Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast

For the last 2 years, FDSA has been working to provide high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports online, using only the most current and progressive training methods. And now we’re bringing that same focus to you in a new way. Each episode of the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast will feature an interview with a leading name in the competitive dog sports training world, talking in depth about issues that often get overlooked by traditional training methods. We'll release a new episode every other Friday, so stay tuned--and happy training!
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Mar 16, 2018


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

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

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


Next Episode: 

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


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

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

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

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

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

Hi Debbie, welcome to the podcast!

Debbie Torraca: Hi Melissa. Thank you so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Mar 9, 2018

Note: We've rearranged episodes a bit here to better coordinate with guest schedules, so the names mentioned as next episodes in our last podcast was incorrect. Instead of Debbie Torraca, this week we have Esther Zimmerman -- we'll be back next week with Debbie Torraca. 


Esther Zimmerman is a long-time FDSA student and has been a participant in AKC events for over 40 years. She’s been teaching dogs and their people since the early 1980's.  

Currently, she is the head competition obedience instructor at MasterPeace Dog Training in Franklin, MA, where she teaches multiple classes at all levels, and coaches many private students.

Over the years, Esther has evolved her own special blend of the art and science of dog training, acquired through years of experience, extensive reading, and continuing education at conferences and seminars. She is well known for her patience, compassion, honesty, and humor, along with an unfailingly positive attitude toward both dogs and handlers.

She feels it’s the trainer's job to have the dogs WANT to play the obedience game, not to make them do it, and that there is no reason to use compulsion for the sake of a ribbon.

Her many high-scoring students are proof of this, as they earn advanced titles, many with non-traditional obedience breeds. Esther herself competes with Schipperke, and she has finished the only Champion/Utility Dog Excellent in the history of Schipperke, and three additional Champion/Utility dogs. She also put three UDX legs on Presto, a Golden Retriever, who died of cancer at an early age.


Next Episode: 

To be released 3/16/2018, featuring Debbie Torraca to talk about exercises, including exercise for puppies!


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 Esther Zimmerman.

Esther is a long-time FDSA student and has been a participant in AKC events for over 40 years. She’s been teaching dogs and their people since the early 1980's.  

Currently, she is the head competition obedience instructor at MasterPeace Dog Training in Franklin, MA, where she teaches multiple classes at all levels, and coaches many private students.

Over the years, Esther has evolved her own special blend of the art and science of dog training, acquired through years of experience, extensive reading, and continuing education at conferences and seminars. She is well known for her patience, compassion, honesty, and humor, along with an unfailingly positive attitude toward both dogs and handlers.

She feels it’s the trainer's job to have the dogs WANT to play the obedience game, not to make them do it, and that there is no reason to use compulsion for the sake of a ribbon.

Her many high-scoring students are proof of this, as they earn advanced titles, many with non-traditional obedience breeds. Esther herself competes with Schipperke, and she has finished the only Champion/Utility Dog Excellent in the history of Schipperke, and three additional Champion/Utility dogs. She also put three UDX legs on Presto, a Golden Retriever, who died of cancer at an early age.

Hi Esther, welcome to the podcast!

Esther Zimmerman: Hi Melissa. I’m really happy to be here. Thanks for asking me to do this.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat. To get us started, do you want to briefly just share a little bit about who your dogs are now and what you’re working on with them?

Esther Zimmerman: I’d love to, but I have to start by talking about Jeeves, my Champion UD Rally X1 NW3 Schipperke, who passed away a few weeks ago at age 14-and-a-half. He was really an amazing ambassador of the breed. He was a perfect gentleman with all people, dogs of all ages and temperaments. He was that priceless known adult dog that we all want our puppies to meet because he’s just so good with them. After surviving several serious illnesses as a youngster, he gave me a very profound appreciation of just how much our dogs do for us and with us when playing the games we love. I was grateful every day he was alive and he is really sorely missed. It’s very fresh still because it was only a few weeks ago.

Melissa Breau: I’m sorry to hear that.

Esther Zimmerman: Thank you. Elphaba is my 9-year-old Schipperke. She happens to be Jeeves’s niece. She has her CDX, which, when she earned it, included the group out-of-sight stays. Those were a real challenge for her. She doesn’t like other dogs looking at her. But we persisted and succeeded. She’s almost ready for the utility ring. She’s the first and only nosework Elite 2 Schipperke and is a real little hunting machine in that sport. She also has her Fenzi TEAM 1 and TEAM 1 Plus titles.

Friday is my 3-year-old Schipperke. His titles at this point are an NW1 and TEAM 1, 1 Plus and 1-H. He just passed his 1-H, which was very exciting. He’s teaching me the importance of patience, a trait that I already have an abundance of, but he really requires it in spades. He really does. He can try my patience sometimes, but he keeps me honest as far as that goes. He’s got tons of obedience skills under his collar, but there’s no way he’s ready for AKC competition. I’m hoping maybe by next year.

And then I have Taxi, my 17-month-old Golden Retriever. He’s had a Gold spot in an Academy class almost every semester since I brought him home as a baby puppy. He’s got great potential, like all of our dogs do. I hope that we get to reach the goals I have in mind. He’s a typical, happy, fun-loving dog. He’s a real joy. And that’s the three dogs that I have right now.

Melissa Breau: How did you originally get into dog sports?

Esther Zimmerman: It’s interesting, because back in the beginning I didn’t have my own dog. I didn’t have my own dog until I was 15, but I’ve been training dogs since I was 5 years old. I grew up in New York City, and every apartment superintendent had a dog that they were more than willing to let me borrow. I read every dog and dog-training book in the library, much to my mother’s dismay, because that’s all I read, and with those dogs, I switched what I was doing based on whatever the advice was that the author of that book gave. So I had a real eclectic education as far as training dogs. Not my own dogs, and I did something different all the time.

The very first dog show I ever attended was Westminster in 1969. School was closed because we had a snowstorm, but the trains were running. Westminster’s on Monday and Tuesday, always has been. So the trains were running and off I went with my tokens, and I went to Westminster. I was in heaven. I had no idea they had 50 percent absenteeism because of the snowstorm, and I thought that the most beautiful dog there was the Basenji. I did not get a Basenji.

Melissa Breau: OK.

Esther Zimmerman: The very first obedience trial I ever went to was the Bronx County Kennel Club, and there I saw a woman in a wheelchair competing in Open with her Labrador Retriever, which just blew my mind. I couldn’t conceive of such a thing, that not only was this dog doing all this amazing stuff, but that his handler was in a wheelchair. She was around for a really, really long time and quite well known on the East Coast and in New England as a competitor.

So I got Juno, my first dog, was a German Shepherd. I got him from an ad in the newspaper — the best way to get a dog, right?

Melissa Breau: Of course.

Esther Zimmerman: She was one of two 10-month-old puppies who were so fearful that they were climbing over each other in their pen, trying to get away from me. So of course I said, “I’ll take that one.” That was Juno. I used the same kind of eclectic training with her, doing something different each week based on what book I was reading from the library.

It did apparently work, though, because seven years later, after I got married and moved to Massachusetts, I joined the New England Dog Training Club, which is the oldest still-existing dog-training club in the country. That summer we entered our first trial, we earned our first leg, and I got my first high-in-trial on this fearful dog

Melissa Breau: Wow.

