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Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast

For the last 2 years, FDSA has been working to provide high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports online, using only the most current and progressive training methods. And now we’re bringing that same focus to you in a new way. Each episode of the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast will feature an interview with a leading name in the competitive dog sports training world, talking in depth about issues that often get overlooked by traditional training methods. We'll release a new episode every other Friday, so stay tuned--and happy training!
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May 18, 2018

Summary:

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

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

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

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Next Episode: 

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

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Amy Johnson.

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

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

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

Hi Amy, welcome back to the podcast!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Imagine that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CREDITS:

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

May 11, 2018

Summary:

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

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

Links

Next Episode: 

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

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

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

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

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

Hey, Amy, welcome to the podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy Cook: Sure. Are you?

Melissa Breau: Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: If only that were actually true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

CREDITS:

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

Apr 13, 2018

Summary:

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

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

Links

Next Episode: 

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

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Laura Waudby.

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

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

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

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

Hi Laura, welcome to the podcast!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Waudby: Yeah, it was fun.

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

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

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

Credits:

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

Apr 6, 2018

Summary:

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

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

Links

Next Episode: 

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

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

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

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

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

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

Hi Jessica, welcome to the podcast!

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

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

Jessica Hekman: You did great.

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

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

Melissa Breau: Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica Hekman: That would make life so much easier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: That’s very cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Fair enough, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica Hekman: Can I have more than one?

Melissa Breau: Yes, absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credits:

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

Mar 30, 2018

Summary:

Julie Daniels has worked with dogs her whole life. In fact, she learned to walk by holding on to a German Shepherd. She is one of the foremost names in the sport of dog agility in the United States. She was one of the early champions of the sport and helped many clubs throughout the country get up and running.

She owns and operates both Kool Kids Agility in Deerfield, NH, and White Mountain Agility in North Sandwich, NH.

Julie is well known as a premier teacher at all levels of play. She has competed, titled, and won with all sorts of dogs through the years, including two Rottweilers, a Springer Spaniel, a Cairn Terrier, two Corgis, and four Border Collies. She is the only person to make USDAA National Grand Prix finals with a Rottie or a Springer, and she did it two times each. She is also a two-time national champion and a two-time international champion.

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 4/06/2018, featuring Dr. Jessica Hekman to talk about building a performance dog.

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Julie Daniels.

Julie has worked with dogs her whole life. In fact, she learned to walk by holding on to a German Shepherd. She is one of the foremost names in the sport of dog agility in the United States. She was one of the early champions of the sport and helped many clubs throughout the country get up and running.

She owns and operates both Kool Kids Agility in Deerfield, NH, and White Mountain Agility in North Sandwich, NH.

Julie is well known as a premier teacher at all levels of play. She has competed, titled, and won with all sorts of dogs through the years, including two Rottweilers, a Springer Spaniel, a Cairn Terrier, two Corgis, and four Border Collies. She is the only person to make USDAA National Grand Prix finals with a Rottie or a Springer, and she did it two times each. She is also a two-time national champion and a two-time international champion.

Hi Julie! Welcome to the podcast.

Julie Daniels: Hi Melissa.

Melissa Breau: To jump into things, can you just share a little bit of information about the dogs you currently share your life with and what you’re working on with them?

Julie Daniels: I have three Border Collies at this time, and my oldest, who is 12-and-a-half — don’t tell her that — she recently injured herself. She tore the collateral ligament in her knee. That’s a long rehab, and although she’s 12, it is very difficult to keep her down. But my best friend is Karen Kay, who is an expert in rehab for both people and for dogs, a fitness expert, so we’re diligently bringing Boss back, slowly but surely. But it’s tough. Even at 12-and-a-half, if a dog is used to taking a lot of activity and getting a lot of exercise, it’s very, very difficult to tone that down and do specific things. But anyway, that’s my 12-year-old.

My 10-year-old is Sport, and he’s a finished product. He likes training as much as anybody. It’s just a pleasure to live with and to show he’s quite the guy.

My youngster, now 2-and-a-half, is Kool-Aid, and I’m having a lot of fun with her. Kool-Aid has been a Fenzi-ite her entire life, so she’s one of the stars, even in Baby Genius and also in Adolescent Sport Dogs. She’s just a pleasure to work with and train. You’ll see a lot of her.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I know here at FDSA one of the things you’re perhaps most well known for is your “Genius” series. I know a big part of those classes — and all of your classes, really — is about building confidence. Can you share a little bit about why that’s so critical for young dogs and maybe how you go about it?

Julie Daniels: Right off the bat in puppyhood, we want our dogs to feel excited about the environment. We want them to do a couple of things. We want to nurture curiosity so that they feel attraction for novelty, which is the natural puppy trait. It is something they were born with — puppies are born curious — so I feel it’s up to us to nurture that; yes, to guide it and direct it, but not to lose it. Don’t lose that curiosity. Not so different from human children, I think. That’s a very important thing.

The other thing we want to do is develop a small measure of self-reliance in very young dogs so that they offer interaction with the world. And that gives us a chance to choose — to shape, if you will — what we like best about their behavior choices so that we can guide them along the way to a mutually satisfying life with humans.

So yeah, those two things.

Melissa Breau: To dig in a little bit into one of the Genius classes, Baby Genius is on the calendar for April. How much of that class is about teaching skills and “learning to learn,” for lack of a better term, and how much is about teaching the dogs a positive attitude toward life and training?

Julie Daniels: They’re both so important. They’re both pretty much flipsides of the same coin. I think it’s super, super important that you never get away from how the dog feels about life. So that positive conditioned emotional response that we all talk about, the positive CER, is really for interacting with people, interacting with the environment, as I spoke of before. We want to develop the curiosity and the initiative of the very young dog, and that starts in Baby Genius, big time.

So it’s not just about skills, no matter what you do. Even if you are training skills, you’re always working on how the dog feels about life and how the dog feels about interacting with you, training with you, playing with you, if you will. So I have to say that the class is pretty much half of one and half of the other.

It’s not so much about skills. Good question, Melissa. I really thought about how to respond to that, and I’m thinking half and half, but it’s probably more about life and less about specific skills. Guidance, yes, lots of guidance, and puppy’s choice is extremely important in the class. So things are, by design, geared toward helping them choose behaviors that we would like for them to keep, but it’s probably more about life, Melissa, and less about skills. So there you go.

Melissa Breau: With that said, what are some of the skills you cover?

Julie Daniels: Ah! I have to give those away? Let me talk about one that’s both, because I could go on all day about that, and you probably have another question or two for me. So why don’t I talk about one in specific that I think is maybe a good example of the life version and the skills version, and that would be the recall, because you can’t do a baby class without working on recall, and yet I don’t really start out working on recall at all.

