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Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast

For the last 2 years, FDSA has been working to provide high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports online, using only the most current and progressive training methods. And now we’re bringing that same focus to you in a new way. Each episode of the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast will feature an interview with a leading name in the competitive dog sports training world, talking in depth about issues that often get overlooked by traditional training methods. We'll release a new episode every other Friday, so stay tuned--and happy training!
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Now displaying: April, 2018

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Apr 27, 2018

Summary:

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

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

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

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Next Episode: 

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

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

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

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

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

I’m incredibly thrilled to have her here today!

Hi Kathy! Welcome to the podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: That is so cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathy Sdao: Thanks Melissa.

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

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

Melissa Breau: FDSA.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathy Sdao: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Yes. Absolutely.

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

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

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

Credits:

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

Apr 20, 2018

Summary:

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

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

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

Links

Next Episode: 

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

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Eileen Anderson.

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

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

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

Hi Eileen, welcome to the podcast!

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: That’s so scary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eileen Anderson: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eileen Anderson: Thank you. That’s something I try to do for the community, even though even for me it’s pretty hard sometimes.

Melissa Breau: How do you try to keep up to date with the latest information, and how do you try to make sure that you’re conducting good research on this stuff when you’re writing?

Eileen Anderson: One thing I learned in my science degree is you don’t just read the paper. Your job is then to go through all the footnotes, to read all the footnotes, and then get on Google Scholar and look at who has cited the paper later. Because if you looked up a paper in 1975 for “Why do humans get ulcers?” that paper would say “From stress and acidic foods.” If you don’t look later in the literature, you won’t find out that, woops, actually it’s from an infection, which they discovered in 1981 or ’82. So you have to look before the research piece that you’re reading and after it.

What I do personally, I set up some Google Alerts, both from standard Google and Google Scholar, and there are a couple topics — one of them is dementia in dogs, and the other one is sound sensitivity and sound capabilities of dogs — and I get alerts whenever anything new is published. Most of it is crap, but I get the good stuff too. I get stuff from Google Scholar when there’s a new paper, for instance, on dog dementia, which one did come out this year.

That’s pretty much how I try to keep up. I try to keep focus because there’s way too much for anybody to learn these days. But I use the tools that are out there and I try to be thorough in terms of also looking at who is arguing against this. That’s the hard part, especially when you get attached to something. You don’t want to read about why it’s wrong, but I try to do that too.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. To shift gears a little bit, you’ve also written quite a bit on your site about Clara, and you mentioned earlier that she was a feral dog and you’ve done a ton of socialization work with her. Do you mind just sharing a little bit about your approach there and how you’ve gone about that?

Eileen Anderson: I would love to, and I have to credit my teacher, Lisa Mantle, with whom … I could not have done this without her. She’s had a lot of experience with feral and other very challenged dogs. She actually says that Clara is one of the most challenging ones she has had.

When Clara came to me, she was between eight and ten weeks old, and her socialization window was in the act of shutting, probably that very night. She was scared of me, and avoidant, and I didn’t think I was going to be able to catch her. She was slinking away and acting like a wild animal. But when I opened my front door, little Cricket, the rat terrier, was barking inside, and Clara pricked up her ears and slunk by me like I wasn’t there, and came into my house and sat down next to Cricket in her crate. And so it was the other dog that got Clara into the house.

Within the evening she decided I was OK, and part of that was because of spray cheese, which she still thinks is manna from heaven. But I assumed, silly me, that since I had gotten in, everybody would get in, you know, Now she likes people, look, she thinks I’m great, she’s sitting in my lap, she’s flirting with me, she’s jumping up and down. And so the next day I took her somewhere, and I had her in the crate in the car, and I said, “Look, I’ve got this puppy,” and opened the door and Clara went, “Grrrr,” this little tiny puppy growling in the crate. I thought, Oh dear, I’ve got more of a problem here than I thought.

Back to getting to socialization, it was technically not socialization at some point because she was past that window — and there’s a terminology dispute about this, and I try to placate the people who say, “It’s not socialization after they’re a certain age.” We were doing desensitization, counterconditioning, and habituation, but we started with people a hundred feet away. That’s how fearful of people, and we had to start very far away. We did very, very careful exposures, and this was over the course of months and years.

We did a lot of it at a shopping mall, which sounds crazy, but the layout of the place was such that we really could go a hundred feet away and there wouldn’t be anybody to bother us. But it was extremely gradual, and every appearance of a person, whether they were fifty feet away or, later on, walking by on the sidewalk, was paired with something awesome, which, you know, spray cheese or something else she loved. McDonald’s chicken sandwiches were also very popular.

But it was just very gradual, and my teacher was very good at, when we’d hit a bump in the road or get to a plateau, sometimes we could work through it, sometimes we’d just take a different approach. She has good intuitions about that. And one day she said, “Let’s just take her down the sidewalk in the mall,” and by golly, she was fine. She could walk among throngs of people, as long as … there’s things she doesn’t like. If someone walks up to her and says, “Oh, a puppy!” and stares at her, she’s going to chuff at them. But people walking by, people brushing against her, sudden changes in the environment, wheelchairs, anything that might bother a lot of dogs, she is great with, and she has come such a very long way. But it was all very gradual, and it was done through desensitization, counterconditioning, and habituation.

Melissa Breau: Just to give people a little bit of an idea, when you say “very gradual,” how old is she now? How long have you been working on this stuff?

Eileen Anderson: She is 6. The point where we could walk her around in the mall was about two years after we started. But she was happy. It wasn’t this, OK, she’s all right walking around. She was great.

Melissa Breau: Right, right. I think it’s interesting to ask for the timeline a little bit there, because it helps people understand how much work goes into it sometimes. But also there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

Eileen Anderson: That’s right, that’s right. And thinking back, a lot of people have had harder situations than we have, but we did have a pretty hard one. She basically was like a wild animal. I didn’t see her as a fearful dog, she wasn’t congenitally startling or fearful. She was just different, you know. She was like a wild animal and had that natural distrust of humans.

Melissa Breau: I don’t know about other people necessarily, but I really find that I personally struggle with what feels like two conflicting pieces of advice out there when it comes to socialization or even the stuff you’re talking about. The idea that, Option 1, bring your puppy lots of places, but don’t overface them, make sure it’s all positive, but bring them all the places you go. And the second is never bring your puppy places unless you’re absolutely sure you can just get up and leave if it’s too much for them. I was curious how you handled determining what to expose Clara to, what she’s ready for, and what is likely to still even today be too much for her.

Eileen Anderson: That’s a really great question. With her, of course we had to take mostly the second method. That was being careful that we had a way to get out. She was not a puppy that I could lug around everywhere and expose her to. I think there can be value in that, as long as you can protect the puppy from people who do the wrong stuff, which any reactive dog group will tell about those people who are going to do stuff to your dog if they get a chance.

But today I feel like I need to just be careful and watch her. For instance, even without really working on veterinary visits, she’s good at veterinary visits now, just because of the general work we’ve done. There’s some times you have to take your dog to the vet, and she does really well. And I feel like I could take her to a new place with people and walk around and she would do fine. I would just watch for situations where people would be too assertive towards her. So it’s not so much the environment, it’s not environmental changes, it’s not crowds. It’s that person who zeroes in and says, “Oh, what a beautiful dog! Can I pet her?” while you’re running away.