Esther Zimmerman: And that’s how somebody gets really hooked on this sport. The first time you go in the ring, you win high-in-trial, you want to do that again.

Melissa Breau: Oh yeah.

Esther Zimmerman: And coincidentally, my first paying job as a teenager was as kennel help at Captain Haggerty’s School For Dogs. He’s actually pretty well known. He used to train dogs for movies a lot out in Hollywood. But their training approach was “Break ’em and make ’em.” They would get dogs in there for boarding and training, and they went home trained. They were not happy, but they went home trained. It was absolutely pure compulsion, which as a teenager was really eye-opening and a little bit scary, actually.

Melissa Breau: I can imagine.

Esther Zimmerman: So that’s how I got started in dog sports.

Melissa Breau: Wow. You’ve really been doing it almost your entire life, but in an interesting, different story.

Esther Zimmerman: Yes. Yes.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that it’s been eclectic, and it’s been a little bit here, a little bit there in terms of reading, but what really got you started on your positive training journey? What got you hooked there? Because I certainly know that’s where you are now.

Esther Zimmerman: I think this is a good time for us to talk about Patty Ruzzo, because she’s a big part of that whole journey.

In the early 1980s there was a really tight-knit group of us training at Tails-U-Win in Connecticut, and together we had our first exposures to Karen Pryor and Gary Wilkes and John Rogerson and others who totally and completely changed the way we were training and how we even thought about training. We were all attending every seminar we could go to, every clinic we could go to, we were reading dog magazines. I was amassing a huge personal library of dog books. That was all before the Internet, before YouTube, before Facebook.

Patty was an interesting person. She was a really quiet force to be reckoned with. She was a great competitor, she had a great rapport with her dogs, anyone who saw her in the ring with her magnificent Terv, Luca, will always remember what that looked like. They had such a presence about them, and it’s an image I always aspire to. It’s one of those things that if you close your eyes, you can still picture it all these years later.

So Patty was my friend, she was my training buddy, she was my coach. We were determined to pursue a force-free, reward-based approach to training. The first thing we eliminated were the leashes and collars. No more leashes, no more collars. We stopped any physical corrections. As our skills and understanding got better, we were able to even avoid applying psychological pressure to the dogs, and that was a big deal.

My dog at that time was a Schipperke, Zapper. She was a dog that really pushed us to examine what we had been doing, and to see what we could accomplish with this new — to us — approach. She became my first utility dog.

Patty was a really tremendously creative person. She was continually trying and then discarding ideas. It could be dizzying to try and keep up with her, sort of like Denise. Patty passed away twelve years ago. It was a real tragedy for the world of obedience and for me personally.

Several of us from that original group have worked to fill the void by becoming instructors and trainers in our own right. We all made that commitment to stay positive, and I think the group of us really has done a good job of that.

Melissa Breau: Denise brought up the fact that you knew Patty when she and I were talking about having you on. In case anybody doesn’t really know the name, do you mind sharing a just little bit more about the impact she had on the sport in the area, just a little more about her background, or her history, and the role that she played?

Esther Zimmerman: She had multiple OTCH dogs, she competed at the games in regionals and did really, really well at those. She had a Sheltie, she had a Border Collie, and then Luca, the incomparable Luca. And then she got a Whippet. It’s a dog like that that really tests your mettle and your commitment, and she was totally committed to being positive with this dog.

When I tell you that he not able to do a sit-stay of any sort until he was 2-and-a-half, I really mean it, and she just would keep saying, “Don’t worry, he’ll do it. Don’t worry about it, he’ll do it,” and that “Don’t worry about it” is something that I say all the time to my students. “But my dog’s not doing that.” “Don’t worry about it. He will. Eventually.” And she was just like that.

I’ll tell a little anecdote, and this will tell you everything you need to know about Patty and the influence that she had on people. She had two sons. The younger one was about 4 when this happened. They had gone grocery shopping, and they came home and he wanted to help her unload the groceries. So what did he want to carry up the stairs? Take a guess.

Melissa Breau: The eggs?

Esther Zimmerman: The eggs. The eggs of course. So he goes up the stairs, and of course he trips and falls and drops the eggs. She hollers up the stairs, “Are you OK?” He says, “Yes. Six of the eggs did not break.” So just that switch, six of the eggs broke, six of the eggs did not break — that’s how she raised her children to focus on the positive.

Melissa Breau: Part of the impressive part is that back then, nobody was doing that. There weren’t people achieving those kind of things with positive training, and a lot of people were saying it could not be done.

Esther Zimmerman: Right. So the early dogs — it would not be fair to say that she was totally positive with the early dogs. But by the time Luca came along, it was very, very positive, and by the time Flyer, the Whippet, came along, it was totally positive. She didn’t get an OTCH on him, things happened, and then she passed away. But there was and she put it out there in the competitive world the way nobody else was at that point in time.

Melissa Breau: We’ve danced around this question a little bit now, but how would you describe your training philosophy now?

Esther Zimmerman: That’s a good question. My philosophy is fairly simple, actually: Treat the dogs and handlers with kindness and patience. I could probably stop right there, but I won’t. But really, kindness and patience.

Break things down into manageable pieces for each of them. Use varied approaches to the same exercise because dog training isn’t “one size fits all.” The theory, learning theory, applies equally, but not necessarily the specific approach that you use to help them understand.

I try to use a lot of humor to diffuse tension in classes, in private lessons. People are a little bit nervous, or a little bit uptight, so I try to make people laugh. If they can laugh, they feel better about themselves, and what just happened isn’t nearly as important as they thought it was.

I try to be supportive when the dog or person is struggling to learn something. We’ve all been there, we’ve all done that, it’s not easy. We’re trying to teach new mechanical skills to people. They’re trying to teach new things to their dogs. That’s a hard combination, and I really respect people who make the effort to do that.

At the same time I encourage independent thinking and problem-solving for the handler and for the dog. I cannot be there all the time when the handler is working with their dog. No instructor can. Even with the online classes, we can’t be there. So if we give the handler the tools to come up with solutions to the problems on their own, now we’ve really accomplished something. Let them figure out how to solve the problem on their own. That’s a big deal to me. I don’t want to be spoon-feeding the answer to every little thing that’s happened there.

So I applaud all their successes, however small. We celebrate everything. My students know that I always advocate for the dog. Whatever the situation is, I’m on the side of the dog, and I urge them to do the same thing when they find themselves in other places, other situations, where perhaps the atmosphere is not quite so positive, or it’s stressful for some reason. Advocate for your dog. You’re the only one that’s looking out for them, and they’re counting on us to do that for them. So I really, really urge people to do that.

And it’s not just about using a clicker and cookies, or any kind of a marker and cookies. It’s about having empathy for a creature who is trying to communicate with us while at the same time we are struggling to communicate with them. It’s all really very simple, but none of it’s very easy. So that’s my philosophy. Pretty simple, don’t you think?

Melissa Breau: Simple but not necessarily easy.

Esther Zimmerman: But not easy. But not easy, yeah.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned you’ve been in dog sports in one variety or another for … you said since you were 15, I think.

Esther Zimmerman: A long time, a long time. I was 22 years old the first time I set foot in the ring.

Melissa Breau: OK.

Esther Zimmerman: So now people can do the math so they’ll know how old I am.

