Today we have FDSA-founder Denise Fenzi with us to talk about goal setting, the latest happenings at FDSA, and more.
Next Episode: 2/22/2019 with Hannah Branigan
Loretta Mueller has been involved in agility since 2003.
She and her dogs are no strangers to the finals at the USDAA World Championships, and she coaches the World Agility Organization (WAO) USA Agility Team. She also runs Full Tilt Agility Training in central Minnesota.
Outside of the agility world, Loretta has been involved in herding, competitive obedience, rally, and service dog training.
Next Episode: 2/15/2019 with Hannah Branigan
Leslie graduated from Colorado State University’s Veterinary School in 2006. She completed a rotating internship in small animal medicine in Albuquerque, NM then became certified in canine rehabilitation with a focus in sports medicine. She is now a resident with the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation.
She also helped to create the Certified Canine Fitness Trainer (CCFT) program through the University of Tennessee's NorthEast Seminars and taught it for two years.
Leslie is involved in the agility world; she has trained two dogs to their Agility Dog Champion title — their ADCH — and one to ADCH Bronze, an Agility Trial Champion title and a Master Agility Champion title. Multiple dogs have qualified for Cynosports, ASCA (ask-a) Agility Finals, and AKC Nationals. In 2017, she competed with Stig at European Open Tryouts. Most recently she competed with Ghost and Stig at the UKI US Open where both dogs had top ten placements.
Next Episode: 2/8/2019 with Loretta Mueller
Sara Brueske has been training dogs for over 15 years; she became a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner in 2011 and jumped into the world of professional dog training.
Sara and her dogs work at Purina Farms in Missouri where they demonstrate the sports of disc, agility, and dock diving for the public in over 200 shows each year.
She and her dogs also compete nationwide. Currently, she is active in the sports of disc dog, agility, mondioring and dock diving -- plus, she’s a trick dog enthusiast.
Sara believes in positive reinforcement not only for dogs, but for their handlers as well. Her biggest joy in training is watching a handler and dog become partners and grow as a team.
Next Episode: 2/1/2019
Julie Daniels has worked with dogs her whole life. In fact, she learned to walk by holding on to a German Shepherd. Today 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.
To be released 12/21/2018, we'll be sharing several student stories!
A dog trainer, translator and chocolate addict, Chrissi Schranz is now based in Antigua, Guatemala.
She has been fond of dogs of all sizes, shapes, and personalities for as long as she has 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. Chrissi loves working with people and dogs, and training, playing, and hiking with her own dogs.
To be released 12/14/2018, we'll be talking to Julie Daniels about teaching complex concepts (like remote reinforcement) positively.
Lucy was involved in search and rescue for over 15 years, training numerous personal dogs for wilderness search and rescue, as well as land and water human remains detection. She has deployed for hundreds of missing person cases in both urban and remote wilderness locations. She has also provided training to hundreds of search and rescue dog handlers and their canines.
Lucy also worked for 10 years as a full-time police sergeant and police canine handler and handled multiple dual-purpose patrol/narcotics canines for her police department. Lucy raised and trained all of her police and SAR dogs from puppies. Lucy was a state certified police canine training instructor and served as a field training officer for her department.
In 2013, Lucy took a full-time position as an instructor and trainer for the Randy Hare School for Dog Trainers, teaching detection trainer schools and working dog training classes to law enforcement, military, and professional dog trainers.
In 2017, Lucy relocated to Mebane, North Carolina, where she continues to offer high-level training and instruction to police, search and rescue, work and sport dog handlers.
In addition to training dogs for police and search and rescue, Lucy competes in a variety of sports with her own dogs as well. Her now retired patrol/narcotics detection partner, Steel, has the distinction of having achieved an AKC Tracking Championship as well as an IPO TR1 title, in addition to having been a certified police tracking dog. Lucy has achieved titles on her dogs in obedience, tracking, and Schutzhund. She is also a National Association of Canine Nose Work Judge.
Lucy is also currently the service dog trainer for the American Humane's Pups to Patriots Program. This program trains dogs to be service dogs and pairs them with veterans coping with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. And she says that’s the bulk of her work these days.
To be released 12/07/2018, we'll be talking to Chrissi Schranz about finding time to train.
Amy Cook, PhD., 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.
To be released 11/30/2018, we'll be talking to Lucy Newton about tracking!
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 back to the podcast.
Amy Cook: Hi Melissa. Always good to be here. So happy that I get to talk to you about stuff again.
Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat. To just briefly remind everyone, can you just share a little bit of information about the dogs you share your life with and what you’re working on?
Amy Cook: Sure. There’s over there on the couch, where you can see her, Marzipan, in her full glory, doing what she does best, which is sleep in a nice little ball. That’s what she does. She had an injury a bit back, and so we’re still discovering what the second half of her career will be like.
And then I have Caper, who you also can see right over my shoulder. She’s a little … I don’t know what, terrier something or other. She’s learning agility, and she’s very happy that we just bought a teeter. I now have a teeter in my yard. It’s my first big, expensive piece of agility equipment, because now we get to do teeters every day. It’s so exciting!
Melissa Breau: That is exciting!
Amy Cook: It is!
Melissa Breau: I want to dig into I know a topic that you’ve been talking about often recently: noise sensitivity. What is it? Can you describe what behaviors people might see if they have a sound-sensitive dog — both at the “slightly sound sensitive” end and the “extreme” ends of the spectrum?
Amy Cook: It’s an interesting topic because this runs the gamut. Everyone has a different experience with noise sensitivity, and it’s one of those dog trainer catch-all terms, like reactivity, where we may mean a lot of different things about it, and in this sense I think that’s OK.
It does run from the slightest noise in the category of things I’m afraid of, makes me panic and salivate and run to dive under the bed, or sit there catatonically, or it might mean I have some slight trepidation about that sound out there and I’m not exactly sure what to think about it.
They may turn to us in those times, and I think what we most don’t want is for it to get to the extreme. It might already be there for a given dog, but it’s one of those things where, because it can be so impactful in their life, we don’t get to control sounds, we don’t get to change where dogs are when sounds happen as much as we’d like, that we need to take almost any presentation of this really seriously. Behaviors can range and vigilance is often missed by us, I think, where a dog hears something, puts their ears a little bit back, shows a little bit of a worried face, but then maybe it’s gone before we saw them worry about it.
So I think doing a little bit of protective noise work, as I like to call it — not the protective part, but the noise work part — can never hurt. Teaching a dog that noises are just harbingers of fun times is a good and protective thing to do, even in dogs that don’t seem to have a problem just yet. So it really runs the gamut.
Melissa Breau: Is it typically tied to a specific noise? Do folks usually come to you and they’re like, “Hey, this particular beeping thing,” or is it more generally just noise? What have you seen?
Amy Cook: I do see both of those. There’s definitely dogs that feel like anything sort of sudden that makes a noise is worth worrying about and is scary for them. And I don’t know if, when we have “environmentally sensitive dogs,” if part of that or a lot of that isn’t just that environments have a lot of strange noises in them and if it isn’t noise sensitivity folded into general environmental sensitivity.
So I do see that a lot, where we don’t have just one specific noise, it’s just this, and all the rest of the noises “I’m OK with all of the suddenness.” I see dogs like that as being tense in a lot of ways all the time. Not a hundred percent of the time, of course, but dogs who are tightly tuned can be affected by all sorts of unexpected noises in the environment.
And then there are dogs who have very specific triggers. The ones that we commonly hear about or think of are the ones who are afraid of large booming noises that we find on Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve, and then the thunderstorm-type noises, because those are the big, very dramatic, out of the norm, completely scary, gunshot-type noises.
But it doesn’t cover all of them, because a lot of dogs are afraid of, weirdly, beeping or high-pitched metallic or electronic sounds, so the sounds from your microwave, the sounds from an electronic timer, sounds from a whistle at flyball, from a timer at flyball trials, sounds you might make in the kitchen that are high-pitched, something metallic hitting your kettle, for example. Those can be really distressing to dogs.
And then I would say anything that your dog hasn’t had a lot of exposure to. Maybe you’ve moved somewhere … I don’t live somewhere where there are thunderstorms, so it’s not something that I tend to see a problem with, but if I were to move to places with summertime thunderstorms, which is pretty common across the country, I would expect them to feel a bit sensitive to anything that’s new like that. So noises can run the gamut too, just like the behavior that shows from them. We never really know what it’s going to be probably until we see it, but again, not a bad idea to prevent it if we can.
Melissa Breau: Is it typically something people see show up early in the dog’s life? Is it something they have forever? Do they develop it? Do we know anything about what causes it?
Amy Cook: I don’t personally know anything super-scientific about what causes it, but as a practitioner of helping dogs, I see a lot of dogs develop it later in life. It certainly won’t be all dogs, but it’s so many of them that we have that sort of dog trainer lore of, if someone says, “Hey, my dog has become noise sensitive,” the question you first ask them is, “Is your dog 7?” Because it’s so super-common that somewhere in middle life, middle age, and that’s of course going to range for breed, it can just develop. It’s some kind of brain change where there’s a noise processing change, the areas of the brain that process noise, are they changing, are they aging, is something happening there?
Also some say, “It’s been seven years now, you’ve had seven years of storms, seven years of fireworks, you’ve had them long enough that you could sensitize.” It could be something like that, although I would expect to see it happen more gradually if that were true. But that’s not necessarily the way it would present. Maybe you’re hiding it, or you’re dealing, you’re coping, and now you just can’t cope, and so you show it. That’s possible.
Or it could be that hearing is changing around that time, and so the way things sound have just become a bit distorted. But this is just speculation. It’s hard to say.
You can certainly have noise sensitivity your whole life. It can be a thing that shows in puppyhood or adolescence as a thing they just don’t know how to process and don’t have a positive opinion about, and they definitely need our help at that point, for sure, so they can get through that.
I think dogs who develop it later in life, who didn’t have a problem before, can accept and change, I think, at least in my experience, more quickly from an intervention because they’ve had a fair amount of time in their life of doing OK with it, and maybe just learning something new about whatever this new sound feels like to them can stick pretty well.
But of course if it shows up in puppies or young dogs, we really want to get on it, because we certainly don’t want the dog to have a lifetime of feeling terrible about the normal sounds of their environment.
Melissa Breau: I know from reading through some of the things you’ve written, this is one of those problems that often gets worse if folks ignore it. What are some ways that it can escalate? What might that look like?
Amy Cook: It is one of those things that I feel is really important to get on right away, and I suppose I would apply that argument to almost any fear-based behavior problem. Dogs are suffering when they’re afraid. If they’re afraid often, that’s a terrible feeling, so we want to get on almost any behavior. I don’t mean to overly highlight noise in that way.
But one thing that happens to noise phobias, noise sensitivities, that doesn’t seem to happen at least the same way as, say, a fear of strange men, is that it escalates and can escalate really quickly. A dog who shows some sensitivity to a beep, beeping sounds — say they were in your house when your smoke alarm batteries went bad. Now it’s been six months, they need replacing, and it beeped all day while you were at work and they couldn’t escape that. You could come home to a dog who’s sensitized to that sound.
Of course not all of them, but some will, and then they start hearing anything that’s similar to that and feeling the same triggered way. And then things that are not terribly similar to it, such as the microwave beep, which would be similar, but now a fork on a plate can do it. Once you’re afraid of noise and you’re vigilant about noise, dogs can become more and more sensitive very, very quickly, whereas fear of men tends to stay relatively stable, if you control the trigger some and nothing much is happening.
It’s not like that’s going to make them better, but they’re not likely to get massively worse over the next few months, whereas in noise sensitivity that’s coming up really quickly, you need to get on top of it because it can spread too quickly, and once it’s all over the place, and as most noises or many noises that are sudden, we really do have to be talking about medical intervention because of how difficult that is.
So if you see something in your dog that shows he might be getting a little sensitive to the banging of the metal door at that trial that you go to, or the gunshots that you know you’re going to hear a lot in hunting season, you want to get on it right away and really quickly, just in case this is going to be one that spreads to a point where your dog will be suffering.
Melissa Breau: Looking at your syllabus for your class on this, it looks like there are a few pieces that you use to help sound-sensitive dogs — starting with classical conditioning. I want to talk about that, but can you just start by explaining what classical conditioning is, for anyone who might not be familiar with the terminology?
Amy Cook: Yes, definitely. There’s two models we use in dog training, or in changing behavior in dogs. One is the one that everyone is familiar with, whether the terms or not, where we reward things we like and we punish things we don’t like. We of course try to minimize any of those experiences, but that’s part of the model of operant conditioning, and it’s about responding to a behavior and having that behavior work or not work for the dog.
In classical conditioning, it happens irrespective of a dog’s behavior. What you’re trying to draw a picture of the dog, draw the line between for the dog, is that, “Hey, this thing that just happened is a predictor of this next thing that’s going to happen, and that’s it. It doesn’t matter what you do about it. You can have any reaction at all, but these two things are tied.”
When it comes to noise work, which I’m saying distinctly so it doesn’t sound like nosework — it’s just a cute thing I like to call it, noise work — when it comes to working with noises, what you’re trying to say is, “Hey dog, this sound that you hear — you don’t know it yet, but it’s actually the thing that comes right before this other thing that you might enjoy.”
If you can set things up such that they come to that conclusion, they see the connection between those two, that noise that has been troubling them up until now will take on new meaning. It’s like, “That thing I don’t like … oh wait … but doesn’t that always mean that this other thing is going to happen?” When you can crack that door open a bit and let them see that the relationship exists, and it’s not just, “Hey, the noise happened and now you’re just scared,” but “The noise happens and now you have something to look forward to,” it can help them change their reactions and their feelings about the whole thing.
So classical conditioning is just saying, “I will draw a connection between one event and another event, one stimulus and another stimulus, technically, and through drawing that connection for you so that you can see that relationship, it can help you, dog, feel better,” or at least take new meaning from the sound that before maybe had a pretty terrible meaning and give it something that hopefully has a positive meaning, if we can get in there carefully and do it just right.
I do it mathematically, I guess … that’s not fair to say because there’s no math involved. Don’t be afraid! There will be no numbers! But I do it strictly. I really think about the relationships of those two elements, those two pieces that I’m trying to put together, the strength of the noise and the strength of the thing I’m following it with, so that I’m much more able to make that conclusion for the dog as clear and as powerful as I can. So it’s doing classical conditioning, but the way I do it for this class is very strict and very specific so that I can have the best bang for my buck, if you will, in doing it.
Melissa Breau: I want to talk about that a little more. I think people who ARE familiar with the term classical conditioning, you’re talking about, most of the time, a visual stimulus — something where you use a lot of distance and it’s something the dog can SEE. How does that change or how is it the same when you’re talking about a noise instead of something visual?
Amy Cook: I had to give that a lot of thought when I wanted to work specifically with this and have a way I think that everybody can follow and have it step by step, because when it’s something you see, you do fully control the strength of it.
I can put the thing right in the environment right when I need to, or have you look at it right when it would be appropriate, and I can play with strengths a little better than I can with noises, because noises, maybe, whether they’re loud or soft, might already be so disliked by a dog that you can’t get it down to be safe enough to experience while you’re teaching them something new.
Because if you just have noises happen, and then try to follow them with something good, you’re very likely to get a dog who says, “Oh my god, that was so awful. Oh look, it’s followed by something good that I don’t care about right now because I feel so awful because oh my God that just happened,” and then you’re not going to get any change. So you do have to play with these things.
And with noises, yeah, sure, there’s many of them you can make smaller. I know people who have CDs and they play them really lightly, but what I like to do instead is teach them the entire framework of how noise work, noise therapy, will go on sounds that are not frightening at all, so therefore I completely control the upsetting stimulus by not having it be there at all.
I teach them the framework of noise therapy, and once they really have that, I can attach the entire therapeutic picture to any noise I want to, starting with, of course, the most very neutral noises that I’ve got. And then I can attach it to all sorts of unexpected noises. I dropped something — “Oh, look, we’re going to do our noise therapy.” In time, when they’re very, very good at putting those connections together, I can start simulating and then eventually really using the noises that they already have a negative opinion about.
I find that teaching a dog out of context is one of the most important parts of dog training. It’s very important in this work because you cannot upset a dog before you try to make him feel better. You want him to feel better from neutral, not from “I’m already upset,” and now you have to dial it back. So training out of context is super, super important, and I find that true in all sorts of dog training, we mostly don’t honor what we train. People ask me all the time, “I don’t know if I can simulate this thing my dog’s afraid of, so I don’t know if we can do the work.” I’m like, “I don’t want you to simulate that thing your dog’s afraid of. Don’t worry, we’re going to do a lot of work just fine.” Out of context is really the key there.
Melissa Breau: Another piece mentioned on your syllabus and that you pull in here, and you lead to a little bit in there, this idea of having the dogs make sounds themselves. What’s the purpose of that, and can you talk about that a little bit?
Amy Cook: Part of what makes anyone feel better, feel more secure, or feel like you can handle, or cope with, or feel OK about something is having some control over it. It’s not something we can always give a dog in every scenario, but I am always looking for where I can apply that. Where in any program I’m doing with a dog are there choice points where I can say, “Hey, you can have some agency here, you can choose to do some of this stuff, you can drive whether we continue or not,” where can I put that.
In working with noise, not all dogs have to do this, it’s not appropriate for every particular case that comes forward, but for given dogs — especially in the class, I assess whether it would be helpful — for given dogs it can be really powerful to have them make a noise themselves and then see that that triggers the entire therapeutic sequence, that they get to go have fun in these ways that we have for them.
When sounds just happen, when you’re afraid of something and it could just happen any old time, you don’t know when it’s going to be, so having them at least be able to make a very safe, very neutral, very totally OK sound for them and show them that it connects to it is, I think, a kindness. It gives them a chance to have some agency. I also do it even if they’re not going to make the sounds. When we first make our sounds to teach them the therapeutic piece, I show them the object I’m going to make sound with. They can sniff it, they can investigate it, they can nose it, roll it, play with it, whatever. So it’s neutral, and I show them right before I make a sound with it, like, say, dropping it an inch on carpet, barely making a sound. I show them I’m about to do it. I make sure they’re looking, and then I make the sound right clearly in front of them very simply so that nothing is surprising, nothing is coming out of the blue. Surprise is a much, much later variable that is not part of the introduction of therapy.
So I show them how I’m going to do it, and I think that’s one step toward giving them some control. Maybe they don’t have exact control, but they have all the warning in the world, and then, if they make the sound themselves, they have total control and they know it’s going to make a sound.
It’s all part of an extension of “How can I help you best be an active partner in your therapy and not just a receiver,” which I look for places I can do that in just about all my work, so that I can keep expanding that idea.
Melissa Breau: How do you teach them to actually go about initiating noise and avoid having them in a situation where they end up scaring themselves?
Amy Cook: Yeah, exactly. If you have a whole lot of time, if you’re doing this work all by yourself, you can get that done with just about any dog.
With dogs in the class, because we have limited time and not every dog is going to need this part of it, we want dogs who can already move objects, say, with a nose touch. Can you shove something with your nose? Can you shove your toy with your nose? Can you shove a toy with your paw? Many dogs already have that, and we can completely use that.
What I like to use is treat bags that they already really like the sound of, maybe a Charlie Bears bag, it’s big, crinkly, or a box, a small cardboard box you might have a small amount of crackers in or something like that, assuming again that’s completely out of the category, so for a dog who’s really nervous about banging outside, probably a small cardboard box on the floor is not going to be in their category.
So we start with that, and we teach them what would happen if you nudged it and it fell over. I prop it so that it’s not horizontal and not vertical, but diagonal, and I’m holding it up. If they nudge it, I drop it slightly, and then it goes “bing” on the floor and I’m like, “Yay, here we go, now to our noise therapy stuff.” And they’re like, “Oh, I did the thing, I guess it made a noise, whatever, it was carpet, and now we get to play. That’s amazing.” Once they get that, many dogs can make their own noises very easily without being scared, if you pick carefully. A dog can nose a crunched-up piece of paper across something, and those do make noise.
You want to start very, very, very simply. If you start in a place where a dog is already challenged, you do it either to do the behavior or to withstand the sound it makes, you’re starting behind the start line. You don’t want to be triggering anything scary at all. I know, again, everybody thinks, I have to trigger it a little bit to get rid of it, and I completely disagree. I think you should teach completely out of context. So we would pick the world’s quietest noisemakers, the world’s safest objects, even their own toys to begin with, so that they’re starting from a place of real confidence.
Melissa Breau: I know part of the process is this concept of a treat/play party. I’m noticing some students posting about it on Facebook, and I could probably guess a little bit, but can you share what it is and how it factors into all this?
Amy Cook: Absolutely. I sometimes affectionately call it a noise party. You can really call it anything. It’s just the idea that you need to have an event with your dog that would be something you might do if you had just won the lottery, if your dog had just won whatever dog lotteries there are out in the world, to where whatever it is you’re doing with your dog — and it can be having a bunch of food together, playing with their toys together, the options are pretty endless — it needs to be really, really exciting, and your dog has to see it’s really, really exciting. I don’t mean you have to be super-excited and then your dog stands there and watches you do it, but instead, your dog thinks this is the best party he or she could possibly ever have.
Most of us have some kind of reinforcement strategies for our dogs that make them really happy. In the class I’ve seen the favorite tennis ball, certainly, a great game of tug, I had someone in the last term do hose play, going outside and using water from a hose. I guess it’s winter for most of us now, but I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t do it. I was like, “I don’t know, I haven’t tried that before,” and we ran with it and the dog was like, “This is the best thing that’s ever happened.” And when you have in your pocket, so to speak, the best thing that’s ever happened, you have a lot of power to change minds.
So we spend the first … I don’t know … how-long-until-I-like-it amount of time developing some kind of noise celebration lottery-winning party, and you need to throw that party with your dog until your dog is like, “I can’t believe we’re doing this again! This is so amazing. Can we do it more? I love it!” I don’t care what it is. It can be tossing cookies all around and they’re chasing them and running back and forth. As long as their tail’s up, and their face is happy, and they’re sprightly running, and they have energy, and they really look forward to it, it can be literally anything that your dog likes.
And why I want it to be so big is because for me to get any movement and emotion and making a strong association, you want the second stimulus — remember, you’re trying to connect two things together: one, the noise, although for us it will be very neutral noise, and the thing that follows it. The thing that follows it needs to be pretty big and impressive. It needs to make a serious impact on your mind and on your emotion, and so I want these parties to be super-exciting, really fun, and when they’re that fun, they give us a lot of power to change a dog’s reaction to something when we pair it with the different things we might pair it with.
So the party is really the biggest part of this, and there are a lot of details to how I connect those things that I wouldn’t be able to list right here, but you have to take the whole class to get to the pieces of. But if you want to change minds and change hearts and change opinions, you have to have really, really powerful tools, and we spend a long time making sure that party is absolutely powerful enough to do that work.
Melissa Breau: So for folks struggling with this, or even just those who are interested in learning more about it, you’ve got both a webinar and a class coming up. Can you share a little bit about each, and who might be a good fit for it?
Amy Cook: When it comes to behavior problems, I tend to be of the opinion that everybody’s a good fit in a way, because you can’t … like, for my Play Way classes, you can’t go wrong teaching your dog good therapeutic play, because you never know when you’ll have a problem.
So in that vein, you’ll never go wrong teaching your dog what could happen from sudden noises. Having a framework already in place helps a dog not draw their own conclusions that might be negative, but gives you a chance to influence it.
But certainly any dog who’s showing even mild worry about some stuff that’s just come up and they’re not sure how to respond to it will be a good candidate, all the way to dogs who definitely have trouble with the thunderstorms and the fireworks, even though that only happens a few times a year. This is really helpful for that too, although you have to lay a lot of groundwork to get all the way up to the level where it would work for something that big. We start with very small sounds, of course, and work our way up.
The webinar is a small version of the class, sort of like this is, an introduction to all the pieces and how to put them together and why, and then of course some ideas of what to do when you can’t help them because things got too big all of a sudden.
And the class, doing classical conditioning is not super-complicated. You do have to get the pieces right. You have to get each piece exactly where it goes. But that’s not complicated. That’s just technical. Where the power really is is in doing it a bunch of times, lots and lots and lots of times, and making sure you’re doing it right lots and lots and lots of times so the dog understands that.
The good part of a class where I can be guiding you through each of the steps is that you will get the number of repetitions it takes that by the end of class your dog has an understanding of how all these things get put together and has an immediate response that’s very quick to any new sound you make, and you tell them that it’s noise-party time, they go, “Oh my God, lottery again? Oh my God, that’s amazing.”
I make sure each step of the way through the whole class that you get each of those pieces together, so by the end the relationship is very tight, and then you’re just off and running and you can apply it to all sorts of different situations.
So the webinar is an introduction to how that all works, and the class would be, “Let me make sure you’re getting it all together and give you a chance to get as many repetitions as you need,” because the repetitions, while possibly not super-exciting — you’re doing the same thing a lot, over and over again; that is where the power is in classical conditioning — you have to get a lot of them done. So I’m there to support the students in getting that done.
Melissa Breau: Last question — the one that I’ve been asking everyone who comes back on now. A little bit of shift in topic, but what’s something you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training in general?
Amy Cook: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about perspective, and about a dog’s perspective, and what it might be like to have your whole life be that someone trains you and someone takes care of you and someone takes you everywhere, what that actually might be like.
