internal medicine, it’s the American College of Veterinary and Internal Medicine. If you’re a specialist in surgery, it’s the American College of Veterinary surgeons. So to call yourself a specialist, you have to be certified, board certified, by one of these specialty organizations. Now, a lot of people can be very good at something and not have gone through all the requirements of being able to call themselves a specialist. But a sports specialist basically is somebody that has extra training and experience in that particular area. Regular veterinarians might be very good at sports medicine, but they can’t call themselves a specialist. But, in general, regular veterinarians are general practitioners and they have to be good at everything, so it’s very hard to be good at everything and specialize in any one area. I used to be a general practitioner, I have a lot of respect for general practitioners, I couldn’t do what they do, but that’s the difference between a regular vet, a general practitioner, and a specialist.

Melissa Breau: One of the things I’ve heard you talk about a little bit before is this idea of a good sports medicine exam. What’s really involved in that? What does that look like?

Sue Yanoff: A good sports medicine exam, like any good exam, starts with a patient’s history. It’s very important to get a good history because a lot of times we don’t have a history that a dog is lame. We have a history that the dog’s performance is deteriorating. Their times are little slower, they might be knocking bars or popping weaves. Sometimes they might be a little reluctant to jump into the car. So it all starts with a good history, which takes time.

And then a sports medicine exam involves examining the whole dog and not just one leg. When I was an orthopedic surgeon, I often would just examine the leg that the dog was lame on. We knew which leg was a problem, I’d examine that leg, say, “Here’s the problem, here’s what we need to do,” and that was the extent of the exam. With a sports medicine exam, I examine the whole dog — the neck, the back, all four legs, even if I know which leg the dog is lame in, which oftentimes we don’t know which leg the dog is lame in, so I examine the entire dog.

As an orthopedic surgeon, I would mostly concentrate on bones and joints. For a sports medicine exam, it’s really important to look at the muscles and tendons and ligaments, which often are injured.

So it’s just a different way of doing the exam. It’s much more complete, it takes more time, and to do a good sports medicine exam I think you need more than a 20-minute office visit, which is often difficult for general practitioners to do.

Melissa Breau: A lot of the time, people have a dog that comes up lame or has an ongoing issue and they aren’t really sure what the cause is. We talked a little about regular vets, they might even take their dog to that regular vet, and the vet does what they normally do, they get an “all clear,” but they’re still seeing signs of pain. I guess what stood out to me from your last answer was this idea that maybe it’s a little more subtle when we’re talking about a performance dog. Handlers may notice the more subtle signs of pain. What should they do in that kind of situation? How can they find out what’s actually going on?

Sue Yanoff: There’s two ways to handle that. Oftentimes the regular vet doesn’t find anything because, it’s as you say, it’s very subtle, or they’re actually not looking in the right place.

And oftentimes dogs will get better with what I call “the standard conservative treatment,” which involves restricted activity, no running, no jumping, no playing with other dogs, no training, leash walks only. When I say “restricted activity,” I usually mean a lot more restriction than most people think.

And then put them on some type of pain medicine, anti-inflammatory medicine. I like to use NSAIDs; non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are a good first start. Oftentimes with a minor injury, if you treat them with restricted activity and NSAIDs, they will often get better, so there’s nothing wrong with handling the situation that way. But if they’re still seeing signs of pain after doing that, then they really need to seek out a specialist to find out what’s going on.

When I say “a specialist,” I usually mean somebody who is either a board-certified surgeon that does a lot of orthopedics, or a board-certified sports medicine vet — and we’ll talk about what that means later — or somebody that has some advanced certification and training in sports medicine and rehab. We would like to hope that one of those specialists can do a good exam and try to pinpoint what the problem is, because, as you know, you’ve also heard me say, we need a diagnosis.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with treating generically for a minor injury, and a lot of dogs will get better if you do that. But if they don’t, we really need to have a better idea of what’s going on, what’s the diagnosis, what are we treating, and are we treating it appropriately.