Melissa Breau: As someone who’s been in dog sports for that long, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over the last ten or so years?

Esther Zimmerman: Well, for even longer than that, but the sport of AKC obedience has changed dramatically since I started. Classes have been added and deleted, exercises have been added and deleted. The OTCH — the Obedience Trial Championship — was introduced in 1977, and they added the UDX in either 1992 or 1993. I couldn’t find the definitive answer for that, and I couldn’t remember off the top of my head.

The group stays, as of May 1, have been safer in the novice classes and totally eliminated in Open. They’ve added a new and interesting and challenging exercise to Open. Jump heights have been lowered twice. My little German Shepherd, she jumped 32 inches when we started. Now she would have jumped probably 20 inches. There are tons of exceptions from that, from the … once their jump height now, for the really giant breeds, the heavy-boned breeds, the short-legged breeds, the brachycephalic dogs, they just have to jump three-quarters their height at the shoulder, so that’s a big change.

Now you’ve got to remember all of this has been done with the hope of drawing more people into competition. All of it has been done with the accompanying drama, controversy, charges of dumbing-down the sport, nobody’s ever happy with whatever the changes are. But we survived all these changes, and as far as what changes do I want to see in the sport, I don’t really want to see any more for a little while. I think we need to give things a chance to settle down, I think we need to give people a chance to simmer down, because this was a very controversial thing, getting rid of stays.

And then people need time to train the new Open exercise and give that a try. New people coming up will not know that things were different. The command or cue discrimination exercise won’t be something that you teach for Open. As opposed to people who are in a little bit of a panic now, if they’ve got their CDX and they’re going on to a UDX, or they’ve got their UD, they have to go back and teach a new exercise, and not everybody’s happy about that. But I think it’s all going to shake out in time, as it usually does. People resist change because inertia is really a powerful force, and I think we need to move on.

So that’s how I see the changes in the sport. I’m very passionate about the sport, or I wouldn’t still be doing it, and I try and go with the flow with all these changes that have happened.

Melissa Breau: Do you think, or maybe you could talk about, how the addition of other dog sports has changed obedience in particular? I feel like originally it was really conformation and obedience, and now there’s nosework and tricks and all sorts of things.

Esther Zimmerman: I think that one of the reasons for the decline in obedience entries is the proliferation of alternate sports. When I started, like you said, it was basically confirmation, obedience, tracking, herding, and field. That was pretty much it.

Look at what’s been added, not only in sports in general, but there are multiple organizations now that offer their own variations on some of these previously existing activities. I’m just going to rattle these off. Besides those we have rally, we have agility with various venues, earthdog, flyball, multiple venues for nosework, lure coursing, barn hunt, dock diving, parkour, freestyle, weight-pulling, Frisbee, carting, sled dog, treibball, tricks, IPO, French ring. That’s without even really thinking about it terribly very much I came up with that list. And I’m sure there are ones that I have overlooked. So depending on what part of the country you live in, there are many options to choose from on any weekend.

And some of these sports, at the beginner level at least, seem to offer more immediate gratification with a shorter investment of training time than AKC obedience. This can be quite appealing for some competitors. When you get to the upper levels of almost any of these activities, sports, training matters. It really matters.

But there’s another influence on competition, and I think that’s the advent of the private training center. Back in the day, if you wanted to train your dog, you went to a training club. Once you got out of the puppy class you were encouraged to join that club. In order to join that club you had to attend meetings, you had to help out, you set up equipment, you swept the floor, you rolled up mats in the gymnasium, you stewarded the annual trial, and sometimes you became an assistant to a trainer that was already at the club. You became part of something.

Now don’t get me wrong. Again, training centers like MasterPeace, where I work, offer far more than the clubs ever could. MasterPeace has classes and activities seven days a week, morning, noon, and night. But most of the people come for that class, and turn around and go home, so their exposure to the notion of competition may be more limited than it was when they went to a club.

So only AKC clubs can put on an AKC trial. Without the clubs, there are no trials. Several New England clubs no longer exist because of the lack of membership. They had to just fold up and go away. So consider that. Consider … I want people to consider joining their local club. Support them. If you want to be able to compete, there have to be people working to put on the trials. Another thing: I also want to put in a plug for experienced exhibitors to become judges. I don’t care what your activity is. I’m an AKC Open provisional judge now. In case anyone has missed the stat, the average age of judges is getting higher and higher. Without new, younger judges in the pipeline, competition will disappear, because sooner or later these judges have to retire. They can’t go on forever, and there have to be new people coming up to step up and judge. Competition requires judges.

The other thing is that becoming a judge really changes your perspective of your sport. It’s so easy to criticize the judge from outside the ring: “He didn’t see this,” “He didn’t see that,

“She missed this,” “She did something wrong.” Yeah, try stepping behind the clipboard and see how hard it really is to keep all the rules and regs in mind, to see everything that’s going on, mark it all down. Yeah, it’s not that easy, guys. But I encourage everybody to do it, because how else will we go on?

The other thing: I can only compete in New England. I go to my national specialty occasionally, not that much anymore, but I have traveled. But in this area there seems to be an improvement in the general competitive environment. Experienced handlers seem to be a little more welcoming of newbies, and more supportive of each other, than maybe five years ago.

But those of us in the FDSA world would like to think that training overall is moving in a positive direction. Again, in my area, we have pockets of people devoted to that concept, but we’re surrounded by more traditional training. That can feel a bit isolating. But the ripple effect that we talk about is a real thing. We do reach out to support each other, and we have an influence on what other people decide to do when we show how we behave with our dogs when we’re in public, when we’re at competition. People are watching when you don’t think they’re watching, and seeing you celebrate with your dog, even if things haven’t gone quite well — they don’t miss that, and that’s an important thing for them to see. So yeah, things have changed a lot. Things have changed a lot.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, for sure.

Esther Zimmerman: But I’m hopeful for the future, very hopeful for the future.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned FDSA in there, and I’m really curious: What led you to the Academy? How did you wind up there?

Esther Zimmerman: I first encountered Denise at a seminar, and she’s a dynamic presenter. She’s got all this energy, talks really fast, is very excited, she’s also passionate about what she does, committed to it, and her message just resonated with me in a way that nothing had since Patty. So I started following her blog — there’s a lot of information there. Before FDSA, she offered an online course of relationship-building through play through another organization. I thought the idea was intriguing, but was really uncertain of how that could possibly work. So I got a working spot with Elphaba, and as we all know, it works great. It was a fabulous class, and I’ve been a devotee of the Academy since its inception. So that’s how I came to FDSA.

Melissa Breau: We talked through and you had a ton of experience before that point, so what is it that keeps you involved in coming back?

Esther Zimmerman: This is a really easy one for me. I love dogs. I love dogs, number one. I love training, number two. I personally love how detail-oriented competition obedience is. It’s not for everybody, I understand that, but I love that aspect of it. I love every training session, I love every class I teach, I love every lesson that I give, because every single one of them is different.

I really love how my classes are a level playing field. Everyone who comes to the sport is a newbie, regardless of their professional and personal fields of expertise. I have doctors, I have veterinarians, I have lawyers, I have chefs, I have people who are really accomplished in their respective fields who are all starting at the same place when they come to dog training. None of that other stuff matters in the least.