I work on name. I want to create extremely high value for name and attraction, orientation, toward the sound of name. So that’s not operant. That’s classical conditioning. And I do a whole lot with that just with the little name game. When you’re playing name game — with any dog, mind you, not just with a baby; it happens to me a lot that I get adult dogs in for board and train, and they need a refresher on how they feel about hearing their name. It happens to many, many dogs that they’ve learned not to enjoy hearing their name, so I change it. But with babies it’s so easy and fun to just play games, and don’t forget: say your dog’s name and don’t think it’s not a recall. Don’t think, Oh, the dog needs to be going the other way when I call his name. No, no. It’s classical conditioning I’m talking about, so I want that dog to love, love, love the sound of his own name.

That’s different from the operant games that we play for instilling a recall, which are also important. That’s the skills part. But when you ask me whether it’s more skills or more enjoyment, you know, life enjoyment, I think it’s life enjoyment. I think name game is much, much, much more important in Baby Genius, much more important than the skill of, for example, recall.

Melissa Breau: I imagine that the skills you focus on puppies has evolved some over time and that all of this didn’t just spring from your brain fully formed. Do you mind sharing just a little bit about how you’ve decided over the years what it is important to focus on with a puppy versus what you really can wait on until the dog is a little bit older?

Julie Daniels: That’s fun, isn’t it? It’s hard to break a brain apart into various classes when you want to teach everything at once. This program started at least twenty years ago with a camp that I did up at White Mountain Agility. I was doing five to eight camps per year, and one of them I decided had to be only for novices. I called it Novice Geniuses, and that camp was a huge success.

It was tons of fun, if you can imagine, and it was very, very useful for a lot of people in learning to start their dogs off on the right foot. It certainly was adamant about how the dog feels about it is much more important than whether the dog takes away this particular skill or that particular skill. So it was a great camp like that.

And that’s what I started out to do for FDSA. I called it Puppy Genius, and it was pretty much the Novice Genius program with a very few elements left out, which were for older dogs. Ultimately it was way too big a territory. It was too large a class in scope, and so I then broke it down into two classes called Baby Genius, for these youngsters, and that’s what’s coming up in April for the young dogs, and then Adolescent Sport Dog is what I called the former older dog elements of Novice Genius. I tried to break the class into two and then expand upon each of the elements within that smaller scope, and I think that worked out really well. That’s what I’ll continue to do.

So Baby Genius really is for the younger dogs, and as we all know, foundation is everything, and so many dogs can benefit from Baby Genius. Any dog could benefit from the Baby Genius class because it is so elementary, absolutely no prerequisite required, and any dog can play. As I said, I take in many adult dogs for board and train who need, for example, name game, which you could play with a 7- or 8-week-old puppy.

Melissa Breau: If people wanted to take one of the more advanced classes, do they need that first class? Is it a prerequisite, or can they just take the one that they need, or what is your recommendation there?

Julie Daniels: When I taught Adolescent Sport Dog, I wanted very much for Puppy Genius or Baby Genius to be prerequisite material. It didn’t work out that that was all that necessary because I ended up going back to those foundations as we needed to do them. So it worked out as a standalone class, and I don’t think I would make it a prerequisite. But it’s one of those classes — I feel the same way about my empowerment class — well, everybody ought to take it! But if, for some reason, you don’t, I can make it work for you! So I’m not worried about it as a prerequisite, but it sure is good stuff for anyone.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. I think some people think, Oh, Baby Genius, my dog’s no longer a baby, but like you said, it’s still applicable, it’s still good stuff, it’s still foundation skills that every dog should have.

Julie Daniels: That’s a good way to describe it. It’s foundation.

Melissa Breau: I know we talked a little bit about building confidence earlier, and I know in the description for your shiny, new, shaping class you mention that it will focus on using shaping principles to build confidence and teamwork. So I wanted to ask you why it is that shaping is such a good tool for accomplishing those two things.

Julie Daniels: It’s one good tool, obviously. It’s not the only way to do things, we all know that, but it’s one good tool for building confidence, specifically because shaping done well inspires the dog of any age — it can be any age dog — to offer a little bit more, to try a little bit more, to use the initiative that I spoke about earlier, to develop the curiosity and then use initiative.

What we’re working toward when we build upon those things, we’re working toward a measure of self-reliance, so we want the dog — and that’s where confidence comes in — we’re building the dog’s ability to make a choice and to enjoy the consequences of this choice.

Every once in a while in life it’s really important that the consequence teach the dog not to do that again. We let daily life do that. We let other dogs do that. We humans can use artful shaping to almost eliminate the need for a tough consequence to make it hard on the dog. We can become expert at noticing the tiny little elements of curiosity and initiative, and by rewarding those in specific ways, we can create more and more behaviors along that same line that strengthen the dog’s ability to behave or perform in the way that we would like to see again.

So shaping is artful; yes, it’s scientific — and we will go into the science — but really this shaping class is not as scientific as some other shaping class would be, because it is only using the principles of shaping, which are good, clean mechanics and keen observations — very, very important elementary skills for shaping practices, but we are only using those shaping practices in order to get to the good stuff, the bigger picture of curiosity, initiative, self-reliance, you know, eagerness to work, not just for correctness.

So that’s how this class will run. One of the lectures — I’ll just tease you — that will be one of the first lectures in Week 2, for example, is called, “When Did Silent Shaping Become Rigid Shaping?” Do you get what I mean?

Melissa Breau: Yes.

Julie Daniels: That’s what I mean about you can be scientifically spot-on and not really be creating what you want in your dog.

Melissa Breau: That’s an interesting lecture title, and that will hopefully be a really great thing for people to think about, even before they get a chance to read the lecture. I know in the description you also mention that a lot of your favorite confidence-building games are perfect for practicing shaping. What did you mean by that, and can you talk us through an example of how that works?

Julie Daniels: Oh gosh, I’d love to. Some of the games that we play in confidence-building classes, not just empowerment, but that’s the big one that is well known in the Fenzi world. Empowerment uses many strange materials, and people will talk about they have a cardboard collection, they have a bubble wrap collection, they have a metal utensil collection. People talk about their bakeware collection. Some people actually cook with this stuff. We certainly don’t.

I mean that kind of thing, interaction with things that pop underneath you, things that feel squishy and move underneath you, they’re unstable, things that make noise, for example, metal noise is very big in obedience training and it’s also very, very big in seesaw training.

