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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Mar 16, 2018


Dr. Debbie Torraca has been involved in the field of animal physical rehabilitation for over 17 years and has both a masters and a doctorate, as well as other advanced certifications in her field.

She currently owns a small-animal rehabilitation practice in Connecticut called Wizard of Paws Physical Rehabilitation for Animals. Over the last 12 years, she has lectured throughout the world on the topic of small-animal rehabilitation, and is one of the founders of the Certificate Program in Canine Rehabilitation from the University of Tennessee.

She has been widely published, both professionally and in venues for dog enthusiasts.


Next Episode: 

To be released 3/23/2018, featuring Nancy Tucker to talk about desensitization and counter conditioning.


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

Today we’ll be talking to Dr. Debbie Gross Torraca.

Dr. Torraca has been involved in the field of animal physical rehabilitation for over 17 years and has both a masters and a doctorate, as well as other advanced certifications in her field.

She currently owns a small-animal rehabilitation practice in Connecticut called Wizard of Paws Physical Rehabilitation for Animals. Over the last 12 years, she has lectured throughout the world on the topic of small-animal rehabilitation, and is one of the founders of the Certificate Program in Canine Rehabilitation from the University of Tennessee.

She has been widely published, both professionally and in venues for dog enthusiasts.

Hi Debbie, welcome to the podcast!

Debbie Torraca: Hi Melissa. Thank you so much.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to have you back today. To get things started, do you mind reminding listeners who the various furry members of your household are, and what you’re working on with them?

Debbie Torraca: Yes. I live with two dogs. I share my life with two dogs, but I probably see over a hundred dogs a week at my office. I’m fortunate to have wonderful owners that trust me with their wonderful animals and throw in occasional cat, horse, and who knows what else sometimes, duck. It’s wonderful. My Clumber Spaniel, Bogart, is my little best buddy, and then we have a Cocker Spaniel named Hendricks, and he is my little buddy too. They’re currently staring at me right now, wondering why I’m talking into the computer.

Melissa Breau: I know we planned today to talk about puppies and exercise, and I think that’s one of those topics that I see discussed over and over again. It comes up in the alumni group and pretty much anywhere else that people gather on the Internet to talk about dogs. There is this idea of what is and what isn’t appropriate for puppies, and whenever the topic comes up, people to start talking about growth plates closing and physical development. I was curious if you could explain a little bit about what the growth plates closing bit means and your take.

Debbie Torraca: Absolutely, because I think this is a topic that is always so pertinent and always so important. I’ve spent so much time with puppies from early on, even as early as 2 weeks of age, and watching their development, and have been following right now probably over 110 litters with starting them out on gentle exercise and then following them through.

When we look at puppies, I think sometimes we forget that they’re not just little dogs. They’re growing dogs. The same way that we would look at a child, we would not expect a 3- or 4-year-old child to be able to pick up a golf club and hit a ball a hundred yards, or pick up a baseball bat and fire away. Yet we do that with puppies so often.

I always use the example, getting back to kids just for a minute, that we know the American College of Sports Medicine has been so focused on human athletes but also the growth of human athletes, and together with the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Little League Association, it’s probably one of the oldest rules, but it makes the most sense, and I think it’s something that we can apply to animals.

A child up to the age of 18 is limited on how many pitches he can throw, if he’s a pitcher in baseball. So most of the time we would look at an 18-year-old male or female and think, Oh, they’re grown. But then when we look at them when they’re 24 or 25, and look back at 18, they really weren’t grown. There was so much more physical and mental maturity that took place. And the reason being with throwing is it places a lot of stress on the growth plates, in particular the growth plates in the elbow and the shoulder.

When we think about dogs, and people often ask, “What are growth plates?” I like to use the analogy that they’re little factories that are located at the end of each bone, and these factories are constantly producing more bone and more growth, so they’re working to get the dog to the size it’s supposed to be. At different stages these factories will close down, and certain ones close at different times in a dog’s body.

The way to know they’re completely closed is to do an X-ray. Some people say, “Oh, I can feel their growth plates are closed,” but that’s not true at all. In some dogs, all the growth plates may close up when the puppy is between 10 and 12 months. Some puppies do not have growth plate closure until 40 months — that’s over 3 years of age.

These growth plates are so important because, again, those factories are constantly pushing out, making the bones longer, stronger, more substantial, and if they’re injured in any way, they’re going to break down and they’re going to stop. Injuries can occur certainly by trauma — if a puppy is hit by a car or anything like that — but it can be also injured with too much activity, like for example, too much jumping, too much running, sometimes slipping and sliding. In agility I see it a lot with weave poles — too many weave poles too early on. So there are a lot of things.

It sounds like common sense, yet you have this little ball of energy you want to do things with. People often ask, “I just want to tire my puppy out.” I’ve seen puppies that have different venues. They’ll run their puppies six miles at 6 months of age, which I just cringe.

I also get very concerned when, in agility, dogs can compete so much earlier, between 15 and 18 months, depending upon the organization. But it’s not so much the competing. It’s when do they start practicing. That is certainly a concern. And definitely the medium, large, and extra-large dogs. That’s not to say the smaller dogs you shouldn’t be careful with, but everyone wants to push their pup and make them the super pup that turns into the super dog, but again, getting back to that child, there’s only so much you can push them and only so much you can do. So think about those little growth plates as little machines.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that it can vary anywhere from 10 to 12 months to 40 months. Is there … larger dogs are at one end, smaller dogs at the other end? Is that how that works?

Debbie Torraca: Absolutely. The larger dogs take the longest to close up. For example, I just saw a 3-and-a-half-year-old Leonberger the other day. His owner had his hips X-rayed, and his growth plates are still open in the pelvic area. You think 3-and-a-half, and the life expectancy is not that long, but his growth plates are still … he’s still going, so he’s still got some growth to go. I think that’s so amazing that some of these large dogs still keep growing. Smaller dogs will definitely tend to close up earlier, so your toy breeds and your small breeds will close up earlier. The growth plates that tend to close the latest are the ones in the lower back or the pelvic area and then also in the shoulder. Those are the ones that take so much stress with running and jumping and stuff like that.

Melissa Breau: Interesting, which obviously is what a lot of our sports require of our dogs is those particular areas. Growth plate closing is the stage that comes up most often when we’re talking about puppies and exercise. But I’m really curious -- are there other stages that maybe are less well known that people should be aware of when it comes to puppy development that impact exercise and what you should and shouldn’t do?

Debbie Torraca: Absolutely. I really like to educate owners to look at your puppies, and not only physical, because you definitely have to pay attention to that growth plate, but I call it “the common sense puppy thing.”

Your puppies will go through stages. They’ll wake up one day and have forgotten everything you’ve taught them. They don’t know the command “sit,” “stay,” or anything like that. They’re most likely going through both a physical and maybe a mental growth spurt, so I always have owners take a look at that.

The other thing is their maturity. Some dogs, when you look at puppies and they’re so mature for their age, just like some children are, and they’re in control of their body, while others are not.

The other thing is body awareness. Again, some dogs have it all together right from the get-go. They’re great, they can stand, they’re aware, they don’t slam into furniture in your house and knock it all over, while other puppies are major klutzes, so they’re all over the place. This may definitely vary because they’re going to go through these growth phases, typically at 4 months, 6 months, and maybe again at 10 and 14 months, depending upon the breed. During this time, often owners will get frustrated and say, “He did sit, he did have good body awareness, and then he woke up and I’m not sure what happened.”

Then I always throw in, too, the owner capability, because I’ve owned … I think the smallest dog I’ve owned is actually my Cocker Spaniel. But I’ve had large breeds, and in hindsight — and they say hindsight’s always 20/20 — did I do stupid things with my dogs? Yeah. I thought my Bull Mastiff was all done at 18 months, and went on a long hike and made him sore because he wasn’t physically ready for that. Always tuning in, like owner common sense with things, and making sure we look at puppies and their growth, and making sure everyone’s aware of it, of what they’re going through.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned the hike. There’s so much differing advice out there, I’d really love to get your take: how do you decide how much is appropriate and what’s too much for a puppy when it comes to exercise?

Debbie Torraca: First, look at your breed, because certainly a Border Collie is going to be much different than, let’s say, a Basset Hound, with their ability and their endurance. So you’re looking at their breed. A large breed is not going to be able to do as much as a smaller breed.

With that said, and if you can factor that in, I like to look at 5 minutes of activity per month. For example, a 2-month-old puppy can get 10 minutes of activity a day. This sounds a little bit off, but forced physical activities, meaning taking them on a leash and walking them. No more than 10 minutes.

Forced versus unforced, if they’re running around the back yard and they’re having fun, most puppies — and I say this: most — are fairly self-regulatory, so if they’re tired, they’ll take a nap. Whereas if they’re on a leash or we’re asking them to do an activity, they don’t always have that option.

So looking again at that 5 minutes, a 6-month-old pup should be able to handle 30 minutes of activity. Again, a Cocker Spaniel’s going to differ from a Saint Bernard, so that Saint Bernard may need less activity, and that can be just used as a guideline.

I always like to look at, certainly if the dog doesn’t want to do something, then not to do it. That puppy could be going through a growth phase and not feel like going on a walk that day, and that’s OK.

If there’s any lameness, because certainly puppies, there’s a lot of conditions in puppies — panosteitis, which is inflammation of the long bones that’s caused by over-activity, some dogs are prone to that, and there’s a lot of other juvenile issues such as OCD lesions and HOD and a few other things that we need to be careful with — if you’re looking at never causing any lameness, and that is during the activity and certainly after.

I always like to look at puppies, whatever you do with them, take a look at them two to six hours after. If they sleep for two hours after the activity, that’s OK, but if they’re comatose for the next day, you’ve definitely overdone it. It may seem like a great idea, the puppies are tired and this is great, but that’s not always a good thing in the long run because you can definitely cause some damage.

My current Clumber Spaniel is just about to turn 8, and I have his hips X-rayed or radiographed usually every year. The first time I had it done, I was embarrassed, because when the orthopedist was reading it, he said, “Look.” He had a case of panosteitis when he was a pup, so you could see that damage in the bone. He said, “Did you overdo it with him?” And I thought, Oh my gosh, I preach this all the time. Did I overdo it with him? It’s something to think about because different breeds and different activity, so whatever we do with them is going to stay with them the rest of their life, both good and bad, and certainly from a physical standpoint and from a training standpoint.

Melissa Breau: Are there things that are absolutely NOT appropriate or never appropriate? Are there things that people should try to avoid beyond just tuckering a puppy out too much?

Debbie Torraca: Every puppy has to endure certain things, meaning they’re going to walk on a slippery floor. It’s almost impossible to not have them walk over something slippery or do stairs or functional activities. You can’t always carry a 4-month-old Saint Bernard puppy up three flights of stairs.

Some things are definitely not to do. You want to avoid extremes of movement until those growth plates are closed up. I’m a huge advocate of not doing a lot of twisting motions, for example, weave poles. Wait until you know those growth plates are closed, and then start with weaving activity.

The same thing with jumping. I hear a lot of times my agility clients will say, “But I really want them to get the foundation down.” Well, there’s so many different ways to learn the foundations. You can use small bump jumps and start working with them that way, but not jumping their full height until they’re completely mature.

Also something that seems fairly benign that can cause a lot of issues is heeling. We don’t often think about it. It seems like, “Oh, that’s a simple exercise,” but when the dog is heeling, their head is up in extension and their neck is rotated, and that is going to place a lot more stress onto the left front leg and the left back leg, and if they don’t have that core strength or the balance, we can see issues come down the pike later on. For example, one of the common things I see in obedience dogs is pelvic asymmetry. The dogs have odd issues with their pelvic area, they haven’t been strengthened well, and they lead to chronic pain and sometimes iliopsoas injuries, so that’s something to think about.

And extreme running or hiking. I always see people out jogging with their puppies. If you go back to that just 5 minutes of activity and working with that, you shouldn’t be out running with your dog or jogging that much until they start to mature. The same thing with hiking and that sort of stuff.

And definitely rough play. I’ve seen some puppies play together and they look like they’re going to kill each other. So getting in and moderating there and slowing it down.

Of course other things like jumping, excessive jumping on and off the bed or the furniture, or in and out of the car, because, again, that jump down could damage those growth plates. So really being cognizant and watching what the pups do.

It’s hard. There’s a lot going into it. I find, too, that so many people are so awesome about their training and every movement they do. I had a client come in two weeks ago that just retired and has a Golden Retriever, and she’s been doing everything with her pup, from dock diving to obedience to flyball. The dog is almost 2 years now, and the dog has really bad hip pain. It can’t hold a sit because it’s so weak. Yet the owner’s been doing all these things, and she was almost in tears when I told her, because she thought she was doing all these great things keeping her dog so active. But the dog never had the strength to do all these things. She never let her pup be a pup. She got right into jumping and all of that other stuff, so it definitely has caused some issues. Fortunately we’ll be able to turn them around, but it’s setting a lot of things back in her life with regard to competing.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned running with a puppy, and I want to ask you about that. Are there general guidelines for when and how much is too much when it comes to running — and you mentioned hiking too — with a young dog?

Debbie Torraca: When you’re putting a dog on a leash and asking them to keep up with you on a jog or a run, you’re not really giving them the option to stop, sniff, or take a break. So I ask owners to hold off on any kind of jogging or running until the dog is at least 18 months old. My preference would be later, so anywhere from 24 to 30 months old to let them mature.

Hiking, if they’re off-leash and they’re able to kind of self-regulate, you can start earlier, maybe anywhere from 10 to 18 months, but again taking it easy. You don’t want to take your 10-month-old pup and go for an 8-mile hike. Again, we wouldn’t do that with a 10-year-old child and not expect ramifications. So there would be issues. Then there would be a lot of whining.

Melissa Breau: I was thinking that. I was thinking you’d get a lot more whining than you would with a dog.

Debbie Torraca: Whenever I take my almost-12-year-old daughter hiking, she’s like, “Really? Are we done yet?” We’re only half a mile in and she’s like, “This is too much!” So I definitely empathize with that.

Melissa Breau: The other thing you mentioned was training. I know we’ve got a lot of training junkies in our audience, but I wanted to ask about differentiating between “training” and “exercise” -- especially the good exercise that we’ve been talking about. Is there too much training? Where’s the crossover there, and where’s the line?

Debbie Torraca: I think certainly with, again, training that there is so much mental stimulation with training. People often do ask, “How do I tire my puppy out?” Well, every trainer and everyone listening probably already knows the answer: make them think. Because when they have to think, that is going to fatigue them more.

As far as starting conditioning with pups, I actually like to start conditioning with pups, if I can get my hands on them, as early as 2 weeks of age, and just starting with little things.

There was a study done that demonstrated pups growing up on a stable surface, starting to do a little balance and essentially core work, had a lower incidence of hip and elbow dysplasia. That’s huge. You think about, for any breeder out there, doing stuff, and you want to start introducing little things to them. For example, just climbing, using their core to climb up to their mom. When they’re comfortable, just walking on and off unstable objects.

I’m huge about any objects that are used. We now, in the past probably three or four years, we know the dangers of phthalates with children, and certainly there are more and more studies coming out linking phthalates to canine cancer and reproductive issues, so anything that the puppies are utilizing has to be phthalate-free because they’re chewing on it, they’re absorbing things through their feet, that sort of stuff. So I go wild about that.

And then just simple things. I remember when my Clumber pup, one of the first things we worked on when he was 8 weeks was just sitting on an unstable surface. We sat him on a disc, and he would sit for a couple of seconds and just go to his tolerance and then take a break and we would do it again. That started to work on his body awareness. When he was comfortable he stood on it for periods of time. Again, just up to his tolerance.

I would not do more than a few minutes a couple of times a day with a growing puppy, so up to 6 months of age I like to keep it at maybe 5 minutes twice a day with this physical conditioning. That’s not including walking outside. This is more like body-awareness exercises such as walking backwards, or even sit and give paw, and that sort of stuff.

Then, after 6 months of age, with the exception of a large-breed puppy, start doing a little bit more. Gradually start increasing it to 10 minutes a couple of times a day and working again on body awareness. I always try to think, What is this puppy going to encounter in their life? We think about it from a psychological training point, like we try to stimulate, get them used to kids’ noises, and loud noises, and bells and whistles, and all that sort of stuff.

And I think about it from the other end, like, OK, they’re going to have to go upstairs. They’re going to have to go downstairs, which is so much more difficult. They’re going to walk on a tile floor or a wood floor. What can we do to start to incorporate that? I love working very slowly and gradually on unstable surfaces and always to their tolerance. So whenever they start to get tired, we take a break. I’m huge over quality over quantity.

Melissa Breau: We talked a little about this already, but having a 10-month-old myself, I know it can be very tempting to over-exercise simply to tucker them out. Puppies can definitely be absolute terrors until they’ve developed -- or maybe are taught, depending on the breed – to have an off switch. I know you mentioned mental stimulation. Any other thoughts or suggestions for how puppy owners can manage that crazy energy level that sometimes comes with a puppy?

Debbie Torraca: Certainly. That’s a great opportunity to work on some stability and some body awareness and core work. One of the things I like to do is start off maybe with ten sit-to-stands on something unstable. It could be a disc, it could be a sofa cushion, something unstable, a dog bed, and then walk them for a couple of minutes, then stop.

Teach them to walk backwards, and while they’re walking backwards they’re thinking, What am I doing here? They’re so excited. Incorporate more sit and stands, because now you’re working on body awareness, you’re getting some strength through their forelimbs, their hind limbs.

If the dog has mastered down, at that stage you can do puppy pushups on different things, and if you’re out walking, you can use different surfaces. Grass is always my favorite, but if you come across sand or anything like that.

Teaching them to put their forelimbs up on something and hold for a few seconds, their hind limbs up on something low and hold for a few seconds, but incorporating a lot of physical and mental activity.

I’ve also found that working their core, working their balance, it’s very hard for a puppy to stand still. They want to keep going. Working on that standing still not only helps them with patience, but also helps them with that physical strength. For example, and we see this a lot in confirmation, owners and handlers want their pups to stand still. We work on it on land or on the flat, and then on something unstable, and start to build gradually, so 10, 15, 20, 30 seconds. It sounds so simple but wears them down. It makes them tired. When my dogs were young, and whenever they were driving me bats or I was having company over, I would make sure I worked their core and did a lot of these activities right before I had company coming over, so they would go and sleep.

Melissa Breau: We’ve talked a lot about exercise specifically, but I also want to talk a little more about the conditioning piece. It’s a blurry line for a lot of people, and I’d love to hear your take on what the difference is between what constitutes conditioning versus what just constitutes exercise.

Debbie Torraca: Great question. I think every dog needs a little bit of both in their life every day. I consider exercise a lot of our walking activities, stuff that a lot of dogs do, except I always find people that have back yards tend to not exercise their dog. Dogs that are just let out in the back yard, owners always get upset when I say, “That’s not really exercise.” Because you don’t know what they’re doing. A puppy can go tear up your back yard, or they can just go lay and sleep. Exercise should be a part of every dog’s life, that sort of stuff.

Conditioning really targets specific areas, and it could be balance, it could be proprioception while a puppy is growing, and their forelimbs are higher than their hind limbs or vice versa. You can work on conditioning, targeting specific areas. For example, forelimbs up on an unstable surface are going to target the hind limbs by putting more weight onto it, but also work the forelimbs and their stability a little bit. These may be more specific exercises, depending upon what’s going on.

Another example is if you have a large-breed dog that’s prone to hip dysplasia, you definitely want to take proactive steps and strengthen up their hips. Simple things to do, conditioning exercises would be sit-to-stand on an unstable surface. Because as they’re sitting and standing, they’re working their butt muscles, their hip flexors, and their pelvic area. The same thing if a dog is prone to elbow dysplasia. There are certain breeds that are prone to it. We can do a lot of stability conditioning for the forelimb to help with stabilizing or strengthening as much as possible.

Ideally, every dog, like how we say to people, ideally everybody should be out walking once a day, and everybody should do some sort of conditioning for their body, for their posture, or whatever, so the same thing.

Melissa Breau: You’ve mentioned a bunch of things as we’ve gone through, like having your front paws up on something, trying to get your back paws up on something, backing up. Just to condense all those into one question, what are some of the things puppy owners can do to help ensure their puppy grows into a well-formed, physically healthy adult? Do you mind running through some of those things in one list for folks?

Debbie Torraca: Usually, probably five key things that I tell puppy owners to work on. One is try to get them to stand still. This can start as early as 8 weeks of age. That is a lot for them. It tells us a lot too. If a puppy can’t stand still for 10 seconds, they’re usually uncomfortable in their body. So even at 8 weeks of age you can sometimes tell if something is off. So standing still and then building up. That could be initiated on land or on the floor, and then worked up to something unstable, like a phthalate-free disc, or a bed, or a sofa cushion, that sort of stuff. That’s the first one.

The second one is simple sit-to-stands. Anybody that’s had a puppy that is in that medium to large breed or giant breed, we know that the puppies go through every funky sit. They’ll sit with their legs out, they’re not sitting very ladylike, or that sort of stuff. But working on a nice, controlled sit. I usually try to incorporate that with mealtimes. Try a set of ten before each meal. They’re good and hungry, they’re usually a little bit crazy, so you can use a few food kibble, you can do that, and then you can progress to them sitting and standing on something unstable. As they are working on something unstable, they’re starting to work those large core muscles, balance, and proprioception.

The third thing is walking backwards. Just learning body awareness and to use their hind limb to move backwards is a key exercise. We could increase that as the dogs become stronger by stepping over things, by stepping onto different things.

The fourth thing is a down, because again, we could turn that into make it more difficult. So going from a stand to a sit to a down, slowly and controlled, and it’s both a down and an up. Again starting this on land and then doing it on something unstable, so the unstable activity will make it more difficult.

The other thing, the fifth thing, is a little bit more difficult. It involves the dog standing still and just leaning forward and leaning back. This would be kind of analogous to you and I standing on our feet and leaning forward and leaning backward. It requires balance and body awareness, but also a lot of strength. I usually start with puppies with this on a platform and ask them to lean forward just a smidge, maybe half an inch or a centimeter, and then have them return. This is fairly difficult to do, so it may not be until they’re 5 or 6 months old. Some of the larger-breed dogs have even a tougher time pulling this together.

Those are the five things that just about every puppy can start on. Once they have those down, then we could add different things and make them more difficult, or that sort of stuff, depending upon what the dog is going to do in their professional career.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned you do some stuff with puppies as young as 2 weeks. What age are we talking about for the stuff you just mentioned, for those beginning?

Debbie Torraca: For the most part, starting at 8 weeks of age, and just keep in mind you want to do it to their tolerance, so no more than 5 minutes. But if they can’t handle more than … they can’t do that, then you just wait. Also remembering that there are days that they’re not going to be able to mentally or physically pull it together, and that’s OK. So something you can work on every day, but if they’re growing and just want to sleep or chew on things or something, give them the day off, because it sounds so simple, but it’s a lot for them.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much. I think that’s all the questions I had, so I really appreciate you coming back on the podcast. It was awesome to chat through this stuff.

Debbie Torraca: Thank you so much, Melissa, for having me, and I look forward to speaking with you in the future.

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

We’ll be back next week with Nancy Tucker to talk about Desensitization and Counter-conditioning.

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


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

Feb 23, 2018




Kamal Fernandez is an internationally renowned dog trainer and seminar instructor, Championship Obedience Judge, Crufts competitor, and the head trainer and owner of East London Dog Training. He has over 25 years of practical dog-training experience, based on a combination of science and hands-on work that have led him to establish a reputation for positive training and to champion reward-based methods all over the world.

Kamal has made a study of psychology and began his career as a police officer working with young offenders. This has shaped his training philosophy and helped him craft a style that gets the best from his students — human and canine alike.

He’s probably most well known for teaching heelwork, his primary focus at FDSA, but he’s successfully used rewards-based methods in a wide variety of dog sports, including obedience, agility, protection sports, and canine freestyle. His training specialty revolves around using play and games to create motivation and control.


Next Episode: 

To be released 3/2/2018, featuring Esther Zimmerman, to talk competitive obedience and dog sports in general.


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 Kamal Fernandez.

Kamal is an internationally renowned dog trainer and seminar instructor, Championship Obedience Judge, Crufts competitor, and the head trainer and owner of East London Dog Training. He has over 25 years of practical dog-training experience, based on a combination of science and hands-on work that have led him to establish a reputation for positive training and to champion reward-based methods all over the world.

Kamal has made a study of psychology and began his career as a police officer working with young offenders. This has shaped his training philosophy and helped him craft a style that gets the best from his students — human and canine alike.

He’s probably most well known for teaching heelwork, his primary focus at FDSA, but he’s successfully used rewards-based methods in a wide variety of dog sports, including obedience, agility, protection sports, and canine freestyle. His training specialty revolves around using play and games to create motivation and control.

Hi Kamal, welcome back to the podcast!

Kamal Fernandez: Hi Melissa, thank you for having me back. I’m grateful, I should say, to be here.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited. To start us out, do you want to refresh our memories a little bit by reminding us who the dogs are that you share your life with and what you do with them?

Kamal Fernandez: Yeah, absolutely. I’m happy to do so. I own eight dogs — that’s a lot of dogs — and several breeds. My oldest dog is a Malinois called Thriller, and she does obedience along with my oldest Border Collie, Scooter, and they’re both 10 years old. After them comes a German Spitz called Sonic, and he does agility. He is 7 or 8 years old. I got him when he was a little dog, so I always lose track of their date of birth when I’ve got them a little bit older. After that is Punch and Fire. Punch is my boxer who I’m currently training to do OPI, hopefully, which is a protection sport, and Fire, my Border Collie, who I do agility with, followed by Super, who is my Border Collie, he’s 3 years old. I’m contemplating at the moment doing tracking with him. And then I have Super and Fire’s daughter, Mighty, who is my young Border Collie. She is 18 months old, and I’m undecided again about what I’m going to do with her. And then finally my little crossbreed, Sugarpuff, who really is just a very content lap dog. So a lot of dogs.

Melissa Breau: I love that at the end of all these working dogs you have a lap dog, which is perfect.

Kamal Fernandez: Well, she was meant to be my girlfriend’s dog, but she is really just a family pet, she’s an absolute little puppet. She’s a dog that we got that we rehomed, and she’s an absolute joy in every sense. She’s just the perfect family pet, so you know what? She can do what she likes, and she gets away with blue murder.

Melissa Breau: To dive into things, I did a little bit of reading before putting together the questions. I got caught up on your blog. For those of you who don’t know, Kamal writes a blog at If you Google his name, it does come up. Anyway, you recently wrote a post about why you choose to compete in dog sports, and you shared that you’re under no illusions, that dog sports aren’t really about your dogs, they’re not sitting around dying for a chance to compete. So can you share some of that here? Why do you compete in dog sports?

Kamal Fernandez: Absolutely. I’m happy to do so. As the blog said, I’m under no illusions — competing in dog sports is very much for my ego and my benefit. My dogs love the interaction, they love the training, but to actually put them in my vehicle, drive to Timbuktu, get them out, and ask them to perform at a dog show or a dog trial, or an agility competition is very, very much about my ego. So for me that dictates the reason why I train my dogs, sorry, the manner in which I train my dogs, which is using reinforcement, because, as I say, it’s for my ego, the least I can do is sell it to them in a way that’s beneficial to them.

Now the flipside to that is I have dogs that definitely need a vocation. They’re high-drive dogs, they’re dogs with a lot of energy, and they’re dogs that on paper you would say would have definitely behavioral issues if it wasn’t channeled, so I train them because it appeases that part of their personality, but I could just as easily go to my local park, or train at a village hall, or any location, and do exactly what I do with them, and that would appease that need.

So the reason for which I compete is because, one, I’m going to be truthful: it’s for my ego. I’m a competitive person. I like to push myself as a trainer to see if I can train my dogs to the standard where it’s better than my peers. I think that challenge keeps my training fresh, it keeps me innovative, and it also gives me a standard to aspire to. It would be very easy with a certain type of dog that I own, certainly, to manage their behavior and not deal with it if the dog had a dog aggression issue, or was reactive, or was chase motivated — or chase orientated, I should say — it would be very easy to stay in my life and manage their behavior. But going to competition a lot forces me, as the trainer, to have to deal with some of those issues, and as a byproduct of that it actually creates a dog that is able to function in society with great ease.

My dogs, I can take anywhere. I can take them to High Street if I’m having a cup of coffee, I could take them to a public place and they would be well-mannered and they would have good social skills. Taking them to competitions forces my hand to have to deal with that stuff. I have to socialize them, I have to teach them self-control, I have to teach them impulse control, I have to teach them to be focused on me and ignore other dogs or fast-moving things. So from a behavioral point of view I actually benefit from having to take them to those environments because I have to deal with the things I could quite easily manage and deal with in other ways. So that’s part of the thing.

The other thing is that, for me, I train dogs because it’s an extension of my relationship, and being amongst other people that have a similar ethos is you accrue — I wrote a blog today about villages — you acquire people who support you in the journey in which you choose to tread. That is not only in the manner in which I train my dogs, but also showing what can be achieved by this methodology and this approach to dog training.

So certainly for dog sports, which is largely … the majority of dog sports have, with the exception of, I’d say, agility and heelworks freestyle, those are sports that are relatively new in comparison to, say, bite work and protection work and IPO and obedience, there’s less bias toward more traditional and sometimes compulsive methods.

I think the way we would change people’s perception of how to train dogs is to get out there and show and illustrate to people what can be achieved, not just at a more local level but at the highest level of all sports, so nationally and even world championship level. I’ve had students that have gone to the world championships with dogs that have been trained positively in a sport that is primarily … for example, it was IPO, which is a sport which largely still has a lot of compulsion within it, so that was a huge thing to illustrate what could be achieved by reinforcement-based methodology, and I think if we are going to change the way in which people perceive how to train dogs, then we need to be out there and be almost ambassadors for that change.

Melissa Breau: A lot of people tend to wind up at a competition for the first time before they or their dogs are really ready, often without realizing how unprepared they actually are. If you could talk a little bit about how you officially decide when to begin trialing a dog when they have those skills and you feel they’re ready to go to a real competition.

Kamal Fernandez: I do a lot of preparation for my dogs, and my actual goal whenever I get a dog is to create a well-adjusted family pet. That’s my agenda, because I know by putting in the layers of creating a well-adjusted family pet, I’m going to get a great competition dog.

I was in a situation where, with one of my dogs, his career in dog sports was a little bit in jeopardy. He had a major injury, and I wasn’t sure if the dog would be able to recover from that injury to be able to ever compete, and I was faced with the prospect of having this dog and he would have to be just a family pet. Well, if I got the dog with the primary intention of competing him, I would have been focused on, say, drive building and bite work when he wouldn’t have been a nice dog to own. But because my agenda was to first and foremost make him a great family pet, it was neither here nor there.

So the process of creating a dog that’s great at competitions is about establishing things like focus, a great recall, getting them to be socially acceptable to work on their temperament. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t have dogs that are all of that ilk. I have rescue dogs, I have rehomed dogs, I have breeds of dogs that are predisposed to having aggression, chase drive, reactivity issues, and as part of dog training, and as part of preparing them for competition, I have to create a dog that’s stable in those environments, so I’m a great believer in training beyond the requirements of competition, so I do a lot of generalizing with my dogs. I take them to weird and wonderful places to get them confident in those environments, I teach them to cope with all the things they’re going to encounter in competition, and that is other dogs, other people, motion, distractions, tense, flapping things, things like the head, etcetera. All that stuff’s done first and foremost.

It would be great to have a dog with a baseline temperament that I could get away with not having to do that work, but the type of dogs I have — and I don’t just have one type of breed of dog. I don’t have dogs all that are from specific working lines. I have rescue dogs, I have rehomed dogs, I have dogs of unusual breeds, and my first goal is to get that dog comfortable in all environments. That in itself can take time and patience and dedication. And then, from that, I am obviously building behaviors like focus, simple behaviors like sit, down, stand, train them to focus on me, work on their domestic recall. By doing all that I create the basis of a dog that can cope with competition, so that’s my primary objective initially.

Once I’ve done that, training the dog to do the specifics needed for competition — actually here’s the ironic thing — is actually really, really easy. It’s easy  to teach a dog to pick up a dumbbell and come back, if you’ve done all those preliminaries. So, for example, if I’ve created lots of focus for me via using the medium of play, I know it’s going to be easy to teach my dog to bring a retrieved article back. I know that it’s going to teach my dog to be a great agility dog, or have agility skills, if my dog has the ability to ignore distractions. For example, all that would transfer to me walking down the local... the street and the dog ignoring distraction. The whole thing — it’s a holistic way in which I engage with my dogs.

So it’s all about preparation. We used to have a phrase when I was a police officer: “Lack of preparation is preparing to fail, and failure to prepare makes an ass out of you and me.” If you don’t put the work into preparing your dogs — and that is not only the dog trainer, that’s the you training. That’s looking at yourself, that’s looking at your mental game, that’s looking at your confidence level, that’s the whole picture.

As a sports dog coach, my agenda, my goal, is to create the team — and I use that word specifically, the team — both the dog and handler that can cope with the rigors and challenges faced within dog sports.

Melissa Breau: You said in there you take them to lots of weird and wonderful places. I love that turn of phrase. That just rolls off the tongue really neat. I was hoping that you might be willing to dive a little bit deeper into your process of preparing for that first competition. Can you just share a little bit about how you go about that?

Kamal Fernandez: The first thing is I create a lot of focus to me, and that’s done … I work a lot on my dog’s recall domestically, I take them to lots of environments, and I do the socializing process with other people and dogs, etcetera. But the main thing that I’m aspiring to create with my dog is largely indifferent to things. I don’t want my dog to be overly focused with dogs. I don’t want it to be overly focused with people. I would like them to be indifferent, like, “Yeah, people, dogs, I’m certainly not stressed by them, I’m certainly not excited by them, I’m largely indifferent.”

How I do that is I’m very diligent about how, and aware about how, I socialize my dogs. I ensure that … even socialization, it’s a process. It’s strategic. I choose the dogs that my dogs will mix with. I choose the people that my dogs will mix with. Obviously, as a professional dog trainer, I’m able to do that, but even my domestic clients who have no interest in doing dog sports specifically, we discuss the need to be vigilant with how you socialize and engage your dogs with the world.

So I’ll identify if the dog has any issues with his baseline temperament, because not all dogs are predisposed to coping with those things. That’s my first thing. I need to see what I’ve got. And then. if the dog lacks confidence, or is nervous, or apprehensive, or fearful, I first do work to create a dog that’s confident and well-adjusted in all environments.

Then I work on basic skills. I work on my foundation, and this is something that I would say most people underestimate: the need to teach foundation. It’s called foundation because that is where you are laying your basis for which your house, your building, your tower of dog training is going to be placed. If your space isn’t solid and secure and well grounded, your house will inevitably fall down. And that is having a dog that has great skills in relation to toys. So I teach distinct skills, that is, my dog to tug a toy, my dog to bring the toy back at speed, my dog to release the toy on cue, my dog to drive to a dead toy on the ground, and my dog to chase a moving toy. I do those in relation to play, and I teach distinct marker words, which I blatantly took from another Fenzi dog instructor, Shade, whose concept of introducing marker words is absolutely fantastic, and I believe other trainers in Europe use a similar principal. So I teach all that first and in relation to toys.

Parallel to that, I work skills in relation to food, and I also get my dog shaping behavior and understanding to offer behavior.

I lay all that foundation before I teach a specific exercise. The reason I do that is because now I have the mechanical skills, and the dog has the skills, to be able to train the dog effectively and efficiently for that specific behavior.

For example, if I need to teach a behavior that requires distance, a great way to reward the dog would be to throw the toy to the dog. If my dog doesn’t pursue a moving toy and then bring it back to hand and doesn’t release it, I now have to come up with an alternative solution. I would have to either go to the dog or I would have to use food, which might not be appropriate in the environment, or might reduce drive, but I’m having to compromise the A-1 means of reinforcement for that dog.

So for me, it’s all about laying foundations, and a really good example is my youngest dog, Mighty. Mighty was born and she coincided with the birth of my daughter, and obviously my priorities for dog training was very much about putting that on the backburner, so she largely was left to pasture, so to speak. I worked on social skills, I took her out on her own and I did recalls and stuff, but she had no training for any dog sport specific behavior at all. I didn’t teach heeling, I didn’t teach retrieves, I didn’t teach any of that stuff.  I didn’t do a foundation for agility. I did nothing. But what I did do was teach her skills in relation to toys, food, shaping, etcetera. I did five-minute sessions with her whenever I could, and her training was very sporadic.

Her siblings were trained and didn’t have that issue and they obviously … it was very much a toss, and they raced off and they’re doing amazing things by a year old. The irony is that now they’re 18 months old, I probably caught up with every single one of her siblings because she had a great foundation, so what they were fastidiously working at, and that’s not a criticism of them, it’s just that all I did was work from foundation. I worked on her being able to be focused with me, I worked on her understanding to pick up a toy, let it go, bring it back to me, etcetera. Now I can move her through her training relatively quickly, and she’s caught up or most certainly is fast catching up with her siblings on what she can do, and that’s all about having a great foundation.

I think that most people, they desperately want to move on to the sexy stuff, the fun stuff, the stuff that looks like real dog sports, and just working on being able to give your dog a treat without the dog taking your hand off is something that people go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll do that later on,” and yet they miss the importance of being able to deliver reinforcement effectively, and that’s really where I would urge people to place their emphasis and their attention and their training time.

Melissa Breau: Because it makes everything else so much easier, right?

Kamal Fernandez: Absolutely, yes.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned a little bit, you were talking about how you evaluate dogs and their tendencies, and I know that some of your dogs came to you with what people might consider “issues,” for lack of a better term. You mentioned last time you were on the podcast that you actually really enjoy working with behavioral cases, so I wanted to ask you a little bit about how you decide what a particular dog’s tendencies are and how those impact what you focus on in your training, or even what sports you might do with that particular dog.