And I’m dealing with all the different breeds that come to me. That makes me a better instructor and trainer. I think to some degree people like to bring their non-traditional breeds to me since I have Schipperke. I think they think I will have a different sympathy and empathy for the perception of what we can expect from the non-traditional breeds, and to a degree that is correct, because I don’t feel, “Oh, it’s a terrier, it can’t do that.” “It’s a sighthound, we can’t expect it to be able to do that.” Right? “It’s a fill-in-the-blank, and therefore…” Yeah, there are predilections, but we can be successful, if we work at it and if we want it, with most breeds. And with FDSA specifically, I love how we have access to such a wide variety of subjects, world-class instructors from different parts of the world, and we never have to get out of our jammies if we don’t want to.

Melissa Breau: That makes me think of Sue’s competition, her PJ competition, of everybody posting pictures of themselves training in their PJs.

Esther Zimmerman: Exactly. And I don’t know if you saw it, somebody was talking about FDSA swag that they bought, I think it was a sweatshirt or something, and I said, “How come there are no FDSA pajamas?”

Melissa Breau: Yeah, we are looking at that. This is an aside, but I found onesies, pajama onesies, that you can get with your logo on them online somewhere, and I was sharing them with the other instructors, like, “I don’t know, I think this should be what we wear to camp.” I think it got vetoed. But I don’t know, I still think it’s a good idea.

Esther Zimmerman: That might be a little small for some of us.

Melissa Breau: It’s pajamas. Footie pajamas. One-piece footie pajamas.

Esther Zimmerman: Hey, why not? You know some people would take you up on that.

Melissa Breau: Right. This has been a lot of fun, but since this is your first time here, I want to ask you the three questions that I used to ask on almost every episode, but now that people have been on once or twice, we haven’t gone back to them. The first question is simply, What’s the dog-related accomplishment that you are proudest of?

Esther Zimmerman: I’m not going to limit it to just one. I have a couple of things to say.

Melissa Breau: OK.

Esther Zimmerman: I’m really proud of the titles that I’ve earned with my dogs, with the Schipperke. Some of them have been firsts for the breed, which is really a nice thing to be able to say.

What I’m most proud of, though, is how much I appreciate the partnership that I develop with my dogs as we go along. I have a bunch of candid photos that people have taken, and almost every one of them shows me looking right into my dog’s eyes, and my dog looking right back into my eyes. I cherish those pictures and that feeling that I have. It’s so special, and I can conjure that up at a moment’s notice. I almost get choked up every time I talk about it, because it’s just me and my dog, and everything else just goes away. That is something that I’m proud of, that I have that connection with my dogs.

Melissa Breau: That’s beautiful. I love that.

Esther Zimmerman: Thank you. The second thing is that I love to share in the accomplishments of my students. That brings me so much joy, that they are finding success and happiness in this sport, and I’m just thrilled for all of them, every little thing that they do, and it doesn’t always translate to a ribbon. If a person can come out of the ring when they have not qualified, and come to me and say, “Did you see that drop on recall?” or “Did you see how she worked articles?” when maybe that’s something they’ve been struggling with and the dog did it — even if something else went badly, then I’ve done my job of teaching that person to focus on the positive and not worry about the rest of it, because we can make that better too. Those are the things I’m really proudest.

Melissa Breau: I love that. Our second and second-to-last question is, What is the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Esther Zimmerman: I’ve got a couple of things here too.

Melissa Breau: OK.

Esther Zimmerman: I do like to talk.

Melissa Breau: That makes for a good podcast, so we’re good!

Esther Zimmerman: Patty said, “When in doubt, put a cookie on it.” That’s it. That simple statement can address so many issues. When in doubt, put a cookie on it. Sheila Booth said — I don’t know if too many people know who she is, but in Schutzhund circles, IPO circles, I think she’s a little better known — but Sheila Booth said, “They can do at 4 what they couldn’t do before.” So she’s saying what they can do at age 4, they couldn’t do before then, which again speaks to patience and not showing prematurely. I firmly believe the dogs will tell you when they’re ready to show, and don’t rush it. There’s no rush. Take your time, put in the work, and you’ll be way happier. There are Flyers, there are dogs you can take out at 1 or 2 and accomplish great things, but for the most part, not so much.

I have a saying that I say to my students, so much that one of them embroidered it on a vest for me. In class it always comes out when someone says, “How come my dog did that?” I always say, “Too far, too fast, too much, too soon.” Don’t go too far too fast. Don’t do too much too soon. That’s how it got embroidered on my vest. That’s my biggest piece of training advice to put out there. Don’t go too far too fast. Don’t do too much too soon.

Melissa Breau: I love that. That’s awesome.

Esther Zimmerman: Thank you.

Melissa Breau: It has a certain sing to it. Too far, too fast, too much, too soon. Last question for you: Who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Esther Zimmerman: This is going to sound like a cliché, but I really admire Denise. In addition to being an outstanding dog trainer and instructor, she’s a really smart businessperson. She works harder than any five people I know, she’s created something unique with FDSA, and surrounds herself with other smart people who help keep it running smoothly and efficiently, specifically you, Melissa, and Teri Martin.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, Teri’s fantastic.

Esther Zimmerman: And then Denise’s generosity to the dog training community always impresses me. There’s so much free material and information out there, the blog and these podcasts are free, of course, she joins in the conversations on the various Facebook pages and gives training advice there, she does her live Facebook sessions are free.

I think the scholarships for free Bronze-level classes and the contests for free Bronze-level classes are amazing at making education available to everybody, even if you have limited means. It’s just a wonderful thing to put out there for people.

And then of course the inception of TEAM — that was also just brilliant. It’s brought high-quality titling opportunities to anyone, anywhere, anytime. It forces people to pay attention to detail. There’s a lot of precision required right through from basic foundation skills through the advanced levels. People who do that are pretty well prepared for success in other types of competition. It was a brilliant concept and brilliant in execution.

I don’t know what Denise has in store for the future, but I know she’s been teasing us about something new coming in April, I don’t like being teased like that, but I also can’t wait to see what it’s going to be, because it’s going to be great. I know it is. So I have to say it’s Denise.

Melissa Breau: I will say that she is by far the most productive person I know. She gets more done in a few hours a day than most people do in a week.

Esther Zimmerman: I don’t know. It boggles my mind. It just boggles my mind.

Melissa Breau: You’re not the only one. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Esther! This has been great. I really appreciate it. This has been fun.

Esther Zimmerman: I know it took us a little bit of time to be able to connect. I had a cold. I hope I sound OK, because my voice was shattered last week. It was worth the wait. It was a lot of fun, and I’m very honored that you decided to ask me to do this.

Melissa Breau: Well, I’m definitely glad that you could.

And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with Debbie Torraca, to talk about exercise for puppies.

If you enjoyed this episode, I hope you guys will consider hopping over to iTunes and leaving us a review. I know I mentioned this in our last couple of episodes, but reviews really help the show! We’ve gotten a few new ones since I’ve started including this request, like this one from Schout: “Melissa does a great job interviewing accomplished guests. Filled with useful insights and funny anecdotes.”

Thank you Schout, whoever you are!

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

Mar 2, 2018


Note: We've rearranged episodes a bit here to better coordinate with guest schedules, so the names mentioned as next episodes in our last podcast and in this one are incorrect. Instead of Esther Zimmerman this week we have Lara Joseph -- we'll be back next week with Esther and the following week with Debbie Torraca. 


