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Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast

For the last 4 years, FDSA has been working to provide high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports online, using only the most current and progressive training methods. And now we’re bringing that same focus to you in a new way. Each episode of the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast will feature an interview with a leading name in the competitive dog sports training world, talking in depth about issues that often get overlooked by traditional training methods. We'll release a new episode every Friday, so stay tuned--and happy training!
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Hi there! You've found the home of the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast.

If you're new to podcasts, we've put together 2 short videos on how to subscribe so that the latest episode will automatically download to your phone — or you can listen below right from your computer browser. 

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Want a list of all the episodes so far? 
Click here to see the episode list!

Thanks so much -- and happy training! 

Aug 23, 2019

Description: Drs. Jennifer Summerfield and Jessica Hekman both join me to talk about anxiety in dogs -- we talk about the cause, effect, and treatment of anxiety in dogs!

Jul 26, 2019

Description: Chrissi Schranz, Chelsey Protulipac, and Tania Lanfer join me to talk about dealing with problem behaviors like resource guarding, jumping, counter surfing, and unwanted chasing! 

Jul 12, 2019

Description: I'm joined by Dr. Jennifer Summerfield, Amanda Boyd, Casey Coughlin, and Sara Brueske — our Pet Professionals Program instructors — to talk about working with puppies!

Jul 5, 2019

Description:

This week we talk to FDSA PPP Instructor Liz Laidlaw on training options, and how to decide what approach you'll use based on the dog - or client - in front of you.

Jun 28, 2019

Description: In honor of the recent launch of the new FDSA Pet Professionals program, I have the Badials and Christina Hargrove on to talk about what it's like to start a dog training business.

Apr 26, 2019

Description: Petra Ford joins me to talk about competition obedience — how she creates a plan for the ring and what it was like to win the obedience world cup.

Next Episode: We'll be back May 3rd with Debbie Torraca to talk about living and competing with dogs with long backs. 

Jan 15, 2019

Summary:

In this episode we do things a bit differently - a few episodes ago I was talking to Amy Cook and she mentioned something that’s stuck with me - the concept of R+ 2.0. The idea is that positive training has come a long way from when it was first introduced… and likely has further still to go.

So we’re going to dedicate this episode and the next few to discussing that idea - where positive training came from, how it grew in the US, and where the future lies.

This week we’re chatting with Deb Jones — she’s not a stranger to the podcast, so many of you have probably heard us chat previously, but what you may not know is that she was an early pioneer for positive training in the US, so today we’re going to talk about how positive training got to where it is today.

Next Episode: 1/18/2019

Jan 4, 2019

Summary:

Trish McMillan is a certified professional dog trainer (through CCPDT),  certified dog behavior consultant and associate certified cat behavior consultant (through IAABC) who holds a Master’s degree in Animal Behavior from the University of Exeter in England.  She specializes in training and behavior modification work using positive reinforcement with dogs, cats, and horses.

Trish has an extensive background in the shelter world - she spent seven years with the ASPCA, three years as the director of the animal behavior department at the ASPCA’s New York City shelter, and has helped assess and rehabilitate animals from cruelty, hoarding, and dogfighting cases, and more. She also co-chairs the Shelter Behavior division of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and runs an online shelter behavior mentorship through them twice a year.

Next Episode: 1/11/2019

Dec 28, 2018

Summary:

Leslie is a dog behavior consultant, author, and speaker. She specializes in creating operant counterconditioning procedures to empower working, performance, and pet dogs to feel safe and comfortable so they can function confidently in stressful environments.

Leslie’s books have been translated into multiple languages and Leslie has taught the material from her seminal book Control Unleashed: Creating a Focused and Confident Dog to people and dogs all around the world. Leslie lives near Philadelphia with two kids, three dogs, two cats, one bunny, and one husband. She is a member of the 2019 Clicker Expo faculty.

Next Episode:

To be released 1/4/2019!

Dec 23, 2018

Summary:

This episode we talked to 3 long-time FDSA students...

 Alla Podkopaeva has been taking classes at FDSA since August of 2015, when she took Engagement at bronze for the first time — and last session, Denise asked her to be a Teaching Assistant for that same class! She since has earned her Fenzi Dog Sports Trainer Certificate, and is currently training for all the things… and sharing takeaways from her journey on her new blog, thedognerd.ca.

Andrea Woodcock has been taking classes at FDSA since December of 2013, after hearing Denise talk at an APDT conference earlier that year. At that point she had been been training service dogs for about 7 years — and today she continues that work as the training manager at Dogs for Better Lives.

Sara Pisani has been taking classes at FDSA since it began offering obedience classes, and has taken a gold class every single session — except for 2 sessions in 2015 when she had both knees replaced. Before finding FDSA, Sara and her first performance dog, Jazz Marie, who she began with in Novice A, knowing nothing about dog sports, went on to earn over 350 OTCH points and a Champion Tracking title.

Next Episode:

To be released 12/28/2018, with Leslie McDevitt.

Nov 9, 2018

Summary:

Linda P. Case is a science writer, dog trainer, and canine nutritionist who lectures throughout the world about dog nutrition, training, behavior, and health. Her academic training is as a canine and feline nutritionist and trainer. She earned her B.S. in Animal Science at Cornell University and her M.S. in Canine/Feline Nutrition at the University of Illinois. She was a lecturer of companion animal science at the University of Illinois for 15 years and taught companion animal behavior and training at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Linda currently owns AutumnGold Consulting and Dog Training Center in Mahomet, IL. She is the author of numerous publications and eight books, as well as the popular blog “The Science Dog,” which I’ll make sure we link to in my show notes.

Links:

Next Episode:

To be released 11/16/2018, we'll be talking to Barbara Currier about teaching and training weave poles for agility! 

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Linda Case.

Linda Case is a science writer, dog trainer, and canine nutritionist who lectures throughout the world about dog nutrition, training, behavior, and health. Her academic training is as a canine and feline nutritionist and trainer. She earned her B.S. in Animal Science at Cornell University and her M.S. in Canine/Feline Nutrition at the University of Illinois. She was a lecturer of companion animal science at the University of Illinois for 15 years and taught companion animal behavior and training at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Linda currently owns AutumnGold Consulting and Dog Training Center in Mahomet, IL. She is the author of numerous publications and eight books, as well as the popular blog “The Science Dog,” which I’ll make sure we link to in my show notes. (http://thesciencedog.wordpress.com/).

Hi Linda! Welcome to the podcast.

Linda Case: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Did I totally butcher the name of where you live?

Linda Case: No, you got it exactly. It was great, first shot.

Melissa Breau: To start us out a little bit, do you want to tell us a little bit about the dogs that you have, and what you’re working on with them, and a little about you?

Linda Case: Sure, sure. Currently my husband and I live with and love two dogs, which is low for us. We had a bad year last year and we lost two dogs in succession. But our two current dogs are Alice, who’s a 3-year-old Golden Retriever, and Cooper, who is a 7-year-old Golden Retriever.

What we’re working on with them right now, which I know a lot of folks are excited about, all of the AutumnGold instructors — I have a group of great instructors that work with us at our school — we went to ClickerExpo last spring and we all got excited about concept training with Ken Ramirez, so I’m working on match-to-sample with them. We’re also working on object and identification in concept training with objects — colors and shapes and things like that. That’s not going so well, but match-to-sample is going well.

Melissa Breau: That’s pretty cool.

Linda Case: It is. It’s really cool. I love it because it brings together what’s the topic of my latest book is animal cognition and higher levels of thinking with behaviorism. I think it meshes those two so beautifully.

I no longer show competitively, but I love to train tricks, so I’m doing quite a bit of tricks training with Alice and Cooper. My current goal … Alice is being trained to scoot backwards, like a backwards crawl, under a bunch of … it’s like basically a backwards Army crawl, and she loves that. And Cooper is doing a forwards Army crawl. My goal is to get them to do it together. Again, not going so well, but that’s my ultimate idea.

Also I just want to mention that our school — I kind of separate these two — our school primarily works with what I call the highly interested pet owner. We have folks who want to do basic manners training and oftentimes want to do more, but they’re not generally dog sports folks. They’re people who just want to get out and have fun with their dogs.

And so our school, we’re kind of challenged a lot of the time to provide things that are fun for them but not too intense, because then they may not want to do the competition stuff. So we recently came up with a concept that we call Life Skills Courses that are a bump up from your basic manners courses and things like good greeting behaviors, or being out in a park or even a dog park behaviors, or behaviors at doggie daycare, or behaviors at the vet. We also do things for CGC.

So that’s where our school is, too. We wanted to do concept training with the school, but again that’s probably a little bit higher level than most of our clientele like or are interested in.

Melissa Breau: I can see that. It definitely takes some commitment and some playing with things and a pretty solid understanding of training mechanics.

Linda Case: Yeah, yeah. Sometimes I think we have a view … we look at it through rose-colored glasses, like, “Oh, everyone will love this!” And people are like, “Yeah, but I really just want my dog to sit when he says hello.”

Melissa Breau: Right. I mentioned in your bio that you’re a science writer, dog trainer, and canine nutritionist — so which came first? How did you originally end up “in dogs,” as they say?

Linda Case: I came by it very naturally. I actually grew up training, so I guess training came first. My mom was a dog trainer and she showed dogs, primarily in obedience, some tracking, and a little bit of conformation. She was also the leader of our 4-H Club when I was a kid, and that was a dog-training club, which was pretty cool, because back then those things were pretty rare.

I started out with a Sheltie, and then, when I graduated from undergrad, that’s when I got into Goldens. My mom and I did a lot of training and showing around the country together, because when I started moving around, she would meet up with me and we’d go to seminars together, we’d go to shows, so that was a lot of fun. It was something really special in my life. So training definitely came first.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. That sounds like such a unique opportunity to have family-bonding-type stuff but enjoy your dogs, too, especially as you travel around and do stuff with them.

Linda Case: I know. I feel lucky to have had that.

Melissa Breau: How did you get from that to focusing on nutrition?

Linda Case: I would like to be one of those people that would say, “Oh, it’s been a passion of mine all my life,” but that would actually not be the truth. The truth is that I was an animal science major at Cornell, and at that time most animal science majors, if you were interested in companion animals rather than farm animals, you went to vet school.

I wasn’t that interested in vet school, because I was training and showing dogs a lot and I knew I really wanted to do something with behavior and training. But this was a while ago, and at that time — I think things have changed amazingly in the years that followed — but at that time there really were no academic graduate programs in canine and feline behavior training.

So I went back to my advisor, he was a great mentor at Cornell, and said, “I want to go back to school for something with dogs. What is there?” And at the time he said, “Linda, go into nutrition. You’ll get a job that way.” And he was right, because nutrition … it was in the mid-’80s, and nutrition was taking off as a field of study. Luckily my mentor here at U of I was also a former student at Cornell and a good friend with my advisors. She took me under her wing and was both my mentor as a dog person and in nutrition. So I did that and did find that it did become a passion, even though it wasn’t originally a passion, it was just “I want to do something with dogs.”

Melissa Breau: Looking at that, is there a “best” or a “right” choice when it comes to nutrition? I know that’s kind of jumping straight into things, but …

Linda Case: There probably is not a single “right” choice, but what I can say with confidence is that there are too many choices today, and that’s what baffles people and frustrates them and makes people finally throw up their hands and say, “How do I choose?”

In my view, there are two problems with where we’re at right now with nutrition. One is that owners and consumers are not provided with adequate information about the foods that are available to them in order to choose well, and that’s a drum that I beat very hard in Dog Food Logic, in that book, things such as the food’s digestibility, ingredient quality, even ingredient sourcing. Many of those factors are hidden from pet owners, and they shouldn’t be. We should have full access, we should have full transparency, and we do not have that in the pet food industry. In fact, a lot of regulations are set up to hide many things from, or at least to not make them available to pet owners. So we don’t get the information that we need to choose.

And the second is that there are so many choices and there are such small differences. I call it “a distinction without a difference” among these foods that it makes no difference, and people get confused because there are such small and subtle differences among these many choices in the different categories of foods.

So that’s the long answer to say there is no clear choice, and even if there was, it would be hard for owners to choose because of the information they’re given today.

Melissa Breau: Thinking about that, are there factors they should be considering? What should they be looking at when they’re trying to make a nutrition decision for their own dog?

Linda Case: That’s actually the primary focus of my book Dog Food Logic, and the four primary factors that you can break that down into are, first and foremost, the dog, and that’s what I’ll be talking about primarily in the upcoming webinar — your dog’s life stage, their activity level, their health.

And then the second would be the owner, and those factors really have a lot more to do with the owner’s values — what they think is important, what they’d like from a food, and also, sadly, economics. Lately I’ve been exploring some different types of foods, just exploring their digestibility and how valuable they are in terms of their nutrient content and their quality. One thing you’ll find is that there’s such a huge range in price point in these foods, so economics can affect a person’s decisions.

The third thing, of course, is the food itself — the type it is, the ingredients, the information the owner is provided with and can have access to.

And then number four would be the manufacturer — the manufacturer’s size, are they multinational, are they a small, private-owned company, certainly their long-term reputation, how many recalls have they had. Again a big one, this is my drum I keep beating: how transparent they are, how forthcoming they are with information when they’re asked by consumers.

Those four factor categories are, I think, are the most important when you’re selecting food.

Melissa Breau: It’s almost like you knew I was going to talk more about manufacturing in my next question! I used to actually cover pet food and pet manufacturing for my day job. I used to be a magazine editor at a business-to-business magazine covering that stuff. Of course, every manufacturer out there does their absolute best to make a case for why their food is the best on the market. What research is there that actually tells us what dogs need for a balanced diet? What do we really know, from a scientific perspective, about what we should be looking for?

Linda Case: Of the questions that you sent me ahead of time, this was my favorite question, and the reason is that — you present it really well — is that it’s marketing today. Twenty-five years ago, when this field was really first taking off, science did govern the day. There were really great, small, start-up pet food companies that were hiring scientists, hiring nutritionists, they were doing really good research, they were partnering with universities and academic institutions to do this research, and food was about the science.

But starting probably about 15 years ago, marketing — just as in the human food industry — became more and more the driving force, and it now pretty much owns pet food companies, so everything is driven by marketing. And so while marketing is very good at its job at selling pet foods to people, it tends to downplay and sometimes even mislead about the science. In fact, that’s one of the reasons “The Science Dog” was born, was trying to bring the science to the people that need it.

So there is a real disconnect today between the scientific knowledge and the great research that’s being done, and I would argue this is true in behavior and training as much as it is in nutrition, between the science that’s being done and getting it to the people that need it, the people that are really interested in dogs, that want to do the best by their dogs, both in terms of the nutrition and training.

So in terms of what we know, we know a lot. We know all of the nutrient requirements of dogs and cats, we know age differences, how activity affects the dog’s energy and basic nutrient needs, how certain health problems affect a dog’s nutrient needs. That knowledge is solid and it’s backed by good science. The problem is that it often doesn’t get where it needs to go, or it’s again misrepresented because of marketing practices.

We also know a lot about many of the ingredients that are used in pet foods. I’m sure you’re aware of the recent grain-free scare and DCM in dogs. One of the problems with that — it’s a great example of ingredients that are relatively new to the pet food market and have not been studied in-depth.

Things like chicken and rice and even lamb, all of those, certainly meat, pork, have been studied a great deal in terms of their nutrient availability, what happens to them when they’re extruded, what happens to them if they’re fed raw. We know a lot about those ingredients, but what we don’t know a lot about are the newer ingredients such as legumes and peas. They just haven’t been studied that much. It doesn’t mean they’re necessarily bad or they’re necessarily dangerous; they just haven’t been studied.

We also know a lot about ingredient digestibility and safety, but again, does it get where it needs to go. It’s in the literature. It needs to just be disseminated in a better way, in my view.

Melissa Breau: To dive a little more into that, it does seem like there are a lot of people trying to put out information. Everybody and their dog seem to be blogging about dog behavior, nutrition, all these things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are all doing their research, or that the research that they’re doing is very good. Do you have any advice for, when you’re out there on the Internet, figuring out what’s reliable and what’s … not? How can folks tell what is based on research and what maybe is just somebody’s opinion dressed up as fact?

Linda Case: What you’re really describing is evidence-based decision-making or evidence-based choices, which refers to saying, “If I’m going to make a choice, what evidence is there to support that choice and how reliable is that evidence?” Reliability of course is key.

I hate to keep plugging my books, but I have a book called Beware The Straw Man, and the entire purpose of that book was to help interested dog owners and pet owners, and professionals as well, to understand how to sift through evidence that is reliable and evidence-based versus evidence that is just anecdote or opinion.

Of course, you can always go back to the original research, but most folks don’t have the time or the interest to do that, so you have to find out where that information came from, what the original source was, how it’s being presented. But again, as far as the average pet owner goes, it can be really challenging. So I think critical thinking skills and being aware of some of the cognitive biases we have when we make decisions can be really helpful.

This is why I said earlier this could be a three-hour conversation really easily, so I’m going to refer them to a book instead.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough, fair enough. I know in addition to the nutrition stuff, you occasionally debunk training myths. I was curious: What are some of the oddest myths you’ve heard when it comes to training? I was wondering if you could debunk a few for us.  

Linda Case: When I looked at this question I thought, Hmm, how do I pick? Because I probably have about twenty that I’ve written about, either on “The Science Dog” or in books.

Probably one of my favorites, and I think many listeners will agree with this, but remember there’s a difference between what we intuit and what we believe to be true versus what we have actual evidence to be true, and it’s pretty common for the evidence to not support what we believe or to at least support part of it and hopefully change our beliefs.

But this is actually one that most trainers already are onboard with but most pet owners are not, and that has to do with the guilty look. There’s the belief, this prevalent belief, amongst pet owners that when they come home and their dog is showing what they call “the guilty look,” which is usually just fear or submission, that that shows the dog knows he did something wrong or chewed something up or did something they didn’t like him to do, and therefore he’s showing guilt.

There was a series of studies by Alexandra Horowitz and Julie Hecht, and Adam Miklosi also was involved in these, that showed once and for all it’s not guilt. It’s fear, and it’s fear of impending punishment. They did this through a series of very unique and creative studies, and I present it in the book Beware The Straw Man. It’s called “Death Throes of the Guilty Look,” and literally walks step-by-step through and say, you can actually fool the dog into thinking he did something, or into thinking that he’s going to be punished, rather, and he will show what’s called the guilty look. My hope is that that information can help trainers then convince their clients who are saying their dog feels guilty and shows guilt to understand that no, your dog has learned to show fear because they’re afraid of an impending punishment.

The importance of that is not so much … we don’t really need to debate what the internal emotional state of the dog is, because I would argue it’s probably the same internal emotional state as humans when we supposedly show guilt. It’s basically fear of being caught at something you did wrong. It’s not that. It’s not that we would say, “Oh, they’re not feeling anything internally.” It’s rather that when we label a behavior as guilt, when we label it a certain way, that can then lead to improper and, in my view, cruel treatment of the dog, because if you say he’s feeling guilty, that means you can do something about it, which means punishing that dog, and that’s where we certainly go awry, rather than to understand your dog’s actually fearful, you should manage his environment better so these things don’t happen. That belief in guilt gets in the way of actually changing the behavior and changing how you manage that dog in another way. So that was one of my favorites.