Kamal Fernandez: I would get a dog with some idea of what I would like to do with that dog. But if I could, I could pick a dog from a certain line or lineage or temperament that’s going to be best suited for a vocation. However, I’ve had dogs that I literally saw, for example, my Border Collie, Scooter, and my German Spitz. I literally saw them … one was online, I saw a picture of him, I rang up the breeder, and I think I got him with no knowledge of anything about him, his history. I made the decision that I wanted a little small dog, I was Googling, he came up, and that was about as complicated as it got.

With my Border Collie, Scooter, I’d lost two dogs very young and I was frantically looking for another dog. At the time there was no puppies for some reason at least that’s how it came across, all litters had all gone, the time was wrong, and I saw him in a magazine, looking for a home, and I went and got him with no history. I had intentions of what I’d like to do with that dog. I was going to do tracking, but he had a reoccurring physical injury, which meant that he couldn’t do that. So in his situation I was forced to change what I do with him, and the irony is that he was a brilliant, brilliant tracking dog. He just had a natural aptitude toward it, but he couldn’t jump because of this particular reoccurring injury.

In that instance it wasn’t so much his temperament that dictated it, it was physicality, so that was what dictated the way the sport I did with him. But temperament’s a massive thing. If the dog has an aptitude for something and the dog gets joy from that, why not investigate that as a chosen career or sport for that dog, because I’m a great believer in doing what your dog loves, and finding what your dog loves, and manipulate it to get what you want from the dog.

If my dog has a particular tendency towards, say, for example, chase drive, the obvious sport I’m going to pick for them may be something like agility or something that is motion driven. You have to appease what the dog is naturally. You have to give the dog what its baseline requirements are. If I have a dog that likes to run in some way, shape, or form in its life, I need to almost appease that part of its personality. Same if I have a dog that likes to hunt, I’m going to do something with it that appeases that part of its personality. That doesn’t mean I might compete with it, but in its daily life I’m going to do something that satisfies them. I greatly, genuinely believe that creates a dog that is content and happy because they don’t have that sort of frustration of not having that part of their temperament or what is hardwired into them genetically not satisfied. Does that make sense?

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I think that’s super-important. A lot of people get a dog that was bred for a job and they don’t always think about how that should influence, or does influence, what they should do on a daily basis. So I think that’s an interesting point.

Kamal Fernandez: Absolutely. A lot of the behavioral cases I work with, it’s because they get a dog that happens to be from a certain breed that is predisposed to work. They need a task. That doesn’t mean that I would say you need to do a dog sport with this dog, but you do need to do something that appeases that part of their characteristics. Like a cocker spaniel — play some search games with it, throw a ball in long grass, teach it to go finding things, do some fun scent work in your living room. Something that just checks the box of hunting in that dog’s DNA, as it were. It’s the same for … if I had a dog that was predisposed to running, or liked to chase, I would channel that chasing onto me via recall so that my dog didn’t then externalize that in a negative way and therefore become reactive, become the dog that chases traffic, becomes the dog that obsesses with shadow, etcetera.

Melissa Breau: Did you pull out the cocker spaniel example because you know that I have a 9-month-old English cocker puppy?

Kamal Fernandez: Absolutely. Got to love a cocker puppy.

Melissa Breau: I know you’ve been doing some writing lately about the term leadership, and how you’ve struggled a bit with the term because of how strongly it’s associated with dominance theory, so I wanted to ask you a little about that. What got you started thinking about the concept?

Kamal Fernandez: I’ve been dog training for a little while now, and I’ve seen a real journey from how we used to train dogs and how we viewed dogs, and even from a social setting, to how we see them now, and I would say the pendulum has swung from one extreme to another and that we’ve gone from the use of compulsion was very much accepted and the norm.

Just to give you an example, the first day I went to dog training with my little crossbreed, I was 8 or 9 years old, I was taught how to put a choke chain on her, and we walked around the hall for the whole 45 minutes and we did recalls, we did all these exercises, which now I look back and I shudder of all the things that were wrong with that situation and what is best dog training.

Now don’t get me wrong — the intentions of the people were genuine and they were heartfelt and they believed — like Maya Angelou says, when we know better, we do better — they believed what they did was correct. But that opinion and viewpoint has largely changed into more positive-reinforcement-based. We’ve had more studies completed about dogs and dogs’ behavior and how behavior is viewed, and how the interpersonal relationship with dogs isn’t about them plotting up at night thinking about how, I mean, now Sugar’s sitting on my bed. I can’t for one minute think that I have to sleep with one eye open in the risk of her taking over the world, so to speak. We’ve made peace with that. We know that that isn’t the case.

But we’ve become almost reluctant to give our dogs leadership, and to give them direction, and to say to them, “It’s OK, it’s fine, you’re going to be OK,” or to say to them, “That’s not acceptable behavior. That is acceptable behavior. That’s what I’d like for you to do.”

I spoke at a conference, talking about the dirty words in dog training and the concept of saying no, not as in I’m literally saying no, but laying boundaries for my dog and having lines drawn in the sand about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior. I believe there’s a lot of guilt in dog training. I think that we have a real issue of guilt about how we treat these amazing animals who have forgiven us for poor communication, misunderstanding, and really, really inadequate training, and we’re overcompensating in that there’s a train of thought about not to put your dog in a collar, that head collars are aversive, which you could argue aversive that they are, that any sort of stress or frustration to your dog is to be avoided at all costs.

It’s not even a balance. It’s not even a balance, because my life is very much in the realm of reinforcement and positive dog training, and I absolutely, absolutely believe in its power and its potency. The way in which I approach dog training isn’t just about dog training. It’s about the way in which I lead my life. I believe in being positive, positive energy, putting positivity out there.

The parallel I use is, as a new parent, my role for my daughter is to give her direction, is to give her leadership, and to give her confidence, and that’s the greatest gift I can give her, in my opinion. If I can give her confidence and self-belief, for me, you can give a child no greater gift. That stems from sometimes it’s going to be saying to her, “That’s not appropriate. You can’t speak to people like that. That’s amazing. That’s fantastic. We’re super-proud of you.”

I consider myself somebody that leads by example in a professional sense and also a personal sense, and I have no qualms with talking about the concept of leadership. My dogs require leadership. I’ve had dogs like my Spitz — he was incredibly fearful, incredibly nervous with people and dogs and life. The way in which I built his confidence up was to give him light leadership and teach him, “It’s fine, the flappy thing’s not going to hurt you. This person’s not going to come near you. I will look after you. I will be there. I’ll support you.” I never forced him, I never grabbed him and said, “You’re going to put up with the thing that scares you most.” I was always the person that gave him confidence, and I fed that through to him with my interactions and my presence and the way I dealt with him.

We have become dubious about talking about leadership because I think that it has connotations with dominance-based theories to dog training, in which it was all about being the alpha, and being stronger and bigger, and we know that’s been dispelled. I have no negative connotations about leadership, and I have no negative connotations about being a leader to my dogs and giving them confidence.

I hope that people realize — and I stress this — that leaders don’t oppress. Leaders inspire. They cause you to want to do better. I look at the people that I consider as leaders in the public eye, and I look to them and I think they inspire you to do better. They show you what can be achieved by greatness, or what greatness looks like, and for me, I use that parallel with my dog training.

Melissa Breau: There are a couple of things in there, and one it sounds like partially what you’re talking about leadership as the idea that positive isn’t permissive, that it doesn’t mean we have to take whatever our dogs do. It also seems there’s this bigger idea of what leadership is in there. How do you define that term, or how are you defining that term? What does that look like? You talked about with your Spitz what you did to feed that confidence. Maybe you can paint that picture just a little bit more, what that looked like and what you were doing.

Kamal Fernandez: I deal with a lot of dogs that have reactivity issues and fear issues. I’ll give you an example of a dog I had. I posted videos of him on my Facebook page, and that was a Great Dane called Jensen. He was obviously a large adolescent Great Dane, and fortunately I didn’t miss my first interaction with him. He was incredibly fearful and he had a history of being reactive. He chased after a child, and there were a couple of other things going on with him.

When he came to me, the first time I met him he spook-barked at me, he backed off, etcetera, and his owner was really dubious about it. She was concerned about leaving him. Within, I would say, 24 hours, the dog’s behavior changed. It’s the same dog, and bear in mind she dropped him off for training with me, I had the dog for ten days, within 24 hours the dog was different, and within 48 hours you would have said I’d done something with that dog, or given him some sort of medication, or he was doped or tranquilized, because his temperament changed.

The way in which I dealt with him was I just never made a big deal out of his … when he got worried or apprehensive or scared, it was OK. I just allowed him to figure things out for himself. I allowed him the space and the time to just work out that the world isn’t a scary place.

I can remember distinctly taking him past a large garden ornament and he absolutely freaked out and he spook-barked at it. He was on a lead, so it was fine. It was quite a long lead, and I just let him go to the end of the lead, and I just stood my ground, and scratched my head, and looked around, and remained really nondescript about the whole thing. I was like, “OK, he’s scared of the garden ornament,” and I just allowed him to figure out. He sniffed the ground and went up to it. I didn’t feed him or reinforce him for any behavior. I just allowed him to realize, “Oh, it’s a garden ornament, that’s all it is.” Once he figured it out, the dog was absolutely fine. But because I didn’t react, and I didn’t panic, and I didn’t get stressed, or I didn’t hide or I didn’t go fearful, the dog picked up from me that, “Oh, OK, this guy doesn’t seem to be concerned about it. Why should I?” That was a consistent thing with him.

Another scenario — I had him on a training camp with me for a week, as I say. This was a dog that had reactive issues. He would lunge, and he caused quite a bit of damage to his owner’s hand by pulling and sort of strained … I think he fractured her finger, her whole hand, by his strength, obviously. So he had major issues with reactivity and lunging. I was training him one day, I was just playing with him and doing stuff with him, and somebody didn’t know I was training and they let their dog in the field. It came rushing up to him, straight up to him. It was a Golden Retriever, a really lovely dog, really super-friendly, and Jensen did nothing. He just sniffed it and he relaxed and I gave him a bit of lead and he sniffed it and that was the end of that. Now if that was previous to my dealings with him, that dog would have definitely, definitely reacted.

And again, it just stemmed from... I did things with him, like I definitely worked on his recall. I took him out with my other dogs, and my dogs are all very confident, so dogs pick up on that energy and they pick up on that vibe. If you’re with a group of people that are gregarious, outgoing, and positive, you tend to pick up on that energy, so it’s the same with dogs.

The other thing I did with him is I allowed him just to figure stuff out. I let him be a dog, and I think that’s a really, really, really key thing. Allow the dog to be a dog. Let him be a little bit freaked out by something and let him just work it out. “Oh, it isn’t a big scary scarecrow. It’s an inanimate object. It’s not an ax murderer that’s going to kill me.” Stay a safe distance, and be cautious and be sensible, but don’t be fearful in your dealings.

I’m very much about letting dogs figure that stuff out and I give them time. Obviously I use reinforcement, if appropriate. I give the dog space, and I’m mindful of who I’m interacting the dog with, so long as there’s things that help the dog. But the big thing is I give them leadership. I say to him, “The world isn’t a scary place. You’re going to be fine. Let’s walk past the ornament. Let’s just ignore it. It’s fine. Let’s go. I’m not bothered, so you’re not bothered.” I’m a confident person when I deal with dogs, and dogs definitely pick up on that.

Practical things that people can do and take away is video your training, video your interactions, and look at triggers that you do. Do you tense up the lead? Do you tense up your shoulders? Does your body posture change? Those are things that you can untrain the dog’s association with by doing those in the privacy of your own home and pairing them with reinforcement so you can help your dog understand that those triggers equate to good things happening to them.

The other thing is accrue people that are going to help you build your confidence with your dog, if you’re not naturally a confident person. I talk about accruing villages, people that have the same ethos, if you have the same approach to dealing with dogs, and therefore are going to help you with dogs that are challenging or that have issues and that you need to be a leader in, so you want supportive people around you. There is information out there. Obviously I teach for the FDSA, and I am going to use her as an example: Denise Fenzi is by definition a leader. She created the FDSA from nothing and she’s accrued people, villages, whatever you want to call them, who are on the same ethos. We are all individual, we have our own little things, and I think that’s the strength of the school, we’re all leaders in our own field, but Denise leads from the front, and she sets the tone and the example of how everybody engages, and how we operate, and how we teach, and how we approach our teaching.

From my personal experience that’s been a learning curve — how to deal with people online, and how to teach them and be more effective in my teaching and my communication, to be better and to be able to help more people. That’s the epitome of what a leader should be. There’s no judgment. It’s about inspiring people to want to do better, and I would say Denise is a great example of that. There are other people within our industry who I would look to as great leaders. She’s definitely somebody that’s taken the bull by the horns and set up this amazing school to do so.

Melissa Breau: Yes, absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more.

To shift gears a little back to the leadership concept, the last time you were on, we talked about this idea that work equals play equals work, and it seems like that idea and this idea of leadership are connected somehow. I’m not sure exactly where to pull those threads together. Do you see those ideas as related, and if so, how or how not?

Kamal Fernandez: Absolutely I do. The way in which I explain it is when I was a police officer, we always had a phrase in that you’d say, “You’d go the extra mile for a good governor.” A governor would be a person of rank who would be your manager, and you would go the extra mile for somebody that recognized your value. I think that’s very much applicable to dog training.

The reason they appreciated you is because you didn’t feel like you were going to work. You felt like you were going to be part of a team and having a great time with your mates, and everybody had the same vision, everybody was collective in what they were aiming for. I don’t want to say we were playing a game, because it was obviously serious work, but it never felt like work, it never felt like a chore to engage with the team I was specifically thinking about, because the person that led us created that ethos within the group, if that makes sense.

I’d say the same applies to dog training, in that if you can inspire your dog to want to play the game with you … Susan Garrett has a great phrase in that she says, “People that do great things, or leaders, they make the mundane tasks a game. They make things that are laborious and hard, they make it a game, and everybody wants to play games.” My role is to make it a game so the dog wants to play the game with me. Being an effective leader, you are inspiring the people that you lead, whether it be two-legged or four-legged, to want to participate. For me, the way in which I do that is via the medium of a game.

Melissa Breau: I want to totally change gears on you for a minute here and talk about your Handler’s Choice classes. I know Denise often says that the Handler’s Choice classes are one of the best values at FDSA, and I know you’ve taught them, at least the last few sessions. It seems like when I look back it seems pretty consistent. So I wanted to see if there’s something special about these classes that’s led you to offer them regularly, and if you could just share a little about how you run them and what they’re all about.

Kamal Fernandez: Handler’s Choice is probably one of my favorite courses I’ve ever done. It’s like a smorgasbord of dog training, and anybody that does Gold in the Handler’s Choice, you are going to get such amazing value for money, and you’re going to learn so much because there’s so many things that are covered. I’ve done Handler’s Choice and I had heeling, retrieves, go out, send aways, I had impulse control, I had a behavioral thing in there, all in one course, and you’re thinking, like, you sign up as a Bronze, you’re getting five or six or seven or eight, depending on how many different goal participants, you’re going to get all that information, all that different stuff, and I just think it’s such a great thing.

The way in which I do it is I allow everybody in Handler’s Choice to pick two things that they want to work on, so it might be, for example, heeling and retrieves, or it might be impulse control and tugging, for example, hypothetical, and work through that over the six-week period. I will post videos that are lectures related to your specific needs, and I’ll also do ad hoc ones. If I haven’t got video that’s appropriate I’ll go and do one that’s literally specific to your needs.

Another thing I do, which is really, really cool and I love to do, is I live-stream a session relating to somebody on that course. I have an alumni group for the Fenzi students that have done any of my courses, and I have done live streams talking about everything from heelwork to behavioral issues and adolescents, for example, I think I did a live stream on.

It’s such a great course. It’s like the secret course. People just don’t pick up on how amazing it is. You have so many courses that are very specific and the information is amazing, but it’s very, very much about a specific task or specific skill. But Handler’s Choice is literally a smorgasbord of brilliant training and so many different subjects, so if you’re a dog training geek like me, Handler’s Choice is definitely the course to do.

Melissa Breau: One last question before I let you go. I didn’t see anything scheduled with you yet after February when I was checking. It’s possible that will have changed by the time this comes out, but are there any other classes coming up that you’re going to be offering in the next couple of sessions that listeners should keep an eye out for?

Kamal Fernandez: Yeah. I’m the world’s worst in getting my calendar in order, and I tend to message Denise going, “Oh, Denise, can I do this in February?” And Denise being Denise goes, “Yes, message Teri to sort it out, whatever.” I probably, knowing me, will do something in February. At this moment I’m not sure what it’s going to be. I would have thought it would be Handler’s Choice again because that’s just a rolling class and I love teaching that, but at the moment I’m doing the FCI Foundation heeling course, which probably the natural thing would be to do the next subsequent course after that to give the people on the Foundation course continuity. That’s probably the way in which I’m heading.

The whole concept of the school is just fantastic. I love the ethos, I love the message, I love what the other instructors bring to the table. Some of them are very diverse and very different to what I do, and I’m very different to what they do, and I think the beauty is that we’re all individual, but we’re all on the same song sheet, so to speak. I think for anybody contemplating doing a course, it’s amazingly great value for money. It’s such a reasonably priced product. To be crass, it doesn’t cost the world to do six weeks of dog training with a world-renown international dog trainer in a specific field for $65. I think it’s $65.

Melissa Breau: The bronze? Yeah.

Kamal Fernandez: …where you can get that information. It’s ridiculously cost-effective, so hopefully more people will sign up and they’ll get on board with what Fenzi has to offer.

Melissa Breau: I certainly hope so. Thank you so much, Kamal. I really appreciate you coming back on the podcast.

Kamal Fernandez: My pleasure, Melissa. Thank you very much for asking me, and thank you very much for having me, and all the best.

Melissa Breau: You too. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week, this time with long-time FDSA student Ester Zimmerman, to talk competitive obedience and dog sports in general.

And guys, this week I want to repeat my special request from the last couple of episodes. If you listen to podcasts, I’m sure you’ve heard other people say this, but reviews in iTunes have a HUGE impact on helping new people find the show and letting iTunes know that our show is actually worth listening to. So if you’ve enjoyed this episode or any of the previous ones, I’d really appreciate it if you could take a moment, go to iTunes, and leave us a review.

We’ve gotten a few new ones -- like this one, titled Another Way to Learn from Top Dog Trainers from A Very Dead Bird.

“I'm excited that the Fenzi Academy has another venue to educate about progressive, effective dog training methods. If you're a fellow behavior geek, especially if you're into dog sports, this podcast is for you.”

Thank you a very dead bird, whoever you are!

And, while you’re there, if you haven’t already, subscribe to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


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

Feb 15, 2018



Julie Flanery has been working professionally with dogs and their handlers since 1993. She focuses on the needs of the dog and helping people form a strong relationship, through clear communication, and positive reinforcement.

She has placed Obedience, Freestyle, Rally-Obedience, Rally-FrEe, Parkour, Agility, and Trick Dog titles on her dogs. She began competing in Musical Freestyle in 1999 and was the first to both title and earn a Heelwork to Music Championship on the West Coast. In 2001 she was named "Trainer of the Year" by the World Canine Freestyle Organization and has been a competition freestyle judge since 2003. Five years ago Julie developed the sport of Rally-FrEe to help freestylers increase the quality and precision of their performances. It has since become a stand-alone sport enjoyed by dog sport enthusiasts all over the world. Julie has been a workshop and seminar presenter both nationally and internationally. She currently trains and competes with her Tibetan Terrier in both Musical Freestyle and Rally-FrEe.

Next Episode: 

To be released 2/23/2018, featuring Kamal Fernandez, to talk about the benefits of competition and the concept of leadership in dog training.


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

Today we’ll be talking to Julie Flanery.

Julie has been working professionally with dogs and their handlers since 1993. She focuses on the needs of the dog and helping people form a strong relationship, through clear communication, and positive reinforcement.

She has placed Obedience, Freestyle, Rally-Obedience, Rally-FrEe, Parkour, Agility, and Trick Dog titles on her dogs. She began competing in Musical Freestyle in 1999 and was the first to both title and earn a Heelwork to Music Championship on the West Coast. In 2001 she was named "Trainer of the Year" by the World Canine Freestyle Organization and has been a competition freestyle judge since 2003. Five years ago Julie developed the sport of Rally-FrEe to help freestylers increase the quality and precision of their performances. It has since become a stand-alone sport enjoyed by dog sport enthusiasts all over the world. Julie has been a workshop and seminar presenter both nationally and internationally. She currently trains and competes with her Tibetan Terrier in both Musical Freestyle and Rally-FrEe.

Welcome back to the podcast Julie!

Julie Flanery: Thanks.

Melissa Breau: To start people out, can you just remind folks a little bit of information about your dog, what you do with her, and who she is?

Julie Flanery: Currently I work with my 7-year-old Tibetan Terrier, and we are competing in Musical Freestyle and In Sync, which is a version of Heelwork to Music, and also Rally-FrEe. She’s earned her Championships in both Freestyle and in Rally-FrEe, and a Grand Championship in Rally-FrEe, and we’re working towards our Grand Championship in Musical Freestyle and our Championship in In Sync.

Melissa Breau: Do you want to share her name?

Julie Flanery: Kashi.

Melissa Breau: Kashi. Excellent.

Julie Flanery: Kashi. Like the cereal, you know? Good for you and makes you feel good.

Melissa Breau: I like that! So I think we have a pretty fun topic lined up for today. I wanted to talk about the skills that trainers need but they sometimes don’t learn until they get pretty into dog sports. To start us out, I wanted to start with talking about shaping. What aspect of shaping do you feel is usually the hardest for new trainers to implement effectively and why?

Julie Flanery: I think there are a couple of things that can be really hard for trainers. The first thing, I think there is a very fine line between clicking what you observe and anticipating what the dog will do, so that your click is well timed. There’s a tendency to wait until you actually see it, and then in that moment we have to process that information before we can act on it and actually click it. While this happens really quickly in the brain, there’s still some latency, and this can actually result in late clicks, so you’re giving the dog information that isn’t actually what you want to convey. So first, having a picture in your head of the path the dog is likely to take, and shaping that behavior.

Let’s say you’re shaping going under a chair. You can picture the dog’s most likely path from where he’s starting, as well as from where your reward is placed, and have a sense ahead of time of where your click points will be. You want to anticipate those click points. You at least want to have the precursor to your click points in mind and what they’ll look like. This way you’re going to be able to anticipate the dog’s next likely action, and that’s really imperative to good click timing.

In a lot of respects this also relates to raising criteria, which is another place that handlers tend to have a lot of difficulty, and they’re often getting stuck by clicking the same criteria for longer than is actually beneficial. You can often get stuck by clicking that same criteria for longer than we want, longer than is beneficial, so having that picture ahead of time can actually help the handler move forward in their criteria shifts as well.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned the going under a chair example. If you know you’re going to have the dog go under the chair, what is it that you’re looking for? That first drop of the head? The drop of the shoulders? Am I on the right track?

Julie Flanery: Depending on where the dog is starting, you might just be looking for looking at the chair. That might be your first click point. And certainly before the dog can move toward the chair, he’s going to look at it. Before the dog can go under it, he’s going to move towards it. But before he can move towards it, he needs to look at it. So you’re looking at that progression and the behavior to determine where your click points are going to be so you can anticipate those things. If you put your chair out and then you go stand next to the dog and wait for something, you’ve probably already missed that first click. So setting that chair out, the dog is likely to look at it. That would be your first click. And then moving towards it, we can anticipate he’s going to take a step towards the chair if he has any experience interacting with props. So we’re anticipating that, and we’re looking for it to happen, and we’re trying to time our click and mark it just as he’s doing that. If we wait until he actually does it, we’re probably going to be late in our timing.

Melissa Breau: Talking about timing, I know that one of the things you stress in your shaping class is the importance of good handler mechanics. I wanted to get into that a little bit. Can you share what you mean by that and how it’s supposed to work? Maybe where folks tend to go wrong when it comes to mechanics?

Julie Flanery: Sure. I think that we make it much harder on our dogs to shape than it needs to be sometimes. The dog needs to concentrate on the task, the task of figuring out “How do I earn reinforcement?” Remember, the dog doesn’t know we’re working toward something specific. He doesn’t know there is an end-behavior goal. We know that, but he doesn’t. He only knows that if he does certain things, he earns rewards.

But I do believe that experienced shaping dogs do learn there is an end result and that they are working toward completion. They learn there is a process being followed and can anticipate the next steps, what we sometimes call “learning to learn.” They can anticipate within the process, once we have allowed them to experience it enough, which I believe is why some dogs seem to be better at getting behaviors on verbal cue while other dogs seem to struggle with that a bit. So the more verbal cues the dog learns, the quicker he learns the next ones, so there’s an understanding of the process, what comes next, and the understanding from experience that verbal cues have meaning and value.

In terms of clean training, clean training is really about creating the best environment for the dog to concentrate on the task and not be distracted from that. So in shaping, the primary information we want to provide to the dog is the marker and subsequent reinforcement. This is really all he needs within the shaping process in order to progress toward the handler’s end goal. Yet we’re constantly hindering their ability to do so in a variety of ways. Hovering over the bait bag, hands in pockets, reaching for food, or having food in our hands all indicate reward is imminent. The only thing that should indicate that reward is imminent is the sound of our marker. Anything else is overshadowing and diminishing the meaning and value of that marker: the click. That’s our most powerful communication tool while shaping, and yet we’re constantly putting in these extraneous movements or chattering to our dogs, and all of this, if done when shaping, can draw their attention away from the task.

Think about if you’re concentrating on a crossword puzzle and someone keeps interrupting you to ask a question. It’s going to take longer to complete your puzzle, as there’s all this extraneous stimulus that you keep having to deal with. So in our attempts to help our dog — getting the treat out faster, saying encouraging things, moving in a way that we think will prompt the dog — he’s having to filter through what is relevant and what is not, and in our efforts to help, we’re actually pulling the dog off task. So let them work. Your job is to provide relevant information and not to cloud the learning process by doing things that distract the dog from working towards that task. Does that make sense?

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Sometimes it just helps to stop and think about, OK, this is the process I’m actually following: it’s a click and a pause and then reach for the treat, that piece.

Julie Flanery: Right. In terms of mechanical skills, those are the things we’re talking about. We’re talking about, What is the handler doing with their body? Is their body still and quiet? Are they allowing the dog to focus on what’s important, or are they taking the dog’s focus away from that because there’s something going on with the handler that isn’t really adding to the learning process and is actually detracting from it.

Melissa Breau: Even knowing all that, people tend to get frustrated when they’re trying shaping, especially if they haven’t done a lot of it, because they wind up with a dog that does one of two things. They wind up with a dog that stands or sits there and stares at them, especially if they’ve done a lot of focus work, or they get a dog that is throwing out behavior so fast that they’re having trouble targeting one specific thing or getting motion towards the behavior that they’re looking for. Any tips for folks struggling with those issues? I don’t know if there are generic tips that apply to both, but maybe you could talk to that a little bit.

Julie Flanery: That can be a huge deterrent and pretty frustrating to someone that’s just starting out in shaping, and I know many, many trainers who gave up or basically said, “It doesn’t work.” It’s not that the process and protocol don’t work. It’s that they need to learn how to apply it effectively. So these are two separate issues: the dog that stands still and does nothing, and the dog that just starts frantically throwing behaviors at you. But in general I’d say they have the same solution, and it’s a pretty easy mantra to remember: Click for anything but. Anything but standing still and staring earns a click, even if you have to toss a cookie to start them moving and give you an opportunity to click. Anything but standing still. A lot can happen, even in a dog that’s standing still, but for a lot of new shapers, the two-legged kind, larger movements are going to be easier for them to see. So getting the dog moving and clicking anything but standing still will help.

For those dogs that are frantically throwing things at you, you want to click way early, before they have an opportunity to start throwing behaviors out. You want to be ready before you get the dog out. A lot of dogs, we give these cues that we’re about to start shaping. We pick up our clicker, we put the bait bag on, we put our hand in our pocket, we go to a certain place, and our dogs, before we even in our minds are starting to train, are already starting to throw behaviors out at us. All of those “pre-cues” that we’re giving are actually cues to the dog to offer. So be ready before you get the dog out.

The worst thing you can do with both these kinds of dogs is look at them expectantly, like, “OK, do something,” or “Do something else.” Sometimes we have to create those first few clicks to get the dog on the right path, so setting up our environment or a session to prevent both of those things by creating some type of an effective antecedent. So if a dog is constantly throwing things at me, then I might use a prop to direct his activity. Or I might click upon coming out of the crate and each step forward toward where we want to train.

Often, dogs that throw behaviors just aren’t being given enough information of what to do, so they’re giving you everything they can think of in hopes that one of those will get clicked. So rather than shaping toward something, the handler is waiting for it to occur. I want you to click — again, it’s “Click anything but,” so if you can take that moment of behavior — a single step, a single look, coming out of the crate — and click that, that can start to define for the dog the path you’re going to lead them onto. It can tell them, “Oh, I don’t have to keep throwing all of this stuff, because she’s already clicking something. Now what did she click, so that I can repeat it?”

The other thing that often happens with these dogs that tend to throw things or push farther in the criteria than we want them to be is although we aren’t willing to drop back in the criteria, to move forward again. When the movement gets out of hand and you feel like the dog is pushing, or you’re pushing, or you’re rushing, it’s OK to just stop, breathe, go back earlier in the criteria, click something way less than what you’ve been clicking, and then build it gradually back up again. So again, I think the answer is the same for both those situations: Click anything but.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. I like that. It’s nice, short, and easy to remember. This seems like a good point to dig in more a little bit on criteria. You were talking a little bit there about thinking about your criteria maybe a little differently than most people do. Are there general guidelines for how fast to raise criteria? I know you talked a little bit about going backwards in your criteria. When is it a good idea to do that?

Julie Flanery: For me, and I think most of the Fenzi instructors, we all have a pretty common idea about raising or lowering criteria, and that is when it’s predictable, when you can predict they’re going to give you the exact same criteria again. I like to include the word confident, so when it’s confident and predictable, then increase criteria, and if you have two incorrect responses in a row, then it’s time to lower criteria.

For my dog, oftentimes she’s ready to raise criteria and looks confident, and for me, it’s predictable in her within three repetitions. I can tell whether it’s time to raise criteria, stay where I’m at, or lower criteria. A response might be predictable, but I’m not seeing quite the confidence I want to see, and so I might hold off another repetition or two to ensure that she really has some good understanding of that. But certainly if I see two incorrect responses in a row, then I’m going to lower criteria.

Now that precludes that you know where your criteria shifts are, because when I say “incorrect responses,” you have to know what that is and what that isn’t. Let’s say I’m training a bow, and I am watching for the head and shoulder lowering, and she’s moving in a progression forward, so I’m clicking the head drop, click the head drop again, then she lowers slightly lower, I click that, and I’m anticipating what her next movement is, so that I can actually see and anticipate, through my click, when she will do that.

Let’s say, for shaping, an incorrect response might be either less than what I previously clicked or no response whatsoever. She’s predictably dropping her head and starting to lower her chest, but maybe her elbows aren’t on the ground yet, and she’s done that same thing three times in a row, then I’m not going to click that anymore. I’m going to wait, and hopefully she’ll give me a little bit more, based on the fact that I’ve clicked this previously, she knows she’s on the right track, and she’ll be like, “Hey, did you see this?” and give me a little bit more, and I can click that.

So it was predictable that she was going to drop her chest a little bit and her head is lowering. I don’t want to keep clicking that because I’m going to get stuck there, because she’s going to think, “Oh, this is right, I think I’ll keep doing this.” If she is at that point, say, and the next offering, the next rep, her head isn’t quite as low, so I don’t click that and she just stands up. So she offers again and she still doesn’t get as low as the previous one, and she just stands up. Then I’m going to say, “OK, she doesn’t have clear enough understanding of what the next step is, so I want to build confidence in the previous.” In that case I’m going to lower my criteria maybe for a couple more reps and then start to build back up again. Does that make sense?

Melissa Breau: Absolutely, and that was a great example because it walked us through thinking through the different steps and the bits and pieces there.

Julie Flanery: Hopefully you can actually visualize that a little bit so you can actually see and be able to anticipate what that next step is. We all know what it looks like for a dog to bow and bring his chest and elbows down to the ground. You can map that out in your head and be able to anticipate what comes next, and if what you expect to come next isn’t happening, you’re stagnated, or you’re getting lesser responses, then that’s showing that the dog doesn’t understand what that forward progression is next.

Melissa Breau: You said something recently, and I can’t remember if I originally heard it in a webinar or if it’s from class, but you were talking about “leaps of learning” and how to respond if, while shaping, the dog suddenly makes a big leap in the right direction. Maybe we’re trying for four paws on a platform, they’ve been struggling to give two, and suddenly they step on it with all four paws. Obviously you click it. Do you mind just sharing it here? Because I thought it was really interesting and I hadn’t heard that before.

Julie Flanery: I don’t know if I will say exactly what you remember, but I understand what you’re asking, and it did come up recently in the shaping class I’m teaching that you are a student of — and you’re doing very well, by the way.

Melissa Breau: Thank you.

Julie Flanery: So there are times when it seems like our dogs get it right away, like, all of a sudden — what you just described —they were struggling with two and all of a sudden there’s four and “Yay!” That doesn’t mean you’re going to hold out for four feet on the platform now. One correct response doesn’t indicate understanding, and yet sometimes we forge ahead as if it does.

I want to see not only predictable responses, I want to see confident, predictable responses, so that leap up of four feet on the platform might have looked confident, but we don’t really know if it’s predictable until we get a few reps. So I want to make sure that I see confident, predictable responses before I increase criteria, even if it appears that they’ve got it.

Now, having said that, I don’t want to stay stuck at the same criterion too long, so each handler has to determine what that looks like in their dog. For me, I can recognize confidence in my own dog, in Kashi, and for her, if she provides the same response three to four times in a row, that’s predictable, and I’m going to go ahead and raise criteria there. If I made an error in judgment, I can always drop back down, but my goal is still going to be always forward progression. I don’t want to stay stuck in any single criterion for too long, and that might be different for each dog, but consider your definition of predictable. For me, again, if she does it three or four times in a row and she looks confident in her actions, I can predict that she’ll do it that fourth time or that fifth time. If I can predict it, I don’t want to stay there.

Kathy Sdao talked about criteria shifts in one of her lectures in relation to a recording being played on a record player, and how the needle can get stuck in a groove and not advance, so the record keeps skipping over the same place in the music. Well, if we click the same criteria for too many reps, the dog will get stuck in that groove, and you risk some increased frustration in working to get out of that groove. Sometimes lowering criteria is the way out. Sometimes withholding the click is the way out. Either way, you need to get out of that groove.

Melissa Breau: Frustration on both the dog and the handler’s part.

Julie Flanery: Exactly, exactly. It’s kind of like that dog that stands still and does nothing. You need to get out of that groove. What I talked about earlier about having a picture in your mind of the likely path the dog will take – that will help you not get stuck. I think sometimes people get stuck because they just don’t know what to click next. So having a picture in your head, thinking ahead of time, “What is this process going to look like?” will help you anticipate that and will help you move forward in the process, to progress in the process, and not get stuck at any one point.

Melissa Breau: What about duration? First of all, is it possible to actually shape duration, and then if so, how is shaping duration different than shaping more active behaviors?

Julie Flanery: That’s a really interesting question, and it’s interesting because of the way you framed it. You said, “Is it actually possible to shape duration?” and that surprised me because yes, it’s totally possible to shape duration, and I think really in general all duration is shaped in that we are marking and rewarding in small increments towards that end behavior, towards that extended duration of behavior.

Shaping duration is like shaping any other skill, though your increments need to be sliced very thin in order to not get some other behavior in there. You’re still withholding the click for a little more, and for most dogs withholding the click means do something else or push ahead. Duration needs to be more finely sliced so that we don’t get some of that junk behavior in there. But that little bit, little generally less than what you might hold out for in a moving behavior, so you’re not waiting long chunks of time, too, what we have to measure can be more difficult, so it’s not as difficult to measure movement, as there is time and space, you can see a dog’s action and how it carries him forward. So clicking movement, marking movement, in increments is not too difficult for the observer.

In building duration, there’s only time, there’s no space, and we aren’t very good at keeping track of time. If I paused here, then I asked three different people how many seconds did I pause, they would all have a different answer. So I often either count in my head or out loud to measure the advancement of my duration criteria. In appropriate criteria shifts for duration, especially since they should be sliced thin, we often aren’t very consistent in our forward progression of time, and that can lead to inconsistency and a lack of understanding in the dog. I think that the reason people have difficulty shaping duration is because they aren’t slicing those increments of time small enough. They’re thinking of it like they would shape movement and larger pieces of behavior, and in shaping duration you can’t do that because the dog is going to pull off.

Let’s take for example a sustained nose target. We want the dog to hold that nose target for — let’s say our goal is three seconds. Four seconds, three seconds. Initially we click the act of pressing the nose and we click immediately. That tells the dog what the intended behavior is to which we’re now going to start to attach duration. Once the dog presses the nose and expects a click and it doesn’t come, he’s likely to pull off, which is not going to get clicked either.

Often when we withhold a click, which is what just happened here, on the next rep we will see a slightly higher-energy behavior, a little bit more, a little bit stronger, again it’s like that “Hey, didn’t you see this? Look, I’m going to do it a little bit more so you can see it.” In that moment of that second offering after the withheld click, you’re likely to see a little more pressure — and I know it’s hard to see, and this is why hand touches are a good thing for this, because you’ll feel that pressure — and in that moment of more pressure, that takes a slightly longer amount of time. The time it takes for your dog to just touch something, and the time it takes a dog to touch something and put a little pressure, is slightly longer, and that’s what you’re clicking.