Lara Joseph owns and operates The Animal Behavior Center in Sylvania, Ohio, which focuses on teaching people how to train using force-free techniques and by empowering the animal and creating strong, reliable, trust-building relationships through positive reinforcement and applications in behavior analysis.

Lara is a professional member of the Animal Behavior Management Alliance and the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators, and has been published in numerous industry publications. She travels, lectures, consults, and presents workshops nationally and internationally on behavior, behavior change, positive reinforcement training, and enrichment.

She enjoys working with companion-animal lovers, exotics, and zoos, and has worked with an array of animal organizations across the world via her live-stream training services. Lara also holds many fundraisers, including conservation fundraisers for organizations like Deaf Dogs Rock and the Indonesian Parrot Project, where she also sits on the advisory board.


Next Episode: 

To be released 3/9/2018, featuring Esther Zimmerman, to talk competitive obedience and dog sports in general.


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

Today we’ll be talking to Lara Joseph.

Lara Joseph owns and operates The Animal Behavior Center in Sylvania, Ohio, which focuses on teaching people how to train using force-free techniques and by empowering the animal and creating strong, reliable, trust-building relationships through positive reinforcement and applications in behavior analysis.

Lara is a professional member of the Animal Behavior Management Alliance and the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators, and has been published in numerous industry publications. She travels, lectures, consults, and presents workshops nationally and internationally on behavior, behavior change, positive reinforcement training, and enrichment.

She enjoys working with companion-animal lovers, exotics, and zoos, and has worked with an array of animal organizations across the world via her live-stream training services. Lara also holds many fundraisers, including conservation fundraisers for organizations like Deaf Dogs Rock and the Indonesian Parrot Project, where she also sits on the advisory board.

And I’m very excited to have her here with us today.

Hi Lara, welcome to the podcast!

Lara Joseph: Hi Melissa. Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited too. To start us out, do you mind sharing a little bit about what an average day looks like for you, what kind of animals you’re working with, and maybe a little bit on what you’re doing with them?

Lara Joseph: Sure, sure. What an average day looks like for me. There isn’t one. There’s nothing here that’s average. We have a wide variety of animals here at the Center that are permanent residents, and we take in different animals from different organizations. They’re usually either zoos, shelters, or wildlife rehabilitation centers, so we have — it’s across the board, the animals that can come in here.

I have several friends that are great dog trainers, and so I try to focus a lot of my work on how the science of behavior works across the board. We do have a lot of birds — birds are the apple of my eye — but definitely not limited to. We have six parrots, we have a deaf and blind Border Collie, a deaf dog — a Rottweiler, a pig, a vulture to represent the wildlife rehabilitation ambassadors, a pigeon to represent the work of B.F. Skinner, we just had a porcupine — an African crested porcupine — in here, we had recently also a ring-tailed lemur, a Eurasian eagle owl, and several crows, and I’m probably … oh, ostriches, it’s just whatever, and I just like to show people.

What we do here, Melissa, as your listeners probably know, we’re always training. If that animal can see, hear, smell us, a lot of the work I do here is shifting and moving animals safely. When animals come in for training, we usually bring them in for a small period of time. We live-stream our approaches and I show a lot of different species of animals, just showing people the first thing to look for. I just sit back and observe behavior, identify reinforcers and punishers or aversives, and then I usually start with target training, stationing.

We have ten other people, volunteers here as well, so a lot of my time is spent coaching them and guiding them training the animals. My business is all via live stream, so if I see something happening where members can benefit from, boom, I go live immediately and show how we struggle and what approaches we take in training.

Melissa Breau: That’s really, really interesting, just like the insane variety there.

Lara Joseph: It is, it is. There’s usually always something running by your feet, sliding by your feet, climbing on branches overhead, or flying by you.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that going live thing, and I know that you do regular public Facebook lives on the Animal Behavior Center’s Facebook page on Sunday morning. Do you want to go ahead and mention those or plug those?

Lara Joseph: Sure, sure. Every Sunday morning at 9 a.m. Eastern, I go live for an hour. It’s called “Coffee with the Critters,” on the Animal Behavior Center’s Facebook page. I started that in March, that will be three years ago. It’s a weekly episode. I never miss one, because if I do, I start getting e-mails and messages of people wanting to know if they’ve missed it.

But, Melissa, it’s so important. I make the use of applied behavior analysis, its application, very easy to understand in everyday terms. We have a large following and it’s very engaging. People ask me questions, and as they ask me questions, I just stand up and turn around and start training one of the animals where I can best give a demonstration of how this is used.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I will make sure I include a link, for all those people listening, to the Facebook page in the show notes, so that if anybody wants to click through, they can go there and they can like the page so that they can catch the next one. So a little bit more about your background. You started out in film, right?

Lara Joseph: I did. I’ve always been interested in animals, in a wide variety of animals. My degree, a bachelor’s in documentary filmmaking, the intention was to make wildlife documentaries. I was never going to be home, I was going to be out gallivanting somewhere, filming something. So my history of my work, I’ve always been interested in communications.

It is kind of funny how all of this has come together, because I have an interest in behavior science, I always have, communication through film, public speaking, and how it all came together is — this was several years ago — I was interacting with an animal that I had no idea … I had no former experience with. It could be dangerous when I started interacting with this animal, so that’s when I went in search of — again, very intrigued with this species of animal — and I went in search of more information on this species, and it seemed most everything I found was not science-based. It was a lot of assumptions. I was like, “There’s got to be something out there that can give me factual scientific research information,” and it was hard to find.

So that’s when I stumbled on applied behavior analysis and was fascinated, jumped in with two feet, went back to school, and started taking master’s classes in it.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. And now that’s what you do day in, day out.

Lara Joseph: Fourteen hours a day, pretty much. But I love it. I never stop working because I love what I do.

Melissa Breau: I certainly understand that perspective.

Lara Joseph: Yeah, I’m sure you do.

Melissa Breau: With that background, starting from the science of it, does that mean you’ve always been an advocate for positive reinforcement, or how did you get there from the science?

Lara Joseph: I’ve not always been an advocate because I didn’t know about it. I wish I would have. Like most of us, I heard about it, I didn’t know what it meant.

I remember walking my Dalmation several years ago, thinking, you know, he kept pulling on the leash. I used to grab a tree branch every time I took him for a walk, and I would just lightly tap him on the butt to get him to stop pulling on the leash, but I noticed that I kept having to do it over and over. I remember thinking, walking down the street one day, I wonder what this positive reinforcement stuff is all about. So I tried a little bit of it, from the little education I had on it, and it worked. That was when I first heard about it. When I first started implementing it was with that species of animal that I was talking about, which happened to be a parrot, because they can bite very hard. And that’s how I got started in it.

Melissa Breau: I want to stop for a second here. You mentioned applied behavior analysis, and I think it’s one of those terms where I’m pretty sure I know what it means, but without looking it up I definitely couldn’t give someone a definition. Would you mind explaining what it is and sharing what that looks like?

Lara Joseph: I used to hesitate in saying “applied behavior analysis,” because you’d get that glazed look in people’s eyes: “Oh, this is going to be too scientific. I’m not going to understand it.” So I quickly followed up.