I’m taking a whole bunch of parenting training right now in a system called RIE, which is respectful way of raising and dealing with infant care, raising infants, and I’m astonished at the overlap, because babies also have their own perspective, but they don’t get to express it to us in the same way that they will later, and dogs do and also don’t get to express it to us.
So I’ve been lately trying to look at everything I do from the perspective of a receiver, from the perspective of the dog, and see where there are points where I could give them even more say and even more control. Even if I can’t always go the way they need to go, I want to hear that they wanted to or didn’t want to do that, so that I can be a much better caretaker.
It’s an ongoing challenge because we have habits and we have ways we think already of how dogs are or what my dog already likes, and I have to continually — and really doing it these days — remind myself to stop, at least in the analytical phase of it all, and consider if what I think is really true, and if there isn’t another way they could be perceiving this that I’m blind to, because I think that’s where positive training 2.0, if I will, if you can call it that, is going: what is the dog experiencing, could they use more say, could they use more control in some of this, what would it be like if we gave them more of a voice. That’s what I’m visiting a lot these days.
Melissa Breau: I like that phrase: dog training 2.0.
Amy Cook: Positive training, we’re going forward! Absolutely.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Amy! This has been great.
Amy Cook: Always a pleasure. Have me on anytime.
Melissa Breau: And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in!
We’ll be back next week, this time with Lucy Newton to talk about tracking!
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In 2004 Barbara Currier and her husband Michael were relocated to Richmond, VA, where she began teaching agility at All Dog Adventures. It was there that Barbara was introduced to Susan Garrett and her foundation-based training, centered around impulse control and relationship building with your dog.
She continues to train with some of the best handlers in the world and has implemented what she has learned from each of them into her training program. She became heavily involved in the OneMind Dogs handling method in 2014. She has successfully competed in agility with over 10 different breeds of dogs.
Along the way, she started her own in home training and behavioral rehabilitation business. She was the trainer for Richmond Boxer Rescue and also assisted Southeastern Virginia Golden Retriever Rescue in assessing some of their dogs. Over the years, Barbara has worked extensively with many rescue organizations in numerous states.
Barbara has also worked as an animal wrangler for Marvel’s Ant-Man, 90 Minutes in Heaven, the TV series Satisfaction and various commercials. She is also the head dog trainer for the F.I.D.O Program run at Georgia Tech which creates wearable computing for military, SAR and service dogs.
To be released 11/23/2018, we'll be talking to Amy Cook about overcoming sound sensitivity.
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 Barbara Currier.
In 2004, Barbara and her husband Michael were relocated to Richmond, Va., where she began teaching agility at All Dog Adventures. It was there that Barbara was introduced to Susan Garrett and her foundation-based training, centered around impulse control and relationship-building with your dog.
She continues to train with some of the best handlers in the world and has implemented what she has learned from each of them into her training program. She became heavily involved in the OneMind Dogs handling method in 2014. She has successfully competed in agility with over ten different breeds of dogs.
Along the way, she started her own in-home training and behavioral rehabilitation business. She was the trainer for the Richmond Boxer Rescue and also assisted Southeastern Virginia Golden Retriever Rescue in assessing some of their dogs. Over the years, Barbara has worked extensively with many different rescue organizations in numerous states.
She also worked as an animal wrangler for Marvel’s Ant-Man, 90 Minutes in Heaven, the TV series Satisfaction, and various commercials. She is the head dog trainer for the F.I.D.O Program run at Georgia Tech, which creates wearable computing for military, search-and-rescue (SAR), and service dogs.
Hi Barbara, welcome back to the podcast!
Barbara Currier: Hi, thanks for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely! Excited to chat again. To start us out, can you remind listeners who your dogs are and what you’re working on with them?
Barbara Currier: Sure. My oldest is Piper. She’s a 10-year-old Parson Russell Terrier, and she pretty much just does dock diving. She loves that. She’s not happy that the season has ended now, so she’s in her winter rest, which doesn’t make her real happy, but she loves her dock diving. And then I have Blitz, who is my 9-year-old Border Collie. He is retired from agility. He also does dock diving now, and he is also my medical alert service dog. And then I have Miso. She is my 4-year-old Miniature Poodle. She is my main agility dog right now. She is also a medical alert service dog. And my newest is Eggo. He will turn a year tomorrow. He is my English Cocker that I imported from Europe. He is doing agility. He’s not competing yet, he’s still very young, he’s only going to be a year. But he is hopefully going to have a promising career in agility, and he’s also doing dock diving, which he already is obsessed with.
Melissa Breau: That’s fun. The waffle, right?
Barbara Currier: Yes, that’s the waffle.
Melissa Breau: So I wanted to focus on weave poles today, since I know you have a class on that coming up, but as a non-agility person I’m going to totally admit that some of my questions are a little on the basic side. First off — wow. Without knowing how to train them, if you look at weave poles in general, it seems like such a complex behavior. Can you break it down for us a little bit? What pieces or skills have to come together to have really well-trained weave poles?
Barbara Currier: Weaves are actually my most favorite piece of equipment to teach out of all the agility equipment. It’s the hardest behavior for the dogs to learn because it’s the most unnatural. But if you look at agility as a whole, it’s pretty much all natural behaviors for the dogs, things that you would see them doing if they were out running in the woods, except you don’t normally see them weaving through trees. So weave poles is very unnatural, and so it can be quite difficult to teach them that. I find it such a fun puzzle to teach it, and I love to make it a game for them so that they find it as much fun as I do.
The downside on weaves is it can be hard on their bodies, so you just want to make sure that they’re physically ready to ask what we want them to do. You want to make sure that they’re old enough and that they’re strong enough, because it can be quite taxing on them.
One of the parts of weave poles is the dog must learn to always enter with the first pole at their left shoulder and then continue the rhythm through all twelve poles. It’s a very specific behavior, and it can be difficult for the dogs to do this at extreme speeds and still maintain all twelve poles. So they have to learn how to use their bodies so that they’re at full speed and they can hit all twelve poles. Oftentimes the dogs will pop out if they haven’t been taught properly how to do that, or they’ll get their entry and not be able to hold on to the poles, because there’s a lot of things that come together with weave poles. There’s a lot of body awareness, there’s a lot of them knowing how to rock their weight back on their haunches to collect to get into the poles, there’s footwork involved.
There’s two different styles of footwork in poles. There’s the swimming or the single-stepping and then there is the bounce stride. Most big dogs single step and most little dogs bounce stride, which looks like a rabbit hopping in between. I say “most” because I do know quite a few big dogs that bounce stride and they do just fine, their weaves are just as fast, it’s not a problem. But people sometimes get a little too hung up on the footwork. If they have a big dog and they see their big dog is bounce striding, they don’t like that, they want to make them single-stride. But I think it’s important to let the dog choose what is most comfortable for their body type and for the way they move, as long as they’re not doing a combination of both. That tends to have problems.
But you really want it to become muscle memory for the dog, so that when they’re doing the behavior, they’re not thinking about it, they’re just doing it. That’s where the speed comes from. The more that they think about it, the slower it is, the more methodical it is, so we want it to become muscle memory so that they’re just going through the motions.
Melissa Breau: Just to make sure everybody’s on the same page, single step you’re talking about when they go into the weaves and it’s, “OK, I’m on my left foot on the left side and my right front foot on the right side,” and bounce is when they have both feet on the ground on each side, right?
Barbara Currier: Yes, yes.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. I wanted to make sure because, you know, terminology and stuff. Even not knowing much about the topic, I’ve heard of things like 2X2 training, I’ve seen trainers use guide wires, moving poles and gradually bringing them closer together, and things like that. Can you briefly explain what some of the different methods ARE that are out there, what those things are, what people are talking about?
Barbara Currier: There’s basically three different methods to training weave poles. There’s the 2X2 method, where you teach them — much like it says in the name — you teach them two poles at a time.
The channel method, where it basically looks like a chute of weave poles and you slowly can close the chute — it’s the way the base is made so that it slowly comes together — so the dog starts with running down the middle of the poles in a straight line, and then as the poles start to come closer and closer together, the dog has to start weaving to do it.
The third one is the guide wires, where it’s guide wires that are put on the poles, so it looks like a maze that the dog walks through and they can learn that way.
Melissa Breau: That’s interesting. Which approach do you usually use for your dogs and what are you using in the class?
Barbara Currier: My preference is the 2X2 method. The base of my preference is from the method that I learned from Susan Garrett with her 2X2’s, and then I have, over the years, adapted for some things with my own dogs and some holes that I was constantly seeing with dogs that were coming to me.
I’m kind of known as the weave guru in my parts, and so whenever people start having weave problems, they come to me. I kept seeing a lot of the same issues, and even with people that had taught their dogs with 2X2’s. But what was interesting was I didn’t see the issues with my dogs, and I wasn’t sure quite at first what I was doing differently than what everybody else was doing, where my dogs weren’t having this issue but other people’s were.
I took a young dog that I was just training, and I basically documented every single thing I did to try to find what I was doing differently than what everybody else was doing, and found that it was a lot in my beginning stages of my approaches that would prevent these holes from happening that I was seeing in other people’s dogs. And so I have modified it to adding more of that stuff in, and a little bit of other things that I have found here and there that have helped with it, I think.
Melissa Breau: When you say approaches, you mean the dogs approaching the poles, or are you talking about something else?
Barbara Currier: Yes, when the dog approaches the poles. In the class, we do what’s called “entries” on an around-the-clock game, so you have your poles in the middle, and you pretend you’re standing on a clock and you work through your different entries.
But what I was finding with a lot of people is a lot of people stayed at the straight-on approaches or the more straightforward easy approaches, and I wasn’t being methodical about this, I just didn’t do it. I did not stay at those approaches much. I stayed at the harder approaches. And so right from the beginning the dogs would learn to bend and hit those weave entries from a more difficult angle and would speed right from the beginning. On two poles, it’s easy. The reward comes fast and it’s easy to find, and so I was finding that with my dogs I was building up the muscling along their spine right from the beginning and was building up that drive to find the pole, really dig in, and grab that entry. So I do very few easy entries right off from the beginning, and I don’t really concern myself with those entries until I start adding in the full six and the full twelve, because I consider those entries easy.
Where those entries become difficult is when the dogs are at full speed and they have to learn how to power down to get into their poles. So I worry about that once I start adding in sequencing and that type of thing, but from the beginning I work those hard entrances right at the first two poles, and it seems to help with some of the fallout that happens down the road, like getting the entry and not being able to hang on to the poles, or missing the entry and going into the second pole, and those types of things.
Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting. I was actually going to ask you, this feeds well into what my next question was, which I think our listeners, in particular, are probably pretty familiar with the idea of building up skills gradually, but it seems like there are so many pieces to the weave poles. There are so many different axes that you have to gradually make more difficult. You’ve got your speed, you’re got the number of poles, you’ve got the entries, you’ve got the sequencing, your more advanced handling … so can you talk a little more about how you juggle all those different pieces? Is there an order that makes sense for people as they try and put the things together? Do you work on them in different training sessions? How does that work? How do you approach it?
Barbara Currier: I start with two poles and teach the dog to find the entry from all the different angles, and with speed and enthusiasm right from the start. And then, again, like I mentioned before, the reward comes fast when you’re only using two poles, so it’s the perfect time to get the dog to think that the game is really, really fun.
I also keep my sessions incredibly short, like, three correct entries on each side and then done. So my dogs are looking at me like, “Seriously, that’s it? That’s all we get?” And I’m like, “Yes, that’s it, we’re done. That was the session.” And so the more we play this game, and it’s super-fast and it’s super-fun and it all happens really fast, the more they’re like, “Oh my god, this is the most fun game ever.” All my dogs love weave poles so much because I keep everything so fast and exciting, and when they’re like, “This is the most fun on Earth,” I’m like, “Yeah, I know, and we’re done now.” And they’re thinking, “What, what? No, I was just getting into it.” And I’m like, “We’ve got to wait until the next session.” So I really want them to love, love the game.
The other thing that’s important is that I don’t worry about if they’re wrong. I want them to make mistakes. If they’re not making mistakes, it’s too easy. But I also want them to understand that making a mistake is not a big deal. I want them to learn how to fail and just keep trying with the same amount of enthusiasm. Often, dogs, when they make a mistake, they’re like, “Oh, I can’t do it anymore. It’s so hard. That reward didn’t come, I can’t do it, I can’t do it,” and then the owner gets stressed and then the dog gets stressed, and suddenly it’s a meltdown for everyone. When my dogs make a mistake, it’s just, “Oh my god, we’re going to try that again!” and they just don’t get the reward and they’re like, “OK, OK, I’ll be better this time. I’ll get it, I’ll get it.” To them, it’s just like a mystery they’re trying to solve, or a puzzle they’re trying to figure out, and so they’re super-happy to try again for me and it’s not a big deal. There’s never any shutdown and “Oh, this is too hard, this is too hard.”
Now, if they fail twice in a row, I will take a step back and I might back-train, like, “This maybe standing here at 3 o’clock is a little too hard for you, but what if I stand at 2:30? Can you do it at 2:30?” And we’ll go from there. If they’re correct a couple of times at 2:30, then I’ll go to 2:45 and “How is this? Can we do this now?” And so on and so on.
From there we move to four poles and follow the same thing as above, and then we move on to six poles. Of course we angle them a certain way, and then we gradually make them straighter and straighter. I stay at six poles until I’m in love with the dog’s footwork, speed, and understanding of their job.
Oftentimes a lot of people will get to six and then they’re like, “Now it’s twelve.” But the dog doesn’t fully understand their job yet, and all we’ve done by adding in six more is we’ve just made it harder, we’ve made the reward farther away, and the dogs really start to slow down. So I’m in no rush to leave six until I’m in love with the behavior the dog is showing me.
I really want them to be confident in their footwork. I really want to see what we talked about earlier, the muscle memory, and not so much the hard thinking about the job. I want all that to come out now, so that when we move on to twelve, then it’s just getting the stamina of doing this behavior longer for twelve poles and just getting the speed going for that long of a distance.
Once I have the footwork and the speed that I really like at the twelve, then I’ll start working in distractions like, Can you do your weave poles when there’s a dog playing tug next to them? Can you do your weave poles if I’m throwing a Frisbee? Can you do your weave poles if I have a plate of chicken next to you? All these things so that when they get into working in a trial environment, the stuff that I like to call my “torture,” which my dogs love because it’s like a super game to them, that they’re like, “Oh yeah, trial distractions. This stuff is easy compared to what Mom does to us at home.” Because they get these huge, massive jackpots when they can go through the weave poles when I’m throwing a Frisbee.
I’ve had a few dogs over the years that were food-driven dogs only, and of course we worked up to this, but one of the things I do with my food-driven dogs for a distraction is I will line the base of the weave poles with steak, and they have to weave over the top of the steak and not touch it. And then, at the end, if they’re successful, they can come back and eat all the steak. It’s so much fun.
Recently, I have a young group of dogs in a class that just started trialing, and they had been with me since they were 8-week-old puppies. Now they’re all trialing and it’s been really cool to see. When they were all learning their weave poles, I had a little Sheltie that was very food-driven, not toy-driven, and we did that and she’s like, “Oh, she’s never going to do it,” and she did it like a rockstar. She was like, “Steak on the weave poles, we’ve got this. I know my job.” So it’s really, really fun.
Once I work through distraction stuff, then I start handling moves. Can you stay in your poles when I’m front crossing before and after the poles? Can you stay in your poles when I’m rear crossing, when I’m blind crossing? And then I add a jump, and now, Can you do your poles when another piece of equipment’s been added to it? Can you do your poles when a jump is after the weave poles, when you see something else coming? Can you do your weave poles when there’s a tunnel nearby, when we’re going to go to a tunnel? Then, once I’m loving all that stuff, then I add the next six and we do the distractions again, and then we start adding in more difficult sequencing.
Melissa Breau: You’ve definitely got it down like a method, an approach, and all the pieces are there. I think that’s important for people to recognize that you do have to work through all those things systematically.
Barbara Currier: Yeah, for sure.
Melissa Breau: Both in the course description and just now, you mention the idea of having your dog LOVE the weave poles. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like a big piece of that is about confidence, making sure that they know how to do the behavior correctly. Can you talk a little bit about that? How does loving the weaves and confidence, how do those things go hand-in-hand when it comes to getting good performance on course?
Barbara Currier: Like I talked about before, it’s all about teaching the dogs that the game is awesome. That means keeping the sessions super-short, making them always want more, making them understand that mistakes are fine, mistakes are not a big deal, and that it’s just a puzzle, this didn’t work, good try, let’s try something else. And the more value that they have in knowing exactly what their job is, the better the performance is going to be and the drive into the weave.
So I do little … I call them mini-weave drills, which I go over in the class too, that I do with my dogs a couple of times a week. I go outside with one stick of cheese, and when that stick of cheese is gone, game over. I take off really big bites, huge hunks, probably an inch piece of cheese, so super-easy to see, not crumbly, and I get maybe four to six pieces of cheese out of one stick. I go out, and whatever course I have set up in my field, and I take all the jumps and I just put the bars in the ground, because for me, when I’m working my mini-weave drills, it’s not necessarily about the jumping. It’s about the love for the weave.
So I put all the bars in the ground, and then I just randomly walk around the field, and from different approaches of jumps without having bars, I send my dogs to the weaves, sometimes with motion, sometimes with no motion, and I will sometimes do very weird handling moves, things that you would never see in a course. I will send them to the weirdest types of entries.
Sometimes my husband will come out with me, and he doesn’t really know agility very well, so I’ll say, “Tell me how to get some of these weaves, tell me something.” He’ll be like, “All right. Go from that jump to the weave.” And it’s completely random, she has to skip, like, four jumps, or do this massive, crazy entry, and we do it and it’s fun and she thinks it’s the most amazing game. I do that a couple of times a week and it’s super-easy, it’s quick, she gets these big hunks of cheese, which are like a meal for her, and so she thinks that weave poles are the most fun thing in the world to do.
In fact, my agility field is fenced off from the rest of my property, so when the dogs are outside, they can’t get into the agility field. They all run to the field gate all the time, and if I let them in, the first thing they do is run over to the weave poles because they’re like, “Oh, are we doing those drills? Because those are super-fun.” That’s what you want to get from your dogs, and that’s going to get that performance. When I’m at trials and I say to my dogs, “Go weave,” they hit those weaves with such intensity and such stride, and they dig in so hard to get those entries and keep those poles, and they work so hard because I created so much value for the poles.
Melissa Breau: To take a little bit of a step back, I guess, when people are working on things, what are some of the common training mistakes people make as they’re trying to teach weaves? What problems do they cause? If you’re looking at a little bit of problem-solving there, what do you see people doing that maybe isn’t optimal?
Barbara Currier: The biggest one is moving too fast. Moving to twelve poles before the dog is solid at six. I tell my students there’s no trophy or title for the person who can train their weaves the fastest.
When people get six, they’re like, “I’m just going to add on the next six and it’s going to be great,” because we all want to say, “My dog has twelve poles,” but all you’re doing by moving too fast is that the dog is not clear on what their job is, you’re getting slow, inconsistent weaves that have to be managed or babysat because the dog doesn’t really understand. So they’re just going to get slower and slower, and they’re going to get frustrated because they’re going to be confused, and then you’re going to get frustrated, and it becomes this vicious cycle.
That’s usually when people start coming to me and “My dog can get the entries, but they can’t hold on,” that type of thing. So then they come to me, and I often find that they moved to twelve poles before the dogs really understood six, and my advice is always, “Let’s go back to the beginning. We need to redo this.”
Melissa Breau: My next question is, how do you problem-solve some of those issues? Do you basically just do that, take a step back, go back to six poles and retrain all those different aspects before you go back to twelve, or is there more to it?
Barbara Currier: It depends exactly what the issue is. The most common problems are missing entries at speed. If it’s a missing entry problem, I usually recommend that we go back to two poles, so that we can start with, Can you find your entry from all different areas without having to have the dog wait for the reward to get through all six poles, if that makes sense. Because, again, the reward comes quicker on two poles than it does on six poles, so it’s easier gratification for the dog. So I like to, for missed entries, start back at two poles, and then I work up to the four, up to the six.
Now, with a dog that already understands the concept of poles, it goes really fast. It doesn’t take long at all to revisit these things and get the dog to understand. If the dog is having problems with they get their entry, but then they can’t hold on to the poles because they’re going at speed, then I will start them back at four poles or six poles, but add in sequencing, so coming off of a tunnel so we’ve got some speed, and teaching them how to grab that entry and hold on to the poles.
With that, they also need to be building up some muscling for it. And so a lot of it, I think, with those dogs comes from doing more straight-on approaches and not enough of the angle approaches from the very beginning, where they can build up that strength along their spine.
One of the other ones is the popping out at ten poles, which a lot of dogs do. Oftentimes I find those are from the handlers that try to lead the dogs, whether they’re going lateral, or they’re trying to get a little bit ahead, and they never taught the independent poles from the beginning. They really babysat the poles because they wanted the dog to be right so badly, so they stayed back and they matched the dog’s speed and they were right there, but once they wanted to put them into sequencing, they wanted to leave, but we didn’t actually teach the dog that, and so now the dogs are like, “Well, you’re leaving, so I’m leaving too.” So when I teach this from the very beginning, it is completely independent from the handler. We are quite far away from the beginning. We have nothing to do with it, we don’t help them, we don’t lure them through the entry, we don’t do any of that. It’s all on them.
So it’s quite easy the way I teach it from the beginning to have that lateral independence, because we teach it to them from the very beginning, as long as you continue with it. Because oftentimes what I’ll see is the dogs have these amazing independence when we get through the end of the training, but then the owners go right back to babysitting and then the dogs will lose it. So I have to constantly remind my students, “Your dog has the skill. Trust them. Let them show you they can do it, and leave them.”
Melissa Breau: This is a question I don’t usually ask here on the podcast, but I used to love, back when I was a journalist asking this question, because it seems to always get unexpected nuggets of interesting information, and since I have never trained a dog to weave and don’t know a ton about the topic, obviously you’re the expert — is there anything important that I didn’t think to ask or that you’d want people to think about as they’re working on weave poles with their dog?
Barbara Currier: Probably the most important thing about weave poles that I think sometimes gets overlooked, forgotten, or people don’t think it’s as important as it should be is: your dog must be done with growing before you teach weave poles.
Like I said in the beginning, it’s one of the hardest obstacles on their body, and I always make sure, when I have young dogs, that I take them and have them x-rayed to be positive that their growth plates have closed before I start training weave poles. You can do a lot of damage to them. It’s very hard on their shoulders, it’s very hard on their spine, it can be hard on their neck, and it’s not something you want to do until you’re a hundred percent sure that they are done growing.
The other great thing about doing the x-rays is that usually, around 14 months, I always have full x-rays done of shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees, and so, one, I can tell if the growth plates are closed or not closed, and depending on your breed … I have a student that has a borzoi, and she x-rayed her at 14 months and her growth plates were nowhere near done being closed. But she’s a Borzoi, but it was good information to have, because we certainly, especially with a breed that large, don’t want to be doing even contacts, if their growth plates aren’t closed, and hers didn’t close for quite a while after that, so that’s really important information to have.
It also gives you a picture of what your dog’s body looks like before you do the sport with them, whether you’ve got any elbow dysplasia or hip dysplasia. Without getting a picture, some dogs don’t even show these things, and to me, I just think it’s super-important to know what you’re starting off with.
Melissa Breau: Right, right, and I would imagine it’s good to have those, heaven forbid they do get injured at some point later on, you have a baseline, a picture to refer to.
Barbara Currier: Yes. For sure. The other thing that I always … and I bring this up in the class, too, is if I have somebody come up to me and they say, “My dog has always weaved really well, and they’re now popping out at pole ten,” or “They can’t hit their entry, but they never had a problem with it before,” my first thought is, Your dog probably has an injury, and that needs to be addressed first.
As all the Fenzi instructors try to teach, dogs are not out to try to make us mad and push our buttons. That’s not the way dogs work. So if your dog is all of a sudden exhibiting something that is unusual for them, the first thing I check is injuries.
My poodle, who loves her weave poles, a tell for me that she has a rib out is if she misses her weave entry, because she never misses weave entries. So if she can’t hold on, I immediately leave the ring and will bring her to a chiropractor, and sure enough, she’ll have a rib out. I certainly don’t want her running with a rib out. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a rib out before, but it is incredibly painful, and I don’t want her running like that.
And so I let my dogs tell me. I don’t just assume, “Oh, she’s being bad,” or “She’s being lazy.” I assume, “Oh, you’re really trying to tell me something, and what you’re telling me is, ‘That really hurts, I need some help here.’” Once we get everything back, she’s totally fine, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be annoyed at her and expect her to run all weekend like that. So that’s something that I try to instill in my students is make sure that we’re thinking about that, first and foremost.
Sometimes there is … something’s happened. Sometimes what can happen is if they get an injury, the injury is then fixed, but they now associate poles with pain. And so sometimes we have to go back and desensitize them to that and say, “Look, see, it doesn’t hurt anymore, so we can do these again.” Or something has happened and our training has whittled away and we need to go back and take a look at that. But I always try to stress that people make sure that somebody checks them first that it’s not an injury or something going on that way that’s affecting their weave poles.