That pressure is also criteria of sustained nose target, because they’re going to have to put a little pressure there in order to keep their nose there. So that slice right there is super-thin, and once the dog pushes on again, you may have to go through a couple of clicks of he pushes, or, I’m sorry, he touches, it’s not sustained even for a fraction of a second, you wait, that second one is sustained a fraction of a second, you click. Then you can start to extend by not seconds but almost fractions of seconds. So you’re not counting one-one-thousand. You’re counting one, click, one two, click, one two, click. If the dog pulls off, there’s no click.

So the dog is starting to understand, through both the withheld click for when he comes off and the click for continued small slivers of duration, that by keeping the nose to the hand, or the wall, or wherever you wanted the target, that’s what he’s building toward. But as soon as you start to increase that too far, too fast, you’re going to get frustration, you’re going to get poking at the wall, which is not what you want, and so the key to duration, to shaping duration, is really making sure that, number one, you are slicing those increments very small, and that those increments are very consistent, that you’re not going all over the place with your duration, and that’s where the counting or doing something that helps you measure that passing of time so that you have appropriate clicks will help.

I’m not going to deny that it’s a harder concept for some people to get, or it’s a harder skill for some people to get, but if you understand the concept of shaping, and progressing through a behavior through small increments, it’s just a matter of how finely you slice it for duration. That’s all.

Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting, because typically you think of it’s always easier to teach a dog to do something in the absence of a behavior.

Julie Flanery: Correct. But you have to think of duration as a behavior. Does that make sense? Duration isn’t the absence of a behavior. It’s the continuation of a behavior. It’s the absence of movement, and we’ve always been taught “Click for movement, feed for position” — still a very, very good rule. But in duration it seems as if it’s the absence of a behavior, when in actuality it’s the extension of a behavior.

Melissa Breau: That gives me a lot to think on.

Julie Flanery: Yeah, I’m sure.

Melissa Breau: Hopefully it gives a lot for everybody to think on. But I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about training in general. I think you gave a great webinar last year on verbal cues, and it’s part of what inspired the topic for today, the idea of what you didn’t learn in puppy class. I feel like the concept of when to add a cue and how to go about it sometimes gets glossed over for a number of reasons, obviously, when dog owners are first learning to train. So when do you typically add a cue to behavior and how do you go about it?

Julie Flanery: For me, something that I touched on earlier, I like the dog to have confident, predictable, correct responses that include the majority if not all of my criteria for that behavior. I say majority because there are some times, or some things, that I can add later, and the cue actually helps me draw that base behavior out of the dog.

So, for example, duration or distance may be something I don’t have yet, but will go ahead and put it on cue and build those in later. The behavior may or may not be fully generalized when I put it on cue, depending on the behavior. I may use cue discrimination as part of my generalization process. For me, the criteria, the majority of the criteria, needs to be predictable and confident and I’m certain that I’m going to get correct responses. As soon as I have that, I will start the process of putting the behavior on cue.

Now, having said that, that will fluctuate, so I might have predictable, confident, correct responses in a session in the morning, and so partway through that session I start to add the cue. But maybe that afternoon or the next day, when I start my session, I’m not seeing the same confidence or the same predictability, and in that case I’m not going to continue to use the cue or add the cue in that session.

There’s kind of an ebb and flow to our dogs’ ability to maintain predictability when they’re first learning behaviors. It has to do with that leap of learning we were talking about earlier, about not assuming that because the dog does it correct once that they have understanding, and it’s the same with adding the cue. I do want to take advantage of my dog’s predictable responses in any given session, those predictable responses that again that are confident and contain the majority of my criteria. But just because I’ve started putting the behavior on cue doesn’t mean that that next session, or that next location that I might work the behavior, that my dog is ready then to put it on cue.

It’s kind of like Denise’s “Work the dog in front of you.” That dog changes from session to session, and so my training strategies have to change session to session, depending on what he’s giving me at the start of that session. So again: predictable, I’m going to insert the cue; not predictable, I’m going to hold off a little bit. And that may all very well be with the exact same behaviors over different sessions.

I think you are right in using the term “glossed over.” It’s a part of the process that few spend very much time planning or implementing. It’s either almost like an afterthought — “Oh yeah, now I need to put the cue on” — or they make the assumption that if they just start using the cue while training, the dog will get it somehow. So that process they apply is often random and very inefficient.

Overlapping the behavior and the cue is a really common thing that I see. Cues should always precede behaviors with nothing in between, no junk behavior in between the cue and the behavior. You want it to have meaning for them. In putting behaviors on cue or transferring the cue, you really need to set that up. So if you’re shaping, you first need a predictable, correct response. Are you noticing a theme here, Melissa? A predictable, correct response with confidence — that’s really key to the dog’s understanding. If the response is confident and correct and predictable, then we can start to assume some understanding. Until that happens, though, we’re still working towards that. Once you have that, you insert your cue just prior to the dog either offering the behavior or the behavior being prompted.

For example, we might have used a hand signal, we might not be shaping, we might have used a hand signal, or we might be prompting the dog in some other way, a visual cue or a prop might prompt the dog to interact with it. So just before the key phrase is, just prior to the dog offering the behavior or performing the behavior, that’s when you insert the cue. Not as the dog is doing the behavior. Cues always precede behavior. It’s why they’re called antecedents. It’s that old ABC: the cue is the antecedent, then behavior, then consequence.

So when putting a cue to shape behavior, where people tend to shoot themselves in the foot is continuing to reward offered behavior. They might have started to put the behavior on cue, great, the dog is predictable, the dog is consistent, you’re doing the correct thing by inserting the cue before the behavior, but unfortunately, you might be continuing to reward that offered behavior. So once you start to put the behavior on cue, execution on cue is the only thing that gets rewarded. Otherwise there’s no value in the cue to the dog. If he can offer and get rewarded, or if he can get rewarded for doing it on cue, you’re not going to get stimulus control because there’s no value in the cue. Now there’s a caveat to that.

Melissa Breau: Of course.

Julie Flanery: Yeah, and you’ll learn about it next week in class, but there are times when you have a behavior that’s on cue and you’re going to want to remove the cue and encourage the dog to offer it again so that you can either fix or improve on the behavior. Maybe something’s gone a little bit wrong, or you’re not getting the criteria you used to have with it. It’s gone a bit south. Then you want to remove that cue so that you can refine or improve the behavior, and then put that cue back on. That’s a little more advanced process that is an important process too.

Cues are cool. To me, putting the behavior on cue is the most important part of training the behavior, if you ever want to be able to draw it out of your dog. If you want the dog to respond reliably, then you have to really apply that process of putting it on cue very succinctly and very deliberately and not in a random fashion. We don’t need cues if we don’t care when the dog performs the behavior. But we do care. That’s why we train. So cues should be a priority, and understanding how to put behaviors on cue should be a priority in any handler’s learning.

Melissa Breau: I think a lot of people struggle with that concept: the idea of getting something on stimulus control, getting a behavior to the point where it is reliable but also only actually happens on cue.

Julie Flanery: And the reason is exactly that, because we have a tendency to still click off the behavior when it’s offered. We love it, we like it, it’s cute, I mean, “Oh, look at you, you did it again. How great,” and we have been patterned to click that offered behavior. We have to get ourselves out of that pattern. The rule is: Once you start putting the behavior on cue, you only click it when you cue it. That’s what builds stimulus control.

Melissa Breau: Let’s say that you like to train, and you often get behaviors to that point where they’re reliable enough for a cue. Is there any downside to having a bunch of half-trained behaviors that you never actually attach a cue to? …

Julie Flanery: Well, that depends a little on your goals. If your goal is to compete and you need those behaviors, well, that’s a really obvious detriment. But even more than that, in leaving behaviors what we’re calling “half-trained,” you’re denying your dog the opportunity and the experience to learn how to learn, how to learn a behavior to completion, and how to understand when you want him to perform that said behavior.

Like most trainers, I love the acquisition stage. I love shaping, I love developing a behavior, but I also need my dog to understand the whole process if I ever want those behaviors to be of any use to me. I need my dog to learn how the process of adding a cue works so that he can also anticipate what comes next in the process.

The more experience I give him at learning the whole process complete through generalization, adding the cue, and fluency, the faster and easier it is to train the next behavior, because it becomes something we are both working through the pieces to completion. The dog can help drive the process forward. That not only builds stronger behaviors, that builds faster behaviors, and that builds truly greater teamwork, in my mind, because you both are on the same path. You both have the same type of goal.

But if we have a lot of half-trained behaviors, and only some of our behaviors are trained through completion, the dog just doesn’t have enough experience to understand the full process and help drive that process to completion.

Melissa Breau: A little birdie told me that maybe you’re working on a class on that topic.

Julie Flanery: I was asking the other instructors if they thought a class on finishing up all those half-trained behaviors would be a good idea, and they all jumped on it. So I’m planning to call it Mission Accomplished, and in effect you’ll be providing your dog lots of opportunity and experience at learning how to learn.

I think, for some, the reason that they haven’t finished these behaviors is because they and their dog just need more experience at how to do it effectively and efficiently. People can get stuck in the process, just like dogs, and oftentimes that’s why we have those half-trained behaviors. Maybe we don’t know what we should do next, how to get it on cue, how to generalize it — all of those things that are involved in having a completed, reliable behavior.

So hopefully that class will help some people. I think it will be a really fun class, and I’m just starting to develop it, but you’ve given me a lot of ideas in this podcast now that I can include in there, so that’s super.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Do you have any idea yet when it’s going to show up on the schedule?

Julie Flanery: Oh my gosh, I have no idea. I’m just trying to get through this session. But I am keeping some notes and have some ideas floating around in my brain, and the schedule is a little bit set, but every now and then I’ll add in a class if it’s ready to go, so hopefully within the next few sessions it will be up on the schedule.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I’m looking forward to it, I will tell you that.

Julie Flanery: Good.

Melissa Breau: I think the other topic that gets overlooked — for lack of a better word — in pet training classes where most of us start out is fading treats from the training picture, so how to start reducing reinforcement. At what point in the process do you feel like a behavior is well enough established that you can start that process, and how do you usually tend to go about that?

Julie Flanery: First thing somebody said is, I don’t want the behavior well established before I take food out of my hand. That’s personally for me. My rule of thumb for luring and removing the food from my hand is really first session, three to five reps, then present the hand cue, it needs to look exactly like my active lure, and I use it as a test. In general, especially dogs that have gone through this process, most dogs can do at least one correct response, or a partial response, without the food in your hand, due to the perception that the food is actually there, and you can build on that.

Again, this is kind of important in terms of what we just talked about, about dogs learning the process. If a dog has gone through lure reward training and understands that at a point early in the process the food will no longer be an active lure, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be rewarded for following the hand signal, then that’s a much easier leap for them than the dog that has an expectation of having food in the hand all the time, and really the only time he gets rewarded is when there is food in the hand. So that’s one of the issues is we tend to reward less if we don’t have the food right in our hand.

But really it goes back to that teaching the dog the process so he has an appropriate expectation, and so it’s not difficult to make those criteria shifts. The criteria shift of having food in the hand to having no food in the hand — that’s criteria shift that the dog and handler go through. So three to five reps, and then I will remove the food from my hand and I will click early. I won’t wait for the full behavior. I will click the dog following an empty hand cue on the path to the end behavior. I don’t need to have the full behavior before I click the first time I take food out of my hand.

If you tend to lure, if you use the lure for several sessions, then that’s what your dog is going to expect. Lures are really effective for showing criteria, I do use lures on occasion, they’re very effective at building patterns for the dog, but the sooner the dog learns to offer the criteria without food in your hand, the faster you’re on your way to a more robust behavior, one that’s going to, in my mind, have more strength and more longevity. So when I use lures, it’s as a means to jumpstart my dog’s understanding of what they should be offering.

I think lures are an important tool, and I don’t think we need to remove them from our toolbox, but I do think that people tend to keep food in their hand for far too long, far too deep into the process, so it becomes too much of an expectation for the dog, too much of a prompt, certainly. I hate to use the word “crutch,” but in a way it is, because really, until the food is gone, they’re just following food. I don’t believe that that stronger learning process starts to take place until the dog is initiating the behavior without prompts.

Melissa Breau: That certainly matched my experience.

Julie Flanery: I think that’s why so many trainers now are really delving into shaping and are really starting to use that more as a primary tool than luring.

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

Julie Flanery: I had a great time. I hope I get to come back again. I’m sorry I took so long. I get excited about this stuff and I love sharing it, and I want to share that with people, so I really appreciate you having me back here.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I think folks are going to take a ton out of this. There’s a lot of great information here, so thank you, seriously.

Julie Flanery: Super.

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

We’ll be back next week, this time with Kamal Fernandez to talk about the benefits of competition and the concept of leadership in dog training.

And guys, this week I want to repeat my special request from the last few episodes. If you listen to podcasts, I’m sure you’ve heard other people say this, but reviews in iTunes have a HUGE impact on helping new people find the show and in letting iTunes know that our show is worth listening to. It helps us get recommended and it helps us get more eyeballs on the podcast and ears. So if you’ve enjoyed this episode or any of the previous ones, I’d really appreciate it if you could take a moment and leave us a review over in iTunes.

And if you haven’t already, subscribe while you’re there to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


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

Feb 9, 2018



Denise Fenzi is the founder of the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (FDSA). She has competed in a wide range of dog sports, titling dogs in obedience, tracking, Schutzhund, Mondioring, herding, conformation, and agility.

She is best-known for her flashy and precise obedience work, as demonstrated by two AKC OTCH dogs and perfect scores in both Schutzhund and Mondioring sport obedience. Her specialty is in developing motivation, focus, and relationship in competition dogs, and she has consistently demonstrated the ability to train and compete with dogs using motivational methods in sports where compulsion is the norm.

Next Episode: 

To be released 2/16/2018, featuring Julie Flanery, talking about all the things you were never taught in puppy class.


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

Today we’ll be talking to Denise Fenzi.

At this point, Denise probably needs to introduction, and I want to save every minute of this interview that we can for what we’re here to talk about today: the benefits of play.

So welcome back to the podcast Denise!

Denise Fenzi: Hi Melissa. Thank you for having me.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited. This is a good topic. To start us out, do you want to just remind listeners who each of the dogs is that you share your life with right now?

Denise Fenzi: I have three dogs. Raika is the oldest. She’s 13-and-a-half and doing very well. There’s Lyra, and I believe she’s about 6 now, and she is also doing well. And there is little Brito, my terrier mix. He’s 4 now.

Melissa Breau: It seems like it was not long ago that you got him.

Denise Fenzi: Yeah. Every time I think about it, I’m kind of amazed at how time goes by.

Melissa Breau: As I mentioned in the intro, we’re going to talk about play today… and I think a lot of people who sign up for your class on the topic, they’re thinking about one thing: its benefits for competition. So do you want to just briefly talk about what those are, and how play fits into the competition picture?

Denise Fenzi: Sure. My online play class covers personal play, which is interaction without toys and food, and also covers toy play and play with food. Most people, when they talk about play, personal play, are thinking in terms of what they can do when they go in a competition ring with their dog when they don’t have their cookies and toys. That’s actually pretty understandable and is actually what caused me to explore the issue in the first place. But the longer I’ve been playing with it, and teaching the class, and exploring the topic, the more I’ve realized that the question’s a little bit premature. It probably makes more sense to think about play in terms of building the underlying relationship, and less energy should be spent on what you are going to do with that play.

The reason it matters is because the play you can use in the ring may have absolutely nothing to do with the play you do at home while you are working to develop your relationship. But you can’t jump ahead. You have to go through the process. So it’s kind of an issue of goal versus process.

I have noticed — I’ve taught this class many times now, I would say maybe five times — and I have noticed that the students come into the class with a different perspective. The very first time I taught the class it was kind of universal. Every person said the same thing, which is, “But how will I use this in competition?” And honestly, this term, so far not one student has actually said that. So change is taking place. I don’t know if it’s because the reputation of the class has encouraged that, or if it’s our student base has developed and they see things differently. I’m not sure, but it certainly has saved me some time writing to people, “Please let’s focus on the process for now. We’ll get to that later.”

Melissa Breau: What kind of benefits can learning to play with your dog really have on that underlying relationship?

Denise Fenzi: The one I usually bring up first is that to play well with a dog without food or toys requires an incredible amount of attention to how the dog is responding to what you are doing, kind of on a second-by-second basis, because if you do something that you think is attractive to your dog and your dog has a different opinion, you have about a half a second to figure that out before your dog avoids you. Now I look at this as all a great big learning opportunity, so it’s not a problem that your dog runs off when you do something. You say to yourself, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t do that again.”

What I find is that the process of teaching play is probably the fastest way for me to teach people how to observe their dog’s body language, because everything is so immediate. The handler does something, the dog responds, the handler responds, the dog gives a final response, and if you made good decisions at those two junctures, then you will have a good response or a neutral response, and if you misread the dog’s behavior, you will get instant feedback, and I find that’s invaluable.

Melissa Breau: So how does that compare or maybe mix with play’s role as a motivator for training?

Denise Fenzi: Well, within training, if I still have my food and my toys, I primarily use it as a way to break up sessions. For example, over the last month I’ve been recording every single session with Lyra and Brito learning to heel on my right-hand side, which is a new thing for all of us. That means I’m spending longer than I should on each training session. So let’s say that an ideal training session with a new skill is a minute, which is probably about right. After I’ve taken the time to set up the video camera and make it happen, just for purely pragmatic reasons I cannot do that. But what I can do is train for a minute, stop, and play with my dog. It can be as little as five seconds. As a matter of fact, it often … that would be normal. Five seconds, 10 seconds, maybe 15 or 20 seconds — that would be unusual — and then I can ask for another minute or two.

Those little mini-breaks relax everyone. They relax me and the dog, and they let go of the stress which is invariably part of learning. So while positive reinforcement training is designed to be fun and to be low stress, that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes the dog or the human is not getting it right and that builds up stress. So being able to play in the middle of a session is really a fantastic thing for everyone. If nothing else, it reminds the handler of why they have their dog, and it reminds the dog that “Everything’s good, mama still loves me even if I make some mistakes, everything is fine here.”

Melissa Breau: I know you touched on this a little bit already, but how does learning to play really help people read their dog and why is that beneficial?

Denise Fenzi: I think for anybody involved in dog training, being able to read your dog is 90 percent of the game. It’s actually so significant that now when people describe to me what is happening with their dog, I almost refuse to answer if I don’t have a video, because I find it so common that I see something different than they see. So when people can see what their dog is doing and accurately interpret it, their training is going to skyrocket. It’s hard to underestimate the value of accurately reading your dog’s behavior.

For example, when dogs walk off in the middle of training to sniff, the vast majority of novice trainers see that as the dog finding something better to do. They found a good smell. It takes a lot of time to learn that most of the time the dog is actually avoiding you, and while that’s a little uncomfortable, recognizing it for what it is, it’s not a condemnation of you as a person. It simply means that whatever you are doing at that moment at that time is causing distress to your dog. It’s nothing more than that. So if I’m in a training session and it seems to be going OK, and my dog starts to scratch or shows some other sign of distress, I don’t get upset about it. I just change my ways. That is something that play can give to you — that quick ability to in real time instantly identify how your dog is feeling.

And while I specifically called that distress, that’s equally true of a happy dog. So what are your dog’s happy signals? What do the ears do? What does the mouth do? What do the eyes do? What does the tail do? There’s a lot to the picture. And there’s just the sheer fun of it, right? So for the handler to look at their dog and recognize their dog really wants to be there, and to feel confident in that assessment, that really does amazing things for your training.

Melissa Breau: What about specifically for anxious dogs? Are there benefits to learning to play for those dogs?

Denise Fenzi: Personally, I don’t go in that direction in my classes. What I tell people is, “My job is going to be to help you become a better play partner to your dog.” That is my emphasis. However, I know that, for example, Amy Cook, who also teaches at the Academy, she uses play as a way of relaxing dogs in stressful situations, and also as a barometer for the dog’s suitability for the place where it’s at. So being able to play with an anxious dog is actually super-critical to behavior work. The other thing is, in my opinion, when you play with your dog, what you’re able to tell them is that everything’s OK and that you’re on their side. To be able to communicate that is a big deal. If I’m with somebody and I’m feeling a little nervous, they can absolutely hand me something to eat, it will certainly distract me. But if they put their hand on my shoulder and tell me, “You know what? It’s OK. It’s going to be OK. I’m right here with you,” that’s a completely different level of support. And I think being able to play with your dog, especially with an anxious dog, will take you in the right direction.

Melissa Breau: What about me as the human or handler? Is play really all about the dog, or are there benefits for me, too?

Denise Fenzi: A few years ago I was going to give — not a webinar — a presentation on play to an audience, and I thought it might be a tough sell to that particular audience. So I felt the need to have a little bit of background and backup for my assertion that I think play is important — and I sure hope nobody contacts me and asks me for the information now, because I don’t have it anymore — but I found quite a few studies which talked about the effects on both the dog and the handler on mutual interaction. In some cases the interaction was simply looking at each other. In other cases it was playing together, sometimes it was about playing ball or whatever. And there was just a lovely thread of discussions about how the hormones on both sides of the picture here, for both the dog and the human, the happy hormones went up, the sad hormones went down, and the end result is a more content picture. Like I said, I don’t have that anymore, but I’m sure if somebody wants to investigate it they can find that information again.

Melissa Breau: It would be interesting to look up some of that stuff and be able to point to some of those studies. I know that you also teach engagement, obviously, so do you mind just talking a little bit about how play, or being able to play with your dog, can impact or influence your engagement training? And maybe just start out with a little bit of explanation on what engagement training is, for those who may not know.

Denise Fenzi: The word engagement is a little bit complicated, because when we say “to engage another,” we simply mean to mutually interact. When I talk about engagement training, I’m actually talking about a very specific training process which teaches the dog that it’s their responsibility to let the handler know, first of all, when they’re comfortable, and secondly, that they would like to work. The second part of that involves the dog engaging the handler in play or strong interactive behaviors. So an example of play would be that the dog play-bows at the human and the human responds. An example of just a strong behavior might be that the dog jumps on the person. So there’s variations. I teach engagement online, and I find that students who already have developed some repertoire of play with their dog have a much easier time with it because, first of all, it actually occurs to their dog to offer play, because engagement is a shaped process. It crosses the dog’s mind that maybe they should ask the owner to play and see what happens next. So that’s a huge benefit right there. The handlers who don’t have play training or some comfort with play, they struggle. Not only do their dogs not think to offer it, but even if their dog does think to offer it, they don’t know what to do next, and so now it sort of stops the process of training engagement and we redirect into the process of training play. And while that’s not terrible, I just find that most people came into engagement class to learn engagement, and the ones who came in with play already make a lot more progress on that skill, and the ones who have to stop and redirect simply don’t go as far. Now that’s no emergency, but for sure having play skills will make your engagement training easier.

Melissa Breau: Let’s assume that some of the folks listening are convinced… they want to give this a go, they want to focus on trying to play more with their dog. Where should they start? What are some good ways to start play, especially if it hasn’t been a big part of life with their dog before now?

Denise Fenzi: Well, right off the bat, loud and crazy is probably not the direction you want to go. Generally when people think about play, they think they’re going to imitate how dogs play with each other. That’s a little unrealistic in terms of a place to start. So unless you’re 5 years of age, you are not going to run around the back yard like a crazy person with your dog, and even if you did, your dog would think that was so bizarre and out of character that you would actually be likely to frighten your dog. And then I’ve noticed that people get a little intense and nervous because that’s not the response they were looking for, and that’s when they start to sort of, for lack of a better word, assault their dogs. They come up and start — they call it “playfully,” but anyway — they start pinching and pulling and doing weird things, and that drives the dog further into avoidance. So Rule Number One: start low key. I find it so much more effective to start with what we would normally call praise rather than play. Pet your dog, scratch their ears, gently and sweet. Now, from there, can you ratchet that up to look something like what happens when you walk in the front door and your dog is glad to see you? So maybe you went from a gentle massaging-type interaction, let’s call that a 1 or 2 out of 10, to something a little more “Oh boy, you’re home, Mom, I’m so glad to see you.” Let’s say that’s in your 3 to 6 range, depending on your dog. Can you start to get that behavior you get at the front door in your play session when you don’t have that context? What do you do at the front door? How do you interact with your dog? Do you clap? Do you pet them? Do you talk to them? And what happens, and what does your dog look like at that moment? What kind of an expression does your dog have? All of that should feel fairly natural and seamless to most people. From there we can start ratcheting up, and little taps and running away. That brings me to my second rule of thumb: I generally strongly suggest that people try to figure out on a scale of 1 to 10, what energy level is your dog showing you right now, and can you match that plus or minus 1? So if your dog’s being kind of crazy, and you don’t really want to hang out at a 10 with a Great Dane, the problem is you can’t go to a 1 because you’re not going to register and your dog’s going to leave you. So can you get to a 9, and then quickly to an 8 and a 7 and a 6 and a 5? From my point of view, it’s perfectly legitimate to put a toy in the dog’s mouth or use food for redirection, if it’s really rambunctious and you need to get your dog to a level that’s more sustainable for both of you. But using the matching system, the number system, helps a lot. It helps people match their dog and stay in the game without it getting out of control, feeling free to add food and toys if you need to. This is a little bit new for me. A few years ago I tried to do a lot more without that, and I don’t do that as much. And also starting on the low end of the scale and working your way up — that is also something I would say is new to me. Over time I have discovered that works much, much better for all parties. The final thing I would mention is really watch for signs that your dog isn’t having a good time, and take your dog seriously. Respect that. So if you can get one great minute, that’s fantastic. Just stop. Don’t go for 5 or 10. And if your dog says they want a little break, honor that. It’s not personal. Your dog didn’t take a break because they think you’re horrible. Your dog took a break because he needed one and he recognized that he was struggling with his own arousal — too high, too low, whatever. If you pursue, you will drive your dog into avoidance. So I think I would start with that package and see where that gets you.

Melissa Breau: Do you mind just talking a little bit more about that toy piece? What made you change your mind, or how can people use that in a way that it doesn’t become all about the toy?

Denise Fenzi: Well, I think a lot of it was simply safety. Dogs can hurt us with their teeth, whether they mean to or not, and if you give the dog a toy, and they chomp on the toy instead of on your arm, that’s obviously a lot more pleasant. There’s all sorts of other things that go with that, you know — habits, and teaching your dog that it hurts when you bite, and all kinds of stuff. The problem is, asking a dog not to use their mouth in play is a lot like asking a human child not to use their hands. That is how dogs communicate with each other. It’s how they communicate in play. And so if we’re going to do that, we’re going to have to spend a lot of time teaching them how to do that. So in the same way that if you tried to teach a child to play with their hands behind their back, while doable, if you gave them something to hold in their hands behind their back while they were doing that, they would be much more likely to remember, and it would give them something to do with their hands, to grip a thing. If you give the dog something to hold, and they have those urges to bite down or to grab, they have something in their mouth already. With Lyra, I don’t think I tried to play with her without a toy in her mouth until she was probably 2 years old, and what I discovered is after that time we had made enough progress that she didn’t need it anymore. And so then, when the toy was out of her mouth, she didn’t have that desire to grab me. She knew what to do. And the time when the toy was in her mouth gave both of us time to learn how to play with each other and kept us out of over-arousal situations while we were learning the game. So it solves a lot of problems. Now if the dog says, “It’s all about the toy. If the toy’s in my mouth, then let’s play with it,” that’s actually not that much of a problem. What I do is I will pull on the toy, let’s say every 10 seconds, just enough to keep the dog holding it. But the rest of the time is spent quick little tap, run away, little play bow, clapping, finding ways that the dog keeps the toy in their mouth but redirects their energy to me. When I say the dog holds a toy, I don’t mean you never touch the toy, and I don’t mean it’s not OK to play with the toy a little. It’s a balance issue. So let’s say the first day it’s 50/50: 50 percent of the time you’re playing with the toy and 50 percent of the time you’re playing with the dog. The next day could you get that to 48/52? So over time can you get it to the point where it’s 10 percent toy, 90 percent dog, and eventually can you get it where you take the toy away from the dog, play with the dog for 10 seconds, and then go get the toy together and go back to your 90 percent playing with the dog, 10 percent toy. That’s how I’m approaching it these days.

Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting to hear how you’ve evolved that concept a little bit. What about those people who want to do this, they try to play with their dog and … their dog just doesn’t seem to be interested. What might be going on there? Is there still hope that they can figure this out, that they can do this?

Denise Fenzi: Well, there’s definitely hope. I’m actually amazed at how many people who go through the play class make significant progress when they were pretty sure they weren’t going to get anywhere. And, in fairness, I have read some introductions where my initial reaction was, “This is going to be really hard.” And most people progress. Now I define progress exactly as that word states. It’s progress. I’m not a goal-oriented person, so what I’m looking for is did we move forward? If we moved forward, I’m probably pretty happy, and I find most of my students get there. So is there hope? Absolutely positively. Might it look the way you thought it was going to look? Might it look like your neighbor’s dog? Well, maybe, but that’s not really the point. It doesn’t need to look like your neighbor’s dog. It needs to work for you and your dog, and honestly, if that never gets past the point where you are able to scratch your dog’s head and thump your dog’s side, even though you’re in the middle of a training session and you have access to food and toys and your dog knows it, I’m happy, because as soon as I can get the dog off that look of “Don’t touch me, I want my food and toys,” I’m going to be happy. That to me is a huge success. So rethink your goals, and make sure that you’re really being reasonable, and I think you will progress.

Melissa Breau: If people want to see some examples of this stuff, if they’re having a little trouble picturing it, because some of this stuff is complex and it’s hard to visualize, can you talk about where they might be able to go to find some of those examples, which pieces of this you cover in class?

Denise Fenzi: This particular class I believe has over a hundred videos. It’s incredibly dense and complex. One of the cool things about the class itself is the active students, the ones that are learning. Every term I learn a new way to play with a dog. Somebody does something I’ve never seen before and I go, “Oh, I never thought to cover the dog with a towel and snap it off. I never thought to cover myself with a towel and let the dog find me.” So little things like that. It’s a constant process of evolution. Deb Jones and I did write a book on the topic of play, so the third book in the Dog Sports Skills series is on the topic of play and has an awful lot of detail. Having said that, I would say that between a class and a book, this is something … I think you make a lot more progress if you watch videos, because it is so second-by-second, so that is one place where I think video would serve you well. I’ve never actually searched YouTube for videos of playing with a dog, but you know what, if you are not interested in taking classes, that’s not your cup of tea, and you don’t really want to sit down with a book, the first thing I would probably do is go to YouTube and search “playing with a dog,” and something has got to come up. It has to. In this day and age there’s so much out there. That’s probably where I would start. The second thing I would do, if I really wanted to go it myself, is just go back through this podcast, because I gave you a lot of places to work from and a lot to start with, and just give it a shot. See what you get. If you end this podcast feeling inspired to try it, then you’re halfway there already.

Melissa Breau: I was actually going to add to that, if you don’t mind, that I think that some of the TEAM videos have some really nice examples of engagement, and some of those samples of engagement have really nice pieces of play in them, if people wanted to see some additional examples. That’s just on the TEAM site free.

Denise Fenzi: Not only that. I forgot about that. The Fenzi TEAM Players Facebook list is very active, and a couple three weeks ago I did do a flash challenge on the topic of engagement. So many people did put up their examples of working on engagement, and because it was a flash challenge, I respond to those videos, so I would have given my input and my thoughts on that. That would have been playing more specifically focused towards engagement and work, but regardless, you got to see play there, so maybe join that list.

Melissa Breau: That list is free, right? Anybody can join that. They’re welcome to join.

Denise Fenzi: Sure.

Melissa Breau: Just a last question here. If somebody does want to take the class, is there a dog that’s good for the class, or maybe not a good fit for the class? Is there anything they should think about from that stance?

Denise Fenzi: This term I probably have the widest variety of dogs, off the top of my head, that I’ve ever had. Let me think about it. I have a Great Dane, a Mastiff, then I have some more typical dogs, Sheltie, Corgi, then I have some teeny guys. I’ve got a Chihuahua, a softer. more fragile dog, I have a small mix, I think she said it was 10 or 11 pounds. I do believe there might be an Aussie in there, a Corgi. I have much greater size discrepancies than I’ve ever seen before, so I’ve got the tiniest and the largest, which is fun and interesting. I have non-players. I have dogs that have shown no interest whatsoever in a toy. And actually those dogs, the first week’s lectures, the ones that have been released this week, are all about toy play. So we are focused on toy play right now, but I’ve seen the baselines for all types of play. So right off the bat the toy play’s going really, really well, and the owners are excited because they’re seeing things they hadn’t expected. Next week, around the 9th or so, is when I start releasing the personal play lectures, and having seen the baseline, there’s going to be a little of everything. There are going to be dogs that tend toward over-arousal, and there are going to be dogs that think it’s all kinds of crazy and don’t want to stay in the game at all, maybe showing avoidance, and I think there will be some middle ground as well. My personal preference when I teach a class is an incredible variety of dogs, and when people join the class I really try to encourage them to understand that there are no good dogs or bad dogs, there are just dogs. So it’s OK, the responses your dog gives you, they’re not right responses or wrong responses. They’re just the response that the dog gave you, and we can just keep changing direction. That’s no problem. We explore and look for what works for a more serious dog, a more anxious dog, not an aggressive dog but an assertive dog, and try to find a way, find a route, that makes you love your dog a little bit more and makes your dog think you’re just a wee bit more interesting than they did yesterday. Which does bring up a point I meant to say and I forgot it. In my experience, when I go back and read my survey results for this class, probably the most common thing that people say to me at the end of class is that they’re surprised at how much more their dog watches them in life. Without being trained to do so, the dog simply finds them more worth their while than they did before, and the dog checks in more. So when they go on walks, the dog just checks, “Are you coming? What are you doing?” The dog just seems to recognize that they offer more than Pez-dispenser-style training. They’re more than a food dispenser or a toy machine. They are a valuable person who means more than the next person, and if I get that feedback, if I get that result, then I have won, and I feel very good about that.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome, and I think that’s a great point. There’s some really great gems in there for people that want to tease them out. Thank you so much, Denise, for coming back on the podcast. It was great to chat again.

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

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with Julie Flanery, and we’ll be talking about the things no one ever told you in puppy class. That is, we’ll be diving into some of my favorite topics — handler mechanics, verbal cues, all those types of things.

And guys, this week I have a special request. If you listen to the podcasts, or you listen to other podcasts, I’m sure you’ve heard other people say this, but reviews in iTunes have a HUGE impact on helping new people find the show and letting iTunes know that our show is actually worth listening to. So if you’ve enjoyed this or any of the previous ones, I would really appreciate it personally if you could take a minute to just go into iTunes and leave us a review.

And if you haven’t already, subscribe while you’re there, and our next episode will automatically download to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


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


Feb 2, 2018


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

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

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


Next Episode: 

To be released 2/9/2018, and I'll be talking to Denise Fenzi about Play, so stay tuned!


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

Today we’ll be talking to Dr. Deborah Jones -- better known around FDSA as Deb Jones.  

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

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

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

Hi Deb! Welcome back to the podcast.

Deb Jones: Thanks, Melissa. I’m really happy to be here.

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

Deb Jones: At the moment, we have four dogs and one cat. We have a wide variety. Smudge is the oldest dog. He’s a Blue Merle Sheltie. He’s 14 now, and sadly, he’s sort of in the hospice stage of life. He’s having more and more issues, so that’s always a tough thing to deal with. But we’re taking it day to day and seeing how he is.

Then I have Zen, my red Border Collie, who’s 10 years old. Zen still is his wild and crazy self. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. Star is my black-and-white Border Collie, and she’s going to be 7 this year, which is just stunning to me because it seems like she’s still just 2 years old. I can’t believe they keep getting older. I tell them to stop, and I tell them 7’s a perfect age, just stay 7 forever and I’d be thrilled because it’s just the right time.

Then we have little Tigger, who is the tiny little Sheltie. He is just going to be turning 2 next week, and he only weighs 7 and a half pounds, so he’s very, very small for a Sheltie, but he’s full of himself. He’s got enough attitude for everybody.

And finally we have Tricky the cat. I think Trick’s about 8 or so now. He’s been around for a while. He was the star of the Cat Class that we put on last year. So that’s the group for the moment.

Melissa Breau: Last time you were on the podcast, I know we talked quite a bit about focus, since that’s a big part of what you teach. For anyone who’s listening who wants to go back and listen to that, which I recommend, it’s Episode 14. But I did have a question or two that we didn’t get to last time, so I wanted to dive into that just a little bit. On your syllabus for the Get Focused class, you have a line that says, “What is focus? How is it different from attention?” So I wanted to ask, what is your definition of focus, and how is it different from attention?

Deb Jones: OK, I’m glad to talk about that. That’s a common question that we get all the time. The way that I think about focus is that it’s the ability to concentrate on a task despite distractions. So whatever it is that we’re doing, you can keep doing that without being pulled away or pulled in other directions by things going on around you.

In the dog training world, attention is often considered to be either the dog’s looking at you or making eye contact with you. Focus is a lot more than that. That’s a part of it, but it’s actually a small part. With focus, my dog might be working on a task totally independently of me, and I don’t want them looking at me or making eye contact. You can imagine, for example, pretty much most of agility, nosework, working in obedience at the upper levels in particular, something like go outs — there are lots of times when the dog needs to focus on what they’re doing, and then appropriately switch back to trainer focus when it’s necessary.