Melissa Breau: Right. We’re getting to the end here, and I have these three questions I typically ask everybody the first time they’re on the show, so I’d love to work through those. The first one is: What is the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?

Eileen Anderson: It is that I used classical conditioning to prevent Clara from picking up on Summer’s barking. Summer was a reactive dog and she barked regularly at things that went by the house, particularly delivery trucks and things that were hard for me to control. You can’t control those, and I wasn’t always home. So she had some untreated reactivity, and I did not want Clara, the baby puppy, to pick up on that. She had enough problems.

And so, from the very beginning, very consistently, when Summer would bark, wherever she was, I would give Clara a magnificent treat, usually again spray cheese. It didn’t matter what the dogs were doing, what was happening. So I did a classical pairing of Summer barks, wonderful treats fall from the sky. Lots of the things I think up on my own don’t work out really well because I can’t see down the line well enough to see the end ramifications, but that one worked out great. I have a dog who, when she hears another dog bark, looks at me eagerly instead of running to go bark with them.

Just considering that she had so many other challenges, I didn’t want her to have that challenge. I have a video of her literally drooling when she heard Summer bark, and so I can prove, yes, I have the Pavlovian association there — another dog barking means yummy stuff is coming my way. I am really proud of doing that. It has paid off in so many ways.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome, and that’s a fantastic idea. The other question, and usually this is one of my favorite questions of the podcast, is: What’s the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Eileen Anderson: Watch the dog. And I can say that in two ways. One of them is learn about dog body language. I posted a blog just yesterday, I think it was, two days ago, about accidentally using punishing things because you’re following a protocol and trying to do everything right, and you don’t notice that you’re snapping your hand in the dog’s face or something like that they really don’t like. So watch the dog. Make sure that what you’re doing is OK, even when you’re concentrating on your mechanics and following the directions that you’ve read from your teacher. So that’s one way. And also I do agility, and so many times when I made an error, it’s like my teacher would say: “You weren’t watching your dog.” And of course there’s times we have to take our eyes off them, but “Watch the dog.” That’s my mantra.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. It’s nice and concise and easy to remember, too, which is a plus. Last question here: Who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Eileen Anderson: My friend Marge Rogers. Marge and I kind of grew up together in the dog training online world and we started our journeys together. Marge became a professional trainer and I became a writer.

But Marge, before there was ever a Fenzi Academy and people sharing these wonderful ideas of how to be humane to dogs in competition, before there was ever that, Marge trained her dogs way over fluency before she ever competed them. She’s also fantastic at using multiple reinforcers just as a matter of course. Any dog that goes to her is going to end up being able to switch back and forth between a plate of food and a tug toy, and they can tug when the food’s on the ground, and they can eat food even if they love to have a ball. They will get not only multiple reinforcers but the ability to respond to the trainer to transfer back and forth between those reinforcers. She’s just fantastic at that.

She helps me with all my problems. She can usually give a one-line response to whatever stupid thing I’m doing. And not only that, she’s humble. She’s always learning. She’s one of the most humble people I know, and I just love her training.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Eileen. This has been fantastic.

Eileen Anderson: You are welcome. It is my pleasure. I love to talk about this stuff, and I am very honored to be on the Fenzi podcast.

Melissa Breau: Well, thank you, and thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week with Kathy Sdao to talk about everything from training dolphins to dog training — it should be a pretty deep dive on behavior!

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

Credits:

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

Apr 13, 2018

Summary:

Laura Waudby works part-time as a service dog trainer who prepares dogs for different types of service dog work and teaching puppy raiser classes -- plus, she’s a new mom. You can find her online at TandemDogSports.com.

In her “free time,” Laura trains and competes in obedience, rally, agility, and dabbles in disc dog and trick training. She was halfway to her OTCH with her UDX Corgi, Lance, before his early retirement. She has also competed at the Master’s level in agility.  

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 4/20/2018, featuring Eileen Anderson, author of Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Laura Waudby.

Laura works part-time as a service dog trainer who prepares dogs for different types of service dog work and teaching puppy raiser classes -- plus, she’s a new mom. You can find her online at TandemDogSports.com.

In her “free time,” Laura trains and competes in obedience, rally, agility, and dabbles in disc dog and trick training. She was halfway to her OTCH with her UDX Corgi, Lance, before his early retirement. She has also competed at the Master’s level in agility.  

Due to the special behavior needs of one of her Duck Tolling Retrievers, Laura has developed a strong interest in learning how to create motivation and confidence in dogs that struggle, either through genetics or through less than ideal training, to make it into the competition ring.

At FDSA, Laura offers classes for the Fenzi TEAM titles program and teaches Ring Confidence and several specialty classes including a class on articles and a class on stand for exam.

Hi Laura, welcome to the podcast!

Laura Waudby: Hey. I’m glad to be here.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to have you. So, do you mind starting us off by reminding listeners a little bit about who the dogs are that you have and what you’re working on with them?

Laura Waudby: My first dog is Lance, the Corgi. He is basically retired now due to an injury, but we do some obedience and trick training, and he likes to run around barking quite a bit. Then I have Vito, the Toler, and we mainly compete in agility, where we’ve worked on a lot of his ring stress issues. We still train in obedience, working on engagement, motivation, being brave. Then I have Zumi the Duck, who is my younger Toler. She’s 3 years old right now. We are trialing now in agility, rally, and even obedience. These last few months she’s started to awaken, so we’re working on a lot of over-arousal issues now in both sports, but it’s nice having a completely different set of issues than my other dog Vito. Then I usually have a foster dog or two around the house, service dogs in training.

Melissa Breau: Congrats on getting in the ring with the youngster there. I’ve seen some of the videos. It looks like good stuff.

Laura Waudby: Yeah, she’s a lot of fun.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to start out talking a bit about this idea of ring confidence. I think that most people who have a dog that loves training -- or even those who have worked super-hard to teach a dog to love training -- are often a bit surprised when they go into the ring for the first time and find they have a totally different dog than they’re used to. Why is trialing so different from training?

Laura Waudby: Everything about a trial is different than training. One of the biggest things is the atmosphere is really charged. There’s nervous handlers and excited handlers both at the same time. It’s clear that there’s something specific about the ring area by the way that people are all crowding around it, everybody’s watching. And then in obedience and rally, there’s somebody there shouting orders at their mom or dad, so they can see that they’re not really in charge.

There’s also the formality piece, really, even in sports like agility, when you’re not really limited to how you praise and interact with your dog. There’s still the stress excitement of the trial clams people up and you act really different than you would in a trial. So it doesn’t take long for dogs to discover that the ring is very different. There’s no food, there’s no toys, and the absence of the reward can create a lot of stress too.

Melissa Breau: Most people, I think, plan to work on it by taking their dog to lots of fun matches and training there until they think their dog is ready for competition, and while for some dogs, in some instances, maybe that’s enough, I think often it’s really not. What are some of the pieces that are maybe missing from that plan?