Melissa Breau: What if the dog is given a diagnosis and a treatment plan, and the treatment plan just doesn’t seem to be doing the trick? The dog doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

Sue Yanoff: In that case, if the diagnosis is not correct, which happens — it even happens to me, and I could give you an example of a case that I sent for referral a few weeks ago — or the treatment plan is not appropriate … I find what’s more common is the clients that I see, if they have been to another vet, or even another specialist, they have not been given a diagnosis. I often will ask a client, “What did your vet say is wrong?” and they say, “Well, they didn’t really say.” So that’s a problem right there. If they’re given a diagnosis, that’s great. Oftentimes my clients aren’t even given a diagnosis. And if the treatment plan doesn’t seem to be helping, either we’re not treating them appropriately, or — and this happens much more commonly with pet owners — they’re not following instructions. So if I ask you to rest the dog and restrict them, and you’re not really doing that, then the problem might not get better.

Melissa Breau: Do most dogs recover from sports-related injuries? What does that kind of “recovery” usually look like? You just talked a little bit about what you mean when you say “rest a dog.” Do you usually recommend rehab of some sort? Can you talk a little bit about how all that works?

Sue Yanoff: Sure. That’s a good question, several good questions. In my practice, yes, most dogs recover from sports-related injuries. Now, there are some things, like if it’s a chronic degenerative disease like arthritis or lumbosacral disease, then the dog is not ever going to recover fully. We can only manage the symptoms. But for muscle and tendon injuries, and even for fractures and some things like torn cranial cruciate ligaments, yes, dogs absolutely can recover from sports-related injuries.

In our practice there’s three phases of recovery. The first is rest and restricted activity. We need to allow the injury to get better. We need to allow the injury to heal. During this phase of healing, we basically don’t do anything more than have the owners do short leash walks a couple of times a day. So there’s minimum stretching and minimum p.t. and not a lot of strengthening activities.

And then we will recheck the dog, and if the owner thinks the dog is doing better, and we don’t find as much pain as we felt on the first exam, then we will go to the second phase of treatment, which is rehab. This is where you put in your stretching and your strengthening exercises and your increased activity to build up the dog’s endurance again, and that progresses as the dog progresses, and that’s tailored to each dog.

I should say, during the initial stage of treatment we will do modalities like ultrasound, if necessary, or more commonly laser or massage and mobilization and things like that.

So the first phase is treatment, which is basically restricted activity, the second phase is conditioning, where we start to increase the dog’s activity with the goal to get them back to normal activity, and then the third stage is what we call retraining, and this is where we give the owner a program to get the dog back to competition in their sport of choice. That can take anywhere from three to twelve weeks, depending on what the injury is and how long the dog has been restricted and other things like that.

Melissa Breau: For that three to twelve weeks, you’re just talking about that last phase, right? Might take three to twelve weeks for training.

Sue Yanoff: Yes. The last phase might take three to twelve weeks. So if you have a dog with an injury like medial shoulder syndrome, the post-operative recovery period is twelve weeks, and then probably another eight to ten to twelve weeks of conditioning and rehab to get them back to normal activity, and then another ten to twelve weeks of retraining to get them back to competition. That is one of the injuries that takes a long time to get back to competition, but certainly it’s possible.

A lot of the dogs that we treat, when they get back to competition, they’re better than they ever have been because they are in excellent condition, they’re very well trained, the owner knows a lot about warming up and cooling down, and a lot of them go back to very long, successful careers.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I want to shift gears a little bit. I know that I’ve heard you say on numerous occasions that pain in general is undertreated in dogs. Why do you think that is? Why does that happen?

Sue Yanoff: I think it’s because dogs can’t whine and complain like people can. And a lot of dogs don’t show strong, overt signs of pain. There are ways they can tell us subtly, but a lot of people don’t know what these signs are and don’t really think that they’re causing pain.

I’ve had a lot of clients say, when they bring the dog to me, “Well, I don’t think he’s in pain,” and I can tell you right off that if your dog is limping, 99.9 percent of the time it’s because of pain. It interests me that people know that their dog is limping but don’t think they’re in pain, because I can tell you from experience with me, when I bang my knee or stub a toe, I limp because it hurts, and when it doesn’t hurt anymore, then I stop limping. So if the dog’s limping, it’s because of pain.

But oftentimes the dogs that I see are not limping, but there are other, more subtle signs, and we often find pain when I examine the dog. I’ll move a joint in a certain way and the dog will react, or I’ll push on a certain place on the spine and the dog will react, and the reaction can be anything from something very subtle, like if they’re panting, they stop panting, or they’ll lick their lips, or they’ll look back at me. Occasionally I’ll have a dog that will yelp or whine or try to bite me, which is great, because then I know for sure that they’re in pain.