So there’s a lot more going on there than just “Look at me,” because if you just look at me all the time, we’re not going to get very far in our training. We start out with that, we start out with “Pay attention to the trainer,” because that is really the first step. But it’s also, I think, a lot more about persistence at the task, sticking on task once you start doing something, no matter what is going on around you. That’s sort of my expanded answer of the difference there.

Melissa Breau: A lot of people tend to ask about focus. They’re those students that have worked really hard, and they finally managed to achieve good focus from their dogs, and then they’re really scared to ruin it. They’re working at their desk, or they’re watching TV, or who knows, but they’re doing something of their own that does not involve the dog, and the dog comes over and offers focus, offers to engage, and wants to work, and they feel like, OK, my choices are ruin my dog’s focus and all this work that I put in, or ignore my dog, and they struggle with that a little bit. How do you handle that? What do you recommend in that kind of situation?

Deb Jones: That’s something that does start to happen, especially if you’ve done very much focus work. All of a sudden now, too much focus is a problem. But it’s really not a problem. We’re all happy when we have more focus. We can’t say that’s a problem.

Melissa Breau: It’s a good problem.

Deb Jones: Yes, it’s a very good problem. So if your dog wants to interact with you, I always think that is fabulous. Take it. I always acknowledge it. That doesn’t mean I’m going to get up and train you right now, but I am going to respond to you in some way, even if I’m just petting you and saying we’re going to do something later. That’s still responding to you. I don’t jump up every time that you focus on me.

In our work, in the system that we have set up and the way we teach focus, we set up expectations for when we want focus and when we don’t need it anymore, and we’re clear about when those times are. We want focus work for training sessions. When I’m training my dog, I want focus a hundred percent of the time. But when we’re lounging around the house, we don’t need focus anymore. So we set up the dogs to understand, These are the times, these are the signals I’ll give you that focus will be reinforced, and these are the signals that I give you that we are done for now and you can pretty much do whatever you want … well, within reason. You can’t get into trouble, but you can pretty much do whatever you want. So we have those on and off cues that we use with them.

If I had a dog, though, who was very sensitive, or really hardly ever engaged with me and was very new to this, I would probably leap up from my desk and have a party if they showed me that they wanted to be engaged. So it really very much depends on the dog, as well as the level of training you’re at.

If I did that now, though, with Zen, I would never do anything else. It would be like a constant 24/7, so with him it’s the opposite. It’s “We’re done for now. We don’t need any more focus at the moment.”

We do actually in focus training, the second exercise we do, we capture focus when it happens, and we acknowledge it with something that’s non-food. So we want to get into the fact that my paying attention to you, my interacting with you, playing, praise, petting, all of those things, we will do. And what surprises people is how often then the dog starts focusing on them around the house. So it shows us that they’re willing to do it, as long as we’re willing to acknowledge it.

The other thing I want to mention here, because this is something that also comes up a lot, is people will talk about doing focus work while they’re walking their dog, or hiking, and I tell them, “Don’t do that.” To me, that is totally separate from my focus work. When we’re out hiking, or out walking, that’s my dog’s chance to relax, and to sniff, and to do again whatever they want to do within reason. I’ll stop when they stop, I’ll move when they move, I don’t make a big deal about it. It’s for them to relax as much as for me, and that’s not a time when I want focus. I may have to give you a cue at some point, I may have to call them back to me, or ask them to lie down or something, as necessary, but we don’t ever combine focus work with those informal activities. We keep those totally separate, again so it’s clear to the dog: I’m expecting focus from you now; I’m not going to be expecting it from you in these other situations.

Melissa Breau: Hearing you say this, it almost sounds like you’re essentially putting it on stimulus control.

Deb Jones: Exactly. I could have said that and not gone through all these explanations. Yes, that is exactly what we’re doing is putting it on stimulus control. Maybe I need to stop being so wordy.

Melissa Breau: No, no, I think that was good, because I’ve taken the class and I hadn’t thought of it that way until you described it this time around. That’s an interesting way of thinking about it. Now, I know in addition to Get Focused this session, you’re teaching a new class, and the topic is kind of fascinating. You called it Achieving a Balance Between Motivation and Control, which I think everybody wants that, right? So can you share a little bit about what the class covers?

Deb Jones: Well, I can probably share a lot about what the class covers, because it’s on my mind. Whenever we develop a new class, we think about it 24/7. It’s on my mind a lot, and I’ve been thinking about this class for a long time and trying to figure out how to put it into the format that I wanted in order to teach it. When I was thinking back, I realized I was writing lectures for this when we went to camp last year, on the plane to camp, so it’s been a while. I’ve been working on pulling this together, and the thought’s been in the back of my mind even longer.

This is another what we would call a concept class, meaning the class is not about any particular behavior or skill. It’s more like it’s built around a theme, and everything we do then kind of supports that theme or helps us explore it or find ways to make changes based on that. Concept classes in general are harder because they require more from the trainer. They require more thought and effort. And they’re harder for the instructor for the same reason. They just are a little bit different. A skills class is just, “We’re going to work on this thing, like a retrieve, and that’s all we’re going to work on for six weeks,” which is a lot more straightforward. But concept classes tend to be a bit different.

I first really started thinking about this idea of balance in dogs back when I was doing a lot of agility. You would see what would happen over time pretty regularly. Somebody would start out, say, with their first agility dog, and often the dog was never gotten with performance in mind. They just stumbled into it. And as they started to do agility, typically what happened was they would say, “Oh, this dog isn’t fast enough,” “This dog isn’t interested,” or “This dog isn’t very driven” — and I’ll talk about drive in a second here — and then they would go, “I need a dog that’s going to be better suited for this,” which I’m good with that. I think that’s a very smart thing to think about: Is the dog I have suited for what I want to do?

But then they would get a faster model, oftentimes a model with no brakes, so typically a herding breed. And then they have this little baby puppy herding-breed dog, and they spend about a year building drive in the dog because they’re so worried. Since their last dog didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm and energy, they’re going to get it with this next dog. Of course what happens is this dog already had plenty of motivation, and what you’re doing is not building drive in any way at all. What you’re doing is building over-arousal. So now you have dogs that are high as kites, and what happens? No control, because the person was afraid to work on control because that was a bad idea with their last dog. We’re pretty much always training our last dog, and it’s usually very different from what the dog in front of us needs right now. So we end up with these dogs that are highly over-aroused, often around agility, and that’s just the first place I saw it. People do it in other sports as well.

Let me get back to the term drive, though, because this is one that I very carefully left out of the description of the class. I purposely thought about it and left it out and changed it to motivation. The term motivation, I think, is a better one for what we’re talking about. When you’re motivated, you want to do something. You have a reason to do it, you have the energy to do it, you have the desire to do it. That’s what we think of in dogs when we talk about drive. But scientific terms we never use the term drive. That’s just something that’s seen as not even a real thing. It doesn’t exist. It’s a word that can be described better in many other ways, or a quality that can be described better in many other ways.

On the other hand, dog trainers use it all the time, so it’s not like I can say I will never use that word, because people do understand what you’re saying when you talk about drive. Actually, in my first lecture in the class, I talk about … say a little bit about this and why I don’t use that term, but I understand that a lot of people do. To me, it’s more of a motivation issue than it is a drive issue. That’s why I don’t use that term a lot. I may lapse into it now and again, if I forget myself.

But typically, so let’s go back to my example of the totally over-aroused dog. So now what we’ve got is no control. What that really means is there’s no balance. You’ve got all arousal, no control, or all motivation, no control. That’s not a good place to be for the dog or the trainer — trust me, I’ve been there. You wish greatly for your more careful, thoughtful dog when you have a dog that just “go, go, go” a thousand miles an hour, and you cannot get them to slow down for a second. That’s a problem. That’s a big problem.

I think in general it’s hard for us to know who our dogs are, to really, clearly see them, and to see what they actually need. Again, we have this illusion that either we’re training the dog we had before, or we have this mythical, idealized version of who the dog is. So we’re not actually thinking and really analyzing who’s this dog and what do they need to get them more into this balanced place where they can do whatever we want, yet they can still make good choices and decisions and think about what they’re doing.

This is where we get into nature and nurture a little bit in my thinking about it. Genetics matters. There’s no question about that. You can’t say they don’t, and I sort of believe they matter more than 50 percent. Of course in psychology, for years we’ve talked about the nature-nurture controversy and what determines how you turn out as an adult. Was it all determined by your genetics, or does your environment and experience have a lot more to do with it? Of course it’s not one or the other. It’s an interaction of the two. But lately the thinking has been going back to the nature part of it, and that there are some things that were hardwired into us, and it’s really hard to change them. You can’t override nature. You can modify it a little bit.

So we’re going to be looking at what has nature given you with this dog. I have sort of a temperament test. It’s not really a test. It’s you answering questions about your dog from what you know of them, trying to answer them honestly in terms of what is this dog, who is this dog, what do they bring into the world in terms of core characteristics? In humans we talk about something called the “big five personality characteristics,” so I sort of built it off of that, that these are the things that people think are genetic. Where do you fall on introvert/extrovert, where do you fall on resilience when something bad happens and you recover from it — those kinds of things.

So we’ll look at that, but of course the flipside of that is your environment and experiences. They matter. They may not again override what you normally are going to be, but they certainly matter a lot. So we’ll look at those as well and talk a little bit about it.

It used to be the early behaviorists like John Watson would say, “Give me a baby and I can make him anything I want him to be.” And I’m, like, Oh, I don’t think so. Parents everywhere would tell you that is so very wrong. That’s not the case at all that you could possibly … nobody comes into the world a blank slate, or the Tabula Rasa idea that we have from John Locke. That just doesn’t happen, really.

We’re not all interchangeable when we could be whatever we wanted, and that’s not true for our dogs, either. We know they’re different, and we have to take that into account. So we look at that interaction. I’m going to talk a lot about that the first couple weeks of class, the interaction of nature and nurture, and look at where we’re standing with these dogs right now. So, what is my dog, to the best of my knowledge, really like?

Then we’re going to talk a lot about arousal levels. I’ve mentioned arousal a few times because you can have too much. Too much, too little, over- and under-arousal. But that’s something that we can modify. Classical conditioning, in particular, plays a huge role in this process of arousal. We connect certain stimuli to being over-aroused or under-aroused.

So we’ll talk about how that works, and look at how we might change some of those fairly automatic responses. They just happen. When you are exposed to stimuli, you have that response. I’ve had dogs, personally — Smudgie, the old dog, right now is a good example of that. You get within a certain distance to the agility ring, and he had no brain. Absolutely no brain. Screaming, lunging, just … you know, he didn’t do it on purpose. It was just his automatic response because the stimuli of agility brought out that response. We had to work very, very hard to change that and to get him at an appropriate level where he could think at least a little bit as he went into the agility ring, because if you go in like that, nothing good ever happens afterwards. It tends to be a train wreck. So we’ll talk a little bit about — I’ve had some train wrecks now and again — we’ll talk a little about how arousal levels and classical conditioning work.

One of the things that has been fascinating to me lately is to think about what they call “tells.” Tell is a subtle sign that you could easily miss that something is happening or is going to happen. They talk about it in gambling, that if you’re good at understanding another player’s tells, you can tell what kind of hand they have, even if they’re trying to hide that. So learning this about our dogs, what are the precursors to arousal changes? If we can see those early, we can jump in there and make some changes so that they don’t go too high or too low. We can get them in that optimal state of arousal where they have plenty of energy and yet they still can think and learn.

Tells are really different for every dog and very, very easy to miss. I think here’s where video is really helpful, because you didn’t see it when you were training, but when you go back and look, you start to see this pattern. I was actually doing some video for this class, for the later parts of this class, talking about tells, and I realized that I was ignoring one from Star. I was getting it regularly that it was definitely one of her tells, and I was ignoring it and not even thinking about it. When I looked back over the videos, I was like, Oh, she does do that regularly when she’s too aroused, and then the next thing’s going to be a bark. So that led me to go, If I could change when I see this, the very beginnings of it, then everything would go better. So we’ll work with people to try to figure out what their dogs’ tells are, and to pick up on them earlier in the training process.

I think there’s a lot here, and it’s taken me a long time actually to pull it together in a way that made sense to me. We still go on things like … typical things like the reinforcers we’re using, when we’re using them, how we’re using them. Even the markers and the fact that markers can lead to different levels of arousal. I know I see that in many dogs. There are lots of dogs that the click is a signal for over-arousal, and as soon as they hear a click, they’re off. They’re just higher than possible. I can’t even use a click — I rarely use a click, I should say — with Zen in shaping anymore because I realized I had done that with him. So I switched to a verbal marker, and he doesn’t get nearly as high when we do that.

The other thing we’ll look at here and talk about are energy levels from us and our dogs, and the fact that we want to change their energy level. We want more or less of something, but we have to be very subtle and careful about how we go about doing it. You can’t force it. You have to move them very slowly in the direction you want. If we change our energy levels too drastically, it doesn’t really help. It only frustrates them or causes them to avoid us. So you have a low-energy dog and you’re acting like a clown — clowns are on my mind because I’m doing the webinar on classical conditioning, and scary clowns seems to come up a lot — so you’re acting like a clown, and you’re actually going to turn your dog off and push them even further away from you, rather than if you just bring up your energy a tiny bit, they’ll likely come up to meet that. So we have to experiment with that and see what works for any particular team.

A lot of this, in fact all of this, is very, very customized to different teams. The good thing is usually in Gold spots you get enough variety in dogs that you see a little bit of everything. We don’t get dogs that are all the same. So we’ll be looking at over-arousal, under-arousal, we’ll be looking at things I’ve probably never seen before in terms of arousal, and working with that, which is always the fun part of teaching — when you get something you didn’t expect. OK, so that’s the long version of what the class is about.

Melissa Breau: It sounds even more fascinating now than it did before. I just think it’s going to be such an interesting topic. It sounds like the Gold spots are going to be invaluable in that class.

Deb Jones: I think it can help people in many ways. I think it really can. As I said, it’s going to be challenging for the trainers because they do more work than the dogs. It’s the same as trained Focus class. It’s more about giving you a lot of information to help you start to see things differently and start to approach your training differently. I think that that’s definitely going to be something that comes out of this.

Melissa Breau: I know the title includes the word balance, and you talked a little bit in there about looking at different skills and thinking about where your dog is. I’ve always thought of it as a little bit of a game of tug-of-war, where you work a little bit on precision, then you have to work a little bit more on building drive, and they impact each other. Is it ever really possible to have a dog that’s equally motivated and controlled?

Deb Jones: I think that there are some dogs who just by nature are pretty equally balanced. It’s nothing we do. They just came that way. In fact, Judy Keller’s first Sheltie, Morgan, I’d say he was just the perfect dog. In terms of arousal and control, he was ideal. She didn’t do anything to cause that. He was her first performance dog. She didn’t even know what she had at the time. Looking back now, you know what you had. But it’s like, yeah, by nature, some dogs are just like that. They just come prewired that way.

But most of us are not that lucky. We’re going to get dogs that come at all different levels of this, and yes, we’re going to be constantly working on it. It’s maintenance. It’s always maintenance. You will push your dog too far in one direction and then have to go a little bit back in the other, though most of them we know.

For example, I know with Zen, his lifetime is about a little more control, because he’s got all the motivation in the world. With another dog, like my Papillon from years ago, Copper, he had so much control just naturally, and he was a little inhibited naturally, so everything for Copper was always about more motivation. That’s all we worked on. I never worked on control because he didn’t need it. He already had that. And in fact the day in agility when Copper actually was running so fast that he missed his contact on the dog walk, we were stunned, and I’m, like, Good for him. The fact that he was in it so much, and moving so fast that he didn’t even hit the contact on the way down, I was proud of myself and him because it’s like, that’s the motivation I want. And in fact the judge didn’t even see it and didn’t call it. We didn’t realize it until we watched the video later, because he was so fast, and I’m sure the judge never expected that this little dog was going to miss a contact zone.

So yes, we’re constantly trying to get them in the zone, in the optimal level or state of arousal is how we often refer to it. There’s something called the Yerkes-Dodson Law that is well known to quite a few dog trainers. It talks about your level of motivation, and when you get too much or not enough, that’s not good. You want that optimal middle state that you’re in, where everything is flowing along, and it’s perfect, and you have enough of both things. You do everything with lots of energy, yet you can still make thoughtful decisions as you go along.

Melissa Breau: Stacy talked a little bit about that when she was on, just looking at that curve and what it means and what it’s like. I know she’s got her puppy now who’s on the opposite end of the curve than what she’s used to.

Deb Jones: Yes, she does, and that’s exactly the thing. It’s almost like you have to learn to train all over again when you get a dog that’s the opposite, because if you don’t, you’ll make some pretty big mistakes along the way and have to try to fix them later on down the line.

Melissa Breau: Looking at it as a balance, how can people start to get an idea of where their dog is now on that scale or in that balance, if they’re too much on the control side or too much on the motivation side?

Deb Jones: First thing I always look at is the energy and enthusiasm level. How excited is the dog to do whatever it is you’re asking them to do? It really doesn’t matter what the task is, but how much energy do they normally bring to it? And is it appropriate for the task? Is it going to be enough? The energy level you need for competition obedience is different than the energy level you need to do well in agility. So are they bringing the right amount of energy? If you take the energy for agility and you put it in a competition obedience ring, it’s probably going to be a hot mess because you’re just going to have too little control. So we look at are they doing what’s appropriate for what we’re working on?

The other part of that is looking at how, say, clear headed your dog is. Can they think while they’re working? Can they seem to make decisions? Can they learn to regulate themselves a little bit and come up or down? That’s one of the things we work on, we want to help them with, is this idea of modulating arousal. Can they do that? Can they respond to well-known cues? Do they have enough control for that or not? If they don’t respond, it isn’t usually a skill problem. It’s a problem of arousal, much of the time.

Melissa Breau: If you have a dog that you know tends to be more on the control side, or more on the arousal side, how do all those different factors play into that? How many different sides of a dog can there be?

Deb Jones: Everything affects it. Everything affects it, and every moment can be different within a given dog. It’s a constant process of adjusting to what your dog is giving you right now. It’s definitely different from dog to dog, but it’s also different in the same dog, I would say, not even day to day but sometimes moment to moment, if you have dogs that can be wildly inconsistent in terms of their ability to work and respond appropriately. So it’s this constant fluid process.

Arousal isn’t a static thing. You don’t get the same level of arousal, because it’s what is the behavior itself, what are the reinforcers you’re using, what is your mood? My little Papillion Copper, for example, who was fairly inhibited, if he thought for one second I wasn’t in a good mood for whatever reason, even if it had nothing to do with him, he was done. That was the end of the day. I might as well just not even bother. So it’s a constant fluid process.

We always have to be thinking about all of those factors and how they’re affecting what we’re trying to do right now, because people say, “Well, my dog did great in this situation and not in another one,” and I’m, like, “Well, I believe that.” I believe that to be the case, and there are probably a dozen things that went into that difference. So at least being aware of them and knowing that there’s going to be a lot of variation. Our job is to read our dogs and to try to help them stay on the path, to try to help them be as consistent as possible with their emotional states and their reactions. That’s what we do.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to ask you to share a couple of tips. First, looking at the dog who is well-mannered and very much under control, but maybe who they are struggling to get to enthusiastically respond or feel really motivated about training or work. Do you have a tip or two that people can try or do to work on that?

Deb Jones: Yeah, kind of a general suggestion. Dogs that are too controlled for whatever reason, either they’re inhibited themselves, or they’re controlled because the environment makes them a little nervous or uncomfortable, or they’re worried about being wrong, there’s a million reasons, but they don’t have enough energy or confidence to do what we want them to do. For these guys, I think the most important thing you can do is to never, ever, ever let your dog know that he made a mistake, ever. The dog is never wrong. You have to keep up that hugely high rate of reinforcement so that success builds on success, and success also builds confidence.

A more confident dog is a sturdy dog. A confident dog can take things that don’t go perfectly and roll with it and move on. But a very sensitive dog cannot, and so letting them know they’re not right is the biggest mistake I think people make. So I’d say that’s the one thing: Don’t ever let them know they’re wrong.

And they learn that, of course, our behavior tells them. They don’t know it’s wrong unless we tell them it’s wrong somehow, so you’re going to have to control your own reactions in order to not let them know that there are mistakes, and then make it easier, or make it easy enough, so they can be successful. That’s the one thing about those types of dogs. They need to feel free to make mistakes, just to do things, and once they start to feel freer, then you start to get a lot more confidence building.

Melissa Breau: What about the opposite? What about those dogs that are driven, they’re motivated, but maybe they’re a little less under control.

Deb Jones: Yeah, a lot of experience with these dogs. A whole lot of personal experience. The dogs that are like, “go, go, go, do, do, do, move, move, move,” any activity is often very addictive to them. Moving feels good. We call them adrenaline junkies, because movement starts to release a lot of these different hormones, adrenalin being a big one, and they’re like, Oh, man, this feels so good. It feels so good to do things where there’s lots of action. It doesn’t feel so good to do things where there’s a lot more control.

The problem with these guys is if we try to squash that enthusiasm, to overdo control work, to stop them from doing the things that they want to do, that typically leads to frustration, and so we get a lot of frustration behaviors like barking and spinning. At the end of agility runs you’ll see dogs that, because they have to stop now, they leap up and start biting their handlers. That’s a frustration, because they’re now having to inhibit something that felt really, really good to them. So it’s a little tricky here because we want to help these dogs see that they can still do everything. They don’t need to be high as a kite to do it.

I have a little section in the class called Arousal Modulation: learning to change your arousal level without going immediately from zero to a thousand, but coming up a little bit and then going back down, and getting used to these changes or transitions in the amount of energy that you would see from a dog for different exercises or different things that we’re training. We start to see these guys like to move. So what happens if you do a moving exercise, and then you go into one that requires more thoughtfulness and control? We work through some experimenting here to see what kind of transitions work best, how can we move from one activity to the other and help them not get too high when we’re doing it. So teaching them basically to gear down, but doing it carefully, and not completely squashing their desire to do anything, because that usually ends badly then.

Melissa Breau: Everybody wants that dog that’s perfectly balanced between motivation and control. But I wanted to ask who you really think is an ideal fit for a Gold spot in this class. What would make a dog a really good candidate? What skills do they need? Can somebody take it with a brand-new puppy? Should they be taking it with a slightly older dog? What kind of dog are you hoping will enroll?


Deb Jones: It’s true for almost everybody that you want that perfect balance, so I would think that a lot of people would. Of course we’ll see certain people who are having problems right now and they want to work on those. If you’re having issues training and showing, and it’s not a skills problem, so you see lots of times dogs do great at home, or great in familiar environments where they’re comfortable, but then you get them out into other settings, and they get too high or too low and they can’t perform, that would be the kind of dog that I think this could help, and the kind of team, I should say — not just the dog; I hope to help the whole team — that this should help.

So when you see that inconsistency between different contexts with your dog. Of course what we always say, “My dog did it perfectly in the living room,” and if I had a dollar every time somebody told me that, I’d be rich. And I believe that. I believe that is very true. Your dog did do it perfectly there because their arousal level was at a good level. It wasn’t too high, it wasn’t too low. So if you see different things in different situations.

If you are one of those people who find yourself saying, and I’ve done it too, “He knows how to do this,” when your dog is clearly not doing it. It’s like, “But he knows this.” Again, I don’t know that it’s a skills issue anymore. I think that is definitely much more an arousal issue, and so that means we have to look at the bigger picture, not just look at, OK, I’ll train some more on this behavior. It doesn’t ever hurt to strengthen behaviors, but I don’t know that that actually addresses the problem that you’re having. It only partially does. So anytime you have a lot of inconsistency in the dog’s behavior.

We don’t have any sort of restriction on age or experience for dogs for this class. In thinking about it, a lot of the things that I think about and do, I do this with my puppies, I start very early on, and I work on it basically their whole lives, so young dogs are fine. Older dogs that are having issues are fine as well.

The one thing I would hope for is that you have a few behaviors that are on cue. It doesn’t have to be much. But for some of our later exercises, we like to move between some trained behaviors and a few behaviors in process that you can use in the exercises. I don’t care what the behaviors are. We’re not even actually going to be critiquing your behaviors in any way. They’re just necessary so we can work on the new things that we’re going to try to be instilling in this class, so the exercises are sort of just we’re going to ignore those. We’re going to ignore the behaviors that you bring in, unless you really want feedback, but that’s not the point. The point is can they do them in these different settings and states and in different ways.

So the class is pretty open, I think. As always, our job is to adjust for every team that we get. We do the best we can to meet them where they are, and to try to help them from that point. That’s why I expect that there’ll be a lot of variety in Gold spots. I think we’ll have it all over the map, and so that makes it a little challenging for me in terms of I can’t just give you any sort of canned answer to something that comes up, but I think that’s also what makes it more interesting for people to watch, the people who are in the Silver/Bronze spots, to be able to see that much variety. So we’re pretty open, and people can always contact me if they have questions about whether they think their situation would be appropriate for class. I’m very happy to answer any questions they might have about that.

Melissa Breau: It really does sound like a fascinating class. I think it’s going to be great. The students who get Gold are going to be lucky, lucky people.

Deb Jones: Let’s hope they think so when class is done.

Melissa Breau: I have every confidence that they will. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Deb! It was really good to chat again and to learn a little bit more about the new class.

Deb Jones: Oh, thank you, Melissa. I always have fun talking about training. What could possibly be better? So I always enjoy this.

Melissa Breau: Thanks again, and thanks to our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with Denise Fenzi to talk about Play.

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


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jan 26, 2018


Chrissi Schranz is a dog trainer, translator, and chocolate addict. Chrissi is based in Vienna and Lower Austria. She has been fond of dogs of all sizes, shapes, and personalities for as long as she’s been able to think, especially the so-called difficult ones. After training the dachshund of her early teenage years in traditional ways at her local obedience club, she learned about clicker training and got hooked on force-free, motivational methods.

Her work days are spent doing the things she loves most: thinking about languages, writing, and teaching pet dog manners and life skills to her clients and their dogs. Her German-language puppy book was released last year, and her recall book is scheduled to be released this fall. In addition to all that, in case it wasn’t enough, Chrissi loves working with people and dogs, and training, playing, and hiking with her own dogs.


Next Episode: 

To be released 2/2/2018, and I'll be talking to Deb Jones about balancing motivation and control through dog training so stay tuned!


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 Chrissi Schranz, a dog trainer, translator, and chocolate addict. Chrissi is based in Vienna and Lower Austria. She has been fond of dogs of all sizes, shapes, and personalities for as long as she’s been able to think, especially the so-called difficult ones. After training the dachshund of her early teenage years in traditional ways at her local obedience club, she learned about clicker training and got hooked on force-free, motivational methods.

Her work days are spent doing the things she loves most: thinking about languages, writing, and teaching pet dog manners and life skills to her clients and their dogs. Her German-language puppy book was released last year, and her recall book is scheduled to be released this fall. In addition to all that, in case it wasn’t enough, Chrissi loves working with people and dogs, and training, playing, and hiking with her own dogs.

Hi Chrissi. Welcome to the podcast.

Chrissi Schranz: Hi Melissa.

Melissa Breau: To just start us out, can you remind listeners just a little bit about who the dogs are that you share your life with? And I think you have a new addition, don’t you?

Chrissi Schranz: Yes, I do, so there are four. Fantasy, my oldest, is my greyhound. His main job is to hold down the couch and get all the old dog benefits. And then there’s Phoebe, my poodle. She’s always happy and cheerful and up for anything. My favorite thing for her is training tricks and taking her on hikes and also taking her to all kinds of places. She can go to restaurants, and she’s just good wherever you take her. She just fits in. Then there’s Grit, my young Malinois. With her, I’ve been working on tracking and on obedience foundation. Maybe we’ll get our TEAM 1 sometime soon. That would be nice. I also hope that sometime this year we’ll do our BH. That’s the first trial for obedience sports, for FCI sports. And my new addition, that’s Game. She’s also a Malinois, almost 6 months old now, and in pretty much all respects she’s still a puppy. Lots of puppy brain and puppy behaviors and puppy-ness.

Melissa Breau: I can’t believe she’s already 6 months. It feels like not long ago you brought her home. Let’s start by talking about her a little bit. What kinds of foundation stuff have you been working on with her? I know you shared some awesome videos on Facebook, and for our listeners, we’re going to put those in the show notes for you guys because Chrissi shared the YouTube links with me. Do you want to just talk about those a little bit?

Chrissi Schranz: Yeah. So in general I think you can train skills later in a dog’s life, but you really need to put a strong foundation of confidence and relationship on them as early as possible, because the younger they are, the more moldable they still are, and the more open they are to new experiences. So I usually take puppies out into the world, introduce them to people and dogs and places and smells and sounds. It has been really interesting working with Game because she’s so different from Grit. Grit is very handler focused and Game is very environmentally focused, also extremely confident and very social too. So when I take her out, I try to not let her directly meet people and dogs because she already thinks people and dogs are awesome, so she doesn’t really need more of that. We mainly work on being OK just sharing space with people and dogs without always approaching and playing with everyone. So usually I give her time to acclimate, and then I transition into playing with her, sometimes without any food or any toys, sometimes just food, sometimes toys. I talk about that more in the videos you mentioned.

Melissa Breau: I think it was cool to watch some of the stuff and how you handled some of when she got distracted or what happened. It was really interesting to see all that. You’ve mentioned that Game and Grit are pretty different. Do you want to talk a little more about what you mean by that and how it has influenced your training?

Chrissi Schranz: Grit is really handler focused, so it was pretty easy to get her to focus on me in any environment. We didn’t really have to work on it. She just offered that, even as a puppy. Game, on the other hand, is super-environmental. She thinks the world is fun, smells are fun, sounds are fun, people are fun. She needs to check it all out. I haven’t had an environmental dog since Snoopy, my dachshund, and he was the most difficult dog I’ve ever trained. He was so independent. So I’m really glad that I know more now than I did then. With Game, I was confident that if I just gave her time to check out the environment, then always would come the moment when she would push me to interact with her. In the beginning, when I took her interesting places, she didn’t show a lot of interest in me, and I just accepted that because I don’t think it’s possible to make yourself more interesting than the environment anyway. I worked on our relationship at home. I could actually see how her interest in playing with me increased every time we went out into the real world. I think in hindsight it really was the best approach I could have taken for her. She’ll now happily engage with me soon when we’re entering new space, and it’s always her choice and not my request, which I really like. I like it to be that way. But I’m pretty sure her environmental interests will come back when she hits adolescence, so this will be very interesting.

Melissa Breau: As somebody who has a young dog and is working on foundation stuff, what do you feel is the most important skill — or skills, if you want to dive into more than one — to really focus on or teach a new dog?

Chrissi Schranz: I think it really depends on the owner and their goals for themselves and their dog. For me, I really want a strong relationship. I find that more important than anything else. In order to get that, I start with lots of playing and being together, and doing things together that the dog enjoys. I want the dog to know that they can trust me and feel safe with me. Also I want off-leash reliability because I really love hiking. Everything else is secondary to this foundation.

Melissa Breau: Part of, I’m guessing, that off-leash reliability is recalls, and since you teach a class on it, and have a book coming out on it, do you want to just tell us a little bit about the book, when it will be out, where it will be available?

Chrissi Schranz: Yes. The book is in German, unfortunately, so I’m afraid many of you won’t be able to read it, but it will be out this fall. The publisher is Kynos, and it should be available on Amazon. It’s a workbook, so it has lots of free space to take notes, and tables and checklists that the reader can fill in. I want it to be a fun book that you can take places, and it will give you a clear training plan on one hand, and it helps you keep track of your progress on the other hand.

Melissa Breau: Your syllabus, to shift gears and talk about your class a little bit, mentions establishing a radius. You mentioned earlier off-leash reliability. I think that’s maybe not something I’ve thought about before with recall training, the idea of establishing a space. What do you mean by that? Can you talk us through it a little bit?

Chrissi Schranz: When you walk your dog off leash, you probably don’t want him to run more than maybe 40 feet away from you, so that’s the radius you want him to keep. With radius training we teach an awareness of this distance where the dogs learn that fun things happen 40 feet from us and closer to us. There’s various elements to this. One of them is that we play all kinds of games within that radius. Another one is that we change directions when they step out of the radius. So basically the way they were just headed sniffing, that ends if they go further away than the radius we want them to have.

Melissa Breau: You also mentioned the idea of auto check-ins. Do you want to talk a little bit about what those are and how they help with recall training?

Chrissi Schranz: That’s one of those things that I want to happen within the radius. When I casually walk my dog and she looks at me unprompted, that’s an auto check-in. The more often you capture that — for example, with a click — the more often it will happen. It’s part of what I call shifting the responsibility to the dog, because I want the dog to think it’s her job to make sure not to lose her off-leash human and not the other way around. It’s more relaxing for the human if the dog makes sure not to lose you than if you constantly have to make sure not to lose your dog.

Melissa Breau: Right. I think a lot of people probably would love it if they could trust their dog not to lose them. One of the common analogies out there that people talk about when they talk about recall training is the concept of this piggy bank. You’ve got to put a lot of money in before you can make a withdrawal out. I have no idea where that concept or that analogy came from, but I was hoping you could explain a little bit about how that works and what that concept means.

Chrissi Schranz: I don’t know where it comes from either, but I also like the image. For me, it means that I always try to follow a recall up with good things. If you keep calling your dog and then ending the off-leash fun, she’ll learn that she better shouldn’t come. So every time I call and then pay her well or let her run off again, I put money in the piggy bank, and every time I call and put her on a leash or end the play date, I’m making a withdrawal. I feel that you want to have as little withdrawals as possible.

Melissa Breau: Part, I think, of what most people struggle with, they can get the recall in the house, they can get the recall maybe in the yard when there’s a low level of distraction, and maybe they get it 100 percent of the time awesome. So the first time they face something hard to recall their dog off of, they’re shocked, amazed, terrified, horrified, whatever word you want to choose, when the dog doesn’t come. The problem there is they struggle with generally adding distractions in training and actually thoroughly proofing the behavior. Since recalls are often most important when distractions are their highest, proofing is perhaps even more important with this particular skill than with most of the things we teach. So I wanted to ask you a little bit about how listeners can do it the right way.

Chrissi Schranz: I think you already touched on the most important part: proofing. Many people just forget about that part when it comes to real-life behaviors. They remember to proof sports behaviors and competition behaviors, but somehow just expect the recall to work in real life after training it in the house or in the training building. But of course it doesn’t because it’s a very different environment. There are always sudden distractions. So ideally you think of it just as you think of any other behavior. You train it in an easy environment first — for example, your house, or a training building, or your yard — and then you don’t just skip a few steps and ask your dog to recall off a dear; you gradually build to this environment, and gradually introduce distractions. For example, you can work with a low-value food distraction in your own house, and then a slightly higher-value food distraction, and so on.

Melissa Breau: Kind of building complexity at home before you take it out.

Chrissi Schranz: Yes, exactly.

Melissa Breau: Is it realistic to believe that every dog can have a strong recall cue, or are there some dogs that simply are always going to struggle with it?

Chrissi Schranz: I think some dogs will always struggle, and I’m sure some people disagree, but while training is important, it’s only part of the picture. There’s breed tendencies and individual temperaments, and those are also really important factors. For example, a dog who’s genetically wired to work independently of humans, and a dog who has a strong prey drive, that’s a dog that will be much harder to train when it comes to a recall for off-leash hiking, for example, than a handler-focused dog with a high will to please and no prey drive whatsoever.

Melissa Breau: Right. What do you do with those dogs that maybe don’t have a lot of built-in interest for reinforcers? How do you handle that?

Chrissi Schranz: That’s a great question. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I’m actually developing a class on building reinforcers. I think we usually assume that a reinforcer is a thing that the dog wants, and that we just need to have the thing and give it to the dog, and we can reward the behavior anywhere, anytime. But very often it just doesn’t work that way. For example, some dogs only take treats at home, or they’re only interested in toys in certain contexts. For example, you can’t reward a recall with something the dog doesn’t want when he’s out. It doesn’t matter how much he likes that same thing at home. So I think it’s really useful if we try to see reinforcers as behaviors rather than things. So instead of food, we have the act of eating, and instead of a tennis ball, we have the act of playing fetch, and so on. If you think of a reinforcer as a behavior, all of a sudden it’s pretty clear that reinforcers can be trained and generalized just like any other behavior. We actually shouldn’t expect them to work anywhere and everywhere without building them and generalizing them and working on them.

Melissa Breau: Since you’re working on a class on that concept, any thoughts when we might see it on the schedule, or anything else you want to get into about what it’s going to cover?

Chrissi Schranz: I’m not sure, but it will probably be on the schedule in June, and we’ll go into all kinds of reinforcers, including the ones we don’t typically think of. For example, there’ll be lectures and games about environmental rewards, like chasing squirrels or chasing birds, and we’ll talk about things that are genetically reinforcing, like, for example, herding might be for a Border Collie.

Melissa Breau: Well, thank you so much, Chrissi, for coming back on the podcast. I really appreciate it. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week, this time with Deb Jones, to talk about achieving a balance between motivation and control in our dogs through training.

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


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jan 19, 2018


Lori Stevens is an animal behavior consultant, a professional dog trainer, a canine fitness trainer, an animal massage practitioner, and a senior Tellington TTouch® Training practitioner. She continually studies how animal behavior, movement, learning, fitness, and health all interact.

She uses intimidation-free, scientific, and innovative methods, in an educational environment, to improve the health, behavior, performance, and fitness of animals. Lori gives workshops worldwide and has a private practice in Seattle, WA. She is also the creator of the Balance Harness.

Lori’s most recent of three DVDs by Tawser Dog Videos is co-presented with Kathy Sdao and called The Gift of a Gray Muzzle: Active Care for Senior Dogs. It focuses on improving the life of senior dogs. She teaches the popular FDSA course Helping Dogs Thrive: Aging Dogs, and will be introducing a new course this session called Helping Dogs Thrive: Fitness in Five.