Laura Waudby: I tend to find people use their run-throughs as getting that “trial experience.” They show up and their plan is to go through all the exercises or a full sequence of agility obstacles exactly like it was a trial, without rewards and extra praise, and without any support of their dog, who is probably struggling.

The whole idea of doing all the exercises formally is really flawed to begin with. It’s sometimes OK to test to see where you are and how the exercises hold up under pressure, but I think that should be pretty limited when you go to fun matches, because I don’t think trial issues are due to the exercises themselves. It’s more everything else I’ve talked about, with the formality and the pressure and the lack of rewards.

So when I go to a fun match, I want to take advantage of that environment and work on showing my dog what the procedures are, things like, this is how we’ll wait outside the ring, this is how someone will approach you and they’ll take your leash, this is how we’ll go to the start line together, or this is how we’ll move in-between exercises.

But practicing those little tiny things in a trial, I guess that’s really where most of the stress issues tend to occur, and my main goal is just having a lot of fun, playing with the dog, helping them out, showing them there’s nothing scary about being in the ring, having them feel good with all the pressure surrounding it. That’s how I approach fun matches and run-throughs.

Melissa Breau: Those are some of the pieces in the Ring Confidence class. Do you mind talking about how you work on that in that class?

Laura Waudby: The Ring Confidence class has those two main goals of what we just talked about. The first goal is that ring equals fun. It should be a very happy and safe space for the dog, and that’s pretty much through classical conditioning. It’s entering the ring and having a party over and over and over again.

It can take quite a while for dogs who have already been trialing, because you have to work on going to new places. It doesn’t have to be a trial environment, but just going to a park or a shopping area and practicing entering a new spot and having fun. It’s forgetting about training the exercises themselves and just playing with your dog, because if they’re comfortable enough to play with you and focus on you, then they can work.

The second part of Ring Confidence is working on that focus, and teaching the dog what to expect at a trial and what to do with all those little pieces, while turning those previous distractions and previous stressors into actual cues to focus on their partner. So it’s mainly about providing that structure to the dog and to the human about what to do, such as how will they warm up the dog, how will they handle those delays in the ring, how will they handle talking to the judge, etc.

Melissa Breau: Can you share a little bit more about what some of those aspects are that you look at that come with a trial environment and some of the ways that you train for those?

Laura Waudby: When you’re starting with a new dog, some of it is trial and error, and guessing how the dog responds to you, because you have to look at what does the dog need when arriving at a trial. Should you crate them inside, should you crate them in your car, how much time do they need to walk around the grounds, how much time works best before going back to the crate and giving them a little bit of a rest, how they need to warm up. So all of that is trial and error.

Hopefully, you can get that from going different places with your dog, even if it’s going to a park and seeing does your dog connect with really calm petting, do they need more energizing tricks and movement to feel comfortable, figuring out how far away from the ring do you need to be. All those little things are just trial and error as you go, but you can work on training different parts of it.

And then looking at all the stuff once you’re actually inside the ring, such as the people, pressure, practicing, the leash runner approaching your dog, practicing how you’re going to keep that connection, and again, either building energy with a dog who stresses down, or with a dog who gets really over-excited, figuring out how you’re going to keep that dog from boiling over as you move to your new setup spots or move between exercises.

Melissa Breau: I know the class covers a couple of different sports. Are there differences there in what needs to be taught for the different sports?

Laura Waudby: The basic concepts are pretty much the same, whether it’s obedience, rally, agility, even we’ve had some freestyle students in the class.

The main difference is that obedience you have a lot more stuff to train because you have a lot more pressure in the ring. You have to train for the judge approaching you, all the people approaching you at different times, and then, of course, the breaks in-between the exercises.

In agility you have a lot more freedom of how you actually interact with the dog in the ring, while you work your way to the start line, how you handle delays. Encouraging a lot more active connections, such as jumping up and even barking, is perfectly fine in agility, so you have a lot more stuff you can do.

And in obedience you just have a lot more things to train for.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. You mentioned handler nerves a little bit earlier, just the fact that there are excited people and there are nervous people and all the range along that spectrum. How significant of a role is that when it comes to a competition environment? Do you address handler nerves at all in class, or maybe you have recommendations from your own experience?

Laura Waudby: Handler nerves are a huge part of trial issues. Dogs definitely sense our stress and this can shut them down or amp them up, depending upon the dog.

Unfortunately, handler nerves are not my specialty at all. I still get very nervous before obedience trials. I’m just so focused on how I’m going to handle my dog for every part that I don’t think other people can tell.

We do a little bit of training in the Ring Confidence class to get the dog used to that picture of a stressed handler. We can work on things like holding our breath to mimic our really tense bodies, heeling to a metronome to mimic that extra concentration we have when listening to somebody else, but in terms of actually teaching the human part how to deal with their own stress and relax, I leave that up to Andrea. Andrea has all the wonderful Mental Management classes, so she is much better at dealing with that than I am.

Melissa Breau: Denise taught the class, now you teach the class. As a competitor, are there any skills from this class that have really been game-changers for you and your dogs? I know that part of it’s that you implemented the class, so maybe you could talk about that a little bit.

Laura Waudby: This class I’ve already been doing for quite a while with my own dog Vito, because he’s been a huge experiment for me in trying to get him happy in the ring.

One of the things that Denise introduced me for this class was the idea that squish was having not just a safe place for the dog to be while waiting outside of the ring, but also that idea of teaching that release to be really … well, for Vito, who stresses down, for that release to be really energetic, drivey, focusing on me. I think that “on switch” has helped him quite a bit going into obedience.

For agility, probably the biggest success for him in agility in implementing this class was actually teaching him to bark at me when entering the ring. It took a long time to get him to bark at me at the start line, and people don’t believe me when I say that anymore, because he’s a Toler and he loves Toler screaming, and he will scream a lot now on the start line.

What that really did was it helped our connection. He used to stare at the ring crew, the leash runners, the judge, really worry about them, and now that we’re entering the ring and he’s barking at me, he’s focusing a lot more on me and yelling at me, instead of looking around to find where all the scary people are. So that was our game changer for agility.

Sadly, obedience does not allow the barking, so we’re working on that squish and that release coming out of it, and all that personal play and jumping at me has been a work in progress to work on that motivation.

Melissa Breau: For those who don’t know what squish is, do you mind briefly describing what that looks like?

Laura Waudby: A squish is a waiting position for the dog when you are outside of the ring. It could be when you’re right up to the ring gates, if you have to wait close to the ring, or it could be further away from the ring. But it’s a place for the dog to relax. They don’t have to focus on you. Actually, you don’t want them focusing on you. I want my dog to look around, to see the world, to look into the ring, see where the judges are, the stewards are, and just relax.

And then we teach a release cue, which is pressure-based. I have a physical hand touch I do with my dogs on their chests, and when I release it, the dog should focus on me, with whatever drive and energy level you need that dog to do.

So with my dog who stresses down, I really work … when I release Vito — he stands between my legs for his squish — when I release him, he should turn to me really quickly with a lot of energy. With Zumi, who stresses up a little bit, I work on a little bit of energy coming out, but a thinking type of energy and not just exploding randomly into the world.