Melissa Breau: There aren’t many people who would follow “try to bite me” with “which is great.”

Sue Yanoff: Yeah, right. Usually, I can get out of the way fast enough, because I haven’t been bitten yet doing a sports medicine exam. I can’t say that for any other type of exam.

But we miss signs of pain, and then it’s not treated because, again, people think, Well, she’s not in that much pain, so she’ll be OK. What I was taught in vet school — and I graduated 38 years ago — is, this was common back then, is, “We don’t want to treat the pain, because if we treat the pain, the dog will be too active.” There’s even veterinarians and people that believe that today: Let’s not treat the pain because we don’t want them to be too active.

But we know that’s not true. Anybody that has a high-drive sports dog, or even a dog that wants to chase a ball or chase a squirrel, they’re going to do it whether they have pain or not, and then worry about the pain later.

That’s why I think that pain is undertreated in dogs. It’s either not recognized, or people don’t think it’s that important.

Melissa Breau: What’s your approach? How can you tell if pain is the problem, and then what do you usually do about it?

Sue Yanoff: My approach is, if the dog is coming to see me, whether they’re limping or it’s a performance issue, it is very likely due to pain, and it’s likely due to pain because of an injury.

As I said, there are a few things that will make a dog limp that’s not due to pain. but that really has nothing to do with sports medicine. So limping is an obvious sign of pain, crying and whining, obviously, or shifting the weight off the leg, or stiff when they’re getting up. Those are pretty obvious things that people can observe in their dog at home.

But then there are some less-obvious signs that people might not notice, like if your dog normally stretches a lot when they get up in the morning, and they’re not stretching as much as they used to, that could be a sign of pain. You know how when your dog shakes the water off of them they shake their whole body? Well, some dogs will shake half their body, and that might be a sign that the body part they’re not shaking is painful. They might come out of their crate a little slower, they might be reluctant to go up and down stairs, they might not want to play as much with the other dogs, they might be more grumpy with the other dogs, they might have a slight personality change.

In my webinar Chronic Pain, I listed nineteen signs of pain in dogs, and there’s probably more, so I think sometimes handlers need to listen to their dogs. Certainly performance issues can be a sign of pain, and we’ve discussed this before. A lot of people will blame a dog’s reluctance to jump, or going around a jump, or not listening, to being naughty and they try to fix it with training, but it could be that the dog is painful and that’s why they don’t want to do that thing.

Melissa Breau: I know if I over-exert myself, I tend to get a little bit sore, and I’ve certainly seen my own dogs, if we do something a little over the top one day, they might be a little less …

Sue Yanoff: Active.

Melissa Breau: Yes, or sore, the next day. So I’d assume it’s the same for dogs. If a dog is just a bit sore, or seems a bit sore the day after a trial, at what point do you start to worry that it might be something more serious than just that?

Sue Yanoff: I think it’s something that has to go on for a while. All of us have had dogs who were out hiking, or after a trial, and they’re favoring a leg, or they’ll step on something and yelp and hold their leg up and then they’re fine, and the next day they’re fine, and that’s OK with me. Or if they’re a little bit stiff and sore the day after trial, especially if they’re a little bit older, especially if it’s a four-day trial, then I would just rest the dog, give them a day off, and if they’re fine after that, then I wouldn’t worry. But if they continue to show problems, if the soreness continues, as we talked about, or if performance deteriorates, or if it comes and goes, so you rest them for a day or two and then they’re fine, and then you go back to normal activity, and then in another week or so, or a month or so, the same thing happens, and then you rest them for a few days and then they’re fine, at that point either they’re not getting better, or if it comes and goes, that’s when you should maybe look further.

Melissa Breau: You recently gave a whole webinar where you talked about pain management, and you talked quite a bit about some of the drug options that are out there. What do you wish more handlers knew when it came to pain meds? Could you share one or two things that come to mind?

Sue Yanoff: I know a lot of people are reluctant to give their dogs pain meds, and I think those are mostly people that have high pain thresholds and so they don’t take pain meds themselves until it’s really, really bad.