Next Episode: 

To be released 1/26/2018, and I'll be talking to Chrissi Schranz about building reinforcers and recall training, so stay tuned!


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 Lori Stevens.

Lori is an animal behavior consultant, a professional dog trainer, a canine fitness trainer, an animal massage practitioner, and a senior Tellington TTouch® Training practitioner. She continually studies how animal behavior, movement, learning, fitness, and health all interact.

She uses intimidation-free, scientific, and innovative methods, in an educational environment, to improve the health, behavior, performance, and fitness of animals. Lori gives workshops worldwide and has a private practice in Seattle, WA. She is also the creator of the Balance Harness.

Lori’s most recent of three DVDs by Tawser Dog Videos is co-presented with Kathy Sdao and called The Gift of a Gray Muzzle: Active Care for Senior Dogs. It focuses on improving the life of senior dogs. She teaches the popular FDSA course Helping Dogs Thrive: Aging Dogs, and will be introducing a new course this session called Helping Dogs Thrive: Fitness in Five.

Hi Lori, welcome back to the podcast.

Lori Stevens: Hello Melissa. Thanks for having me back.

Melissa Breau: I am very excited to talk to you again today. To start us out and remind listeners who you are, do you want to recap who the animals are that you share your life with?

Lori Stevens: Sure. Since you made that plural, I’ll add in my husband because humans are animals.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough!

Lori Stevens: Anyway, I live with my husband, Lee, and I live with my 12-and-a-half-year-old Aussie girl, Cassie. You know, I used to teach about aging dogs without actually having one, and now I have one. So after several years of teaching basically senior dogs how to have a better life, now I have one and I’m putting it to work. So it’s nice to have a 12-and-a-half-year-old who’s excited about doing fitness, and going to the park, and the beach, and trail outings, and all sorts of good things.

Melissa Breau: You shared pictures. She’s clearly in great shape. She looks awesome.

Lori Stevens: Yeah, she’s doing well.

Melissa Breau: Good. I know from last time we talked that you’re an advocate for canine fitness — probably not surprising based on what you do. But can you share a little about why it’s important, especially for sports dogs?

Lori Stevens: I’ll start with sports. I have personal experience with seeing athletes go to the next level, and I think it’s the cross-training, because they’ll come in and basically say something like, “My dog keeps hitting bars. I think we need to improve something.” When we start doing some cross-training, or strengthening the core, or strengthening the legs that are involved in a jump, all those things, we see improvement in performance —surprise, surprise.

I think a lot of time in sports the training is going to classes, practicing the sports, but sometimes you need to do one more level of fitness to get that extra little bit. There are so many benefits in canine fitness, things like strengthens muscles is obvious, but it really strengthens and helps the dog know when and how to engage their core muscles. That would happen automatically. It’s not like they think, OK, it’s time to engage my core muscles, but we do exercises where we start engaging them a lot and then it becomes more natural.

You build better joint support through stronger muscles, improving flexibility, improve alignment and posture, balance and stability improve. And with that, what you get is fewer injuries, you get more confidence, you get more body awareness. And so dogs, when they’re faced with a quick decision or a quick body move, they’re more prepared and more confident to make that move, and stronger in that movement than they might be if they were just doing the regular training as a sport. It improves gait, movement, I just think it’s fantastic.

But another part of it, which I think we often leave out, is that it’s a behavior changer. I have worked with fearful dogs that that was the way that I broke through to them. That confidence they get with suddenly doing things with their body that they’ve never done before, like hind leg targeting, I think that’s a huge, huge exercise for dogs’ awareness of where their back end is, their confidence. It seems to be a game changer, really, in terms of behavior, I have found. It’s all the stuff you would naturally think of with fitness, but it also does a lot in terms of confidence, body awareness, and building trust even. I mean really being able to build trust, or doing something joyful that doesn’t have the pressure of competition in it.

Melissa Breau: I think that, for a lot of people, when they talk about fitness, they think about their own experiences. I don’t know about you, but for me at least, the gym is not my favorite place to be. How does that compare to how dogs generally feel about fitness and what’s the difference there?

Lori Stevens: I hate the gym. Can I just say that? Really hate the gym.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely.

Lori Stevens: I have a personal trainer now. I love my trainer. And so maybe that’s more like working with your dog. What pops to mind when I think of going to the gym is a sweaty place that doesn’t smell great and has a lot of grunting. Canine fitness, what pops to mind when I think about it, is joy, joy, joy. That’s what my canine gym is, my canine gym room. Doing fitness together is just a blast. I have to say that every dog I’ve ever worked with loves it, and that’s why it’s my sport. It’s my sport, I’m calling it my sport because I don’t have another sport, but to me, it really is. It’s truly a fun activity and it’s all about the joy. So they aren’t really comparable, those two things.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough, and I guess if someone was sitting there feeding us cookies for everything we did at the gym, we might enjoy it a little more too.

Lori Stevens: Yeah, true.

Melissa Breau: I think the other place that our concepts about our own fitness struggles sometimes hold us back is with the expectations around how much time we have to put into it. Most people probably think about spending an hour — or more, maybe — at the gym each time they go. Based on the upcoming course name, I’m going to guess that canine fitness differs there too. So how much time should people really be spending on canine fitness?

Lori Stevens: You know that five is five hours. No, I’m just kidding. It’s five minutes. You know, that goes for people too. When you’re out walking your dog, and you’re out in the woods, or on a trail, or in the park, it’s OK if it takes an hour. But when you’re in your house with your dog and you want to do some focused exercises, you want to stop and do a little training, so you might as well do a little fitness, five minutes is plenty. I do believe in warming up and cooling down, and the five minutes is the strengthening part, but if you wanted to turn that into two minutes of strengthening and a couple of minutes of warm-up, and a short cool down, that’s fine too.

I actually think, with people, they don’t need to do an hour workout either. If I stop and do five to ten minutes of working out, that’s better than if I don’t do any at all, so the time thing, I think, often gets in the way.

I also think we can over-train our dogs. I have a 12-and-a-half-year-old, and I set a timer. I set it for five minutes of training. If she’s cold, like if she’s been sleeping for a few hours, then I wake her up, I set my timer for five minutes, and we do five minutes of warm-up. Then I set it again, we do five minutes of strengthening, and then we do a few minutes of cool down, usually another five on the cool down. So I just set my timer. I think I got that idea of five, five, and five from Leslie Eide, a rehabilitation vet in our area. She also teaches fitness work. I think she’s done some for Fenzi.

I think the thing is that it’s important to warm up a bit and cool down a bit, but you really don’t have to spend that much time doing it. So all of the workouts that people are going to develop in my class are going to be five-minute workouts. We don’t have to overthink this, you know. We can be creative. We just don’t want to work the same muscles every day to fatigue. So we just want to be careful on that side of things.

Melissa Breau: How much do fitness behaviors — maybe including or maybe not including warm-up and cool down stuff; I’ll leave that up to you — but how much do those skills or those behaviors differ from other skills and behaviors that we teach our dog for sport or just for daily life?

Lori Stevens: It’s all behavior. How does it differ? I think the way it differs is that we need to be safe. So we need to pay attention to alignment, we need to start on the ground, and what I mean by that is we really need to build a foundation, just like with any sport. You’re not going to get past the foundation stuff. You don’t put your dog directly on a peanut and start doing things.

One of my goals in teaching fitness is to really teach people how to be wonderful, incredibly sharp-eyed observers, and teach them what to look for when they’re doing fitness, and how to start on the ground and build up. All these exercises that we do as foundation exercises, they’re all going to get harder because we’re going to be doing them on the ground first, on a stable platform, then an unstable platform, unstable equipment.

Training fitness is not training for a competitive sport, so the pressure isn’t the same, but you still have to have a good foundation for it. Just like with agility, you don’t go in and start running courses. You teach the dog how to get on the equipment, how to exit the equipment, how to use the equipment safely. This is all a good thing, in my view, and that’s why I can call it my sport, because there are a bunch of nuances.

But it’s also a very joyful thing to do. Not to say that sports isn’t joyful. Most people do it because it’s a blast. But precision is important in fitness training, just like it’s important in competitive sports. It’s just different in the sense that it’s something you can do year-round. You might change your focus based on what you see in your dog, and all of it is about teaching behaviors, so the better you are at training and timing, the better your fitness work will look.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned in there the idea of equipment. Do people need special equipment to do canine fitness?

Lori Stevens: I think people like an excuse to buy equipment.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough.

Lori Stevens: I really do. I think it’s funny, I do think they like that. But let’s just say they can’t afford it or they don’t like it. There’s a lot of things you can build. You can use things around the house. Do you have to have fancy cones? No, you can use potted plants. Do you have to have a fancy Cavalletti set with cones with poles through it? No, you can use your mops and brooms and put them on cans and use painter’s tape. Do you have to buy fancy platforms or an aerobic platform? No, you can use books and bind them with duct tape and put anti-slip material around them. You can use air mattresses and pillows for unstable equipment. I’m betting most people will want to buy a piece of equipment or two, but you don’t have to.

Let me just add that the outdoors, when you go for a walk in the park, it is full of exercise equipment. I’m going to give you yesterday’s example. We haven’t gone for our walk today yet. Yesterday’s example was we went to the park and Cassie wanted to jump on every park bench. She sees the bench and she starts targeting for the bench, and she wants to go on every single bench. She can put her front legs up to work her hind legs, or she can push up all the way to do a little jump. Then we do uphill sprints because I’m in Seattle, so there’s a lot of hills. We do uphill recalls and she sprints up the hill. We hind leg target curbs on our way to the park, and we were walking across a bridge, and I noticed there was this little shelf, a little curb-like thing that you could step up on. So we did ipsilateral work — I’d better say what that is — we did targeting with same-side legs on the little raised part of the bridge, and we turned around, did the other side, and I took a photo of it. We do that in the class, ipsilateral work. We ended with nosework in the park, followed by walking up a very steep hill. And I did a workout with her that day, too. But this was a really good workout just utilizing, there’s often a big rock she likes to jump up on, and there’s all sorts of logs that are a little slippery right now because it rains here nonstop for ages. There’s exercise equipment everywhere. Maybe I should do a class someday on just outdoor equipment.

Melissa Breau: That would certainly be cool. It would be interesting.

Lori Stevens: Yeah.

Melissa Breau: For those people who are interested in buying a couple of pieces of equipment, are there specific pieces you usually recommend for getting started, or good places to get their feet wet?

Lori Stevens: First a caveat: You’re talking to someone who has a ridiculous amount of equipment, so maybe I shouldn’t really be allowed to answer this question. Older dogs do really well with a balance pad, and you don’t have to buy it. You can get a balance pad on Amazon for people and it’s not very expensive. You can do a lot of things with a balance pad.

I like for people to have a Fitbone or two, or a couple of 14-inch discs. Those pieces of equipment, either one, a Fitbone or a 14-inch disc, or two Fitbones or two 14-inch discs, you can do a lot with those. Platforms are super-useful. Where do you buy a platform, right? A lot of people have been making platforms recently, so there’s a lot of how-to’s on that.

But you asked me about buying. An aerobic step bench is actually a useful platform. Michelle Pouliot has a place that she links to that builds platforms according to her specifications, so I’ve got a couple of those.

And then Paw Pods. They’re inexpensive and they’re a blast. You just have to make sure you get the ones that are nice and soft, so I get the FitPAWS ones. They’re really fun, because then you can target one paw at a time, target all four, do turns, and do side steps onto them and all sorts of things. Back onto them, back onto all four, there’s a million things you can do with the Paw Pods. OK, I’ll stop. Was that just a couple of pieces?

Melissa Breau: No, that’s excellent. Paw Pods are fascinating. I’ve never taught a dog to use them, but just in general I’ve seen some stuff done with them and they’re pretty cool. They require a real awareness of where all four of your feet are.

Lori Stevens: Exactly, and it is just fun. It’s fun to teach and fun to do them.

Melissa Breau: I know you have, and you mentioned this earlier too, this idea of fitness foundation behaviors. I know that’s part of what’s on your syllabus, so I wanted to ask you what you mean by that, and what are some examples of something that counts as a fitness foundation behavior.

Lori Stevens: One isn’t even a fitness behavior, but having a good nose-to-hand touch where your dog can … so targeting is a big one, so first a nose-to-hand touch, and that’s super-useful for positioning. Having an easy go-to default behavior they can do when you just ask them to do something and they don’t do it, you can just say, “Touch.” So when you practice that in all sorts of ways, and moving them into position with your nose-to-hand targeting, then you’ve got something that you can use during fitness training that gets them to a certain place, gets them on something, gets them off of something. Getting off of equipment sometimes can be challenging for some people.

So just to continue with the targeting, being able to target with one paw, target something, your hand, with each of your four paws — not your four paws, your dog’s four paws — targeting with one paw, two paws up, four paws up, is a useful foundation skill.

Hind leg targeting is, in my opinion, hind leg targeting is a useful skill for all dogs, period. Being able to hind leg target something is really important, but then, of course, it’s a foundation behavior when you’re just teaching a dog to hind leg target a mat. But it becomes more skillful and more of a fitness behavior when you’re targeting something unstable and higher up and asking to hold that position and maybe do shoulder exercises with their hind end up. So these things that start on the ground that don’t seem like that big a deal, they build and become more difficult and more challenging fitness exercises or strengthening exercises. Backing up, side stepping — both of those are foundation exercises, but side stepping on unstable equipment is a different thing than side stepping with all four feet on the ground. I call them foundations because you’re giving the dog the idea of what is side stepping and what is backing up, or asking them to do it on something difficult.

Melissa Breau: What are some of the basic exercises that you teach most often? What do those look like, and what are the benefits of doing some of them?

Lori Stevens: Let me just start with the simplest concept, and that is, when you put two front feet up on something, your dog is usually, not always, but you can help them shift their weight to their back legs, so the further they’re standing up, the less likely that they’ll have the weight on their front legs. The benefit of putting two paws up on something and holding is that the hind legs are being used more. If the hind legs are up, then the weight is more down on the front legs, so you’re building front leg muscles. Things like tuck sits and sphinx downs require more core work. There’s something that is often said in physical therapy, and that is, you stabilize, you strengthen the proximal, which is the core, which is the trunk, to get better distal mobility from a strengthen position. So it’s important to be able to have the strength of that stability in your trunk and in your core, your stabilization muscles, your multifidi, your transverse abdominus muscles. It’s important to be able to automatically engage those, your serratus, in order to do some of these other exercises. So the benefits of the core work is to be able to do more difficult things safely.

The benefits of some of the other exercises we work on, like, let’s just say crawling. Crawling, you’re down in a sphinx down position and then you’re moving forward on the ground. So you’re working the back muscles. You’re utilizing all four limbs, and those limbs, especially the back legs, really have to work the rotation of the hip. The benefits of these exercises are pretty amazing.

Another example would be with the dog standing on all four legs. If you lift the left front leg, you’re going to put more weight on the right back leg, so if you’ve got a dog that’s in a habit of standing to the side because maybe they hurt their right knee two years ago, so they got in a habit of unloading that leg, well, lifting the front left paw loads that leg, and in their body they start getting the muscle memory back of, Oh yeah, I can use that leg like I used it before. It doesn’t hurt at all.

Let me just add that I still think it’s important that everybody who does fitness is checked out by a veterinarian, and if they’ve had any sort of problems that they’re cleared for the exercises first.

But there’s a lot of benefits that come from doing this work that sometimes people don’t even see until they start doing it. It’s pretty cool.

And then there’s the behavior benefits, like I said earlier. The body awareness, the bonding that occurs, the trust and joy. And do you know that some of the agility dogs I work with have never slowed down, and they’re like, “Ha ha ha, my dog will never slow down,” and they walk over those Cavaletti poles. But slowing down helps dogs go faster, because in slowing down they really get to know their bodies better, and they get to know where they’re not just pushing through. Being the little masters of muscle compensation that they are, when you’re moving slowly, it all stands out. You have to know what muscles you’re using, you have to know where your feet are in a different sort of way, and so the slow work doesn’t slow your dog down on the course. It helps your dog because they’re even more confident and more aware, I think.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to ask if there are differences in the behaviors you’d recommend for daily fitness versus those you use to warm up and cool down, or whether the behaviors are multifunctional. Maybe you could just talk to all that a little bit.

Lori Stevens: The exercises are multifunctional, or at least some of them are. In my warm-up I might do a few tuck sits and a few tuck sits to stand. I might do some short recalls. I might do some targeting, some spins, some bows, some Cavalletti work. But I’m not going to do ten tuck sits to stands, three sets, with feet upon a Fitbone, as my warm-up.

So the concept of the exercise is the exercise might be the same, but I’ll just do two or three of them in a warm-up versus ten of them, really hard, three sets. I want the dogs, as they’re warming up, to go through the different movements. I want them to back up and side step, and all that’s on the ground during a warm-up, really.

I often just come in from a walk, like, I walk Cassie for however long, usually we walk at least 30 minutes, and we walk in the house and she’s pretty warmed up, so we just do a few exercises right after that. But it’s spins and turns to get the … or spins in each direction, sorry. It’s good lateral flexion for the spine, so it warms up the spine muscles.

Cavalletti work is a nice warm-up exercise when you’re trotting across them, but I’m not going to raise them real high and have a dog do high steps, or side stepping, or backing up over Cavelletti poles as a warm-up, because that’s taking it a little bit further.

So they’re multifunctional, but they’re done in the simplest way during warm-ups and cool downs. I probably made that into something longer than it needed to be.

In cool downs I’m even going to go lighter and do less in a cool down than I would in a warm-up.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned this earlier, and you talk about it a little bit in your syllabus, this concept of alignment. I wanted to ask what you mean by that, and if you can talk a little bit about why it’s important.

Lori Stevens: It’s super-important, and why it’s important has to do with the muscles that are engaging. I’m an alignment geek, I admit. If a dog sits with a leg shooting out to the side, or just a super-sloppy sit to the side, the first thing I want to know is why that’s happening and let’s change it. If a back is roached up or humped up, I want to know is something wrong. Hunched up, back roached, I don’t know how you’d say roaching, but hopefully people know what that is.

Sometimes what I see is a dog can stand with their feet under them perfectly fine, but as soon as they step up on a platform, their back feet go really wide, or their front feet go really wide. Have you ever seen people that are standing with their legs really wide? They’re not using their core. They’re just creating this super-broad base that they don’t have to use any muscles. I mean, you have to use muscles to stand, but it’s a rather lazy, non-core way of standing. Sorry if you’re thinking, I do that all the time!

So what I’m looking for is that dogs are using the muscles I expect, they have nice, long spines, neutral necks, their tail is not tucked. If the dog’s tail is tucked — some dogs tuck their tails a lot — but if the dog’s tail is really tucked and their legs are wide, then I think either, They’re not comfortable standing like this. Maybe we’re standing on something a little bit too high. Maybe for one reason or another they might or might not be hurting. It’s really hard to tell because you can’t ask. So I want to see if we can change their position in a way that puts them in better alignment and if they’re comfortable doing that.

Now if the dog regularly really goes wide in the back, I know how to encourage them to have their legs under them, but if I all of a sudden start doing the exercise with their legs in, they might be using muscles they have never used before. So I have to really be careful with not just bringing their legs in and then doing a million exercises, because the dog needs to get used to using those new muscles.

So anyway, alignment is a really, really big deal. It’s just safe. It’s safer. There’s no reason to do things with improper alignment. It’s the same thing in human training as well.

Melissa Breau: I’ll let you talk a little more about the class specifically. I know it’s called Helping Dogs Thrive: Fitness In Five, and it’s in February, so lots of f’s. What does it entail, what is it going to look like? Do you want to just talk us through a little bit?

Lori Stevens: It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be educational, it will benefit your dog and help him in sports. At the end of, so every week, I think this time I’m going to release everything the first day of the week. You’ll have lectures that will tell you a bit about why I want things to go a certain way, or things to keep in mind, or learning about fitness. So I’ll have lectures.

Then I’ll have exercises, and I’ll say how to get the behaviors, what they’re good for. I’ll say the setup, what you need in your environment, the instructions, the number of repetitions and sets, I’ll have video of the exercise. So we’ll do that.

And then, at the end of every week, I’m going to have something called The Five-Minute Workout, it’s just called Five-Minute Workout. I’m not going to create the five-minute workout. However, I’m going to give everybody the tools to create their own five-minute workout. So you can imagine what the homework will be. The homework will be showing the exercises, or for sure showing videos of the exercises that you’re having trouble teaching.

But also I’m going to want to see parts of the five-minute workout. The first week, you’re learning how to do a five-minute workout. You’re not all of a sudden, “Here’s my five-minute workout.” It’s going to build across the weeks, and every week your five-minute workout can incorporate, like, let’s just say we’re in Week 3. Your five-minute workout can include the exercises from Week 3, 2, and 1, so we can get creative and more mixing and matching.

Anyway, that’s basically how the class is laid out. I’m going to have lectures on things like raising criteria. I’ll talk about the benefits, the kinds of movements, the anatomical terminology, like what is cranial and what’s caudal, what’s lateral and what’s medial. I’ll talk about exercise frequency, repetitions, durations, and sets. I’ll talk about physiological issues, muscle actions. So there’s things I’ll just talk about, but then there’s the exercises, so people will have both. They’ll learn about fitness and they will learn the exercises.

Melissa Breau: They’ll learn both the whys and the hows.

Lori Stevens: Yeah.

Melissa Breau: I think you hit on the things that people are most likely to have questions about. I feel like anytime people talk about this stuff, it’s like, “OK, but how much do I do? How long do I do it?” and all those pieces.

Lori Stevens: Yeah, right. Exactly. And it’s really different from the Aging Dogs class. In the Aging Dogs class, depending on the age of the dog, for sure, I’m not always this picky about everything. I’m likely to be a little bit more picky about alignment and how we’re doing the exercise than I am in the Aging Dogs class. It all depends on the dog, but when you’re working with a 16-year-old dog, teaching him fitness exercises, you’re going to go really slowly, give that dog the time to learn them, and you’re not going to be super-picky about, you’re going to be as picky as you can be about alignment, but it’s different.

Melissa Breau: You hit on something there, and I didn’t tell you I was going to ask you this, but you brought it up and I think it makes sense to maybe talk about it for just a quick second. Is there a type of dog that is a good fit for the class, or maybe isn’t as good a fit for the class?

Lori Stevens: I would say if it’s a dog that … OK, first of all, if it’s a puppy and the growth plates aren’t closed yet, then puppies probably should not take the class, because everything about repetitions and sets aren’t going to apply to the puppy. Somebody could take it if they have a puppy. I recommend they audit it. Then, when their dog’s growth plates close, then they can start applying it, or they can take it again later. It’s a lot of material. You could audit it, then take it later, and still go, “Oh, I don’t remember doing this.”

If your dog’s coming off a pretty serious injury and you’ve got contraindications, things you really shouldn’t be doing, maybe don’t take it at Gold. Maybe just audit it. Check with your vet. It’s different if you’re coming here and you’ve been released from the rehab vet to come to me to do exercises. But if you are taking this as a fitness class, I’m going to assume your dog is pretty healthy. Other than that, pretty much all dogs can take it.

For sure the dogs that are pretty mobile that have been in my Aging Dogs class, they can take it. They may not be able to do everything, but the ones that are pretty mobile, there’s some I have in mind that could definitely take it. But if you’ve got a dog that can hardly move, this will be challenging, is my guess.

But there’s always something, you know? I have to do some harder exercises for the dogs that are more performance dogs. They’re strong and they’re used to doing things. And then you can always just stick with the basics and build really, really gradually until you’re ready to go up a level. So it really depends.

Melissa Breau: If people have questions, they can message you, right?

Lori Stevens: Whatever people have, yeah. I think it’s going to be a well-attended class, based on the interest I’ve seen so far, so I hope. It should be really fun. It should be a very positive experience for the dogs and people.

Melissa Breau: Well, thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Lori. This is fun to learn a little more about this stuff, and I feel like every time we talk about it, I’m like, Hmm, I really should be doing that. So thank you for coming back on and talking through this with me.

And thank you to all of our wonderful listeners out there for tuning in. We’ll be back next week, this time with Chrissi Schranz to talk about building reinforcers and recall training. If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll subscribe to our podcast in itunes or the podcast app of your choice so our next episode will automatically download to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jan 12, 2018


Stacey Barnett is an active competitor in Nosework, Tracking, Obedience, Rally, Agility and Barn Hunt, and the host of the Scentsabilities podcast -- but Scent Sports are her primary focus and her first love.


Next Episode: 

To be released 1/19/2018, and I'll be talking to Lori Stevens about how you can help your dog reach optimum fitness in about five minutes, so stay tuned!


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

Today we’ll be talking to Stacy Barnett.

Stacy is an active competitor in Nosework, Tracking, Obedience, Rally, Agility, and Barn Hunt, and the host of the Scentsabilities podcast — but Scent Sports are her primary focus and her first love.

Hi Stacy, welcome back to the podcast.

Stacy Barnett: Hi Melissa. How are you?

Melissa Breau: I’m doing well. So this is our third take, thanks to technology. So hopefully this time we have good sound and everybody does well.

To start us out, Stacy, do you want to tell us just a little bit and remind listeners who your dogs are? I know since last time we talked you have a new addition, so maybe you could share a little bit about that.

Stacy Barnett: I do, I do. I love talking about her anyway, so that’s really great. I have four dogs now, so I’m getting closer to the “crazy dog lady” status. I don’t think I’m there yet, but a little closer. I have four dogs. My oldest dog is a 10-year-old Standard Poodle named Joey, and Joey is competing in the NW3 level right now in nosework. I have a 6-year-old miniature American Shepherd, or mini Aussie, and he is at the end of E2 level.

Then I have two Labradors now, so my main competition dog that I’ve done most of my competition with out of these dogs is Judd. Judd is — I can’t believe it — he’s 8 years old now. Time flies. He’s an 8-year-old Labrador Retriever, and he’s a dog that’s my elite dog that I competed at the 2017 NACSW National Invitational this year. He’s really the one that brought me into nosework in a big way.

Then I have a brand new addition. I have a — she’s going to be 9 months old, believe it not, this next week — and she is a Labrador Retriever from working lines. I’m very proud of her breeding and her breeder because they produce professional dogs for the professional sector, like FEMA dogs, cadaver dogs, that kind of thing. So she’s bred for detection. She’s definitely living up to her breeding, which is really exciting. But she’s a really super dog, I absolutely love her, a little peanut, she’s only about 35 pounds right now, but she may be small, but she’s mighty.

Melissa Breau: I know that you mentioned on Facebook a little bit, and some other places, that Brava’s been a little bit of a change from some of your other dogs. She’s a little different. Do you want to share a little bit about that?

Stacy Barnett: Sure, sure. Brava is, she actually thinks her name is Bravado. That’s her attitude. Her nickname is actually Big Bad. She’s really a piece of work, but I absolutely adore her. She is what people would typically refer to as a high drive dog, but she’s also a high arousal dog. With my other dogs, I can get them into drive, but they are not what I would call high arousal dogs. I would say that they’re either low arousal or moderate arousal. But with her, she’s a high arousal, so it’s totally on a different side of the Yerkes-Dodson arousal curve.

Melissa Breau: I want to talk a little more about that. Do you want to explain what the curve is and how it works, and what you mean by saying she’s on one side and they’re on the other?

Stacy Barnett: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I’m actually really interested in Yerkes-Dodson Law because I find that it is the number one success criteria. Like, if you want to be successful in nosework, and probably a lot of other sports, but the number one key to success is managing this curve. So this is a really important concept.

Basically, with the Yerkes-Dodson Law — and it’s a law, by the way — it’s not something you can break. Picture a curve that looks like a bell curve. It’s actually a normal distribution curve, but it looks like a bell curve. As your arousal increases, your performance increases. So as the dog — or whatever we’re talking about, but we’re talking about dogs right now — as the dog’s arousal continues to increase and increase and increase, the dog’s performance also goes up until it gets to a point at the peak of the curve. And at the peak of the curve, this is the point at which I consider the dog to be in drive, and that’s at the point where you’re going to get the highest amount of performance, the highest degree of performance, out of the dog.

But now what happens is, as the dog continues to increase its arousal — so your high arousal dogs tend to live on that side, on the right side, of the curve — so as they continue to increase that arousal, their performance actually decreases. So as the dog is more and more aroused, the performance gets worse and worse and worse, and it gets to the point where it becomes beyond arousal. It’s actually the high anxiety, and it’s that anxiety that is kind of like there’s a point of no return at that point, where the dog’s totally out to lunch.

That’s basically the curve, and like I said, it’s a law, so to be successful, you can ride the curve a little bit. So trying to figure out, you want to take a look at what your dog is giving you, where their emotional state is, and then modify that emotional state so that you can try to get the dog back to the peak. When you get the dog back to the peak, the dog’s in drive and you’re going to have the best performance.

Melissa Breau: To talk about that just a little bit more, what does it look like when the dog is on that right side of the curve and getting to the point where they’re so over-aroused that it’s impacting their performance? Maybe what are some of the things people can do to bring that back down?

Stacy Barnett: OK. Let’s talk about the right side. The right side is — this is the part of the curve that Brava is really highlighting to me. I have to say, though, she’s just to the right, like, she’s able to focus, which is really nice. With a dog who is high arousal, you’re going to see a number of different things. You can see … let’s say the dog is waiting. Waiting is really hard on these dogs. They tend to sometimes … they might be barking. So if you see a dog and they’re obviously very agitated, and they want their turn, they want to go now, they want to go now, they want to go now, they want to go now, those dogs that are barking, they’re in high arousal state. Or if the dog is pulling you to the start line. Or they’re coming off of the start line and they’re exploding into the search area. These are indications that your dog’s arousal is too high. It’s basically picture a 3-year-old child on a sugar high. That is high arousal, right? They can’t focus.

Melissa Breau: Sort of the way people think of a dog who stresses up.

Stacy Barnett: Yes, yes. And actually there is a direct relationship, like, if you think about stressing up. I actually like to think about this in terms of real arousal and perceived arousal. We

perceive high arousal dogs that stress up to be high arousal dogs because it’s very obvious to us. So the real arousal equals perceived arousal.

Interestingly, there’s also another kind of stress that we see that doesn’t look like high arousal, but it really is, and that is when the dog stresses down. So the dog is still stressed, the dog still has high anxiety, and it’s still on the right-hand side of the curve, but you see these dogs and they’re shut down, and it’s very easy to misinterpret this, to think that the dog needs to be lifted up in its arousal state. So sometimes you see people try to jolly the dog, or “Hey, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” maybe some toy play, and all they’re doing is actually increasing the arousal even more, they’re increasing the dog’s arousal even more, and the dog actually can’t get out of that anxiety state. That’s where the perceived arousal is very different than the real arousal.

Melissa Breau: You started to touch on it there, the other side of that curve, the left side of that curve. By contrast, what does that look like, or how does that work, and what should people be looking at?

Stacy Barnett: The left-hand side of the curve is our lower arousal. If a dog is really low arousal, he’s basically asleep. So you have the really low arousal that might be a little … very laid back, very like, “Hey, I’m here,” they might be a little bored, they might seem bored, they might be a little slow, they might be a little over-methodical, they might be unmethodical. Those are the dogs where you just want them to give you a little bit more. Those are the dogs around the lower side, and as long as they’re not too low on the arousal curve, it’s actually pretty easy to get them up the curve.

I actually find that the ideal state is slightly to the left as a natural state, because a dog has a natural arousal state, and then they have the state that they’re currently in. So if their natural arousal state is slightly to the left, just the fact that being at a trial will actually put them at the top of the curve.

I’m actually very lucky Judd’s one of those. He’s slightly to the left as his natural arousal state. I take him to a trial, he loves trialing, it puts him right at the peak arousal, and he’s in drive.

Melissa Breau: We all want that dog, right?

Stacy Barnett: Yeah, right. Everybody wants Judd. Everybody loves Judd.

Melissa Breau: We talked before this and we talked a little bit about this just kind of outside of this context, but I know another big thing for you is really adapting your handling and training to the dog you have, and not just in terms of arousal levels. You also talk about the importance of adapting your training and handling based on how secure your dog is, or how confident they are, and whether they’re more handler focused or more environmentally focused. I wanted to ask you a little bit about that. Can you share what some of that looks like and how people can adapt accordingly?

Stacy Barnett: Absolutely, absolutely, and I just want to give a little bit of a plug for Denise’s book Train the Dog in Front of You. Now, again, this is focusing on nosework, but I think every competitor, if you do dog sports, buy the book. And no, she’s not giving me any kickback on that — I just wanted to let you know! Basically because the most important thing that you can do from a dog training perspective is to know what kind of dog are you dealing with. I don’t mean are you dealing with a Border Collie, a Labrador, or a Shih Tzu. It’s the dog, the personality type, the very specific what makes your dog tick. What’s really cool is Denise has actually broken down the dog’s personality into dimensions, and these dimensions, if you can understand where your dog falls, it can give you insight into what’s the best way to train your dog, which is really cool.

For instance, what I like to focus on specifically, especially for all our nosework stuff, is there’s two particular dimensions that I think are really important. One of them is, is your dog secure or is your dog cautious. The dog who is secure, that’s ideal. We want that secure dog. The dog who’s cautious might be a little bit more timid.

Actually Judd, as an example, is a cautious dog. So you have a cautious dog, but then you compare that to Brava, who is very secure. You see the difference in their searching style. I did a search just the other day in my back room, and there was a tight space. Brava was really pushing into that tight space, where Judd was like, “Ooh, I don’t know, it kind of makes me nervous.” So you have secure versus cautious.

Then you have another dimension, which is also really important, which is either handler focused or environmentally focused. Along with other sports, we do like to have the dog fairly handler focused. However, in scent sports specifically, we need to have a dog that’s a little bit more on the environmental side, but not so environmental that they’re prioritizing their environment over target odor or over working with us as a team, because again, this is actually a team sport with you and your dog, and you have to work together as a partnership. So ideally you actually have a dog who is somewhere in-between handler focused and environmentally focused. But if you can understand which side your dog is, that can give you insight into how to train your dog.

Melissa Breau: So what it seems to me is like what you’re talking about really is balance, this idea that you want to hit this perfect in-between on a couple of things, right? Working to balance out our dog’s natural tendencies, whatever they may be. So I wanted to ask about one more skill where balance is important. How do you achieve that right balance that you’re talking about in teamwork, between teamwork and independence, especially during a search?

Stacy Barnett: There are some handling things that you can do. For instance, one of these things, I actually call it proximity of influence — it’s just a term that I coined — that the closer you are to your dog, the more influence you’re going to exert on your dog. There’s actually a sweet spot, and every dog is slightly different in terms of where their sweet spot is.

You don’t want to be so close to your dog that you’re influencing your dog too much, because at that point you’re providing a little bit too much input into the search, and let’s face it, we don’t have a nose. I mean, we have a nose, but it doesn’t work very well. But you also don’t want to be so far away that you’re not a partner with your dog. So by understanding a little bit about is your dog environmentally or handler focused, it can tell you how sensitive they’re going to be to your proximity.

I know, for instance, with Judd, Judd is actually quite independent. He’s pretty … from an environmentally focused perspective, he’s more on the environmental side versus handler focused, and he will actually tolerate a lot of handler interference because he just tells me to get in the back seat anyway.

Whereas if you have a dog like Joey, my Standard Poodle, who is actually very handler focused, he’s very open to suggestions. I actually did a search this morning where I had a hide, and it was in the proximity of an area where there’s probably a little bit of residual odor from a few days ago. Joey paused for a second and he looked at me. I made the mistake of saying, “Joey, go search,” because as soon as I did that, I actually prompted him, especially because of my proximity and where I was, it in effect prompted him to alert on residual odor, because he was like, “Oh, OK, you think this is where the hide is absolutely. I think it is too,” so he alerted. These are the types of things that had I been a little further away from him, or not talked to him, I think he would not have alerted there.

So this is just an example, and the really cool thing is I got it on video. I love video so I can share it with people. It’s different kinds of things like that, so you can really work that balance based upon the position of your body with a dog and your voice.

Melissa Breau: I think when we talked about this before, you talked about there’s a certain kind of angle that you like to see between you and the dog.

Stacy Barnett: Yes. The 45-degree angle.

Melissa Breau: Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

Stacy Barnett: Sure, sure. This is something I actually talked a little bit about in my handling class, but it’s also going to be in my Win By A Nose class. We’ll talk about it there also. I think, personally, there is a perfect position in relation to the dog, when the dog is searching, for the handler to be. That position is actually 45 degrees behind the dog, but out away from the dog. You’re not parallel to the dog.

Let’s say the dog is searching a vehicle. You’re not parallel to that dog. You’re actually behind the dog and at an angle of about 45 degrees. What this does is it puts you into a neutral position. That neutral position is something that helps to offset that suggestion that we have. Dogs are very suggestible, and some dogs are more suggestible than others. And understanding how suggestible your dog is actually is really good information to know.

The interesting thing, this is my theory, is that our dogs don’t understand that we have a really bad sense of smell. Our dogs don’t know that because our dogs just assume that whatever they’re smelling — they’re smelling birch, anise, or clove — that we can smell it too, and a highly suggestible dog is going to be like, “Well, I think it’s here. Do you think it’s here? I think it’s there. Do you think it’s there?” And then they start an alert at you. Having a 45-degree angle can help to negate that and offset that. It’s cool stuff.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. I know that nosework isn’t the only sport you’ve done. It’s where your focus and where your career is now, but you started out in obedience, you’ve done a little bit of agility, so I was curious. Is there anything that you’ve learned from those other sports that has carried over into nosework for you?