It’s important to say what it is, because it’s so effective, but when I give a broad general explanation of what it is, it’s using environmental events to control behavior. I also tell people it’s also using observable and measurable behavior in data collecting, you know, is this behavior maintaining or increasing? So applied behavioral analysis, in a nutshell, is using environmental events to control behavior using observable and measurable data collecting.

For example, I’m going to use the vulture we have here for training. Her name is Willie. And vultures, this is what they do. I can say she loves the sun, but what does that look like? When the sun hits her back, her wings will stretch out and she stays pretty much motionless. She’ll watch what’s going on around her — that’s observable, measurable behavior.

She is here because she has a long history of flying and attacking people, so we train her to do other behaviors instead. So here’s a way of using applied behavior, observable and measurable behavior, environmental events. You know that sun, once that sun hits her back, her 5-foot wingspan is going to stretch out. If you have a concern of her flying after somebody, you know that she’s up in the sun, or move her to the sun, because she’s going to station when she’s in the sun, move people through.

That’s using environmental events to control behavior. That’s a very basic way, but it works. Everybody’s using it anyways; they probably just don’t realize to what extent they’re using it. And I also call it the science of common sense.

Melissa Breau: I like that.

Lara Joseph: Because once you start identifying reinforcers, potential aversives in the environment, I identify the animal’s positive reinforcers, and I just virtually stick all of those, everything the animal moves towards, I stick all of those in my pocket. They get the same amount of those environmental events, those reinforcers, every day anyways. I’m just going to deliver them for behaviors I want to see maintain or increase.

I’m going to observe potential aversives. I will remove them from the event or from the environment. If those aversives are things the animal needs to get used to for its future, then I slowly, through shaping, pair those aversives, start pairing them with positive reinforcers, bringing them back into the environment and taking the stress out of the animal’s life.

Melissa Breau: In the dog world that might look as simple as something like, OK, we know that our dog’s going to go crazy when somebody new comes to the door, so you give them a Kong in their crate before going to answer the door. You manage their environment a little bit.

Lara Joseph: Yes. For example, I’m working with a giraffe right now. Those are huge animals that can do a lot of damage fairly quickly, especially if you’re using force. This giraffe needs to have his hooves trimmed. There’s a device that’s commonly used to force them to stay still. If a giraffe breaks its leg, it has to be put down. Those are long legs. So what I do instead is, why don’t you train the giraffe to accept a hoof trim. Come to me, come to you when called, stay still until requested to do otherwise, put your hoof up on a block, allow me to flip it over and file it.

Melissa Breau: This goes really well into the next question I had, we talked a little bit via email, which is, you mentioned that one of the reasons you enjoy working with exotics is because what constitutes a positive reinforcer is often so different than for our dogs. Do you want to talk a little more about that? I know you mentioned the sun example, which is super-interesting.

Lara Joseph: Especially in the world of exotics, many of your exotics are prey animals too, so what could be seen as a positive reinforcer for a dog, such as pace — how fast can you get that positive reinforcer to that dog — could be easily seen as an aversive with an exotic.

For example, I will use, let’s say, a parrot. The immediacy in when the positive reinforcer is delivered is very effective, but that pace in which you move to give a dog a treat, you move that fast towards a parrot, especially if it doesn’t know you, and you’re trying to deliver a food reinforcer, bam, it can easily result in a bite. I tell people, I really point out reinforcers — the pace at which you move, the pace at which you deliver a treat, the pace at which you walk by that food dish — could easily be a positive reinforcer or an aversive. Pay attention. Which one is it?

The tone of your voice — a lot of times I will use a little higher-pitched tone of voice. A lot of the animals that I work with, rhythm can be an attraction. And paying close attention to that body language. You can either pair that as an aversive, if you don’t understand that animal’s body language, or it could easily, if you’re able to identify calm body language and you slowly introduce rhythm. I do rhythm like clapping. I’m not going to do it here, because people will think I’m … I do a lot of tone of voice rhythm. A lot of animals respond to rhythm, such as your elephants, your parrots. Those could easily be used as reinforcers, positive reinforcers, to get the behavior you want.

Melissa Breau: When you say they respond to it, what do you mean by that?

Lara Joseph: They will turn their head and look at you, or in that direction, to better understand and identify what is happening in the environment, and you can easily use that as an antecedent to a behavior that you want. For example, if I’m calling an animal to me, and I’ll start doing this really fast, repetitive tone with my voice, and you can see head crests go up and the animal starts moving toward you. Identify the body language. Is the body language tight and stiff? It could be an aversive. Does it look accepting? If it does, and it’s running towards you, it’s likely a positive reinforcer.

Melissa Breau: Interesting.

Lara Joseph: Those are small things we have to really pay attention to around here, Melissa, because of the wide variety of exotics we work with. A lot of animals we’re working with are not domesticated, so using any type of anthropomorphism can put you in serious danger very fast.

Melissa Breau: I imagine that the way that reinforcers differ isn’t the only thing that stands out when you’re talking about the difference between exotics and training dogs. What are some of the other differences that you’ve run into, and are there similarities?

Lara Joseph: There’s different things. There’s a reason I like to work with exotics, Melissa, because, like I mentioned earlier, I am friends with a lot of fabulous dog trainers, and they’re getting that message out there that’s very important. A lot of times the community thinks, and dogs can be very resilient to using aversives if people don’t understand what they’re doing, whereas your exotics aren’t so much.

There’s a message why I work with exotics is because OK, you may be able to push your dog or force your dog into doing this, but how are you going to do this with that turkey vulture? You start pushing that turkey vulture, or you start pushing that ape, you’re going to get consequences that you’re probably not going to be very comfortable with, and a lot of times the message is there that these animals can really hurt you very fast.

I always, when I’m training an animal, if there are cage bars between us, I always train for an accident in case those cage bars aren’t there between us. So where someone may be using an aversive with their dog, you do that with an exotic, you’re going to see those consequences so fast. Or maybe not, but when they do happen, you’re likely putting yourself in a very dangerous situation.

Some of the animals that I work with that I was telling you about, some of these animals can weigh a ton. That’s where my message comes in and shows you can be a great part of the team, you and that animal, and you can really work together, and when people see that teamwork here, or through our live streams, or at zoos, or whatever, it really grabs the attention of everybody. They like to see that training. And then I’ll stop training the animal and turn around to the people and say, “This is how positive reinforcement works in your home. This is how it works with your child, your dog, your relationship with your family.”

Another thing is that I like to work with a lot of animals as well that people think are … your average public thinks are dumb, gross, anything, such as even a pest. Why is it a pest? That animal is a pest because it’s quickly outwitting your next step. That’s why rats and crows live so close with human civilization — because they function together. Many people will call that rat or that pigeon or that squirrel a pest. So it is my way to introduce the turkey vulture, the rat, the pig, the pigeon, the porcupine, something that may be easily overlooked. This is an amazing creature that serves a very important role in our ecosystem. Pay attention. Instead of hurting them, find out what their function is in everyday life. It just brings awareness.

You know, the pig is something that is very overlooked. It is one of the smartest animals I have ever trained, and pigs quickly train the people that they’re with. We brought a lot of awareness to the turkey vulture. People are like, “Ugh, that’s such an ugly scavenger,” and I’m like, “Look how amazing this creature is.” I usually do that through I’ll show different things — how she stations on the glove, how she targets, how she flies to my glove when I ask her, and then I just inform them and then they start having that appreciation for that animal.