All my dogs wait between my legs for their squish position, but you could have them — whatever works for you. You could hold them in your arms, you could have them leaning against you. It’s a place to feel safe.

Melissa Breau: For people who are considering taking the class, could you talk a little about who is a good fit and how someone can decide if it’s an appropriate class for them?

Laura Waudby: The Ring Confidence class is probably my favorite class of all time. I love teaching it, and I really think it’s for anybody who wants to trial or is trialing.

The main audience are for dogs, though, who do perfectly fine at trials, they’re fine hanging out in the crate area or walking around, but then they walk into the ring entrance, they walk into that ring, and bam, they’re a completely different dog. They either stress down and start sniffing everywhere or just disconnect, or they stress up and have some over-arousal issues and really struggle to focus or have that thinking connection with their person.

My ideal audience would be dogs who have not started trialing yet. It’s kind of, I know, a novel idea to actually prepare your dog what to expect in a trial, but really getting them comfortable with the procedures before actually entering their first trial.

Melissa Breau: In addition to the Ring Confidence in April, you’re also teaching a TEAM 3 class. I know I’ve talked about TEAM, for those who are listening, a couple of times now in a few different episodes, but in case there’s anyone out there listening for the first time, do you mind briefly sharing what TEAM stands for and what the concept is there?

Laura Waudby: TEAM stands for Training Excellence Assessment Modules, and it’s an online, video-based titling program. The first three levels were designed to set a very solid foundation for any dog sports. The emphasis is really on excellent training, breaking down exercises into their smallest pieces, and then seeing can the dog do just this little bit but do it very, very well. So it’s more of that training title than “can the dog just do it,” because we want to see that they’re … we’re gradually adding the ideas of precision, reducing reinforcement, adding distractions, and then doing it in different environments.

Melissa Breau: If somebody wants to compete in Obedience or Rally specifically, how can TEAM help them get there?

Laura Waudby: I think of TEAM as providing a blueprint of how to break down all those advanced exercises into manageable pieces. So instead of spending all your time working just on heeling and recalls, which pretty much makes up most novice obedience organizations, it’s like we introduce all the foundations for pretty much every single advanced exercise right from the start. In Level 1 we not only have pivoting, which is a foundation for really great heel work, but we also have backing up and scent articles and going out around a cone, teaching a vertical target for a go out, all these little things, and it builds from there until you … as the levels start to progress, we start to form little chains of those behaviors, so it starts to look more like the advanced exercises and not just those little pieces.

Melissa Breau: I’ve heard a few times, in the Facebook group and talking to folks, that TEAM 3 is where things get fun. So I wanted to ask how TEAM 3 is different from those first two levels, and if you could talk us through a few examples of how it builds on those behaviors from TEAM 1 and 2.

Laura Waudby: I agree, I do think of Level 3 as where it does start to get extra-fun. I think it’s mainly because it starts to feel real. You’re putting more behaviors together so that it actually looks like real obedience training to people who don’t necessarily train this way.

For example, in Level 1 and Level 2, you’re doing all this pivot work with a prop and without a prop, and finally in Level 3, we actually allow you to heel forward, and that starts to look like really pretty heeling.

We even test that by doing sidestepping in heel. Can the dog move laterally with their person by keeping their rear end nice and tight? And it looks really cool, but the dog already has the foundations for it from all that pivot training that he did in the earlier levels, so it’s actually not that hard when you start to combine it together. With the combined behavior, the chains, it also means that there’s also a lot more movement involved, and dogs just love that movement.

There’s still the technical pieces, but the extra movement they do, the running they get to, now starts to be more naturally rewarding for the dog and that makes it easier to start reducing their reinforcers. So at Level 3 you only get four cookies for the entire test, so it’s like a reward every other exercise. It’s really good trial preparation to gradually reduce the rewards, and the dog’s having a lot of fun by doing all those movement-based exercises.

Melissa Breau: In TEAM 3 submissions, are there any places that it’s comment to see Not Yets — either because they’re particularly tricky to train or because it’s easy to misunderstand the rules and miss something when you’re reading through? Can you talk us through what happens there?

Laura Waudby: Overall, I think the students are doing a really great job with their Level 3 runs. They already have several successful Level 1 and 2 runs under their belts, so they’re doing a much better job with remembering what the pieces are, how to handle their dog between exercises, and remembering where the exercises start. So I think there’s a lot higher success rate at Level 3 than there are at the earlier levels.

But there are two main places I see errors. The first is the heeling, just like Level 1 and Level 2. Level 3, at this point, we require two steps of forward heeling, a 180 pivot left, a 180 pivot right, and then the two feet of sidestepping right.

The handlers can get a little bit over excited and forget that the pivots that they worked really hard on at earlier levels still have to be a true pivot in place at Level 3. We like doing really big, wide U-turns sometimes in heeling, but the dog doesn’t have to move their rear end nearly as much in a U-turn, and they don’t learn to stay parallel to us during the entire turn. The handler just needs to calm down a little bit and remember to do the really precise pivots to the left and to the right when they’re doing the heeling work. Same thing with the side steps. Handlers tend to rush that. They get excited; they’re a little stressed. I recommend doing several small shuffles sideways instead of trying to do two gigantic steps and leaving the dog in the dust. We want the dog to be parallel with you the entire time, so moving those smaller steps for the two feet tends to help with that.

And the second exercise that I see, again, more handler errors than anything else is the directed cone send. This exercise is basically a baby version of a utility go out and directed jumping exercise you see in trials. We just use cones instead of jumps and have a shorter distance. The challenge here is that we also introduce the concept of cuing the dog to return directly to heel versus cuing the dog to come to fronts. They have to find that front from an angle, as the handler is not allowed to move their feet.

What I find people are doing when they’re practicing this is that they’re waiting to cue the dog to find front or to find heel until the dog is all the way to them so they can use their hand signal as a guide. However, for the actual test, the cue to find heel or find front needs to be given when the dog is still at a distance just after they’ve rounded that correct cone. So this is more of a handler error than a training challenge, but if you look where you want the dog to go and give them the information they need soon enough, the dogs can do a great job of learning the difference when you’re cueing them to find heel versus finding front.

Melissa Breau: That’s an interesting thing to include because — at least, I think — most of the time in the obedience ring they’re coming to front, so it really forces some cue discrimination there.

Laura Waudby: It’s definitely not a skill that we need here in America, where the dog’s pretty much always have to find front, except for the utility moving stand exercise. But this is really the first time they’re doing it from such a big distance and with a lot of speed.

Melissa Breau: This came up on the Facebook page, which is why I want to make sure I include it. Do students need to have their TEAM 2 title to take the TEAM 3 class? If not, how can they decide whether they’re ready for it?

Laura Waudby: They definitely don’t need the TEAM 2 title. We actually encourage students to be looking ahead to the next level, or even further than that, and start training for it, even if they haven’t done the lower level test.

Dogs always have some behaviors they’re really strong with that their handler needs to be raising the difficulty with challenging their dog and not just keep doing the same thing over and over and over again. With the behaviors that are still in progress, it’s OK to still work at your lower level, even though you’re also working on TEAM 3 or even TEAM 4 stuff with the behaviors the dogs are really good at.