Stacy Barnett: Oh absolutely, absolutely, and I think a lot of the times with nosework, I think sometimes people forget that it’s just another dog sport. Granted, the dog is out there, they’re doing something that they are very adept at doing because they have this great sense of smell, and because it’s a dog sport, it has a lot of corollaries to other dog sports. Those corollaries, things like the dog has to be able to acclimate, that sort of thing, and from a behavior, there’s a lot of behavioral corollaries.

There’s also from the perspective of … so I’m going to use an example: movement. If you do agility, you’d learn that your body position and the way you move affects your dog. It tells your dog where to go. Now interestingly, the same thing happens in nosework. But in nosework we’re sometimes very oblivious to that because we start off with the dog doing most of the work and we do like to have 80/20, we want the dog really driving the search. But it’s very easy to forget that our body movement, our body motion, and our acceleration or deceleration, how we’re standing in relationship to the dog, that all that is communicated to the dog. So if we look at, say, agility, and all the motion cues, and the body position cues, and all these cues that you give to your dog, you can actually look at that and say, “Hey, those are natural cues,” and those type of cues also apply to nosework.

Melissa Breau: I know that your life has changed quite a bit since we last talked. Not just the new puppy, but you’ve been working with the AKC on their new scentwork program. I wanted to ask you what being an AKC contractor is about, what are you doing? Do you want to just share a little bit about what you’re doing for them, what’s involved there?

Stacy Barnett: Sure, sure. I’m one of the contractors. There’s a small handful of us. We’re basically consulting, so we’re helping the AKC with … we’re just bringing some thoughts, some ideas, to making sure and really helping to support the program so that we end up with a really excellent sport coming out of it, because that is a new sport for the AKC. So we’re helping to consult. We’re also supporting some of the trials, like maybe if there’s a new scentwork club or something like that, to make sure that they have the support that they need for trials, and to answer questions and that sort of thing. And we’re working at doing some judges education, so we’re helping to define what we need to do to help make sure that we have the very best judges out there.

Melissa Breau: Last question. I know you’ve got your Win By A Nose class coming up on the schedule for February. Do you want to just share a little bit about how much of all of this is incorporated into that class, and maybe a little bit about what else you cover?

Stacy Barnett: Yeah, so that’s great. A lot of this will be incorporated, but the Win By A Nose class is all about successful trialing and training strategies. So it’s how do you get from the point that you’re going to be good to great? What is it going to take to help to become a really great competitor? And we’re going to get into, there’s probably going to be a little bit of mental management in there, there’s going to be a little bit of this, a little bit of that, some different trialing strategies, different cue strategies. We’ll be talking about arousal, we’ll definitely be talking about a little bit of handling, a little bit of what’s the best way to set your training strategies up so that you can get yourself ready for a trial, all this type of stuff that comes together to get to the point where you are really ready to go out there and hit a home run.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. It sounds like a good class.

Stacy Barnett: I think it’s going to be fun. I think it’s going to be good, yeah.

Melissa Breau: Well, thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Stacy, and for sticking through the technology fails. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We will be back next week, this time with Lori Stevens to talk about how you can help your dog reach optimal fitness in about five minutes at a time. If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in itunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jan 5, 2018


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

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


Next Episode: 

To be released 1/12/2018, and I'll be talking to Stacy Barnett about nosework handling, so stay tuned!


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’s also recently started a blog at, and everyone should definitely go check it out.

Hi, Amy. Welcome back to the podcast.

Amy Cook: Hi. So good to be here, second time around, love it favorite thing to do, talk with you.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, do you want to remind listeners who the dogs are that you share your life with?

Amy Cook: My dogs, of course. Can I use the whole 45 minutes? I could do that just on my dogs. Marzipan, first off, my darling Whippet. She’s 6 now, which I cannot believe. She’s my lovely girl. She’s on a break right now from agility. She got majorly injured a year ago, a year and a half ago, and so it was a long recovery that we just very recently got a clean bill of health on, which I’m really excited about. So now it’s all about reconditioning her body and getting her brain back in the game. As an aside that isn’t really an aside, I don’t think I really appreciated the psychological effects of what you have to do to really isolate a dog from using their body correctly, and what that does to their minds. Because I think in a lot of ways she’s forgotten how much she can push me into work and forgotten how she can have free agency and try to get things done, because so much time was spent asking her to settle down and not do anything. So rehabilitating her psychologically has been part of this. So that’s where she is. And then Caper, my darling Chihuahua something-something, my Ikea assembly dog who seems to have come with no bones. If you follow me on Facebook, you’ll see lots of pictures of her being made out of rubber. Both of them do agility, and I’m fooling around on my down time on playing with TEAM stuff. I think if the two of them were one dog we’re good on TEAM 1 and 2, but they’re two dogs, so that doesn’t work, so I’m filling in the holes as I go. They’re a blast, so everyone follow them on Facebook. They’re so much fun.

Melissa Breau: I have to agree with that. I definitely look at their pictures, cute puppy pix. I know that you’re probably most known at FDSA for something that I mentioned in the intro, your reactive dog classes that use your play-based approach to treating reactivity. But I want to focus on your Science of Training class today because I know it’s coming up. So to start us out, do you want to share a basic summary of what the class covers and what it’s all about?

Amy Cook: Yeah, sure. I love this class. This one is so fun to teach. It was first conceived of in concert with Denise’s The Art of Training class. We wanted to throw in The Science of Training to get people all on the same page about what the fundamentals are, but also how to get these mechanics in your body, how to get these details really solid before you go ahead and deviate from them and experiment and try to do different things that are outside of those experiences.

What my class is really focusing on is tightening trainer technique and finding these little areas that I think we don’t spend the time on, that we neglect, either because we’re not sure if they’re important, or we’re maybe not so good at them, and we practice the things we’re good at a lot. So I want to make sure we get right down to them and really understand them.

The class assumes that people have a very basic understanding about operant conditioning. You don’t need to be able to do it chapter and verse. I’d assume some experience shaping with a clicker, but that’s about it. I found that as I was growing as a clicker trainer, there were all sorts of little holes I’d find, little areas where I thought maybe models conflicted, or didn’t really match, or how do I get this done when I’ve heard of this. I would always keep little notes about that, I think maybe waiting for some future audience when I could finally pass that information along. So that’s what this class has become for me. It’s my baby in that way.

I aim to be practical and so much of the scientific approach to training dogs gets lost and gets intellectual, and I want us to get down to be clear with your body, be clear with your clicker, be really clear with your parameters and what you’re doing, because that ultimately serves your learner. And there’s no better place to learn that than Chicken Camp and trying to learn how to train chickens. It’s really humbling to train a bird, very much.

Melissa Breau: That leads us nicely into the second thing I wanted to ask you about, because I happen to know part of the answer. I wanted to talk about the name of the class, and the second half of that name is Think, Plan, Do. I wanted you to maybe share where that came from and a little bit about what it means.

Amy Cook: You can Google “Think, Plan, Do,” and you’ll see that it’s just a phrase that a lot of people use in a lot of different industries and domains. It’s an organizational psychology phrase, a motivation phrase, but to us, to dog trainers, that phrase is highly connected to Bob Bailey. That is a Bailey-ism, and it’s what I feel, at least for me, what I really took as one of the main takeaways from going to Chicken Camp that is often missing in dog training, we don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking. We don’t spend a whole lot of time making our plans. We spend our time doing. We pick up the clicker, we get the treats, and we just start training. And with a nod thrown at what we’re training this time, of course, but really when you train chickens, you spend a lot of time making a plan and thinking it through before you ever bring that bird out on the table and try to train something. And so, as an homage to the great Bob Bailey, I think the place to start to improve yourself in training is to think something through, to really have a plan — even if it’s a plan that doesn’t work, you’ll find out — make a plan before you do anything. Don’t have just a loose goal, because that’s not going to be optimal to your learner. Your learner is at your mercy. They’re just there to receive all the things you’re about to do, and the better you are at doing them, and the more concrete your plan, the better the experience is for your learner, which is ultimately one of our highest goals, and I think it should be.

Melissa Breau: To maybe dive a little more into that, what kind of things should people be thinking about before they begin to plan out a specific training session? What kind of factors or what kind of things should they take into consideration and think through?

Amy Cook: Well, going in order, first spend time thinking. What specifically are you trying to do in this session? What are you trying to do with your dog in general? But today you’re thinking, I have my 10 minutes, I’d like to do something. What specifically? Not I need to improve the retrieve we’re working on. What specifically? Really have that in mind. And is it realistic for you today? You can have a long goal, but the small part you’re going to work on right now needs an entry point, and that needs to be thought through. Also, as you’re picturing that, what don’t you want in this picture? Let’s say … oh, I know something we all don’t want. How about barking?

Melissa Breau: Whining, barking.

Amy Cook: There’s all sorts of things you can write a list about. Think ahead of time about all the stuff you’re not going to want, because if you see some of it, you don’t want to be thinking, Oh I don’t know what to do with that, or Oh, I think I’ll ignore that, or I don’t know what to do with that; I’ll go past it. Maybe going past it is going to be the right thing to do. It really depends on too many factors for this answer. But you shouldn’t be caught going, Oh, oh, I don’t know what, oh shoot, what is he doing now? You should think ahead: If he barks, this is what I’ll do. If I start to get whining, I’m going to stop. Think it out about what this training is going to be like, so that you’re not stopping. You can concentrate. You have a plan. Even if the plan isn’t going to work, you find out, you’ll be more settled.

You should also think, at least right then, what is your learner like today. Think about where they are, what they like best from you in terms of your speed, your clarity, how they need you to be, and are you feeling that today? Are you there? Are you in a place to provide that today? Settle down so that you’re in that good place. It will be a whole lot less confusing for your learner. If you have to think during the session when you’re training, you will slow down, and you’ll build in pauses, and pauses build in lapses of attention in your learner as they go, Hello? What happened? You don’t want to be thinking a whole lot during it. You don’t want to leave them spaces. I think it has an effect on all of us when we do that, even if we do that by default habit, our learners get pauses built in, or get some frustration or confusion built into it, and then we do too, because now we’re feeling the clock ticking, we’re feeling the dog looking at us like, Oh, ah, what am I doing here? Thinking calms everybody down when we think ahead of time. So that’s the first part.

Really, once you’ve thought it through, as best you can, you’re going to have to come up with a plan that’s at least this one session. Another thing people do is they look for a grand plan: I’m going to be teaching the retrieve. That’s not a plan. What you’re teaching is literally this next one minute of your time with your dog. You need to think that through in detail. I even suggest people write it down. I make people write that down as homework. Of course, in the class you write it down in the forum. You may decide later that writing it down isn’t necessary, but if you don’t write it down and find out it is necessary, you’ll feel sorry about that, so write everything down.

The kinds of things you want to have in your plan are, What am I going to do about, let’s say, my environment? Have I picked an environment that is conducive to my goal? Am I going to have a cat strolling through my environment? Is that going to be OK, or is that going to really, really matter? So no, I need to plan, I’m going to train my dog to do this behavior, and I’m going to do it in this room on purpose. You do know what you’re going to do. You have a plan for what you’re going to do when your dog’s nose goes to the floor. But you didn’t clean the floor ahead of time. Do you need a clean floor? Maybe you don’t need a clean floor because you’re going to be working on nose is going to the ground. And you have a plan for what you’re going to do when nose goes to the ground. So you don’t care about your floor, but maybe you want a really clean floor so think that out -- so thinking and planning, right, they go together. Your environment is really going to matter.

Also, how much time are you going to spend, and how do you know when you’ve spent that time? Do you have a timer? How long is too long to train? How long is too short to train? That’s different for everybody, but I say go pretty short, go 30 seconds to a minute. If you don’t have an answer to that question immediately in mind, don’t go more than a minute. And then find out. You might find out it’s longer, but don’t start longer and find out you should have gone shorter. So in your plan should be how long you’re going to train and how you’re going to measure it. Will it be by time or will it be by number of treats? Count out 20 treats, and when your 20 are gone, you will stop and you’ll reassess. It really matters that you keep things short because you can get into the weeds really fast. You’re clicking for something, you’re training for something, your dog offers something else. You’re like, hey, that looks great, you follow it along, and soon you’re not training not only what you intended to train, but you may be getting behaviors you’re really not going to want in your final picture. It’s not good to just keep training as long as you like. You need to stop and review what you did, reassess, and stick to it.

And your plan should be for what are you going to do with your dog when you stop. I find people rarely put this in their plans, but it flummoxes them when they start to go through the session. Let’s say you train for a minute and then you review your video. Well, the dog wasn’t done in a minute. The dog was having a good time, hopefully, so what are you going to do to make sure your dog can stop while you review? If you stop it entirely and just put them up, that’s kind of no fair, right? So knowing your dog, and what they’re like, and what their challenges are, you will have to find a way to stop and keep your dog happy at the fact that that’s happening and maybe ready to go again. That might be a skill you want to install way before you start training the actual behavior you were planning. You’re going to plan certainly criteria, you’re going to plan exactly what is correct, and everything else that is not going completely correct, and you’re going to have to set up for that. The correct behavior that you’re looking for is what you’re going to be getting. It takes a lot of thought and a lot of planning, more than people usually give credit for, and that shows up as soon as you start seeing videos: Oh I didn’t realize, I didn’t even think about that, oh gosh. All the time spent thinking, all the time spent planning makes the minute or five of you doing much smoother and really successful for your learner, I find. Don’t just keep going. Don’t dig a hole. Stop and think. And review.

Melissa Breau: I think you hit on a lot of the pieces there, and I know, just even from keeping up with the FDSA Facebook page, people tend to really struggle with all of that. They really struggle with planning out their training sessions and figuring out how to break things down, and no wonder, because we start training and the dogs apparently forgot to read the plan. So I wanted to ask you a little bit more about how you balance that concept of having something that’s detailed enough but also keeping it flexible enough that if a dog shows you something you weren’t expecting, or the dog in front of you that day is a little bit different than the one you usually have, how you can roll with that.

Amy Cook: Well, I think making plans and thinking about it is not natural to a lot of us. I was going to say all of us, just because it’s not natural to me, and that’s not fair; I’m not an example for people. But I think it’s really common for us to just go with things as we see them, and I don’t think that’s a bad trait at all. We should be able to think on the fly. We should be able to roll with changing conditions. But when you have a goal, a specific goal, and you’re shaping, there’s not a lot of room for improvisation. I don’t think you should be … I think the word is flexible, but I want you to be exactly in the training session that you’re doing.

So you set yourself a minute and it’s not working, I don’t know, on hold for the dumbbell. Your dog shows you something else. Things didn’t go exactly as you planned. Don’t keep going. Stop and think about that, because maybe you do want to go with it. Maybe you do think that is a way better idea, that’s a better way to explain that stage to my dog, or she’s getting something I didn’t realize she’s getting, and I like this a lot better. Stop for a second and really think about that. Because you just spent time thinking about this plan and it was a good one when you enacted it, and whatever your dog is coming up with may be and may not be, and I don’t think you should just run with it. Stop for a second, really think about it, and now start again with your new idea, with the new thing your dog is doing. Because, if nothing else, even if it would have been fine if you’d gone with it, if nothing else, it gives you the discipline, the habit, of not just saying, “Oh, great idea, go, go, go, let’s just quit that, let’s just go,” which is maybe really natural to you and can get you in the weeds.

There is no downside if you just stop and say, “Let me think that through first for a second. Here’s something for you to chew on, dog, let me think about this and really decide if that’s the way I want to go,” and you might realize there is a downside to that, “Actually that’s not the way I want to go. It looked good for a second, but hang on, I want to stick to what I’m doing.”

If you have a careful plan, your criterion will be so tight, the little pieces clicking will be so specific, and your rate of reinforcement, which I’m sure we’ll get to in a bit, will be so high that the session will be going exactly toward what you’re headed for. If you planned it well, and if you’re executing it, there isn’t going to be a lot of room for experimentation.

That might be different from when you’re hanging out with your dog and just fooling around, but that’s not training toward a goal, and this is how to get from A to B specifically. So I say don’t be flexible, which is a weird message, I realize, but if a stroke of brilliance happens, there’s nothing wrong with thinking it through before you follow the path. That’s my opinion right now.

Melissa Breau: I want to talk about the review piece a little bit. I know that most of the FDSA instructors strongly endorse the idea of videoing and reviewing their training, and Denise in particular has come out in strong, strong favor of it. I wanted to ask why it’s helpful, and what people should be looking for when they do go back and watch those videos, which of course is everybody’s least-favorite activity of all time.

Amy Cook: Everybody’s least-favorite activity of all time because we can’t not look at our messy house, and what we chose to wear, and of course how sloppy we just trained that, right? That’s what you’re going to find. That’s what you’re going to find. And the videos are super-helpful, super-helpful. I have always underestimated how helpful they are. I think if every bronze student videoed themselves just like the gold, and watched it back every single time, they’d be shocked at how much they’d get out of a bronze level of instruction. I really believe that.

It’s amazing what videos can teach you, if you can remember that this is all in support of you. The point of videoing yourself and looking at it is not to give yourself an opportunity to shred yourself and notice how much you suck. That’s not what we’re hoping you learn from a video review. I think in this specific context, video is helpful in everything I teach and everything we all teach, in this specific class, I think what I’d be looking for is, hey, I made a plan, and I predicted what my dog would be like for this minute, and how tight, how shaved my criterion was, and how good my rate was going to be. You should look at that video and just say, “Did I do that? Did I do that at all? Did I get use these 15 cookies in in 30 seconds? Did I do that? How much am I moving?” We’re using marker words, or marker sounds, to train a dog, so we have to really isolate them. Still, did I do that? You can see clear as day whether you moved first or clicked first, because the video doesn’t lie, but your memory does. It totally does. Did I follow the plan, and was the plan a good one? Looking at the video, you can honestly go, Oh, absolutely not. That is not where I need to start with her. She’s way more confused about that than I thought she was. I thought we were in a good place. And that enriches your next plan. You stop, you revise your plan, and with that new information your next session should be much better. You often don’t need anyone to tell you what went wrong, because you can just look and go, That is not what I was planning at all. That’s not what I meant.

And also I think you should really look at what your dog says, because you don’t see it as clearly in real time. You just don’t. I think we’re always trying to get better at that, to see right then and there that your dog is not feeling great about it, or that your dog is confused -- what does your dog’s body say in this video? -- especially at a different angle, you’re just looking at them head on and if you get a video from the side, you may be able to see more. It might tell you that you need to slow down, or shift your feeding choice, or the way you’re reinforcing, so that you can be more clear. Or they might tell you to speed up, that you give them way too much time in between and that’s leading them to whine, or whatever it is. And if you look at it and you still don’t know what you’re doing, you can see that there’s a disjoint to it, but you’re just not sure what’s wrong, you have something to show somebody. You don’t have to train your dog again to show them what’s wrong and having your dog experience it. You can say, “Hey guys, what am I doing here? What is this?” So it pays to not only take the video, but to have the ego strength to say, “Hey, I’m not perfect, nobody is, none of you are, can you all help me with this?” I think that’s how we all approach it here. It’s why the trainers, all of us, show what we do and show when we don’t do it well, because we’re all in the same boat, trying to improve ourselves more than we are, and video keeps us really, really honest. If you lie to yourself, and again, we all do on some sort of level, we think it went well and it really didn’t go well, the one who pays is your learner, they may not know what’s going on, and their mind is a valuable thing, their willingness to do this stuff with us is valuable, and when we’re clear and we’re motivating, they’re having a lot of fun. When we’re not, those take a hit and your dog will get less out of the game. There’s nothing worth that, there’s no precision, there’s nothing you have to train that’s worth their attitude. So keep holding your own feet to the fire. It makes you better, but it’s really in service to your dog.

Melissa Breau: As you were saying that, I was thinking, gee, not only that, but forcing yourself to watch your videos really helps ensure that you keep them short and your training sessions short because nobody wants to sit there and watch themselves for eight to ten minutes.

Amy Cook: No kidding. Oh goodness. I hadn’t videoed myself playing with dogs before teaching the play class, and now I’m like, do we do jazz hands with everybody? Is that what I do? Do I do jazz hands? I had no idea. No idea. Yes, keep them short, keep them to the point. Dogs think way faster than we do. Their clock speed’s way higher. There’s a lot going on for them. This is cross-species modes, so the heavy lifting is for us, not for them, so we have to watch ourselves.

Melissa Breau: You’ve broken up the syllabus for the class into six specific topics. I wanted to dive into those a little bit. You have observing the learner, reinforcement, CERs — conditioned emotional responses, for anyone who doesn’t know the abbreviation — mechanics, ABCs, and naming behaviors. So I wanted to ask you a little bit about each of those. Why is observing the learner important, and what kinds of things should people really be looking for when they are doing that?

Amy Cook: Observing the learner may be my top biggest maybe best “think, plan, do” takeaway from Chicken Camp, oh my god, because to be able to click when you need to, to be able to mark exactly what you need to, you need to know what your dog looks like when they’re doing something well, and right before they’re about to do something well, the thing that you want. Because it takes you a second to get that sound out of your mouth, or to get that thumb depressed onto the clicker, and that time is lost. You will be late if you don’t know really precisely what your dog looks like right as they’ve decided, and right as they’re contracting the right muscle to do the thing that you want, that you’re trying to get them to do.

I learned that by clicking my dog. I was trying to teach her to tug open the fridge. I kept clicking when she was tugging, but the click would come just slightly too late, and she had finished tugging when the click sound happened, because the tugs were little short tugs, as you can imagine. It kept being imprecise. I remember I asked Bob, I explained in more detail than you guys need here, I asked, “What am I doing?” He didn’t even need to know. He said, “Observe the learner.” I said, “What? I’m watching her. She’s tugging. I’m clicking when she’s tugging.” He said, “What does she look like before she tugs? What does she look like when she’s about to tug?” He was right. What I was missing was contraction of neck muscles, shifting of weight, all the stuff that was right before and as the behavior was commencing. I saw a full tug and clicked right as it ended, because that’s how long it took my brain to send my thumb the signal.

I learned from that, so many pieces. So let’s say you’re shaping a down. There’s lots of ways a dog can get into a down. There’s so many. There’s many that we like and some that we don’t. You have to think, What position am I looking for first, and how exactly do I want them to get into it? Do you want them to fold back? Let’s say you want them to fold back. Fine, you want that one. Well, do you know exactly what it looks like when your dog does that? What any dog looks like when they fold back? Listeners who are listening right now, picture it. What happens? Does it begin with a nose dip? Is that what kind of starts for a fold back? Or does the head stay up? Do you know? Do you know what your dog does? Maybe it starts in the shoulders. You don’t want maybe, because you’re not going to click when the dog gets all the way down.

You have to break this apart if you want that precise behavior. So you need to know what this natural behavior, what this behavior, looks like for your dog, and if you don’t spend time observing really specifically, you won’t be clicking the very things that are on the path toward the behavior that you want. If you know that your dog always puts her head down a little bit first, then her shoulders fold, and then her hindquarters, you won’t be tempted to click when you see hindquarter movement at first, which might result in a sit. So getting to be a really good observer of what your animal looks like before they perform behaviors vastly, I think, increases your accuracy and gets your timing better. That’s just one example of the many reasons we want to really observe dogs, because our dogs can’t tell us anything, except through what they’re doing, and so to be able to talk with them, communicate with them, we have to watch them, I think, really carefully. I think Denise goes through that with her Art class, too, from a totally different perspective of observing your learner in a totally different way. It’s really neat to watch that.

Melissa Breau: The second piece there was on reinforcement, and when talking to Sarah Stremming a few weeks ago, we got into a little bit about how reinforcement differs from rewarding your dog. They’re not exactly the same thing. My guess is that you go a little bit deeper. How does a good understanding of things like timing, rate of reinforcement, and criteria actually impact our training?

Amy Cook: I do. I get so geeky in this. For me, it’s all about clarity. If you want to get from A to B, you have to be able to explain the path to B, and that’s all in your mechanics. You don’t get any other way to explain that. That’s all you have to work with. Your rate keeps your dog in the game. It keeps you from asking for these big jumps that are too big for your dog to accomplish easily, because if you have to keep your rate up really high, the behaviors your dog are giving you are small and easy to do and they’re just little slices, so that keeps your dog in this game. Your rate is really important. That means you have to pick specifically a criterion that allows you to reward at that high of a rate at a sufficiently high rate for your learner.

Everybody’s rate is different. You don’t feed rabbits at the same rate you feed chickens. But if you pick something too hard, your dog will struggle and your rate will fall, so they go hand in hand. How you pick your criterion, your specific one that you’re going to work on now, will impact the rate that you get to work at. And your dog tells you what the rate needs to be to keep them in the game, keep the learning fun. So it’s not just that, hey, I’m going to work on this one. That is not enough of a slice for your plan. You have to think about how it affects the rate of reinforcement that you have to work with. You want your learner plunging forward. they’re confidently doing the thing they think that you are rewarding, just doing something really clear and simple and isn’t stuck thinking or worrying or feeling frustrated and starting to whine. You don’t want any of that.

Again, video is going to be your best friend here. Your video tells you what your rate is, not your intuition in any way. Your rate is the one you want to serve. You pick a criterion that helps you work with that correctly. And then timing. Is there anyone listening at all, anyone within any earshot of anything having to do with dog training, who doesn’t know we all have to be better about that? I don’t think so. Every one of us is trying to improve our timing, because we’re human, and we’re slow, and we have neurosystems that take a while to engage. Dogs are plenty forgiving, I think, about our lateness. I’ve watched perfectly successful training videos where things are pretty obviously late, they happen after the behavior has ended, and the dog is like, “Somehow I get this. I will do the behavior that was just before you clicked, no problem.” That’s wonderful. That’s great if your dog is like that, and many of them are. They’re plenty forgiving. But almost no other animal I know of is, and we shouldn’t really rely on dogs to do heavy lifting like that, to figure out what we were trying to click.

Timing is our mechanical skill and we need to practice it. In fact, “Timing is a mechanical skill” is a Baily-ism. It’s what Bob Bailey says at camp all the time. It’s a mechanical skill and you have to keep it sharp. You have to keep practicing it. All of us are late sometimes. I’m late all the time when I’m not concentrating well enough, when I didn’t see what I thought I saw, I’m late, I’m a person, and I don’t know if when we’re thinking about this, if I think, This is a skill I need to keep sharp. I need to practice my timing all of the time to keep it really good. It’s not something you can just understand and then do well. You have to practice it like a physical skill, and that’s where your clarity comes from. If you can explain what you meant to explain, and click on the thing you wanted, and keep your rate high enough to keep your dog in the game, it will force you to pick your criterion that works. Those things all do more than impact your training. They are your training. That’s how you’re talking to your dog, so it’s really crucial that we get some of these tightened up, I think, for all of us. We can all improve.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned in there that it’s about clear communication. I think that links back to that conditioned emotional response thing. I know that, I’m pretty sure it was last year, you shared a line that all the instructors have mentioned they love, and it’s come up a couple of times since, about how we’re always working on our dog’s conditioned emotional response to the things that we’re teaching, whether we’re aware of it or not. So I wanted to ask you to explain a little bit about what a CER is, and what you meant by that line at camp.

Amy Cook: Gosh, I think now that’s a couple of years ago.

Melissa Breau: Was it?

Amy Cook: Well, I think it was, well i think it was Purina. Was that last year? No, last year was Portland. I think it was Purina. Time flies. Yeah, every time you’re teaching your dog what to do, you’re teaching him to feel. CER stands for conditioned emotional response. That’s another way to say … conditioning is another way to say learning. It’s a learned emotion that they’re having. It’s another way to say that that’s the way they feel right now, what they’re feeling from the situation they’re in with you and how you’re teaching them and what you’re trying to have them learn.

They’re getting emotions, like you are, all of the time, and you’re folding it into your picture whether you intend to or not, whether you plan to or not, whether you want to or not, whether you like it or not. We don’t get to get away from it, ever. And if you are confusing your dog, by accident, if you’re worrying them by a slower rate than you intended, if you’re frustrating them by a slower rate than you intended, or late clicks, or rewarding them well, then the emotions that come up there for them, they’re getting learned and they’re getting folded into the very behavior that you’re also trying to teach.

You may not see that in an obvious way at first, but you can’t escape them being in the picture just tied to everything you’re doing. So you may as well take control of this. You may as well take control of things and just use it to your advantage and let it make you better. Training, first, to me, serves an emotional goal, then it serves behavioral, then it serves precision. If you are frustrating your dog while you are having a clicker training session, you need to find out why. Find out why you’re frustrating your dog. Find out why you’re so confusing. Because we want more than anything for our dogs to be enthusiastic and cheerful learners, motivated to be there, and that’s on us to create. It’s on us to help them achieve that. Too often we put that on them. Why isn’t this dog more into this kind of stuff? Why is she so hard to motivate? Well, I don’t know. Maybe those things are true. But that’s your first job. Your first job is helping them fall in love with you and training and earning stuff and doing things with you, far beyond any precise behavior you’re ever trying to teach.

So if you don’t have a happy attitude and a great willing learner, it doesn’t matter what precision you really have. This is the way I feel. So getting control of that is something you can do on purpose. In this class we have an assignment where I just ask people to create a CER out of whole cloth, just create an emotion — you’re not creating, you’re not inventing, an emotion … just a brand new emotion, come to my class and we’re going to invent new emotions! The assignment is you take a neutral item, an item that you prove to me is neutral — a tchotchke from your shelf does just fine — that your dog thinks nothing about in particular, and for the week you try to make your dog really, really excited about seeing this. You’re going to create that emotion and attach it to this neutral object. And sure, it’s completely arbitrary. It’s not something you’re needing for a specific training task. But I like people to see that they can take a previously neutral object and get a dog really excited about seeing it.

You know, we do this all the time anyway. Leashes are neutral until they become signals that we’re going to go for a walk, and shoes are neutral or delicious, either way, except that they signal that it’s a work day instead of a fun day for dogs day. For dogs you’re creating this kind of stuff all the time outside of basic training scenarios. But I give people an assignment that helps them literally create a specific emotional response to the specific thing, so that you get familiar with the principals of how that’s done. And then we talk about how to provide training sessions so that our dog always feels really good about what we’re doing, because that’s our goal. That’s what we want. We can’t keep putting on them that they don’t have great attitudes in training. Their attitude is ours to inspire, and we should pick up that mantle.

Melissa Breau: The other part that the class covers, and you mentioned this a little bit earlier, is improving your training technique, from mechanics to things like understanding ABCs and when to name a behavior. I want to ask you if there’s any one place where people tend to struggle, and if you can offer any tips. It would also be great if you could explain what ABCs are in there somewhere, just because you’ll do it better than I will.

Amy Cook: Training ABCs in that particular, it doesn’t mean the generic term of that, like, training ABCs -- training basics. It’s more ABC means antecedent, behavior, and consequence, how to get everything in order. Your antecedent is your cue, the thing that signals to the dog that the behavior, it’s time to perform that behavior, and then there’s behavior, and then there’s the consequence. If you do those all in order. That of course sounds very elementary. Of course it goes in that order. But people get that kind of thing, there’s reasonable places in which that’s confused, and so I make sure that people have each of those elements identified in every moment of their plans.

But it’s not the place I think people tend to struggle most. I think … the thing that pops into my head when you ask that is I think people struggle the most with doing less. I think we always want to do more. We want to just have one more rep. We just want to say we want to end on a high note, and we push and push longer to get there. We think things are going great and we want to keep riding high on how great that was, let’s do it one more time, that was awesome, let’s get more practice in. People suck, all of us kind of suck, at doing less, at stopping ourselves. When the time is up, when the preplanned number of reinforcements have stopped, stop yourself and look at what you’re doing. Almost no one does this easily, willingly, naturally — Oh, this is a great time to stop after 30 seconds. It often doesn’t feel right, whatever the time, it often doesn’t feel great to us because we want to keep going. I think that’s where people … I hear — and not just in this class, but in all sorts of classes, or even in our own training — it’s like, “Yeah, I know it’s gone a little long, but I just wanted to show you.” I was just out training with a friend of mine a few days ago, and we videoed the whole thing and we watched it and went, “Wow, that was a really long training session. What are we doing?” You can just get caught up in doing it. That’s why it’s like, “These are the rules. There’s a timer. The timer will go off. You will stop.” It’s not to say that you always have to stop exactly when the timer goes off, but it helps you with the discipline of countering something that I think we all will struggle with. I haven’t yet seen a person who’s like, “Yeah, it’s really easy for me to stop. I don’t want to keep going.” Well, of course not. We totally want to keep going.

So I do focus on getting people to really think about that and not get off in the weeds again. And don’t improvise. Don’t just keep going. You deviate, you improvise, you explain things you didn’t mean to explain at all, you’ll wonder why your dog has no idea of what’s going on, then they get frustrated. Definitely not worth it. So get your timer on, get your camera on you, don’t show anybody, it’s fine. But watch it and keep yourself honest. That’s the best tip for tightening yourself up. Watch it and keep it short, for sure.

Melissa Breau: Last question. If you could share just one key lesson from the class, what would it be?

Amy Cook: Hmm … one key lesson. Well, that’s what I built the class around. I’d say spend more time figuring out what you want to do and how you go than you spend training. Don’t take 10 or 15 seconds to figure out, Yeah, I’ve got to do that, that, that, and that. Let’s go, dog. Spend more time on the thinking and the planning than you spend on the doing, by a lot. If you’re new to anything that you’re doing — I don’t mean new to dog training, although new to dog training too — but if you’re new to this class, or you’re not sure how it goes, or new to the sport, or anything, new to the class, mentally rehearse without your dog. Practice physically without your dog. Things that we don’t spend time doing — do those things, because if you think things through and plan all your action ahead before you pick up that clicker, then you don’t pass on as many mistakes and as many … you don’t let the dog do as much of the heavy lifting, and that’s what I want people to take away. That and just quit while you’re ahead. Just quit pushing. There’s always tomorrow. There’s always an hour from now. You’re fine. Don’t rush. Don’t push. Your dog is depending on that. That’s what I think.

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

Amy Cook: I love it! You should interview me every day. Every day.

Melissa Breau: I’m sure there are people out there who would love that. Careful what you agree to here.

Amy Cook: Like, subscribe, whatever it is, share.

Melissa Breau: I may try to talk you into it.

Amy Cook: Oh god! That’s a play button on my chest, and you push it and I just start talking.

Melissa Breau: I’m sure it would fit so well into all the other things you have going on every day, too.

Amy Cook: Yes, I professionally talk for a living. It is a pleasure. I’m so glad you invited me again for a second time. I really enjoyed it. I would do it in a heartbeat anytime. Thank you so much.

Melissa Breau: Well, thank you, and I do think it was a great topic for our first thing heading into the new year. The idea that we’re talking about plans and planning and setting everybody on the right path heading into 2018 will be good.

Amy Cook: Oh yeah, like a resolution of sorts. A little mini-resolution each time you bring your dog out.

Melissa Breau: It’s almost like I did it on purpose.

Amy Cook: No, you couldn’t possibly have! You’re so clever.

Melissa Breau: Well, thank you. And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did. We will be back next week. This time I’ll have Stacy Barnett back and we’ll be talking about Nosework Handling. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the podcast in itunes or the podcast app of your choice and our next episode will automatically download to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Dec 15, 2017


Mariah Hinds’ love affair with dogs and fascination with their behavior began young. She’s wanted to be a dog trainer since she was eight years old. She’s now been training dogs and teaching people for more than 14 years and is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Mariah has broad practical experience in the dog world, volunteering and working in kennels, shelters and veterinary hospitals, dog sitting and walking, fostering rescue dogs, and two years of veterinary technician college.

She has a passion for finding the best way to communicate with the human half of the dog handler team, because she knows small changes in the handler and practice can yield big results in the long run. Her specialty at FDSA is teaching skills that require self-control from the dog including proofing, impulse control, stays and greetings while using positive training methodologies.


Next Episode: 

To be released 12/22/2017, and it will be a special anniversary edition of the podcast, so stay tuned!


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 Mariah Hinds.

Mariah has been training dogs and teaching people for more than 14 years and is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). She also just recently put a UD on her awesome border collie, Clever. And she’s here to today to talk about proofing and what it takes to get ready for competition.

Hi Mariah! Welcome to the podcast.

Mariah Hinds: Hi.

Melissa Breau: Can you just remind listeners a little bit about who you are and who the dogs that you share your life with are?

Mariah Hinds: Sure. I have Jada, my Doberman, who is 11-and-a-half years old. I got into competition obedience with her and she’s my novice A dog. We started training for the ring at age 4, and she earned her novice, open, and utility titles, and some optional titles as well, between the ages of 4 and 8, and she’s the one who taught me that positive training methods are much better for her and they’re a lot more fun.

Clever is my 5-year-old border collie. She got her novice title with 198 from 199. She won first place in Open against 100 other dogs last year with the 199, and she just got all three of her utility legs for her title a few weekends ago. She also knows a ton of tricks, and we train in agility as well. My goal with her for 2018 is to compete in open utility at all the local trials, and hopefully we’ll earn some OTCH points along the way, and hopefully we will compete at the Classic next year and place in the top twenty as well. Those are my goals for her for the next year.

And I have Talent, who’s the baby dog. Her name is Squishy because she likes to lay on top of me. She’s 14 months and we’re just building the foundations for precision for obedience, and I hope to earn her MACH as well her OTCH and UDX, so we’re doing a lot of agility training right now as well. So that’s all about my dogs and a little bit about me. Is there anything else you want to know about me?

Melissa Breau: Gee, I don’t know. Is there anything else good that I should want to know?

Mariah Hinds: Not really. I moved from Orlando to Fort Mill, South Carolina, a year ago, and so I’m just having fun getting to know people around here.

Melissa Breau: I know that the core of our conversation today, I’m hoping we’ll get really deep on proofing and getting “ring ready,” but before we dive into that stuff, I figure it makes sense to get some terminology stuff straight. So I wanted to ask what proofing means to you, and then maybe a little bit about why it’s critical for success in competition.