We did a huge amount of work with noise making with metal, and we use noise tolerance, meaning someone else is making the noise and you don’t have any say about it. That can be tough for some dogs and easy for others.

The other element of that is noise empowerment: what if I’m being invited to make the noise myself. I’m controlling it, I’m in charge of it, I learn what it sounds like, and now it’s up to me whether I want to make that happen again and again.

So we create the dog’s desire to be part of the environment in an active way. We want the dog to be an active participant in the experiences that he’s going to have. That’s about confidence and empowerment and such.

Shaping is the absolute best way to get those things, and you can well imagine that some puppies — or any dog; I’m saying puppy only because I’m teaching Baby Genius, but any dog is invited to play — you can imagine just that taking a closer look at a pile of bubble wrap and plastic on the floor is probably a clickable event for many, many dogs, whereas there would be other dogs who would actually inadvertently scare themselves by jumping in the pile knowing nothing about what is going to happen. That would be handler error. That would be a poor job of establishing operations for the shaping that we want to do. So it’s much better for us to learn artful ways to observe what the dog is doing, what the dog is about to do sometimes, and to offer delivery of reinforcement in such a way that the dog is not going to be offended but is going to be curious about doing more and gradually more. So shaping being the practice of building successive approximations toward an end-goal behavior.

There are two ways that I make use of that. One is that I’m using end-goal behaviors that are not “world peace.” If your dog jumps into a bin full of bubble wrap, good for you, but you didn’t just earn a MACH. So I separate, in other words, the elements that we’re working with from the real-world elements of competition, and to a certain extent remove them from daily life, and embrace the dog’s ability to enjoy silly things. They’re silly things, there’s no doubt about it. But it doesn’t take a big stretch to see that the dog’s confidence with these silly things — if, again, we do a good job of generalizing and creating fluency for these skills — it doesn’t take a big stretch to see their usefulness in the dog’s daily life as he meets other things in the world. So that’s what we’re trying to do. We take silly games and we build, through good shaping practices, we build the dog’s desire to interact with the novelty in the environment, and we build the dog’s enjoyment of the surprises that could happen as a result of that. Does that make sense?

Melissa Breau: Absolutely, and I think there’s a thread here that you’ve hinted at a little bit as we’ve gone through all the questions that’s spot-on for everyone to ask you next, which is this idea that people, when they get into dog training, largely think dog training is about the dog, but the more involved they become, most of us realize that it’s really at least half, if not three-quarters, about our own skills as a trainer. I wanted to ask how you balance teaching good handler mechanics with canine learning in the class and what aspects of handler skills you plan to talk about. Also, if you’d like to mention why they’re so important, that would be awesome, especially when it comes to shaping.

Julie Daniels: In the shaping class we’ll be talking first and foremost about the handler’s job. As I was hinting at, it’s our job to set up the scenario so that the dog can be successful. I just call that establishing operations. That’s what I was trained to call it back in the 1970s. Establishing operations meaning by the time the dog sees the apparatus or the setup, you have created this little microenvironment — and you have a plan, by the way — so that you are able to build, bing, bing, bing, one success on top of another very quickly so that you’re creating this curiosity and this initiative that you wanted to create.

For example, it would be a huge mistake to just crowd your dog into a busy place and say, “Hey, I happen to have some bubble wrap. I think I’ll do a shaping game of squash the bubble wrap.” But if the environment is absolutely wrong for that new skill, developing that new skill, it will not go well, and that is handler error.

It is our job, first and foremost, to set up the operation in such a way to invite success and know what the early steps are going to be, so that we can create, bing, bing, bing, reward, reward, reward, right, right again, bingo, what a genius, ta-da! That’s the first order of business as trainers: we’re going to be talking about how to establish operations in order to inspire success.

And then we’ll be talking about how to … obviously the clicking part, but then how to deliver the reinforcement in such a way to invite another success or more behavior or just a repetition of the current behavior. So we’ll be talking a whole lot about delivery, as well as about how to establish what we’re trying to do. Both those things are important.

Melissa Breau: One of the things that I saw on your syllabus that I don’t think we’ve ever really talked about here on the podcast before is this idea of delivery of reinforcement. I know we have a webinar coming up about that in a few weeks with another instructor, but I wanted to ask you about it anyway. How does delivery of reinforcement influence training, and how do you make those decisions?

Julie Daniels: I’m glad it is going to be. It’s a webinar, it deserves its own webinar, it’s really a very big part of the picture and can influence the success of the dog greatly.

Part of delivery of reinforcement is geared toward inviting the next rep. The very best example I can think about that is in Chicken Camp. Bob Bailey always says, “Click for behavior, feed for position,” and he’s talking about the artful way we move the cup of corn as the chicken is reaching forward and pecking with it.

The same thing happens in agility practices with foundation training. We’re always moving the reward down the line. We want to be continuing forward toward the behavior that we’re trying to create, because necessarily we’ve only got a tiny little piece of it. That’s what shaping’s all about. So we’re trying to build the next step of the behavior, and using the reward delivery is one very, very effective means of inviting a next correct response. Would you like an example, Melissa?

Melissa Breau: Yes, please.

Julie Daniels: One good example would be — this isn’t necessarily in the Baby Genius class, but it was just in the Canine Fitness class that I was doing with my own instructor, Karen Kay; I’m a student as well as a teacher — so I’m a student in Canine Fitness class, and we were shaping — not just luring, but we were shaping — a complete 360-degree turn on a wobbly surface, so it’s very complex, and I was working with Kool-Aid.

Well, Kool-Aid already knows an outside turn, and she knows a spin, and she can certainly follow a lure around in a circle. So I could have gotten that done, probably most anybody could get it done, just by luring a circle with a cookie — can you imagine — and then feeding the cookie. Is that shaped? No, not at all. Have you helped create a behavior? Well, maybe. You don’t really know. But your dog can indeed follow a cookie around in a circle. There’s nothing wrong with that, so I’m not criticizing that.

But many of us would choose to do that, and I think it’s better to choose to do that, through shaping practices. That would look just a little bit different. Even if you did decide to lure the initial turn of the head, you wouldn’t just continue that cookie around in a circle. You would click for that initial head turn before the puppy even gets to the cookie. Then you would deliver that cookie, and as you deliver that cookie — this is the part we’re talking about here — you’re going to move it a couple or three inches further along the circle. See what I’m picturing? And then you’re going to let go.

So what’s going to happen? Well, you’d better click quickly, because what is going to happen — because you now have removed the lure — what is going to happen is the dog is going to turn around back toward you, and that is not the direction we want to go, is it? We’re trying to lure a circle away from us.