And if you’re not quite there when you’re looking at some of the TEAM 3 lectures, you just may need to add some props in or reduce the difficulty in another way. For example, the Level 2 test looks at getting position changes from 6 feet away with a 5-second pause, and that duration distance takes time to build. You just can’t rush it. So it’s OK if you want to work on Level 3, which adds in handler distractions, but now you’ll just go back to standing right in front of the dog and not working as much duration. So your splitting out the distance and the duration from the idea of the dog listening to their cue, even if the handler is doing something weird, like lying on the floor or turning their back to the dog. That may even help them for the Level 1 and Level 2 test.

Melissa Breau: So, I think this question probably applies to both classes. Probably one of the most useful things competitors can do is to really know the rules of whatever venue it is that they’re competing in inside and out, so that they know what to expect and so they can train things properly. What kinds of things should people look for as they read through rules for whatever their sport and venue, and do you have any tips on keeping it all straight?

Laura Waudby: Probably the biggest help is going to a trial in the sport you’re pursuing or a particular organization, or in the case of TEAM is watching all the videos, and not just watching videos from the level you’re at, but watching videos of the upper levels so you can see what that final picture is, where all your training is going.

You can get a better idea, too, like for agility, what course styles there tend to be out there. For in-person obedience trials, you can also look for the details of where the judges tend to stand, what do the common layouts of the ring look at, just so you’re a lot more comfortable with everything and how things tend to be judged. For in-person trials for terms of ring confidence, sometimes the biggest factor you should know before going into a trial is knowing specifically how that trial site is laid out.

If you have a special-needs dog, like many of us do, you may need to plan exactly where your dog is going to wait before entering the ring, how you’re going to get to that ring entrance with focus. Some trial locations are not easy for the dogs who get over-aroused, reactive, or stress. That’s where TEAM is really nice, because everything is online, but there’s a lot more pressure on you to remember the order and the precision needed for each test.

I recommend that people, besides watching all the videos to know how things should look, I recommend memorizing the exercises in at least in a group of three. If you print out those lists and divide them in three exercises, that will help a lot with your flow. I see a lot of people in the videos stopping to read what the next exercise is, read the rules, and their dog … they’re just left hanging out there and not knowing what’s going on. So read those rules, memorize a little bit of an order, and plan your flow will help a lot in getting through that exercise with much less stress for you and your dog.

Melissa Breau: I think people probably underestimate the value of having watched the videos and attended things in person. I know one of the big conversations constantly on the TEAM Facebook page is being strategic with your locations and where you do your tests, and if you don’t think that through, you may use a location that would have been better for a later level early on, and that can make things a little more difficult on yourself.

Laura Waudby: Yes. As your level goes up, you definitely need more space, so you don’t want to use your biggest space for a Level 1 when you really need that for a Level 3-plus video where you need to go offsite. So definitely start to plan ahead.

Melissa Breau: Finally, as somebody who has competed a fair amount, would you be willing to share a little bit of information on how you prep for a competition and what your pre-trial routine looks like with one of your own dogs?

Laura Waudby: I don’t think I really do any specific prep work before a trial outside of all of the ring confidence work I’ve done. I don’t train differently before a trial than I do on non-trial weekends.

The only thing I make sure of is I don’t put any extra pressure on specific exercises, meaning that dogs make weird mistakes sometimes. Let’s pretend my dog suddenly can’t remember at all how to do a scent article, or how to do their weave pole entry, and it’s a few days before a trial. I kind of ignore it. I’m not going to do any training to try and fix it, because that’s just going to add pressure to it. I really just ignore it and go to trial, don’t worry about it. The last thing I want is my dog getting stressed the exercise because I’m suddenly freaking out about it. Chances are the behavior is taught fine, it was just a weird thing that day, and if you don’t draw attention to it, then it’s not going to stick around.

And if it does happen to stick around, then you have to develop a training plan for it anyway, and you freaking out a few days before a trial is not a good time to come up with a new training plan. So I don’t really do a whole lot.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Laura. This was great.

Laura Waudby: Yeah, it was fun.

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

We’ll be back next week with Eileen Anderson, author of Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.

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

Credits:

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

Apr 6, 2018

Summary:

Dr. Jessica Hekman is a postdoctoral associate at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where she researches how genetics affect behavior in pet and working dogs. Jessica received her Ph.D. in Animal Studies in 2017 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studied canid behavioral genetics.

Previously, Jessica graduated from the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2012, with a dual DVM/MS degree. Her Master's work was on the behavior and cortisol responses of healthy dogs to being hospitalized overnight. She also completed a shelter medicine veterinary internship at the University of Florida Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program.

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 4/13/2018, featuring Laura Waudby to talk about getting a happy dog in the competition ring.

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Dr. Jessica Hekman.

Dr. Jessica Hekman is a postdoctoral associate at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where she researches how genetics affect behavior in pet and working dogs. Jessica received her Ph.D. in Animal Studies in 2017 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studied canid behavioral genetics.

Previously, Jessica graduated from the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2012, with a dual DVM/MS degree. Her Master's work was on the behavior and cortisol responses of healthy dogs to being hospitalized overnight. She also completed a shelter medicine veterinary internship at the University of Florida Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program.

Finally, she is also the most recent addition to the team of FDSA instructors!

Hi Jessica, welcome to the podcast!

Jessica Hekman: Thanks. I’m very excited to be here.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to have you, and I was a little nervous reading that bio because I knew there were a lot of things in there that my tongue was not going to wrap around well.

Jessica Hekman: You did great.

Melissa Breau: I’m pretty happy with that. To start us out, do you want to tell us a little bit about your dogs and what you’re working on with them?

Jessica Hekman: Yeah, I love that you start with the real easy question, because everyone likes talking about their dogs.

Melissa Breau: Of course.

Jessica Hekman: I have two dogs. I have Dashiell and Jenny. When I got Dash, I knew that I wanted to do dog sports with him. He’s a 19-month-old English Shepherd, and for people who don’t know that breed, they’re closely related to Aussies and Border Collies, so it’s sometimes a little scary how smart he is.

He’s really docile, sweet, interactive, he’s so much fun to work with. We’ve done treibball, and we’ve done agility, which is my favorite sport and one I’ve really wanted to do with him, but he has a chronic shoulder problem right now that we’re in the middle of getting under control, so agility’s on hold at the moment. We’ve also done some parkour. I think that’s his favorite because he loves to jump on things, and there’s still some parkour tricks that he can do, even with his shoulder issues, but a bunch that he can’t. So at the moment he’s in an in-person rally class with my husband. They both really like the structure of rally, even though it’s not really my thing, and then with me he’s doing nosework. We did that Intro To Nosework class with Stacy last session and we both really enjoyed it. Dash is the first puppy I’ve ever raised. I always got rescue or shelter dogs before, but I have wanted to get into studying socialization in dogs, so I wanted to actually go through it with my own dog before doing the research.

My older dog is Jenny. She’s an 8-year-old mixed breed, and I know just from talking to the shelter that she came from that she definitely has some Lab in her, and we also did an ancestry test, which suggested some Samoyed, and she looks a lot like a tiny, little golden-colored Border Collie, and she sort of acts like a herding breed. She’s also super-smart.