Mariah Hinds: Sure. So for me, proofing means that we’re adding achievable challenges to a skill. So once a dog can do a behavior reliably on cue — and it can be a verbal cue or a hand signal as a cue — then we ask the dog to do the behavior in different locations, and perhaps we can ask the dog to do the behavior with other dogs around, and perhaps we can ask the dog to do the behavior in different locations in proximity to us, so “Can you sit in front of me? Can you sit at heel? Can you sit on the right side of my body? Can you sit between my feet?”

I really think that proofing is critical to success in competition, because there are tons of distractions at a trial, and although you can’t actually train for every single distraction, you can practice adding distractions in training. And if we add distractions in a strategic way so the dog is really successful, then we’re really building the dog’s confidence, and the dog learns to say, “Yes, I know exactly which behavior you want me to do, and no matter what’s going on, no matter how far away I am, or where my handler is, or how quickly I’m moving, I know that this is the behavior that gets me closer to earning my reward.”

Melissa Breau: You mentioned your dogs’ different ages and different stages. At what age or point in your training journey do you really begin to add proofing, and what does that look like?

Mariah Hinds: I think everyone proofs their dog, whether they realize it and they work through the behavior strategically or whether they don’t. We work on adding distractions to our heeling, we work on adding distance to our position changes for utility, we work on adding out of motions to our downs for open, we work on adding distractions to our stays, we work on practicing in new locations, and once the dog has a basic understanding of these cues with different locations and durations and distance, we can oftentimes add another layer of understanding with even more distractions and more proofing.

Typically, I find that those fall into a few different categories. It hasn’t been introduced yet, the skill is just being learned, the dog is more than 50 percent reliable with behavior, we’re adding new locations, or we’re proofing for duration and stimulus control, we’re adding distance or distractions, and so on. Those are all the categories that behavior can really fall into. And when the dog’s just learning the skills, we setup the environment so that the dog can be really successful, and if we set it up well, then the dog goes up to being successful with behavior 50 percent of the time or better really quickly. Then we can start practicing in new locations, such as in the bedroom instead of the training room, or on the patio, or at the training building after the dog is acclimated, and we can also work on building duration and putting behavior on stimulus control. Then we can add distance and distractions.

So I start adding distractions strategically to my dog’s behaviors the moment that the behavior is robust and strong enough that the dog will really likely be successful. And if we practice the skill the same way without building more challenges with the behavior, then our training might just go stagnant and we might not make any real progress toward our goal.

Melissa Breau: Is there ever a point when you stop proofing?

Mariah Hinds: Not really. When I’m first working on sequencing behaviors together, such as for the retrieve over a jump, that’s a behavior sequence, and it starts with the dog sitting in heel position. Then they go over the jump on cue, then they automatically retrieve the item, then they return over the jump, automatically do a front. So when I’m teaching that sequence, then I’m definitely going to start sequencing those things together with much fewer distractions than if I’m just working on one piece of that behavior.

But before that, I want my dog to be able to do those behaviors separately with distractions. I want the dog to be able to pick up the dumbbell off the ground with distractions around. I want the dog to be able to go over the jump with my jump cue and take the cookie as the reward for that behavior. I want the dog to be able to set up in heel position and stay while I throw a distraction such as a cookie or a dumbbell or a toy. I want the dog to be able to come over the jump from a sit/stay at any angles with the cue to jump. I find that that’s a really overlooked part of that behavior sequence and that falls apart really easily.

If the pieces are solved separately before we sequence them together, then sequencing the behaviors together happens really quickly, and if a piece of the sequence falls apart, then we can easily fix that piece of the sequence just by revisiting that piece. And once the behavior sequence or the chain is solid, then we want to go back through and add more layers of understanding, and more layers of confidence, by adding distractions and proofing the entire behavior sequence.

For example, with Clever, we’re working on adding some distractions to our slow heeling. So at the trial, at our third leg, she really was a little forge-y with the slow heel, and so I really wanted to get that a little more reliable. She’s consistent with it until we add distractions, so that’s what we’re working on. The goal, ultimately, for her will be that my training partner can fling a toy and that she’ll remain in heel position while we’re walking. Right now we’re working on food distractions while she heels, because she finds that a lot easier. She’s way more toy motivated than she is food motivated, so I’m building confidence with her with that so that she understands, so then I can add more layers of confidence.

The other thing that we’re working on proofing is doing a finish with the pressure of a judge, without her squeaking from the stress of the pressure. So at home I’m practicing finishing, having her finish on cue with a dog bone as a distraction, or some other distraction, food or toy distraction. And then, when I have my training friends to help me, then I’ll do a few repetitions of what she’s been successful with at home, and then I’ll replace the distraction with a person and see if she can do that successfully.

Melissa Breau: I know that precision and maintaining criteria are super-important to you, so I wanted to delve into that a little bit and ask you what the relationship between proofing and getting really precise, consistent behaviors is, and if you could just talk about that for a minute.

Mariah Hinds: Sure. First, we need to add the behavior. We need the behavior to be precise with our desired criteria. So that means that has to happen first, and that needs to happen before we add layers of proofing. And we can certainly use different reinforcement strategies to help maintain the desired criteria without losing attitude, and that’s really important to do. I do that a lot with my puppy when I’m building reliability, so she’ll get one reward for trying, and she’ll get multiple rewards for doing it accurately.

We can also think about where we place the reward so that we’re getting the most effect for our desired behavior. This is talked about a lot in the Precision Heeling class that Denise does. If a dog is lagging, we want to build more reliability for being in heel position, and then we really want the reward to happen ahead of heel position, and if the dog is heeling too wide, then we want the reward to happen with the dog really close to us, with the rear in as well, because otherwise we’ll create crabbing, and if the dog is heeling and they tend to crab out and forge ahead, then we can have the dog spin away from us, which encourages their butt to get in, and then we can reward them from behind heel position, or even from our right hand. The dogs tend to anticipate when a reward will happen, and they will gravitate more to that area.

And we do talk a lot about reinforcement strategies in my class, and it really can help a lot with building reliability.

Melissa Breau: Do you work precision and consistency separately? It sounds a little bit like they’re very closely related. Can you talk about that for a minute?

Mariah Hinds: I do think they’re closely related. I mean, I think that precision has to happen first, and consistency is really just generalizing the behavior. So first I work on precision. Let’s say that I’m working on fronts. The first thing I do is I’m going to help the dog be correct, so I can use a platform to help the dog find front precisely. I can also do step back fronts where I lure the dog into position while I take a step back, and once the dog is precise at finding front from two or three feet away, with the platform or with luring, then I can start fading my lure, so I can ask the dog to find front with my hands pointing at my face instead of luring the dog with my hand. Another reason why I like to do that stuff is because when I’m teaching a dog where I want them to focus when they’re finding front, I don’t want them to accidentally find front on a stranger or the judge. I do want them to look up at my face, and then I can go to teaching them to find the precise position with my hands at my side. Once the dog can find the position precisely from two to three feet away, then I can start adding different angles to come to front, I can toss a treat from the left or to the right and have the dog find front that way. Again, this is from a very short distance away, and that’s quite a challenging thing to do precisely.

So once they’re precise with that, then I can start adding more speed by tossing the reset cookie further away, I can start weaning off of the platform and going back to an earlier step to help guide them, to help guide the dog to where they should go. I like to do a little bit of pointing to my face as I’m weaning off of the platform, and then I can add in my distractions such as the judge and the pressures of the ring gating and so on. So the dog needs to understand exactly where the position is precisely first before we get consistency with that precision with a lot of variables.

Melissa Breau: I think all novice competitors have been at that place where they thought their dog knew something, they show up to compete, and then their dog’s carefully trained behaviors fall apart totally in the ring. Where do people go wrong when that happens? And what kind of things can they do to prevent it?

Mariah Hinds: I think that’s a really common thing that happens, and I think that we all fall into the habit of training at one or two places because it’s convenient, and then we expect that is enough to get reliability in a new place, with new dogs, and new people, and a stranger in the room with you. I think that’s a lot to ask of our dogs.

I find that training at different places is really important, and going to show and gos is a great way to see where your dog is in terms of readiness. If you can’t find a show and go, then I think another great option is to go to places where there are other dogs behind a fence or on leash. One option would be going to a big, grassy area outside of a dog park and practicing there, or you can go to a parking lot near the dog beach entrance, or you can go to a parking lot at a really busy veterinary clinic. For me and my dogs, that always tends to give me a really accurate gauge as to where they are with reliability with distractions.

For me, I like to combine that with distraction work at home. It just isn’t practical for me to go train at a new place more than once a week, but at home I can add challenging distractions that help my dog understand that the way to earn the reward for the cued behavior is really to ignore the distraction.

Melissa Breau: I think the other place that a lot of people really struggle is when it comes to cleaning up their own body language as part of proofing. We get all this reinforcement built in from our dog doing the right thing when we include those extra movements! When we lean forward slightly on the down cue, or when we use our hands a little more than we should. I wanted to see if you could talk a little bit about why it’s important to get rid of that movement, and then share any tips you have, because I think it’s something that you do really well.

Mariah Hinds: Well, thanks. I do find that it’s really important. I find that especially when we’re preparing to go into the novice ring, that we’ve done a lot of helping the dog set up in heel position by doing certain things with our body, or we help the dog halt when we’re heeling by turning our shoulders toward the dog and looking at their rear, or we help the dog find front by always practicing with our hands near the center of our body during practice. And then we go in the ring and we can’t help the dog, so we’ve removed the cues that the dog was familiar with and the dog doesn’t know what you want anymore because we removed the cue and there are distractions everywhere. So it really can be challenging for the dog to go in the ring when they really just aren’t ready yet. Whereas if we actually prepare the dog, and we show them that the cue for the behavior is in all of this extra body movement, then they’re going to be a lot better prepared.

As for tips, I think the first thing that’s really important is discovering what your body is doing while you say the verbal cue. So the more that you actually video yourself, and then watch those videos back, the more you’re going to realize what you’re doing with your body while you’re saying your cues. So once we realize what the body language cue is that we’re doing, then we can start working on fading them.

I also think that one of the longstanding myths of dog training, especially in obedience, is that you should be saying the verbal cue while you help the dog do the behavior with your body language. And what we really want to be doing is we want the behavior to be reliable without body language, and start saying the verbal cue without moving, and then following that verbal cue with your old cue, which will be the body language help or the hand signal gesture that you’ve been using.

Melissa Breau: I know, for example, some instructors use the prompt “always return your hands to neutral,” or “always return your hands to the same spot.” Is that helpful? Is that kind of a strategy useful?

Mariah Hinds: Yes. We want to practice looking formal, if that’s what we’re going to do in the ring. So yes. If, for example, you’re using pocket hand, or putting your left hand to your side to help the dog actually sit when you stop, then that’s fine. But we want to return to formalness when we can to help the dog see that picture as well.

Melissa Breau: Beyond simply proofing, what other skills are there that somebody needs to know to get “ring ready?” And I know that you’re teaching some classes on this, so I thought it might be a good topic to talk about a little bit.

Mariah Hinds: I’m teaching a class on putting the novice exercises together, called Putting It Together, and I’m teaching Proof Positive: Building Reliability. The first thing we cover in Proof Positive: Building Reliability is discussing our reinforcement strategies for the behavior that the student has chosen to work on in the class. We have some people working on fronts, or position changes, or go outs, some heeling, some drop on recalls, some setting up in heel position, some weaves, some running contacts, some freestyle behaviors, and lots and lots of obedience. I really love that variety. It really keeps the class fun and it’s fun to follow along with.

So the next thing in that class is that we talk about fading our extra body language cues, and we work on actually putting it on a verbal cue, and we work on getting the behavior solid under one set of circumstances, and we work on waiting, and we work on teaching stimulus controls, so helping the dog learn to wait for the cue before doing the behavior, and then we start playing games. This week we’re going to work on teaching the dog to ignore our body language and listen to the verbal cue, and we’re going to work on doing the behavior in various locations, and in the upcoming weeks we work on adding sound distractions and spatial pressure, which is the amount of things around the dog, like ring gates and judges, although we’re not actually going to be working on people, so a trash can can provide spatial pressure, a wall can provide spatial pressure. We’re also going to be adding various angles, adding some duration and distance, different locations, adding some out of motion to the behaviors, and we’re going to work on building reliability with food, and scent distractions in a few different scenarios. So overall we’re playing fun games to build the dog’s understandings and reliability with behaviors.

In the Putting It Together class we’re working on making sure that our behaviors for the novice ring are really solid separately. So we’re working on stays, and fronts, and moving in heel position, and setting up in heel position, and stand stays, and our circles for our figure eights, and our complete figure eight exercise, and our turns and change of pace in heeling, taking off the leash, entering the ring, exiting the ring. So first we’re doing some problem solving, helping the dogs understand the desired behaviors, then when those pieces are solid, then we’re working on sequencing those behaviors together, building confidence by adding realistic ring distractions, weaning off of rewards, and practicing our entire ring performance. So we’re looking at all of these pieces in this class, and putting those pieces together when the pieces are ready to come together.

So in both classes we’re talking about reinforcement strategies, and there are lectures on building reliable, precise fronts. The Putting It Together class covers a lot of topics regarding the novice ring, and polishing those behaviors before sequencing them together and putting them into a ring performance practice. The Building Reliability class covers adding distractions, different locations, spatial pressures, sound distractions, handler body language distractions, and adding those things to our simple behaviors like sit and down. Then we can take those games and practice with our complex behaviors, and we can add duration and out of motion and food distraction to those behaviors as well.

Both classes are a lot of fun, and if you do obedience, then both classes can fit your needs. It just depends on where your dog’s behaviors are and their understanding of the behaviors. So if you’re just starting out, and you’re just working on pivots, then Building Reliability would probably be a better fit, versus if your dog is solid with that, and you’re really ready to move on and start sequencing a little bit of find heel positions stationary with actually moving in heel position, then the Putting It Together class is a good fit.

Melissa Breau: They sound very complementary.

Mariah Hinds: They do.

Melissa Breau: They sound like they work well together.

Mariah Hinds: Yes, definitely.

Melissa Breau: Well, thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Mariah. I appreciate it. I know things are crazy, but I’m glad you could make some time for me.

Mariah Hinds: Yeah, it was a lot of fun.

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

We’ll be back next week, this time with a special anniversary edition of the podcast… also, just a last-minute reminder that if you want to take a class for the December term, today -- Dec. 15th, the day this episode comes out -- is the absolute last day for registration. So, if you’re a procrastinator, it’s time….

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


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Dec 1, 2017


Julie Symons has been involved in dog sports for over 20 years. She’s competed in flyball, conformation, agility, obedience, herding, tracking and nosework.

One of Julie’s favorite things is a versatile team! Her first Belgian Tervuren, Rival, was the first of his breed to finish his championship in conformation, obedience, and agility. Julie truly believes that participating in multiple sports is enriching to both person and dog and builds on that mutual partnership and trust.

Today we have Julie Symons, of the newly-named Savvy Dog Sports, to talk about handler discrimination and AKC scentwork.


Next Episode: 

To be released 12/8/2017, featuring Nancy Gigliardi Little. We'll be chatting about start line stays!


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

Today we have Julie Symons, of the newly-named Savvy Dog Sports, to talk about handler discrimination and AKC scentwork.

Welcome back to the podcast, Julie!

Julie Symons: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me back.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat today. To start us out, do you mind just reminding listeners who you are a little bit and share the dogs you share your life with?

Julie Symons: I have Savvy, she’s my 9-year-old Belgian Tervuren. Gosh, she’s going to be 10 in February. She’s doing great. She’s a champion Mach2, UD, TDX, and recently a Nosework 3 Elite dog. She’s retired from all sports except for nosework, and I keep meaning to work on my variable surface tracking with her. She’s just a phenomenal tracking dog, so if I can just find that time. And I have Drac, who’s my 2-year-old Malinois. He just turned 2 last month, and I’m waiting for him to mature a little bit and his hormones to settle, but he has his Nosework 1 and his Level 1 Interior, Container, and Vehicle titles from the Nosework Association of Canine Scentwork, and he also has his AKC Scentwork Novice title, which means he’s earned all of his novice element other titles. He also has two legs toward his Handler Discrimination Scentwork title and his first Advanced legs in Containers, Interiors, and Exteriors, and he’s actually really turning out to be a nice nosework dog. So it’s been fun training him there. And since you mentioned Savvy Dog Sports, I’ll share that I’m in process of building a training facility — on my property, actually. We have enough acreage out in the country. I’ve always wanted to do this. Back in probably the year 2000, I had thought about doing something like this. So we’re going to start building in February and I’ll be able to teach more dog stuff. There’s, I think, opportunity and need in this area to offer some more obedience or pet classes, so I’m really looking forward to that. And then my nosework students, I’d like to be able to have more opportunities to train with them. So very, very excited.

Melissa Breau: And you said you’re in Rochester, right? Rochester, New York.

Julie Symons: Right. I’m in a suburb of Rochester. I’m south of Rochester near the New York Thruway between Syracuse and Buffalo.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. So if anybody listening is in that area, Julie’s your new go-to person.

Julie Symons: Yes. So we’ll be busy getting some more information out on that soon.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Last time you were on the podcast I know we talked a little about the AKC Scentwork. Since today I want to dive a little deeper there, do you mind just starting us out by sharing a little about how the program works?

Julie Symons: Yeah. The AKC Scentwork program has three divisions. They have their Odor Search Division, which is what we’re typically familiar with, with the oils, the birch, the anise, and clove, and they have a new odor, cypress. And they have four search elements: Containers, Interiors, Exteriors, and Buried. Buried is a new element across any of the venues that I’m aware of. There is no vehicle search in this venue. I think that’s actually nice, because vehicles are always hard for trials to find to use, so people don’t want to get their cars scratched up or just to get enough volunteers to volunteer vehicles. So that’s a nice difference for some variety there. They have four levels: Novice, Advanced, Excellent, and Masters. And then they have the Handler Discrimination Division with also the same levels: Novice, Advanced, Excellent, and Masters, where the target scent is your handler scent. It could be your dirty sock that’s been in the laundry, or a cotton item that you scented with your hands. The first level there in Novice is your scented sock or glove that’s in a closed box. And then after that the higher levels are a scented Q-Tip or cotton ball that’s hidden in an interior, exterior, or a multi-element search area. So we’re starting to get some trials out there at the Advanced and Excellent levels, so it’s fun to see how that division is going to progress as time goes on. Then they have a Detective Division, which hasn’t been offered yet because there’s nobody yet that’s qualified to enter one of those. You have to actually have a Master title in one of the other divisions before you can enter a Detective Division. It’s an integrated search environment with unknown number of hides in a variety of elements, so you could be indoors with containers, or outside and buried with containers, and it’s multiple search areas up to ten hides, all four oil odors, and they want it to emulate as closely as possible to the work of a true detection dog. So that’s going to be a really exciting class, once people have trialed enough to get to that level.

Melissa Breau: That sounds awesome.

Julie Symons: Yeah, yeah. And like with most AKC sports, you’re required to get three qualifying scores in each element to earn a title. That’s different from what we’re typically familiar with with the Nosework Association, where you have to pass all four of the elements. You have to pass Vehicles, Containers, Interiors, and Exteriors in the same day, which adds an element of challenge, and you can’t have any errors to title. Whereas in AKC you might not do as well one day, but then you can get your next score the next day and title. So it’s just different. Some people think one’s easier or harder, and I’m just telling people they’re different. They’re just different programs that, to me, result in the same outcome, the same challenges and skills and work involved.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned a little bit in there kind of how it compares to the other venues. Is there more you want to say there? Are there more differences and similarities that are worth making sure people know about?

Julie Symons: Yeah, yeah. I think the skill level’s pretty comparable, and some of the other venues have game classes or specialty classes, like speed, a speed class, or a distance class, you can’t pass or cross a line, or some endurances where they’re going to have, like, ten hides in a small area. So a lot of venues out there can offer something for everybody. AKC is going to allow spectators, and that’s one item that’s different from other venues, where they keep things closely monitored where there’s less people. And in all venues you never have another dog out when you’re working your dog. So those are the differences that you really want to read up on the rules before you decide.

And a lot of the other not-as-known venues are starting to get more popular, some of the California-based, the sniffing dog sports, they’re starting to make their way out here. So there’s a lot of fun options so that you can trial more, because sometimes I’ve only trialed sometimes twice a year. And now it’s so exciting because there’s so many more venues out there that you can get out there and get more experience, and that’s just better for you and your dog.

If you’re already trialing, if you’ve already been trialing in nosework, you’re pretty much ready to go into the early levels of AKC. You pretty much have the skills, but you do want to practice the stronger odor, because AKC does two drops of oil on each Q-Tip, which is quite a lot of odor. It’s not too big of a problem, it’s just sometimes a little bit more pooling odor going on in these search areas, dogs picking it up off hide and alerting on the fringe, and so they might get a “no” because they’re not close enough. So you want to practice with a stronger odor, and you also want to practice buried hides.

Buried hides is unique of any venue that I’m familiar with, and in some ways it’s straightforward, the dogs generally have no issue. The first level it’s just buried two inches from the surface of a stand and a container. So you have six containers. But once you start getting to the advanced and higher levels, it’s deeper, then it’s in the ground, and I think it’s just a little different for the dogs, some different skills that you’re going to want to focus on specifically for buried hides.

And the other main difference with AKC is that they have intentional distractions that get pretty challenging at the higher levels. So you have your typical food and non-food distractors at the early levels, but once you get to Excellent and Masters, they’ll have auditory, visual, mimic, and human distractions, which has concerned a lot of people. A lot of sensitive dogs do this sport, and so if you want to trial in AKC, you definitely want to acclimate your dogs to that, introduce them to these types of things before you’re doing a nosework search.

So those are some of the things that are different and unique in AKC. And I haven’t heard, and we have an AKC judge form, people really are going to be fair. They’re not trying to scare dogs. The intentional distractors aren’t supposed to be meant to scare them. You’re not supposed to drop loud pans or slam doors or anything like that. But they’re going to have, like, a flashing light, or some toy that turns on when your dog gets close to it, or somebody clapping, things like that. Mimic is a statue or stuffed animal that looks like the real thing and might make dogs want to go check it out. So you can train for that stuff pretty easily.

And then I think one of the hardest things for some dogs would be having more people in the search area. So already your dog has to learn to work with the judge, and a couple of the other helpers are in the search area, but they usually stay off to the side. The human distractor can be actually right in the middle of your search area, sitting or standing. So, to me, that’s actually something that’s very doable to train early on with somebody that you know, and let the dogs get used to it. And by the time you’re at that level, if you’re trialing at the Master level, you’re not going to have an issue with that. And dogs, from what we find, once they get working, they get so focused on odor that they really all their worries go away. So those are some of the things you want to look out for, and I would make sure to read the rules very closely because it describes them in more detail.

Melissa Breau: That’s a good tip for any sport.

Julie Symons: I find actually that people don’t read the rules. And sometimes I feel bad that I didn’t tell somebody something in one of my classes, and I’m sure I do at times. Maybe they didn’t go to that class. But you have to take responsibility to read the rules, because you’ll find something. I mean, I’ll find something that I haven’t read the first time I read it. So that’s germane.

Melissa Breau: I want to switch a little bit from outcomes to training… what challenges are there when training a dog to search for handler scent, you kind of mentioned that, that may not be present when you’re teaching traditional odors?

Julie Symons: That’s a good question. First, it is just another odor. We can attack it that way and it’s true, this is another odor that we teach your dog. But it is different in that it does have its challenges, especially for savvy nosework dogs that have been in oil for a lot of years. We’ve seen a little bit of it being a little bit more difficult for them in certain situations. For example, there’s no aging handler scent, like with the oil odor. So oil hides, the nosework venues we’ve been at, they’re usually placed and they’re out there 30 minutes to hours, so the odor is going to disperse more and diffuse into the area. For handler scent you pretty much give it its last scent, you hand it over to the helper, they place it, and then you go in and run. So the scent’s going to have less diffuse in the area, handler scents is heavier, that’s going to fall down more than, like, a vapor odor oil will disperse in a room, and of course it depends on airflow. Any kind of airflow is going to travel in each scent. It’s going to be helpful to your dog that the scent’s going to travel into the space.

With my dogs and many teams that I’ve worked in, I find that the dogs have to get a lot closer to where the hide is for handler scents to really hone on that. So in this case I’m not talking about the novice level and boxes; I’ll get back to that. But if they hide Q-Tips or cotton balls in a search area, your dog really has to get close to it to find it. So what I’m finding is that I’m actually introducing a little bit more of direction with my handler scent and it’s actually helped a lot, and it gets my dog focused and more... not a  patterned search, but just getting them to search. For example, in Advanced Handler Discrimination, it’s an interior search, and no hide is higher than 12 inches. So I’m going to plant low. I’m going to be, like, have my dog search low, and they find it really easily. And I found when I have blind hides somebody has set up for me, I feel more liberated to point and direct. Whereas if I know where the hide is, we tend to not want to intervene at all and my dog finds it quicker, because I don’t know where it is and I’m just going to have my dog cover the area and then they usually find it. So that’s been very helpful in the difference with the handler scent.

Also another thing that’s interesting if you watch dogs search the traditional oil hides in a box, they just find it really easy. You put your scented glove in a box and the dogs just search differently. They have to go cover the boxes a few times, they just don’t hit on it as easily as oil. That oil odor, especially for AKC, is so strong, and your handler scented item is just not going to be as strong in a box, especially it’s not aged. So those are some of the differences and why I think the handler scent is a little bit harder to source for a dog, just because of the amount of odor that you have and the fact that it’s not aged.

Melissa Breau: What additional skills or things do people who have previously taught their dogs on oils need to consider when adding handler scent to their lineup? What do they really need to think about that might not have occurred to them?

Julie Symons: We actually found this when I taught my first Intro to Handler Scent. It was so fun because we were realizing these things, exactly what you just said, like, we were realizing, “Oh yeah, I didn’t think about this.” A couple of the things are, we were really worried about “How can I train in my house? My scent is everywhere.” We were really worried about that, but it ended up not being a problem at all because we actually teach our dogs to find our hottest scent. Just like we do with obedience and articles, you’re rubbing, you’re scenting, a hot item. All the other items have been lightly touched by somebody else, so it’s your hottest item. So it ends up not being a problem if you’ve touched stuff in your house, or touched a box that you moved around. It has not messed up any dogs because they’re looking for that hot cloud of odor, the highest gradient of odor. So that was kind of neat to realize we can train at home.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.

Julie Symons: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Also you can reuse boxes. In nosework it’s about boxes. You can put Q-tips in there, a hide in there, it’s always hot, because if an oil gets on cardboard, it’s there forever. Handler scent, I do keep my hot glove or sock separate, that’s always hot and I throw that in a jar. But for the boxes that I use, if I throw my glove in one of those boxes, once I’m done with that session I’ll just open up my boxes, air them out, some people put them outside on a nice day, let them air out, and you can reuse those. So I don’t have to make a box hot, and always hot, because we all have so many boxes, nobody wants to get any more boxes.

The other thing that’s really important is if you think about the trial situation, so if you’re searching for oil, containers with oil in it, the same container is out there for every dog. So by the time, if you’re at the last of the running order, these dogs, these boxes have saliva on it, they have probably food drops near the hot one, they’re pretty traveled, they’ve been traveled very heavily by the other dogs. In Handler Discrimination you have your unique box that’s pristine, so when the next dog comes in, they take another box that has your glove in it, and you leave with your box. So when you run and hopefully you find your hide, or not, you leave with your box. Your box is never used for another dog in the trials. So they’re pretty pristine when you’re trialing.

In training we were all using the same box just over and over and over, and it had saliva on it, and some food crumbs, and we realized when we went to a clean box, when we switched out to a new box, our dogs really had trouble. And we figured out that the dogs were alerting us the saliva they had left on the hot box, so what we’ve learned is you really, maybe even more so in the oil searches, is to rotate out a new box in your training sessions because you’re going to have a pristine box that doesn’t have any dog’s saliva on it when you go on there. So that was another neat thing that we found out.

Melissa Breau: Interesting. You mentioned your Intro to Handler Discrimination class. When is that up next?

Julie Symons: That is up in December. It opens Wednesday is the registration day and it starts December 1st.

Melissa Breau: Wednesday for us, and we’re talking now, for when this airs it will have happened already, but yeah, so registration will be open when they hear this.

Julie Symons: That’s right, that’s right. What else is different? You can make things different from your regular nosework training. You can have a different start on your routine. That’s really important, so we discuss that a lot in our classes. I decided I’m going to make my handler scent searches to be similar than my obedience article, where you’re rubbing your hands, because you’re scenting an article in obedience utility, and so I’m going to rub my hands because my advanced dog knows what that means, so that means I’m going to do a pivot and turn and send her. So my start routine for my advanced dog, I actually face away from the search area, I rub my hands like I’m scenting an article, I pivot, and I send her, and that just gets her into that frame of mind that it’s, because she turns around and she sees these twelve or ten ORT boxes that look like nosework that she’s done for five years. My young dog, I’m just facing it and rubbing my hands, and I might put my hand up to his nose and send him on his way. So that’s been important. I find having a different search routine when you’re starting to training your dog….

Melissa Breau: Interesting. That’s neat that you use your AKC obedience work to carry over. I wanted to ask if there’s anywhere that people really tend to struggle as they work through this stuff.

Julie Symons: I found that people have a hard time reading their dog at at source initially when we are starting to introduce it. Oil odor is so strong, you know the dog can’t help but notice it. I think they can build that association quicker with a strong odor. But it really is no different with our scent. You just have to have good timing. Your dog has to actually be sniffing and using her nose. Sometimes when you’re starting to get socks or gloves out there, a dog is like, “Oh I’m going to pick it up,” or they’re going to retrieve it, and they’re not sniffing. That’s one problem that they have. So we can work on some of that through the class. You’re not even waiting for an indication. The minute they take it out, you’re rewarding it, and then they’re going to start understanding that, “Hmm, the smell keeps giving me food.”

The other thing is dogs perch, and when you start putting things in containers, and especially we have had more obedience people coming into this area because it relates to them, “This sounds like something I’d be interested in, you know, it’s handler scent, I do this in obedience,” and those dogs have done a lot of platform and pivot work, so they see these containers and boxes and they perch on them. So that’s one of the problems that we deal with.

And tracking dogs. We had one of my students, it was a great, great experience to have her in the class, her dog saw these socks and started downing on them like scent articles. Not scent articles, tracking articles. So what we did was we immediately got them in a bowl, we took her bowls in her kitchen or whatever, and once we changed that picture to the dog, he started doing much better, because again, context is so important that for that dog it just said, “Oh, I always down on socks.” And that’s how we actually teach them article indication. We just lay out some item, and the dog’s supposed to go up to them and down on them. So we got creative with dealing with dogs that thought it was an article.

Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting.

Julie Symons: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was such a great, and it was so good to have her in class, because I think some of the bronze students really, really resonated with that because they were having the same issues. And then we have dogs that want to retrieve, and it’s not really a problem if they’re retrieving the right one. I mean, I’ve always heard even in nosework, dogs will retrieve a tip or the hide, and there’s nothing more clear when a dog retrieves the source but eventually, they’ll never be able to retrieve at a trial, especially handler scent because it’s either in a box or it’s pretty tucked away, it’ll be a Q-Tip or cotton ball that they’ll hide very well. So unless a dog’s not sniffing, and they’re just retrieving randomly, then we have to pick back up and build the value for that odor before we move on.

Melissa Breau: Since you mentioned that, I’m going to jump around with my questions a little bit here. What can students do to help their dog understand the different contexts? You mentioned the retrieve thing. What should students be doing to make sure their dogs understand, “OK, in this situation, in this type of trial, you’re doing this, in this type of trial you’re doing that”? I feel like that’s such a complex thing.

Julie Symons: I think when you get to the final picture, I think early on, when you’re training, they look very similar. How you teach scent articles is very similar to how you start teaching oil or you start teaching the cotton items with your scent on them. Once you start getting to a picture that looks more like the final picture, like a pile of scent articles, they’re going to know they’re going to retrieve it. And I do think the odor versus handler scent can look similar with the boxes, and that’s why the routine, your start routine, is really important, as well as a different search cue. I had to think long and hard if I wanted to really have a different search cue, and I decided to go ahead and do that. In obedience I do a “find it,” so I did a “find mine” in handler scent, and I’ve always done “search” in nosework, so that’s how I do it. Whether the dogs are really going to pick up on that verbal cue, I don’t know, but I’m going to be consistent with that because I do think in the long run that is going to make a difference.

And then gear is really important. I’ve had people think tracking dogs shouldn’t be doing nosework at the same time. And I get a little bit where one of them is more air scenting, one of them is more ground sniffing, but dogs recognize that flag out in the field versus “I’m in a classroom searching for,” or “I have twelve boxes out.” I think they know the difference between “I’m going to go check these objects” versus “I’m going to go run a track in the field.” So when you have handler scent now in the mix, I think it’s in our minds, we realize it’s just another odor, whether it’s birch, cypress, or handler scent, and we’ve taught our dogs that those odors will pay, then I think with time and some experience they’re just going to be searching for any of those odors, and when they find them, they’re going to all work. That’s how I’m approaching it.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned the start routine in there, and I did just want to quickly ask at what point in the training process do you start routinely using the same start system or process?

Julie Symons: I don’t start that right away. I will start using it when a dog’s doing some mini-searches. But of course the first couple of weeks you’re just building value for odor -- we’re just building value for odor -- so I would say maybe halfway, or by the end of a six-week class, you’re going to start putting a search cue, but as with anything, I’m not going to put a search cue to something until they’re actively searching. I think the rubbing of my hands, I did start that pretty early because I often would rub the item and then go put it, hide it, or something, and that was always a warm-up. So we would go place to hide, and then, when we were warming up, I would have another item on me, and I would warm up with my dog with another. You can do that, you could actually, at a trial you give your scented something to the steward, and at the start line you could actually warm up with another glove, and show it to your dog, and then have them search. So I think those things just are all going to be context that’s going to help your dog.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned earlier a little bit about the idea of pulling from your start routine for obedience into your scentwork stuff, and I want to talk a little bit more about how those two things compare. How does the new scentwork program compare to the classic handler scent discrimination task in obedience?

Julie Symons: Again, we mentioned that contextually they’re just very, very different. So when you are going to be in an obedience ring, your dog’s going to have done probably an exercise prior to the scent articles, they’re going to see a pile of articles. When you do obedience scent articles, you start off by facing the steward who’s jingling the bag and putting the articles down. So right there your dog is thinking scent article retrieve. You’ve also taught them that those articles are what you retrieve, so you’ve already gone further in that training process to complete that picture of the behavior that your dog is going to do. So in that case it’s a chain of behaviors. You’re going to be pivoting with your dog, sending your dog, they’re going to search for scent, they’re going to retrieve it, they’re going to do a front and finish, so it’s all these chains that you’ve already taught up to that point. And a good thing is a handler scent search looks so different from that. Like I said earlier, I’m more worried about a search area looking similar for oil odor or handler scent odor. That’s going to be probably more confusing, but between those two exercises, the obedience scent articles and handler scent, the dog’s going to know what they’re there for right off the bat.

Melissa Breau: Does it matter which one somebody trains first?

Julie Symons: No, I don’t think there is any order to that, and if I haven’t mentioned it already, a lot of teams that have come through my class that did obedience are thrilled with their, that have come through are saying their obedience scent articles are just better and better. And I think what we’re able to do is, we’re able to play a lot more games, and the handlers that work arena before were even worrying about retrieves or anything, and were able to build a little bit more value there. And I’m going to already, I already have with Drac, teaching him his scent articles differently than I did my previous dogs, rewarding at source, I’m doing these games, worrying about the retrieve later, but just getting them sniffing. A dog cannot search a pile unless they’re using their nose. So we’re going to teach them to use their nose, we’re going to teach them what odor is valuable. So I don’t see any problem with teaching those two at the same time.

Melissa Breau: Are there any concerns at all when training one or the other if you hope to compete in both sports? Is there carryover? Is there anything else that students should know if they’re going to do both?

Julie Symons: A lot of the ways we train carry over to each other. I think in that way a lot of the same games and exercises that I do are going to carry over. So I found that when I started doing nosework, it helped my tracking dog. It upped her article indication. She started downing an article and holding her nose to the article because of nosework, because I taught her that reward comes from staying at source, whether the source is an article on a track, or it’s oil, or now if it’s handler scent. And they all really just complement each other. One thing that I just love is I love this new sport, I love this new division, Handler Discrimination, because it gives us another thing to learn about our scenting dogs, and learn about scent and our scenting dogs, and I just think, I think they all complement each other. Now I wouldn’t start maybe them on the exact same day, but they can overlap in whatever timeframe, I think, that you have. I have not seen any problems with that.

Melissa Breau: That’s certainly reassuring to hear.

Julie Symons: That question comes up all the time. You’ll see it. It’s one of those questions that just resurface. People are really worried about it. And now maybe some dogs it wouldn’t be the right thing to do. I mean, you have to know your dog, and you have to know your skills, and you just have to make that decision for yourself, for the most part. But I’m here to say context is playing a large hand here, and as a handler I learn more about scent and scenting dogs by participating in these multiple scent areas because of that. So once you do one, you’re just going to be more skilled and be more ready for the other one.

Melissa Breau: To round things out, if someone hasn’t taught any handler scent yet, where should they start? What does that process look like?