If we have time, a second one was an essay that I believe is still on the blog, but it’s also in … I think it’s in Beware The Straw Man and I also talk about it in Dog Smart. This one was called “The Kids Are All Right.” This I just found fascinating because we all know that it’s really important to teach children to be appropriate with dogs, to ask before they come up, and hopefully to learn to read a dog’s body language.

I had a personal anecdote very recently with this, in that I was at our veterinarian’s office with Cooper just last week, and Cooper is pretty bombproof. He’s a very steady, easygoing Golden. He loves all people. But he was at the vet’s office, so he was a little nervous.

As I was waiting to leave, I was actually talking to our vet about something, a little girl about 8 years old came up with her mom and she came up and said, “Can I pet your dog?” So I was like, “Good girl. You asked first.” And I said, “Sure, yes. He’s friendly.”

Well, that’s where it went a little wrong, because she did start interacting with him, but she was very inappropriate in that she started — I’m sorry, that’s a dog drinking behind me, if you can hear that — she was very inappropriate with him. She threw her arms around him, she was leaning over him, she was way, way, way too close.

Cooper put his tail down, he backed up, he was showing her every physical sign that he was uncomfortable. I intervened and said, “Hey, honey, you’re a little too close, he’s a little nervous, he’s at the vet’s,” and she was having none of it. This was how she interacted with dogs, and she was going to hug him. And Mom did nothing. Mom just stood there, because I think the mom looked at it as, “My job is done. I taught my child to ask before she went up to greet.” It ended up fine. We told her, “Back off, let him come to you, here’s a treat,” and everything ended up fine. But that story fits right into this essay.

It was called “The Kids Are All Right,” and what they did, it was a series of studies from different researchers, which is wonderful because that is a really good way to corroborate information is if different researchers did the studies.

They looked at a bunch of different programs that are available for teaching kids to be appropriate with dogs, for teaching kids to not only approach them correctly, but to pet them gently and to show appropriate body language and to read also body language from dogs who are unfriendly. They found that, above a certain age, these programs worked great with the kids. They did a test/retest, so they would test to see how the kids were before they’d had the training, they’d give them these trainings — and there were various types of training; some were online, some were onsite, there were various approaches — and then they’d retest to see did the kids learn something, and sure enough, they did. So this was all good.

Then another study looked at the parents’ behavior, and what they found was that oftentimes the kids had learned this behavior, but their parents did exactly what this parent did that I saw. They taught their child to ask first, and then it was kind of like no holds barred, do whatever you want. And even though their child had been given this good information about good interactions with dogs, the parents didn’t follow through. The parents didn’t learn anything.

So this essay basically is saying the kids are all right, they’re learning. We need to get to the parents and to teach them to teach their kids to be more gentle, to not encourage their kids. They even had examples in these studies of the kids showing appropriate behavior, just gently petting, and the parents encouraging them to do more, you know, “Throw your arms around the big dog, lean over him.”

So what that particular myth busted to me was that it’s not always the kids, that we really need to educate parents as well. Do you want one more, or do we not have time?

Melissa Breau: Sure, sure, give us one more!

Linda Case: OK, I’ll give you one more very quickly. This has to do with extinction or sometimes negative punishment, which again I’m assuming again probably most of your listeners know what extinction is. It’s removing a reinforcer to decrease a behavior.

The most common use of extinction in dog training of course is dogs who jump up or dogs who pester for attention. Owners are said that to extinguish that behavior, you ignore the dog or you step away, you turn your back to the dog. We have not used extinction at my training school for many years. I’m not a fan of it, I never have been. Although I know it is still used a great deal, veterinarians recommend it, a lot of trainers still recommend it, I’ve never been a fan personally because I think it causes frustration. That’s the short end of the story.

The interesting thing is that there’s actually some evidence that the end use of negative punishment, removing something the dog wants in order to stop a behavior, do cause frustration in dogs. It’s a very quick experiment. They basically taught dogs to offer eye contact for a positive reinforce, for a treat. The dogs of course learned that very quickly. And then they either would continue to reinforce it or they would use extinction. So now the dog offered the behavior and they stopped reinforcing it and would either turn their back or walk away or just not reinforce the behavior.

What they saw — what behaviorist would cause an “extinction burst,” cognitive scientists would call it frustration — that the dogs became very unhappy, they started pawing, they started pestering for more affection, they actually got a little distressed, some of them would whine. And so the conclusion of that study, even though it’s a very small study, was that maybe we need to rethink the use of extinction, especially if it’s not used with training an alternate behavior, which is again the way that a lot of trainers use it. They train an alternate behavior and use extinction. I would argue that just train the alternate behavior and don’t use extinction at all.

This essay basically talked about we need to consider the outcome. “Extinction burst” sounds very pure and emotion-free, but actually what we’re seeing in an extinction burst is a dog who’s becoming frustrated and unhappy, and why do that when we don’t need to, when we have alternate approaches. We can just train an alternate behavior rather than the behavior that we don’t want.

Melissa Breau: So, I know that we were introduced because you’ve got a webinar coming up at FDSA. It’s titled “Canine Athlete or Couch Potato? - Feeding Dogs to Meet their Exercise Needs,” and I wanted to talk about it just for a minute. Can you share a little bit on what you’ll cover, the type of person who might be interested in the webinar, that kind of thing?

Linda Case: Well, first of all, thank you for inviting me to give that webinar. I’m really excited about it and really happy to be part of the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.

I’m going to focus on exercise because I know that many of your audience are interested in dog sports and that that’s an important topic for them.

We’ll start off with just a small discussion of obesity. That’s again recognizing it, looking at different foods that are on the market that are marketed as light or low calorie, and then we’ll really spend most of the seminar on exercise, looking at the three factors that impact nutrition and exercise, and those are the intensity of the exercise, the duration, and its frequency, and how these three factors influence the energy and nutrient needs of the canine athlete.

And then we finish with choosing the best food for a canine athlete, and once again that whole idea that there’s so many choices out there, how do you distinguish among them, and what are the factors that someone who is interested in feeding a canine athlete should pay attention to when they choose a food.

Melissa Breau: We’re getting close to the end here, and there are a couple of questions that I usually ask first-time guests, so I’d love to go through those. The first one is, what is the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?

Linda Case: Oh, that’s a nice one. Can I say two?

Melissa Breau: Sure, sure.

Linda Case: Because I would divide these into an accomplishment that reaches a larger audience versus an accomplishment that reaches a local audience.

I guess one of the things I’m proudest of is my writing, because I think science writing that’s brought to interested people, to everybody, rather than just to other scientists is what I’ve really tried to do in my writing, especially in recent years. And then I feel like it reaches many people outside of my local area, and hopefully to many dog trainers and dog professionals who are interested in learning about the recent science.

The second would be my AutumnGold dog training school for the local audience, that hopefully we strengthen the loving bond that people have with their dogs, and hopefully increase their understanding of positively based training to our local area, because we only serve of course the local area with that.

Melissa Breau: We talked about FDSA is making a ripple and you’ve got to start with your ripple where you are.

Linda Case: Yeah, I love that.

Melissa Breau: My second question here is, what’s the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Linda Case: I think the best piece of training advice is also the best piece of life advice I’ve ever received. It started with my dad and it has come from other mentors, and that is just simply “Be kind.” That’s it.

Melissa Breau: I like that.

Linda Case: It’s short. Be kind.

Melissa Breau: Makes it very easy to remember.

Linda Case: It is.

Melissa Breau: And the last one here, who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Linda Case: Right now I’d say, because I’ve been thinking about a lot and using his methods, is Ken Ramirez is way up there. Certainly of course Karen Pryor. And one of my personal mentors who I mentioned earlier, who was my advisor in graduate school and who now is also an amazing nutritionist and she’s also a KPA certified trainer, so we connected on many levels, and that was my mentor Dr. Gail Czarnecki, who is in the St. Louis area now. She’s no longer here. But I would say she’s definitely one of my most admired personal mentors as well.

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

Linda Case: It’s been wonderful! Thank you so much, and I’m really excited about the upcoming webinar, and again very grateful and happy that Fenzi Dog Sports Academy has invited me.

Melissa Breau: We’re thrilled to have you! And for everybody who’s listening, just so that you know, the details on that, it’s November 15 at 6 p.m. Pacific time. It is up on the site already, so if you want to, you can go over and look. She’s got a full description up there, and we’ve got a link to her bio, and all sorts of good stuff, if anybody wants to go take a look at that.

Thank you to everybody for tuning in!

We’ll be back next week, this time with Barbara Currier to talk about teaching your dog to love weave poles.

In the meantime, I have a special request. For this year’s anniversary episode, we want to do something special. We want to feature you, our listeners. I’d love it if you’d consider leaving us a voicemail that we can include in that episode.

To do so, just go to SpeakPipe.com/FDSA_podcast. I’ll have a link to that in this episode’s show notes so you can go there and click on it to be taken to the page. There will be a record button there and you can leave us a message. Have a burning question we haven’t answered? A brag you want to share? Your own best training advice? Well, we want to hear about it.

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

CREDITS:

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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Oct 26, 2018

Summary:

Mike specializes in working with aggressive dogs — we had him on the podcast to share how he defines the term and what tools and analogies he finds useful in working with these dogs and their owners! 

Next Episode: 

To be released 11/02/2018, our follow up on bringing home an adult dog series with Dr. Jessica Hekman, PhD, DVM

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Mike Shikashio.

Mike is the past president of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), and provides private consultations working exclusively with dog aggression cases through his business Complete Canines LLC. Michael is fully certified through the IAABC and is a full member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). He also offers mentoring and training to other professionals.

Mike is sought after for his expert opinion by numerous media outlets, including the New York Times, New York Post, Baltimore Sun, WebMD, Women’s Health Magazine, Real Simple Magazine, The Chronicle of the Dog, and Steve Dale’s Pet World.

He is a featured speaker on the topic of canine aggression at conferences and seminars around the world, and he currently teaches “Aggression Cases: A to Z” through The Dog Trainers Connection and the “Aggression in Dogs Mentorship” through the IAABC.

Hi Mike! Welcome to the podcast.

Mike Shikashio: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat. To get us started, can you give us a little background about your dogs and what you work on with them?

Mike Shikashio: I’m kind of a mixed blended family of dogs right now. My girlfriend just moved up from Chile, and she brought her black Lab/mixed-mutt dog up. But she makes me look good, this dog, because she was already trained because my girlfriend is also a trainer. So I haven’t been doing a whole lot, but I do enjoy some off-leash hikes with her, and she’s got a great recall, and so I’ve got it easy right now with dogs.

Melissa Breau: Hey, that’s the best. New dog comes in fully trained? You can’t beat that.

Mike Shikashio: Yeah, bonus!

Melissa Breau: How did you originally get into dog training and end up in this crazy world?

Mike Shikashio: I actually started out in the rescue world. I did a lot of fostering dogs when I was much younger, and as you get good as a foster parent, the rescues will start sending you more and more difficult dogs, so that’s how I caught the training bug and the behavior bug, so to speak. I wanted to learn more about how to work with these foster dogs.

At the same time, I always wanted to open my own dog business and dog-related business, so my original aspiration was to have a dog daycare/dog boarding kind of place. But then I got more into this training and behavior side of things, and that led me down the road of doing more research on my own and learning, and going to my first conferences and seminars, and doing things like that, and that’s how it led me to where I am today, really getting focused on training behavior. So those foster dogs, I can give them the credit for making me want to learn more.

Melissa Breau: Starting without necessarily a specific background in dogs or what have you, were you always a positive trainer? Is that where you got started, or what led you down that path?

Mike Shikashio: I started out as more of a “traditional balanced trainer.” One of my first mentors had a working military dog background, so that’s what I started with, and some of the more traditional tools — pinch collars, e-collars, and things like that.

Coincidentally, I was at the APDT conference this week and finally got to meet Jean Donaldson in person, believe it or not. I hadn’t met her in person ever, and she mentioned to me she’s not big into traveling, and so I think that’s one of the reasons I hadn’t met her at any of the previous conferences. But I got a chance to finally thank her, because one of the first books I read about the positive training world was The Culture Clash, and that really had an effect on my training methodology and getting into that side of the training world. So I finally got to say thank you to her.

So I didn’t start off as a positive trainer. I started off more on the balanced training side of things to where I moved on to where I am today with my training methodology.

Melissa Breau: Would you mind talking a little bit about what your methodology is today? How do you describe it or what have you?

Mike Shikashio: My work is exclusively with aggression in dogs, so I only take aggression cases. Most of the work I do, the methodology I use, is through behavior change strategies using desensitization and counter-conditioning, and also differential reinforcement or positive-reinforcement-based strategies to teach the dogs that … the old saying we hear, “What do you want to do instead?” So a lot of it is focused on that, and of course antecedent arrangements.

A lot of it isn’t just training and behavior modification. A lot of times I’m working in conjunction with vets in terms of addressing underlying health issues. So most of it is a combination of management and safety, environmental changes, and then working in conjunction with ancillary folks like the veterinary field, and then of course using those differential reinforcement and counter-conditioning strategies in my work with the aggressive dogs.

Melissa Breau: Why aggression? You mentioned you do that exclusively now. What led you down that path and what keeps you there?

Mike Shikashio: That’s a question I get a lot. First and foremost, if people listen to this and they want to get into aggression, or they’re taking a lot of aggression, I will say that you do have to love working with aggressive cases, or aggression cases, because there’s weeks that can go by where I can work a bunch of cases and not even pet a dog. So you have to be prepared for that. You have to be prepared to have lots of dogs want to bite your face off the first few times you meet them, and see that day after day after day. So that’s part of it is being able to have that, being able to cope with that and be able to come home and pet your own dog and meet a nice puppy every once in a while.

But I think one of the most significant factors that got me into this is really helping the people and helping the dogs reestablish that human-animal bond. I think that’s fractured a lot in aggression cases. A lot of clients are on their last leg or really struggling emotionally, and I found that repairing that and focusing on helping that relationship and affording the best outcome for the dog is what really got me into it. I saw I was able to make some significant changes in the future for these dogs by focusing on it.

I also think that specializing — we see a lot of this now, and Denise Fenzi’s a good example of that — specializing in certain areas of the dog-training world. Now we have the CSATs that focus on separation anxiety, we have people focusing on certain aspects of dog training, the dog sports world. If people asked me how to teach a dog how to go through weave poles, I would say, “I have no idea,” and I would refer that on to somebody else.

I think specializing allows you to get much better at the thing that you’re specializing in much faster than if you were taking a variety of different cases. I also found that was one of the reasons I wanted to get just solely into aggression — because I wanted to be really good at it. So I said, “Let me try just taking aggression cases exclusively,” and it’s worked out really well.

I think because you get to see the same things over and over, and so you’re able to troubleshoot much faster. You’re able to see the same things happening and get a general idea of what is happening in a case even before you step into it you’ll start to see the same things over and over. I think that has a lot also, what to do, I want to focus on one area. Rather than being good at a lot of different things, I want to be great at one thing, so that’s what led me down the road of working with just aggression.

Melissa Breau: I think that’s really important for professionals to realize that sometimes niching down is a great way to grow a business. It’s not limiting the business. It’s actually a way to become more successful. So I think that’s a great point.

Mike Shikashio: Absolutely, absolutely. I just listened to one of your recent podcasts and it was focused on business, and I think that’s such an important point. A lot of folks are worried about, “I do this one thing exclusively, and now all those other clients I could take doing other behavior problems are off the table,” but believe it or not, once people know you specialize in something, the business really takes off because you become that go-to person for that one area.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Just to make sure everybody’s on the same page in terms of terminology and what we’re talking about here, when you say you only take aggression cases, what’s the range of severity there? What does each end of that spectrum look like? Dig into that a little bit for me.

Mike Shikashio: That’s a great question, Melissa. I think piggybacking off the last question, I define aggression as basically whatever the client thinks is happening when they call me.

I advertise for aggression in dogs, or people having problems with aggression, that keyword right there, because that’s usually what people are searching for online, and that can fall into a wide range. Aggression itself, that’s a construct or a label, so it can have different definitions.

Even when you’re talking to experts, or behavior experts, depending on who you’re talking to, that definition is going to differ, so I just classify it or define it as whatever the clients are calling me for in the first place.

That can be anything from a dog barking and lunging on leash at people and dogs, but no bite history, and it’s perfectly social when they are close to people or other dogs, and so that might be labeled “reactive,” or may not be labeled aggression, but the client contacted me because they think it’s aggressive, so they will call me for that. The other end we might have true aggression, like aggressive behavior with biting, severe bite injuries, and things like that. So you can get any one of those extremes.

You might even get, I get this sometimes, where it’s a client that’s got a puppy that’s new to the home and they’re just mouthing, and the client’s not savvy with dogs, or it might be their first dog, and I’ll get an e-mail: “Help, my dog is being so aggressive and is mauling me.” You get there and it’s just a typical case of a very mouthy puppy and those sharp puppy teeth.

In my area you get a lot of retirees, so I’ll get an elderly couple on blood thinners with a young Golden mouthy puppy, and it’s a perfect storm of it looks like a horror show when you get there because the poor folks have all these Band-Aids and marks all over their arms. It’s kind of a mismatch at that point of young puppy with elderly folks, but that’s not of course what we would classify as aggression.

Melissa Breau: Sometimes it’s what you show up for, which leads really well into my next question, which is, how do you prepare for that first session? Sometimes owners definitely don’t describe things the way that we would. What kind of information is “need to know,” and how do you figure out what’s really going on? Sometimes, like you said with that puppy situation, they’re going to think the puppy is crazy-aggressive, and you show up and it’s like, “Oh, this is actually pretty normal.” How do you approach that? What do you do to prepare for a new client?

Mike Shikashio: In terms of communicating with clients in aggression cases, one of the most important things to focus on in your initial contact with that client is getting information about any kind of bite incidents or the aggressive incidents which are why they’re contacting you about. You want to know about the level of biting that’s occurring, the severity of the biting, and also the context in which it’s happening, so that way you can set things up safely for your arrival.

That’s what I focus on during my initial contact. I don’t do a long intake form. I don’t spend a whole lot of time on the phone or e-mailing clients. What I shoot straight for is that context of when the actual aggression incidents happen, so I can get information about how I’m going to set it up safely for my arrival, because even when you can go into very thorough, detailed information with a client on the phone, you still might not get a full picture. So I always err on the side of caution and assume that a bite might happen, if the dog has a bite history, so I’m always setting things up very safely.

A good question to ask is, “What do you do with the dog now when people come over?” A lot of the clients will have already set up a system. Most of the time it’s, “Oh, I just put him away,” and that works really well also when I arrive, because then I can get detailed information during the first 15 to 30 minutes or so, where I do the information-gathering step of my consultation. That’s usually, again, going to give you the most information about how to safely set up the dog, or get the dog out. That way, I can then get thorough information in front of the client and see the environment, and then determine the best way to meet the dog after that. I always stress that you always want to be very, very safe during your initial greetings with dogs, and your initial consult, until we have more information.

Melissa Breau: I guess the hard question: Do you think that all dogs can be rehabilitated?

Mike Shikashio: That term “rehabilitation” is sort of arguable in a sense, because it depends if you look at it from a behavioral standpoint when people talk about rehab, as sort of it leads you toward the dog having a certain illness, because that’s sort of an ugly term in the human world, and if you look at physical rehabilitation, it implies fixing an issue.