She did not get enough socialization at a young age. I got her when she was about a year old, and at the time she was terrified of all people and all new places, and she peed every time I touched her. She spent the first week huddled on a dog bed in terror, and when I needed to take her outside to pee, I would crawl backwards toward her without making eye contact, and then, without looking at her, I would have this leash, and she had a little tab permanently on a harness that she wore 24/7 exactly so I wouldn’t have to touch her by the collar. So I would reach backwards without looking at her and attach the leash to her tab sort of by feel, and then we would go downstairs and outside.

After a week of this, one day I started crawling backwards towards her and she stood up and was like, “I understand the system and I can do it myself.” So I took her downstairs off-leash and she went outside — safely fenced yard, so that was OK — she went outside, she came back in. So that’s Jenny.

She’s really scared of everything, but she’s also game to work through it, and she finds her own out-of-the-box solutions to it. Most of the time that she’s been with me we’ve just worked on her confidence levels, but they are really improving now, and since I got Dash she has also let me know that she is really interested in doing sports stuff too, so she also enjoys doing parkour, and we are doing nosework together as well. I don’t think she’s ever going to be able to go to a nosework trial, but that is fine with me. So those are my two dogs.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that Dash is the first puppy that you’ve raised, but you knew you wanted to do agility when you got him. How did you get into dog sports? What got you started there?

Jessica Hekman: I was looking for something to do with my first dog, who was Jack, he was a Golden Retriever, so I was looking around for stuff and we started doing agility and I loved it. Jack liked it. I think he would have preferred to have done dock diving. I never found a good place to do that competitively, but we’d go to a local pond and he’d do his really impressive belly flops, so that was a good time.

We did agility together for two or three years, and we got to the point of going to trials. He cued a few times. I was very impressed with myself with him. But then I started veterinary school, and that was that for any extracurricular activities all through vet school.

As you said, I did this dual degree program, so it was extra long as well, and by the time I got out, Jack was elderly to do sports, I had Jenny at that point, and there weren’t online classes, online options, and she couldn’t do in-person stuff, so I was out of sports then for quite a while, through vet school and through my Ph.D., so that was about ten years, and I missed it horribly. I would watch agility on YouTube and stuff.

Jack lived to the very impressive old age of 16, which is great for a Golden Retriever. After I lost him, I got Dash, and I immediately got back into doing sports then.

Melissa Breau: What about the positive tilt of things? Have you always been a positive trainer? If not, what got you started on that journey?

Jessica Hekman: I had never trained a dog before when I got Jack. I got him in 2003. We went to what I guess you would call a balanced class for basic manners. It was not a terrible class, they didn’t have us abusing the dogs or anything, but we did use some leash popping to try to get good leash manners, stuff like that. At the time I thought that was entirely appropriate. When I first learned about clicker training. I remember saying, “Oh, but there should be consequences if a dog doesn’t obey you.” That was where I was then.

When we started agility together, that was 100 percent positive, of course, and that was when I first learned to use clicker training myself. That was when I started shaping. At the time, though, I was still open to mild positive punishment in basic training, so I think I was gradually converted. I was going to a lot of seminars with positive trainers, I was reading books by people like McConnell and Sdeo, and eventually I started to realize, I can have a better relationship with my dogs than I do.

I’ve realized since then how great the approach is, not just for dogs, but for interacting with people. I use a lot less punishment in my relationships with friends and family than I used to, although I find humans can be hard to reward. You can’t pop M&Ms into everyone’s mouth, and you can’t stop a conversation to have a friendly wrestle, so that’s challenging. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

Melissa Breau: We should, as a community, decide that it’s perfectly appropriate to hand out M&Ms left and right. I think that would make the world a better place.

Jessica Hekman: That would make life so much easier.

Melissa Breau: Obviously your day job now is heavily research-based. You started off in veterinary school, you started off in dog sports, how did you end up in research specifically?

Jessica Hekman: That was the long way around, for sure. I majored in medieval studies in college, and by the end of college I was already starting to feel like, you know, I really liked reading the stuff I was reading, I was reading Arthurian romances, it was great, but I was feeling like I was following paths that other people had taken before.

I had this one moment where I had some insight that I thought was fantastic, age 20, I thought I was brilliant, I took this to my advisor and he was like, “That was a great insight. It was exactly the same as this other person said 20 years ago.” Basically he was saying it was so good because it was exactly the same as something someone else did, and I was like, Oh, man, I have to get out of this, and I have to do something new. I have to have some effect on the world.

I didn’t go into biology then. I got into computer programming. It was the mid-’90s, we were in the middle of the dotcom boom, they were hiring warm bodies off the streets to do computer programming. That was actually a fantastic career. I was in online publishing programming for ten years. I got to the point where I was working four days a week, three of them from home, I was making a lot more money than I’m making now, and that was great. It was great for having a dog. I was at home with my dog all the time. But then I got bored. I started feeling again that I was having no real effect on the world.

The dotcom crash happened, there was a lot less money in the industry, and that meant there was a lot less interesting work going on, and right around that time I had gotten Jack, my first dog, and as a result I had also gotten into Retriever rescue. I was working with a local Retriever rescue, and because of that I started getting really interested in dog behavior. I started reading everything I could get my hands on about it, I started going on the seminar circuit, and when I read The Other End Of The Leash, by Patricia McConnell, I was like, Oh, this is it. This is what I want to do. I want to learn all about this stuff.

So I started looking into being a behaviorist, and just a quick spoiler alert — I did not actually end up being a behaviorist, but you can become a behaviorist, either with a Ph.D. or with a DVM. At the time, I knew research was the interesting thing to me, so I tried that route.

It was 2005 at this point, and there were, at that time, no labs studying dog behavior. I talked to one professor, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and he said to me, “Well, you can study wolf behavior, but Ph.D.’s don’t study dogs because they’re domesticated, so they’re not natural animals. Vets study dogs, but they study them medically, no one studies their behavior. No one studies dog behavior.”

So I was like, What do I do? I guess I could go to vet school, and I want to be able to prescribe meds in my theoretical behavior practice. So I went to vet school to become a veterinary behaviorist. At that point I had to do all my basic sciences before I could even apply. As a medievalist turned computer programmer, I had zero sciences under my belt, so I had to do all of that. It changed the way I saw the world. I had been this arty medievalist turned computer nerd, and I was like, Oh, now I’m starting to understand what goes on in bodies and brains. That was real interesting.

I got into vet school, I went to Tufts, they had this combined DVM/Master’s program, as you said. I decided to do that because I thought it would give me some exposure to research. The way it works is the first two years you do the vet program, you take a year off in the middle to do the Master’s, and then you go back and finish the vet program for two years.

My second year doing the veterinary program, I shadowed a veterinary behaviorist at Tufts, and that was the first time I got to, week after week, see a behaviorist in action. That was when I realized I totally did not want to do that with my life. I did not want to try to fix broken dogs. I thought it was much more effective to try to figure out why dogs break in the first place and try to stop that from happening.