So what you need to do instead is click before the dog turns back. Can you imagine how quick that is? You perhaps have less than a second in which to get that next click in, and now, Melissa, here’s where it comes in again. Reward delivery is buying you the rest of the circle. In perhaps ten little increments around the circle, just as an estimate, you get ten repetitions of creating that puppy’s turn around the circle. Instead of one continuous repetition, you get ten repetitions of the puppy learning to turn and move in that circular fashion. That’s why shaping, in that one little tiny example, that’s why shaping is superior to luring in a simple task like that. Sometimes it’s hard to understand that. I’m really glad you brought up this question, and I’m sure it will come up in the webinar as well. It’s difficult to help people understand that they actually should do it that way, because if you can picture in my example, it would have taken, oh, I don’t know, two seconds perhaps, to lure the entire circle and then give the cookie, and it probably took, I don’t know, ten seconds, fifteen seconds, it could possibly even have taken twenty seconds to do it the way I’ve just described.

So I’m hoping, I’m banking on the fact that people will consider the value of shaping as in long-term learning, instead of incidental reps here and there of a behavior, that shaping is more powerful long-term. So that’s why I would suggest doing it the way I’m doing it. Shaping is better for long-term learning. It helps the dog offer behavior and learn from the consequences that he can offer more behavior. It just creates a dog who’s stronger, more resilient, with a measure of self-reliance, learning to operate in the environment in cooperation with the human.

Melissa Breau: Not only that, but in the example you used, he gets maybe ten cookies instead of just one cookie because of the repetition of the behavior.

Julie Daniels: For sure. No small matter, that’s right!

Melissa Breau: In the shaping class, what other skills or concepts are you planning to cover?

Julie Daniels: Well, let’s see. We’ll be doing a whole lot with empowerment-based behaviors. We’ll also be doing a little bit with behaviors that will be useful in dog sports. For example, we will be shaping a tuck sit. But I also — this is a disclaimer for Baby Genius class and for shaping class too — we will use props. When we want the babies to learn a specific skill, we’re going to use a prop to help them get these things right, because babies don’t have the power.

In the shaping class, the dog may well have the power, but rather than use just pure shaping techniques to get what we want just in space, we’ll use those props to hurry those behaviors along and to help the dog learn to initiate onto equipment.

It sounds like it’s hard to wean from props, but it’s not. If you don’t wean from your lures — you know, the primary reinforcer being used as an enticement to behave — that is harder to wean from, if you don’t do it early on. We’ll be doing that part very early on. But props themselves are not difficult to wean from. Once we have established behaviors that have been created through the props, we’ll put them on cue, and then weaning from the props is not difficult. So I’m not worried about that.

But we’ll be using, in shaping class we’ll be using things like platforms and sit targets and maybe some mats, but certainly target sticks. I love to use gear ties and expandable target sticks. We’ll do raised targets and low targets, we’ll do paw targets and nose targets, and sit targets and stand targets.

There’s also room in that class — hopefully I’ve covered everybody’s interests now — so we’ll also have some room in that class to work on individual projects. I don’t think there’ll be any individual projects in the first three weeks of class. We’ll all be geared toward the foundations, and some people and some dogs will be ahead of others, and that’s no problem; I have plenty of material.

But I think in the last three weeks of class, this being a first-time class, I’m going to experiment. Can people go off on their own tangents, and I’ve said yes. Quite a few people have e-mailed me about this. One that has come up many times is that people saw that I was doing the concept of between, beginning in Week 1, and if you think about it, that is the basis for two-by-two weave pole training, so several people have already asked, “Can I use this class to shape weave pole performance?” And I’ve said, “Absolutely, yes.”

This is a great use of shaping, and we are all going to cover the concept of going between two things. There are so many uses for that, not just in agility, but for the people who want to free-shape weave poles, this is a great class. It’s a great class. But you’ll have to be patient with me, because for the first three weeks we’re all going to be working on these foundation skills relating to shaping, and we will be exposed to a lot of different kinds of elements. We’re not just going to do between for six weeks, sorry.

So once you’ve gone through the basic empowerment-related and curiosity-related and skills-related behaviors that we’ll be shaping — which also, by the way, will build your own expertise with the shaping process and the various ways to build an operation, to establish an operation, to run the operation, and to use reinforcement criteria and timing in effective ways — I figure that’s about three solid weeks without doing too much else.

And then I’m hoping that Weeks 4, 5, and 6, people who have very specific individual agendas such as weave poles, such as, for example, drop on recalls, such as perfect front tuck sits, such as parallel path, there are so many good things, heeling, I don’t really have a problem with that.

I think I’m going to experiment with letting people go off on their own individual tangents, and we’ll see whether that works out well as a class or whether we actually need six full weeks just to work on the mechanics of shaping. I don’t think we will, because this class is geared toward being an overview of good shaping practices and then taking those skills to our activities, whether it be a dog sport in specific or just daily life skills such as getting out in public and the like.

I feel like that’s my best use of the class is to be able to help people do what they want to do. I’ll tell you where I went with this …

Melissa Breau: Yeah, yeah, definitely.

Julie Daniels: Through all along my good shaping practices, I’ve been gearing my young dog, Kool-Aid, toward being my seminar dog. So obviously she’s going to have to have a myriad of skills. Agility is my sport, but shaping is one of the best and most fun things I do, and I’ve started another in-person shaping class just last week and I decided, OK, you’re 2-and-a-half, little girl, how about you be my dog now?

So she is, in this class, my one and only demo dog. She is all by herself for the first time. She did not have her big brother there who’s the expert and she’s just the tagalong. No, she’s now the seminar dog, and so for the first time I had a separate dog bed for her, and I put an x-pen around her because, again, I’m establishing an operation where she can be successful. If I just put her in the middle of the room on her dog bed, I don’t even know all of the dogs that are coming into that class yet, that would be a very poor trainer’s decision. So I protected her with an x-pen around the dog bed so that she could see everyone and they could see her, she could not get into trouble, and nobody could bother her.

But she has the opportunity to learn to raise and lower her arousal state according to whether she is on duty or off duty. That’s a really good life challenge that can be built through shaping, which is what I did with this dog. She’s an extremely busy dog, and she, her whole life, has wanted all the turns. So for her now to say, OK, I’m back on the dog bed with a bone, and all the other dogs in class are going to be working this, that’s tough for her. But you know what? She truly behaved like an old pro.

These students, most of them know me, and they know this dog, and they were impressed by what she could do. I think if they didn’t know me and I had told them that this is my demo dog and she’s been doing this work for a year or so, they would absolutely have believed it. She just did a great job, and it’s because she knows how to raise and then lower her arousal state.