We know with behavior, once it’s in the animal’s behavior repertoire, it’s technically always there. So I’m very careful about when clients use that term “rehab.” I want to know their definition of it, because if they’re implying that we’re going to fix the problem, or the dog’s never going to do the behavior again, that’s going to skew potentially their goals. So I always explain to clients that the behavior — our goal is to make it less likely to happen. We reduce the likelihood of it to happen and to management and to behavior modification.

So to say all dogs are rehab-able, again that’s an arguable term. I think all dogs we can change behavior. In all animals we can change behavior. So that’s what I focus on — making sure the clients understand how behavior works and how we can reduce the frequency of behaviors, and then they can start to understand. And also, of course, looking at the variables that affect behavior, the antecedent arrangements and the antecedents and things that can affect behavior.

Once the client starts understanding and grasping those concepts — and using the layman’s terms, not using the behavioral terms with clients — but I think once they start to understand those concepts, then they realize that this is something that is not going to be like a light switch which we turn it on or off. So that’s how I approach it generally with clients.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned earlier some of the tools that you use. Can you talk a little more about those? What things do you use most often? Feel free to break it down into layman terms for us. I know we have a wide range of backgrounds in the audience.

Mike Shikashio: With aggressive behavior, or aggression, you’re looking at two components. The simple way that I explain to clients is that you have factors that make the behavior more likely to happen, but that doesn’t mean the behavior is going to happen unless you have the antecedent. I use this analogy a lot with clients, where if you have an empty fuel drum or fuel can, and what we can do is add more fuel to it, we can add layers of fuel, which the more fuel you have, the more likely you are to get an explosion, or that progressive behavior we don’t want. And those are what we refer to as distant antecedents in the animal world. So when you have those factors, if you add in more and more layers, you’re going to have at one point a fuel can that’s ready to explode. But again, you need a spark or a match to actually make that explosion happen. Those sparks or those matches are the antecedents, or what sets that behavior in motion, so you need both often to see the aggressive behavior.

So I start to teach clients about how to recognize factors that can influence behavior. For instance, a dog that is growling near the food bowl, or biting people when they come near the food bowl, factors that can increase the likelihood of that are a dog that is really hungry, or a dog that is stressed, or a dog that might be on medication, for instance, or underlying medical issues that make it more likely to do that behavior, because those are what we call distant antecedents, or again, factors that are adding layers of fuel. So if you have a dog that just ate a full, huge meal and then you put a food bowl down, you’re less likely to see that behavior if somebody approaches.

Now, the person approaching, that’s the match, that’s the antecedent or what can spark that explosion, so one day it might be somebody approaching from 10 feet away and the dog explodes, or the next day it might be the person can literally reach near the food bowl because the dog doesn’t have all those fuels fueling it.

Once the client starts to understand that, rather than them assigning personality traits to the dog, or underlying reasons for the behavior, you know, “My dog is dominant,” or “My dog is like, 90 percent of the time he’s good, 10 percent of the time he’s bad, I just don’t know when,” once the client starts to understand how there’s got to be fuel there and then there’s those matches, those matches are not always present, there’s going to be times when those antecedents or those matches come into play, and that’s when you’re going to likely to see the behavior. Once we see that, then we can start modifying those behaviors.

So then, again with the food bowl we present the match, or the person approaching from maybe 11 feet away, and we can change the dog’s association with that match approaching. That’s the desensitization and counter-conditioning that I mentioned before. We’re changing the association: somebody approaching the food bowl means something good is about to happen. A lot of times I’m often using food in my work with dogs, so it may be as simple as somebody approaching means they’re about to throw a treat, a higher-value treat than what you have in the food bowl, from 11 feet away. We’re doing it at a safe distance where we’re not causing the explosion, and we’re changing the dog’s association.

Then you may also incorporate differential reinforcement of an alternative behavior. That’s just a fancy term for “What do you want the dog to do instead?” when that match approaches, and so lifting the head up out of the food bowl. We can start to catch that, and if we’re doing marker training with our dog, we can say “Good,” or “Yes,” or even click for lifting the head up out of the food bowl, which is an alternative behavior to growling or barking or lunging or biting. So we can start to catch that.

So you’re doing two different things at the same time: you’re doing operant conditioning, which is teaching the dog what to do instead, and you’re doing the classical counter-conditioning — you’re changing the association for the dog with the very simple procedure of, “Anytime I approach, if you lift your head up out of the food bowl, something good is about to happen, and when you lift your head up out of the food bowl, I will reinforce that.”

That can be incorporated with a number of aggressive behaviors. Think about your typical dog that barks and lunges at other dogs on leash. Set the dog up, set the stage correctly, keep enough distance from the other dog so there’s no explosion. You’re presenting the match of the other dog, so instead of starting from 5 feet away, you might start from 50 feet away, where the dog is not close enough to cause that explosion, and you wait for your dog, the one that has that issue with barking and lunging, to just notice the other dog, and then you would reinforce that. That’s a behavior you like, just notice the other dog, you’re going to mark and reinforce that, and what happens at the same time is the associated learning, so that way the dog knows, “Oh, when I see another dog, the person handling me is going to mark and then feed me.”

So again, two things happening at the same time: the dog learns what to do instead, and the association starts to change. As the dog gets better at it, as you’re reducing fuels because you’re reducing the stress of that situation. You might also be addressing the fear or the anxiety, the arousal, all of those other fuels that might come along in that package. You’re reducing the fuel, but you’re also changing the dog’s behavior around that match so you can get that match closer and closer and closer to that fuel without any kind of explosion.

That’s exactly how I explain to clients without using the technical terms. I explain that fuel and match analogy, and clients really start to get it, because they’re assigning things like “territorial dog,” or “red zone dog,” or “alpha dog,” which really isn’t helpful, again, because we know those are constructs or labels. So I focus on what we want the dog to do instead and in those contexts. That’s pretty much the tools I use most of the time, most times food, and sometimes it’s play, and sometimes it’s toys, depending on the dog and the context.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome, and I think that analogy works really, really well. It explains all the right pieces and it’s still a concept that people definitely quickly grasp. That’s neat. I hadn’t heard that one before, so I like that.

Mike Shikashio: Thanks.

Melissa Breau: We were introduced because you’ve got two webinars coming up at FDSA on some of this stuff. For those listening, they’ll be back-to-back, they’re on the same day, and Mike will be talking about intra-household dog-to-dog aggression. So Mike, I was hoping we could talk a little bit about those. First, can you explain the terminology there for anybody who might not know what intra-household dog-to-dog aggression means? And then can you share a little bit about what you’ll be focusing on?

Mike Shikashio: Sure, sure. Intra-household dog-to-dog aggression, a.k.a., two or more dogs fighting in the same home when they live together, is the topic that I’ll be focusing on.

We’ll be talking about things like common factors in dogfights or why dogs fight in the home. We’ll talk about factors that can influence dogs fighting and having those conflicts. We’ll talk about the overall prognosis in these cases and what the typical outcome can be, depending on a certain number of variables, because each case is going to differ and some cases are going to be more difficult than others, depending on those variables. And we’ll talk about how to start changing the behavior and how to get dogs to live harmoniously again, using a variety of techniques and management tools. And we’ll again focus on the aspects of differential reinforcement and counter-conditioning with most cases as well, because it works on intra-household cases. That’s it in a nutshell. We’ll briefly touch on how to break up a dogfight safely, because I think all clients that have dogs fighting in the home should be able to do that safely as well.

Quite a bit to cover and squish down into those two webinars, but I hope to be able to cover it all and we’ll have some fun.

Melissa Breau: The first one’s, if I remember correctly, talking through some of this stuff, and the second one is more case studies. Is that right? Am I recalling that correctly?

Mike Shikashio: Yes. I’ll be showing a couple of cases that show two dogs that had a history of conflict in the home and how we worked on those cases to resolve it with the clients. And the first webinar will be detailing the reasons why dogs fight, safety and management strategies. The second one feeds off of the first, so it’s good, if you can, to attend both of them so it all makes sense in the second one when we start working with the dogs in those videos.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely awesome. I’m trying to pull up the exact date and time, because I should have pulled this up in advance and of course I didn’t. So, for anybody listening, they will be on November 1, that’s an easy date to remember, and the time for the first one is at 3 p.m. Pacific time, the second one is at 6 p.m. Pacific time, and they are currently on the FDSA website if anybody wants to go sign up.

Mike Shikashio: That makes them 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Eastern time, if I’m correct.

Melissa Breau: You’re absolutely correct. I’m Eastern, and I have to do that time conversion way more times in the day than I care to count. So I have a couple of questions I usually ask at the end of every episode when I have a first-time guest. I’d love to work through those. The first one is, what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?

Mike Shikashio: That’s a good question. I would have to say after this weekend, speaking at APDT and then talking to Jean Donaldson, I would say that I’m just really, really humbled and very happy to be able to share the information that I have now with others. I think that’s how I, of course, learned from many folks that were generous enough to share information about how they work with behavior, and I’m just really happy that I’m able to do that now.

If you had asked me seven or eight years ago, when I was attending these conferences, if I would ever imagine myself speaking to an audience, I would say, “No way. I’m just doing my thing, learning training and behavior.” There is no way I would have thought I would be speaking to a crowd at APDT and other conferences and traveling the world giving these workshops. So that’s the thing I feel really good about is being able to share that information.

And I think a big part of it is validating for what other trainers are doing. I hear that a lot. Trainers will come up to me and say, “Thank you so much for validating what I’m doing now,” because what I’m doing now isn’t a whole lot different than what a lot of other trainers are doing.

It’s just a lonely world sometimes, this dog training world, because some people don’t have a local network, or they don’t really know anybody else taking aggression cases, so they’re not sure if what they’re doing is the latest-greatest or whatever technique, or if they’re doing things correctly. And what I’m doing a lot of times is validating. I’m not showing them much different techniques or strategies. They’re just seeing that, “Oh, OK, Mike’s doing a lot of what I do.” So that’s very validating for them. I feel like that’s something I love about traveling and meeting other trainers and just making the world a little bit smaller for them.

Melissa Breau: When you think about it, aggression, it’s one thing if you’re trying to teach a dog to sit with a cookie. It’s a whole other story when you’re talking about, “OK, this dog has serious behavior problems, and do I know what I’m doing, and can I really fix this.” I can see how that would be really validating to say, “Look, here’s somebody who’s doing it, and doing it successfully on a consistent basis.” So that’s awesome. Next question, I’m afraid it’s not much easier: What’s the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Mike Shikashio: I don’t know if it’s a piece of training advice, but I think, again, because I’m working in training and behavior, they’re kind of two of the same, when I use the term “behavior world,” I’m talking about just general behavior with all animals, and one of the things I started to really hone down on is just this empowerment thing.

One of Susan Friedman’s quotes is, “The central component of behavioral health is the power to operate on the environment to behave for an effect.” She’s one that really opened the world of empowerment and allowing animals to act on their own environment, rather than always micromanaging all their behaviors.

Giving them the power of choice can have a significant impact, especially in aggression cases. An example I use sometimes is that we focus on getting the dog to watch me, if they’re reactive to other dogs, or we tell them to go to a mat, or we add these behaviors that we ask for, which, don’t get me wrong, they work really well as a great alternative for incompatible behaviors. If the dog’s looking at me, they’re not going to be barking and lunging at other dogs. Or if they go to their mats, they’re not going to be  charging the door.

The issue sometimes doing that is it’s not fully allowing the animal to act on their own environment.

Follow me for a second here. You ask a dog to go to their mat in the home, and say they have a fear of strangers coming through the door. If I put that mat in a place that’s going to not allow them enough distance, so we’re now introducing strangers past their critical distance, getting into their critical distance, in other words this bubble around them, that we are artificially removing their flight option.

So it looks great on paper. “Go to your mat” — that’s better than biting the person that comes through the door. However, if we artificially remove that flight option, what we’re basically asking the dog is to not move away if you’re scared of that person, which doesn’t fully empower them to act on their environment. Now, of course we don’t want them charging and biting the person, because that’s acting on their environment, but we want to preserve that option, that choice of being able to move away.

Similarly with dogs that are barking and lunging at other people or dogs on the streets or on a leash, we can say, “Watch me, watch me,” and again, it works really well because the dog’s focused on the handler. Again, however, that doesn’t allow the dog to assess the provocative stimulus or the threat. And what you can run the risk of is that you’re not really changing the association if the dog is watching the handler. So it’s a great alternative behavior, however it puts us at risk of not allowing the dog to act on their own environment and move away if they want to, or just notice the threat and assess that threat and then move away.

So a lot of what I focus on now is allowing the dog to act on their own environment. However, I reinforce desirable behaviors without cuing them, so I wind up capturing behaviors I like. Sometimes I will cue, but most of the time I’m just allowing the dog to say, “Hey, there’s a person over there.” I’ll reinforce the heck out of those behaviors, so that way the dog starts to learn that, “OK, I can do this instead, and that will pay off for me,” and then we can increase distance. So there’s a lot of benefits to allowing the dog have that choice and control over their environment.

Melissa Breau: That’s a great philosophy for thinking about really what it’s like to be in the dog’s shoes for all of that.

Mike Shikashio: Absolutely.

Melissa Breau: Last question: Who is somebody in the dog world that you look up to?

Mike Shikashio: Oh boy. I have a long list of people I look up to. I would say … I think I have to give that one to Susan Friedman again because … and again, she’s not necessarily in the dog world, she’s in the animal behavior world.

Melissa Breau: That works.

Mike Shikashio: I’m sure a lot of listeners could agree if they listen to Susan. You could listen to her for hours. She could talk about watching paint dry and you’d be sitting there with your mouth open, like, “Wow.” And she’s got that soothing voice, too. She’s got such a soothing voice. You could put a Susan Friedman podcast on and go to sleep to it every night because she’s got a soothing voice as well. But she’s just amazing the way she understands animal behavior, so I would definitely put her as one of the top on my list for people I look up to in the animal behavior world.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Mike. This has been fantastic.

Mike Shikashio: I really appreciate you having me. This was fun.

Melissa Breau: I look forward to the webinar!

Thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We’ll be back next week, this time with Jessica Hekman for Part 2 of our series on adopting an adult dog. For that episode we’ll be focusing on what is genetic and what isn’t … that is, what can we likely change!

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

CREDITS:

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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Aug 17, 2018

Summary:

Hélène Lawler has been working with animals her whole life — she started by training her cat to use the toilet when she was 12! Since then she’s spent years heavily invested in both training and the rescue world. She’s dabbled in nosework, tracking, and Search and Rescue, and then began training agility in 2004, followed by herding in 2005. It didn’t take long before she was hooked.

She won the Ontario novice herding championship in 2008, after just two years of training with her dog Hannah, and together they went on to become an Open level team while simultaneously competing in agility to the Masters level and qualifying for the AAC Canadian Nationals. Today, she runs a working mixed livestock farm, with sheep, goats, horses, and poultry … and she recently agreed to do a webinar for FDSA on herding and how to train it using positive reinforcement techniques!

Next Episode: 

NOTE: In the podcast I announce Sarah Stremming, who will actually be one week further out; we rescheduled last minute. 

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Helene Lawler.

Hélène has been working with animals her whole life — she started by training her cat to use the toilet when she was 12! Since then she’s spent years heavily invested in both training and the rescue world. She’s dabbled in nosework, tracking, and Search and Rescue, and then began training agility in 2004, followed by herding in 2005. It didn’t take long before she was hooked.

She won the Ontario novice herding championship in 2008, after just two years of training with her dog Hannah, and together they went on to become an Open level team while simultaneously competing in agility to the Masters level and qualifying for the AAC Canadian Nationals. Today, she runs a working mixed livestock farm, with sheep, goats, horses, and poultry … and she recently agreed to do a webinar for FDSA on herding and how to train it using positive reinforcement techniques!

Hi Helene, welcome to the podcast!

Helene Lawler: Hi Melissa. Thank you so much for having me here. I’m really excited.

Melissa Breau: Did I get the name pronunciation right there?

Helene Lawler: Yes, you did.

Melissa Breau: Yes! Score! So, to start us out, do you want to share a little bit about each of your dogs and anything you’re working on with them?

Helene Lawler: OK, sure. Yes, I can always talk about my dogs. I currently have eleven, so this might take a couple minutes.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough.

Helene Lawler: First of all, I have Hannah, who you mentioned. She’s 12-and-a-half. She’s my main working dog on the farm these days. She’s still going strong. I don’t compete with her anymore, but she’s still quite active being my working partner and running the farm with me.

I bred her once and I have two of her pups, Desiree and Clayton. They’re now 5. They both do work on the farm as well, and are advancing their herding skills. Desiree is training to be my next agility dog and fill her mother’s shoes in that respect. We’re hoping to start competing in the fall.

I had another fantastic bitch who also helped me run the farm, and I unfortunately had to say goodbye to her last week for health reasons, Kestrel. I’ve actually lost three dogs in the last four months, so it’s been a difficult transition time for us all. But Kessie left me four wonderful pups from two different breedings, so I have Griffon and Raven, the bird puppies, who are two-and-a-half. They both have started their herding training and are showing great promise. I’m really pleased. Griffon is also doing … he’s been very slow to mature, so we’ve been doing Rally. He’s been my introduction to Rally, and I’m really enjoying that a lot. We have a lot of fun with that.

And then I have Kestrel’s second litter of pups. I kept two back from that litter as well, Breganz and Jest. They’re 7 months old, so they’re showing lots of interest, but they’re not old enough to start training yet. So right now they’re just being feral puppies on the farm and having a good life.

And then I have Aoife, who I imported from Ireland last year. She’s a Border Collie, and I think I mentioned all the others were Border Collies as well. Aoife is 14 months old, and I’ve just started working with her, and I’m really excited about her prospects as a working dog. She’s totally new lines to me, and something completely new and different and really fun and great, so I’m very excited about her.

And then I have my Kelpie, Holly, who is the one who has put me on this whole journey of positive reinforcement herding training. She is 8 and still going strong and doing well. We do some stock training around the farm, and she’s really good at nosework, and we’ve been dabbling in barn hunt, and she’s also very athletic and loves to do tricks.

And then finally I have my guardian dogs, who are maremmas, Mikey, and Juno. They live full-time outside and patrol the property, and care for the sheep and keep them safe, because we have an awful lot of wolves around here, so I need some good guardians. They’ve actually been a lot of fun. They’re good farm dogs, but they’re just as trainable as the Border Collies, so I have some fun doing foundation stuff with them as well.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. You mentioned a lot of wolves. Where are you based?

Helene Lawler: I live in eastern Ontario, rural eastern Ontario. We have bush wolves. They’re coyote-wolf hybrids. They’re probably about a 65-pound animal, and they have very little fear of humans and a taste for livestock. I have taken the approach of having a good, hard defense, so I use electric fencing and guard dogs, and that’s been working quite well to convince them to just go and raid other farms. So it’s working quite well.

Melissa Breau: How did you wind up in this world? What got you started, and what got you started specifically in herding?

Helene Lawler: Well, it’s a long story. I’ll try to make it brief. When I was an undergrad, I had a neighbor who had a dog who … undergrad student didn’t take very good care of his dog, so I used to sneak over and take the dog for walks when he was away at classes. I fell in love with the dog, and then he very wisely rehomed the dog, and I didn’t know that was happening, so I didn’t get a chance to ask for her.