Julie Symons: As we mentioned earlier, if people can sign up for this Intro to Handler Scent course, that would be great, and it’s on December 1st. But what you would do, if you’ve done nosework already, then you start the same way. We use a game called It’s Your Choice. I’m not going to hold these scent articles in my hands because my hand actually has the scent, but I get the item on the ground, I just put one item that’s heavily scented, the dog checks it out, I mark quickly and reward, I get quickly to two and three gloves, two cold one hot, and move them around in the shell game, and then I get again quickly, I get some more items. Sometimes people get stuck at a few items, and I think dogs do better with more choices. They’re going to start using their nose more. So I get up to four to five items, socks or gloves, and what I do is I heavily scent it between reps, I do a cookie toss to reset, and then I just move the hot glove and repeat. So you want to get a high rate of reinforcement in a short period of time. So they find a scent in a short period of time, they’re going to hopefully find it, like, twenty times, and you’re going to give them a lot of reward for that. So that’s very similar to how we teach a nosework scent oil, and the same way that we start out scent articles for obedience. We get these metal canning lids, or I actually use some leather strips that I have, and it’s the same way I start that. So if you’ve had some experience at either of those sports, all you’ve got to do is just go get some cotton gloves, some cotton socks, and play around with the same way you’ve taught your other scentwork.

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

Julie Symons: It was great. I love talking about this. I enjoy teaching it, and I enjoy competing and training in it.

Melissa Breau: I think that comes through. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with Nancy Gagliardi Little to talk about start line stays.

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

Nov 24, 2017


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

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


Next Episode: 

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


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

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

Welcome back to the podcast, Hannah!

Hannah Branigan: Thanks for having me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hannah Branigan: Totally.

Melissa Breau: Why is that so hard?

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

Melissa Breau: Lucky, lucky dog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hannah Branigan: Thanks for having me.

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

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


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

Nov 17, 2017


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


Next Episode: 

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


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

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

Welcome back to the podcast, Sarah!

Sarah Stremming: Thanks, Melissa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Well, maybe! But …

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

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

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

Sarah Stremming: Good question, thank you.

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

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

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

Sarah Stremming: Definitely. Thanks for the plug there!

Melissa Breau: Absolutely.

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

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

Sarah Stremming: Thank you.

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

Sarah Stremming: Thank you. Thanks so much.

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

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


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


Nov 3, 2017


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


Next Episode: 

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


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

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

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

Welcome back, Shade!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: The chomp, chomp, chomp.

Shade Whitesel: Chomp, chomp, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Of course, yeah.

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

Melissa Breau: Awesome.

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

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

Shade Whitesel: You’re too kind!

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

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

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

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


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

Oct 27, 2017


The Fenzi TEAM program is a progression-oriented titling program that emphasizes excellence in training. Each TEAM level adds complexity for the dog-handler team in four areas:  the difficulty of the skills being assessed, the potential challenges in the form of food and toy distractions, the challenge of the actual testing location, and finally the quantity of reinforcement allowed during the test.

We invited Denise Fenzi, one of the founders of the program, onto the podcast to talk about creating it and how it all works.


Next Episode: 

To be released 11/03/2017, featuring Shade Whitesel to talk about toys and common issues, including talking about introducing work to play.


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

Today we have Denise Fenzi with us again, this time to talk through the Fenzi TEAM titling program and then share a little bit about her upcoming book. For those who may not have heard the earlier episodes where I chatted with Denise, she is the founder of the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy and, more recently, the Fenzi Team Titles.

Melissa Breau: Welcome back, Denise!

Denise Fenzi:Thank you. How are you?

Melissa Breau: I’m good. I’m excited to talk about TEAM today.

Denise Fenzi: I’m excited about TEAM.

Melissa Breau: So to start us out, do you want to tell us what TEAM stands for?

Denise Fenzi: Training Excellence Assessment Modules.

Melissa Breau: And why did you pick that name?

Denise Fenzi: Well, actually, it was crowdsourced, so I just explained the program on a Facebook list and asked people to contribute their ideas. My experience with Facebook and crowdsourcing is I can come up with a really good answer in a lot less time than I could on my own. So, within an hour or two, somebody came up with that, and I thought it very much described what I was interested in, which is a team event between a dog and a handler. And I wanted to emphasize the training aspect of a competition in this case, and so it fit very well. Training, excellence, assessment, and modules works well because they do build on each other. Each level is a module to the next.

Melissa Breau: So where did the idea for TEAM come from? What led you to create the program?

Denise Fenzi: Well, most people probably know that my interest is competitive obedience, and traditionally I have competed in AKC. And the numbers have fallen off badly over a period of time. So I’ve been competing since I was a kid, so a long time, and back then we would have so many dogs that they would split Open B into two classes, so you would have 60-odd dogs in one class, so that gives you a sense of the numbers. And a lot of things have happened in the meantime.

A lot of new dog sports have come in, and time has gone by, and people have different interests and such. But I hate to see something I love go away, and I think and think about, What was it about the sport that was … why were we suffering so much when other dog sports seem to be doing OK? And as I looked at novice obedience and thought about it, the AKC program was set up a long time ago, when training was done differently, and it was really very logical to start with heeling because of how it was taught. So back then you walked in a circle in a class, or in lines, kind of very military style, up, down, back, forth, run in a circle, and the dog was simply corrected if it went out of position. It was not refined, it was not pretty, it wasn’t meant to be.

The word obedience had meaning. It meant to be obedient. And the dog did what they were told. And so at the novice level, you really did showcase the dog’s ability to walk on a leash, basically what we now call loose-leash walking, except slightly more stylized, right? In heel position. And then eventually you took the leash off, and we had all sorts of ways to do that. And then throw in a recall, because you need a good recall, right? That’s obedience. A stand for exam would have imitated either a stranger touching the dog or a veterinary exam. It wasn’t meant to be beautiful. It was meant to be practical, and the heeling was not beautiful.

So the performances we have now look nothing like the performances of thirty years ago. And as I thought more about it, I think a big part of the problem is we don’t train that way anymore, and really beautiful heeling, the kind of heeling that competitive people want to see in the ring today, takes a couple of years to master. It takes a long time to get a dog to work comfortably for a couple of minutes with extreme precision, head up, and we’re talking 1 inch, in, out, up, down. It’s very minor scoreable issues. Done well, it’s beautiful, and in my opinion, I really enjoy teaching heeling. I like teaching all those tiny bits and pieces. But you don’t just teach it all at once in one fell swoop. You teach it over time. And neither dogs nor handlers really want to spend 10 minutes at a time — and that would be short; some people train for a lot longer than that — working on this one skill. Yet entry-level people who come in from the outside, they’re not thinking utility. They’re thinking, Well, I’ll try the first level, and if it goes well, I’ll try the second level, and if it goes well, I’ll try the third level. Competitive people don’t train that way. They actually train all the skills usually from the start, and by the time they get into the novice ring, they do have two years of heeling, and they have a lot of other skills that they taught.

So if you think about a barrier to entry, when your entry level emphasizes your most difficult skill, you’re going to really struggle to bring in new people because there’s no motivation. And if you do bring them in, what happens is they bring dogs in the ring that aren’t properly prepared. So they may heel, they may get through it, but it’s silent for 45 seconds at a stretch, very, very stressful for the dogs. If you compare that to the higher levels opening utility, the exercises generally don’t go on that long. There’s more going on, there are more cues being given, there’s more movement, there’s more freedom. I mean, on a recall, at least the dog is running and moving. Heeling is hard. And I thought, Well, if I were going to design a program that was designed to reflect the way we train today, what would that look like? And that was the goal of TEAM was to test the same way that we train, and we do train in small pieces, and it was also designed to teach dogs things like distraction training right from the start.

So in our first level we have a stay where there’s a cookie present, but it’s only 2 seconds, so it’s not horrible. But then it’s 15 seconds, and then the dog is working and asked to retrieve within 2 feet of a cookie. But that’s as you go up through the levels, so as one piece gets a little harder, another piece gets a little easier. The other thing we did is incorporated every skill we could think of in the first level. So you have scent discrimination in the first level. You have pivots in the first level. That’s the basis of heeling. You have sit and down in the first level because they matter.

And then, as you work your way up, skills are combined, so now you have a sit and a down, but maybe the distance is greater, or maybe there’s a distraction, or maybe you’re doing it away from home. And it’s kind in the sense that expectations rise over time, so if you are training to the test, you can actually end up with a very well trained dog.

That is not true in traditional competitive obedience. If you train for the test, you’re going to become miserable because you can only do so much heeling and recalls and fronts. And so that’s what we were trying to design was a program that reflected excellent training. So do you generalize your behaviors? Take them new places? Can you engage your dog without a cookie? That’s important to me. Can you engage your dog without a toy? That’s important. Can you end one exercise and go to another one without some kind of external reinforcer besides your voice? Because when I looked around the world at all of the obedience programs, and I looked at a lot of them, what I realized is there’s really a fairly small number of core behaviors that they all use and they combine them in different ways. And if you worked your way through all those levels, including things like fluency, can your dog do it, oh, I don’t know, can your dog sit on cue 20 feet away when you’re laying down on the ground? Well, do you need that? No. But if you can do that, your dog has shown the ability to understand the cue under an unusual circumstance.

Well, a dog show is simply one more unusual circumstance. So the goal of TEAM is that if a person trains the TEAM program and trains for the test, that’s fine, and gets up through several levels, they should be able to go anywhere in the world, take those pieces, look at the organization they are interested in, put those little building blocks together in new ways, and compete successfully.

Melissa Breau: So to dig in a little bit more in the skills specifically, what skills do dogs need in order to compete in the program?

Denise Fenzi:Well, let’s see. You need to retrieve, you need to be able to do scent work, you need excellent rear end awareness, because heeling is very much about moving your rear end and pivoting. We teach skills that include the mouth, the nose, the feet, the eyes. So can you look at the handler? Good. Can you look straight ahead? Good. You need both of those. Can you go out and come back? So we send the dog around a cone. Can the handler teach the dog using props? So you have to be able to show that your dog can effectively pivot on a disc, for example, or find front, which is a precision behavior using a platform.

The first level’s actually quite heavy on precision skills, but each one can be done in a matter of seconds, but I need to know that you can teach really high-level precision skills. But I let you keep your cookies, at least at the beginning levels. That gets thinner as you go, but that’s appropriate as the challenge goes up, as you become more skilled.

Let me think. Scent work, heeling, you need a stay, you’ll need a sit or a down/stay. At the second level you need a sit/stay with a cookie behind the dog with your back to the dog at 15 or 20 feet. You need to be able to jump. The dog has to jump. The dog has to be able to retrieve, but at the first level the retrieve is just hold an object in the mouth for 1 second. It’s not until you get to the top levels that you actually have movement. Eventually the dog needs to be able to work out of motion.

So, for example, the stand out of motion is an AKC utility exercise. We do have that exercise. We do have signals at a distance. We do have go away, so go out to a spot and stay there. We have hold the position for 5 seconds without doing anything, which is shockingly hard for a lot of dogs. They can sit, but if they think you’re going to say something else, they get very agitated when they have to just wait, and that is the expectation of the exercise. The dog has to be able to back up because … and that’s a first level skill. In my experience, dogs that can back up between cues have many fewer problems with creeping forward on a lot of exercises, so I want to see that you’ve taught that. And the dog needs to show a front. Now I will say the first three levels were designed to be foundation for all sports, because as I talked to my agility friends and people in other fields, their dogs can do most of those things.

We actually … many sports start with the same foundation skills. Many of us do touching an object, retrieving, many of us do pivoting on a disc, many of us do platform work, so those things don’t actually change. The really obedient-specific things is probably scent discrimination, and I wanted that in Level 1 because people make it so much harder than it needs to be by waiting. So I think that roughly, I’m sure I left one or two out, but that kind of roughly covers the skills that you work on in TEAM, at progressively more difficult levels as you work your way up. Oh, and behavior chains don’t actually come in until the third level. So up till then, everything is a discreet exercise, go out around a cone and come back.

At the third level there would be exercises like go out 10 feet and get on a platform, and then the handler will direct you to go on. So it’s a go back and field, go on over a jump that’s 10 feet beyond, and then go on to a cone, which is 10 more feet. So now the dog demonstrates that it can work at 30 feet and then come back. That would be a behavior chain. So those don’t start until the third level.

Melissa Breau: At the very least that gives people a pretty good idea of kind of what they’re looking at if they’re interested in the program. Can you share a little bit more about kind of the logistics of how TEAM works? What is the process for somebody interested in titling their dog through TEAM? What do they do?

Denise Fenzi: Well, it is a video submission, so it’s pretty convenient. Now in the first three levels you can tape it anywhere you want. If you have room, you can tape it in your house. A lot of people do the very first level in the house. It’s hard after that because of space. You do have to have a space large enough that the dog and the handler can be clearly seen and heard throughout the test. You videotape your test, you have to do it in order, you submit it through the TEAM website, and then you timestamp where each exercise is in order so that the judge … basically we do that because people forget exercises, so when they’re submitting their video they realize they’re missing one and then they don’t submit, because we really tell people, “Don’t submit a video that’s not going to pass.”

You have all the rules, you can use a very, very active Facebook discussion group to be sure you’ve done them correctly, but we don’t want you to submit a not passing video, so we try to make sure you actually did do all of the exercises. You have to pass all of them except for one. It is “pass not yet.” It’s not fail. It’s not yet. You’ll make it next time. We do not score it, but it’s pretty tight expectations for passing an exercise, so when we say the dog needs to find front, we really do mean front. It needs to be within 30 degrees of front position.

Now admittedly we let you have cookies, right, in those first levels, or we let you have a platform, but not always. So you submit your video and then a judge reviews it. The judge will give you comments on it, so it’s actually a lot of fun to get your results back, because you’ll get all kinds of helpful tips and suggestions.

So the judge might say, “You know, you did a really nice job on this. Consider …” and give you a little advice to progress it forward. So people always say they really like getting the feedback from the judge, rather than a score sheet. I know there are more and more people getting together in groups. I know of a seminar in Ohio, for example, that filled very quickly when they offered it. I know there are training groups in the San Francisco Bay Area and also in Portland. Again, they offered a class and filled it that day. It’s very popular with students because it’s fun. People who are just engaged … people love the idea of coming in and Day 1 their dog is doing cool stuff, not just heeling in a circle. So they love watching their dog do scent discrimination the first week, or get on a disc, or on a platform, and move and do these things. People love that.

Plus, playing with your dog is actually a requirement of TEAM, so people think that’s very entertaining. I love … I love to see that, that people are doing it in groups. You can test alone. I did a test recently with Lyra. She did her TEAM 3. I just set up a video camera, I marked off my area so I wouldn’t walk in and out. You want to think carefully about how you lay it out, because a judge has to be able to judge it, so if they can’t see if your sit is correct in front, or whatever you’ve done, then you won’t … you won’t be able to pass that exercise.

People appreciate it who for whatever reason cannot get to trials, will not get to trials, have test anxiety, whatever the deal might be. It is suitable for more reactive dogs. I will say that all of the levels are off leash, so that is a consideration. You need to be comfortable training your dog off leash, and at some point you have to be able to take your dog to new locations, so that means you either need to feel good enough about your training that your dog is safe off leash in new locations, or that you’re able to find a fair number of new locations to perform. And I know for some people that is a challenge, but I would suggest that that is the nature of competition, that you will go to new places and you must prepare your dog for that. So we do expect that.

Melissa Breau: I think the only thing that maybe you didn’t mention that would be worth bringing up is the idea about questionable exercise. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

Denise Fenzi: Yeah, we try to give super-clear criteria for what it takes to pass, but the reality is when you’re looking at somebody’s position and you just watched them do a 360-degree pivot, and it’s supposed to be smooth and continuous, and the dog should be parallel every step of the way, and we allow a 30-degree out of position, you know, at some point. Well, for a judge to decide if it was 30 degrees or 45 when it took place at one moment, or if the handler did something funny with their shoulder but we can’t decide, or, you know, little things like that, we do have the option of giving it a questionable, so that’s kind of halfway in between. A questionable is a half point off, so if you think about ten exercises being 10 points, you’re allowed one “not yet,” so you need a 9. A questionable is half off, so you can have two questionables and everything else perfect and you will pass. If you have one “not yet” and one questionable, you won’t quite make it.

But that, actually, it helps the judges. It makes us more comfortable, because it’s very hard to not pass somebody who you really thought was, really had the essence of the exercise, but you also felt that you could not say they truly did it correctly. So it very much puts the handler on notice, because everything you do at the first level is going to come back.

Nothing goes away. So it just builds on it. So if you got a questionable on your down at the first level, be aware that your down at the second level is at a greater distance and for a longer period of time, so you probably need to go back and look at it. So it helps the trainer do a better job.

Melissa Breau: I think you’re pretty well known as an advocate for positive training, and I wanted to ask a little bit about how that ties in or doesn’t tie in to TEAM. So does someone have to be a positive trainer to compete in TEAM? And is there anything about TEAM that kind of inherently tests the trainer’s training philosophy?

Denise Fenzi: No and no. We certainly don’t ask, and to be kind of brutally honest, I don’t even care. You simply have to pass the test.

In my opinion, it is easier to pass the test if you are a positive trainer, because it is designed to test clean training that is broken into small pieces, and since it’s tested off leash from the first level,

I think most people who are interested in TEAM are pretty comfortable training off leash anyway. But we do not, certainly don’t ask about it. You do not need to be a student of mine, you don’t need to share my philosophy at all. I personally believe that a good trainer of any method can teach most anything, one way or the other, you know, being a good trainer just matters because you communicate well.

But no, we don’t test it, no, we don’t check for your philosophy, and to be honest, we’re just pretty welcoming people, so if a person joins the Fenzi TEAM Players List on Facebook and is a balanced trainer, or mixed methods, or whatever, the topic is probably not going to come up. I mean, I don’t think it ever has, and I really would be surprised if somebody asked outright about that.

Melissa Breau: So if I wanted to put a Level 1 title on my dog, what would that video look like? What skills are at that first level?

Denise Fenzi: Well, they do go in order, and now I have to tell you my poor little head is not remembering the exact order. I do know engagement for 15 seconds. That means playing with your dog. Now playing can be as nice as a belly rub. It just needs to show something where the dog is interacting with you and not trying to figure out how they can just get away. That’s what I need to see — that your dog will stay with you and follow you, and if you interact or clap or smile, that the dog shows some kind of a connection to you. So we start there.

Then the dog goes into using a pivot disc in heel position. So we want to see that the dog can find heel position, and it really needs to be correct heel position, and then show me a 180-degree pivot to the left. Then I want to see your dog show me a front. Most people use a platform in front from several angles, so you throw a cookie off to the left, you throw a cookie straightforward, you give one cue, get the cookie, and then we expect the dog to come back and use that platform to find front.

We do the same thing in heel position. You can use a disc or a platform. The dog needs to show the ability to find its way to heel position, even when the cookies are thrown off center. We want to see your dog go over a jump, but you’re welcome to go with the jump with the dog, and the jump is very low. We want to see your dog back up 2 feet continuously.

We want to see your dog do scent articles. Now how does that look? Well, three scent articles, and you can put food in or on one of them. So talk about stacking the deck, right? We’re going to make this work for you. It’s going to get harder down the road, but I just need you to start thinking about scent discrimination. Your dog needs to clearly indicate the correct article, does not need to pick it up. As long as the judge can say, “Yes, the dog has clearly indicated,” it might nose touch and it might hold that, it might pick it up, it might lay down, I don’t care what the dog does. Just I should be able to tell which one is yours.

There is a retrieve — I’m trying to remember, maybe that’s second level — where the dog holds an object. The dog has to stay in the presence of a cookie in a bowl for 2 seconds and has to release when said “OK.”

So I want to know that your dog knows how to stay, and we want to know that your dog knows how to go. Your dog needs a sit and a down at 5 feet, so that’s not so horrible. Your dog needs to go out around a cone and come back, because we want to start that process of showing us that you can get your dog to go away and come back. Am I leaving anything out? I’m sure I’m leaving something out. I believe there are ten exercises in the first level. And in some ways, in my opinion, the first level is the hardest because there are so many things for a new person to look at, and then, over time, it’s really a matter of building up skills, so

… oh, by the way, that scent discrimination — the handler is sitting next to the article. So they throw a cookie to get the dog moving away, they place their article, and then the dog comes back in. So the dog isn’t working by itself at a distance. There’s no retrieve, there’s no front, there’s no formal anything. Those things will come later, but it does get you started on the path.

Melissa Breau: I don’t think you left anything out. I was checking my little cheat sheet here as you went along, so ...

Denise Fenzi: Oh, good for me!

Melissa Breau: So now you’ve kind of walked through the list of skills, so how did you come up with those things, and how did you kind of decide which pieces to include? What was the process like to put all those pieces kind of together into a program?

Denise Fenzi: Well, I worked with Deb Jones and Teri Martin to create this one, and I will say it is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I’m not kidding, actually, and I’ve done a lot of stuff. The reason it was so difficult, we really did look around the world at what are all of the obedience skills. They are jumping, they are heeling, they are position changes, they are retrieving, there’s just a set of things and they come, doesn’t matter where you go, they are done, those skills are done. So we had all of those, we broke them all down and said, “What do those all look like?” So that was one side of a spreadsheet. And then we said, “What are all of the elements of great training?” Well, fluency. Can your dog do those behaviors under adversity? OK, we want to test fluency. Formality. Can your dog do those behaviors when you’re quiet and still and only one cue? We’re kind of particular about that. We don’t allow a lot of handler help. You really need to be formal.

Can your dog do these behaviors in an unfamiliar environment? I call that generalization. Can your dog generalize the exercise? Can your dog do it under distraction? So if there are toys or food in the area, can your dog still perform correctly? So we had a spreadsheet, which kind of created a matrix, which said, “How can we test all of these things without pounding a person at each level?” Because we don’t test everything at every level. We sort of, at one level you’ll notice it’s more skill based, so the first level is very heavy on skills, and then also can you create behavior chains?

We don’t even introduce the behavior chains until the third level. I mentioned that. Distraction training does start very, very light in the first level, but it gets harder and harder as you go on, second level, third level. Scent work, we decided first and second level, but you don’t even have it at the third level. You have it harder at the fourth level. So we went through, and we had checkmarks here and there, and we tried to figure out by the time the person has done all six levels did I feel confident that they had the skills to go anywhere in the world and compete. Now I’m not saying they wouldn’t have to rearrange the exercises, because they would, but that’s kind of irrelevant.

A person who finishes all six levels, who has also taken me seriously when I said, “Show me these exercises” in whatever, seven new environments or whatever it is, if they did that and they did it within the spirit of the program, i.e., they really did go to new places, they didn’t just keep going to their friend’s back yard, if they did that and they really did try to show their dog the types of environments that would be involved in competition, then they should be successful, and their dog should be comfortable because they are well trained. So that’s how we got there. Where it got quite painful breaking it up into fair chunks, so you want challenge, but you don’t want people to give up, because it’s kind of hard. Finding the balance between accuracy, which is what we emphasize in the first three levels, and movement, flow, behavior chains, which is what we emphasize in the second three levels.

Making decisions about things like a sit at heel. We actually don’t require it. You just have to tell us. Your dog either sits at heel or stands at heel. Same as front. I don’t care if your dog sits or stands, because again, around the world that varies. So you can pick what is most comfortable for you, or you can pick, like, if you have an older dog, maybe they don’t want to sit anymore, so fine, don’t have them sit, that’s not a problem. But it can’t be haphazard. You have to say, “My dog sits in heel,” or “They stand in heel.” So we judge that. That took a lot of thinking, trying to figure out around the world how could we design a program that didn’t create active conflict. So I think we did all right, but it did take some thought.

The next thing was setting criteria. What is a front? What is a finish? What is a down? It sounds simple until you look at a dog on a down who is one inch from the ground, the elbows aren’t down. Now all of a sudden you say, “What is a down anyway? And you realize these things are not simple. So laying out criteria was very challenging.

We do have video examples of all the exercises, so you can just look. If you’re a reader, you can read through our very detailed descriptions of what we want to see, what it takes to pass, how it should be set up, and then you can look at the video and you’ll see an example, “Oh, OK, that’s what it should be.” We do say what will cause you not to quite make it, but we don’t list everything. It’s impossible. There’s just too many possibilities. We do list the most common elements.

There is a website called It’s well laid out, so you can just pick a level and look at it. Most of the levels have video runs where you can see a start to a finish. Not the higher levels, because I think we so far only have one or two dogs that have made it to Level 5, so there’s just no videos to be had at the higher levels, but they’re working on it. The program’s only slightly over a year old, and we did change our rules about two months ago at Level 1. We just made it flow a little bit better, so it’s possible we don’t have up a full Level 1 run with the new rules. We should have one soon.

So what a person will want to do is start with the website, start looking at the levels, they may find they already have several of the skills. Watch the videos so they see how it works.

Join the Fenzi TEAM Players List, which has become quite active, and get to know your team players, the other people, who are very supportive. Register your dog.

I think it’s $20 to register your dog. That will put you in the database. The database is searchable. Some people choose to be searchable to the public and some people choose not to. If you are a trainer and if it matters to you, you might want to make sure you’re public, because then people can see what titles you accomplish. Your TEAM titles will be listed there for each of your dogs. And a video run costs $29, so remember, you should only have to submit it once and you only have to pass once, so don’t submit a video that’s not passing, which makes it a very inexpensive titling program if you submit only passing videos.

We do have a Plus level. Plus just means the 1 Level you showed in a new location, the 2 Level you showed in a new location. When you get to 3 Plus, then you can go on to the fourth level. The fourth, fifth, and sixth are all new locations. So that’s probably how I would start if I was intrigued. I would join the Fenzi TEAM Players, and I would also from there get on the newsletter, you know, because I put out newsletters with tips and videos to kind of help you on your way.

Melissa Breau: So you talked a little bit about this. I wanted to see if you’d talk about it a little bit more, kind of the … that the levels build on each other. I know you added a little bit at the end about the Plus titles, but is there anything you kind of want to add to that?

Denise Fenzi: So when we designed it, so, like, for example at the first level, where you make your pivot on the pivot disc when the dog stays in heel position, you do have a disc. That would be first level. Second level you also have to show us pivots, but there’s no disc this time, so instead of doing 180 degrees to the left, now you’re going to do 360 degrees, and you’re also going to do it to the right, so that’s a little bit harder.

When you get to the third level, now I need to see pivot left, pivot right, pull sideways 2 feet and go forward 2 feet. Now that’s the first true heeling. But if you can do that, if you can pivot left from Level 1, pivot left and right without a disc from Level 2, and do what I just described at Level 3, then when you get to Level 4 and you’re doing true heeling, your dog knows how to heel. There’s just no question about it.

Or in Level 1 you have to show that your dog can find heel position with a platform, and your dog needs to be able to find front. In Level 2 you need to show me a formal recall without a platform. So did you have the skill to get rid of that platform? And your dog needs to show me a correct finish. That means straight without a disc. So the skills in Level 1 directly influence Level 2. So Level 1 can use props. Level 2 can you get rid of props and maintain precision? So that’s what I mean by the levels build on each other.

And then once something we feel is mastered, then we let it slide. So Level 4 we no longer judge the quality of your straightness. We figure you’ve already shown us that you know how to teach straight fronts and finishes. It’s totally up to you if you care to maintain them. We don’t care anymore. Now we’re going to do stuff where your dog runs out 40 feet, goes left around a cone, or maybe over a jump, or maybe gets scent articles, or whatever. Now we’re going to look for other things. But the first three levels are precision. After that it’s just kind of free fun, interesting ways of combining exercises that people wouldn’t have thought of.

Melissa Breau: So I wanted to ask a little bit about the tools that are out there if someone is struggling to teach their dog those skills. I know you mentioned the Facebook group, and I will include a link to that in the show notes, for anyone who’s interested.

Denise Fenzi: We also have at the Academy, Fenzi Dog Sports Academy does teach classes that teach TEAM skills. There’s a couple ways you can get it. One is just take a class called TEAM. TEAM 1 is running right now. Now unfortunately, registration is closed, so you cannot join now. TEAM 2 is running in December. So if you look over the skills and you say, “You know what, I have most of TEAM 1,” then feel free to pop into TEAM 2 in December. It’s not like you have to have the title to take the class. And since TEAM 2 is building on Level 1, you will be improving your Level 1 skills, so you have that option. You also have the option of when Hannah Branigan teaches her obedience skills series, she teaches obedience very much the way we structure the TEAM program.

It’s bits and pieces. So while it’s not a perfect fit because it wasn’t meant to be, many of the skills you would want in TEAM happen to be covered in her Obedience Skillbuilding series. So you can take classes at any given time. There will probably be webinars on the topic. I would guess we will teach webinars on it. There are support groups out there that you can find through the TEAM players list, if you want to hook up with people more locally and see if there’s somebody you can work with.

Melissa Breau: So far, which skills do people seem to struggle with the most? And then I’d love it if you’d share some tips for problem-solving those skills.

Denise Fenzi: Well, the scent discrimination, this is really interesting, almost everybody passes it, but boy do they howl about having to teach it. So if I can get them to believe in themselves, they don’t seem to struggle that much. They do teach it, but getting them to start teaching it is very hard because they can’t get it out of their heads “This is a hard thing, this is an advanced skill.” No, it’s not. It’s no harder than anything else. It’s just that you make it hard by thinking about it like that. So it’s actually almost always, almost always, people pass the scent discrimination, but the getting them to teach it is just misery.

I would say where people struggle the most is on the pivots. Staying in heel position accurately is very hard for people. Their dogs have developed all sorts of habits, you know, maybe they start to pivot and the dog jumps around into position, or the dog waits until they’ve moved 90 degrees before the dog catches up. We score that down, so you cannot pass if your dog does that. And while people gnash their teeth a bit and get very frustrated, the reality is if you ask them again in two weeks if they worked on it, they say, “Thank you for holding your criteria, because, you know what, after I worked on this for two weeks, not only did I do it, but I learned how to do it and my dog got better, but miraculously my dog’s heeling has improved dramatically because he no longer bumps me on left turns.” And that’s kind of the whole point of TEAM. Like what I tell people if they’re struggling with their precision and obedience, I say, “Well, try this.

I don’t care if you’re working on your OTCH. Stop all your obedience for one month and only do TEAM 1. Only TEAM 1 level for one month. Now go back to your obedience and tell me what happened.” And it just never fails. Because they went back and focused on the foundation precision skills, when they go back into their obedience, their dog is that much better.

It’s a bit of an eye-opener for people. So I would say pivoting on a disc gives people a fair amount of … they stress about it, they worry about it, the pass rate is not as high, I would say, on that exercise than most of the other exercises.

Melissa Breau: Any tips for working on it?

Denise Fenzi: I just did the last Fenzi TEAM newsletter. It shows a video, I’m working with Lyra on how to keep her in heel position when I do sit, down, stand in position when I’m moving my feet, and if you want to use that, it will also teach your dog how to — it’s the same skill, actually — how to keep their rear end in position. So feel free to look at that, and that should help you out.

And if you search my blog, I do so much on my blog of obedience. And it has a pretty good search function, so you can put in something like “heeling” or “pivots” or “a disc,” any of those. Or if you want you can buy my self-study program, called Precision Heeling, through FDSA. That is available at any time, not just during terms, so you can buy it today. Tons and tons and tons of video and discussion about pivoting and heel positions, very heavy on that, so you would, in theory, be quite good at it by the time you were done with that course.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. And I think that I can share a link to the last TEAM newsletter in the show notes. So if I can do that, I will.

Denise Fenzi: Oh, that’s awesome.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned a little bit earlier that there are places starting to offer some classes. Is there anything that people have to do if they want to offer classes? Is there anything special they have to do to get started? Or kind of how does that work?

Denise Fenzi: No, I am not at all proprietary about it. You can use the name of the program in your advertising, you do not have to credit me in any way, shape, or form, you can do what you want, you can teach it how you want. So it’s simply there, it’s simply available.

The Fenzi TEAM Titles is not associated with FDSA, it’s not associated with the school. They are two separate things. I have no restrictions whatsoever on how you teach it or anything, really. You can use our logo if you’re teaching. Not the FDSA one, but you can use the Fenzi TEAM Titles logo if you’re offering classes on Fenzi TEAM Titles. Go to town, have a good time.

I think this is good for dogs, I think it’s good for dog training, and I think many trainers are finding it to be quite an eye-opener when they realize how effective training this way is. And since it happens to be one of my personal strong goals, anything I can do to make that work makes me happy, and I actually think if people take to this program that it will also improve the status and the wellbeing of obedience as a sport, regardless of what organization you decide you want to compete in or not. It’s not really that important. What I do care about is that people do things with their dogs in a kind and friendly manner, and so we have set up a program that allows you to do that. So go to town if it serves you well. I mean, I would personally, if it was me, if I was training dogs for AKC obedience competition, I would from Day 1, after those dogs are done with their pet manners class, if they show any interest in competition, I would start them in TEAM, and then, after getting up through a few levels, they could say, “You know what? And you’re ready for your CD,” because they would be, with just a bit of polishing, and the odds that you kept them, and you kept them intrigued and happy.

When I talk to people who teach TEAM classes, they say retention is very high because people have a good time, they love coming back, they love seeing, “Look, my dog can find a scent article,” “Look, my dog can retrieve,” “Look, my dog can jump.” After six weeks your dog will, if it’s well trained, should be able to go around a cone, get on a platform, pivot in heel position with a disc, hold an object in its mouth. That’s cool, that’s interesting.

Pet people do have the attention span for that for six weeks. They do not have the attention span for heel position walking in a circle. I mean, I don’t have the attention span for that. So whether you even want to teach TEAM, I would really suggest that some of these clubs, these AKC clubs that are struggling and that can’t find new members, something like this, where people start to play and laugh and engage, because engagement is part of it, and be silly with it, and teach cool things that everybody, “Oh, it’s a trick,” OK, well, call it what you want, it’s getting to where we need to go, I think that would do wonders for the culture of our sports. So use it as it works for you.

Melissa Breau: So I know that TEAM right now seems pretty focused on obedience, and I wanted to ask if you’ve considered doing TEAM programs for any of the other sports out there.

Denise Fenzi: The first three levels of TEAM was never designed to be obedience. I’ll just put that out there. It was actually really designed to be a foundation for any performance sport, because it teaches skills that the body awareness, the handler cues, the distraction training, the proofing, all of those things were really meant to cross all sports. So the first three levels is for that. I will say that we have at least considered, contemplated, adding stuff. What we’re going to add, I don’t know. Like I said, it was hard. It was a hard thing to do, and I don’t like to do things that aren’t well done, so if we’re going to do another level, it has to be done well. But I would say that, like, nose work might be a possibility, so yeah, you know, you never know. You never know. So it’s something to keep an eye on.

Melissa Breau: Alright, and before we wrap up, I want to ask you about that book. So a new book? Want to share the details?

Denise Fenzi: Can you believe that? I know, I just keep writing them. I wrote a book called Beyond The Back Yard: Train Your Dog Anytime, Anywhere, and I wrote it to the pet market. It’s a distraction-training book, and it was quite popular.

I sold more copies of that book than any other book I’ve done. And it did not sell to the pet market. It actually sold to the competition market just as heavily, which is great, but I’m sort of intrigued by that market, by the sort of in-between pet trainer, a little bit of competition dog trainer, engaged, I’m going to call it an engaged pet person, I’m very interested in that group because those are the future dog people. I like those people.

So this book is called Beyond The Basics: Unlock Your Dog’s Behavior, and it is not an obedience book. Actually it’s a hard book to explain. It’s very, very heavy on understanding the emotional reasons that dogs do things. So, for example, if you have a barking problem, you can have a barking problem because you have a stressed dog, a bored dog, an anxious dog, an under-exercised dog.

I mean, there’s so many possibilities, and it’s actually important to understand that, because the solutions are often diametrically opposed to each other. So the way you handle a bored dog and an anxious dog, you cannot use the same solution. If you do, you will make your problem worse. So the book is very much about understanding the reasons, the underlying reasons, for dog behavior, analyzing your dog from that point of view, and once you understand why your dog is doing the things it’s doing, then you can set in place a behavior plan to fix it. And then I give a bunch of case studies using recalls, I think there’s seven dogs that all have recall problems, and they all have problems for different reasons. And it discusses the reasons, and then it discusses potential solutions for each of those dogs.

So you can pretty quickly see why each dog solution needs to be for that dog and not the next dog. And then barking is also handled, dogs that bark excessively. So maybe seven dogs, and again, many different reasons. So we go through and we look at things like temperament of the dog. We do talk about breed, we talk about health, we talk about general emotional state, we talk about training. It’s not a book on training, but in relatively few pages I sort of packed in everything you could ever possibly want to know about what makes good dog training, how to do it, it’s all in there. It’s just exceptionally condensed.

If I was going to say who would get the most bang for the buck out of this book, I would say a dog trainer who specializes in behavior. If they could get their clients that have problem behavior dogs to read this book, they would save themselves an enormous amount of explaining, cajoling, coercing their clients, because the clients would get it. They would get it from the dog’s point of view, and I think they would be endlessly more cooperative with the program when they were able to understand why their dogs, because all behavior serves a purpose, and when people take the time to figure out what is the purpose that this problem behavior is solving, now you can address it.

So that’s what this book is about, and then it also talks about if it doesn’t work, what do you do now? If your solution didn’t work, how do you go back and evaluate and analyze it? So that book will be available in Europe, because they get published in different places, probably in a day or two, so by the time the podcast comes out, it should certainly be out. In the United States I expect it out November 6, and that would be through my own website, In Canada I would expect it maybe the middle of November. Australia/New Zealand probably closer to the end of November. So the Europeans are they’re the lucky ones because it should be out in a day or two.

Melissa Breau: Want to repeat the name one more time for folks so they can Google it?

Denise Fenzi: Yeah. It’s called Beyond The Basics: Unlock Your Dog’s Behavior.

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

Denise Fenzi: Thank you for having me, Melissa.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely, and thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with Shade Whitesel to talk about toys and common issues, including talking about introducing work to play.

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


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

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