Shortly after that, that was the end of my second year, and then after that I did my research year. So I spent a whole year just doing research. I still remember this one day, walking through the parking lot at Tufts on the way to my car, and thinking, Wow, I love this stuff so much. I am not looking forward to going back to vet school. It was like the skies opened and I thought, I don’t have to be a behaviorist! I can go get a Ph.D. after all! It all came together. That was when I was like, I can go do research, and that will help with the prevention of behavior problems.

The research world was really changing while I was in vet school. I said that there weren’t any labs doing dog stuff when I started, but while I was in vet school, people started to realize that, in fact, dogs are totally fascinating models for research. They are natural animals, and the fact that they’ve evolved to live inside civilization along with humans — that makes them more interesting, not less interesting.

So after I finished vet school, I did do an internship, but then I did a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, working with Kukekova Lab, and that lab was actually founded just the year before I came there. I was one of her first two grad students. So it’s very much been a process of when I’m ready to take my next step, things have appeared just barely in time for me to get there. In that lab we studied tame foxes, not dogs, but the tame foxes are a fantastic model for dogs and for domestication. It was a really great opportunity for me. I learned a lot.

But I really wanted to get into studying the genetics of pet dogs, and again, while I was in that program, a few people were starting to do that. No one had quite figured out how to do it at a large scale, so when you’re working not with lab animals but with pets, and there’s so much variety in their genetics and in how they’re raised, you need really, really large numbers of them, and that was really hard for anyone to figure out how to do.

But just a couple of years before I was ready to graduate, again, this new lab sprang up, they were doing exactly that, so that’s where I am now, Karlsson Lab at the Broad Institute. It’s spelled Broad but it’s pronounced Brode, just to be super-tricky for people. I like to say of Karlsson Lab that it’s, like, thank God they’re doing exactly what I thought I would have to do, so I don’t have to organize this massive citizen science approach to studying pet dogs, because my new boss, Elinor, has already done that, and I can just focus on the fun parts. So that’s my crazy journey. It’s probably a longer answer than you were looking for.

Melissa Breau: No, it’s interesting. You’ve had a lot of interesting experiences and steps along the way. I’d love to dig a little more into what you’re doing now. Do you mind sharing a general overview?

Jessica Hekman: Sure. Karlsson Lab, where I am now, takes what we call a citizen science approach to studying pet dogs. What we do is we collect a lot of dog behavior information and DNA directly from dog owners, and we use that to try to find connections between differences in the dog’s DNA and their different behavioral traits.

The main project that has started out collecting that is called Darwin’s Dogs, and you can go to DarwinsDogs.org and participate, and I’m sure that all of you will do that, and you should definitely do that. Right now we’re very much in the data collection phase, so at the moment I’m doing a lot of what turns out to be basically project management, making sure that all the stuff is coming together, that we’re storing the data in a reasonable way, things like that. But I am already getting to do some data analysis. I actually, really excitingly just last week, I got my hands on about 15 years worth of pedigree and behavioral data from a school that breeds guide dogs. I’m getting to analyze that in order to write a paper about it. As the data is coming in from other projects, the plan is that I’ll be one of the ones to analyze that as well.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I know we’ve chatted a bit about having your boss on the podcast, too, to talk more about some of this stuff, but I’d love if you want to share just a couple of the projects you guys are working on. You mentioned DarwinsDogs.org, so I’ll make sure that there’s a link to that in the show notes for folks. Do you want to share any other stuff that listeners might be interested in?

Jessica Hekman: For sure. We actually have a brand new project that’s about to launch that FDSA folks can participate in, and it’s actually, even if you don’t have a dog, although I know that pretty much everyone listening to this will have a dog. In my nosework class that I did with FDSA, I was Bronze in the introductory nosework and one person was at Gold with a cat, which was fantastic.

Melissa Breau: That’s very cool.

Jessica Hekman: Yeah, that was neat. This new project is called Muttmix. That’s at muttmix.org. The idea is that we will show you photos of a whole bunch of mixed-breed dogs, and you get to guess what is in their breed mix. We will collect guesses from a whole bunch of people, and then we will e-mail you back afterwards and tell you what was in those dogs, based on their genetic analyses that we did. So it should be a lot of fun for you. And then the data that we collect will be used to help us analyze how good people are at looking at a dog and telling exactly what breed is in there, which, just a spoiler alert, it’s really hard to do that by looking.

It turns out that mutts are really, really interesting, and very few people, if any, have really surveyed them. Most of the papers out there on dogs, particularly genetic papers, are about purebred dogs. So muttmix.org, and it’s starting in a few weeks, but if you go right now, you can give your e-mail address and then we can let you know when it goes live. That’s Muttmix.

And then the main project that I personally am working on is called the Working Dog Project, and that is, we collect behavioral and genetic information from working dogs to find out the genetic influences that make dogs more or less good at their job, or more or less able to succeed in training programs. For example, a guide dog school typically only has about half of the puppies that they train succeed at becoming guide dogs. Why is that? Is there anything we can do to help them do better?

And, by the way, if it occurs to you that sports dogs are a lot like working dogs, that has also occurred to me, and I am totally planning to expand this project to include sports dogs, so stay tuned about that. And if and when that happens, I will definitely be letting FDSA folks know.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I look forward to that, and I can’t wait to see what some of the outcomes are of the research you’re working on. It all sounds so interesting.

Jessica Hekman: Us too. It’s sad that research is so slow, because we would really like the answers yesterday.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. I know that, talking about research, you did include a bunch of that in the webinar you just did, kind of the other end of things, on the biology of socialization, and you’ve got another coming up on April 12 on epigenetics. Do you want to explain what epigenetics is, and then share a little bit on what the webinar will focus on?

Jessica Hekman: Epigenetics is a way that organisms, including dogs, record the experiences that they’ve had in their DNA. We used to think that the DNA sequence is something that never changes for a particular individual. It turns out, though, that epigenetics is this mechanism that this cell has. It’s like marks that you put on the DNA, so the sequence itself doesn’t change, but there’s these marks that are added on it, sort of like a bookmark in a book, so that the content of the book doesn’t change, but you can put a bookmark in it to save a really important page that you want to come back to again and again.

Animals can do this with their DNA to say, “This is a bit that is really useful for the environment that I live in, and I want to use this bit a whole lot.” So this is a new way that we look at what makes up an animal’s personality — not just their genetics, but

also this way that animals have of recording their experiences in their DNA.

In this webinar I’ll talk about what we know about epigenetics, and I will specifically relate it to dogs. A lot of the epigenetics resources that are out there for people to read are obviously very human-oriented, and so I will focus very much on “What does this mean for your sports dog?”

Melissa Breau: Kind of to take that and ask what is probably a way-too-broad question, what does go into a perfect performance dog from that standpoint?

Jessica Hekman: Lots of things. There’s very complex effects on a lot of different genes interacting with each other in ways that are really hard to predict, but that’s what my job is, is to try to find ways of predicting how that’s going to work.