Melissa Breau: Let’s chat about the course for a minute. It’s called “Love ’em and Weave ’em,” and it’s on the calendar for December, which this is coming out on, I believe, the 16th of November, so registration will be opening the week after this comes out. What level of training should dogs and handlers have, if they’re interested in the class? Can you talk a little bit about that, and what you’ll cover, who it’s designed for, that kind of stuff?
Barbara Currier: For this class, the dogs should already know weave poles. It moves a little too fast for a dog that doesn’t know weave poles. I think later on in the year Julie Daniels has a foundation weave class coming up, and that would be the class for the dogs that don’t know weave poles at all yet. But this one is for dogs that know weaves, but the handlers aren’t in love with the performance.
It will address all the common problems: the going too slow, the inconsistent footwork, the getting the entry but not being able to hang on, missing the entry, popping out pole ten, it will address all of those things.
It will also give you the independence so that you can put them in the weaves and leave them and get to where you need to go next. The way I think about my weave poles is, when I send my dog through a tunnel, I want to just be able to say “tunnel,” and know that they’re going to come out the other end. I’m not expecting that they’re going try to dig out the middle of the tunnel. So I want my weave poles to be the same way. When I send you in Pole 1, I expect to see you exit at Pole 12, and I’m going to go do what I need to do. That’s your job, I’ve got my job, we’ll meet at the end, is my theory. So that’s what this course will teach.
Melissa Breau: One last question – it’s the question I’ve been asking everybody when they come back on. What’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Barbara Currier: Probably to train the dog that’s in front of you. Often we go out expecting to train one thing, and the dog’s telling us that they need to work on something completely different. And we really have to listen to them and be flexible in what they need, because if you think about it, they’re the ones doing the hard work. They’re the ones running and jumping and doing all of this crazy stuff. Oftentimes I go out with my plan of, “Today we’re going to go out and work on threadles,” and my dog says, “No, today I’m struggling with my start line stay, and so that’s what we’re going to end up working on.” So you have to be willing to abort mission and listen to what the dog is telling you.
Sometimes my dog says, “You know what, I’m not feeling it today,” and I say, “All right, let’s go play a game instead,” or “Let’s go for a hike,” because I wake up some mornings and don’t want to work, and my dogs are no different. So you really need to listen to your dogs and hear what they’re trying to tell us.
And also to embrace and love the dog that you have and stop mourning the dog that they’re not.
Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Barbara! I love that.
Barbara Currier: Thanks for having me. It’s so much fun!
Melissa Breau: It is! And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with Amy Cook to talk about noise sensitivity in dogs and what you can do about it.
If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.
I got an email a few weeks ago from a listener, asking if I’d consider doing a podcast on doing sports with rescue dogs and/or dogs who join the family as adults. She suggested a number of excellent questions … so this will be the second of two podcasts where we’ll look specifically at rescues and training for adult dogs.
To be released 11/09/2018, we'll be talking to Linda P. Case, well known for her work in nutrition and focus on the science of dog training, about those two topics!
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 doing something a little differently. I got an email a few weeks ago from a listener, asking if I’d consider doing a podcast on doing sports with rescue dogs and/or dogs who join the family as adults. She suggested a number of excellent questions … so this will be the second of two podcasts where we’ll look specifically at rescues and training for adult dogs.
The previous one was with Sara Brueske, and for this episode of the podcast, I’m here with Dr. Jessica Hekman.
Dr. 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 Sciences in 2017 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studied canid behavioral genetics, so very on-topic for us.
Previously, she graduated from the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2012 with a dual DVM/MS degree. Her Master's work was on behavior and the 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.
Hi Jessica! Welcome to the podcast.
Jessica Hekman: Hey Melissa. Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, do you mind just reminding everyone a little bit about who your current pups are, and maybe share where they came from and at what point in their lives?
Jessica Hekman: Absolutely. We almost heard from them while you were in the middle of your intro. I think somebody went by outside and they both ran to the door and started squeaking a little bit, and I was like, “Shh, shh, dogs. I’m on a podcast. Be really quiet!” This is their downtime.
So I have two. My older one is Jenny, that’s short for Guinevere, and she is a mixy-mix. I had her tested with Wisdom Panel, turns out she’s probably Labrador/Samoyed. She came from a shelter, and we know from the shelter that she is at least part Lab, so that much is true. She’s a very, very cute little blonde, 35 pounder. She looks like a little Border Collie who’s Golden Retriever colored, so she’s super-cute.
And Dash, which is short for Dashell, is an English Shepherd and he is a little bit over 2 years old. I got Jenny when she was 13 months old, and Dash was my first puppy ever, so I got him at 9 weeks.
Melissa Breau: There are, I think, lots of good reasons to have you on, but before we get into some of the professional stuff, I was hoping, as somebody who has one dog that was a rescue and one that you got from a breeder, if you’d talk a little about that piece. With Jenny, my understanding is you adopted a dog, you knew there was some serious stuff going on there, you’d have to work on it from a training perspective. Can you talk a little bit about where she was when you brought her home, where she is now, and what kind of work you put in to get her there?
Jessica Hekman: Yeah, sure. Jenny definitely has a long and interesting story. I had just finished up my Master’s and was going back to finish up veterinary school. I was a third-year vet student and I had a lovely, behaviorally very healthy Golden Retriever named Jack, who I adored, and I wanted to get a second dog.
So I was looking around at shelters, and a really close friend of mine was doing her shelter medicine internship and came across this dog. I later found out she was actually joking when she emailed me to say, “There’s this dog, maybe you want her,” because she was like, “This dog’s crazy. Clearly you wouldn’t want this dog, ha ha ha.” I got the email and I was like, “Oh, that sounds great,” and afterwards she was like, “I don’t know what you were thinking.”
I like to say she comes from an “oops” litter, except it was the “dogs do that sometimes” litter. She was from a farm that was in rural upstate New York outside of Ithaca. I think they had some number of dogs they just knew were going to have litters sometimes — not so much of an “oops” litter as “oh yeah, that happens.”
At some point Animal Control came to that farm and said, “You have nine dogs and that’s too many, and you need to give some up.” So they took the two 10-month-old puppies from their most recent litter, I gather, and took them in to Tompkins County Humane Society and said, “Here, you can have these, and that will get us back down to seven dogs and everyone will be happy.”
Apparently the owner was surprised to discover that these two dogs were super-shy. They hadn’t noticed anything behaviorally wrong with the dogs, but due to the fact, I think, that the dogs had never, ever been off their farm at all, and I don’t believe any socialization had been done with them at all, then the dogs had thought that their whole world was this little farm, and when they came into the shelter discovered the world was much larger than that, they were horrified.
There was one woman working at the shelter at the time as a behavior consultant, had a Master’s in behavior, and she referred to them as “toxically cute.” They were these ridiculously, looked like identical twins, girl and boy, cream colored, so cute, 10 months old, and she said they had people lining up to adopt them, but they knew that they were going to be behaviorally really challenging.
So they gave these two dogs to a pair of guys who tried really hard with them but apparently didn’t have so much the dog skills necessary and did some stuff that we know is not the best way to convince a shy dog to like you, such as luring them close with canned cheese and then trying to pet them when they had lured them close, which then taught the dogs that cheese was terrifying, for example.
After a month or so of that, the dogs were not warming up to them at all, and so Jenny came back into the shelter, but they kept her. She was fostered by this behavior consultant, and that was when I found out about her. Shortly after I took her, her brother came back and moved in and took her spot with the behavior consultant.
They wanted to place her with me because I had this dog who was going to be a really good influence on her and teach her that people were not scary. When I first met her, I couldn’t make eye contact with her because she would tremble. She’s not aggressive at all. She just entirely shuts down, so she’ll huddle in a corner and shake. So I couldn’t make eye contact with her because she would complete decompensate when I made eye contact with her. I couldn’t touch her.
We were living in Massachusetts, and my then-boyfriend and I drove out to Ithaca to meet her and decide that we wanted her and pick her up, and her foster mom had to lift her into the car for us because she would pee whenever we touched her, and when we got home and getting her out of the car, she peed.
She lived for the first few weeks on her dog bed, and I kept a harness with a one-foot-long tab on her at all times. When it was time to go outside, I would crawl on the floor backwards, not making eye contact with her, to attach a leash to the tab so that I didn’t have to touch her, and take her outside.
After a few days of this, I was going through this ritual of crawling backwards towards her as she stood up and very clearly said, “No. I understand the situation. I can take it from here, and you don’t have to put that thing on me. It’s horrifying.” So we went down outside together, and I had this big, safely fenced yard, but it was almost half an acre, and I remember thinking, Am I ever going to get this dog back inside? I was like, Well, let’s just see what happens. So I let her out and she did her business and came back in. And that’s very Jenny, being terrified of the world but really wanting to make her way in it, and thinking outside the box to try to figure out what’s going to happen.
She did not let my husband, my then-boyfriend, touch her for about the first six months that we had her. It took a week before I could touch her. The first time I ever had a stranger in the house after I got her, she hid in a corner, pooped, and sat in it, so that was lovely. It took her weeks to stop submission-urinating.
I still remember the first night that we were sleeping in the bed and she was on her dog bed at the other end of the room, didn’t want to sleep in the bed with us but was willing to be in the room with us, and I had given her a pig’s ear. Whenever I gave her food, she’d tuck it under her chest and be like, “I’ll eat this later when no one can see me and it’s safe.” I remember around midnight, after we’d been in bed for a couple of hours and it was dark, she felt safe enough and I could hear her start to crunch on the pig ear. I remember lying there in the dark, smiling to myself and thinking, Oh, she’s doing better.
So what did I do with her? She came to me on fluoxetine, which is a behavioral medication that is effective in a lot of dogs, but it is the one behavioral medication that general practice veterinarians tend to feel comfortable with, and it was a general practice veterinarian who had prescribed it. So I took her to a veterinary behaviorist. I was a vet student at the time, so I had a friend who was doing her behavior residency. I had Jenny go meet with her. and she prescribed a different medication that she thought would be more appropriate for Jenny’s particular issues, and she has done very well on that. She has continued to improve. I’ve had her for nine years now. Our Gotcha Day anniversary is coming up on New Year’s Day this year. She’s just continued to improve.
At first, it was really, really hard. When we let her outside, she had trouble coming back in if there had been a stranger in the house over the last few hours. If I was out and my husband let her out, sometimes she wouldn’t come back in. He’d call and say, “Can’t get her in,” and I’d say, “You have to leave the door open and walk outside and get behind her so she’ll go in,” and he’d say, “But it’s January in New England, can’t you come home?” I’d say, “No, I’m on clinics in vet school, they won’t let me leave for another twelve hours.” So it was really hard.
She gradually started being able to make friends. I needed to have someone who could come let her out to pee when I was working these fifteen-hour days, so I had to pay this dog walker to come five or six times while I was there and pay her to come get to know Jenny, and then she was able to start coming and Jenny was able to warm up to her, so that was really nice.
When I finished vet school a year-and-a-half later, and I moved down to Florida for my internship, had to drive the dogs down there, Jenny hadn’t ever taken a long car trip before or really been off the property all that much. We’d been to the vet a couple of times, but I was minimizing it because it was so traumatic for her. So we drove down to Florida, a five-day drive because we took it slow, and she didn’t pee for the first 48 hours, so that was terrifying, but she eventually did. She has continued to improve and to change, and so while we were in Florida, we got to the point where instead of huddling in a corner and shaking when people came over, she would roo, which is not the behavior I was aiming for in the end, but showed that she was feeling more confident.
When we then moved to Illinois for my Ph.D., I still remember the very first day that she was willing to go to sleep in the middle of the floor, just stretched out laterally in the middle of the floor. She’d always slept on couches before. I had never seen her sleep in the middle of a floor. When I first got her, she wouldn’t go into the kitchen. She’d run from the kitchen really fast. Now she’s comfortable in any room of the house.
While we were in Urbana, there was a lovely, really big dog park, really nice dog park, and I was able to go at off hours when there weren’t many other dogs there. She was able to do that and be off-leash, and make dog friends, and eventually even make human friends. She even had some human friends that she really liked there.
Now we’re back in Massachusetts. She’s able to hike off-leash with us in the forest, she is able to go to her chiropractor — she has chiropractic problems, probably from being so tense all the time — and she’s able to handle that and not completely decompensate, and when people come over she now understands that while she thinks that all people are axe murderers, some of them do come with cheese, of which she is no longer scared, and so when people come over, she’s nervous at first, they toss her some cheese, and now she’s at the point where she’ll sit and make cute faces at people to get cheese, which is really nice.
The huge thing recently was I have a dog walker come now for her and Dash, and I tell the dog walker, “Let them both out to pee, that will be fine, but only take Dash for a walk. Jenny won’t go for a walk with you.” I got this text message from the dog walker saying, “I asked Dash if he wanted to go for a walk, and Jenny was really excited about it too. Can I take her?” I was like, “Sure, just be prepared to go home if she freaks out.” But she didn’t, and I got these great photographs of her on the walk really happy. So she’s made massive progress. She’s a really different dog than she used to be.
So a lot of behavior modification, a lot of management, a lot of time, and a lot of her trying as well. She really likes people, and she really likes being near people. She’s just scared of them, and I think she’s really made an effort because of that. If she wasn’t so people-social, I don’t think she would have overcome everything as well as she has. But she continues to improve. I thought she’d plateau after a couple of years, but she has not. Nine years and she continues, she’s better this year than she was last year. It’s amazing. She’s a fabulous little dog.
Melissa Breau: Now on the flip side of that, with Dash you did all your homework, and I know you originally had some hopes to do agility with him, but now you’re not sure that that’s the path he’ll take you down. Are you willing to talk about that a little bit?
Jessica Hekman: When I got Jenny, I was interested in fearful dogs and I got sort of a sad project. When I got Dash, I was like, “I want a dog that will be fun, and I want to learn about what it’s like to raise a puppy.”
I was interested in socialization as part of my job and my research, but I also really wanted to do dog sports, and agility in particular. So I went to a breeder who did agility and nosework and some other stuff with her dogs and got Dash. She said, “He’s a very confident puppy and he’s going to be ideal for agility,” and he did start out that way. He then started around 6 months of age to have some fearfulness and to have off and on lameness. I’m a veterinarian and I am not afraid to take him to specialists. I took him to a bunch of specialists trying to figure out what was up with the lameness, and it took a year to find somebody who could diagnose him. It was a complex problem, and so when he was a year-and-a-half old, we finally figured out that he had a tiny little chipped bone in his right elbow, and because he’d been on it for so long now, that that elbow was really painful and his shoulder was showing changes as well because he’d been compensating.
I’d been doing agility foundations and early levels of agility, not jumping full height, and I’d been doing this and hiking him, he’d been running in the woods, and we were doing parkour, so he was doing all this stuff with his broken bone basically. The vet said it probably was similar to walking with rocks in your shoes, clearly more and less painful at different times. He had also pretty clearly learned that when other dogs approached him, if they bumped into him, it was going to hurt, so he had learned to warn other dogs off proactively.
When we finally had the surgery, got his elbow repaired — the elbow injury, by the way, pretty clearly a traumatic injury. I know the day that it happened. He was 5 months, 5-and-a-half months, running in the woods, and there was ice and snow. He came up lame that evening, and it kept coming and going ever since then. He probably had what the orthopedist called a “jump-down injury,” probably jumped off of something too high that he shouldn’t have and chipped that bone. Had the surgery, was a six-month recovery, and he is fully recovered, so technically I could go back to agility.
There’s a couple of things stopping me. One is that given that he had this issue in that leg, it means that he’s going to develop arthritis earlier than he would have otherwise. The rehab that I was working with put it to me as, “You may only have so many jumps in him, and he’s going to be doing some jumping on his own — into and out of the car, on and off the bed — so maybe you could conserve the amount of jumps you’re asking him to do, so that you put off the arthritis as long as possible,” and that sounds reasonable to me.
The other thing is that he had learned to be very slow and cautious in agility, and I think a lot of that was that it hurt, and also that I’m a green handler, and so we’re doing some stuff that he can learn to really enjoy. So we’re doing nosework right now, which he thinks is fabulous. It’s very low-pressure, there’s none of my expectations, there’s none of anything hurting, and so possibly we’ll go back to agility at a later point, certainly not anything that I would push him really hard to do a lot of jumping.
So that’s how I got redirected with him down into a slightly different road than I had originally imagined.
Melissa Breau: Personal experiences aside for a moment, you also deal heavily in all of this stuff professionally. Can you share a little bit about how your day job ties in?
Jessica Hekman: I had been a computer programmer for twelve years or something like that, and I decided I wanted to learn about what causes dogs to have different personalities and to behave differently — why some are shy, and some are aggressive, and some are really friendly, what’s different in their brains.
It turned out that the best tools that we have right now for getting at that kind of thing in pet dogs is genetics, because you can look at a dog’s genetics without having to actually cut their head open and get at their brain. It’s a better way of doing things than the other alternatives involving laboratory animals.
I am, as you said, currently working at a research institute. The institute actually focuses mostly on human health, and the group that I’m working with, we use dogs as models for humans to study how genetics interacts with behavior, and how it interacts with diseases like cancer, to try to understand more not just about dogs but also about humans. And that’s great, that’s how we get our funding, saying that this is applicable to human health. I’m obviously in it because I care about dogs, figure there’s plenty of other people looking at human health, I’m really more interested in the canine health, but that’s sort of the focus of the lab as a whole.
What we do, anyone who’s interested in learning more about that can go to DarwinsArk.org and check it out. The main project lets people come, sign up their dogs, answer a whole slew of questions about their dog’s behavior, and then get a kit to have us sample their dog’s DNA, which we do just through saliva, so it’s very easy. And then we run analyses and hopefully find fascinating things, although the project is young so far, so we have not solved all the questions of behavioral genetics quite yet.
Melissa Breau: Quite yet. What CAN we know, what do we know about a dog based on their genetics? What kind of traits does research show us come “hardwired”?
Jessica Hekman: A lot of it is still up in the air, and a lot of people are surprised to find out how much we don’t know.
We do know that things like retrieving and herding and pointing, things that you see that are definite differences between breeds, and things that we know that people selectively bred for, those definitely can come hardwired, and so you can see dogs offering retrieving behavior or herding behavior without having been trained to do it, which I think is crazy. How do you program in the DNA that a dog really likes putting things in their mouth and bringing it back to you, or that they really like collecting sheep into a little circle? I think that’s just insane, and we don’t know what it is that does that exactly. We have some initial ideas, but we don’t know what genes are that do that. So we know that that can be more or less hardwired, although, as a lot of you know already, it certainly is not the case that every single Labrador Retriever is interested in retrieving. So even though a particular breed may have many or most dogs in it be hardwired for one particular skill like that, it doesn’t mean that every dog in the breed will be that way.
When it comes to personality, there’s still a lot of differences between dogs. Every dog is really an individual, even though a breed may have some tendencies. So the kinds of stuff that we’re looking at with the Darwin’s Ark project is, what I’m personally interested in, is personality. I would say that personality are traits that change only very slowly over time, that tend to be fairly static over time. They can change, but slowly. Jenny’s example is … I’d definitely say she has a shy personality but that she has become less shy over time, but it has taken a lot of work.
One initial question that we’re looking at based just on the surveys, not even on genetics, has been, “Are there certain personalities per dog breed?” because we know we feel like most Golden Retrievers are friendlier than most, say, German Shepherds, which are more aloof, that kind of question. The initial work that was done by the last person who had my job suggested that that’s not actually the case, that he wasn’t able to see any personality differences between breeds.
It’s interesting, it has occasioned a lot of debate in the lab, because I was sort of like, “That’s shocking, and I think we have to question whether we’re approaching this the right way, because I’m convinced there are personality differences between breeds.” And my boss, Eleanor Karlsson, who’s the head of the lab, said, “Remember a hundred years ago we told ourselves there were differences between humans with different skin color, and we used to honestly believe that based on someone’s skin color we could make assumptions about their IQ. We now know that that was really wrong, at least genetically it was wrong. People of different skin color tended to get different levels of education, but that there were no real genetic differences in things like IQ or personality.” Fair enough, although I would respond that we have not been selectively breeding groups of populations of humans for particular personality traits, and we have been selectively breeding dogs for different personality traits. So I am in the middle of working on trying to dig into that data right now and see what I can see.
One of the first approaches I took … Labradors are a great example for us because they’re the most popular dog in America, and so we have a lot of examples of them, and they’re also kind of behavioral freaks because they have really low risk of being fearful of things and tend very much to be friendly and outgoing. So they’re behavior outliers and there’s also a zillion of them. I look to see what questions in the questionnaire Labs scored really different from breeds of the same size on, and unsurprisingly one of the questions was, “Does your dog like bringing things to you?” Labs statistically, very significantly, were much more likely to want to bring things to you. Whether you want to call that a personality trait or not, I don’t know, but it was a good place to start.
And again, very interesting, not all Labs wanted to bring things to you, but they were much more likely to want to than other dogs. So we’re starting to try to do an analysis of if all these mixed-breed dogs we have, if they have more Labrador in their ancestry, are they more likely to enjoy retrieving. So that’s one of the things that we’re working on right now.
Melissa Breau: Digging into this stuff a little bit more, I think a lot of the time people will have their perfect puppy, and then something goes wrong. The dog becomes reactive or obsessive or … something. And then they decide, “OK, it must be genetic.” Is that true? Is that the case? Is there evidence to the contrary?
Jessica Hekman: I would say that any behavior or ongoing behavior or personality trait is genetic. They’re all genetic. So the puppy being perfect was genetic and the puppy not being perfect was genetic, because it’s all about how genetics interact with environment.
What I caution people against is imagining there’s this pre-programmed switch in the dog’s brain that’s programmed genetically that says, “Around 6 months this dog is going to become fearful, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.” I don’t think that’s true, at least not in our pet dogs.
When we talk about some laboratory populations, where we’re selectively breeding animals, there’s a study with fearful Pointers where they were really, really heavily selecting for super-fearful dogs, and those dogs were never going to be normal. There’s the tame fox study that I used to work on, where they have for many, many decades been selectively breeding some foxes to be very tame and some to be very aggressive, and those, that’s all they breed for. They don’t breed for anything else.
But in our pet dog populations, where we’re breeding for a lot of things, you just don’t see that genetics is going to force an animal to be a certain way in the sense of there being a switch that, “OK, the behavior appeared around 6 or 8 months and I don’t know what caused it and therefore it’s genetic.” I would say that genetics causes risk, and so genetically an animal may be at increased risk of developing fearfulness, for example, and that that risk is going to interact with the animal’s environment. So there may have been something … if you didn’t see the cause … if you see the cause, you sort of know what’s going on — he was just a puppy, and some dog came out of nowhere and bowled him over and bit him, and so of course he was traumatized by that and now he’s fearful of other dogs. You know what happened there.
But sometimes … I think Dash is a fabulous example of I didn’t know what was going on with him. I was very lucky to get to figure out what was going on with him, but I started seeing this reactivity to other dogs. It was never terrible, but it was a real change from how he had been when he was younger and I wasn’t able to perceive that he was in pain and that was why it was.
And it can be much more subtle than that. It can be this stuff that goes on in the environment that sets dogs up to develop in certain ways, can happen while the dog is still in the uterus, it can happen while the dog … super-important stuff happens during that first eight weeks when the dog is with the breeder, and again, stuff that we don’t necessarily have control over. It could be interactions with the other littermates. It could be this is the smallest dog in the litter, and the biggest dog in the litter bullied him and that’s how it turned out. Not the fault of the breeder, not the fault of the owner, but also not a genetic switch, but perhaps that dog was genetically at risk of becoming fearful and that experience made him or her more fearful.
I also feel like we don’t fully understand always … it’s hard for us to grasp quite how complex this concept of environment is, and so you might say to yourself, “Just because two dogs are both in the same environment …” Dash and Jenny, they’re both living in our house, so it’s the same environment, but I would point out that their perception of what environment they’re in differs from each other.
There’s been a lot of research in humans, when we look into how different siblings growing up in the same household basically perceive very different environments, certainly if they’re of different ages. One had been an only child for a while and also maybe was being raised by parents who didn’t make quite as much money early on, and then the parents started making more money and at the same time also had another child, and so the second child experiences a very different environment. They are not an only child, parents are much more affluent now because they’re older, maybe they’re being raised in a house instead of an apartment, so they have very different environments. Even twins, who you think, Well, they’re born at the same time, but they can have very different environments as well, based on just their interactions with each other where one starts being the bossy one, one starts being the more submissive one, they can have different friends in school and different interactions with that environment.
And I think it’s really the same for our dogs, that we just don’t realize what tiny little differences there are that they have this whole world that they perceive that we don’t.
So I think the answer is there isn’t a genetic switch to make a dog be one way or another. There’s only risk, and so it’s all this complex interaction that gets us there. I hope that answers that question.
Melissa Breau: Yeah, absolutely, and you started to talk a little bit in there about how early life experiences can have a big impact on adult personality, right? Can you talk a little bit about some of the research or the science? I know you shared some interesting stuff when you did the webinar, and you’re planning on including some good stuff in your class.
Jessica Hekman: I actually talk a lot about the socialization period in my class on The Biology of Building a Great Performance Dog, and that’s not yet on the schedule to come back, but I definitely will be offering it again.