So I went out to look for my own dog, and I ended up finding a Border Collie puppy who I named Jake, who ended up being the love of my life and my best friend. Together we went on an incredible journey for 14 years, travelled extensively and … you know how some people get the really challenging dog of their life upfront? He was the perfect dog for me. He was just super-smart and he was this incredible teacher, so I learned so much from him about training.

He was like the littlest hobo, the campus dog, he used to come to class with me and sit outside and wait. Back in the day, this was 1989, the laws were not quite as restrictive as they are now with dogs, so he was everywhere with me off leash. We’d go to the pub, we’d go shopping, he’d wait outside stores. I took him everywhere, and he was one of those traditional, old-school Border Collies that fell into place and did everything I needed him to do without me having to know much about training.

He was like my live business card — everywhere I went, people would be like, “Wow, your dog’s so well trained. Can you teach me?” So I started getting into teaching other people because of Jake, wasn’t necessarily the most effective way of teaching, but I figured it out. So I did end up teaching other people, and I got into it quite seriously for a while of being a dog walker and trainer, and then went in a different direction after that, after doing that exploration for about a year or two.

One day, while I was traveling across the country with Jake — because we traveled extensively all over North America, a girl and her dog — we were at a truck stop, and of course Jake was off leash, as usual. He was sitting on the picnic bench next to me while I was having lunch, and suddenly he just took off — very unusual for him. I raced after him, and what he had taken off after was a big tractor-trailer load of sheep that had pulled into the truck stop. He did an outrun and stopped the tractor-trailer, and I had in that moment the realization that my dog had missed his calling, and I had a pang of regret that I was never able to let him do what he was bred to do. So I promised myself and Jake, in that moment, that my next dog would get to work sheep. At that point, Jake was 8 and we were living in big cities, and it was just not an option for him.

But I did hold true, and so fast-forward a few years later, I guess it was about five or six years later. I was living in London, Ontario, at the time, and Jake had passed away, and I was looking for my new Border Collie, and I found Hannah. She was working bred, and her breeder lived about 45 minutes from me and had offered to train me to do stock work with her because she wanted to see her puppies out working sheep. So that’s how I got started.

I was actually so excited about it that I took lessons for a year before Hannah was ready to get started. Before she was even conceived I started taking lessons, waiting for the breeding and then waiting for her to grow up. I went and I worked the farm with her breeder and learned how to manage sheep without a dog, which is actually an invaluable skill for anybody who wants to herd. I strongly recommend it. And I never looked back.

Melissa Breau: What got you started in positive reinforcement training? Have you always been a positive trainer with that approach, or do you consider yourself a crossover trainer? How did that piece of it come into play?

Helene Lawler: Yes, I would say that I’m a crossover trainer. Back in the 1980s, when I first started training, it was all alpha rolls and collar pops, unfortunately. However, I have always used some positive reinforcement in my training. I was one to always use lots of praise and food and things like that. So I guess technically I would be considered a balanced trainer, by today’s definition. I don’t love that term, but I know that’s how it’s used today. But I definitely was not exclusively positive in my training by any stretch back in the day.

After Jake died in 2004, I wanted to do something in his memory. I did a bunch of research and I found Glen Highland Farm Border Collie Rescue in New York state, which was close to me where I was living at the time, and I thought I wanted to make a donation in his memory. So I went to check them out and ended up falling in love with the place and staying and doing a bunch of volunteer work. There’s a long story around this that I won’t go into right now, but I ended up adopting one of the dogs, not surprising when I was there, Ross.

And Ross was … he passed in April of this year, so we’re still kind of adjusting to that change in my life, but he was a huge, tremendous influence in my life around positive reinforcement. He was a dog that had an unknown background, that showed incredible fear and a lot of rage, a lot of anxiety, and a strong willingness to try and control the world through a lot of bluff, bluster, and aggression.

I quickly figured out that he couldn’t tolerate anything other than positive reinforcement in his interactions with me. I had to build trust with this dog. He was just so ready to be defensive about everything. And I just had to figure it out with him. I didn’t even really know what positive reinforcement training was, in any sort of clear definition of the word or even as a philosophy. It was just how I had to relate to him. Looking back, I now see that’s what it was.

He really got me to think outside the box of how to work with him, and working with him also got me hooked on rescue. And so I started doing work more locally to me at this point in Ontario with other rescue groups and found a terrific mentor. Her name is Cindy Boht, and she runs Border Collie Rescue Ontario, and she really opened my eyes to a lot of positive reinforcement methods. She is completely — she still is to this day — completely dedicated to this philosophy of working with dogs. She taught me an awful lot, and that’s how I really got launched on the path.

Melissa Breau: So today, how would you describe your current philosophy, or your current training approach, I guess?

Helene Lawler: Today I try to be 100 percent positive-reinforcement-based in my training. I have to admit that I’m not always there, but that is my intention and my goal and I’m always striving for it.

Working on a farm, running a farm, there are always things that happen that are beyond my control, as much as I try and manage things, so I try to have really good fencing, I try to have a very good system. But I have livestock and I have Border Collies and sometimes things go south, so sometimes I’m not always successful in being completely positive in my approach. But whenever I do encounter that, I see that as a failure on my part and then I spend some time thinking about how I can make sure that doesn’t happen again, how I can work through it, how I can train it, how I can better set up my management. So my general philosophy is to be 100 percent in practice. It’s something I’m striving for.

Melissa Breau: I know on your website you talk about “force-free herding,” and you have this write-up about it. Can you explain what that phrase means to you and where it came from?

Helene Lawler: Sure. Force-free herding is a term that I came up with in discussion with some other people around it. We were trying to find the best way to describe what we’re trying to accomplish here with developing a new method of training dogs to herd stock.

I almost think that fear-free might be more apt than force-free, because sometimes we might actually use … depending on how you define force. For example, I will actually use a long line for some of the work that I do, so the dog is not completely at liberty. So it depends how strictly you want to stick to the term. But the general idea is to avoid the use of aversives or punishment when teaching dogs to work stock, so that’s my main goal.

That has come about because, when I was training my dogs to work sheep, basically there’s a lot of aversive pressure used on the dogs to get them to do what we want to do. The reason for that is that they get into these fairly high states of arousal, and we need them to be able to think clearly and respond to our cues. And to do that, we need their brains to be in gear and functioning. So a quick and dirty way to do that is to use aversives to keep the dogs a little bit afraid or a lot afraid, depending on the dog, to keep their levels of arousal under wraps and so that they can pay attention and listen.

If you don’t want to do that, which I do not want to do that, then how do we get our dogs to keep us in the picture when we’re working? That’s the challenge I’ve been facing with trying to develop a method of teaching my dogs how to work sheep without using pressure or any types of force or aversive or punishment.

Melissa Breau: You started to answer this a little bit already, but next I was going to ask you how your approach is different than that traditional approach to training a herding dog. Can you just go into that a little bit more?

Helene Lawler: Sure. Traditionally, like I said, people will use an aversive punishment or some level of pressure on the dog to get the dog to keep the handler in the picture.

You asked how does what I’m doing differ from how somebody would traditionally train. It really depends on the trainer. I know some excellent trainers. I would say there would be very little difference, because everybody understands that it’s really critical for the dog to be confident and to have a good experience around stock, and I don’t think there’s anybody who would disagree with that. So people are not wanting their dogs to become afraid around sheep.

The challenge, like I said before, is that we need to keep their level of arousal in check so that they can focus on what we’re asking them to do, and sometimes, a sharp, well-timed correction can be very clear and give the dog the information that it needs to be able to do the job properly. The really great handlers can do that and not have fallout from using a correction. But for the rest of us, and I certainly count myself in that group, I can’t use corrections and not have fallout, and I have certainly tried and failed many times.

I don’t want to take that risk and have that damage to my relationship with my dogs, so what I try to do is find different ways to work with my dogs’ arousal levels. That’s really the key to developing a dog who can work stock without having to use the aversive methods, and that’s what I focus on with my training. So I look at trying to be able to clearly communicate with them and keep myself in the picture through working with their arousal levels around stock, and that can take a lot of work prior to ever going to stock.

So I think that’s one of the biggest differences perhaps that you’ll find in how I train from how I trained before, and how I’ve trained with other people, is that I put a lot of foundation work into my dogs before they ever go to sheep, as a way of making sure that we have that clear communication, and they have those skills to be able to keep themselves in a state of arousal that is sufficient to do the work, but not so high that they can’t hear my cues and respond to them.

Melissa Breau: I’d imagine, as somebody using positive training in a field where it’s … not yet … hopefully the norm, there have been times when you’ve been facing an uphill battle. What obstacles would you say you’ve had to overcome in the process of learning and now teaching herding using positive reinforcement?

Helen Lawler: The biggest obstacles have been, well, first of all, not having a mentor to learn from, so having to figure this out from scratch. That’s been quite a challenge. I do have wonderful mentors in the positive reinforcement world, and so I’ve been studying what they’re doing and then trying to extrapolate from that and then putting into play in the herding setting. So it’s not like I’m working in a complete vacuum. Obviously I’ve got lots of material to work with. It’s translating that to the herding world that’s been the big challenge.

A couple of other things that have been challenging for me is that I have yet to find a really systematic approach to follow to try to replicate. Everybody I’ve trained with in herding has their own method, which is similar to dog sports, but I feel like in agility in particular, which I know fairly well now, there really is a systematic way of training your dog, and you can break your training into small pieces, you can split, you can break it out. If you want to teach tight turnings on jumps, you can start that sitting quietly in your bathroom with a cone and have your dog just learn how to go around the cone, and then gradually build up to running in the field at high intensity.

But with herding, you can’t really do that, and so I’ve had to figure out how to break down what my dog is doing into pieces that I can then take away from the sheep, take away from the field, and train them away and then bring it back. That’s been very challenging because there’s very little of that going on, and so it’s all things that I’ve had to figure out on my own. So that’s been quite a process.

The other thing is trying to really know what I’m looking for when working with the sheep. What is it that it needs to really look like, and what does my dog need to be doing, and what is the picture supposed to be? Even understanding that is quite challenging. It takes years and years and years to be able to see what’s going on and really understand it and know that the dog is doing things correctly. When is the dog correct, when is the dog incorrect? The dog is usually correct a lot more often than the handler is. So as a green handler, I was learning along with my dog. That was tremendously difficult. It’s like a green rider on a green horse. There are just so many things to try and figure out in tandem that your brain short-circuits, so my poor dogs, they’ve had to learn along with me.

Now, I said I haven’t had real mentors to follow, but my dogs have been incredible teachers, and I think they have taught me as much or more than anybody else, because they really show clearly when they’re confused, when they’re stressed, when they’re clear and confident, when I’m doing something that’s aversive to them. I’ve had to spend a lot of time studying my dogs and their reaction to what I’m doing to understand if I’m doing something that’s aversive, if I’m not clear, if I’m confusing to them, when they get it.

I will do something, and my dog — you can see the light go on, and that tells me, Oh great, I figured out how to communicate this to the dog. What did I just do? And then I have to break that down. So one of the advantages of having, because I have quite a few dogs and I also work with other people’s dogs, is that I have all these fantastic canine teachers. And so really the dogs have led me through this, in particular my Kelpie. She’s really been the one who spearheaded this whole process.

Melissa Breau: When you are facing one of those problems where most trainers who teach herding, or who train herding with their dogs, would turn to punishment or fear, how do you start to work on coming up with a positive solution instead? Do you have a method that you use, or a thought process you have in place? I’d love to hear a little bit more about your process.

Helene Lawler: Sure. The first thing I do … as I mentioned earlier, sometimes things kind of go south around here, so my very first process when I do that is I go, OK, let’s just hit the brakes here. So I’ll usually end up picking up my dog and carrying it into the house, or whatever, and just stopping the whole scenario and thinking, OK, what just happened here? I then say to myself, OK then, use your big brain. You’re the one with the big human brain, so that’s what you have it for. Figure it out.

I say that to myself all the time: Use your big brain. That gets me into a good analytical mode, and I think about it. I think, OK, What is training? I see training as essentially three things. It’s communication, it’s motivation, and it’s ability.

My dogs are all very strongly working bred, so motivation is pretty much never an issue with my particular dogs. It can be with other dogs, but I don’t have to struggle too much with motivation. They’re keen. They want to work.

So then I have to look at communication and ability. Am I communicating to the dog? Is the dog understanding what it is that I am saying or trying to express to them? If the answer is no, which it would be if they’re not doing what I’m asking them to, then I always assume that they are not doing it most likely because they don’t understand what they’re supposed to do. I don’t ever see my dogs as being willfully disobedient. I just don’t think they are. I think they’re just not clear on what they need to be doing.

So then I go, OK, how can I better communicate? So then I really brainstorm. What can I do, and rarely do I ever mean verbally. It’s like, can I set things up better? Can I change the environment to make things more obvious? Can I use different sheep? Can I use some props? Can I use fencing more effectively? How can I better communicate what I want the dog to understand here? That’s a big part of my process is really trying to break it down.

The other part of the process is does the dog … as I said, they have communication, motivation, and ability. Does the dog have the ability to do what I’m asking them to do? That can mean things like is my dog fit enough to not be tired while we’re working? Do they have the physical capability?

I mentioned I have two 7-month-old puppies. They are crazy keen. They do not have the ability to physically do the work that I want them to do, nor do they have the mental ability to stay present while I’m working with them. So if I put them out on sheep right now, I can put out a group of sheep that will be quieter and move slowly, so that their soft muscles and not fully developed legs can still outrun the sheep. I would keep sessions really short and not ask anything of them, just let them work on instinct and let them drag a short line on a harness, so that when we’re done I can just stand on it and walk them off the field without expecting anything of them other than just working on instinct.

I know that they’re not capable of really responding to me until their brains have fully developed, and sometimes that can be until they’re 2 or 3 years old, so I have to be aware of where the dog is at in terms of their physical and mental ability, If I feel like that is not where I need it to be for the type of work we’re doing, I’ll pull them off stock and do things away from stock for a while until we get to that point, be that fitness, be it more mental work.

I mentioned my dog Griffon, who I do Rally with. When we go out to stock, there’s nobody home. He is just one big, fluffy, black-and-white ball of instinct, and so I can’t really ask him to do anything. Fortunately, he’s got lots of natural ability, so he doesn’t get into trouble, but I can’t really progress his training at this point, so I’ve just done other things with him. We do lots of hikes, we do Rally, we do lots of fun things while his body and brain develop, and if we don’t get seriously into training until he’s almost 3, so be it.

So those are my approaches with my dogs. We look at communication, motivation for some dogs but not mine, and then really looking at their actual ability to do it.

Melissa Breau: We were talking a little bit here about how you approach things, and I know you mentioned that you do more foundation work than some other trainers might. Can you share a little bit about how much of your training methods are foundation work — that is, before introducing or using stock, and how much of the training is done on stock? And maybe a little bit about the skills you teach as foundation behaviors?

Helene Lawler: Sure. When it comes to my approach to using positive methods for herding, I should be clear: we don’t actually teach dogs to herd. I don’t teach my dogs to herd.

I’ll step back for a second. As I said, my dogs are very strongly working bred, so they instinctively know how to herd. They have more herding ability in the tip of their tail than I have in my whole body and will learn in my entire life, so I am not teaching them to herd.

Now, some breeds and some dogs actually do need to learn the skills, and those dogs we would train more mechanically. That’s a different ball of wax, not really what I’m talking about here. What I work with are dogs that are just big balls of instinct, that just want to get out there and work, and so I’m shaping that instinct.

What I’m actually working on with the dog is how to put their natural instincts on cue. So there’s an awful lot of capturing, basically, and helping them with their arousal level so that they can put two and two together and they can recognize that my cue is asking them to do certain things, because often we’re going to be asking them to go against their instincts. So that’s what we’re really working on.

The foundation training that I need them to do is an awful lot around building my relationship with them so that they want to partner with me. I want to look at their ability to manage their arousal levels on stock and keep me in the picture. I keep saying that, but that’s what’s really critical. If they will respond to me, if they can keep their arousal level such that they can hear and respond to my cues, then there’s no need to ever use an aversive. So I do a lot of work around arousals, often at quite a distance from the stock, often without even stock around to start, and you build gradually to that. So that’s a really big part of my foundation work.

And then for actual skills, they need a stop, so that can either be a stop on their feet or a lie-down and a recall off stock. Those are the two critical skills that they need before they start doing any formal training. As long as they have that, I can pretty much work with anything else. So I do a lot of work on lie-downs in growing levels of arousal and around distraction and then recalls.

And I do a tremendous amount of Premack. Premack goes through everything. All my training, I use Premack as my method for building my skills and my dogs’ because typically they don’t want anything else that I can offer. I can’t give them food or toys when they want to work sheep. They want it that badly. So I use the stock as the reward, and that is an extremely effective way, actually, of building these basic skills. So I have a bunch of exercises that I do, first off stock and then I bring it to stock, but outside the fence so they’re within view, and then we gradually build up to working right directly on the sheep.

But the two critical skills are the stop and the recall, and the rest is all arousal training. And then there are little things like shaping a head turn, and a few little odds and ends, but those come in time. But the critical foundation pieces are those three.

There’s another critical piece that I should mention, and that is that we need them to have … I like to use the term “dynamic impulse control,” which to me means the ability to control their impulses, have self-control, whatever you want to use, whatever terms you want to use, while the dog is in motion. We do an awful lot in sport training around having a dog who can hold still around distraction. But in herding we really need them to be able to stay, to maintain their impulse control while in motion, and that is also a key piece of the foundation training that I do with my dogs.

Melissa Breau: I compete in treibball, so I work a German Shepherd, who is obviously a herding dog, in treibball, and it’s interesting to see the tie-ins to some of that stuff. It’s really interesting.

Helene Lawler: I know people who say that that would be a good foundation sport to do. I’ve never done it myself, but I think that that could teach your dog some good skills that would be translatable, from what I know of the sport.

Melissa Breau: It’s definitely not the same, but it’s interesting from a … a lot of dogs do have arousal problems around the ball, especially herding breeds, and there’s just lots of interesting pieces there that I could see having some carryover. I’ve never had the chance to test my dog on stock, but I think that would be a lot of fun to take her out because she’s got the treibball training, so it would see how much it holds up.

Helene Lawler: Yeah, that would be really interesting to see. I didn’t have sheep for Hannah until we were already competing at the Open level, actually, and so I never told anybody this because I would have been laughed at, but I used to take a basketball out and she would herd the basketball. I used it to lengthen her out runs. I have no idea if that actually translated, but it gave me something to do at home, so I would just send her and she would do an out run on a basketball and lie down and flank back and forth around the basketball. It really brought out the instincts, so I thought, OK, I’m going to work with that.

Melissa Breau: That’s so interesting. I know you’re doing a webinar for FDSA on this stuff. It’ll be next week when this airs. Would you mind sharing a little bit about what you plan to cover and give a little insight into the topic?

Helene Lawler: Sure. The webinar is going to be diving deeper into what I’ve just been talking about: looking specifically at the intersection of sport training and herding, what crossover there is, how we can apply what we know from sport training to prepare our dogs for stock work, and also where some of the pitfalls might be. Some of the sport foundation training might actually be counterproductive to stock work.