By the way, we’ll start this work in Baby Genius. It’s not just all about “Yay, yay, yay, the people are coming.” And I am a person who allows baby dogs to say, “Yay, yay, yay, the people are coming.” I truly allow my baby dogs to be pretty much a happy nuisance around people, because I do err on the side of life happiness and attraction for people and the world in general, like we were talking about earlier.

So that means I’ve got a lot of training to do to get from that as, for example, a 6-month-old to now a 2-and-a-half-year-old who’s already my seminar dog. That’s a lot of training, but it’s all been done through dog’s choice training and through good shaping practices.

So the end-goal behaviors that I want are broken down very finely into manageable steps for this particular dog, so that now I have a dog who looks fully … she’s not fully trained, right? But she looks really good in a crowd when she’s working on behaviors that I have built through shaping.

So even though she had never been in this crowded an environment all by herself being the only teacher’s dog there, she was able to come in and out of demo mode. She was able to raise her arousal state and then lower her arousal state each time she went back in the pen. I know I’m biased, but I don’t believe she complained even once.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.

Julie Daniels: Yeah, she really had it down about how to behave. I think that’s part of shaping good behavior rather than coercing good behavior either through commands and corrections or just through pressure, pressure, pressure.

This dog wasn’t trained with pressure. When I wanted to demonstrate down on a mat, I just let her out of her little pen and I just — with a flourish, because that’s the cue — flourished the mat and laid it out for her, and she ran, not walked, and threw herself down. And so then I told the class — this is true, so you’ll learn this too, if you take the class — that she’s never been commanded to lie down on the mat. Never. She was shaped.

And any of the students who’ve taken, for example, cookie jar games, we build mat work from scratch. In the fall I’ll actually be teaching a class specifically dedicated toward all these targets, including mats and platforms and sit targets and the like. But just to be honest, this dog was a hundred percent shaped to lie down on a mat. She was never coerced. And that down could not be more reliable.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.

Julie Daniels: That’s the value of shaping.

Melissa Breau: Hopefully, students have their wheels turning a little bit and they’re trying to decide whether either of these classes is appropriate for their dog. Do you have any advice for those people trying to make their class selection or decide if they should sign up? What’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate, how should they make those decisions?

Julie Daniels: I think if a person has already taken one of the foundation shaping classes that have already been offered, then I think you probably already have the background that I’ll be covering in the first three weeks. I’m sure my spin is a little bit different, but the good practices are the good practices, and so you could pretty much move on to another more skills-based class. Baby Genius, as I said, is good for all dogs, but it’s extremely foundation-oriented. There’s a good deal of background classical conditioning in there, a good deal of operant conditioning in there, a little bit about shaping just because that’s the way I do things, but it’s more geared toward all the elements of living with humans as a young dog.

One wonderful thing that Fenzi does now is put up the sample lectures. I do think that’s a wonderful way to get a feel for how a class will be run and what sorts of things the teacher concentrates on.

Obviously it’s only one little tiny lecture. Baby Genius, for example, has about sixty lectures in it, and I use forty of them in any class, so I try to make the class different every time through, and the Gold level students, I think in any class, cause the class to develop in a different way, so it’s never the same class twice. That is definitely the case in Baby Genius, and all dogs are invited to come look at first-level foundation skills.

My shaping class is definitely a fundamental shaping class. There’s nothing advanced about it. It’s the specifics, the basics, and the groundwork of shaping, and my take on it is to put it to use immediately in real-world elements.

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

Julie Daniels: Thanks!

Melissa Breau: As per usual, it’s been awesome … and thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We’ll be back next week with Dr. Jessica Hekman to talk about the biology of building a great performance dog, so it should be a good interview.

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

Credits:

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

Mar 23, 2018

Summary:

Nancy Tucker is a certified pet dog trainer and behavior consultant in Sherbrooke, Quebec. She regularly teaches seminars, webinars, and workshops on dog training, dog behavior, and the business end of training to dog owners, trainers, and veterinary staff in Canada, the U.S., and in Europe.

She specializes in common behavior issues that affect the family dog, including more complex issues like aggression and anxiety.

Nancy has written numerous articles on dog behavior and is a regular contributor to the Whole Dog Journal. At FDSA, she’s offering a great class on separation anxiety and a new class on desensitization and counterconditioning for the April Session.

Links

Next Episode: 

To be released 3/30/2018, featuring Nancy Tucker to talk about desensitization and counter conditioning.

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Nancy Tucker.

Nancy is a certified pet dog trainer and behavior consultant in Sherbrooke, Quebec. She regularly teaches seminars, webinars, and workshops on dog training, dog behavior, and the business end of training to dog owners, trainers, and veterinary staff in Canada, the U.S., and in Europe.

She specializes in common behavior issues that affect the family dog, including more complex issues like aggression and anxiety.

Nancy has written numerous articles on dog behavior and is a regular contributor to the Whole Dog Journal. At FDSA, she’s offering a great class on separation anxiety and a new class on desensitization and counterconditioning for the April Session.

Hi Nancy, welcome to the podcast!

Nancy Tucker: Hi Melissa, hi everyone, I’m very happy to be here.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to have you here. To get us started out, can you just share a little information about the dog you share your life with and what you’re working on with him?

Nancy Tucker: Sure. I have a Border Terrier named Bennigan. He’s not quite 9 months old yet, but he’s creeping up on 9 months, so right now we’re working on helping him navigate canine adolescence. That means we’re teaching him the basics, with an emphasis on things like impulse control, and good, solid recalls, and trying to remain calm.

Melissa Breau: With two classes on the calendar, I want to make sure we get to talk about both of them, but I wanted to start with the shiny new one. You named it “Feelings Change.” What inspired that name?

Nancy Tucker: Well, it was catchy, because we’re talking about feelings and we’re talking about changing feelings. In training, we focus a lot on shaping behavior, and when we’re dealing with behavior issues that are rooted in fear, we need to address the emotions that are driving that behavior. Lucky for us, there’s a way to zero in on those emotions and help our dogs change how they feel about something, and that’s huge.

Melissa Breau: I know the core is desensitization and counterconditioning; I mentioned that during the intro. I think anyone who's been in the dog world for a while has probably heard those words thrown about, or at least seen the abbreviations, usually ds/cc, but can you explain what they actually mean?

Nancy Tucker: In a nutshell, when we’re talking about desensitization, we’re describing a process that involves exposing our dog to something they fear, and that’s done in a very measured and systematic way. We would start exposing them in a way that is completely non-threatening to them. It doesn’t induce any fear at all, and we gradually work our way up from there. That’s desensitization.

