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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: May, 2018

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May 25, 2018

Summary:

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

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

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

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

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

Next Episode: 

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

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Sara Brueske.

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

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

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

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

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

Hi Sara! Welcome back to the podcast.

Sara Brueske: Thank you so much for having me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sara Brueske: Yeah, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

Sara Brueske: Mondioring’s hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sara Brueske: Thank you so much for having me.

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

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

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

CREDITS:

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

May 18, 2018

Summary:

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

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

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

Links

Next Episode: 

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

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Amy Johnson.

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

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

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

Hi Amy, welcome back to the podcast!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Imagine that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CREDITS:

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

May 11, 2018

Summary:

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

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

Links

Next Episode: 

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

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Dr. Amy Cook.

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

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

Hey, Amy, welcome to the podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy Cook: Sure. Are you?

Melissa Breau: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: If only that were actually true.

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

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

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

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

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

If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. And if you don’t know how to do that, we have directions on our website. If you go to the site, we have buttons right at the top that tell you how you can subscribe if you’re on iPhone and how you can subscribe if you are not on an iPhone, if you are using an Android phone. So I hope you’ll go and do that.

CREDITS:

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

May 4, 2018

Summary:

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

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

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

Links

Next Episode: 

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

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Michele Pouliot.

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

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

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

I’m incredibly thrilled to have her here today!

Hi Michele! Welcome to the podcast!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Oh dear!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau:  Fair enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.

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

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

Michele Pouliot: Thank you.

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: I like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credits:

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

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