And at the same time, how stock work can help with dog sports, which is something that I have found. When I first started doing herding training, I had also recently discovered agility. What ended up happening was I did both sports with Hannah, and I couldn’t tell anybody in the herding world that I was doing agility, because they all thought it would ruin her for herding, and I couldn’t tell anybody in the agility world that I was doing herding, because they would all say that it would ruin her for agility. So I just kept my mouth shut and did both sports completely separately, and what I found was that they were very complementary.

Hannah’s confidence in our teamwork just blossomed through agility that translated to working on stock. Her ability to focus on me, her dedication to the job, her start line stays, all these sorts of things were just phenomenal from herding when we took it to agility. So I found that the two sports really complemented each other beautifully, and I think more and more people are discovering that now.

However, there are also pitfalls, and there are things that we do in both that can have some fallout. I think that that might be good insight for us around how to change our training across the board, and so that’s what I want to talk more about as well.

Melissa Breau: Now obviously during the webinar you won’t be able to cover everything …

Helene Lawler: No, I can talk for hours and hours and hours!

Melissa Breau: Hey, most of us dog people can, especially about our sports. But I know you have your own site where you talk about some of this stuff. Do you want to share where folks can go for more information?

Helen Lawler: My site for my dogs is kynicstockdogs.com. I also have a Facebook page with the same name. And I’m just getting up and running my dog-training site, shapingchaosdogtraining.com, which may be live by the time this airs. I’m hoping. I also have been in discussion and planning about starting a Fenzi herding group on Facebook, so that will hopefully be a great resource for people down the road in the near future.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, that would be awesome. So the way I tend to end every episode with a first-time guest — I’ve got my three questions here. The first one is, what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?

Helene Lawler: I had to think long and hard about this, and I have quite a few I’d love to discuss, but in keeping with the discussion around herding, I’m going to focus on that. My proudest moment in herding was competing at Grass Creek Sheep Dog Trials, which is actually ongoing this week.

I was there two years ago with Hannah. It was the competition we moved up to Open in, and it is one of the most difficult and prestigious sheep dog trials in North America. There are no novice classes in this trial. It is just purely Open. People come from far and wide, and even overseas, to compete in it, and you’re in there with the best of the best. So it was very, very intimidating, and really I was just proud of myself to be able to find the courage and have a dog who I knew I could count on, and that we were such a strong team that no matter what we faced out there, I knew that we would hold it together and do a good job, do our best.

So I went out there with Hannah knowing I could count on her, Miss Cool As A Cucumber in the field. This dog, she just loves to compete when I don’t, so she really helped me with all my trial nerves and so on and so forth. She’s just amazing. She just loved the crowds, and she just loved the attention and the cameras and so on and so forth.

So anyway, at this competition you get to run twice. The very first time we went out, it was early in the week. It was on Wednesday, and there weren’t that many people watching, and it was the workweek, so we just went out and we worked our dogs.

I said, OK, I’m just going to pretend like I’m at home, and I set myself three goals. The first one was that I wasn’t going to lose my dog. I didn’t want her going out and losing her sheep and running after them, and me having to walk down the field to go get her. I didn’t want to lose my sheep and have them go bolting off into the woods, and I didn’t want to lose my cool. So I sent my dog and she’s so great. She got her sheep, and she didn’t lose her sheep, and she didn’t go running off after them back to the setout. She brought them to me and I was so proud of her.

But I have to say, I was pretty stressed, and so by the time she got them to me and I was just so relieved, but I started stressing enough that I started losing my cool. So I thought, OK, I’m just going to call it quits here. I turned to the judge and I said, “Thank you,” and I exhausted the sheep, and I told my dog how great she was, and we left and we celebrated.

And I thought, OK, this was great, that was good, but the next run I’m going to add one more thing to my list of things I don’t want to lose, and one of that was I was not going to step off the field until we either ran out of time or the judge asked us to leave. So no bailing, we are going to do the whole course the next time.

I showed up, and it was Friday of the competition, and I should say about 10,000 people come to watch this competition over the course of … yeah, it’s a big deal. I wasn’t really prepared for that. I showed up at the competition and there was this huge crowd, and there was an emcee and all sorts of stuff, and I was like, Oh my goodness. I was so overwhelmed. So I thought, OK, let’s do some breathing, and then I thought, OK, here’s my issue. I’m out there with the big hats. I need a bigger hat. So I went and bought myself a big hat.

I put on my big hat, I walked to the post, I sent my dog, she got her sheep, she brought them to me, we made it around the course, and we got a score of numbers, not letters, because in herding you either get a score or you get a retire or you get a disqualify DQ, so the goal is to get numbers not letters. We got numbers, not letters, and I was just so thrilled with my dog, I was really pleased with my own ability to overcome my own inner challenges, and it was this very wonderful moment. I was thrilled. So that was a huge accomplishment that I’m quite proud of.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. My second question here is usually my favorite, but what is the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Helene Lawler: Again, one I had to think long and hard about, and I know other people have said two, so I’m also going to say two, but they’re nothing new. They are “Train the dog in front of you,” and “It’s all behavior.” Those two, I just tell myself that over and over and over and over and over again. It’s been absolutely critical in everything I’ve been accomplishing.

It’s “Train the dog in front of me,” every day it’s different, forget the dog that my dog was yesterday, especially forget the dog that my dog was a few years ago, which I tend to still hang on to, and just work with the dog I have in this moment right now. What does she need, what are we doing, where is she at? That has just been so critical for my own ability to improve my training.

“It’s all behavior” is so important for staying calm, cool, and collected, and just being analytical and detached and really taking emotions out of the training, which can be a real challenge in herding, in any kind of dog sport, I’m sure, as you and I’m sure all the listeners know. But in herding it’s really easy to lose your emotional cool, so just saying “It’s all behavior” and understanding that at a deep level has been really, really helpful for me.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. The last one: Who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Helene Lawler: Lots and lots of people. Again, I’ll keep this focused on herding. I’m going to say Amanda Milliken. She is one of the giants in the herding world. She is local to me, which I’m very lucky about that. She is the person who has put on the Grass Creek Trials that is running right now, and her dedication, passion, and commitment to the sport and her breed, her commitment well beyond her own performance, has just been amazing. She’s just an incredible woman for all that she has accomplished in herding and with Border Collies in general. I’ve really admired that, and I’ve taken inspiration from how hard she works and how hard she’s trained.

I bought my first Border Collie from her in 1989, and she was competing back then. She’d already started Grass Creek. That was 29 years ago, and she’d already run it for two years. So she has been in this for the long game, and I just love to see people be successful and know that persistence pays, and so I’ve learned a lot from that.

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

Helene Lawler: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been such a pleasure and an honor to be here.

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

We’ll be back next week with Sarah Stremming, to talk about her household’s latest new addition — a Border Collie puppy named Watson.

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

CREDITS:

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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Aug 3, 2018

Summary:

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield is a veterinarian and Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA), with a focus on treating behavior problems including aggression to humans or other animals, separation anxiety, and compulsive behavior disorders. She also teaches group classes and private lessons in basic obedience for pet dogs, and coaches students getting started in dog sports such as agility and competitive obedience.  

Jennifer is proud to be a member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). She is a passionate advocate for positive, science-based methods of training and behavior modification, and loves helping pet owners learn to communicate more clearly with their dogs.

Links mentioned:

Next Episode: 

To be released 8/10/2018, featuring Nancy Tucker, talking about how to stop your dog from going crazy at the door.

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Dr. Jennifer Summerfield.

Dr. Jen is a veterinarian and Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA), with a focus on treating behavior problems including aggression to humans or other animals, separation anxiety, and compulsive behavior disorders. She also teaches group classes and private lessons in basic obedience for pet dogs, and coaches students getting started in dog sports such as agility and competitive obedience.  

Jennifer is proud to be a member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). She is a passionate advocate for positive, science-based methods of training and behavior modification, and loves helping pet owners learn to communicate more clearly with their dogs.

Hi Jen, welcome to the podcast!

Jennifer Summerfield: Hey Melissa. I am excited to be here.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you share a little bit about your own dogs, who they are, and anything you’re working on with them?

Jennifer Summerfield: Definitely. I have three dogs at the moment. They are all Shelties.

The oldest one is Remy. He just turned 10 years old this year, so double digits now. He’s my old man. We were really excited this past summer because he just finished his PACH, which so far is our highest pinnacle of achievement in agility, and it only took us ten years to get there, so, you know, better late than never! So that’s been really exciting for him. And I finally just got the courage worked up to enter him in AKC Premier in the next trial that we’re entered in, in August. It’s a bit of a new adventure for us because we’ve never tried that before, but I figure what the heck.

My middle dog, Gatsby, is 4-and-a-half years old, he’ll be 5 this November, and he is working on his agility titles as well. He currently is in, I want to say, Master Jumpers and Excellent Standard. His agility career has been a little bit slower than Remy’s. He’s had some stress-related weave pole issues that we’re working through, and he also had some really significant dog-reactivity issues when he was younger, so we spent a lot of time when he was about a year and a half to 2 years old or so just working through that to get him to the point where he could even go to agility trials successfully without having a meltdown. So for him, just the fact that he has any titles at all and can occasionally successfully trial is a pretty great accomplishment. But I have him entered in a couple of trials this fall as well, so hopefully we’ll keep building on that.

And then my youngest dog, Clint, he is 4 years old now, and his history was a little bit different. He came to me as an adult, almost a year old, because I really wanted a dog to show in conformation. When I got Gatsby as a puppy, he was supposed to be my conformation dog. That’s what we were hoping for, but … I don’t know how much you know about Shelties and conformation, but the height thing is a killer. It looked like he was going to be in size on the charts and everything, and then when he got to be about 6 months old, he was over. So I got Clint a little bit later at a year old from his breeder, and he was already a finished champion at that point, so he knew what to do, which was perfect because I was a total beginner. So I had a really good time showing him for about a year after I got him. We finished his Grand Championship together, so that was really cool. And now we’re branching out and he’s starting to learn some agility and some other things as well.

So that’s my guys in a nutshell.

Melissa Breau: I’ve got a bit of a chicken-or-egg question for you here. Did dog training come first, or did becoming a vet come first? How did you get into all this stuff?

Jennifer Summerfield: Funnily enough, I’ve been interested in dog training and dog behavior from as early as I can remember, even before we had a dog. When I was a kid, I was really crazy about dogs, and I was fascinated by dog training. I had books and books and books, just shelves of books on training dogs, obedience training, and also a bunch of random stuff, like, I had books on Schutzhund training, and books on herding training, and books on service dog training, and just everything I could get my hands on.

One of the really formative experiences of my childhood was that my aunt took me to an obedience trial that was at that time … I don’t remember what the name of the kennel club is, but our local kennel club in Charleston — I live in West Virginia — used to have their show at the Civic Center every year, and they would have an obedience trial as part of that. And so my aunt took me one year. I must have been 8 or 9, something like that, and I just remember being absolutely riveted by watching the dogs in the obedience trial, which I guess is maybe a funny thing in retrospect for an 8- or 9-year-old to be riveted by, but I was. I remember watching that and thinking it was absolutely the most amazing thing I had ever seen, and I wanted to do it more than anything, hence all the books and all of that stuff.

I wrote to the AKC when I was a kid to ask for a copy of the obedience regulations, because I had read that that was how you could get them. This was back before everything was online, you know, this would have been the early ’90s. So I wrote to the AKC and I remember being super-excited when they sent the manila envelope back that had the obedience regulations in it. I read them and I was just super-fascinated and I knew that was what I wanted to do.

We got my first dog when I was about 16, and he was a Sheltie named Duncan, so I did a lot of training with him. We were never very successful in the obedience ring, which was completely my fault, not his. But I’ve just always been really fascinated by the idea of being able to communicate with another species that way, being able to have that kind of relationship with a dog where they understand what you want them to do and there’s all this back and forth communication going on to do these really complicated, fancy things.

So when it came time to start thinking about what I actually wanted to do with my life, around junior high school, high school, getting ready to go to college, I always knew that I wanted to do something related to dog training or dog behavior, and I thought about several different ways of going about that. I considered the idea of just being a professional dog trainer straight out, but I was a little bit nervous about that because I wasn’t quite sure if it was easy to make a living doing that, or how one got established, and I was a little bit concerned. It didn’t feel very stable to me, but who knows, but I wanted something that felt like there was more of an established career path for it, I guess.

Of course I thought about veterinary medicine, because that’s one of the most obvious things that everybody thinks about when they want to work with animals. And I did actually give some thought in college to going to graduate school and getting a Ph.D., and then possibly becoming an applied animal behaviorist that way, but there were two reasons I opted not to go that route, and one was that I discovered in college that research is really not my thing, and I knew that unfortunately that was going to be a big part of life getting a Ph.D., so that was kind of a strike against it.

So what I ultimately decided to do instead was go to veterinary school, and what I liked about that idea was that I felt like I would always have something to fall back on, regardless. I knew that I could do behavior, hopefully relatively easily, I could get into doing that with a veterinary degree, but I could also just be a general practice veterinarian too, if need be, and actually I really like that aspect of my job right now. So that’s how I ended up in vet school, but it really was always kind of a back door way to get into the world of behavior.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. It’s fantastic that that appealed to you at such a young age. I think that a lot of people who listen to this podcast can probably relate to that.

Jennifer Summerfield: I think this was probably the audience that would relate to it. It’s only in retrospect that I realize what a strange little child I probably was.

Melissa Breau: Hey, you’re not alone out there.

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: That’s right!

Melissa Breau: So how did you become interested in it from such a young age? Were you always a positive trainer? Is that how you started out, or did you cross over at some point? How did that happen?

Jennifer Summerfield: I do consider myself to be a crossover trainer, and I think a lot of that has to do with the kind of information that was out there at the time that I first started getting interested in these things and I was first collecting all my books and reading everything.

This was the ’90s, for the most part, so positive training I know was starting to become a thing around that time, but it wasn’t, as I recall, super mainstream, at least not where I was, and in the things that I was reading and the classes that I was going to. Most of the books I had, of course, probably like a lot of people at that time, were pretty correction-based, and they talked about how you needed to be in charge, and you needed to make sure that your dog knew who was boss, and that you had to be really careful about using cookies in training because then your dog gets dependent on them, and of course you don’t want your dog to just be working for cookies, you want them to be working for you, and I thought all that made a lot of sense at the time.

When I was first working with Duncan, I had this book that was about competitive obedience training, specifically, and I remember working through this book and just working religiously on doing everything it said. I remember teaching him to heel, and the way that the book said that you taught your dog to heel was you put a choke collar on them and you walked around in circles in the yard, and every time they got in front of your leg, you gave a leash correction and you jerked them back and you just did that until they figured it out. That’s how Duncan learned to heel, and obviously if I had it to go back and do it over again, I would do it differently. But he was a good dog, and he learned, and it worked reasonably well. Like I said, we never got to the point of having any great successes in the obedience ring, for probably a lot of other reasons besides that, but that’s kind of how I got started.

As I got older and I started reading more things, one thing that I remember that was a big turning point for me was reading Jean Donaldson’s book The Culture Clash. I know that probably a lot of your listeners are familiar with that book, because I know it’s kind of a classic in the world of behavior, but it’s very much about how most of the things our dogs do that bother us are just dog things. They’re just doing things that dogs do, and those things happen to bother us, and that’s reasonable sometimes and we can teach them not to do those things. But that was such a revolutionary thing for me to think, like, You mean it’s not all about that my dog is trying to be in charge and he needs to know that this stuff’s not allowed. She just made so much sense. At that time I had never heard anybody put it that way before, and I want to say that was really the first time that the idea of positive training was presented to me in a way that made a lot of sense.

As I got older, of course, and started to learn more about the scientific side of things — you know I’m a huge science nerd, as probably most people are who go to the trouble of getting a veterinary degree — and so as I learned more about the scientific side of things, then I was sold, because obviously the scientific consensus is unanimous that clearly there’s a way to do things that works a lot better than using correction-based techniques, and that there’s lots of really valid scientific reasons to use positive reinforcement training. So I would say by the time I started vet school, I was pretty solidly in that camp.

The other thing that probably cemented it for me was seeing the difference in how quickly Duncan learned things, for one thing, once I switched. He learned to heel the old-fashioned way, but he learned to do his dumbbell retrieve with a clicker, and he loved his dumbbell retrieve. He would find his dumbbell, if I forgot to put it away after a training session, he would find it and bring it to me and sit, and he just had an enthusiasm for it that he never, ever had for the things we learned when I was still teaching the old way. And then, when I got my dog Remy, who was the second dog I had, the first dog after Duncan, who by that point I was pretty solidly in the positive reinforcement camp, and he learned to heel with a clicker. Looking at the difference between the two of them, both in terms of how technically good their heeling was, but also just looking at their attitude differences and how much they wanted to do it, I knew, I think, after I had done a little bit of work with Remy and seen that kind of difference, that I would never train another dog with corrections again.

Melissa Breau: Sometimes the proof really is in the pudding. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t go back.

Jennifer Summerfield: Yeah, and I guess that’s a pretty common experience, I think. I feel like I hear a variation of that from a lot of crossover trainers, that it’s a combination of understanding the science, but also when you see it, you see the difference in your own dog or in a client’s dog and you say, “Why on Earth did I ever used to do it a different way?”

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I’d imagine that being a vet and a dog trainer, you’ve got a lot of knowledge there. How does one body of knowledge inform the other, and how have they both influenced your career?

Jennifer Summerfield: I’m really glad, looking back, that I did make the choice to go to vet school, because I think that’s a good skill set to have. Obviously I like being a vet. I am in general practice. Even though I spend a fair amount of my time seeing behavior cases, I do general practice stuff too, which I really enjoy. But that skill set is definitely useful for seeing behavior cases because there are a lot of behavior issues dogs have, and training issues, that have a physical component to them, and it’s very handy to have that knowledge base to fall back on, so that if somebody comes in and they say, “My dog’s having house training issues all of a sudden again, and he’s always been house trained, but now I don’t know what’s going on,” to be able to say, “Well, you know, your dog might have a urinary tract infection,” or “Your dog might have Cushing’s disease,” or “Your dog might have diabetes.” These are things that sometimes people think they have a training problem or behavior problem when actually they have a medical problem. So it’s definitely useful to have that knowledge base to be able to say, “Well, actually, maybe we should look at this.”

Both being a veterinarian and being a dog trainer are fields that I think people feel like they have to do with dogs, or they have to do with animals, I guess, more broadly, being a veterinarian. And that’s true, but what sometimes I think people don’t realize, if you’re not in one of these two professions, is how much they have to do with people, because all of the animals come with a person, and it would be rare, being either a dog trainer or a veterinarian, that you’re dealing much directly with the animal.

Your job in both of those fields is to coach the owner on what they need to be doing and figuring out what works for them, and engaging in some problem-solving with them and figuring out what they’re able to do with their lifestyle, whether it’s training their dog not to jump on people or whether it’s managing a chronic disease like diabetes. So I think that in a lot of ways that skill set, the people skills part of things, is something that has gotten to be strengthened and developed by doing both of those things. So I think all in all it worked out for the best.

Melissa Breau: The last guest we had on — you’ll be right after Sue — the last guest we had before that was Deb Jones, and we were talking all about that piece of it, just the idea that if you’re a dog trainer, you’re training people, you’re not training dogs. It’s such a big difference.