I have a very low pain threshold. I’m a wimp, so if I have pain or soreness, I’m taking drugs. And I assume that all dogs are like me, that they’re pain wimps and they need meds. Now there are some dogs that we all know, Labs and Border Collies come to mind, that they can have a lot of pain and still will do their thing because they’re so driven. But just because they will doesn’t mean they should, and just because they seem to tolerate the pain well doesn’t mean they should.

So I think what I would like the handlers to know is just because you wouldn’t take pain meds for certain pain doesn’t mean that it’s OK to not give your dog pain meds, because I think we need to address their pain, since they can’t tell us how bad it is.

The other thing I want people to know are there are more drugs out there than NSAIDs. NSAIDs, I think, are really good drugs, but some people are scared because they can have serious side effects — not often, but they can. But I want them to know that NSAIDs for most dogs are great, that there are several different NSAIDs available, so if one NSAID doesn’t help your dog, or your dog has an adverse reaction to one NSAID, there are other options.

One thing we talked about in the webinar that if people didn’t take it might not know: there’s a new NSAID available for dogs called Galliprant, which has a lot fewer side effects than the NSAIDs that we have been using.

Melissa Breau: If somebody has been listening to all this, or they have a dog that’s injured at some point and they think the dog might benefit from seeing a sports specialist, what’s the best way to go about actually finding one and then getting an appointment?

Sue Yanoff: There’s three different types of veterinarians that you might want to see, if you need somebody with more training and experience than your general practitioner.

The first is a board-certified surgeon. This is a veterinarian that has been certified by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, who has the training required to meet those certification requirements. Surgeons are trained in orthopedic, neurological, and soft-tissue surgery. Once they finish their residency and go into practice, they might specialize in a particular area like orthopedics or neuro, but we’re trained in all three. So if you want to find a board-certified surgeon who has a special interest in orthopedics or sports medicine, then you can find somebody like that. You can get on the website of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons and find a specialist.

I would recommend that you find a specialist who specifically states that they have an interest in sports medicine and has several years experience, because the more we practice, the better we get, because, to tell you the truth, I’ve learned the most from the diagnoses that I’ve missed and referred for a second opinion and go, Oh, I didn’t know that was a problem. Now I know.

The second type of specialist is a board-certified sports medicine vet. This is a veterinarian that has been certified by the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, and again, my recommendation is to look for somebody that has several years experience in the specialty. And for the sports medicine specialty I kind of like it if you find a veterinarian who actually does some sports with their dogs, because I think you get a whole different perspective on sports medicine when you actually do some of these sports.

The third type of veterinarian, who can’t really be called a specialist but has some extra training in sports medicine rehab, is a veterinarian who has a certification called CCRT, which stands for Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. This is somebody that has some extra training through online classes, through three weeks of in-person classes, and while the training is not as extensive as a board-certified specialist, at least they have some advanced training.

The point I want to make is just because somebody is a specialist doesn’t mean that they’re good at what they do. You would think that they would be pretty good, but not always, and just because somebody is not a specialist doesn’t mean that they’re not good. So if you have no place to start, those are good places to start. I like for you to get recommendations from somebody who has seen the sports medicine vet, whose dog has been treated successfully, and start there. But if you don’t have a recommendation from somebody, then I think looking at the websites of American College of Veterinary Surgeons or American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehab, or finding a veterinarian with a CCRT certification is a good place to start.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. I’ve got one more question here for you, Sue. I’ve replaced the three questions at the end of every interview with a new question for repeat guests, so as a final question I want to get back to dog training. What’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to training?

Sue Yanoff: I like this question a lot because I have probably ten answers for that. But having just come back from the FDSA camp, I think the lesson that came to mind first and I think is very important and that is foundation. That’s getting back to the foundations. Whether you’re having trouble with something or whether you just want to have an easy training session with your dog, get back to the foundations.

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

Sue Yanoff: Thanks, Melissa. It was fun, as always.

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

We’ll be back next week with Nancy Tucker to talk about behavior change and why it can be so hard.

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


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

Jun 15, 2018


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!


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.


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

Jun 8, 2018


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!


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.


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

Jun 1, 2018


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!


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.


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

May 25, 2018


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!


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.


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

May 18, 2018


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!  


Next Episode: 

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


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.


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

May 11, 2018


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.


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. 


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, 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.


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

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