Counterconditioning involves pairing the scary thing with something that elicits a positive emotional response in the dog, so now we’re working with building an association. When that’s done correctly, we can actually change the dog’s emotional response in such a way that he’s no longer fearful of the thing that he used to be afraid of. Typically we’re aiming for a neutral response, that he’s just not afraid of that thing anymore, but if we’re lucky, we might even go as far as to create a positive emotional response, which means that he actually now feels good about the trigger that used to scare him.

So we’re talking about two separate and distinct methods here, desensitization and counterconditioning, but together they complement each other and they’re very effective in treating fearful responses.

Melissa Breau: Listeners of the podcast have definitely heard us talk before about the idea of creating a positive conditioned emotional response, or a CER. How is that concept, that idea of creating a positive CER, different from what you’re talking about with desensitization and counterconditioning?

Nancy Tucker: CERs — I’m giggling because now every time I hear the term CER, all I can think about is “ball feelings,” as they’re known at Fenzi, thanks to … for those who don’t know, that was coined on Hannah Branigan’s podcast on CERs.

When we’re talking about CERs, we’re dealing with creating a positive response to something that was previously neutral to the dog. So we’re starting from scratch, basically, with a clean slate. When we’re talking about desensitization and counterconditioning, we’re not starting from scratch. The dog has already formed an association with something, and it’s not a good one.

To give a visual here, if creating a positive CER is like building a brand new house on a vacant lot, with only brand-new materials, desensitization and counterconditioning is like remodeling an old house. You first need to tear down some things, and you’re never quite sure what you’re going to find when you start knocking down walls. Anybody who’s remodeled a house, I think, can probably relate to that. So maybe you discover you can rebuild a whole new fabulous design on a really solid foundation, or maybe you’ll need to make some adjustments and compromises along the way, and build something wonderful but not quite a brand new design. Does that make sense?

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I love that analogy. That’s fantastic — the idea of building from scratch versus remodeling. And for listeners who aren’t Hannah fans, Hannah’s podcast is “Drinking From The Toilet,” and I will try and find the specific episode that Nancy’s talking about to include a link to it in the show notes.

To get back to our conversation, the general concept sounds simple enough — the idea that we want to build this positive association — but I know a lot of people really struggle to do this stuff well. What are some of the common pitfalls that lead folks to struggle and to be unsuccessful?

Nancy Tucker: The reason that I want to teach this course in the first place is because of these common pitfalls. The course focuses on the skills and mechanics that we need to have in order to be successful at desensitization and counterconditioning. There are natural laws at play here that we just can’t get around. Things need to happen in a very specific way in order to work. We can’t cut corners, and we can’t speed up the process, and honestly, that’s something that we’re all guilty of when we’re training our dogs. We can be really impatient, and we try to skip a few steps to reach our goal just a little bit faster.

Sometimes we’re lucky and our dog figures things out on his own, so hurrying up ends up being very reinforcing for us because it worked, so we do it over and over, again and again. But, when we’re treating fears, that’s just something we can’t do, and understanding the process better and practicing our own mechanical skills is the best thing that we can do to finally be able to help our dogs overcome their fear. And it’s actually a very rewarding process.

Melissa Breau: Can you share a little more about the class? How you approach teaching this to your human learners to help them go through that process with their canine partners?

Nancy Tucker: At the start of the class we’ll all be on the same page, so we’ll all be practicing the same set of skills, regardless of everyone’s individual training experience. And you don’t need training experience to do this class.

It’s quite an eye-opener. Once you start to really break down your own mechanical skills — and naturally this is a Fenzi class, so everything is done in the spirit of positivity and support, and there’s no judgment — so there will be nitpicking, for sure, there’ll be a lot of analyzing mechanics, but it’s not about judgment. It’s about helping to perfect these skills. So a lot of nitpicking, but in a very good way. The students’ skills will grow from this experience, and they’ll be able to transfer these skills to their other training projects as well.

So at first we’ll be making sure everyone fully understands the process and practices their mechanical skills, and then we’ll tackle some actual issues. Students will be able to work on changing their dogs’ fearful response to something.

Melissa Breau: I know the other class you’re teaching in April is on separation anxiety. How is separation anxiety different from what we’re talking about here – from general desensitization and counterconditioning – and how does that lead to how you treat it?

Nancy Tucker: Treating separation anxiety definitely involves desensitization, and a lot of it, in fact. It’s the meat of the program. Desensitization is the meat of any program to treat separation anxiety. We very slowly and very gradually expose the dog to the thing that he fears the most, which is being alone or being separated from a particular family member. We make sure the dog only experiences being alone for however amount of time he can handle without experiencing fear or distress. That can be a very time-consuming process, so again, this is one of those things that we can’t rush and we can’t cut corners. But along with some environmental management, desensitization is really the most effective way to treat separation anxiety.

Melissa Breau: I think a lot of the time when people talk about separation anxiety, they are actually talking about a few different things. It’s not necessarily one of those terms that has a hard and fast definition in common use. Do you mind sharing what separation anxiety is — your definition — and what some of the symptoms are of true separation anxiety?

Nancy Tucker: We tend to use separation anxiety as an umbrella term for what are essentially a few different issues, so most of the time, we’re using it incorrectly. But it’s so widespread as a label for a common problem that it’s easier to use it. I know that’s not correct, it’s not scientifically correct, but sometimes when everyone misuses a term the same way, it’s just as effective to use the term, if that makes any sense.

In truth, what most people are dealing with when they say that their dog has separation anxiety is a dog who fears being alone. That is more common than actual separation anxiety. He fears isolation and he panics when he’s left alone. True separation anxiety is when a dog experiences distress if he’s apart from a particular person or persons. A dog who suffers from fear of isolation will be fine as long as someone, anyone, is with him. A dog who suffers from separation anxiety will experience distress even if someone else is there with him, if that makes sense.

Some of the telltale signs that a dog is experiencing distress during your absence, if you’re listening to this and you suspect that your dog may be suffering from this, some of these signs — and what I’m about to mention is in no particular order of importance here, and the dog might display one or several of these behaviors, and at different intensities … and before I go into describing what these symptoms might be, I want to point out, too, that the level of intensity of a symptom does not correlate to the level of severeness of the fear. If a dog overtly displays symptoms, it doesn’t mean that he is more fearful than the dog who cowers in the corner and does not move all day. That dog could be equally as in distress. Anyway, some of the signs are vocalization, barking, whining. Actually, that’s how quite a few people learn that there is a problem is when their neighbor complains about barking during their absence. That’s often the first clue. They don’t know until somebody complains about it. So vocalization is one.