And then equally complex there’s the effects of the dog’s environment, of course. But the environment — we don’t always think of it as it actually starts at conception in the uterus, with the hormones that the mom passes on to the puppies in nutrition, and then the environment also includes the time in the nest with their littermates, how the puppy is socialized, how the dog is trained. We can only control a tiny portion of all of this, like some of the socialization and the training, and I knew that theoretically when I got Dash as a puppy, but I have to admit I still figured I’d be able to control a bit more of him than I could in the end. So yeah, perfect performance dog.

Melissa Breau: Are there common misconceptions that dog sports people tend to have about this sciencey stuff? If so, what can you do to set the record straight?

Jessica Hekman: I think that a lot of people have this hope that science, and particularly genetics, will be able to give us black-and-white answers to questions that we have, that maybe a dog who has behavioral issues, or issues in the ring, has some underlying genetic problem that can’t be changed and that perhaps could be identified in a test, that we’ll maybe discover one gene for aggression and be able to breed it out.

Of course, in real life, biology is incredibly complex and there’s no black-and-white, there’s really just shades of gray. But of course that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to learn and understand about how the body and brain work that can be really enlightening when we’re thinking about how to interact with our dogs. I hope that answers that question.

Melissa Breau: That’s actually an interesting way of thinking about it, and I think it’s important to note that even science doesn’t have all the answers. It’s a complex topic, and to a certain extent you do need to wade in waist-deep to get a good understanding of all the bits and pieces. What do you think about for the future? Where do you think the future of some of this stuff will lead us, and what subjects are there out there that you hope that science can find the answers to?

Jessica Hekman: Personally, I’m really hoping we’re going to find ways of improving how we breed dogs. There are genomic technologies that can be useful to help the process of selecting dogs to breed in order to produce puppies with the traits that we want, and in fact this is done as a matter of course in the cattle industry. The technology is there. It’s made a massive difference in the ability of the cattle industry to select for traits like milk production.

What we need to make it happen for dogs is just for the community to get together and to pool genetic and behavioral data. The data that Karlsson Lab, where I work now, is collecting could be used for exactly this kind of thing.

But the hard part, I think, will be not so much the science, but will be agreeing on what everybody is breeding for. It’s the intersection of science and society where stuff gets interesting. How do you work together to breed for things like health and solid personalities instead of things like fancier coat colors and flatter faces? That’s really going to be the big struggle, but that’s where I hope to see the dog community going.

Melissa Breau: I guess part of me peripherally knew that the cattle industry had been breeding for things like increased milk production, but you don’t really think about it as a concerted effort, as, like, the industry sat down and looked at it from a scientific perspective. You think, Oh, they did it the same way we do it in dogs, where it’s just two that have a line, or have a history, and let’s just keep going down that thread. So it’s interesting.

Jessica Hekman: They’re massively well organized, and it’s kind of scary if you look at the statistics. The output of milk from an individual cow since 1950, it has more than tripled in individual cows from 1950 to today. One of the things that the cattle industry has going for them is USDA. They have this federal agency that is paid to organize them. We don’t have anything like that, and trying to imagine organizing dog breeders to work together is kind of crazy.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough, yes.

Jessica Hekman: Imagine talking to one person who has their lovingly curated and selected line of dogs, and saying, “OK, for the good of the whole breed, we think you shouldn’t breed this particular dog anymore.” Not going to happen. So it’s a really interesting difference between the two groups.

Melissa Breau: Fascinating. It’s such an interesting concept to think through and think about. To shift gears a little bit, in addition to your webinar, you’re doing a class on some of this stuff in June. I wanted to ask you to share a little about the class and maybe help folks decide whether or not the class would be a good fit for them.

Jessica Hekman: I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be BH510 it’s called The Biology of Building a Great Performance Dog. It’s going to be basically about the biology underlying dog development, like what makes each dog her own individual self.

A lot of what I’ll talk about has to do with genetics and very early socialization, so the class will be particularly useful, I think, for people who want to think through how to find their next dog, what to look for in choosing a breed and a breeder, or in choosing a shelter dog or a rescue dog. But we’ll also talk about decisions on things like spay/neuter, whether to do it, when to do it, so that could be useful for people with puppies or even people with young adult dogs.

And then I also think it should really appeal to anyone who wants to get their science geek on about dogs, like what makes up a dog’s personality. So even if you’re not thinking about getting another dog, just if you want to learn some genetics and some biology from a dog perspective, and a think through what’s going on in their brains, what’s going on in their bodies that makes them act the way they do, it ought to be a great class for you.

Melissa Breau: Since it’s your first time on, I do have three questions I always try to ask each time somebody comes on for the first time. I want to round things out with those. To start us off, what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?

Jessica Hekman: Oh, Jenny, for sure Jenny. When I got her, as I said, she peed whenever I touched her, and now I can actually bring a stranger into the house. She still gets nervous and shakes, but as soon as the stranger tosses her a treat, she flips over into, like, Oh, a treat game, and she stops shaking, her ears come up, she starts making cute faces at the stranger to get more treats.

Very occasionally, if someone really is good with dogs, Jenny will let them pet her, even though she’s just met them that day, which I never would have believed a few years back would ever have happened.

She can go out in public, she can go walking on leash around the neighborhood, she can go off leash in a safe park. So we’ve made some amazing progress together. Sometimes I can’t believe she’s come so far.

You asked for my proudest accomplishment, and I feel like she’s really been working hard on that too, but the two of us together I think have made some fantastic progress.

Melissa Breau: I absolutely think that counts. I don’t think she could have done it without you. What’s the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Jessica Hekman: It’s only in the last couple of years I heard this, I think from Jean Donaldson. She said, “Most people don’t use enough treats,” which I love. It’s simple, it’s concise, it’s totally useful. Use more treats. It’s easy, and it’s so helpful in getting us out of the mindset of thinking, The dog should do this because I asked her to, and into the mindset of, How can I make this more fun for the dog?

Melissa Breau: Right, right. That’s fantastic, and I think we hear similar things in a lot of different places, but I do like it in that concise, easy to digest. For our last question, who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Jessica Hekman: Can I have more than one?

Melissa Breau: Yes, absolutely.

Jessica Hekman: OK. The obvious answer, I guess, would be Denise, because in addition to her stellar dog handling skills, she also has stellar human handling skills. She’s so great at helping people learn while making them feel good about themselves, and that’s really hard to do — not just be good at dogs, but be good at people.

I already mentioned Patricia McConnell, whose books are the reason I chose my new career. She had insights into the fact that dog minds are really fascinating in their own right, and I will always be indebted to her for that.

And finally, he’s not exactly in the dog world, but my science hero is Dr. Robert Sapolsky. He learned some amazing things about how the stress response works. He’s a fantastic lecturer, and a lot of his talks are on YouTube and I highly recommend checking them out, if you’re interested in how the brain functions and how stress affects behavior. He does not talk about dogs specifically, but his material is totally relevant to them and to training. So Sapolsky. Highly recommended.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. I will try to find a YouTube video or two that we can link to in the show notes for everybody.

Jessica Hekman: Let me know. I can find you one.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. That would be great. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Jessica. I’m thrilled that we got to chat. This was a lot of fun.

Jessica Hekman: Oh, thanks. I had a fantastic time.

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

We’ll be back next week with Laura Waudby to talk about training for a happy dog in the competition ring.

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

Credits:

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

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