I am super-lucky right now to be working in the same laboratory as Dr. Kathryn Lord, who is also a post-doc working in Karlsson Lab, and she is the expert on dog socialization. She did her Ph.D. looking at differences in timing in dog versus wolf socialization, and she has amazing insight, so one of the reasons I love my job so much is I can just go hang out with my friend Kathryn and ask her questions about socialization and she will hold forth and I will learn so much. That has been amazing to add on to, in addition to all the reading that I had done on my own, because socialization is super-super-interesting.
One of the things she really emphasizes is how important that first eight weeks is, how much is going on at that time, and how these puppies need to interact with their environment very early on and try to learn what’s normal and expected in their world. Puppies and other mammals are born without a strong fear response, just “whatever I’m interacting with for those early weeks.” Puppies start leaving the nest around 3 or 4 weeks. They don’t actually start being afraid of things until somewhere between 5 and 8 weeks, depending on the breed.
And so they have somewhere between one and four weeks in which they’re interacting with the world without any fearfulness and just being set up to make good associations with everything that they see, the idea being that they would be carefully under their mother’s care at that time, and that then by 8 weeks they’re starting to venture out farther, and then it starts being really useful for them to be afraid of things, because at that point there might actually be predators and dangers that they need to be able to run away from.
So that means that that really important time before they’re afraid of things, when they’re set up to make these good associations, is happening while they’re at the breeder’s. That’s before you get your hands on them, which is one of the reasons why, when I was looking at breeders, I looked into finding someone who had done a whole lot of work with the puppies, giving them a lot of enrichment and taking them offsite.
One of the things that happened with Jenny was she had never left her farm until she was 10 months old. So with Dash, someone who takes the puppies out for exploratory field trips, and does early scent stimulation and all that kind of stuff, that’s really important to do early on, although I think we also sometimes discount how much interesting stuff is also going on with puppies in the uterus. There’s been a lot of work on that with laboratory rodents, and it turns out that puppies start having different experiences from their littermates even in the uterus, so they’re getting, based on where they are relative to the bitch’s blood supply, they can get fewer or more of her stress hormones, or fewer or more nutrients, just based on how the blood supply goes from one end of the uterus to the other, and if there’s a bunch of puppies, it may be a bit depleted of both stress hormones and nutrients by the time it gets to the puppies at the far end.
Melissa Breau: Interesting.
Jessica Hekman: Yeah, a lot of interesting stuff there that we don’t fully understand how that sets dogs up for issues later on, but we do believe that it does.
Melissa Breau: That’s neat, and it’s very different from what some people necessarily think about.
Jessica Hekman: We think about how important it is to socialize puppies when we bring them home, and for sure it is, I’m not discounting that. It is super-important. But there’s a lot that goes on before that first eight weeks that is also really important.
Melissa Breau: I think we’ve gotten into this a little bit already, but thinking about our audience, if you have somebody who’s evaluating an adult dog and they’re not entirely sure where that dog came from, are there things about that dog’s personality when they meet them that they should consider “fixed”? How flexible is that when you’re talking about an adult dog?
Jessica Hekman: Of course, because all dogs are individuals, it’s different for every dog, so it’s really hard to know, when you start working with a dog, how far they’re going to get.
I love using Jenny as an example, as when I got her, I had no idea. I didn’t know. I had been doing rescue work before, and I had known through the rescue there have been some dogs who would come in super-shy, and they made these magical turnarounds in a month or so, when they realized they were in a new home that was safe. So she could have just turned around immediately. She didn’t.
And then, after you’ve had the dog for a year, the question is, How far can she go? At the time, I figured, She’s never going to be a normal dog. I had pretty much given up on being able to take her for walks around the block, even. I thought, I’ll make sure to have houses with big yards, she can exercise in the yard at home, I will minimize trips to the vet and make home visits for her, and that was as far as I thought she was going to go for a long time. She has just continued to improve and that was surprising, and it was powerful to me to see how far some dogs can go.
On the other hand … so I don’t consider personality completely fixed, but it’s also about how hard you want to work on it, and Jenny, obviously, it was really a welfare issue for her. She was terrified of the world, and it was really important to me to make her feel more comfortable in her own skin. I had taken her on knowing that was going to be a project and a learning experience for me that I really wanted to work on.
In terms of sports, there’s this question of, if you get a dog who’s wrong for a particular sport, as it turns out — like I got Dash really wanting to do agility, and it turns out it may not be the best sport for him. Now could I get him to where he was competing successfully in agility and was really enjoying it? I probably could, if I put in the kind of time working just on that that I put in with Jenny. I’m sure that I could get him to where he relaxed more and figured it wasn’t going to hurt so much, and improve my own handling skills so that he’s more confident. I think I could get him much farther than I have so far. But is it worth it? It’s not a welfare issue for him. He doesn’t miss agility. He loves nosework, he loves parkour, so I’m focusing on that stuff.
So there’s this tradeoff, definitely, of how much effort do you want to put into it, and are you doing it for yourself or are you doing it for the dog?
Melissa Breau: Assuming that most of our audience is probably trying to determine whether or not a dog is suitable for sports, evaluating an adult dog most likely, from that angle, what things would you look at? What things would you consider?
Jessica Hekman: For sure, it’s going to be easiest in an adult dog to evaluate how good their structure is, whether they are the right size and shape and conformation for the sport that you’re interested in, and whether they’re medically healthy.
Assessing behavioral health is going to be another important thing. Depending on where they’re coming from, it can be harder to tell behavioral health. So if a dog has been in a shelter for months and is really shut down, it can be hard to tell if when you bring them into your house they’re going to open up. And then some dogs of course the opposite, that you have them in the shelter and they stress up, and so they become really jumpy, mouthy, crazy, and it’s hard to know if once you start working with them they’ll be able to have more self-control or not. It would be very rare to find a dog coming out of a situation where they’d been in a shelter for some period of time where they appeared behaviorally healthy, and it’s hard to know how easy it’s going to be to turn them around.
Definitely looking to see if a dog has an interest in humans is going to be super-important, and that, for me, I think was Jenny’s saving grace was that she was really, really interested in humans and wanted to be around humans. Obviously Jenny is not the kind of dog that any of you I think would go and pick up as a sports prospect. I don’t think she’s ever going to be able to compete. I mean, she’s 10 now, so I’m not looking at her being able to ever be a competition dog, although I am actually hoping to put some parkour titles on her, because we can do that at home just on video.
But for a dog who has their act a little more together than Jenny did, making sure that the dog is interested in people. If you go into the room and the dog is just not interested in you — they should want to check out the new environment first, that’s fine, but if after they’ve had a couple of minutes to sniff around, they should also want to come and check in with you. If a dog is just not interested in interacting with you, that is a major warning sign for me that that is going to be a difficult dog to work with. It’s also ideal obviously to try to assess right away whether the dog has some interest in toys and in food. But again, all of it can change when you bring the dog home.
It’s too bad that there’s no way to a hundred percent guarantee that you’re going to get a dog that is really good at the sport that you’re interested in. It’s something that upsets everybody. We’d all like to have the guarantee that before we commit and tell the dog that they’re going to be our dog for the rest of their lives and we’re going to take care of them, and we become emotionally attached to them, we’d like to know that they’re going to be a good partner for the sport that we want as well, and there’s just not a way to a hundred percent tell about that, unfortunately, either route that you go, whether it be getting an adult dog that somebody else has had, or whether it be getting a puppy from a breeder. You can minimize your risks, but there’s always going to be some risks.
Certainly when you get a dog as an adult you should try to take advantage of all the opportunities that you have to get information about how that dog was in its previous environment. So definitely if you’re getting a dog from a shelter, I would ask them, “Are there staff members who like this dog, who know this dog, who worked with this dog?” A lot of shelters will even have training classes that they do just for enrichment with their dogs, and they’ll be able to tell you some stuff about how the dog has responded to that. But even failing that, if you ask around, you’ll often find people who clean the kennels will say, “Oh, I love this dog, she really got to know me, she’s always so glad to see me.” That’s useful information. Or “She barks, and she seems really nervous of me and was unable to warm up to me, even though I tried to offer her treats.” That would be useful information too.
If you go the rescue route and a dog has been in somebody’s home for a couple of weeks, that’s fabulous. That is just a goldmine of information. Hopefully you all know this already, but definitely sit down with those people and grill them for whatever they can tell you about that dog.
Melissa Breau: Right. As trainers, I think we know that behavior modification works, but what does the science say about how that and genetics interact? You mentioned you’ve done so much work with Jenny, and I’d love to hear the other side of that, the research and that piece of it.
Jessica Hekman: As I said, there’s just no guarantee and biology is really complicated. And it’s really early days yet, too, of figuring out how we’re going to be able to use genetics to predict anything.
What we’re looking at right now is working with some groups who breed dogs for guide-dog work and assistance-dog work. They manage populations of dogs, and we’re trying to get to where an initial goal for us is to try to find some markers in the DNA that will help us say, “Dogs with this marker tend to do better on this trait,” whatever trait it is they’re interested in is. They’re interested in things like not afraid of thunderstorms, and not afraid of walking on unstable surfaces, and how easily stressed-out is the dog. We’d like to be able to give them some genetic tests for stuff like that, with the understanding that these genetic tests are useful for a population of dogs, and there’s always going to be this interaction with the environment, and so even if you have genetic tests like that, that’s to help you decide which dogs to breed and to try to make some selections among the litter, and these are the ones that are going to be better guide dogs and these maybe would be more useful going off and doing some kind of tracking work or something like that.
But it’s still very much never going to be a black-and-white “Yes, he passed genetically, he’s going to be a guide dog.” We’re pretty much never, at least with the current state of the technology, not going to be able to say things like that. And it makes it even harder when you’re asking things about individuals. So those groups working with populations, what we’d really like as sports people would be to be able to say, “I don’t care about the whole population of dogs. I just want one for me that will do my favorite sport.”
Genetics is always going to be really hard, so at this point we don’t even have any sort of tests that we can do. But even when we start getting to where we’re going to be able to do them, it will only give you a hint, it will only be a small piece of information to put into the rest of the picture and try to figure out what’s going on with that dog.
Melissa Breau: To bring it back to what you said initially, it’s really about genetics may put a dog more or less at risk for particular behavioral traits, but there’s really quite a bit of flexibility within that.
Jessica Hekman: Yeah, and remembering that genetics isn’t a switch. It’s all about risk, and whether a dog is more sensitive to their environment maybe and more at risk for developing some problem.
But I think one thing I didn’t really say enough earlier in this conversation, though, is that if you are raising a dog from a puppy, and the dog does end up developing a shy personality, and you’ve done everything right, I do want to emphasize that it does not mean that it’s your fault. It doesn’t mean that the dog had some switch determining that it was going to be shy. It just means that there’s a lot going on that you may not be able to see, and it definitely means you shouldn’t give up and say, “This is just genetic, it can’t be changed.” It probably can be changed.
You aren’t going to know going in where you can end up.
I didn’t know going in with Jenny where I was going to end up, and she’s much less shy than I ever thought she’d get to be. I didn’t know with Dash going in where I was going to end up. I hoped I’d end up in agility. I ended up in nosework. In both cases I’m really happy with where I ended up. They are fabulous dogs and I love them so much. So working with your dog, I guess, and not giving up, but also being open to different paths is hopefully the answer.
Melissa Breau: Okay, for those interested, where do they go to learn more?
Jessica Hekman: I definitely mentioned DarwinsArk.org. That’s where my work project is. And I mentioned that we were working with guide dogs and assistance dogs currently, and we are hoping to start expanding into sports dogs soon.
I’m definitely going to make so much noise about that on the alumni list when it happens, and I’ll probably call you up, Melissa, and see if we can do another podcast just talking about that. But it doesn’t hurt to get signed up now and be prepared for when that happens.
I am also teaching a class pretty much about all of this stuff in December. It’s a class about the genetics of dog behavior, and with the help of some very creative people on the alumni list, I decided to call it The Melting Pot: Genes, Environment, and Personality. And so it’s very much about genetics, but it’s also about how it’s not just genetics, it’s also environment. That’s going to be in December. I think it should be on the schedule, and I’ll make sure that it definitely is by the time this podcast goes live.
Also I am very active on both Twitter and Facebook, and I tweet and message on Facebook a lot of different stories about dog science. It’s some of the stuff that I’ve written, but more often I find stuff out there and share it. So people who want to know more about this stuff, following me both on Twitter and on Facebook is a good way to do it. Twitter is @dogzombieblog and Facebook is Facebook.com/dogzombieblog, or in either case if you just search for Jessica Hekman or go to dogzombie.com, in all those cases you’ll get links to those things.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Jessica. This was great.
Jessica Hekman: It was a lot of fun. Thanks for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with Linda Case to talk about dog nutrition.
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.
I got an email a few weeks ago from a listener, asking if I’d consider doing a podcast on doing sports with rescue dogs and/or dogs who join the family as adults. She suggested a number of excellent questions, so this will be the first of two podcasts where we’ll look specifically at rescues and training for adult dogs, with plans to do sports with those dogs!
To be released 10/26/2018, an interview with Mike Shikashio to talk about working with dog-dog aggression.
Today we’ll be doing something a little bit differently — I got an email a few weeks ago from a listener, asking if I’d consider doing a podcast on doing sports with rescue dogs and/or dogs who join the family as adults. She suggested a number of excellent questions, so this will be the first of two podcasts where we’ll look specifically at rescues and training for adult dogs, with plans to do sports with those dogs.
For this episode of the podcast, I’m here with Sara Brueske.
Sara has been training dogs for over 15 years; she became a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner in 2011, and jumped into the world of professional dog training.
Sara and her dogs work at Purina Farms in Missouri, where they demonstrate the sports of disc, agility, and dock diving for the public in over 200 shows each year. She has a mix of purpose-bred dogs and rescues, and also frequently fosters dogs who have sports potential.
She and her dogs also compete nationwide. Currently, she is active in the sports of disc dog, agility, mondioring and dock diving — plus, she’s a trick dog enthusiast.
Sara has recently re-entered the world of competitive Disc Dog and was the 2016 overall UpDog International Champion as well as the 2017 UpDog Freestyle Champion.
She believes in positive reinforcement not only for dogs, but for their handlers, and her biggest joy in training is watching a handler and dog become partners and grow as a team.
Hi Sara! Welcome back to the podcast.
Sara Brueske: Hi Melissa. Thank you for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, can you remind everyone just a little bit about your dogs and what you’re working on with them?
Sara Brueske: Sure. I have a lot of dogs, and every time I listen to your podcast, everybody lists off their dogs and what they do with their dogs. I’m not going to do all of that because I do have twelve dogs.
Like you said, I have a mixture of purposely bred dogs, as well as rescue or rehomed dogs that were rehomed later in their lives. My smallest dog is a 6-pound Papillion named Rush, and he does all the sports everybody else does — he does agility, Frisbee, and dock diving, believe it or not — all the way up to I have a couple of Malinois that I do a few sports with. Creature is my youngest Malinois, he is training in mondioring. Famous does mondioring as well as dock diving, Frisbee, agility. I have a few Border Collies, a Border Staffie, I do breed Australian Koolies as well, so four of those. And I have a Labrador Retriever. So lots of dogs.
Melissa Breau: How many of that current mix are rescue dogs or dogs that you have as adults?
Sara Brueske: I have five of those twelve that are either rescue or rehomed dogs. I want to touch on that a little more before we get into this. I lumped those dogs in together, whether they were adopted from a shelter or a rescue organization or if they were privately rehomed, and so five of my dogs have been acquired through one of those means.
Edgar — I have a Boston Terrier/Shih-Tzu mix — I adopted him from a local animal shelter when he was about 5 or 6 months old. He was turned in because he had had double cherry-eye surgery and his family couldn’t afford that. So I have him, and I have Taboo, my Border Collie/Staffordshire Bull Terrier mix, and she was rescued from a little bit of a neglectful situation — her owner had too many dogs and couldn’t properly care for them.
And then I have Kickstart, who was a private rehome, as well as Knockout Nellie, my Labrador, who was a private rehome, and then Zuma, who is my very first Frisbee dog. She’s a Border Collie mix who was adopted from a herding-breed-specific rescue up in Minnesota. She was found as a stray in Missouri.
Melissa Breau: You’re kind of in a unique position, since your dogs are your job and they earn their keep. I’d love to talk about how you evaluate potential dogs to determine if you think they’d be a good fit for sports. Maybe you could start by talking a little bit about general temperament. What kind of temperament do you want for a sports candidate and how do you begin to evaluate if a dog has that temperament when you’re meeting them?
Sara Brueske: I do a lot of evaluations for potential sport dogs. I am approached quite often by either rescue shelters or private adopters who want a dog evaluated to see if they think it’s a good sport candidate.
I do have a bit that I’m looking for versus what a normal, average sport handler could handle. What I’m looking for is pretty excessive as far as the temperament soundness of a dog because of what I do. We do perform in front of thousands of people, a lot of times they’re waving corndogs in our dogs’ faces, there’s a lot of loud noises, it’s an unpredictable atmosphere, and so I really need a very stable temperament dog, somebody who has crazy-high drive for toys or food, one that has nice, natural handler focus where I don’t really have to spend a lot of time building that relationship. So for me that’s really, really important, having those things. So that natural handler focus, food drive, toy drive — I want to see all of those.
I would love it if a dog has a natural retrieve and you throw something out and they automatically re-orientate back to me, because that’s less I have to teach them. And I love it if the dog already has tug, because tugging is a huge thing as a reinforcer.
Melissa Breau: What other traits do you look for when you’re evaluating a dog?
Sara Brueske: I look for, personally, a very environmentally stable dog, one that will perform anywhere, regardless of the distractions. So when I evaluate those dogs for myself, or even dogs that people bring to me, I always try to evaluate them in a new location, somewhere that doesn’t have a lot of distractions, because I don’t really want to put them through the test, but somewhere they haven’t been before, rather than in maybe the foster home’s backyard, or a dog park that they frequent, or something along those lines. I want it to be a novel location for that dog.
The other thing I want to do is I want to try to observe that dog. I don’t want to just interact with them right away. I want to see how long does it take for them to seek out attention from me, how long does it take them to stop sniffing one spot in particular, or to stop looking at the birds, or that sort of thing.
The other part is — I want to dive back to that handler focus — is I don’t really necessarily worry if they don’t interact with me, the new person, the evaluator, right away. I want to see how they interact with their established handler. This doesn’t work so well with shelter dogs because they typically have many handlers that work with them, but maybe dogs that are in a foster home situation or a private rehome situation. I want to see that they’re engaging easily with their handler, their owner, foster, whatever it may be, or are they fighting for their attention, that sort of deal. Do they immediately engage and start playing with them in that new location.
Melissa Breau: You said in there how long it takes them to refocus on you, and stuff like that. When you talk about time length, obviously anybody who hears this is going to go, “What is a really long time, and what is a reasonable amount of time for a dog in a new environment need to absorb things?”
Sara Brueske: I was thinking about this before I came on here. It’s such a gut instinct when it comes to these sort of things. I don’t want a dog that takes minutes, obviously. They sniff one spot and they check in with me, and they go sniff another spot and they check in with me, that sort of deal. I don’t want them just head down the entire time.
And maybe if I do come towards that dog, I want them interacting with me a little bit. A head check back to me sort of deal, or if I call them over, I want to see some sort of interaction and some sort of reaction to me seeking out their attention. I don’t want a dog that just blows me off because there might be a rabbit smell further out there.
Also, if I go out there with cookies, do they come out and do they want the treats right away, or do they take one and then wander away. That sort of deal.
Melissa Breau: Are there “red flags” or things that immediately make you think, “This dog would probably not be a good sports candidate”?
Sara Brueske: I have a few red flags I tend to avoid personally, and then there’s some red flags I tell a lot of people to avoid.
Aggression to handling — this is somebody they know, their handler or somebody they interact with on a daily basis, and that person says, “I can’t really reach and grab their collar,” something along those lines that shows me that the dog might be distrustful of people. That’s a big hurdle to overcome. When you’re looking for a sport candidate, a lot of people just want to dive right into the fun training right away, and so that’s something that would be a big obstacle for them to have to overcome before they start that sport training.
I don’t want to see them ignore that current handler, so if that handler is calling to them and the dog is like, “No, I’m going to sniff over here, I’m totally ignoring you,” or they’re not taking food from that current handler, or they’re not out playing with that current handler, those are huge red flags to me. That shows me that maybe the drive isn’t quite where we want it to be, maybe their handler focus isn’t quite where we want it to be, or maybe there might be an environmental issue. We don’t really know in that short amount of time, but it’s going to be one of those issues.
A couple of other red flags would be reactivity to dogs or people, combined with low drive or lack of handler focus. So not reactivity by itself. I have a few dogs that are either human-reactive or dog-reactive, or even environmentally reactive, but because their food drive or their toy drive or their relationship with me is strong enough, that naturally overcomes and allows me to have some way to work with that reactivity, so it’s easier for me to overcome that particular obstacle. But if I have a dog that has lower drive and lower handler focus, it’s going to be a lot harder for me to overcome that obstacle in a reasonable amount of time. The other red flag … we all know that dog sports is not just going there and competing with your dog and doing the exercises. There’s a lot more to it. There may be travel, there may be going to classes, there might be a whole weekend experience where your dog is in a crate a lot of the time. So if I have a dog that can’t settle and relax in a crate, or they have a previous history of showing separation anxiety, or escaping out of crates, or any of those type of issues, it’s going to be harder for my dog to adjust in a trial setting, and that’s very important when you’re looking at a sport or performance dog.
The same with what I do with shows. If I’m traveling across states to do a show, I need a dog that can do that and relax, so that by the time I get there to the show I have some dog left rather than an anxious dog to work with.
Melissa Breau: I think we saw a lot of interesting bits and pieces in there, especially when it came to the reactivity not necessarily being a disqualifier for a dog that you’re evaluating for sports, so long as you have tools in the toolbox right — something so that you can work with it?
Sara Brueske: If we look at Zuma, she is my first rescue dog, a dog I trialed in agility, she has a few titles before she injured her shoulders, as well as I competed in Frisbee with her and she still does shows with me today. She is very dog-reactive, but I was able to use some management tools based on her drive in a trial setting for agility as well as Frisbee that it didn’t really impact our performances at all. It didn’t take a long time to overcome that issue because she was so driven to work with me, as well as having adequate food drive and toy drive for that.
Now if you look at Edgar, my Boston Terrier/Shih-Tzu mix, he’s pretty human-reactive. He’s very uncertain around people, especially adults, and so that’s very challenging for him to perform in front of a crowd. However, his food drive is off the charts. He is a nutty, crazy boy, and so I was able to help him overcome that pretty easily so that he works in our shows on a regular basis and he does a great, phenomenal job, and he has fun, which is the most important part.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. That’s definitely not to be under-valued: making sure that they’re still having a good time.
Sara Brueske: Yes.
Melissa Breau: Are there things that immediately make you think a dog is especially trainable, or traits that are “must haves” when it comes to potential sport dogs?
Sara Brueske: I think those are actually two very different things. When I think of a dog that’s especially trainable, I think of a dog that is far on the spectrum of, “This dog is going to be really easy,” or “I can get this dog in shows really fast,” or “This dog is going to make a fantastic trial dog for somebody without having to do a lot of additional training on top of the training required for that sport,” versus a “must have.”
For must-haves, I kind of mentioned those already. I want to have some drive for either food or toys, preferably both, because it’s a lot easier to manage arousal levels and that sort of thing if you have both of those drives. But depending on the sport, one or the other works great.
And then an environmentally stable dog would be nice to have so you don’t have to overcome a lot of anxiety issues, as well as a dog that is OK being crated in a strange situation, or a dog that at least doesn’t have a history of being anxious in a crate, so that you can start from scratch with that.
For a dog that’s especially trainable, when I’m evaluating them in that new environment, I want a dog that acclimates super-fast. They know the game of fetch, they’re throwing their ball at me immediately, or at least throwing it at their handler immediately. They want to engage, they want to play, regardless of their surroundings. That, to me, is like the best dog. One that’s focused and engaged with the current handler, one that plays with me easily without even questioning it. They’re just like, “Somebody throw this ball, somebody play tug with me, somebody give me a cookie.”
And one that doesn’t disconnect despite the distractions around, so if another dog happens to walk by, they’re not like, “Oh hey, let me go check out that dog.” They’re super laser-focused onto what we’re doing.
There have been a few dogs I’ve evaluated that that’s what I get. They walk onto the field, leash comes off, and they are throwing their toys at me, ready to play right away. And there’s obviously dogs I’ve evaluated that don’t connect with me at all, or their handlers, and they’re completely distracted by that new environment.
Melissa Breau: We’ll get to this a little bit more later on, but I think that that’s really the key between what people think of as drive versus what’s actually useful drive. But before we get there, I wanted to ask what you think when you’re evaluating a dog. What do you think is likely “fixed behavior” in an adult dog, something that would require a lot of work to modify or change, and comparing that to something that you think is realistically probably pretty easy to modify or change, and how do you figure that out, especially if you only get a brief time to do your initial evaluation when you meet that dog?
Sara Brueske: Everybody has experienced at one point, whether you’re working with somebody’s dog, or you have a rehomed rescue dog, or it’s your friend’s dog, or your spouse’s dog, or whatever it is, where the dog acts a certain way with one handler and acts completely different with a second handler. It might be something like, “Oh, my dog only barks at strangers when my wife is walking him, but he doesn’t bark at strangers when I’m walking him.”