Jennifer Summerfield: Yeah. We do Career Day periodically for a lot of the elementary schools, but also junior highs and high schools in the area, because everybody wants a veterinarian to come for Career Day. And it’s amazing, of course, the common thing that you hear from people sometimes is, “Oh, I want to go into veterinary medicine because I really like animals but I don’t like people.” I say, “Well, then, I don’t know if this is the career for you, because it’s very, very, very, very people-centric. It’s all about people, so you really need to like dealing with people and enjoy that aspect of it too.”

Melissa Breau: To shift gears a little bit, I know you’ve got a webinar coming up for FDSA on behavior medications, so I wanted to talk a little bit about that stuff too. At what point should someone start thinking about meds versus training for a behavior problem?

Jennifer Summerfield: What I always harp on about this, and I actually have a blog post that I wrote a while back on this topic specifically, is that I really wish we could get more into the habit of thinking about behavior medication as a first-line treatment option for behavior issues. I see so many cases where I think people want to save that as a last resort, like, “Well, we’re going to try everything else first,” and “We’ve been working on this for a year and a half, and nothing’s helped, and maybe it’s time to consider meds.”

I totally get where they’re coming from with that. I know that there are a lot of reasons people are nervous about medication. But it makes me sad in a lot of ways because I see so many dogs that I think, My goodness, their quality of life could be so much improved with medication, or The training plan that they’re working on could go so much smoother, and be so much less stressful for both the owner and the dog, if they were willing to consider medication earlier in the process.

So for me, when I see behavior cases, certainly not every single one do we go straight to medication, but I would say that, gosh, probably a good 70 or 80 percent of them we talk about medication on that first visit, because usually if there are things that are legitimate behavior issues rather than training problems — which I can touch on here in a second, too, if you want — but if it’s a behavior issue that is enough of a problem that the owner is willing to schedule an appointment for it and pay for the consultation and sit down with me for three hours and talk about it, chances are that it’s something that could benefit from medication of some kind.

I see so many dogs that do better on meds, and there’s very few downsides to them, so in general not anything to be scared of, and not anything that you have to feel like you have to avoid until nothing else has helped. I think of it more as it’s just like if your dog had an infection. You wouldn’t say, “Well, I really want to try everything we can possibly do until we put him on antibiotics.” Or if he had diabetes, “I really don’t want to use insulin. I just really, really don’t want to use it.” I think we just think of behavior medication differently, which is too bad in a lot of ways, and I would love to see the mainstream thinking about behavior medication move more towards the same way that we use medication for anything else.

Melissa Breau: You said you could touch on the behavior stuff in a second. I’d love to have you elaborate. What did you mean?

Jennifer Summerfield: As far as determining whether you have a behavior problem versus a training problem, which I do think can be a little bit of a muddy line sometimes for owners, the way that I usually try to break that down for people is that if you have a training problem, this is usually your dog is normal. Your dog is doing normal dog things that happen to be annoying to you or to other people, which is fine. And that’s legitimate, that’s still definitely something that we want to address, so I’m not saying that as like, “See, this isn’t a problem.” It’s totally a problem if your dog is flattening old ladies when it tries to say hi, or something like that. That’s a problem, but it’s a training problem. If your dog is friendly but otherwise normal, it’s not something that we would treat with medication, because this is just something that we need to teach your dog a different behavior to do in that situation.

Whereas things that we think of more as behavior issues are things that have some kind of emotional component to them, so things that have an anxiety component, that’s probably the most common. The vast majority of behavior issues that we see do have an underlying anxiety component. But it’s that, or it’s a compulsive behavior issue, or it’s something that’s not normal, a genuinely abnormal behavior that the dog is doing. That’s when at that point that we think they’re more of a candidate for medication.

Melissa Breau: That makes sense. It’s kind of, “Is this a normal behavior or is this …”

Jennifer Summerfield: Exactly, exactly. I can’t remember who it was, but I know one year I was at a conference and I was listening to a talk on behavior medication, and I remember the way that the speaker put it, which I really liked, was one of the ways they look at whether it’s a true behavior problem that needs medication or not is, Is it something that’s bothering the dog, or is it just bothering you? Which was a great way to word it.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, I like that. I’d love to include a link to the blog post that you mentioned that you wrote a while ago in the show notes. Would you be willing to shoot me over a link to that when you get a chance after we’re done?

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: Absolutely, yeah, I could definitely shoot that over to you.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. To get back to the behavior meds thing, what are some signs that medications might really have a positive influence on a behavioral problem? Is there something about a problem that you go, “Oh, that, definitely. We can work on that with medication”?

Jennifer Summerfield: Yeah, I would say a little bit of what we touched on a minute ago, in that anything that we think has a significant anxiety component to it, which is a lot of things. That encompasses things like separation anxiety, or thunderstorm phobia, or dogs that are generally anxious and constantly on edge and have trouble settling. Anytime we get the sense that,
“Hey, this dog seems to be abnormally fearful or worried about things that are pretty normal in life that a ‘normal’ dog shouldn’t be fearful or worried about,” then that’s a pretty good indicator that medication would probably be helpful.

The other big thing that makes me think, We should consider meds here is if the people have already been doing some work as far as training or behavior modification that’s appropriate, something that’s like, “OK, that sounds like a pretty good plan,” and they’re just having a really hard time making any headway, that, to me, is a strong indication that we could probably help that process along quite a bit with medication.

The problem with a lot of dogs, especially if we’re working on something like, say, leash reactivity, for example, where we know how important it is from a behavior mod standpoint, how important it is to keep the dog below threshold while we’re working with it, for some dogs that are just so sensitive, that’s incredibly difficult because it doesn’t take anything at all to send them over threshold, and it can be really hard to find that little window of opportunity to even start working on training in a way that’s going to be successful. So in a dog like that, for example, medication can be really helpful to just bring things down enough that the dog is able to think, that you’re able to get that little toehold of space where the dog is able to see the trigger and not react so that you actually have some room to do your training.

Melissa Breau: If somebody is considering this, they’re looking at medication or they’re thinking it might be good for their dog, what are some resources that they can use, or that they can turn to, to learn more about some of the options out there and the meds, or even just behavior modification training specifically?

Jennifer Summerfield: That is such a great question. I think in terms of learning about behavior modification in general, there is some great stuff out there. There are tons of obviously really knowledgeable people in the field who have blogs and podcasts that are easy that anybody can access for free. You can find some great webinars through, of course, FDSA, but also through organizations like the Pet Professional Guild or the Association of Professional Dog Trainers or the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. There are online courses you can do.

I really think that for a lot of dog owners, they might even consider, if they’re into this kind of thing, attending a conference like ClickerExpo or the APDT National Conference, or something like that, if it’s nearby. I find that a lot of dog owners sometimes don’t think about that, or don’t realize that they can go to things like that, but anybody’s totally welcome at those conferences.

I know the last couple of years when I’ve been at ClickerExpo, certainly the majority of people there, I would say, are professionals in the field of one kind or another, but there’s always a good smattering of people who are just dog owners who want to learn more about this stuff, and I think that’s really cool. So lots of opportunities to learn more about behavior science and behavior modification.

On the behavior meds side of things, I actually wracked my brain trying to come up with some good resources that are available for dog owners for that, and there just really are not a lot, which is one of the reasons that I’m excited to do this webinar, because I do think there’s a lack of good information that is easily accessible for people about behavior meds, other than the very basic stuff, like, “Hey, behavior meds are a thing, you might consider it for your dog.” But beyond that, it is difficult to find much information.

Melissa Breau: Now, I know you specialize in behavior. If somebody goes to their average veterinarian, is that person going to have enough of an understanding to start that conversation, or should they really be seeking out somebody who specializes? What’s the guideline there?

Jennifer Summerfield: The answer is that it really does depend quite a bit on your veterinarian and whether that’s something that they have an interest in or not. That’s true in general of general practitioners about really anything, so I don’t mean that at all to sound like, “Well, if your vet doesn’t know this stuff, they’re lousy.”

Believe me, if you are a general practitioner, you cannot know everything about everything. All of us have areas that we know a lot about and then areas that we know very little about. I know anytime somebody comes to my clinic and they have questions about orthopedic issues, or their dog has a broken leg that it needs pinned or something like that, I send that out the door so fast because I know nothing. That’s not my area and I’ll be the first to say so, and there are some general practitioners who are fantastic at it.

So behavior, to me, is a lot like that. There are some GP’s who are going to be great at it and really know their stuff and going to be really well-versed in all the medication options, and then there are others that that’s just not an area that they deal with much, they may not know a lot.

But one option that is available that I think a lot of pet owners don’t always realize is an option is that if you don’t have a veterinary behaviorist nearby, or a veterinarian who is good with behavior and sees behavior cases, and your vet says, “I’d really like to help you, I just don’t know that much about this stuff,” many veterinary behaviorists will do a remote consultation with your vet, which can be super-helpful.

They can’t do it directly with you, and that has to do with the legalities of the Practice Act and things that we legally cannot make recommendations directly for an animal if we haven’t met them in person. But what they can do is they can talk to your veterinarian, and your veterinarian can give them the whole write-up and details of the case, and they can say, “Oh, OK, I understand. Here is what I would consider as far as a behavior modification plan. Here is what I would consider as far as medication for this dog.” And then your vet can take that information, and they’re the ones who are actually in charge of doing the prescribing and overseeing the case directly, but they can keep in contact with the specialist about the case and make changes as needed and all that kind of stuff.

I think that is a really underutilized service that sometimes people don’t realize is out there, but it is. So if your vet’s not super-well-versed in this stuff, but they’d like to help you and you’re willing to do something like that, talk to them about it, because they may not realize it’s an option either. But I think that can be a really good happy medium sometimes if you don’t have somebody in your area who you can work with in person.

Melissa Breau: I think that’s an awesome thing to have you mention on something like this, because like you said, maybe people don’t know that it’s an option out there. I certainly wouldn’t know.

Jennifer Summerfield: Yeah, definitely. I know I am going to talk a little bit about that in the webinar as well, so I’ll have more details on how that can work and on how people can specifically seek that out, if it’s something they’re interested in.

Melissa Breau: Obviously, during the webinar, you’re not going to be able to give dog-specific advice. Like you said, you have to see the dog, hands on the animal in order to do that. But I would love to give people just a little more of an idea on what you plan to cover, especially since I know we’re doing two webinars back-to -back in the same evening. Can you talk a little bit about what you want to cover?

Jennifer Summerfield: Yes, I’m super-excited, and I guess this is kind of unprecedented for FDSA to do the double-header.

Melissa Breau: It’s our very first one.

Jennifer Summerfield: It’s going to be great. It’s going to be a behavior pharmacology extravaganza, and I could not be more excited.

The first webinar is going to be an introduction, basically, so meant for people who want some basic information about behavior meds. It’s going to talk about things like how do you know if your dog might benefit from medication, because I know that’s probably a question that a lot of people will have who are watching the webinar. I’m assuming a significant portion of people will be watching because they have a specific dog in mind that has some issues. So we’re definitely going to talk about how to decide that for your own dog, is it something that might be helpful.

We’re going to go over all the different classes of drugs that we use for behavior cases, because there are actually quite a few different options now. It just to just be Prozac and Clomicalm, but there’s a lot of other options out now, which is really cool. We’re going to talk about what our goals are when we use behavior meds, so how that works with a training plan and what kinds of things to expect that way. We are going to spend some time also talking about natural supplements and calming aids and things that can help either by themselves or as an adjunct to medication.

In the second webinar, that one is going to go into more detail as far as things like how do we actually choose for real specific cases what medication to use, because there are a lot of options. So we’re going to go into factors that we look at to help us decide what medication we think is going to be best for this particular dog. We’re going to talk about combinations, because for a lot of cases we do actually use more than one medication together, so we’re going to talk about how that works and how you decide whether you want to go down that road, and if you do, what things can go together, what things can’t.

We’re going to have several case studies to go over, and examples to use for discussion, which I’m really excited about, because I think that’s where sometimes you get the most information is seeing how it applies to some actual cases rather than kind of getting everything in the abstract.

And we will be talking in that second webinar, because we know that the FDSA audience obviously is a lot of performance dog people, we are going to talk specifically about considerations for performance dogs, so things like how do behavior meds impact learning and memory, are there any ethical questions that we need to consider when we’re thinking about medicating dogs who are actively showing and competing, that kind of stuff. So I think that will be a really interesting discussion too.

Melissa Breau: That sounds so interesting. I’m actually really excited to dig into it.

Jennifer Summerfield: Me too. I’m so excited!

Melissa Breau: In addition to the webinars and your work as a trainer and a vet — you’re a pretty busy lady — you also blog, and you’ve recently started podcasting. I wanted to point listeners to those resources a little bit. Can you share a little bit on what you write about and talk about, maybe some of the recent topics you’ve covered, and where they can find that stuff?

Jennifer Summerfield: Sure, definitely. My blog is Dr. Jen’s Dog Blog, so you can search for that and it will come right up. I’ve been doing it since, gosh, I think July of 2016, maybe, so I’ve got quite a few posts on there. I think the most recent one I did was on accidental behavior chains that sometimes we teach without realizing to our dogs, which was interesting. I know some of the posts I have had in the past on that blog that people have found really helpful have been on things like I have a post on behavior euthanasia, which actually a lot of people have written to me about and said was helpful for them. I have a post on fear periods and single event learning, which I think a lot of people have found pretty interesting. And then I have some posts on specific topics like leash reactivity and odor-directed aggression and things like that. So if anybody’s curious about those topics, a lot of times I do try to include case examples when I write about those too.

Melissa Breau: Lots of sticky issues.

Jennifer Summerfield: I know, I know. They are sticky issues, but actually those are some of my favorite things to write about because I think that sometimes there’s a lack of honest conversation about some of those things, and I think it’s sometimes useful to just say, “Well, here is something I deal with every day in my job, and here’s some thoughts, here’s my perspective on it.” And I know that I do get a lot of e-mails from people about those sticky topics that they found them helpful, which is really nice to hear.

The podcast is pretty recent. I just started that here earlier this year and it’s been super-fun so far. I only have a few episodes of it out so far, but of course I’m actively doing that and the blog, so there will be more coming. The most recent one I did was on teaching reliable recalls to your dog. That’s a topic I get a lot of questions about and a topic that we troubleshoot a lot in our Basic Manners classes. And I’ve had some past episodes, I know I did one on car ride anxiety, and then I’ve got some basic topics like puppy socialization and housetraining and that kind of stuff.

I guess I should probably mention here I do have a book out as well, if it’s something that people are interested in. The book is called Train Your Dog Now, and it is basically a reference guide, like a handbook to pretty much anything that might come up, behavior- or training-related, with a dog. So it has sections on teaching basic obedience cues and tricks, but it also talks about how to teach your dog to cooperate for grooming and handling — nail trims and teeth brushing and ear cleaning and that kind of stuff — and then there is a whole section on behavior issues. So it does talk about leash reactivity, it does talk about odor-directed aggression, it talks about aggression to visitors, and there is … it’s a brief section, but there is a section in the book also about behavior medication and supplements. So for people that like to have a hard copy of something they can look at in their home, that might be a good option to consider.

Melissa Breau: To round things out, since it’s your first time on, there are three questions I try to ask every guest their first time on the podcast, and I’d love to do those. So first off, what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?

Jennifer Summerfield: I would have to say, and there are so many, that’s always a question that’s hard to narrow down, but honestly, if I had to pick one, I would probably say getting my dog Remy’s CD would be my biggest accomplishment.

From the time that I went to that obedience trial when I was a kid, and I watched the dogs and I just wanted to do that so bad, and with Duncan we muddled along and we did a little bit, we dabbled very briefly in competitive obedience and it didn’t go super-well, but I learned a lot from that, obviously. And then with Remy I did things a little differently, and it still took us a long time to get his CD finished, but the day that we finished it was just like … I went back to the crate and I cried. It was such a big deal for us. And I know obviously, for a lot of your listeners, they have much, much higher accomplishments in the obedience ring, but for us, that was huge.

Sort of the second part of that, I guess, obviously finishing the title itself was such a big thing for me because it was something that we worked so hard on. But one of the things that kind of was the cherry on top about that trial was I remember when we were packing our stuff up and getting ready to go back to the car, there was a woman that came up to me. I didn’t know her, but I guess she had been standing around, watching the obedience ring, and she came up to me afterwards and she congratulated me on finishing my title. I said, “Thanks,’ and she said, “I just wanted to tell you how much fun I had watching you and your dog because he looked so happy,” and that was huge. I probably still feel the greatest about that of everything that we’ve done in our competition career or anywhere. So that was a great feeling.

Melissa Breau: That’s amazing, and I just want to encourage everybody who’s listening, hey, listen, people remember when you say that kind of stuff about them and their dog. It’s worth it.

Jennifer Summerfield: I don’t remember very much about that lady now except that that was what she told us, but she made my whole year, my whole decade. So thank you, whoever that lady was, if you’re listening.

Melissa Breau: And if you see somebody have a really awesome run and you feel something like that, absolutely step up afterwards and let them know how awesome it was.

Jennifer Summerfield: For sure. It makes a big difference.

Melissa Breau: It’s such an amazing thing to hear. That’s just awesome.

Jennifer Summerfield: Thank you.

Melissa Breau: So my second question here is, what’s the best piece of training advice you’ve ever heard?

Jennifer Summerfield: What I would have to say — and this is not technically dog training advice, I guess I’ll preface it that way, but I think it can apply to dog training, and I think about it in regards to dog training a lot. It’s actually a quote from Maya Angelou. It gets paraphrased a lot, but the actual quote is, she said, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

That has always struck me as being such a great way to look at life, a lot of things about life in general, but specifically about dog training, because I think for probably a lot of us who are crossover trainers, I think it’s probably a pretty widespread thing to have some degree of regret or guilt, maybe, about how we did things with our first dog, or how we taught some things that we wish if we could go back and do it differently.

I love that quote because it’s so true that there’s no reason to feel guilty or to feel ashamed about doing the best that you knew how to do at the time, and that’s all any of us can do. But when new information comes along and you realize that there’s a different way to do things, that you just adjust your behavior and you do it differently.

So I’ve always found that really helpful in terms of thinking about myself and my own choices, but I also think it’s so helpful to keep perspective when I’m thinking about clients and the people that I work with in my job as well, because I think it’s so easy for those of us who do this professionally, and we know all the science and we do this day in and day out, it’s so easy to get a client and to feel like, “Oh, can you believe this person’s been using a shock collar on their aggressive dog,” or “This person’s been alpha-rolling their dog,” and these things that are things that obviously are probably not the ideal way to handle whatever behavior issue they’re having. But I think it’s so helpful to remember that people are just doing the best they can. That’s so powerful, that people are just doing the best they can with what they know, and that’s all any of us can do.

We all were there at one point, too, and that thinking about it from that perspective, that our job is to say, “Hey, you know, I totally understand where you’re coming from, and I understand why that seems like it makes sense, but let’s look at some other ways to address this that hopefully are going to be a little bit more effective and don’t have some of the side effects that those methods have.”

I think about that frequently, both in terms of my own life and also working with clients, just to try and keep that perspective that it’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt that we’re working with, too, and remember that everybody is just doing the best they can with what they know.

Melissa Breau: For our last question, who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Jennifer Summerfield: All three of your questions are very hard because there are so many choices. I have two for this one, if that’s OK.