Excessive drooling is another. You might come home and find a puddle of drool that some people might mistake for pee, but it’s actually drool. There can be that much of it on the floor, or the dog’s bed is soaking wet.

Anorexia is a very common one as well. The dog won’t touch his food or a treat toy. Sometimes I discover a problem when a client has called me for another issue. When I’m doing my history intake, I ask them how often the dog eats, or when is he fed, and they say, “We feed him in the morning before we go to work, but he doesn’t touch that. He’s not hungry in the morning. He doesn’t eat until we get home.” And I find out that when they get home, the dog devours his food. That’s a sign to me, if the dog hasn’t touched his food all day from the moment that they leave, that there may be an issue there, that he might not appreciate being alone and there could be a problem there. So anorexia.

Obvious signs that the dog has scratched or chewed an area, especially near an exit, near the door that the owner uses to leave the house.

Peeing and defecating, usually a lot of it during their absence, even just a short absence.

And self-mutilation, signs of excessive licking or chewing at the paws.

If you’re not sure what your dog might be doing when you’re not home, set up a camera and video him, or watch a live feed. There’s lots of apps now that we can use to keep an eye on our dogs. Some dogs might pace while you’re getting ready to leave. They’re pacing and then they continue for another five minutes after you’re gone, but then they settle down quickly and they go to sleep without a problem. Or, on the other hand, some dogs might appear perfectly chill for a few minutes after you leave, and then they begin to panic. So you can’t know unless you record it or watch a live feed.

Melissa Breau: Right. And technology is our friend, for sure.

Nancy Tucker: For sure.

Melissa Breau: Do we know what actually causes separation anxiety? It seems like some dogs struggle with it and others are never fazed at all. Is there a reason?

Nancy Tucker: That’s a really, really good question, and I’ll start by talking about what doesn’t cause separation anxiety. Owners. Owners’ behavior does not cause their dog to develop separation anxiety. If you have a dog who panics when left alone, it is not your fault. It’s not because of something that you did. It’s amazing how many people feel, or are told, that it’s because of something that they did. It is not because you’ve spoiled him.

In fact, if you have a puppy, helping him feel secure by responding to his needs will go farther towards building a confident adult dog than if you try to use tough love by letting him cry it out at night. Don’t be afraid to shower your puppy with attention and to provide that sense of security. You do need to teach your young dog that being alone is nothing to be afraid of, but you can do that systematically.

Back to causes. For starters, dogs who suffer from this problem, they tend to already be predisposed to having anxiety issues. Just like people, some of us might be more genetically predisposed to experience mental health issues, and this is true for dogs as well.

It is worth mentioning that there is correlation between a few things in separation anxiety, but it can’t be said for sure that these things actually cause it. For example, dogs who are surrendered to a shelter might display some isolation distress once they’re adopted into a new home. Actually, that’s pretty common. But it’s possible that these dogs had this issue in their previous homes, and maybe that’s the reason that some of them were surrendered in the first place. It’s not always easy to tell. So it’s not always accurate to say that a dog develops a fear of isolation because he was surrendered to a shelter or abandoned somewhere.

Another possible correlation is dogs who are sick as very, very young puppies might develop separation anxiety as adults. And again, there’s correlation there, but nothing to say that this is a cause.

What I see most commonly is after a major change in a dog’s life, like a move or a major disruption, a divorce, or a huge disruption in a dog’s routine or schedule, that can lead to this type of problem. But again, in most cases we’re talking about a dog who is already predisposed to experiencing anxiety. So it’s not ultimately because you moved into a new house that you caused your dog to develop this problem. Rather, the move may have triggered an anxiety disorder that was already there but hadn’t yet manifested into a behavior issue, if that makes sense.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. It’s really interesting. I hadn’t realized there were those specific things that were correlated with the issue. That’s news to me, so it’s interesting. I know you’re not a vet, but I know that on the syllabus or in the description you mention that you do touch on meds in the class. I was curious if you’d talk about that a little bit. How do you determine if a student should talk to their vet about their options?

Nancy Tucker: I really respect my limitations as a trainer and a behavior consultant, and I avoid talking about meds, except to say that everyone should do their own research and find out what’s available to you to help your dog deal with an anxiety issue, and there are quite a few options out there. So if your dog is at risk of hurting himself — self-mutilation, or a dog who is scratching or throwing himself through glass, which I experienced that myself, a dog who is simply overwhelmed with fear or anxiety in general — I strongly urge you to look into medication to help him out.

I will say this much: medication can be a huge help. It can create a sense of calm in a dog so that he’s able to learn the new behaviors that you want to teach him. It puts him in a better state of mind to learn and for behavior modification to take place.

A lot of the antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds out there, they will allow for learning to take place, so in other words, they aren’t simply a sedative that can affect short-term memory. So that would be an important thing to discuss with the vet. If you’re looking for medication to help your dog deal with anxiety or immense fear, you want to use a medication that will allow him to learn. The whole point of using medication to treat separation anxiety is to be able to work through a desensitization program so that the dog can eventually be comfortable alone at home.

Melissa Breau: Right. You mention in the class description that, when done right, Gold videos in this class may be sort of … boring, I think is the word you used. Why is that?

Nancy Tucker: This is true. This is very true. There isn’t a whole lot of action going on when you’re teaching a dog to remain calm. Videos are good, and I can still help guide students by watching what’s happening in a video. I can dissect the dog’s behavior and body language, and I can make recommendations based on the layout of the home, because we talk a lot about finding that home alone space, and sometimes it’s good to have a second set of eyes to look at the layout and see what might work, or even based on the student’s own movements.

So video is good. I might see something in the environment that the student has missed. Sometimes you’re just so familiar with something that even when it’s right in front of you, you don’t see it. But the bottom line is that we are literally aiming for the dog to look bored and chillaxed.

So Gold students don’t have to post video, actually, but that’s OK, because we tend to do a lot of problem-solving and creative planning and troubleshooting on the forums through discussions. During this class the discussion boards are really important. If you want to follow a case, follow the discussion, because even without a video there is a lot of back and forth and a lot of troubleshooting going on.

The Gold-level students are still getting a personal coach as they work through this, and because every single case is completely different, all students get to follow and learn from each individual scenario, which is great. In the last couple of sessions we had a lot of trainers join, so I think they benefitted from seeing the different types of cases.

Melissa Breau: There’s certainly nothing to sneeze at there about taking a Gold spot just because videos don’t play a big role. In an area like this, where there’s so often those feelings of, “Oh my god, am I doing it wrong?” or “Oh my god, my dog’s panicking,” having somebody to hold your hand and say, “No, actually, it’s OK, let’s take a step back, let’s do it this way,” that can be a huge, huge help.