It’s kind of the same thing when you adopt an older dog. It’s a blank slate. It’s an opportunity for you to start off from the right foot, and if you know that that dog has potential bad habits, like maybe dropping … we’ll take a Frisbee dog, for example. They love Frisbee, but they drop the Frisbee 10 feet away from you, so you can’t ever grab it in a timely fashion. So you know your dog has that problem. The retrieve’s broken with their current owner. There are steps you can take to prevent that from occurring in your new game with your new partner, especially if you know they’re going to happen, and there are steps you can do to train them to do it the right way right off the bat.
It’s the same thing with any kind of behavior problem, in my opinion. If you know the dog is really reactive towards men, there are steps you can take right away to set up good experiences with men, prevent the bad habits from creeping into your new relationship, and take that step forward right off the bat.
And so, for me, there are very few problems that are fixed behaviors when you’re adopting a new dog. It’s beneficial knowing what those are, but if you don’t know what they are and they crop up and you see them, immediately you can change what you’re doing, because your dog doesn’t have a set routine with you. They don’t have a relationship with you yet, and so it’s your chance to mold that relationship and those habits into what you want them to be right off the bat.
I think the only one that really comes to mind as far as one that’s difficult to fix are those crate problems. Once again, it’s really hard to change the picture of being crated to a dog without some serious intervention. So if the dog has bad experiences in a crate to the point where they’re trying to break out, they’re not settling, they’re spinning, they’re barking, all of those anxiety-type behaviors, and you take that dog to a trial or anything like that, that’s a picture that’s always going to be the same to them, and so it’s difficult to take that from their old home, those bad habits they’ve already developed, and then flip-flop that to a dog that’s perfectly able to go anywhere and be crated. That’s one of the ones that I struggle with personally as far as looking past it when I adopt a dog.
Melissa Breau: I think when it comes to things like “drive” or energy levels, a lot of the times rescues or shelters may think a dog with a lot of energy necessarily is a dog with a lot of drive and therefore a really good sports dog. Is there a certain amount of reading between the lines that needs to happen when looking at descriptions for dogs? How do you decide if a dog is even worth going to take a look at?
Sara Brueske: It’s all reading between the lines. Everybody is so fantastic at spinning things into a good way, or they like to over-share the truth. They’ll say, “Oh, my dog has so much energy, they’re literally jumping off the couch or over the couch,” or “They have so much energy, I can’t keep them contained in the backyard. They love to jump fences,” or “My dog loves to play so much, he plays with other dogs nonstop.” All those things, to me, are red flags.
So we have a dog that’s just crazy in the house. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they enjoy playing with the handler with balls or tugs or anything along those lines. A lot of times I’ll ask those people, “Do they love to play fetch?” And the person is like, “Well, I don’t know. I’ve never tried.” And so that’s kind of a red flag there. Now I have this dog that has so much energy, and they never learned to put that energy into a useful game, and so now they created their own games, jumping over the couch, or jumping out of the backyard, or something along those lines.
And the one where he plays nonstop with other dogs, he needs a job to do, he never stops moving. Now they’ve created a dog that is hyper-focused on playing with other dogs, and they’re going to learn that if they want to expend all this energy, they have to go interact with another dog. So you get those dogs that are really excited about playing with other dogs, but they have no real human interaction history built up. So those are the red flags to me.
But as far as things that I love to see, I want to see somebody tell me that the dog is obsessed with her ball, and once they say they’re obsessed with their ball, I’m like, “I need to meet that dog right away.” “They’re crazy about their ball,” “They’ll play fetch nonstop for hours,” or something along those lines. “They carry the ball everywhere with them,” something like that. Or “He’ll do anything for a treat.” If he’ll do anything for a treat, that’s probably a dog that has pretty high food drive, most likely, and I’m crazy about those dogs as well.
The one thing I tell everybody, anybody that contacts me regarding a dog that they think might need a sport home, I say, “Send me video.” I want to see a video of the dog playing fetch, if he knows how to play fetch, or tug, if he knows how to play tug, or taking food and showing off whatever tricks he knows, or something along those lines. I don’t want to see video of him interacting with other dogs unless there is a concern that the dog is going to be reactive or anything along those lines. That doesn’t interest me as much as showing those drives. A lot of times we just want to see unedited videos of that — two minutes unedited of trying to play with this dog is all I want to see.
Melissa Breau: I think most people, whether they’re adopting from a rescue situation or a rehome situation, or unless you’re walking straight into a shelter, it’s probably pretty possible to get those two minutes of video footage in this world of smartphones and whatnot.
Sara Brueske: It absolutely is. And even when I’m contacted by shelters, a lot of the time they’ll say that they have a dog that’s crazy about toys, “Why don’t you come out and evaluate?” Most of the time they can get us video, even 30 seconds of them playing fetch with the dogs — they’re doing that anyway — and with our cell phones nowadays it’s really easy to get that. And generally they have some sort of play area. Even if it’s inside, we can evaluate dogs pretty well as far as that goes.
Melissa Breau: Let’s say you get a dog, you don’t know their training history, you don’t really know anything about their history, maybe. How does that impact what you do with them in terms of training, and how does that process compare to what you do with a brand-new puppy who obviously has a clean slate?
Sara Brueske: It is exactly the same as a new puppy, because even if you get a new puppy and they’re a clean slate, they always have those built-in fears and anxieties and drives and happinesses and those sorts of things that are individual to that particular puppy.
If I adopt an older dog, even if they’ve had previous training, I don’t necessarily want to know it, because — and I have done this before, I’ve adopted a dog that is fully trained and knows Frisbee or whatever it is along those lines — it’s not trained the way that I would train a dog, and so if that behavior falls apart, I don’t know how to rebuild it in the way the dog originally learned it.
So I’d rather just retrain the behavior from the ground up and hope it goes quickly, if they already know it, with my way of training it, so that I know how to fix it when it starts to fall apart, or I know how to maintain it as we go throughout my dog’s career.
So if I adopt a dog that maybe has done a pet agility class in the past, where they’ve gone on the agility equipment, I wouldn’t handle that dog any different from a dog that I was adopting that was … or a puppy. I would teach it all from the ground up right away.
Melissa Breau: I know that you have a pretty involved puppy protocol that you go through with new puppies, too, which I imagine that that would give you a really good sense probably pretty quickly with a new dog, even if it’s an adult dog, of where their strengths are and where their weaknesses are and where they might need some work, and give you a really good sense of what they need and what they don’t need, and where their balance is or isn’t, so to speak.
Sara Brueske: Exactly. I guess the benefit of adopting an older dog, if it comes from a private rehome or a foster situation is, like I said earlier in the podcast, knowing those bad habits.
So if we’re talking, like, a Frisbee dog, we all hate it when our dog drops the Frisbee 10 feet away from us and we’re in a competition and we have to run and grab that Frisbee and we’re wasting valuable time. So if we know that our dog has a tendency toward bad habits like that, we can just avoid those and make sure that we set our dogs up for success to counteract those bad habits right away, if they’re an adult dog, versus a puppy, we don’t know what bad habits are going to be inclined to do genetically as far as that.
So if I have, like, a Border Collie that loves to stare at something rather than move towards it and tug, I can fix that right away by my play style with that adult dog, versus a puppy, I wouldn’t know if they were really inclined to do that behavior.
Melissa Breau: It’s funny because you keep bringing that up, and it’s like, hmm, were you sitting there watching when I was training Levi this morning?
I want to shift gears a little bit. I know that in addition to your own dogs, you foster, and typically the dogs you foster are dogs that are likely going to be good sports prospects. I was hoping you’d share a little bit about that. How do you wind up with the dogs you do? How did you become a foster home for those specific types of dogs? I think a lot of people think that maybe fostering dogs would be a good way to find one that’s a good fit for them and their sport and whatnot.
Sara Brueske: Yes, fostering is definitely a good way to go. It’s a hands-on experience. You’re helping the dog out, you’re helping the rescue out, or the shelter out. Worst case you’re giving the dog a good experience, hopefully you’re giving the dog a good experience, by fostering them, and you’re learning more about that dog, But I am always one for foster-to-adopt. I think that’s definitely a good way to go.
My network of adopters is just sport-dog people. I don’t have a good network of adopters that are looking for a good pet. All the people I know in the world of dog, they all do agility, fly ball, disc, diving, they’re all looking for their next competition dog, and so that’s why I really focus on sport candidate fosters versus just whatever dog is in the shelter, because I’ve had dogs that have had lower drive that I’ve tried to foster before, and it takes me forever to find them a home, versus most people when they’re looking for a pet, they go to specific shelters or rescues, and those dogs get adopted and they get the appropriate eyes on them right away.
And so I look for the dogs that I can place relatively easy, the ones that other resources like shelters or rescue groups don’t have the network towards, and so it’s my little niche area that I can make sure I get those dogs the right eyes on them right away.
A lot of times the rescues I’ve worked with in the past they’ll contact me and say they have a candidate that they would like a foundation on, or maybe further evaluated, or they just don’t have an appropriate foster for, and I’ll take that dog there.
Sometimes individual people will contact me. They’re struggling with their dog and they want to rehome, but they don’t have the resources, they don’t have the knowledge of where to go, so they’ll contact me that way.
A lot of local people that come out and watch our show and know that we work with a lot of rescue dogs, they’ll contact us when they know of a dog that needs a home that they think is a little toy-crazy or nutty, or sometimes I just see a dog that’s shared on Facebook, and I think it’s a very interesting dog, and I’ll offer that I can foster and maybe put a foundation on it, and sometimes they take me up on it and sometimes they don’t. So they kind of come from all over the place.
Melissa Breau: As somebody who has fostered and owned a wide variety of dogs and breeds, are there similarities that you see? Differences? Anything we haven't gotten into?
Sara Brueske: I think it’s just your typical breed differences. Anybody who has taken any of my seminars or classes, I always say, if I say something like, “Your dog’s doing that because it’s a Border Collie,” or anything along those lines, it’s not a bash on the breed at all. Or “Your dog’s doing that because it’s a Cattle Dog,” or because it’s a Koolie or a Malinois, those are just the traits you tend to see. So depending on the breed, there are definitely things that you see that are similar from breed to breed to breed, and when you see an outlier that’s always a cool thing because it goes against the normal grain for that breed.
I think I tend to like a certain type of dog, and so I tend to gravitate towards those dogs, dogs that are just kind of crazy and off the wall, crazy about their toys, but other than that there’s such a big difference between breeds and dogs that it’s pretty crazy.
I love fostering, so I get to know so many different dogs. I get a random itching to foster some random, weird, scruffy dog that I see, and I’m like, “I need to have that dog.” And part of it’s really cool for me because it gives me that hands-on experience with that breed that I wouldn’t have experienced another way. So yeah, I definitely want to foster the Golden Retriever puppy that I haven’t had the chance to work with one-on-one before, or some other random breed. It’s a learning experience always.
Melissa Breau: One last question to summarize all of this stuff. If somebody is listening and they’re looking for a new sports dog, and they want to go that adult dog or rescue route, to bring it all together, what advice would you give that person?
Sara Brueske: If I was looking for a new sport dog or had a close friend that was looking for another sport dog, I would definitely point them towards either breed-specific rescues or sport-dog-specific rescues. Just a situation where the dog is in a home, and that foster home has had a chance to properly evaluate them in a bunch of different situations, and that they know that dog’s tendencies, there are not going to be any surprises that crop up on you as far as that goes, and it gives you a good chance to really evaluate that dog versus a dog coming from a shelter situation.
I’m not saying you can’t find great dogs at shelters. You absolutely can. I’ve found some amazing dogs through shelters — a bunch of my fosters, Edgar, tons of dogs from shelters. But if you’re kind of limited as far as resources and that sort of thing, having those dogs that are in a foster home is really the way to go as far as that goes.
There are a few dog-sport-specific rescues, Epic Sport Dog Rescue is one of them, and then breed-specific rescues like Midwest Border Collie Rescue or All Herding Breed Rescue of Illinois, or any of those that tend to get those type of herding breeds or whatever breed that they’re looking at. If they’re looking at Labs, look at a Lab-specific rescue type of a deal.
And just get the word out there. If you are already in a sport, tell as many people as you can that, “Hey, I’m in the market,” and just be prepared to wait for the right dog. So get the word out there, contact as many different people as you know on Facebook, and say, “I’m looking for this, these are the requirements I’m looking for,” a 30-pound dog that might be good at Frisbee or agility or whatever it may be, and just see what comes your way.
There’s also a lot of really great Facebook groups as well. Adoptable Performance Dogs, Adoptable Sport and Working Dogs, both of them are groups on Facebook where a lot of people will cross-post dogs that are available for adoption.
Melissa Breau: Thank you so much, Sara, for coming back on the podcast. This was great.
Sara Brueske: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week with — and I’m sorry, guys, I’m probably going to butcher his name until I talk to him and find out how to pronounce it — but we’ll be back next week with Mike Shikashio to talk about working with dog-dog aggression.
Nancy Gagliardi Little has been training dogs since the early 1980s, when she put an OTCH on her Novice A dog, a Labrador Retriever. Since then she has put many advanced obedience titles on her dogs, and multiple championships in herding and agility.
To be released 10/19/2018, an interview with Sara Brueske on bringing an adult dog and/or rescue into your household as a sports prospect.
Today we have Nancy Gagliardi Little back on the podcast. Nancy has been training dogs since the early 1980s, when she put an OTCH on her Novice A dog, a Labrador Retriever. Since then she has put many advanced obedience titles on her dogs, and multiple championships in herding and agility.
Welcome back to the podcast, Nancy!
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Thanks Melissa. It’s great to be here.
Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you just remind listeners a little bit about who you are and who the dogs are that you share your life with?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: I’m Nancy Little and I live in Minnesota. I train in obedience and agility, but I’m competing most in agility.
We have four Border Collies in the house and a Toller. The Toller is my husband’s dog. He’s a 3-year-old dog named Rugby. My dogs are all spanned out from 14 years to 10 months of age.
Score is my oldest. He’s retired, obviously, he’s 14 years old. I trialed him in herding and agility. He has his herding … actually he’s very, very close to finishing his herding championship, but I never did finish it. And he has MACH … I don’t remember how many, I think it was a MACH 2. Schema is my 10-and-a-half-year-old Border Collie, and I’m just blessed that she’s still trialing. She’s still trialing in agility, and she has a MACH 2, a PACH, which is a Preferred Agility Championship, and an ADCH from USDAA. Like I said, she’s running in Preferred. She is qualified for AKC Nationals. This is the sixth year, I think, that she’s qualified, which is amazing. I’m really proud of her accomplishments this past year.
Like I say, I’m just blessed that she’s still running. She’s 10-and-a-half years old. She had an injury this year. She was out for three months with a bit of a back strain. She still ended up being the Number 3 Preferred Border Collie in the AKC Invitational rankings, which I had no plan on. I’m not doing anything in terms of Invitational rankings, because with Border Collies it’s just ridiculous. But I got notified that she was the Number 3 Preferred dog, which is amazing since she was out for three months. She’s just very consistent and she’s very fast.
She also, for all breeds, there’s another ranking system called the Power 60, which is done by Bad Dog Agility for the year ending in … I guess it was the second quarter. She was the Number 1 All Breed in the 16-inch Preferred. Of course she, in June, brought me back into obedience for a little bit. Our agility club that I was on the trial committee was also hosting, besides an agility trial, we used to have a two-ring agility trial, and we put on an obedience trial as well. She’s trained in obedience, and I brought her out for the first time in Beginner Novice, and that was kind of fun to get two legs.
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: It was fun to finish that off. Then there’s Lever. He’s 5. He just qualified for the first time for AKC Agility Nationals and he’s working on his MACH in AKC. Then I have my youngest, her name is Pose. She’s Lever’s daughter and she’s 10 months old.
So that’s my group. I have a lot of fun with all of them for different reasons.
Melissa Breau: It’s neat because you’ve got a wide range of skills and ages and can do lots of different stuff. I’d imagine training day at your house is probably quite the mix of things.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: It is, because I still want to work … Score goes out with me and trains. He’s around when I’m training all the time. He just kind of hangs out. It gets him exercise and he enjoys being out with the other dogs. He provides a great distraction because he’s always trying to get in close to me.
Melissa Breau: Since you have a young dog, what are you focusing on with her right now? What do you hope to achieve long-term?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Well, I love agility obviously a lot, so my goals are going to be, or hopefully will be, that we compete in agility. But I plan on training her in obedience and herding as well, and time will tell what I decide to do in those areas. But I absolutely love puppy training, so I’m enjoying this time with her.
She’s learning lots of very important skills right now. I’m lucky that she’s able to come to work with me when I teach at the training school. Also when I’m at competition, she comes with me. She goes everywhere with me. She’s learned to be relaxed and quiet. I keep her in an X-pen when I’m teaching.
Also when I’m competing with Lever and Schema, she’s crated, and she’s learning how to exist among all the chaos at the agility trials and when I’m teaching. She hears my voice and she’s super quiet. So I’m really proud of how she’s adjusted to that. She acclimates nicely when she’s crated at the trials. I really like that. She’s one of the best dogs I’ve had coming up in terms of being able to relax and chill.
What she’s learning — there’s nothing really big right now. She’s 10 months old and I feel like she doesn’t know anything, but yet she does know a lot. I’ve focused a lot on toy games, tugging games, some personal play she’s really good at, and food games. We do that in different environments, and I’ve got a lot of opportunities around the school to be able to train around other dogs, also including my own dogs, which are quite the distraction for her because it gets her arousal up and some competitiveness, which is always good. So we work on things like that.
I like to move her back and forth between high-arousal and low-arousal behaviors, because that’s an issue with Border Collies is that a lot of times they get that high arousal and they can’t mentally function, so just getting her to shift around from being pretty high to thinking things through has been fun. She’s done really well. She can make that shift really well.
In terms of the foundation stuff I’m working on, event markers, do a lot of stuff with that, stationing, just to make sure that I have a place to start and stop and think about things, and then I also work my startlines from stations. I start that initial work, pivots, targeting, wraps around wings or cones, and the beginning of two on, two off.
This is funny — I listened to Shade’s podcast, and she was talking about her puppy and the sit, and it’s like, “Oh, that’s exactly what’s going on with Pose.” I just recently started working her on her sit because I didn’t really like the way she was sitting. She was growing fast and her rear feet were all over the place. I mean, she would sit, but she’s so bendy and all over the place that I was like, “Well, I don’t think we’re going to do this right now.”
I just started working on it now, and she’s really tightened up everything. It’s interesting how many people ask puppies to sit, and she just looks at them like, “What? I don’t know what that means.” So it’s surprising for them to learn that she doesn’t know how to sit. That’s the big thing we just started working on now, because I wanted to start working on her startline and her different positions — sit and down and those kinds of things.
Melissa Breau: You’re talking a little bit about startlines in there. Have you started working on startlines with her yet?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Yes, she does have the beginning of a startline. The sit is not really something that I need before I start working on the beginning of a startline, and as we talk through here, you’ll see that most of it is just for her learning what the release cue is, and you can do that from any position. So she’s actually got a fairly decent and I’ll still call it beginning of a startline, so I’m happy with that.
Melissa Breau: I saw a question pop up in one of the Fenzi Facebook groups the other day where a competitor mentioned her dog’s startline had eroded and she was starting to retrain it. What are some of the early signs that a dog’s startline may be beginning to or about to fall apart?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: What happens is most people watch for the dog’s feet or body movement as mistakes. By doing that, you’re missing the early signs that there’s issues. So in terms of getting early signs that the startline is about to fall apart, I think it’s more important to pay attention to facial expressions and what’s going on emotionally: what is she looking at, how is she processing, how is she evaluating what’s in front of her, how is she really seeing toys as reinforcement for whatever is happening there, and then just paying attention to how she’s appearing and how she’s responding, I know whether the startline is confident and stable.
Those are the early signs, and I don’t think people pay attention to that, that look on the dog’s face of “Huh?” or something’s bothering them, their head dips, there’s lip licking, ears are back, the kind of facial expression that tells you that something’s happening, That’s in the context of the startline, and once that starts happening, you’re going to start to see more movement. So it’s kind of a head issue, a mental issue, it’s just checking their emotional state.
Melissa Breau: If somebody does catch it early, or they start to see some of the signs start to creep in, what is the best way to re-establish that strong startline that hopefully they had at one point?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: If they had a really good startline and are catching it early, then there’s some things to keep in mind. When there’s mistakes, like I said previously, the focus should be first on the dog’s emotions, because a confident, happy dog is much more likely to be able to understand what’s being asked. It’s also going to make the trainer more aware of frustration or confusion coming from the dog, focusing on that emotional state. Like I said previously, the trainers are relying on the dog’s body movement as an indicator of an issue, and that is always too late, in my opinion. So that’s the most important step in re-establishing or maintaining a startline.
The second thing would be teach a reliable release. The release cue is truly the easiest way to get a reliable startline stay. Training a strong release cue. In the world of agility, there’s so much information for the dog to process because of the atmosphere and the energy in the sport. For a dog to have a well-trained startline, the handler needs to eliminate all these extra prompts and movements that are associated with, and they also predict the release cue. Many dogs are breaking the startline because they’re frustrated, or they’re anxious or confused because the actual release cue is different than the handler is intending it to be.
The other thing that can happen is the dog just can’t predict when the release cue will be given. There’s all kinds of extra motion, and they’re back there watching the handler and getting all twitchy because they’re not sure when they’re going to turn and give the release. Training a reliable release is another one of the big ones.
The third one is — this is another issue, too, that I’m kind of surprised at — is startline behaviors that the dog has, or what you have to train. Make sure that the dog is trained so that they understand the criteria and the dog is in control of it. A big issue is when handlers attempt to control the stay. They physically place the dog into position, or they’re repeating the stay cue over and over, verbal … I’ll say threats like, “You stay, you stay,” or “Hey,” things like that, as the handler leaves.
Another thing is facing the dog. As the handler is moving away, they’re facing the dog.
All of these behaviors, these are behaviors by the handler. They’re all controlling behaviors, and it’s a sure way to create a frustrated and confused dog. Those are eventually going to break down any trained behaviors, because dogs want to be in control and they like being in control. The funny thing is, I hear this a lot, is that handlers will label their dogs as pushy or naughty, and usually it’s the handler’s fault for not training the behavior so that the dog offers it and maintains it on their own without the handler intervening.
The very last thing that is important is handler connection. The dogs do much better with startlines when the handler leads out and is super connected with their dog. Some dogs don’t have issues with a lack of connection with the handler, but lots of times the startline issues are resolved when the handler learns how to lead out and continues to stay connected with the dog.
So those are four areas that I keep in mind when there’s mistakes, and those are based on if the dog had a strong startline previously. That way, when some of these things are caught early, it’s really easy to fix.
Melissa Breau: I’d imagine, though, that sometimes figuring out what it is, or breaking it down, can be hard, especially if a dog doesn’t maintain their stay and you are getting some movement, and then you let them run anyway, that’s reinforcing that behavior, assuming the dog likes agility, which I think is probably a safe assumption for our audience. And if you don’t let them run, you’re increasing frustration, which might further erode the stay and have other fallout. So can you talk about that a bit, how you handle problems if they do pop up? And maybe what some of the pros and cons are of the options that competitors have in that situation?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: You’re right. Every time the dog leaves before the release cue, that behavior gets stronger, and as you said, dogs love doing agility, and so it’s a really strong reinforcement to go and to run. So there’s lots of strong behavior chains that are unintentionally built into the startline routine as the dog starts a set of unwanted behaviors. Those behaviors continue to be reinforced as the handler moves forward in that routine until the dog’s running the course. So problem-solving startlines are kind of complex and they depend on the history of the issue, the dog, and the handler.
The cool thing and the reason why I like this so much, this stuff, is there’s never a simple, cookie-cutter approach. But obviously the best scenario is catching it early and not allowing it to occur at the trials. Once it continues at the trials, you get a long history of that behavior, it’s a little more difficult, but you can still fix them. So I like to help handlers develop a plan for their particular situation, and they vary a lot. It would involve a training plan, handling plan or changes, and how to handle mistakes. Those are big ones because every dog is different. It’s going to vary a lot between teams.
Regarding the pros and cons, that’s going to vary a lot also, depending on the situation. For instance, there can be both pros and cons leaving the ring if you actually remove a dog. Say if the dog breaks a startline, and you remove the dog or you leave the ring. Some dogs have built up such a strong reinforcement history for going before the release cue that leaving the course without running will eventually get rid of that behavior, and it’s sometimes the best way to do that. It’s also important, when you do that, that you’re not adding any more emotional baggage, that you just leave happy, because those dogs want to run, so even when the handler leaves happy and even reinforces the dog, or rewards the dog, and exits, it’s still going to positively affect that dog’s ability to focus on the release cue in the future, because that’s really what they want to do.
But then there’s other dogs that are more sensitive to mistakes, and then if you remove those dogs from the course when a mistake happens, it’s going to cause a lot more anxiety and frustration. So in that situation I’m going to probably suggest running the dog, and then evaluating the training and handling plan to ensure success, because those dogs care a lot about being right, so something probably was amiss in training or handling.