For the first one, as far as being a really well-known public figure in our field that I have always looked up to, I would have to say Dr. Sophia Yin for that. For veterinarians especially, she was such a pioneer of changing the way that we deal with dogs in the clinic, and of course she did a lot of behavior stuff besides the low-stress handling as well. But I think she was such a tremendous role model for all veterinarians in the way that she dealt with animals and the way that she dealt with people, and so I look up to her tremendously, and I think she did great things for the field.

The other person that I would have to mention, she’s not overly famous, I don’t think, but she is a great clinical applied animal behaviorist that I worked with when I was in veterinary school, and her name is Traci Shreyer. I worked pretty closely with her through the four years that I was there, because she was very involved in the puppy class program at that school, which I worked with quite a bit, and then she was involved in teaching some of our classes, and things on behavior as well, and working with us, the behavior club setups and some things with her, and so I dealt pretty closely with her the whole four years.

What I loved about her and really took away from that experience is she was great with dogs and animals in general, she was fabulous, but she was also so, so great with people, with clients, and she was always reminding us … I think, again, for many of us in this field, being empathetic towards the dogs is easy, that’s kind of what drew us in in the first place, but I think it’s so, so important to remember that we have to have empathy for our human learners too, that what we’re asking them to do is hard, and that they deserve just as much consideration and kindness and respect as our dog patients do. She was probably the single best example of that that I have ever seen. She was fantastic, and that is a lesson that I definitely took away from working with her. So I would say she’s the other person that I still really look up to in the field.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome, and that’s such a great compliment to have given somebody you learned from, to say that they are so empathetic and so good with people.

Jennifer Summerfield: Yes, it’s a hard skill, such a hard skill, but it’s so important.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast Jen.

Jennifer Summerfield: No problem. I’ve had a great time!

Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week with Nancy Tucker, to talk about getting better door behaviors. Don’t miss it.

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

CREDITS:

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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jul 6, 2018

SUMMARY:

Donna has had a lifelong love affair with dogs and is fascinated with dog behavior. She has broad practical experience in the dog world: volunteering and working in kennels and shelters, dog sitting and walking, fostering rescue dogs, teaching behavior modification privately, and teaching reactive dog classes. She also has a background in zoology and teaching.

She is active locally as co-founder and professional member of Vancouver Island Animal Training Association (VIATA) and the founder and instructor for the Service Dog Training Institute.

Donna has competed in agility, flyball, and rally O and teaches people to train their own service dogs.

Next Episode: 

To be released 7/13/2018, featuring Stacy Barnett talking about tailoring your nosework training (or really any training) to your dog's unique strengths. 

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Donna Hill.

Donna has had a lifelong love affair with dogs and is fascinated with dog behavior. She has broad practical experience in the dog world: volunteering and working in kennels and shelters, dog sitting and walking, fostering rescue dogs, teaching behavior modification privately, and teaching reactive dog classes. She also has a background in zoology and teaching. She stays current in dog behavior and learning by regularly attending seminars by top trainers and researchers.

However, she is probably best known for her YouTube videos. I’ll make sure to include a link to her YouTube channels in the show notes so listeners can check her out.

She is active locally as co-founder and professional member of Vancouver Island Animal Training Association (VIATA) and the founder and instructor for the Service Dog Training Institute.

With her own dogs and other pets, Donna loves to apply learning theory to teach a wide variety of sports, games, tricks, and other activities, such as cycling and service dog tasks. She loves using shaping to get new behaviors. Her teaching skill is keeping the big picture in mind while using creativity to define the small steps to help the learner succeed. That is to say, she is a splitter!

Donna has competed in agility, flyball, and rally O and teaches people to train their own service dogs.

Hi Donna, welcome to the podcast!

Donna Hill: Hi, how are you doing?

Melissa Breau: Good, good. I’m excited to chat today. To start us out, can you refresh everyone’s memories by sharing a bit about your dogs and what you’re working on with them?

Donna Hill: OK. Jessie is a little, sensitive, German Shepherd dog, possibly Min Pin mix, that’s 11 years old. She’s getting a little bit of gray on her, we used to call her milk chin, now it’s moving up on her little face. We got her from the city pound at 7 months, so we’ve had her quite a while. Lucy, my other dog, is a really drivey, 9-and-a-half-year-old Border Collie mix that we got at almost 2 years of age off of an unfenced acreage, which totally relates to the topic today.

Right now we’re experimenting with using a combination of shaping and mimicry for training, and one of my longtime behaviors I’ve been working on — and I haven’t had a whole lot of success, but I’m starting to now with that combination — is working on their rear paw nail file. So think about that. You’ve got the back feet of the dogs, and not only do they have to have back-end awareness, they have to have awareness of their nails, not just their pads, scraping the area. So it’s been a tough one. So for the last couple of nights … well, for the last while, we’ve been bringing out the scratchboard and trying something new, and it’s actually been a fun process, and we’re almost there.

Melissa Breau: That’s pretty neat.

Donna Hill: Yeah, it’s pretty cool. Lucy’s consistently digging with her one back paw, and Jessie’s about halfway there. She’ll do, like, half a scratch. So she’s starting to get there.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. We didn’t get to chat about it much last time, but you’re very involved in the service dog world. I mentioned in the intro you run the Service Dog Training Institute. Can you share a little about that?

Donna Hill: Oh, absolutely. Service Dog Training Institute is an online community for people who are training their own service dogs. We offer self-paced online classes that of course they can check out 24-7, and we have web-based coaching sessions, so they can get on their webcam and chat face-to-face with me, and a few webinars, we haven’t done a whole lot yet, and we also have a new program called Fast Track Training, where people can get either daily help or twice-daily help for the period of a week.

Melissa Breau: Wow, that’s kind of awesome.

Donna Hill: Yeah. We also offer in-person training, and that’s fairly recent. I’ve actually added another trainer to help with those, and she also helps with the online Fast Track Training too. But the key thing people want to know is there’s tons of free resources on my website. I’ve got over 300 training videos, I’ve got a blog, I’ve got general information like laws and stuff about service dogs, so their best bet is to check out the website and read through, click on every link, and see what’s there, because there’s tons of information there.

Melissa Breau: I know you mentioned owner-trained service dogs. Are there advantages and disadvantages to owner-trained service dogs? Would you be able to share your perspective on that whole thing?

Donna Hill: Absolutely. There’s both advantages and disadvantages. I feel a person needs to carefully consider if training their own service dog is right for them. It’s a huge time and energy investment, and even though you are doing most of the training, it still costs money. You need to do group classes with other dogs, and every trainer, whether they’re a professional trainer or an owner who’s training, they still need to get some help at some point in time, whether it’s a fear period or they’ve run into a situation that sort of went south, those kinds of things. One of the biggest problems for a lot of people, they do it because they want to save money, but lack of funds are a super-common issue for owner-training teams.

The other thing that I find is tough for a lot of people is the lack of focus to take the time to do the job right and not rush the dog through the process. Because of course everyone wants their dog trained yesterday, but it can take up to two years or sometimes longer, depending on the dog that they’ve chosen.

The big advantage is that you can train the dog of your choosing, so if there’s a specific breed that you’re interested in that you think would work better for you and your lifestyle, then that’s a choice that you can make. You also get to learn the process of how to train, so when down the road your health changes and you need additional tasks, now you know how to do that, or at least you can figure it out or you know where to get the help to do it. Whereas if you get a program-trained dog, some of the programs actually tell you not to train your dog at all. They just want what the dog is already trained to do. So that can make a big difference. And of course one of the big bonuses of training your own dog is that the bond starts from the day you bring the dog or puppy home, so you don’t have to wait for two or more years for the program-trained dog.

Thinking on the disadvantages side, it takes a lot of time and energy and focus to do it, and not everyone’s got that ability. I always say, just like it takes a community to raise a child, so does it take a community to raise a service dog. And it’s so true because there’s all the pieces that need to come in. Your caregivers need to be on board with helping you in the way that you need help, you need to have trainers lined up for assistance, you need people to act as distractions, and you have to go get resources and all those kinds of things, so you have to know how to go out and get those resources.

Finding the right dog is another huge barrier for many people. They’ll go out, they’ll find a dog that they immediately fall in love with, and it’s not necessarily the best service dog candidate. So they have to be really careful. For that, I recommend bringing in someone who’s less emotionally related, someone like myself, who can help them assess and look at the weaknesses and strengths of that particular dog before they move forward.

The other disadvantage is that, owner-trained or not, sort of an educational component here, is that the handlers in general need to take on an education role at any time, because the public really doesn’t know much about service dogs. Many people want to interact with all dogs they see, including your service dog. Whether it’s in training, whether it’s professional, they don’t care. And of course you’re doing all of this while you’re living with a chronic medical condition that requires the need for the service dog, so that can certainly slow the process. It can throw some glitches into the gears.

So it’s a real balancing act, and you have to seriously look at is it a good thing for you, is it a bad thing for you, would a program-trained dog be better. Maybe there’s even other alternatives. Some people jump immediately to the dog aspect when sometimes there’s assistive technology that might be a better choice for them, and they don’t have the responsibility of maintaining the dog or keeping the dog.

It’s a big-picture thing, and you have to sit back and look at your lifestyle, look at your family, and see if that would all work out, and if you can in fact wait the approximately two years until the dog would be technically ready for public access and be able to go with you into places.

Melissa Breau: Right. You talked a little bit in there about evaluating your dog. What are some of the important traits that people need to objectively evaluate their dog for, if they are considering training it as a service animal?

Donna Hill: This applies to whether you already have a dog in your home or whether you’re going to look for a dog. The first and foremost is a known health history of both the dog and his parents, if you can at all possibly get that, and also looking at getting the pups and the parents and also your dog at 2 years of age medically tested for the common diseases that their breed suffers from. Oftentimes they’ll take it to the vet and the vet goes, “Yeah, looks fine.” Well, there’s a whole lot that the vets can’t see unless they take the proper tests and the proper scans. Yeah, the vet says it’s good, but two years down the road, three years down the road, hip dysplasia “appears” out of nowhere. Well, it was probably there, but they just didn’t look for it.

Hip dysplasia, epilepsy, cancer, heart conditions — those are common health reasons why a dog is pulled from service after it’s been trained. It’s heartbreaking. You spend two years, or whatever it is, to train this dog, and then you get maybe a year and a half, or if you’re lucky, two or three years, and then suddenly, “Oh, sorry, you can’t use that dog anymore because of health conditions.” So that’s one thing.

Another characteristic you look for is a calm temperament. Basically a dog that’s unflappable, meaning nothing fazes them. You really, really want a dog like that, because things like a sheet metal dropped in the next aisle, or a baby screams on the plane in the seat right next to you, your dog should be aware of it but not really worried about it. Both of those things a lot of dogs will react to, and it may take them a while to calm down from. So we want a dog that would notice that, certainly, and be aware that it’s happening, but go, “Oh yeah, no worries. I’ve seen it, done it, been there.”

We also know that there’s a number of things that affect temperament, so the more you know about the history of a dog, the better. For example, genetics has an important role to play in both fear and aggression, as well as a solid temperament too. You’ve got a solid-tempered mom, more likely you’re going to have a solid-tempered puppy. The mom’s stress level during carrying the puppies, how good a parent the dog mom is, and also the physical and emotional environment the puppy is raised in, as well as the physical and emotional environment the adolescent dog is raised in. So you’re seeing before the puppies are even born, and then you’re seeing while the puppies are with the litter, and then what happens to the puppies after they’ve left the litter. Those are three key components that can really affect the future of this dog.

There’s a couple of other things. People-oriented. We want a dog that has the ability to bond strongly with the handler and yet he’s friendly with strangers, and that can be a tough one if you’re looking at some of the protection breeds. Some of them are very protective by nature and their family is very highly regarded but strangers are not, so that’s a safety issue for emergency personnel and things like that, that are dealing with them in public.

You want an animal that’s good with other animals, so dogs, cats, birds, prey species, ideally ignoring them when in public. It makes your life a whole lot easier if you don’t have a dog with a really high prey drive, like Lucy does. Trust me — been there, done that, for a lot of different things, so I have to be on guard, and as a service dog you don’t want to have to be on guard to protect other people or other animals from your dog, and likewise from your dog doing damage to someone else’s animal. That can be a real stressor in itself, so that’s one of the key things you look for as well.

The sensitivity level’s a real interesting thing. You want a dog that has a sensitivity level appropriate for the person that they’re helping. We want them to be sensitive enough that they notice changes in their handler, but not so sensitive that the dog mirrors the emotions of the handler, like anxiety. This is a common issue that I find with people with PTSD and anxiety is that they tend to pick dogs that are very sensitive, and then they end up with an emotional mess that they can’t use as a service dog, so that’s a toughie.

A dog that’s food-motivated/willing to learn, those come together, it’s much easier to teach complex behaviors, we know, to a dog that’s food-motivated, of course using clicker training, marker-based training, whatever you want to call it.

And medium to low need for exercise. That’s assuming this fits the lifestyle of the handler. The vast majority of people out there really don’t want to take the time and energy, or they don’t have the energy, to take a really high-exercise-need dog out for an hour or two a day for exercise, so you really want to make sure that that’s going to meet your needs. Unless you want a dog for competition, and you want an active dog if you’re out and about and your disability doesn’t stop you from hiking two hours a day or whatever it is, then that would be fine, as long as the dog can learn to calm down in public.

The last one I’m going to leave you with is a quiet dog. If a dog barks or causes a disturbance in public, a team can be asked to leave. So you want to make sure you’re not choosing a breed that tends to be on the barky side, because then you’re fighting a losing battle because the dog is going to really want to bark, and it’s harder to inhibit something that’s a genetic trait, once it’s brought out.

One of the other things that I do want to mention is that the breed of dog can be important because public perception plays a huge role in how some service dogs are accepted. For example, any dog that’s not a typical service dog breed tends to draw more attention to the team. So if you’re out and about in public and somebody keeps approaching you, “Oh, you have such a wonderful,” “Oh, isn’t that unusual,” and you get stopped every five seconds just because you have this stunning Dalmation, or something that causes people to notice more than usual, that can play a role as well.

Tiny breeds is another example. They may be commonly dismissed as fakes. Or if you’ve got a protection-breed dog, people are fearful and they’ll give you wider birth. So those kinds of things are important when you’re choosing the breed of the dog as well, or a breed mix. What the dog looks like has an important impact on the public.

Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting. I think a lot of people probably don’t think about that piece of it. They think about suitability, maybe, for the tasks and don’t always think that extra step to do they really want to deal with the public’s reaction to that specific dog or that specific breed. So I think that’s a great thing to bring up.

Donna Hill: And there is a lot of prejudice as well around certain breeds. There’s a lot of grey lines with service dogs on when you need permission to get to bring your dog to work, for example. If an employer decides that they don’t like the look of your dog, or they feel that your dog is an aggressive dog or aggressive breed, they can do a lot of things to make sure that your dog can’t come to work with you. They can put a lot of barriers in place. It just happens, unfortunately.

People are really creative when they don’t want something to happen. I’ve had that happen with kids taking dogs to school, I’ve seen that happen at a government level, where a person was taking a service dog to their government agency and they end up getting isolated just because of the breed of dog, but the minute that they get a more accepted breed, suddenly they’re allowed access everywhere. It can make a huge, huge difference, and so I always recommend to people: think really hard about the breed and the look of your dog. You know your dog is a soft mushy, but people look and they make snap judgments, and those judgments can last for a long time.

Melissa Breau: Moving from traits or temperaments and those kinds of things to the core skills: What core skills do service animals need that owner handlers or anybody training a service dog will need to train, in addition to those special behaviors that are medically necessary for whatever their condition may be?

Donna Hill: The two most common I tell everybody is loose-leash walking and settle. That’s because service dogs spend most of their time in “hurry up and wait” mode. It is, seriously. So loose-leash walking gets them from Point A to Point B, and it’s a critical skill so the handler doesn’t have to focus on them all the time as they’re loose-leash walking from Point A to Point B. It’s not a formal competition heel, it’s a loose-leash walking. They can walk within 18 inches to 2 feet of the handler, the leash is at a loopy, U-shaped kind of thing, and the dog can be ahead or behind or beside, it doesn’t really matter.

A lot of people mistake that and think, Oh, the dog has to have this formal competition heel. Well, we at FDSA know that dogs can only maintain that focused heel for a very short period of time. It takes a lot of concentration to keep that desired precision. So a loose-leash walk is acceptable. We don’t have to ask for 95 percent of precision all the time. It can be 80 percent, which is more reasonable to expect a dog to stay within a zone within the handler. It’s really the distractions that are the tough thing, you know, the dog’s not going to the end of the leash to pull to go see another dog, for example. It’s ignoring that dog and moving on. With loose-leash walking that’s kind of the focus. It’s learning to ignore distractions.

Now, the settle or relax, which is the other main skill, it’s not the same as the sphinx-down that’s also used in competition. It is a settle, it’s a relax, let the dog chill out. As long as they’re staying on a single spot, maybe it’s a mat or maybe a defined space under your table, the dog needs to be able to get up and move and turn around, if you’re going to be sitting there for an hour and a half to two hours. It’s not fair to have the dog hold that sphinx-down. We want to give them a bit of latitude that, yeah, it’s OK for you to get up and move around. As long as you’re right here close to me and you’re not getting up and walking away, that’s close enough.

The other key thing is that a service dog needs to learn to assess the situation, because we don’t want, as handlers, you don’t want to have to give your dog a cue for every single behavior. The dog starts to learn to recognize, Oh, in this situation I know we’re going to go sit, I’m going to go lay under the table, OK, no biggie. They start using the environment as the cue for what behavior’s expected, so we end up getting a lot of default behaviors. Sits and downs, leave its, and eye contact are the important ones in general. If the dog’s uncertain what to do, what does he do? Look back up at his handler and say, “Hey, what do you want me to do?” They look back and they just might point to the ground. Guess what. That means settle. So it keeps it simple, and the communication’s really clear, and the dog’s always looking to the person for guidance.

Melissa Breau: Those are all also skills that even if we only have a pet dog, they would be fantastic skills to have well taught for a good pet dog. They’re not necessarily unusual skills to try and teach, but it’s really important, if you’re training a service dog, that they’re taught to a high fluency.

Donna Hill: Absolutely. And it is a fluency difference between a well-trained pet dog and a service dog.

Melissa Breau: So the other topic I was hoping to chat about today for a bit is recalls, since you have a class on it coming up. I think recalls are often touted as perhaps the most important behavior we can teach our dogs. First, do you agree? And second, why are they an important skill?

Donna Hill: That’s a great question. I’m not sure if I agree or disagree. I think it depends on the living situation the dog is in, and how often she or he finds herself off leash. For example, a recall for a service dog is actually pretty low on the importance scale, since in public the dog is rarely if ever off leash, so why would you need a recall if the dog is not off leash. If they are off leash, usually it’s only to perform a trained task, and when dogs get to that level, they’re so focused on the task that a recall is not important, or the recall may be part of the whole behavior, like in a retrieve. You’ve sent your dog off to get something, he’s got to come back to bring it to you, right? So if it’s trained really well, there’s your recall right there. Or if they’re trained to go get somebody, they go get the person and they bring the person back, so there’s sort of a recall in there as well.