Nancy Tucker: Absolutely. It’s great to have a second set of eyes with a problem like this, for sure.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to ask about common misconceptions or places where students often go wrong when it comes to working on this kind of thing — separation anxiety, that is. Can you share any tips or suggestions?

Nancy Tucker: I think that we tend to circle back to the most common problem of all when treating a behavior issue that’s based on an emotion like fear, and I mentioned it earlier: we move too fast. We try to rush things.

Sometimes I get the feeling that the students somehow feel bad that they don’t have more to show, that they feel they need to push it along in order to look like they’re progressing. But that’s OK, because I know that behavior change takes time, and I am far more giddy about seeing a student take their time and really progress at the dog’s speed, whatever that may be for that dog. When I see that, I know that the student is on the right track and they’ll get there eventually.

So again, the common problem is just moving too fast.

Melissa Breau: If students are trying to decide whether either of these classes is appropriate for their dog, I wanted to ask if you have any advice. How can they decide if their dog is a good candidate?

Nancy Tucker: Now might be a good time for me to mention that the desensitization and counterconditioning class is not for those dogs who might display aggression towards the thing that they fear. For example, if a dog might bite a visitor entering his home because he’s afraid of strangers, this class is not the place for that kind of issue. That’s because I would much rather deal with aggression in person.

Other than that, what I’d like to see are students working on minor issues throughout the term, throughout the session. I’ll bet almost everyone can name at least one or two things their dog is afraid of. Students might think that their dog doesn’t like something because he avoids it, but really their dog might be afraid of that thing, and this class would be a perfect opportunity to work on that. They’ll get to practice their training mechanics on a minor issue, like a dog avoiding the vacuum cleaner, for example, or getting brushed, or getting their nails clipped. Then they’ll be in a better position to handle a bigger issue later on, like aggressive behaviors that are fear-based, for example.

Another important point about the desensitization and counterconditioning class is that whatever trigger the students choose, they need to make sure that they have complete control over their dog’s access to that trigger while they work on it. In other words, if you plan to help your dog overcome his fear of the sound of kids playing and screaming on the street, you need to make sure you can control when and how your dog hears that sound. You can see how that can be really, really difficult. We can’t control when the kids are going to be out playing, but we can maybe try to control the dog’s access to that, to manage the environment or something creatively so that he’s not exposed to that. That’s just an example.

The point that I’m trying to make is that we need to have complete control over that stimulus in order to work through the program, because the only way that desensitization and counterconditioning will work is if we’re able to exercise that kind of control over the stimulus.

As for the Home Alone class, you don’t actually need to have a dog with a separation anxiety issue to take the class. Like I mentioned before, over the last couple of sessions we had lots of trainers take the class who wanted to learn more about helping their clients. It’s also a good match for people with puppies who want to teach their dog to be alone in a structured way. In fact, a lot of the lecture videos are of my own dog, Bennigan, when he was just a puppy learning to be home alone.

Melissa Breau: I did want to dive in a little deeper there , if you don’t mind, and ask if there are any examples that come to mind of students with problems that would be a particularly good fit for the desensitization and counterconditioning class. Are there particular problems that you’re hoping to get, or that you think might be particularly well suited for that kind of class?

Nancy Tucker: Like I said, the two main criteria are that is not an aggression issue in that there is no danger that the dog will bite, so a dog who is extremely … I don’t like to use the term “reactive” because it doesn’t really describe what’s happening, but a dog who might behave aggressively or lunge and bark at the sight of another dog — this is not a good class for that. I believe that Amy Cook has a good class for that. This is not a good class for that because I personally don’t want to be dealing with aggression, except maybe resource guarding.

If a dog is displaying object guarding and does not have a bite history, that is something that we might be able to handle, but again, I would rather speak with a student first and have them communicate with me to see exactly what’s happening, because that might not be fear-based, and when we’re talking about desensitization and counterconditioning, I think that what we’re aiming for here is to help a dog overcome a fear.

So no outright aggression, and to have control over the stimulus. That is the one thing that is an absolute must.

So to answer your question, no, there is no specific thing that’s carte blanche, and if students are unsure, they can just communicate with me and we can figure it out together.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. I know that your class descriptions mentioned something about CEUs. Do you mind sharing with listeners — and I’m sure there are some ears that just perked up there who may be trainers trying to get those Continuing Education credits — what the deal is there?

Nancy Tucker: Both classes are approved for 21 CEUs for training for those who are certified with a CCPDT. I specified “for training,” because with the CCPDT — the Certification Council For Professional Dog Trainers — there are training credits and there are behavior credits. These are 21 training CEUs for each class.

Students can register at any level, whether it’s Gold, Silver, or Bronze, and throughout the term they’ll need to collect some code words that will be peppered throughout the lectures and the Gold discussion forums. So they have to follow and pay close attention to the course as it progresses, the lectures and discussion forums. And hey, 21 CEUs is almost two-thirds of a full recertification, so that’s not a bad deal. If you take both classes, you get 42 CEUs right there.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. That’s really a fantastic opportunity for those people who are out there trying to get those.

Thanks so much for coming back on the podcast, Nancy! It’s great to chat.

Nancy Tucker: Thanks for having me, Melissa. Always a pleasure.

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

We’ll be back next week with Julie Daniels to discuss confidence-building through shaping.

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

Credits:

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

 

Mar 16, 2018

Summary:

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

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

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

Links

Next Episode: 

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

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

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

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

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

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

Hi Debbie, welcome to the podcast!

Debbie Torraca: Hi Melissa. Thank you so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credits:

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

Feb 23, 2018

SHOW NOTES:

Summary:

 

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.

Links

Next Episode: 

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

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to 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 kamalfernandez.blog. 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.

CREDITS:

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

Feb 15, 2018

SHOW NOTES:

Summary:

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.

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Julie 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.

CREDITS:

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

Feb 9, 2018

SHOW NOTES:

Summary:

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.

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Denise Fenzi.

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.

CREDITS:

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

 

Feb 2, 2018

SUMMARY:

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.

Links

Next Episode: 

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

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Dr. 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.

Credits:

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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jan 26, 2018

SUMMARY:

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.

Links

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!

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to 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.

Credits:

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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jan 19, 2018

SUMMARY:

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.

Links

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!

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to 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.

CREDITS:

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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jan 12, 2018

SUMMARY:

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.

Links

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!

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to 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.

CREDITS:

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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jan 5, 2018

SUMMARY:

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

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

Links

Next Episode: 

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

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

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

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

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

CREDITS:

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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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