Melissa Breau: I know in addition to the work you do with the exotics, you also do some work with deaf and blind/deaf dogs. I’d imagine communication there is a bit different. How do you approach things with those dogs versus the exotics, or versus the normal dog training sessions? How does that roll up?

Lara Joseph: As you know, play, with dogs, can be a highly valued reinforcer. A lot of the other animals I have here, we play in different ways. But like with the deaf dogs, one of the first things that I do is reinforce eye contact. Always checking in, always checking in, and I slowly shape that deaf dog in new environments of here’s a new environment, or here’s a new something in your environment. Look at it, and then look at me for information, and then I will communicate with you with a thumbs-up, or come closer and reinforce.

That is probably one that is so misunderstood. I’m talking with somebody right now, shaping the animal in different environments, slowly shape in distractions, and then slowly bring in a distraction, and then that animal, as soon as it turns and looks at you, bam, bridge, reinforce. And then slowly take it into different environments.

With the deaf and blind — we have a deaf and blind dog here, Snow — I immediately started, all I did was watch her. How does she explore her environment? How does she explore new environments? She did that a lot by walking in circles, finding out where there’s a wall here, there’s a wall there. Then she’ll make the circle bigger and bigger, there’s an object here, there’s a wall there, she goes back to where she started, and then she starts exploring more and more.

With her, my work is all via touch and smell. So different taps on her body, for example, one finger-tap to her chest is a bridge, yes, that’s behavior I’m looking for, and then you can see it in her body language. Her head starts going up searching for where the treat is delivered.

A lot of times I will just touch her very lightly on the bottom of the chin. That means keep your head still, the treat is getting ready to be delivered. Because, Melissa, just in how you deliver that treat, if she turns her head in anticipation for “Is the treat over here?” and she hits her head on the side of my hand, that is an aversive to her. You will see her cower and walk away and you’ve quickly … you’ve just punished your training session and any cues that came along with it.

One swipe down the right side of her body, starting from her front shoulder to her hind legs, a quick swipe means turn around and walk the other way. A light swipe underneath the chin means move forward. Two taps on her butt means sit. One tap on her chest is a bridge. Moving my finger from her shoulder down to her paw in a quick motion, that means down. It’s all contingencies. It’s all pairing contingencies.

When I squeeze her shoulders lightly, that means stay where you are, something’s getting ready to happen. For example, I try to put potential danger on cue with her. So if the pig is let out at the same time she is let out, that is a bad encounter. I will put a light squeeze on her shoulder, it’s just more pressure, that means danger’s close, stay still, I will give you more information when I return. There’s a lot with her, and she’s …

Melissa Breau: That sounds like so many.

Lara Joseph: She is an amazing educator of mine. She has really opened my eyes.

Melissa Breau: That’s such a fascinating concept, just that you’ve managed to teach all of these very different behaviors when she can’t see you, she can’t hear you. For the down or the sit, do you still use a treat lure or did you shape them? How did you accomplish that with a dog that can’t see or hear you?

Lara Joseph: If I use a lure, I try to quickly phase it out. With the down, that is one I did use a treat lure with. I would hold the treat up by her shoulder and she would turn to smell it, and I would just keep it in my hands and bring it down to the ground to where it’s once she’s down on the ground, and then that bridge has to be there. So before I can release that treat, tap on the chest because she clearly knows what that is, bam, hand opens up, tap on the chest, and I have to hurry up and get that treat to her as quick as possible, just tap, deliver, tap, deliver, tap, deliver, and then I slowly start spacing tap, one, two, treat deliver. And that’s how I shaped duration with her.

Melissa Breau: It’s a very different thing, especially when you’re used to training, I don’t know, my dog, for example, who does not have those obstacles.

Lara Joseph: She’s hard to keep up with. She’s a Border Collie, and not only is she a Border Collie, now she’s deaf and she’s blind. People will see her running at a fast pace through the Center and they’re like, “Oh, she’s having fun, she’s playing.” I was like, “Um, I don’t think so. I think what I see is she’s searching for information. She’s wanting somebody …” because as soon as you start interacting with her, Melissa, boom, she calms right down, what are we doing next? And she’s looking for body taps — tell me where to go, where are we going, what should I be searching for, what are you training me in, what information do I need? She’s always looking for information, searching for information.

Melissa Breau: Do you have any tips for folks who may have a dog that can’t hear, or maybe has vision problems, to help them with their training? Anything you’ve learned and recommend?

Lara Joseph: Yeah: don’t wait. Don’t wait. They’re already learning. Pay close attention to what they’re reacting to, what they’re moving towards. With the deaf dogs, I cannot put enough emphasis on this: reinforce eye contact, because you always want that dog looking at you. Something’s in front of me, I’m not exactly sure what’s going on. You want them to quickly turn and look at you, and you say thumbs-up, yes, this is cool, let’s keep moving forward, or come with me, let’s walk in the other direction. With a blind dog, especially as a lot of senior dogs continue to age, their eyesight starts declining, go ahead and start shaping those sounds. We use target sticks with bells, shaping those sounds now before the vision is completely gone.

Melissa Breau: When you say target sticks with bells, you mean so that dog can orient to the target to find …

Lara Joseph: We use target sticks with bells, and then we usually use something at the end of the target stick, such as … I can’t tell you exactly. Maybe a tennis ball. Maybe, I don’t know, a lot of times it’s paper towels wadded up in a ball, wrapped with rubber bands, because it’s the dog that’s always going to identify if touching the end of that target stick is an aversive. If it can’t see and it moves its head quick towards the target stick, and bam, now he just got poked in the nose with a hard pine dowel, that’s quickly going to be aversive. The dog might not do it again. So that’s why at the end of the target stick we have bells and something soft for them to touch their nose to.

Melissa Breau: I have three questions that I like to ask people their first time on the show to finish things out. I’m excited to have somebody who’s new to the show so I can ask them again. What animal-related accomplishment are you proudest of?

Lara Joseph: Having the Animal Behavior Center what it is today, we just had our five-year anniversary yesterday, and how fast and how strong we are in the message. That’s probably one of the most proudest one.

But as far as an individual animal, I would have to say it is a pigtail macaque. It’s in the primate family, it’s like a large monkey. They can be very dangerous. They have very large teeth that can do damage really quick, especially if you’re using force or coercion. This particular animal, a zoo had asked me to train, and I was like, “I don’t want to train that animal. I am so afraid of that animal.” I didn’t know much about pigtail macaques, and there’s a lot of people that won’t work with them because they have bad … they have reputations. But it’s usually due to people not understanding how to effectively interact with them.

This particular macaque, major resource guarder, his arms are probably just as long as mine and just as strong. If you would walk by the enclosure, the winter enclosure that he was in, he would grab you, he would try to grab you and pull you towards the cage. I’d had very few encounters with him, and none of them were pleasant experiences, and I wasn’t able to read his body language very well, but I could easily tell that, hey, when that mouth opens up and he’s showing those big teeth, probably a form of communication that … stay away.