Melissa Breau: Let’s say, looking at it from the opposite angle, somebody has a strong startline now, and they realize that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Is simply reinforcing that stay by continuing to release the dog to play agility — is that going to be enough to maintain that behavior? Are there other things they should they be doing to maintain that behavior?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Once the dog has a lot of value for agility obstacles, and a good understanding of handling, and has a well-trained startline, then yes, I strongly believe that releasing that dog from the stay at the startline will reinforce that startline. Most dogs love agility, and they want to go, and they’re much more reinforced by going forward than having the handler return to reward them.
So strong startline behaviors, they can deteriorate a lot, and I’ve seen that happen when the dogs, all they want to do, they want to go, and the handler wants to reinforce that or wants to reward that, and the behavior is interrupted by the handler returning to reward. So I really feel that if they have a strong, solid startline and they like agility, they like to play agility, then releasing them forward is a great reinforcer.
Melissa Breau: I want to get into — you talked about this a little bit — the emotional component of startlines for a minute. If a dog is breaking their stay, what is that really saying about their emotional state? How does that play into that bigger game of agility?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: I believe this is the area, like I said before, that most trainers miss — that emotional component. It’s about recognizing the expressions or behaviors that indicate the dog is frustrated or anxious and confused.
When they miss that, they continue on the same path in their working skills, attempting to address mistakes, and what happens is that the dog’s stress level continues to increase because they’re feeling all these emotions, And as you know, when the dog is stressed, they can be over-aroused, or they can be even under-aroused, and they can’t think or function anymore, and then any of the skills that were taught are going to deteriorate, and there’s going to be bad feelings at that startline.
So when there’s a negative emotional issue at the startline, once they go, that’s carried into the performance once the dog starts running. So yeah, it’s a big deal.
Melissa Breau: I’d love to talk a little bit about proofing and lead-outs. With the variety of all the different course layouts out there, and all the different options when it comes to course layouts, there’s so many different pictures that the dog has when working on their startline or when they need to maintain their startline. Do handlers … is it really just about training as many of those “pictures” as you can, or is there a better way to help a dog generalize an awesome startline to understand that no matter what obstacle or no matter what layout they see, that it’s still the same behavior?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: That’s a really good question, and it might be another thing that is missed a lot. I’m pretty proud of my dogs’ lead-outs, because they’re fast and it’s always such an advantage to start out running a course being fairly far ahead, so I have some pretty nice lead-outs on my dogs.
Part of it is practicing all different types of patterns. The first step is to teach them to be able to jump. Most of the startlines are either tunnels or jumps, and I practice a lot of slice jumping, so that the dogs can take a lead-out, but still take a jump at a sliced angle. Even though I’m very much in the picture, they’ll still take the line that I set, and that gives me a lot of options. Basically, you’re going to lead them at a jump at a slice, they might be facing the jump at sideways while you’ve led out.
Most people, what they’ll do is they’ll face their dog straight ahead toward the jump, and then they’re at a disadvantage because the dog doesn’t really see Obstacle 1 and 2. If I can put my dog on a slice, then he or she can see Jumps 1 and 2, or Obstacles 1 and 2, and it’s an advantage for me to be able to get out a little bit further, because Jumps 1 and 2 are taken care of. So I do a lot of complicated patterns, mostly with jumps, but then I’ll add some tunnels as well in there. Because tunnels are super arousing. So those patterns are really important.
The other thing I’ll work on is long lead-outs. There’s many times it’s a jump to a contact, you jump, dog walk or jump, weave, can you lead way out and way past the beginning of the contact, maybe to the end, and can your dog do that pattern. So patterns are very important, and as long as you’re consistent about the dog’s line and supporting the line, they should be able to handle that.
But the other part of that question is that I’m going to also add lots of distractions to startlines because there are distractions at the trials. One way I do that is I’ll use other dogs, or people, or just set it up in a variety of environments, and then what I’ll do is I’ll execute a startline routine, which means just come into the ring, do my setup, lead out, and release, so that’s just basically … not really necessarily running a sequence. I’ll do that starting, like, with dogs maybe standing still at a distance, or then the dog is moving a little bit at a distance, or the dog is running sequences at a distance.
The other thing is you add people, because there’s people at trials. They’re everywhere. They’re behind the dog at the startline, getting ready to take the leash, they’re sitting in chairs, sometimes they’re moving to set bars. You just start adding movement, decreasing distance, having a leash runner behind the dog. These are all external distractions. You don’t want to just have them happen once the dog starts trialing. You want the dog to be introduced to those things because they are a big part of the startline, and can the dog focus while those distractions are there, can the dog execute that startline routine.
The other distraction I like to add is handler distractions, like, can you hold your stay while I’m disconnected, if I’m a super disconnected handler or a super over-excited handler, or I might pair some movement with a few releases, and then I go back to a clear cue release. They’re just some fun games to ensure that the dog understands the whole startline routine that I’ve set up.
Melissa Breau: Of course, we’re talking about startlines because your class on the topic is running this term — so anything that we didn’t get into that might be useful for students to know, if they’re considering the class?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Lots of people ask about what type of dogs are best for this type of class. It’s one of my favorite subjects, so I love doing it because of the variety and creativity. But it’s great for young dogs because the class is basically building that startline behavior, and then also working with handlers so that things are going to be maintained properly.
It’s good for dogs learning startline behaviors and it’s also good for dogs that are having issues with their understanding of it at trials. I’m working with the handlers to ensure they’re giving clear information to their dogs, because lots of times they’re not aware that some of that is actually causing the issues. Once they see that, it becomes clear. I help the handlers individually changing their behavior. And then, as I mentioned previously, there’s different strategies to change the dog’s behavior, too, and it’s going to vary with all the different types of dogs.
The question, too, people have about taking it at the Bronze level, which you can’t really ask questions. You’re just going to be watching the Gold students and looking at the lectures. I’m really good about explaining to people why I’m giving certain advice for a certain dog, because I realize there are going to be Bronze students out there that are going to be wondering, Is that something I should do with my dog? I want them to understand that this is in particular what I would do with this type of dog.
With this particular class, because it started — today is October 1st, so it just started — I do have a very interesting class. There’s a lot of variety in it. There’s some dogs that actually need a little more speed, and then there’s the other typical, lightning-fast dogs that just require a lead-out in the class. So there’s something for everyone.
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I want to change topics a little bit. I know you have your open and utility problem-solving class on the calendar for December, so I just want to chat a little bit about obedience. What are some of the common problem areas when teams are competing at that level — places where the teams just seem to struggle?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: For some reason, the most popular exercises seem to be signals and directed jumping, and specifically go-outs in utility. There’s a lot of that. In open it’s usually a variety of issues, lots of heeling, fronts, finishes, drop on recall, that’s more of a variety of things. But signals and directed jumping are really, really, really popular exercises to work on. That’s where people seem to struggle.
Melissa Breau: It’s one of those classes where I’m sure you see the same couple of issues or common issues come up, the same exercises pop up over and over and over again, right?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: It does, but interesting enough, there’s always a little bit of a difference between each of the teams because of the dog, or specifically what the issue is in each of the areas.
Melissa Breau: Once a handler has identified signals or go-outs or one particular exercise as the sticking point for their particular dog, what’s involved in developing a plan for taking and saying, “OK, this is a problem. How do we improve our dog’s understanding of this exercise so that we can get it right?”
Nancy Gagliardi Little: The first thing is figuring out where is the issue within the exercise. Lots of times it’s a little bit different than what might have been explained or noted by the handler. Lots of times they’re dead-on, but I might find a little detail that I think is probably going to be important to work on first. Then we find a plan together to address that particular issue, and then I try to get it so that we build that piece back into the exercise, and that’s assuming that the rest of the exercise is healthy.
Making sure that the handling is in place too — that’s super important for all of the obedience exercises is to make sure that the handling is consistent and the dog is not confused. It’s not like I’m proposing certain handling of all exercises, because I’m going to work with whatever they have, and if the dog is confused, then we need to make a change.
So depending on the problem, it might be teaching different skills, it might be working on handling, there’s other things too. We create a plan then to move forward. It’s much bigger than that. That’s a pretty simplified version.
Melissa Breau: Well, there’s only so much you can do if it’s a six-week class to try to explain in a podcast.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Exactly.
Melissa Breau: Would it be helpful to talk through an example? So maybe take one exercise and talk us through an example of a previous dog or a previous issue?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Sure. For example, utility signals seems to be a big thing. Say somebody comes in and they have issues with signals. After I look at the video, I’m going to probably first review the handler signals without the dog, to ensure that they look clear to me and they look different.
I’m really picky about signals. I like them to start differently. The sooner the dog knows what that signal is going to be, the faster the response from the dog. If they have to wait until the signal is complete before they recognize a cue, then obviously the signal is going to be … or the response from the dog is going to be super slow.
So then I’m going to develop a plan for handling, maybe make some … I’m not going to change everything, just the parts that I think are unclear, and usually the dog’s telling us that anyway. So I look at the dog’s response.
I’m going to probably have them do verbal position changes and take a look at those, and see how the dog’s responding to the verbal cues, making sure that there’s no additional prompting occurring from the handler. If the dog can’t respond to the verbal, then I’m going to probably work on that first, rather than the signal, because signals can be a little more complicated.
So get that going first, and then we also have to incorporate a good reinforcement strategy for that dog so that we can maintain that distance from the handler. And then gradually, as things improve, we build a distance with the verbal cues, and then I’m going to start to add the signals in with shorter distance, gradually increase that distance.
Also, some of this I’m using props to help the dog, depending on the situation. Some dogs don’t need it; they’re doing just fine. Some might need it.
The other big thing for me for signals is making sure we’re reinforcing the duration in each of the positions, that it’s not just about changing positions.
So there’s a lot of different things to consider and a lot of different tangents that we can go on.
Melissa Breau: Certainly makes it easy to see why it’s a sticking point. Lots of different pieces.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Right, right, right. There’s a lot of stuff going on. And the thing, too, about signals is it’s difficult for the dog too. I think one of the reasons why it can be so difficult is they’re heeling and they’re with the handler, and then all of a sudden there’s this transition to this distance work, so I think that’s really hard for some dogs, especially the Utility A dogs, or the new dogs that are trialing.
Melissa Breau: Alright Nancy, I’ve got one last question here, and it’s the question I’m asking everyone now when they come on: What’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: All of the podcasts I’m like, “Oh my God, I don’t know how I would answer that question, because there’s so much.” There’s so much stuff out there. But all of a sudden, when I got this question, it was like, bam, I knew exactly what I was going to say. And it might be a bit different, but I attended an event a few weeks ago, it was honoring my dad, and I was reminded of something that’s important in training dogs and life in general.
He coached college football pretty successfully for 60 years, over 60 years, and he’s actually the winningest college football coach of all time. He did things unconventionally then, and it’s actually unconventional now, even. He made changes in his own program that built kindness and respect in a pretty violent sport. I think I even talked a little bit about this in the original podcast that I did with you, where he had no hitting or blocking in practice — and that was way back in the late ’50s — because he noticed that some of his best players weren’t playing in the games because they’d get hurt during practice. So instinctively it felt right to not hit in practice.
That was 50 years ahead of the game. These are actually practices now that are being looked at and incorporated in some of the pro teams and big college programs today. They’re just looking at that. But he trusted his instincts and he didn’t allow any of the distractions of how things are supposed to be done to guide his decisions.
This has kind of always been my thing is I think it’s really important for all of us to focus on what we believe in and to trust our instincts, because if something feels wrong, then don’t do it. If something feels right, do it. Don’t over-analyze why you should or shouldn’t do something. Trust your feelings.
I don’t think we really trust our feelings enough. It might be different than what somebody else is doing, but that’s how new ideas are discovered. So you can still make detailed plans, you can still obsess about those plans, and execute those plans, and evaluate the results, and develop more plans based on the results, but be aware of your feelings as you train, and trust them, because if you’re feeling frustrated or there’s negative emotions, then something is wrong, and if you’re feeling great, then keep going, you’re on the right track.
I firmly believe that emotions are going to guide you in the right direction, so trust them, and don’t be distracted with what your friends on Facebook are doing. Stay aware of those feelings. They can help you stay on track and move in the right direction, and you might discover something incredibly wonderful and different.
Melissa Breau: Right. I like that. I like that a lot. Thank you so much Nancy! This has been great.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Thanks! It’s been great being here.
Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with Sara Brueske to talk about evaluating potential rescues for dog sports, fostering potential sports dogs, and more.
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Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!
Stacy Barnett is an active competitor in Nosework, Tracking, Obedience, Rally, Agility and Barn Hunt, but Scent Sports are her primary focus and her first love. She is an AKC Judge and contractor, as well as an instructor at FDSA.
She hosts the Scentsabilities podcast and blogs regularly on nosework topics at www.scentsabilitiesnw.com.
To be released 10/12/2018, an interview with Nancy Gagliardi Little on agility startlines and obedience.
Today we’ll be talking to Stacy Barnett.
Stacy is an active competitor in Nosework, Tracking, Obedience, Rally, Agility and Barn Hunt, but Scent Sports are her primary focus and her first love. She is an AKC Judge and contractor, as well as an instructor at FDSA. She hosts the Scentsabilities podcast and blogs regularly on nosework topics at www.scentsabilitiesnw.com — nw is for nosework. I’ll be sure to include a link in the show notes for anybody who is interested.
Hi Stacy, welcome back to the podcast.
Stacy Barnett: Hi Melissa. How are you?
Melissa Breau: Good. I’m excited to chat. It’s morning for us now, so good morning.
Stacy Barnett: Oh, I don’t even know what time it is. I flew in from Reno last night, and I was in Sweden right before that, so my body’s very confused. So if you tell me it’s morning, I’ll just believe you. I’ve got a little bit of jetlag going on.
Melissa Breau: All different sorts of time zones.
Stacy Barnett: Yes.
Melissa Breau: To get us started, do you want to just remind listeners a little bit about who the dogs are that you share your life with?
Stacy Barnett: Sure, sure. I’ve got four hooligans that live in my house and that I love and that I work with. Joey is my senior poodle. He is turning 11, I think this week. He’s at the NW 3 level, which is the third level. Then I have a 7-year-old miniature American Shepherd, or mini Aussie. He’s at the NW 2 level. Then I have two Labradors. They’re my primary nosework competition dogs. I have Judd. Judd is my 9-year-old. He is a Summit title holder, which puts him at the top of his sport. It’s really, really exciting. That happened recently. And an 18-month-old Labrador female named Brava. She’s full of vinegar. Really, really a fun dog, high, high drive, and she’s really teaching me a lot about arousal.
Melissa Breau: I want to do a deep dive on nosework today — starting with some of the science-y stuff. What is it about a dog, biologically, that really allows them to excel when it comes to identifying a scent and then tracking it to the source?
Stacy Barnett: I love the science behind this. This is probably one of the reasons why I love nosework so much is I’m a little bit of a geek and I have a scientific background. But what I love about this is that there’s a lot of history here.
Dogs evolved from wolves. Wolves, if you think about it, have to travel long distances in order to find their prey. They go over miles and miles and miles and miles to find that large prey, and to do that, they have to use their noses, and they have to be able to track, and they have to be able to hunt.
Dogs have inherited that ability, and if you look at them from a biological perspective, they all have that ability. Twelve-and-a-half percent of their brain is dedicated to olfaction, so the olfactory lobe is 12-and-a-half percent, it’s one-eighth of their brain.
The other part of it is that the nose itself. They have the ability to scent directionally. You and I have the ability to hear directionally, so if I’m standing in front of you, you know I’m standing in front of you, because we have space between our ears, and this space is what allows us to hear in stereo. Dogs can smell in stereo because they have space between their nostrils. It has to do with what they call aerodynamic reach. The difference between the space in the nostrils and aerodynamic reach, it’s kind of technical, but it’s one of the reasons why they can scent directionally. Every breed can do this. Every breed, from a Chihuahua up to a Great Dane, it doesn’t matter how big or small their nose is, they still have that space between their nostrils.
So there’s that, and they also have the ability, when they sniff in and they blow out, they have these slits on the side of their nose, so the air blows out of the side of their nose, and it doesn’t disturb the scent that’s being pulled in in the next sniff. It’s fascinating.
Melissa Breau: It is pretty neat, especially thinking about the directional piece of it. I imagine it plays such a big role when you’re doing something like scentwork.
Stacy Barnett: Oh, totally. Totally.
Melissa Breau: Obviously, our noses can’t even come close … so when we’re teaching a dog nosework, once a team is past the basics, what factors influence the difficulty of that search?
Stacy Barnett: There’s so many factors. Airflow is a big part of it. From an airflow perspective, airflow is caused by air pressure differentials, which means that there’s differences in air pressure. Air will move from a high-pressure area to a low-pressure area, so that causes air to flow.
Air also moves because of temperature differentials. We all know hot air rises and cool air falls, so if you get an area that’s more in the sun, the air is going to rise and it’s going to fall in a shady area. So there’s that.
You also have the aspect of how long the hides have been in the area. We call that aging. That is basically, because of the process of diffusion, the longer the hide is aged, the larger the scent cone is going to be. What you’re going to find is that it also depends on how many hides you have and what proximity those hides are to each other, and if you have high hides, if you have low hides, and how the hides interact, because it becomes exponentially more difficult when you have more than one hide out.
The other thing is if you have a change in slope, so if you’re scenting and you’re on a slope, that can make a big difference. Standing water, moisture, rain, really the possibilities are endless, and it’s one of the coolest things about this sport, because every time you go to do a search, it’s different. You can never duplicate the same search. It’s always different, it’s always cool, it’s always fresh. It’s always fun.
Melissa Breau: I want to talk about some of that terminology for a minute — can you just talk us through that? I know you mentioned airflow and aging and scent cones. Can you define what some of those things are, if people are new to this?
Stacy Barnett: Think about a scent cone. We call it a scent cone. People often think in their head, they think of an ice cream cone, but it’s really not that accurate. The scent cone is the plume of odor that we can’t see, but it’s out there because the odor has diffused, or the molecules have left the source, and it becomes like a plume in the air that the dog is following.
A scent cone looks like, if you look at a smokestack, and with a smokestack you can kind of see the plume and it goes in the direction that the air is flowing. So if the wind is going from north to south, your plume is going to go from north to south. That’s going to be more what a scent cone actually looks like.
If you think about it, when you have less airflow, it’s not quite as windy, your scent cone is going to be a little bit wider, and when you get a windy condition, you get a narrow scent cone, which is more like if you had a water hose and you were to put it on high pressure. So that scent cone is going to go farther and it’s going to be narrower, so where the dog intersects is going to be different.
Aging has to do with … we call it aging, and it’s essentially how long the hide has been out and sitting out, because it changes how the dog has to work the hide.
Then we have things like pooling odor. Pooling odor is, if you think about a pool of water, that’s exactly what happens. That odor pools in an area and it collects in an area. That’s a lot of fun too.
Melissa Breau: Since we can’t “see” scent, and obviously we don’t smell it, how do we really know all this about the way that scents travel? How do we know what we know?
Stacy Barnett: We call it scent theory, and we call it scent theory for a reason: because it’s theory. My own background is I have a chemical engineering degree. I pull from my understanding of fluid flow dynamics in order to really understand odor.
Air is just another fluid. It’s a gas, but gas is just a fluid in a different state. It all follows fluid flow mechanics. But I think the easiest way to think about it is to think about water. If you think about how water flows, like water in a stream, you can understand turbulence, there’s eddies, all these things happen with air. You get turbulence, you get eddies, because when water hits a rock in a stream, you get the turbulence before and after the rock. The same thing happens with air. So if we can understand how air flows, we know how the odor is carried on that air.
Again, it’s theory, but I think we have a pretty good grasp of it. I like to think about that, or think about a smokestack or something like that, to give a visual, because if we can understand a visual, we can start to figure out what it’s actually doing. We can’t smell it the way that the dogs can smell it, but if we can have a visual, I think it helps us.
Melissa Breau: Thinking through that for a minute, if there are multiple hides in a room, and you get multiple scent cones, and some of those maybe even overlap … how do you begin to teach the dog this idea that there are multiple hides, and OK, they found one, they need to go find another one. I feel like that’s a complex concept, and maybe they even have to return to where they started in order to trace it to source.
Stacy Barnett: That is all about converging odor. That’s what we call it, where you have different scent cones and the scent cones overlap. It’s very complicated for the dog to find it, but they’re absolutely capable of doing this.
What I usually do is I start with the hides fairly far apart, and then I start to set a situation up where the scent cones start to overlap. But what’s hard is that the dog has to … oh, and when they go from one hide and to help them move to another, you can actually help move with your body. And I cue them with a word. I say, “Find another.” “Find another” means “That hide is done, it’s finished, let’s go find another hide.” And the body motion helps to move the dog into a new area, because they’re going to follow your body motion. So that really helps.
You also have to start realizing dogs are hardwired for “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” So they’re going to be hardwired to ignore another hide for the hide that they’re already at, so you have to start to figure out your reward schedules and whether or not you’re going to re-feed at that hide if they come back to it.
What’s easy in the beginning is to work the dog on leash, so that you can use the leash to help them stay, to not return to the original hide. From a re-feeding perspective, I do always re-feed the hide if the dog has confidence or motivation issues or if the dog is very green. Once I know the dog is confident and motivated and the dog is not as green, I start not re-feeding the hide because I want them to know that that hide is finished and they have to find the next one.
Melissa Breau: I think it’s an interesting process where you don’t want to erode your confidence, so sometimes you do want to reward them for finding it, but it definitely depends on the dog and the experience level. That makes sense.
Stacy Barnett: And sometimes the dog actually has to go back to that hide in order to find the next hide because of the way that the scent cones overlap. They can get information at that hide, and we call it anchoring. So they can go back to that hide and they can say, “Oh wow, there’s another scent cone,” and they can go from that hide to the next hide by getting the information for the second hide at the first hide.
Melissa Breau: When there is something pooling odor, or the scent cones intersect, how are you building those things gradually? I know you mentioned usually you start with two hides far apart and you move them closer together. What are some of the other things you do to build those skills gradually and set the dog up for success?
Stacy Barnett: It’s all about hide placement, because if you have two hides, and you have two difficult hides, that’s going to be a lot harder than if you have two easy hides. So I like to do things systematically, especially when I teach converging odor.
And pooling odor, if you add pooling odor with converging odor, that’s really challenging. So I try to avoid the pooling odor aspect when I’m introducing converging odor, and when I’m doing converging odor I try to be very systematic so that the dog understands how to solve these problems.
I want to keep it simple in the beginning and not make it terribly complex, so I make sure that the dog understands and learns how to source different permutations of accessible hides, inaccessible hides, elevated hides, low hides, two hides, three hides. I try to get very systematic about it.
Melissa Breau: I know confidence is a really big piece of what you do and what you train for, so I’d love to talk about that in trialing a little bit. When trialing and you have a dog who isn’t super confident, how can you tell when it’s just that they’re working something that’s more complex versus when they are struggling because of stress or because of a lack of confidence?
Stacy Barnett: You really need to pay attention to your dog. You have to look for the dog’s enthusiasm level, and you have to really look for the stress signals that they’re giving you.
If you look at the enthusiasm level, if the enthusiasm stays up, then they’re not stressed out and they can continue to work. But if you start seeing waning enthusiasm, or the dog is starting to check out, or the dog starts getting distracted, or the dog starts sniffing the ground, or the dog scratches or shakes off, these can be different indications that maybe the dog is a little frustrated or a little confused, and both frustration and confusion can help to lower confidence, which is not what we want.
We want to try to work the dog in a state where they’re not confused and they’re not frustrated, so that they can build up their own self-confidence and their own skill set, and ultimately they’ll be more successful and you’ll be able to keep their focus a little bit more.
Melissa Breau: If you have a dog that isn’t super confident and you’re in that competition environment, what can you do to make sure you’re supporting them or helping them, and set them up for success even at a trial or in that kind of a situation?
Stacy Barnett: I think you also need to know your dog. Nosework really is a confidence-building skill. However, it’s a confidence-building activity. It doesn’t mean that trialing is confidence-building. So in preparation for that trial, you need to get the dog into a situation that you know they’re prepared going into it.
It’s just like any other sport. We certainly wouldn’t want to take a dog who has just learned how to heel, and all of a sudden take them into an obedience trial, or take a dog that has never run a course before and take them into an agility trial.
Training is really necessary in this sport, and I think sometimes we forget that because the dog has an innate ability to sniff. So generalization is really the key. But if you’re in the moment and your dog is starting to stress a little bit, you have to figure out is it salvageable? Is it a little bit of light stress or is it heavy stress?
If it’s just a little bit of light stress and the dog’s got a little distracted, maybe, I give the dog a cookie. I call it a confidence cookie. What that does is it lowers the arousal of the dog, and then that way the dog’s lowered arousal state allows him to relax a little bit, and then they can usually be successful. And you can feed really at any time during your search.
The other thing, though, if the stress gets to be too high, call it quits. There’s no point in going for the cue. I’ve been in this situation before with Why, my mini Aussie. He’s a very, very stress-y dog. I had a trial just a couple of months ago where I thought he was too stressed and I said to the judge, “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to excuse myself,” and she completely agreed with my thoughts on that. You want to look at the long-term game. It’s not just a short-term cue. That’s the biggest advice I can give on that.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned innate skills in there, and I’m curious: When it comes to something like covering an entire search area and doing it efficiently and quickly, how much of that is innate, how much of that is training, how much is handling? Can you talk us through that piece?
Stacy Barnett: It’s probably balanced in-between innate skills, training, and handling. I think all three are really important.