For pet or sport dogs, absolutely a recall can be critical, especially if the dog is given a lot of freedom on a regular basis. So you want to know that your dog is going to reliably respond when you call. If she does respond, there’s a potential for so much more freedom for the dog, for one thing, and also if the dog is going to be in environments like agility trials, you don’t want the dog taking off after distractions, or if he happens to, then you know that he’s going to come running back to you when once you realize that he’s taken off, you give the cue and he comes bolting back to you. So you really need that. But the more freedom you give them, the more freedom that they can have as well, so it’s a hand-in-hand kind of thing.

There’s also alternative behaviors that can be taught that might be more appropriate in some situations as well than a recall, so something like a sit or a down at a distance. Your dog’s taken off across the street after a rabbit, and when he finally comes back, you want him to sit on the other side of the street because there’s a car coming. You don’t want him to come dashing across in front of the car. So if you can sit or down your dog at a distance, in that situation that would actually be better than a recall. So I guess my answer is, it depends. Which is kind of funny coming from someone who’s training a recall class.

Melissa Breau: Hey, it’s honest! I think that obviously at FDSA we see lots of sports dog handlers specifically, so in competition obedience they have a formal recall with a front and all that. For those who compete, how would you handle that in training that recall?

Donna Hill: Distance is a real distinction between a competition recall and a real-life recall. For most competitions there is a limited, finite distance within the ring that the dog will be doing the recall, and there is relatively few distractions in that ring. I know some would beg to differ because there’s some nightmaresituations been seen, and I’ve been in the ring and seen that as well.

But in real life, when your dog is at even a greater distance that you can … you may or may not be able to control, depending on the dog. Lucy is another classic example. She will happily run 500 yards away and not think twice about it, whereas Jessie stays much closer, so Lucy’s the one that I have to keep an eye on, and I have to make sure I interrupt her running that far away, because at that distance I don’t have as much control as I do if she’s, say, 100 yards away.

The distance can make or break a dog’s recall success. If a cyclist rides between you and your dog at a junction, or a rabbit pops up and runs across the trail, that definitely can make a difference. In real life, distractions happen between you and the dog, not necessarily around the outside of between you and the dog, so while a recall is a recall, the dogs do distinguish between different working environments.

Because the competition ring tends to be pretty consistent-looking, there’s rings around, or there’s fences around the outside, and there’s certain equipment that are in, the dogs get to know, Oh, OK, I know which kind of recall you want, so they quickly start learning, OK, it’s that form of recall that you want me to run to you, and stop, sit in front of you, and wait for a release to go back to heel, and then the final release at the end of the exercise. So they definitely know the difference between an informal recall that you would do out in the field versus a formal recall that you do in the ring, for sure.

And honestly, most people are happy enough, in a real-life recall, just to be able to have their dog close enough to grab the harness and then otherwise tell the dog what to do. So you don’t have that whole longer chain.

Melissa Breau: For somebody that is working on their recall, and they work on that real-life situation, would you expect to see some carryover that might strengthen their more formal performance?

Donna Hill: For sure. The distraction levels are key in any environment that you’re training. Doesn’t matter what it is that you’re doing, whether it’s a recall, teaching your dog to ignore distractions is the absolutely important thing.

Because any chain of behaviors — and of course a recall is a chain of behaviors — can be broken into smaller bits, each part of the chain can be isolated, so that’s the approach that I take in my recall class. If your dog returns to you slowly, you can work on speeding up just that part of the chain. Or maybe the missing piece is the dog doesn’t reorient to you in the face of distraction, You can work on just that too with little games and using controlled distractions. Once you have those improved, then you can add the pieces back together for either the competition recall or the real-life one. But it definitely would benefit both types of recall.

Melissa Breau: I know you get pretty into the science of training, and I’ve heard a lot of talk about what they’re calling a “classically conditioned” recall. That’s the phrase that’s recurring all over. Can you explain it for us?

Donna Hill: I’ll try. A classically conditioned recall is when the dog reacts to a cue without thinking. Classical conditioning: Think of a cat that comes to the kitchen when he hears the can opener. That’s a classically conditioned behavior. The cat’s not thinking about hearing the can opener. He just hears it and he runs for it because he knows it means food. Or maybe the dog that hears the scrape of the spoon on the bottom of the bowl and he just suddenly appears at your feet, even though he’s not supposed to be begging. That’s a classically conditioned reaction. He hears the sound and it triggers a behavior. He’s not even thinking about it.

I remember years ago with a previous dog, and this was long before I knew much about training dogs, certainly not as much as I know today, he was walking ahead of me on the trail, and out of the blue, for some reason, I don’t even remember why, I decided to call out to him and say “sit.” He was probably about 50 feet in front of me, if that. He didn’t go very far and I told him to sit. As soon as I did, his bum plunked down and he looked around like he was startled, going, Hey, who did that? Just bizarre. He had this startled look on his face. That would be an example of a classically conditioned sit. I must have been practicing in that time period so much that it was “sit,” bum go down, “sit,” bum go down. He wasn’t even thinking about it. Just “sit,” bum go down. So even he was surprised.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.

Donna Hill: I was pretty thrilled. And of course when I got these two dogs, I thought, OK, that’s my goal. I have to be able to teach these two dogs. Of course, now I know how to do it much, much better, and much more effectively, and it comes much faster, but I’m still thrilled when it happens, anyway.

We want the recall to happen that way ultimately. We want the dog not to think. We just want him to automatically, when he hears the cue or sees the hand signal, because it could be both, it could be a hand signal, it could be a verbal sound that the dog hears.

For dogs who are in a really, really high state of arousal and who haven’t had a chance to practice chasing or catching prey, that can be a really hard level of training to get to. The level of adrenalin overrides everything else and they go into that tunnel-vision mode where they literally go deaf and they can’t see anything other than a really narrow vision right in front of them.

But if we stick to the training, and we keep doing it and doing it, and vary how we are doing it, and add different distractions, and work the dog around higher and higher-level distractions, we can actually increase the threshold so that while they still are under the effects of adrenalin, they can still function at higher arousal levels, so that tunnel vision will be further open, perhaps like the tunnel that they see will be a bigger tunnel. Maybe they can actually still hear you, rather than not being able to hear you. So that’s a big part of it is just learning to increase that arousal level, but lowering or, I guess, increasing the threshold so that the dog can still function at that higher arousal level, I guess would be a better way of putting it.

I’ve got a funny little story about Jessie, my current little dog here. She has a funny combination of an operant and a classical conditioned recall. She actually does both, and one of them is very conscious. She actually sets me up for operant recalls.

She’s a dog that will stay quite close. She’s in general … until we got Lucy, she was quite fearful of being out in the bush or out in the woods by herself with us. She’s very much a city dog and very comfortable in the city. She actually learned … I taught her by starting the capturing the eye contact, which is one of the things we do in class. She would run ahead, and she stops and she’s facing away, and you know she’s waiting for something just by her body position and posture. She’s waiting for something. Sure enough, I give the cue, so that’s what she’s waiting for, and as soon as she hears it, she takes off like a rocket towards me. She does this turn on a dime and bolts right back to me. So she’s set me up for a recall.

She does this a lot, and I thought, You know, this is good. For a dog that’s so fearful and she couldn’t respond because her level of fear was so high, I’m just thrilled that she would do that and she’s actually setting me up. Finally, in the last I would say year or so, we’ve finally done enough of the operant recalls that it has become classically conditioned. I’ve actually been able to call her off chasing a deer in a classical conditioned response. So I’m pretty happy with that.

Melissa Breau: That’s excellent. That’s everybody’s goal, to be able to have their dog in the middle of a chase, and call and have the dog say, “OK, I’d prefer to come back to you.”

Donna Hill: It wasn’t even a preference. It was just a reaction. It was just a response. She heard that and she just turned on that dime, and it’s because we’ve practiced and practiced. I kind of stacked my helping, because she likes high-pitched sounds, she’s very much into squeaky toys, she likes movement, so I stack my success by throwing all of those things together, and I guess it was enough that she was not thinking anymore. It was like, “Yay, Mom’s calling me. Woo hoo!” It becomes a classically conditioned response rather than a thinking or operant response.

The tough thing, though, is, is it a reliable … could I repeat that? I honestly can’t say, because we don’t have enough situations where we encounter deer on a regular basis to purposely test that out. I do know that I can now call her off mice, I can call her off squirrels, and I can call her off grouse. Those are much more controllable situations, and we do run into those a lot more often on our walks on the logging routes. So far, both dogs have stopped when any of those situations arrive, and, lucky for me, they’ve also stopped when we see bears, and I can cue the recall after they stop. So, so far, cross our fingers, no bear chasing. I don’t know whether they stop and they go, “Oh, that’s a big black animal that I’m not sure whether I want to interact with or not, oh, Mom’s calling, OK, the good distraction.”

Melissa Breau: Right, right, definitely don’t want the dogs taking off after the bear.

Donna Hill: So I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily classical. I would say it’s probably more operant, and they’re actually thinking about it and going, “OK, this is the better choice.” But I’m still happy with that too. I don’t want them bringing a bear back to us.

Melissa Breau: Right, right. Often, people start working a recall, they do it at home, they do it in class, and then they just expect it to work everywhere. Most of our listeners probably get that that’s unrealistic, especially if you’re a sports trainer, you know that there’s a little bit more involved to making any cue become that reliable. I think even pretty sophisticated handlers may struggle to build up distractions in a systematic way when it comes to recalls. How DO you simulate things like motion from prey animals, or those reallllllly good smells that a dog just can’t seem to come away from, when you’re training?

Donna Hill: You have to get really creative and you use what you have in your environment. You have to think about what triggers your dog. Is it the scent? Is it the sound? Is it motion? How can you replicate those? Maybe even not to the degree that happens in real life, but certainly at a lower level that you can start building up to that in real life. I start thinking along things like, OK, for scents, I think about how can I get a sample of something similar that my dog might be really interested in, or can I recreate it in a controlled setting with a helper or a decoy animal or a toy that moves.

Those are actually the kinds of secrets we’ll be exploring in Part 2 of The Recall, but I’ll give you an example just to get your juices going. Start where your dog is at. If your dog can’t turn away from rabbit poop, for example, and I know both of my dogs, when we started, rabbit poop was pretty high on their interest list because it smells like rabbits, it’s something that they can eat, so it’s self-reinforcing, So what I did was I went and I found some fresh stuff somewhere in the city. I literally went hunting, we collected some, I wore rubber gloves, I scooped it up, I put it in a container, and I used that sample to train a “leave it” at home to the point of a default “leave it.” They smelled the rabbit poop, Oh, look at Mom, what’s going on here.

So I had a nice little default behavior, and that’s the starting point to get your dogs. If they learn that they can call off of it, that’s where you need to start from. And of course this is not asking for any distance. This is literally the treat … the treat! … OK, rabbit raisins were in a container on the ground right in front of me and right in front of the dogs, so all the dogs literally had to do was look at it and look back at me. I’m not asking for any distance. It’s just “Look at me after you sniff the rabbit poop.”

That’s the kind of small detail where we start, and then we can add motion, maybe we get the dog to have to make the choice to have to turn around back to us, then the dog has to turn around and take two steps to us, and we slowly build it back up until we actually have a recall where the dog might be walking around the yard, and unbeknownst to him, I’ve planted my sample in the yard earlier, and he comes across it, and as soon as he smells it, he does a quick head check-in, and the check-ins as well are another piece, and then I happen to see that and I give my recall and the dog comes flying out. It’s about focusing again on the one piece of the chain at a time and build them up.

Yeah, and I have to admit some of us are that dedicated to our dogs to go and search out things like rabbit poop and bring it home.

Melissa Breau: That’s funny. I like that you called it rabbit raisins.

Donna Hill: That’s more “call-it-able.” So don’t worry, but for those of you listeners, the other ideas in class are not as gross as that.

Melissa Breau: It’s just a good example! I was looking over your syllabus for the class for August, and I noticed you had acclimating on your list of skills for a recall, and I guess it caught me by surprise. Can you explain how that fits into the picture of a recall?

Donna Hill: Yeah, absolutely. Acclimation is the process a dog goes through to become comfortable with the environment. You give them a chance to go into the environment, and you anchor yourself and they have 6 feet of leash, so technically they can probably move about a 14-foot circle diameter and check out that environment.

Sometimes we might want to acclimate them by letting them lead us around a certain space, we usually define that space. But what we find is once they’ve acclimated to that space, then they can focus on what we’re asking them to do. By giving them time to acclimate when they first arrive at a location, we’re giving them a chance to satisfy their natural curiosity that might otherwise distract them from being able to pay attention to us. That’s pretty standard what we do for sport dogs and for service dogs and all that kind of thing.

What I find is that the more we allow them to acclimate in each new location, the more they come to realize that the environment is actually less interesting than interactions with us. So by giving them the chance to go check it out, they go, “OK, I checked everything out,” they look back at us and go, “What now, Mom?” They learn that it always pays for them to orient to us, whether or not we ask for it, or whether they just give it as a default behavior. That’s one piece of it. So that orientation is something we work on. We can’t get the orientation until the dog is acclimated. That’s the first step again.

As well, giving them time to acclimate allows us to identify what they find interesting, and we can use those interesting things to our collection of reinforcers. So by watching our dog sniff a rabbit trail or look up a tree at a squirrel — those are obvious ones — we can actually go, “Ah, that’s something that I can use as a reinforcer because that’s something that I can control.” So we might send them over to sniff a very interesting mole hole that they saw earlier as part of the recall, or maybe they can go greet the person that’s standing over there, if they’re a really people-oriented dog. We can give them more meaningful reinforcers that they really want, rather than what we think they want, and they start to see us as a gateway to the reinforcers. That’s part of the process of building the bond that’s strong enough to be able to call them away from things like deer.

Melissa Breau: You have the class broken into two parts right now, Part 1 and Part 2. You mentioned earlier that some things are in Part 2 that aren’t in Part 1. Can you talk a little bit about how you’ve broken that down?

Donna Hill: Part 1 focuses on the basic recall with low to medium distractions in the form of games. So here’s the basic structure of the recall, let’s add some distractions in, and that is a really important piece, because if your dog doesn’t have that fundamental foundation, it certainly isn’t going to be able to do a recall off of higher-level distractions. Part 2 ups the ante to adding a higher-level distraction in controlled settings so that the dog learns, Yes, in fact I can call away from those exciting things.

I previously offered it as a single class, but it was too overwhelming for me, and I think for some of the students, because there’s just so much involved in those two levels. So I split them into the two parts to make it easier to really focus on the pieces that are needed.

Melissa Breau: I know some of the classes have a lot of material and there’s no way you’re going to get through this in six weeks. It makes it a little bit more real time, for lack of a better phrase, so people can work through the class as you’re releasing stuff. Is that the idea?

Donna Hill: Absolutely. The first time I ran it, it just felt too rushed, and while it was fine in that it offered some support for people who were not as far along in the recall, those who already had it were able to zoom ahead. But then it became really confusing to try and watch both ends of the scale, so this just simplifies it that we’ve got to focus, it’s on the basic recall, and then we’re going to add the higher-level distractions in Part 2.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to ask if you’d be willing to share a game that listeners might be able to play to work on their recall, to give them a taste of the things you’ll be doing in the class.

Donna Hill: OK. One of my favorite ones that has come over time is I have a game that’s a building speed game, because of course we want the dog not only to come to us, we want the dog to come to us really fast.

I’ve seen this develop with my girl Lucy, the Border Collie mix, and it’s so awesome to be able to see her just run as hard as she possibly can to come back to me. It’s awesome to see that eagerness and that enthusiasm. There’s literally dust flying up behind her when she comes back to me. I tried to get it on videotape last night, and I’m going to try and get it before the class so I can show a clip of it. I might even use it as part of the promo for the class. It’s just hilarious, because it’s been so dry, and the road, we’re on one of these logging roads, and it’s a really new, dusty road, so she’s running. literally there’s these plumes of dust every time she hits the ground that pop up. It’s heart-rendering, I guess, to see your dog do that.

Anyway, so this game we play between two people and we start close up, and once we start adding distance, we can actually start capturing speed because we can select only the fastest responses we’re getting from the dogs. If the dog sort of meanders towards us, OK, not a big deal. We’re not actually recalling, so we don’t have to click and treat, but as we’re playing this back and forth game it sort of turns into intermittent reinforcement so that we can choose the faster responses get the click and the treat, and so what the dog quickly does is starts to offer us faster and faster recalls, so it’s really cool.

In combination with where we happen to live, there’s a lot of hiking trails/biking trails. What I like is finding a narrow trail that looks like a roller coaster. They go up and down, they go side to side, and sometimes you can even find ones that zigzag back and forth down the side of a hill. Once the dog’s built up some good speed for recalls, you can have a person at the top and a person at the bottom, and even going up the hill, which by the way is a really good cardio for your dogs, they build up some pretty good speed. You watch them and they do look like a cart from a roller coaster going back and forth, going up and down, and you can just watch their bodies as they’re flying towards you. It’s really cool to watch. That’s my favorite thing. And they’re learning foot placement and they’re weight-shifting to allow them to careen off the trail banks. You can see they’re having fun with it. I’m having fun with it. I’m not sure if it would be considered agility or parkour, but you’re using the skills of both.

Melissa Breau: Right, right, and everybody’s having a good time and you’re working on those skills. That’s the important part.

Donna Hill: That’s what it’s all about.

Melissa Breau: So one last question and it’s on a different topic because I’ve taken to asking it at the end of all my interviews for guests that have already been on once and done the traditional three questions already and that way I don’t have to repeat them. So the new question is, what is a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Donna Hill: OK. But it’s not about the dogs. It’s about the people. I’ll give you an example. I recently had a client make the realization that her service dog is not a robot. She had come to work with us because her dog was fearful working in public. She had told us, “My dog is fearful about working with the public. She’s scared of people. She’s even scared of strangers coming in our own home.”

What we had seen was a dog that had been shut down and was robotically walking through life when working, and this lady didn’t see that. That’s what she had been told that the dog should be working like. She sort of felt something was off, but she wasn’t sure, and she’d never had a service dog before, so she just trusted what she had been told.

After working with her for about four weeks, we were so thrilled when she came to us and she said, “Oh my god, she doesn’t have to be a robot.” That’s literally the words that she used. That’s why I used those words. She has changed what she does significantly. We’ve helped her learn to reinforce the dog when the dog is doing what she wants her to do, help build confidence in the dog, and it’s going to be a long haul because this dog has a long history of being like this, but the handler now has joy in interacting with her dog, and the dog now has joy at interacting with her human, and that’s not what we were seeing when we first had her come to the classes. So we were both giving them their life back, basically.

Melissa Breau: How awesome is that. That’s got to feel so good.

Donna Hill: Yeah. So if we can teach the people that dogs have needs and emotions just like we do, and those needs have to be met for the dog to be comfortable, I think that we go a long way to strengthening the bond and improving the life of both the people and the dogs.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Donna! This has been great.

Donna Hill: You’re very welcome. You really got me thinking.

Melissa Breau: That’s a good thing, I think.

Donna Hill: Absolutely. Don’t forget to check out the Build A Bond recall class that’s coming up.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week with Stacy Barnett to talk about tailoring your nosework training to your specific dog’s strengths and weaknesses. Don’t miss it.

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

CREDITS

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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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