If you’re talking a really large search area, there is a degree of talent that comes into play, and that has to do with a dog’s natural hunt drive. If you have a dog with a certain degree of hunt drive, they’re going to want to go out there and find that odor.
If you have a dog that doesn’t have that strong of a hunt drive, you have to try to build that a little bit. You can build that through different activities and different motivation games and that sort of thing. So there is definitely an aspect of training.
The other thing is training actually helps the dog to become efficient. It really helps them to connect the dots, although I always try to say our dogs do come to us with a Harvard education in olfaction, but with training they become rocket scientists. They learn how to connect those dots.
The other thing, I also think about it in terms of you know when you learned how to read and you had to sound out your words? You had to sound them out and it was challenging. Your brain is hardwired to be able to read language, but you still had to learn how to do it. And now when you read, you don’t even actually look at the whole word. The brain doesn’t look at the whole word. The brain may look at the beginning and the end and connects the dots and you know exactly what you’re reading. So it’s kind of the same thing with sniffing. So all these different things really come into play.
Handling is a big piece of it because you can help or hinder. You can also help your dog get through a search area. This really becomes super important, especially when your search areas get really big, like at the Elite or Summit level. Handling is huge there. So training, talent, handling — it’s all part of the puzzle.
Melissa Breau: The other piece that I wanted to talk about a little bit was startline routines. I know that that’s something that you talk about a lot, but what are some of the different types of routines or some of the options that people have? How can a handler begin to parse those things and decide which routine they need for their dog?
Stacy Barnett: The key to this is arousal. Arousal is like the secret sauce of nosework. If you can have a good startline, it’s going to predict how good your search is, and if you have the right arousal state, that will predict how good your startline is. So you need to have the right arousal state coming in, and some dogs tend to be on the low arousal side of it and some dogs tend to be on the high arousal.
With Judd, who was slightly to the left of the curve — and we’re talking the Yerkes-Dodson Law — he’s not always in drive. He comes in at a slightly low arousal, or at least he used to, and I conditioned it. But with a slightly low arousal I might use a little opposition reflex on the harness and rev him up a little bit, like “ready, ready, ready, ready.” I might do something like that to help him get into a higher state of arousal.
If you have a dog that is a little on the anxious side, or just your high arousal dog, like Brava, she comes into the search area on her hind legs. She really does. It’s kind of funny, she sashays, it’s cute, and she’s still effective, which is amazing.
So if you have a high arousal dog, you need to lower that arousal. Things like food actually lower arousal. With dogs like that, if you feed on the startline, if they’re not handler-focused, it can get them right where they need to be. There’s different tips and techniques that you can do, but it all comes down to arousal states, so whatever you can do to modify that arousal state to get the dog in drive, that is going to be the key to the success of your search.
Melissa Breau: So I know a lot of this is covered in a lot more detail by some of the nosework classes that are on the schedule at FDSA this term. Do you want to share what you have on the October calendar and what’s covered in which class?
Stacy Barnett: Sure, sure. I’m teaching three classes. I have NW 120, which is Introduction to Nosework Elements. That is a class … it’s a follow on from our Introduction to Odor. We teach the dogs how to search interiors, exteriors, vehicles, containers, although we start containers and interiors in NW 101. We also introduce buried, which is an AKC element. So we introduce that. Then I’m teaching NW 241, which is Nosework Challenges Series 2. That is actually a whole class, soup to nuts, on converging odor. We take converging odor and we start with the preliminary skills and we systematically help the dog learn how to work through converging odor puzzles so that they get from the very, very beginning of converging odor to the elements that are necessary to them to be able to be really effective at solving converging odor.
The last class, which is NW 250, which is NW 3 prep, I’ve actually folded the Path to Elite class, which I was going to teach that in December, I took all that information and I pulled that into NW 250. So NW 250 covers both NW 3 and Elite, and it’s all about how do you prepare for these levels and how to be successful at them. So it’s covering a whole lot this term. I’m really, really excited about it.
Melissa Breau: Lots of different levels. Lots of different students.
Stacy Barnett: Yeah. Yeah.
Melissa Breau: Alright, so my last question — what’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Stacy Barnett: Trust. I wrote a blog on this recently, and I think one of the instructor quotes that came out, my instructor quote was, “Yes, but does your dog trust you?” We always talk about “Trust your dog” in nosework, and I like the term, but in a lot of ways I don’t because it’s so one-sided. It’s so important for the dog to trust the handler. Trust is mutual, and the dog has to be able to trust the handler in order to be able to be self-confident in what they’re doing and in order to have teamwork. Teamwork happens when you have trust between the dog, when it’s not just you trusting the dog, but it’s the dog trusting you.
Melissa Breau: I think that’s a great note to round things out on. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Stacy!
Stacy Barnett: Oh, I’m thrilled to be here. This was a lot of fun. This was a lot of fun, and I’m going to try to still figure out what time it is... This was a blast. Thank you so much Melissa. I really enjoyed it.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!
We’ll be back next week, this time with Nancy Gagliardi Little to talk about the other two big topics in the dog sports world: agility and obedience.
Shade has been training and competing in dog sports since she was a kid. She has successfully competed in Schutzhund, AKC obedience and French Ring and her focus is really on clear communication with your dog.
She also recently launched a blog on her website, which all of you should check out at www.shadesdogtraining.com.
To be released 10/05/2018, an interview with Stacy Barnett to take a deeper dive into scentwork than we have previously here on the podcast, talking about everything from start line routines to scent cones and converging odor.
Today we have Shade Whitesel back on the podcast to talk about concepts of competition. For those of you who haven’t heard the previous episodes with Shade, Shade has been training and competing in dog sports since she was a kid. She has successfully competed in Schutzhund, AKC obedience and French Ring, and her focus is really on clear communication with your dog.
She also recently launched a blog on her website, which all of you should check out at www.shadesdogtraining.net.
Welcome back to the podcast, Shade!
Shade Whitesel: Thank you Melissa. Thanks for having me on again.
Melissa Breau: Of course! To start us out, do you want to just remind listeners a little bit about who you are and share a little about the dogs you share your life with … including of course that newest addition?
Shade Whitesel: Well, we’ve got six dogs right now. We’ve got three old ones — 10 and a half, 11 and a half, and 12 — so it’s going to be a hard couple of years, but they’re all doing really well. And we have two we call the twins, which is Bailey and Ones, who are almost 6. And the new arrival is a 4-month-old German Shepherd puppy. All of them are German Shepherds, with the exception of one of our old ones, who is a German Shepherd/Australian Shepherd mix. So yeah, we’ve got a full house here, including two kitties, so a lot of individuals in our small house.
Melissa Breau: So let’s start with the puppy. It’s Talic, right? Am I pronouncing it right?
Shade Whitesell: Yeah, you’re pronouncing it great.
Melissa Breau: All right. So I’m pretty sure it’s puppy season, because it feels like everybody has puppies right now. I talked to Sarah Stremming and Leslie about Watson, and I talked to Hannah recently about Figment, and I’ve asked everybody a different version of this question, but … with a new puppy in the house, what have you been focusing on?
Shade Whitesel: Well, I haven’t listened to what they said, so I’m interested in what they said. But I’m really about building his reinforcements, like, how I’m going to reinforce him, which means training his toy skills, how to use “chase” and “strike” as reinforcement, will you eat food here, will you eat food there, and then also, as far as skill-wise, how to move his body.
Onesie’s got some challenges in his body as far as doing Schutzhund, and Schutzhund is physically challenging on the dogs, so I’m wanting Talic to understand how to move his body in different directions, how to be two on, two off, hind feet. I just want him to be really aware and really flexible and really supple, so I’ve been concentrating a lot on shaping skills like that.
And he still does not know how to sit, and that’s not a bad thing. He knows a lot of other words that mean reinforcement, but it’s mainly about building the joy in what I can give him, because that’s what I’m going to be using to teach all the behaviors, like sit, and if I don’t have the reinforcement, then I can’t get the sit.
Melissa Breau: We see that pop up on the Facebook page every so often, where people are like, “I have a puppy and I just realized that he’s however many month’s old and he doesn’t actually have that many things on verbal.” It’s like, they’ll come, they’ll happen, as long as you’ve got the other pieces.
With new puppies, one of the places people tend to struggle is looking at those long-term goals — like you mentioned Schutzhund — that they have for that dog, and figuring out what to teach more immediately or in the short term. Can you talk a little bit about what your longer-term goals are with Talic and how you’re starting to prepare him for that?
Shade Whitesel: Short term is basically the reinforcement, and how to move his body, and long term would be Schutzhund and AKC.
I really want him to be OK around other dogs, working in close quarters with other dogs. I taught a seminar this weekend, a camp seminar with Amy Cook and Sarah Stremming, and it was really busy. We had lots of dogs around, and I was really impressed with how Talic handled himself in that environment. He was able to demo a couple of times, he was able to eat, he was able to demo his light toy skills. That’s so important to me because that’s going to fit into his long term, which is do the stuff around other dogs and be comfortable about it. So longer term, the competition goals.
No one ever talks about it as much, but short term and long term is life skills. My dogs are in the house, and my short-term goal is getting along with everybody in the house, including that cats. That’s my long-term goal as well — to get along with everybody for all your life. Dogs mature and they’re at different stages, so sometimes that can be challenging when you’ve got a lot of dogs, and when you’ve got highly motivated dogs too.
Melissa Breau: This session obviously you’ve got your “Crucial Concepts of Competition” class back on the schedule, which feels a little timely! What “crucial concepts” does it address, and how do those skills eventually help prepare us and obviously our dogs for competition?
Shade Whitesel: First of all, I think I might enter Talic in the class, which means I’ll run a Gold spot showing what I’m working on with him and he’ll work through the class skills. I find a lot of people gain perspective seeing the trainers work the dog, so it’s good being a student. When I critique my own videos, when I realize how much more work we have to do, I have more empathy, so that’s a good thing.
The class itself is about different ways of getting behavior. Do you want to lure that do you want to shape it, I just go through the ways in which to get it, making sure people are knowledgeable about when do you add the cue, how do you name a lured behavior, how do you name a shaped behavior. Not so much what’s the best way; I don’t really want to compare the ways. I just want to say, “Here’s how you do this, here’s how you do this.”
We go through offered behaviors, we go through getting plain behavior loops, clean movement cycles, how do you decide whether your learner is in the frame of mind to work, things like that. I love giving the class because I feel that it covers a lot of different stuff, and so people can get an overall of what they’re going to use to get behaviors.
Melissa Breau: I mentioned in the intro that one of the things you focus on is really clear communication when training, which I know obviously all of those bits and pieces fall into that. What are a few of the ways that we can, for lack of a better word, muddy things up when we’re trying to train a new behavior?
Shade Whitesel: The first and foremost thing is people’s mechanics aren’t clean. It’s basically click, pause, then treat. That way the dog starts understanding to listen, and not to watch your hands and not to watch where the treats are.
I see training get really muddy when there’s not clear cues for what the dog is supposed to do. There’s a lot of training sports that we do want the dog to watch us, like in heeling they need to be on one side of our body, so obviously they need to watch the left side of our body. But we really want the dog also to be listening to what you’re saying as you’re teaching them. In a lot of our sports, body language is not allowed, and we want to be clear in those mechanics.
Also know what you’re teaching. Have a clear idea of the steps to get there, and what exactly you want to teach and what you’re going to reinforce. So I really like people to know what they’re teaching and what they’re going for.
Melissa Breau: What are some of those common signs that our dogs give us that maybe we’re not being clear?
Shade Whitesel: My puppy walked away from me today in his little training session, and we want to stop before they do that. Walking away — that’s not so good. I should have noticed before. But basically look-aways, not re-orienting toward you right away, sniffing, leaving, vocalization, things like that are a good sign that your training is going in a way that you don’t want it to. If you’re using toy skills, dogs that are taking a little longer to come back to you, or a little longer to give up the ball or the toy.
You know things are going wrong, or you know your learner is having a hard time with stuff, when they stop re-orientating to you for the next rep, if that’s what you want. If you have a training loop where the dog is doing something, getting reinforcement, and then re-orientating to you in that behavior, then that re-orientating to you — I call that a reset — when that starts to deteriorate, that’s when you know your training session is getting a little harder for your learner.
If you’re doing something shaping and the dog is re-orientating to the mat when you’re teaching a “Go to the mat,” if they start arcing on the way to the mat or something, that would be another sign that the training is not going well. And dogs will do that before they leave, before they sniff, so those are the things you want to start noticing and adjust your training session for.
Melissa Breau: A lot of times we miss those early signals where things are taking a little bit longer, and it’s good to know that that’s where we want to start to listen.
Shade Whitesel: Yeah, and more and more I know that I, as a trainer, I start noticing it faster. It’s a look away, it’s a slow into heel that we need to notice, because those things come before the dog is like, “I don’t know what heel means.” So we need to notice those little things, if that’s how we’re training.
If your dog normally looks away in heel, then that wouldn’t be something that would give you information, but if normally they’re heeling along really well and then heel up against a baby gate and the dog looks away, that’s a real good sign that that’s hard.
Melissa Breau: And it makes sense to go back and bring it down, and obviously that’s one of those places where video becomes super valuable, because even if you don’t see it in the moment, when you look back at that video, sometimes it’s a lot more obvious.
Shade Whitesel: Video is great because you don’t always know. Or if I videoed my session before I’m sure the puppy did some stuff, before he went, “You know, that’s too hard,” if I videoed, I might be a little bit more knowledgeable about that, and in fact I will video our next session for that information.
Melissa Breau: Often, if communication is less than clear, it leads to mistakes or misunderstandings about the behavior that we’re trying to teach. I know you have a specific protocol that you share for dealing with mistakes that happen during training. Can you talk us through that?
Shade Whitesel: Just having taught this camp seminar with Amy Cook and Sarah Stremming, we had a Q&A session at the end of it, and we talked about mistakes both days. I want to thank … I didn’t know the woman who said this, but a shout out to her because it’s a really good way to put it: I want people to think of mistakes as information for the handler — not for the dog, for the handler — that whatever we’re trying to teach, it’s not getting through.
So first of all, just knowing that, knowing that mistakes are information that we’re not communicating what we thought we did, because the learner, the dog, they always think they’re right. They’re doing what we’re teaching them, so mistakes are not really that much mistakes. They’re information that “I need to get a little better about something in that training session,” and we don’t always know at the time.
As far as specific protocols, I have some stuff where it’s like, OK, the dog makes one mistake, reset the circumstances that made that mistake, and then, if they make two mistakes in a row, always, always go back, make it super easy, make sure they get reinforced afterwards. Another thing I might do, if I’m working on positions or something, I might feed the dog in position and then do a reset cookie. So basically the dog’s getting two treats: they’re getting one in position and then a reset cookie. If they get the position wrong, then I might not feed them in position, but I would still get that reset treat out there, so if they understand what to do instead, the next time they’ll do it. So they know they missed their opportunity for a cookie there.
Everything I’m talking about, like the resetting or missing out on a cookie, that really depends a lot on the history of your learner and how old your learner is in the work. You don’t want to reset a puppy. I might treat one of these mistakes — I have a 6-year-old dog — a little differently than I will treat Talic’s mistakes, both of them being my own fault as their teacher, but one has six years of learning history, whereas the little puppy just has a couple months of learning history, so treating those differently might be a possibility.
The big thing, too, is they made a mistake — they already made a mistake. There’s nothing you can do. Don’t worry about it. Give them another behavior they can do. I find everyone’s so worried about the mistakes, and more and more I think we should go … we should note it in our minds: They came off 30 degrees off position in heel position. Let’s not do that again. Let’s figure out and let’s give them a behavior that they can do that I can pay them for, get them reinforced as quickly as possible, and then move on and try to evaluate why they didn’t come in correctly to heel position.
Those are just some things I’m thinking about off the top of my head about what we call mistakes but really should be information for us.
Melissa Breau: If that kind of stuff happens regularly, obviously it can lead to frustration on the dog’s part.
Let’s say someone is seeing definite signs of frustration in their training — barking or leaving or any of those obvious flags. How can they begin to figure out what’s going on and make a plan to fix it?
Shade Whitesel: Well, video is your friend, and we’re all kind of talking about the same thing: frustration, mistakes, training being muddy, not having clear resets, behavior from the dog — it’s all kind of the same thing.
Frustration — I think we label frustration when the dog is barking or pushy at us, whereas it’s probably the same reason as the dog that sniffs and leaves. Both of it is that they’re semi-confused over what we want, or we’re not communicating correctly.
What I always look at is I look at my resets. Does my dog re-orientate to me as fast as they can? If that gets slow, then I always look. If my dog’s barking, that’s definitely I’m going to make sure my rate of reinforcement is up, make sure I’m communicating, make sure I’m breaking it down as tiny steps as possible.
Working on my German Shepherds, they love to bark, and I’m very, very careful about drilling very hard behaviors. Frustration-wise, a lot of Shepherds will bark when you ask them to back up or ask them to do a left finish, and I’m very, very careful about training those in a calm way so that I don’t get any extra whines, things like that, and making sure that I don’t ask for ten of them, so that my dog isn’t frustrated, like, “I just did that.” Whereas a lot of times where the dog is moving forward, that’s not as frustrating for them.
So look at your training, make sure everything’s clear so your dog isn’t frustrated, but also look at what you’re asking them to do. If they’re trying to inhibit themselves and do a lot of start-stops, that can be really frustrating for dogs that like to move and go forward, so that’s an extra thing to think about.
The other thing about frustration is did your dog expect reinforcement, and have you made this association of your dog wanting reinforcement and now all of a sudden you’re not giving them reinforcement, so they get frustrated at you. So it’s about associations.
I see a lot of times — and myself included, because I’m far from a perfect trainer — we may stay too long at one step in eventually what’s going to be a behavior chain, and when we try to move beyond that step of training, the dog is like, “But wait a minute. You paid me twenty times, and now this twenty-first time, why aren’t you paying me?” So we have to make sure that we up the criteria as fast as our learner is able to, so we don’t create that frustration of being at one step and then the dog thinking that that’s the end product.
I usually describe it, if we’re teaching “Go to the mat,” because that’s a really easy way to describe it. Let’s say it’s five steps to go to the mat, and if we click at Step 2 three times and then we expect Step 3, maybe our specific learner thought, I only moved two steps to this mat. Have you clicked that three times so that’s all I do. And then they don’t understand when two steps doesn’t get a click. I always describe it that way because that seems to make sense to people, where we’re thinking we’re waiting for the next step, where the learner is like, “Wait a minute. You just taught me take two steps.” That’s often a thing that we can figure out in video when we watch them and think about in our training sessions.
So lots of stuff to think about, and there’s no recipe for this, which makes it a little hard sometimes.
Melissa Breau: Another endorsement for the value of video for sure.
Shade Whitesel: Totally. It’s made me a better trainer.
Melissa Breau: Looking at the syllabus for “Crucial Concepts,” it lists a lot of, obviously, a lot of concepts. Do you have specific skills — I know you mentioned mat work a couple of times — that students will work through to apply those concepts, or are they picking their own behaviors to work on? How does that work?
Shade Whitesel: I do show behaviors that I want them to do, and they can pick their own, if they know those. For instance, one of the behaviors we show is “Go to a mat.” That’s real simple for the shaping part of it. You can choose to shape something else, but I’d rather people take non-trial behaviors so they aren’t so worried about stuff.
I don’t want them to try to lure a perfect sit because they’re worried about having that perfect sit for heeling, things like that. I just want nonsense behaviors for them to practice these concepts on, so I really want people to do it on tricks. So I have suggested behaviors, but they can also, with instructor approval, pick their own.
Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Fair enough.
Share Whitesel: Yeah.
Melissa Breau: I think, for a lot of folks, they’ll look at a class like this and they aren’t sure how to tell if it’s a good fit for them and their dog. Can you talk a little bit about who the class is for? Is it for beginners? Folks with young dogs? Experienced competitors? Where’s the focus?
Shade Whitesel: All the things. All the people. I don’t think people realize that it’s not for beginners. It’s a great class for beginners because I start really basic and then I work up, but it’s also … I can guarantee you there’s stuff in there that you don’t know, even if you’ve been training dogs a lot. We’re always learning, and as instructors, we’re always learning, and I want this class to show you the basic stuff of how to learn, how to shape, and how to get offered behaviors, but I also talk about how to get clean loops in your training.
By far, I see people not doing what we consider the foundation behaviors, the foundation mechanics, and it really, really helps to go back and work on that, and it’s going to really help your training. I’ve had a couple people say, after they took the class, that they got so much out of it; that they thought it was an elementary class, but they got a lot out of it that they didn’t realize. So I think a lot of people should take that. It’s going to be really helpful.
Melissa Breau: You’ve also got your retrieve class on the schedule this term. Can you share a little about that class too, just what approach you use and who should consider that class?
Shade Whitesel: I shape the retrieve, specifically shape the hold. And to clarify, this class, the retrieve is on retrieving a dumbbell, or mainly an obedience retrieve, where you’re going to send the dog out for a dumbbell and they’re either going to come to heel if they’re hunting, or I think FCI they come to heel position, they don’t do front, or we’ll teach the basic AKC or CKC dumbbell retrieve where the dog comes to front.
So to clarify, we’re using … this is a formal, so the dog goes out, gets a dumbbell, and comes back. I’m not playing with the dumbbell, I’m not getting the dumbbell to be very exciting. I’m using what the dog is already is reinforced by, which is normally toy stuff to shape the hold and the dumbbell, so basically they’re retrieving the dumbbell for their toy.
It’s preferable and ideal if people already have the toy class in their libraries, if they already have some toy skills, because I really, really like to use the toy marker cue of switch, which is switching grip to grip, so like toy to toy, but it’s not necessary for them to do the class. We can do a lot of the stuff with food, or if they already have some toy skills but they don’t have switch, I’ve got a couple of clients or student who have used just the basic toy skills they already had.
So ideally I’d love for people to have the relevant toy skill of switch to shape the hold, but it’s not totally necessary. I’ll work with you, especially at the Gold spot, if you just have food. But really we’re shaping it.
We, in the past, have given this class back-to-back, because I think it takes six weeks to get a really good hold on the object that you’re going to have to get, and then the next six weeks to get a really nice retrieve. So I’ve given the class in back-to-back terms. I’m not going to this time. I’m probably going to start teaching this class twice a year, and so ideally be realistic and realize you’re not going to usually be able to teach a retrieve in six short weeks. That’s really a three-month project.
Melissa Breau: You mean people can’t get their final formal retrieve ready to walk into an obedience ring in six weeks? No way!
Shade Whitesel: It’s like heeling. It takes a little longer.
Melissa Breau: That’s so funny.
Shade Whitesel: But I’m going to give it more often. People can work on it, and then work on it again in a couple of months. So they should get a good hold out of a hold in front or a hold in heel for this. And I do think this class might be good for people who need to work on dogs that chew in a hold. This might be a good class for that.
Melissa Breau: To help problem-solve that a little bit.
Shade Whitesel: Yeah.
Melissa Breau: I will say, while I have absolutely shaped a “Bring the object to me,” I have no hold on my retrieve, so it’s interesting. Maybe that’s a class I should look at.
Shade Whitesel: It is the most boring part because often we can convince a dog to go get something for us. It’s the sitting in front, holding it calmly, that’s so weird for the dogs. I mean, boy, who dreams up that, you know? The dogs are like, “Why would I sit here in perfect front and hold this calmly? I want to chew it, I want to fling it at you,” all the things that they want to do. I enjoy it, but it’s a behavior that probably doesn’t make sense to dogs, which makes it hard for us.
Melissa Breau: Right. So I’ve got one last question here. My last question is the one that I’ve taken to asking everyone when they come on: What’s a lesson that you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Shade Whitesel: You know what? Listen to your dog. I think I said that before, too, but just over and over, listen to your learner, listen to what they’re saying.
My little puppy, a couple of days ago I’m trying to teach him a chin rest, and I stick my hand … and he would do one perfect chin rest and then he’d leave. He’s a leaver, and I haven’t had a leaver in a while. Normally I have dogs that bark at me. He’d do this perfect chin rest, and I’d give him his little marker cue and give him his little treat, and then he’d be like, “Nope, not doing it again.” And it’s like, why not? Because he was doing it perfectly. Well, obviously I’m not reinforcing it enough. So I switched to, like, five treats in a row, and he was like, “Oh, OK. I’ll do more than one.”
I think it’s easy for us, not that I did, but I think it’s easy for us to go, “Well, he knows how to do it, because he just did it, and he’s choosing not to.” And he was. He was like, “You’re not paying me enough for that hard behavior.”
I don’t tend to think of a chin rest as a hard behavior, because my other dogs are like, “Sure, we’ll chin rest all day.” But for him, as a young, active puppy, it’s a really hard, expensive behavior, and he was telling me that. Once I started paying it with more food, he was happy to do it again and again, and he’s got a beautiful chin rest now. And now it’s an easier behavior for him, and I don’t have to pay him five treats at once.
But over and over in my training sessions, listen to what your dog’s telling you. Listen to what your learner’s telling you. Is your rate of reinforcement up there? Do they like it? I love that way of training, just listening to what they’re saying and their opinion about it. I just think that’s cool.
Melissa Breau: That’s so interesting, because it’s something that I was talking to Hannah about. She was on last week and we chatted quite a bit about this idea that dogs really are each unique, and they really do have different things that are hard for them than other dogs, and it’s important to recognize that. Some things are going to be an expensive behavior and some things are going to be a cheap behavior, they’re not going to be the same as the dog you trained before this one. So yes, it’s really interesting.
Shade Whitesel: Yeah, and in a way, of course, because I don’t like the same things that my brother and sister like. We all have different interests. So of course dogs, even if they’re related to each other, even if they’re same breed, they’re going to have different likes.
I do automatically think of that, but I need to be reminded by my listener, or by my learner, that “This behavior, even though your other dogs know it really well and it was easy, this behavior is hard for me.”
So yeah, they’re all individuals, and that’s what makes them pretty darn fascinating.
Melissa Breau: Yeah, yeah. Thank you so much Shade. I really appreciate you coming back on the podcast.
Shade Whitesel: Thanks for having me. It’s good to talk about this stuff. I enjoy it.
Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. we’ll be back next week with Stacy Barnett to take a deeper dive into scent work than we previously have here on the podcast, talking about everything from start line routines to scent cones and converging odor.
Don’t miss it! It if you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.
Hannah Branigan, of Wonder Pups Training, is back on the podcast to talk about behavior chains, and a little bit about her new puppy (because he’s adorable).
Hannah is the host of Drinking from the Toilet and blogs at wonderpupstraining.com.
To be released 9/28/2018, an interview with Shade Whitesel about crucial concepts when training for competition.
Today we have Hannah Branigan of Wonder Pups Training back on the podcast to talk about behavior chains, and a little bit about her new puppy because he’s adorable.
Welcome back to the podcast Hannah.
Hannah Branigan: Thank you for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, do you want to remind listeners who you are, share a little about the dogs you have, and a little about the new addition?
Hannah Branigan: Sure. I am Hannah Branigan, in case you’ve already forgotten. I have my own podcast, Drinking From The Toilet, as well as teaching for FDSA and playing in a lot of different dog sports. Obedience is my primary focus, that’s where I spend most of my time, but I’m really interested in doing really good training, and diagnosing and breaking things down, and reverse-engineering cool behaviors and high-quality performances, and figuring out how we can systematize that and then how can we teach it.
For my own dogs, I currently have five dogs. I have three Belgian Shepherds, one Border Terrier, Rugby, and my new puppy, Figment, is a Border Collie.
Melissa Breau: Let’s start by talking about Mr. Figment. With a new puppy, what have you chosen to focus on, and I do assume the goal is to eventually do obedience?
Hannah Branigan: Definitely we’ll do some obedience. We’ll probably do a lot of different things. I cross-train with all of my dogs. Again, obedience is my central focus, but we tinker in a lot of sports, so right now I’m not doing anything with him that you would consider sport-specific, nothing that is exclusive to obedience or exclusive to agility or exclusive to anything else.
My theme for him right now, my word for him, is really balance. So what I’m trying hard to do is looking at the puppy that I have today and building his skills in how he and I interact together, how he interacts with the world, and trying to develop balance, because he’s definitely got … he has his preferences, I of course have my preferences because I’m old and set in my ways, but there are things that I want to build with him. But while I’m building these new behaviors, I want to make sure that I’m not creating a lot of reinforcement history for a particular picture that will make it harder for me to then get other behaviors to change that picture later on.
That was really vague, so let me give you an example. For example, I do want to do sports with him, and so we play a lot of motivational games, drive-building games, where he’s moving and I’m moving and there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of arousal. At the same time as I’m playing those games in a training context, I am juxtaposing them with less exciting, less arousing, more relaxing, more thinking sorts of games. So we might play with his ball for a few minutes and work on some toy skills, and then immediately in the same session we’ll go to some mat, and shape relax on a mat with some food, and then we might go back to working on some toy skills, and go back to relax on a mat.
That switching between food and toys, and again being able to balance that, is something that I’m focusing on a lot in terms of his reinforcement, and also just in terms of all the behaviors that we’re working on.
Melissa Breau: I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking lately about how much every dog is really unique and their own individuals, and that means that any new dog is going to be totally different than any dog any of us has owned or trained before that one. How do you go about getting to know a new dog or puppy? For that matter, what do you want to know about them?
Hannah Branigan: I’m not doing anything particularly formal in that way. We mostly just go through life, and as we come across something like a cat, or an unfamiliar person, or whatever, I’ll pause and I’ll observe his response. Maybe it’s like, “Oh, that’s not a big deal,” and the behaviors I see in this context are totally fine and appropriate, great. I’ll just maintain that. On the other hand, sometimes we’ll see a car moving, and I’ll observe his behavior — and I put observe in air quotes because his behavior is quite obvious in that context — and I’ll say, “Oh, that’s not really what I was looking for, so maybe I need to do some training here to get a behavior that I can live with when we see cars going by.”
Really I’m just living my life with my dogs the way that I would normally, and then, as we get to a new situation or some new picture or some new experience, I’ll just keep an eye on him and ask him the question, “How’s this for you?” and just be ready to look for his answer, and then adjust what we do at that time.
Melissa Breau: Is there anything about Figment that feels new for you in terms of training?
Hannah Branigan: I would say the biggest thing that’s different with Figgy is that he’s the first dog that I’ve ever had personally in my house that is easier to stimulate with toys than food. In fact, his food-eating behavior was not really present when he first came home to me, and it disappears rather easily if we go to a new situation. When we get out of the car at the park or at Panera or something, he may not take food right away. There are situations where I’ve accidentally over-fazed him and he’s not taking food or toys, but there are a lot of situations where we get into a new environment, or there’s people, or there’s other dogs and they’re moving, and he’ll chase a toy but not take food.
That’s a new thing for me, because for my other dogs, they would usually take food first, and then the toy play would be the more fragile behavior. With him, he may not take food at all, but he’d be willing to chase a toy. And there’s a little bit of a trap there, because, one, having worked so hard to get Rugby to play with toys with me, it feels nice to have a dog that is so easy to stimulate with toys in that way. So it would be very easy for me to say, “Don’t worry about the food. We’ve got toy play, and that’s sexier anyway, so I’m just going to use the toy.”
Having worked through this with students and clients, I know that that wouldn’t benefit my long-term goals, that wouldn’t fit that theme of balance I’m looking for with him, so I know that, “OK, you’re not taking treats; I need to go back a step. Where were you taking treats last? Where can you eat food?” and work from there, rather than blowing past that threshold where he can’t eat food anymore and then just lean on the toys to get through it, because that way is not going to get me what I want in the long run. It’s going to be very limiting and I’ll eventually get stuck.
Melissa Breau: I’m guessing at this point he’s probably little enough that he hasn’t been introduced to much in the way of actual behavior chains yet, right?
Hannah Branigan: Certainly not formally. Behavior chains are around us all the time, that’s just part of how we naturally function in the environment, but we don’t have really anything on cue. Everything that we’re doing training-wise is just on building fluent reinforcement behaviors, and a few movement skills, and those foundational individual behaviors, and way down the road we’ll work on turning those into more formal, finished behaviors. Once we have those really trained to fluency, then I’ll worry about creating sequences or behavior chains from a performance standpoint.
Melissa Breau: Before we get into this stuff too much, can you explain a little bit what a behavior chain is?
Hannah Branigan: Sure. A behavior chain … and you will hear words like “behavior chain” and “behavior sequence” can be used, there’s some debate in the behavior world as to what the definition between a chain versus a sequence is. There isn’t a lot of agreement. So some folks have their definition, and other folks have a different definition. I’m going to go ahead and just use behavior chain and behavior sequence pretty much interchangeably and talk about the phenomenon as a whole, and we’ll worry about splitting down the jargon later in another podcast episode.
Melissa Breau: Fair enough.
Hannah Branigan: A behavior chain or a behavior sequence is a sequence of behaviors that are held together with cues. Those cues can come from an outside source, like if we’re talking about a dog, they might come from the trainer, the handler, but they can also come from the environment.
If you need to get in your car to drive somewhere, you’ll perform a behavior chain. You’ll walk out of your house, so that’s one behavior. You’ll see your car, and the sight of the car tells you, “Oh …” more specifically, the sight of your car with the door closed is a cue in the environment: If I’m going to drive my car, I need to open the door. So that’s your cue to reach your hand out, take the door handle, pull the door open, which of course is its own little behavior chain. We can really zoom in quite a lot on these and go crazy.
Now you’re standing in front of the car with the door open. That’s your cue to get in the seat. Now you’re sitting in the car. That’s your cue to maybe close the door. You’re sitting in the car, it’s not running, that’s your cue: “Oh, I need to put my key in the ignition,” and then turn the ignition.
Each behavior that you perform creates some change in the state of the environment and your conditions around you that then signal you to do the next step, and the next step, to eventually reach your goal of backing out of your driveway and driving to the grocery store to get some more Oreos or whatever. So that’s an example of a behavior chain where your actions changing the environment are functioning as your cue to do the next thing.
And of course if you didn’t know how to do each of those individual behaviors, you’d be in trouble. If you were faced with — and this has actually happened to me in a rental car before — you get in the car, you close the door, and you cannot find where to put the key because it’s one of those weird cars with the new …
Melissa Breau: With the start button.
Hannah Branigan: Yeah, and you just sit there for a while and you’re like, “I guess I’m going to have to go ask someone for help.” The chain broke because there was a behavior that was required in the middle there that was not yet fluent. Once you learn how to do that behavior, now you know how to start this new, weird, funky car, and you’re able to complete your behavior chain.
Melissa Breau: For anybody wondering, you have to step on the brake and then push the button. Usually.
Hannah Branigan: Yeah. I had to go back in and ask for help.
Melissa Breau: I had to ask for help too. I could not figure that out. To get back to dogs for a minute, what are some examples of behavior chains that are helpful for competitive obedience?
Hannah Branigan: In competition the whole performance is a behavior chain, from the time you get your dog out of the crate to when you put your dog back in the crate, or back in the car, or whatever, after the performance. That whole sequence of events is a behavior chain, really. And it’s one of those combination sequences where some of the cues are coming from the environment and some of the cues are coming from you as a trainer.
For example, we’ll look at the retrieve. You throw the dumbbell, the dog is still sitting at your side, and then you’re going to give a verbal cue to send the dog to go get the dumbbell. At that point, though, you’re no longer giving any cues. The cues are all present in the environment.
So the dog leaves your side, runs out, the sight of the dumbbell tells the dog what to do with it. “Do I put my feet on it?” Hopefully not, because hopefully you’ve trained your pickup to fluency. So he sees the dumbbell, he scoops it up with his mouth on the bar of the dumbbell, now he’s got the dumbbell in his mouth, that’s his cue to return to you. He sees you standing there with your arms at your sides in that formal soldier kind of posture, that’s his cue to come sit in front. At that point you cue the give and then you cue him to come to heel. So you’ve given two of those cues for those behaviors, and the environment has given the rest of them. So that’s one exercise.
But then again, that whole performance is a behavior chain, and we have sequences of behaviors that we have to perform to move from one exercise to the next. So once you’re done with the retrieve on a flat, now you need to cue a series of behaviors to move your dog into the retrieve over the high. Once you do that one, which is another little behavior chain, you have another behavior chain that links the retrieve over the high to moving over to the broad jump.
I think we forget that there are still behaviors happening between “Exercise finished” and “Are you ready?” So that’s something that I have made a personal project to figure out.
Melissa Breau: I know your upcoming class gets into this, and specifically into the behavior chains, in a big way. Can you share a little bit about that?
Hannah Branigan: Yeah. It’s called “Unchain Your Performance,” I think, and it’s kind of a joke because I can’t do anything seriously. But the idea is that in order to unchain yourself from that feeling of having to have food in your pocket, having to have a treat in your hand, and get multiple behaviors, we can build behavior chains, build these sequences of behaviors, that end in the primary reinforcement, the food, the toy, whatever. That’s the little plan, which I thought was hilarious but maybe not everybody gets.
But anyway, it is a common problem, in that it is the nature of dog sports that we have to leave all of our sources of primary reinforcement, all the stuff that we’ve been using for months or years to train this dog to do this particular set of behaviors, and we leave them all over here on our chair or in our crate, and we have to go all the way into this other space, which is usually clearly delineated by ring gates or hay bales or ropes or something, but it’s quite clearly a different room in the environment, and there are no food or toys in there. And it does not take many repetitions for your dog to catch on to the idea that “She left all the food over there, but we’re going into this room where there is no food.” That’s not the whole thing that makes performance hard, that makes competing hard, but it is a piece of it, and it is a piece that we want to account for.
So one of the things that we can do is we can teach the dog that by being very systematic, I can create this sequence of behaviors that does lead to access to the reinforcement, even when it’s back at your chair. I can communicate that concept through successful approximations, which is shaping in a way, in that we’re gradually building these increments of performance by holding these sequences together in a continuous stream of cues and response and cue-response and cue-response that leads into the ring, we do the performance, and then out of the ring, and bam — that’s when you get access to your reinforcer. All of that is connected instead of having a big gap where we’ve left the food and then nothing happens, and then I come ask you to do this whole bunch of things, and then there’s this gap, and then magically food appears.
So it doesn’t work to just feed at the end of the performance. There has to be that connection, and we need to condition the dog, we need to teach them that, “The reinforcement you’re getting right now, here at this chair, is related to the behavior you just performed.”
Melissa Breau: You mentioned in there this idea that it does give people freedom from treats and toys, at least on their body, in order to get into the ring. But when you’re talking about clicker training and things, folks often say not to bother loading the clicker anymore because dogs figure it out. If we’re consistent about rewarding when we leave the ring, would a dog just figure it out that after they compete they get good stuff; it’s just in the next little bit of the room?
Hannah Branigan: Well, yes and no. If you were consistent with how you performed that whole sequence of events, yes, it would probably totally work. That’s not usually the case in real life.
We certainly have examples of dogs being able to catch on to sequences of events as cues that reinforcement is coming. For example, if you feed your dog at 5:30 every night, those behaviors that you’re doing that are leading up to dinnertime, your dog is totally aware of, and when you close your laptop and stand up and start walking toward the kitchen, your dog’s already responding to that. That consistent flow of events that you’re creating with your behavior there effectively becomes the conditioned reinforcer aspect would walk forward in time from scooping the food into the bowl to walking to the kitchen … to closing the laptop and then walking into the kitchen.
So yes, that effect is there. However, it does depend on how good of a predictor your behaviors are, which requires consistency. When we’re talking about something in the real world, like a performance, there’s a lot of stuff that happens in between. If we’re talking about a 2-, 5-, maybe 8-minute long obedience run, that’s a lot of stuff to depend on just repetition.
There’s a lot left to chance. Could the dog figure that out? Yes, and probably some dogs do. But we can do better than that by breaking it down and being systematic and deliberately building that from the ground up, or from the chair back, or however you want to think about it, so that we know for sure that there’s a connection, instead of just hoping that if I do this a hundred times, eventually it will come out right.
Your dog can be learning so many things, and if you’re inconsistent in that space, like sometimes you come out of the ring and you continue straight to your crate and you give them the meatball, but sometimes you come out and somebody says something to you and you look away from your dog, and then you forget where your chair is, or you get there and … stuff happens. The bigger that space is, the more likely that there’s some external variable that’s going to come in and mess up your party. It’s easier, it’s more effective, to be more deliberate about how you build that.
Melissa Breau: It feels like, looking at this, that there are two approaches to this whole deal of helping your dog understand that the ring has value. So the idea of building reinforcers you can bring INTO the ring with you, like personal play, which I know is a big topic at FDSA, and then this concept of teaching the dog that the good stuff will come when they’re all done and they get back to their chair or their crate or whatever. Are some dogs better suited for one approach or the other?
Hannah Branigan: I don’t think it’s an either/or kind of thing at all. It’s just incorporating … however, again, the whole performance is a sequence of behaviors, so part of that sequence can and should, in my opinion, include a series of, we’ll say, very easy behaviors, preferred behaviors, like play. Ideally, play is a very high-frequency, it’s a very easy behavior, it’s very cheap for your dog because it’s so fun. So there’s some behaviors that are easier as part of your ring performance. Some of the behaviors you’re going to be asking of your dog are a lot harder, like finding the correct scent article under pressure while there’s some strange man staring at him, holding a clipboard, and being very judgy.
So it is, I think, very helpful to apply a little bit of the easy-hard-easy pattern that we use in training a lot, where you ask for something a little bit harder and then you ask for something easier and you reinforce it, and then you ask for something a little bit harder and you ask for something easier. We can play that pattern out in the ring by “I’m going to ask you to find the correct scent article, return with that, take it, call to heel, exercise finished, now I’m going to cue an easy behavior, which is playful interaction with me,” whatever that looks like for you and your dog.
Those are behaviors that need to be trained and conditioned separately, out of context, and then you can work them into your performance. But they still have to be something you have to condition the dog to expect. We have to build it. It can be systematic, be deliberate about building those easy behaviors into the performance so the dog knows what to expect. That’s part of what makes it easy.
Easy things are things we expect. He knows that “Oh, and then we’ll play, and she’ll pet me, and at the end of that play session there’s another call to heel, and we go do another thing, and then there’ll be another play, and she’ll pet me, and then she’ll call me to heel, and do another thing, and then after that we get my leash on, and we go to my chair, and I eat my cookies.”
So they can have all of those things, and it’s not one or the other. It’s looking at the whole picture and being thoughtful about how do you want this to happen, what are the actions you’re doing, the cues that you’re giving to your dog that tell the dog what to expect, what’s next, what behavior should he perform, and then being ready to give those cues so that you’re maintaining that continuous interaction that we would call it connection in the ring.
There is a common phenomenon that I experienced with my own dogs, I didn’t really know what was going on, and I’ve since seen in a lot of student dogs and go, “This is something we need to train for.” It’s that we are often very good at incorporating play behaviors at the end of some training exercise that we do. We call the dog on a recall, the dog comes to front, finished, exercise finished, “Yay, good boy! You’re amazing and you’re beautiful!” We pet and we play and we do all this beautiful play, and then that’s the end. But we have to have a very clean way to go from “I’m petting and playing with you” to calling to heel.
What I noticed with my own dog is when I would stop petting him, and I’d pull my hands back up and I’m ready to move on to the next thing, there was this withdrawal kind of effect where he would stand and just look at me and be a little bit flat. There was a question mark on his face, and I didn’t realize it in real time, but I saw it on the video. So many things are clearer on video after the fact.
I was like, let’s try replicating it. Maybe that was just in the ring because he was stressed. So I tried it in my front yard, and damned if he didn’t stand and stare at me in the front yard when I tried to move from play back to call a heel. It was like, oh, this is a chaining problem. I need to be able to time that call.
One, I need him to know to expect that this play session will end with another opportunity to work, and hopefully that opportunity to do those behaviors is also positively trained and so isn’t perceived as aversive. That’s part of my job. And then I need to time that cue for while we’re still engaged in the interaction, because if I am petting him and we’re engaged, and then I just stop playing and take a moment to collect myself, he’s just standing there looking at me, and then I say, “Heel,” and he’s like, “What?”
There are two things. One, that ending of the play is potentially aversive. You’re taking the toy back. Whether there’s a real toy there or an imaginary toy, there has to be something to fill that space. I realized I was having gaps in my performance, and it was making the setups at the beginning of each exercise harder than they needed to be, because there ended up being a disconnection in-between the exercises.
Even when I thought I was doing a good job at maintaining the connection, there was still a little bit of a question mark on his face, and subsequently when I would ask him to come to heel to set up for the next exercise, he would be a little slow, a little bit panty, and then I would fall into some horrible habits of patting my leg and shuffling my feet and repeating cues, which I never do in training, and only add to the weirdness of the ring performance.
Melissa Breau: Most people probably wouldn’t think about that. You’re giving your dog a reinforcer, “OK, you did a good job,” now I can get back to work. From the human’s perspective, that makes sense, but from the dog’s perspective, I can certainly see how that might feel a little bit jarring to be in the middle of this interaction and have somebody be like, “OK, time to go.”
Hannah Branigan: Especially if they didn’t even say it, if they just stopped, like you’re eating lunch with a friend and you’re having a conversation, and she just gets up and leaves. And you’re like, “What?”
But we tend to rush dogs with reinforcement anyway. I think it’s just more obvious when there’s not a physical thing involved.
Food is relatively easy because the food is swallowed and then it’s gone, and then that is a very clear signal that that reinforcement is and both of you are aware of that, so there doesn’t have to be an in-between. But we still tend to rush dogs: “Hey, come back, come back, let’s go, let’s go.” Whereas we could let them swallow, let them re-engage, and then give the next cue.
With toys, it’s a little bit harder because the toy is still there and you have to take the toy back. We still have a tendency, we get in a hurry as trainers and we want to rush the dog back so we can do the next thing. So “Give me the ball back,” and then we reach toward the ball, and the dog isn’t aware that the reinforcer is over just yet: “I’m still pulling on your toy.” And then, when there’s not a toy there at all, I think it’s even more abstract. So we really have to be thoughtful about how are we signaling that we’re now going to the next thing, and make sure that that transition from this easy behavior to this new next thing, this new harder behavior, is not a surprise, that it’s expected, and that it’s a positive, that the dog has good feelings about that transition.
Melissa Breau: To shift gears a little bit, we’ve talked a lot now about behavior chains and the intentional, careful planning, what it takes, think through, “OK, these are the pieces, and this is the order I want them in, and these are the bits in-between, and I want to think about that.” What about unintentional behavior chains? Let’s start with the obvious: Is it possible?
Hannah Branigan: Of course it’s possible, and it happens all the time. Behavior chains — that’s how we interact with our environment. There are many, many things we do where we have to do a long sequence of different actions to get whatever outcome it is that we’re after.
We can certainly set up what happens to people, but we’ll look at dogs because that’s what we’re interested in right now. It certainly happens in the dog world. Many of us have experienced the undesired behavior chain of the puppy that jumps up at you and then sits. I’m trying to teach you a polite greet, and the greeting that we end up living with or settling for in the short term is the puppy jumps up and then sits. “Did you see me? I sat! Did you miss it? Let me jump up and then sit again.” These sorts of things can happen in lots of places where there’s some behavior occurs on the way to the behavior that you want to reinforce, and then it gets built into that sequence of behaviors.
Of course it’s harder to do that if it’s a behavior chain you want to occur. That’s like the Murphy’s Law of dog training, kind of. But if you want the behavior sequence together, it will take months of careful planning and successful approximation to create that structure. But if it’s a behavior that you don’t want because it’s annoying, like vocalizing, like squeaking in your crate, or something like that, or jumping up and then sitting or …
Melissa Breau: Or ping-ponging to the end of your leash before returning.
Hannah Branigan: Yes, ping-ponging to the end of your leash and then coming back for a treat, and then end of your leash and then coming back for a treat. Those things, of course, you only have to reinforce them, like, one time and you’ve bought it for life.
So the trick for those unintended behavior chains, undesired behavior chains, the ones you don’t want, is to reinforce before the undesired behavior happens. So click before the puppy jumps up, which does mean you’re clicking before they sit, but you’re clicking before they jump up, and it interrupts the undesired behavior chain. It’s the universal trick for fixing that in all cases.
Melissa Breau: Before the puppy squeaks, or before they hit the end of the leash.
Hannah Branigan: Right. Exactly, yes. Click before the thing you don’t want to happen, happens, and it interrupts that chain, and you can get the reinforcement that was going to come at the end of the chain is now coming, you’re short-circuiting, you’re making a little shortcut to that reinforcer. “You don’t have to sit. You don’t have to jump up. Great. Now you’re stopping 2 feet away from me.” Or in the case that you’re hitting the leash, maybe you’re just dipping your head and looking right back, bam, I’ll reinforce that, because that, for me, is a lot better than having my shoulder snapped every three steps.
Melissa Breau: Depending on the size of the dog, but yeah. All right, I’ve got one last question for you, Hannah. It’s the new last question I’ve been asking everyone when they come back on: What’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Hannah Branigan: I would say something that Figment has reminded me of frequently right now is the importance of setting up the environment to make the behavior that you want very, very easy to happen, and the behavior you don’t want to see very, very unlikely to happen. So that he’s always rehearsing the things that you like, so that you have opportunities to reinforce them, and rarely — and hopefully never, but probably because we’re all human, rarely — practicing the behaviors that you don’t like.
Almost all of the places through the course of the day where I start finding myself feeling frustrated and maybe tempted to fall back on some old training habits that are not tools that I want to use anymore, it’s almost always that I have failed to set the environment up so that he’s set up for success. And it means that I may need to put a leash on him temporarily while we’re walking through the house to go out the back door, if there’s going to be a cat in the kitchen or other predictable features of the environment that I need to change his behavior around.
So I would say that’s something that I am having to think about. You don’t think about it as much with your adult dogs, with your old dogs, because they have their habits like we have our routines, and so those types of things are now very much unconscious. But with the new puppy, he doesn’t have those routines yet. He doesn’t have a lot of habits yet.
I do have habits, and some of my habits are not setting him up for success. So I need to change my behavior so that he’s always rehearsing the things that I do want. If I catch myself starting to feel frustrated because he’s practicing behavior that I don’t like because it’s annoying or frustrating or dangerous, I need to change my behavior to change his environment so that I have what I want so that I can reinforce it.
Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Hannah. This has been great.
Hannah Branigan: Awesome! Thanks for having me.
Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with Shade Whitesel. We’ll be talking about crucial concepts for competition. Don’t miss it!