So I started training him, Melissa, and it was purely off contact. I would ask him to go to his station, deliver reinforcer. That way, some of the first things I train, any animal, is a station, go to an area and don’t move until requested to do otherwise, and a target, so that way you’re touching that target stick, what I’m doing is reading your body language. I quickly pair that target stick with a positive reinforcer, which in his case was banana baby food delivered from a syringe.

Now I can start understanding body language. What does your face look like when in anticipation of the banana baby food coming closer to you? I was just like, Wow, this is so cool. We are communicating. I am starting to understand you. You see me instead of being a cue for these other behaviors that were labeled as aggressive, now when he sees me, that’s a cue, he goes and runs to his station, and sits and waits for information and waits for positive reinforcers.

So now I trim his nails using positive reinforcement through the cage bars. He targets, he goes everywhere with me. Deb Jones has come here several times and seen some of the work I do in my work with him. I took her out there and I said, “This is amazing for me, in my head, I consider this animal amazing. Watch this.”

He’s a big resource guarder, you couldn’t get anywhere near his enclosure. If you even picked up a stick within one foot of his enclosure, he was jumping on those cage bars, vocalizing, shaking the cage bars, and if he could get a hold of you, it wouldn’t be positive. So what I did with him is I worked on his resource guarding, and I taught him to clean his enclosure for me. Go pick up those sticks, go pick up those rags, hand them through the cage bars to me.

That was a lot of shaping, because he’s picking up things of high value. Those are his, in his enclosure, and now offering them to me. That, Melissa, I would say, is one of my most proud animal accomplishments.

Melissa Breau: That’s fantastic. Just the turnaround there is so impressive.

Lara Joseph: It went from me not wanting anything to do with this animal to me … now I cannot wait to go see him, and how are you doing, and I can tell by his body language, OK, let’s get this training moving.

Melissa Breau: That’s so interesting. The second question on my list of three here is, what is the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Lara Joseph: Right off the top of my head, because this sticks in my head every single time I’m interacting with an animal — and I don’t know who said it, where it was said, but it has always stuck in my head — and it’s something I’ve always thought of anyways, but I never heard it in these terms, and that is, just because you’re using positive reinforcement does not mean it’s a positive experience for the animal.

That is always in my head when I’m training, because I’m like, Are you still enjoying this? The reinforcer behind why I may keep training you is because I’m getting the behavior that I want, but are you enjoying this as well? If I’m not sure, that’s when I end the training session and start over again.

Melissa Breau: That’s definitely an interesting one. I think that a lot of the times people feel like they’re using positive methods that surely it’s a positive experience, and I definitely agree that’s not always true. Last one here: Who is someone else in the animal behavior world that you look up to?

Lara Joseph: Oh gosh, there’s so many. There’s so many. But one that immediately comes to mind is Jesus Rosales-Ruiz. He’s a professor at the University of North Texas, where I took some of the master’s classes. Fascinating man. Fascinating man. Everything that comes out of his mouth, I am sitting there paying attention like a sponge. He does a lot of work with rats and mice and pigeons.

Melissa Breau: Interesting.

Lara Joseph: He follows a lot of Skinner’s work very closely.

Melissa Breau: Fascinating. Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Lara.

Lara Joseph: You are very welcome. It’s an honor. Thanks. I had fun.

Melissa Breau: Good. I had fun too. This was interesting, and it’s always interesting going more about some of the exotics and some of the beyond dog training applications of some of this stuff.

Lara Joseph: Anytime.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I may take you up on that.

Lara Joseph: OK.

Melissa Breau: Thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in.

We’ll be back next week, this time with Debbie Torraca, to talk canine conditioning.

If you enjoyed the episode, I hope you’ll consider hopping over to iTunes and leaving us a review — reviews really help the show! We’ve gotten a few new ones since I’ve started including this request at the end of the show, like this one from Collie Rules. It was titled Great Information, and we got five stars. Collie Rules wrote, “I love hearing from these class instructors! Training insights and things to consider.”

Thank you Collie Rules, whoever you are!

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

Feb 23, 2018




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

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

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


Next Episode: 

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


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

Today we’ll be talking to Kamal Fernandez.

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

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

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

Hi Kamal, welcome back to the podcast!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kamal Fernandez: Absolutely, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: The bronze? Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you a very dead bird, whoever you are!

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


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

Feb 15, 2018



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

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

Next Episode: 

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


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

Today we’ll be talking to Julie Flanery.

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

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

Welcome back to the podcast Julie!

Julie Flanery: Thanks.

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

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

Melissa Breau: Do you want to share her name?

Julie Flanery: Kashi.

Melissa Breau: Kashi. Excellent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julie Flanery: Yeah, I’m sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julie Flanery: Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: That certainly matched my experience.

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

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

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

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

Julie Flanery: Super.

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

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

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

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


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

Feb 9, 2018



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

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

Next Episode: 

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


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

Today we’ll be talking to Denise Fenzi.

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

So welcome back to the podcast Denise!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denise Fenzi: Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Feb 2, 2018


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

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

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


Next Episode: 

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


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

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

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

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

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

Hi Deb! Welcome back to the podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: It’s a good problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jan 26, 2018


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

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


Next Episode: 

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


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

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

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

Hi Chrissi. Welcome to the podcast.

Chrissi Schranz: Hi Melissa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chrissi Schranz: Yes, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jan 19, 2018


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

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

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


Next Episode: 

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


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

Today we’ll be talking to Lori Stevens.

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

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

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

Hi Lori, welcome back to the podcast.

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Fair enough!

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

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

Lori Stevens: Yeah, she’s doing well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Absolutely.

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

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

Lori Stevens: Yeah, true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Fair enough.

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

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

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

Lori Stevens: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori Stevens: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jan 12, 2018


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


Next Episode: 

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


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

Today we’ll be talking to Stacy Barnett.

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

Hi Stacy, welcome back to the podcast.

Stacy Barnett: Hi Melissa. How are you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: We all want that dog, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stacy Barnett: Yes. The 45-degree angle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Jan 5, 2018


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

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


Next Episode: 

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


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

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

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

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

Hi, Amy. Welcome back to the podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Whining, barking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Was it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Dec 29, 2017


At FDSA, Andrea Harrison teaches classes for the human half of the competitive team. She’s an educator who is passionate about all species including dogs and humans. Having lived with dogs her whole life, Andrea was an early convert to positive training. She has taken this message to the media many times including appearances on many TV shows and news programs as well as in print and on the radio.

She has explored the science of brain research and worked with people of all ages on being successful and reducing anxiety and stress using her training and counseling, personality typing, and her own experiences.  

When it comes to dog sports her competitive addiction is agility. Andrea and her dogs have many titles between them with placements in regional and national competitions. Andrea has experienced animal wrangling for television and more recently has begun to explore scent work.


Next Episode: 

To be released 1/05/2018, and I'll be talking to Amy Cook about the science of dog training, so stay tuned!


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

Today we’ll be talking to Andrea Harrison.

Andrea is the people trainer on the FDSA team, working with dog sports teams to help handlers train themselves for better performance. She teaches classes on unleashing your personal potential, mental management, planning, goal setting, and more... and with the new year right around the corner, she’s here today to talk goal setting and dog-related new year’s resolutions.

Hi Andrea! Welcome to the podcast.

Andrea Harrison: Hey Melissa. Thank you so much for the invitation. Great to talk to you.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat today. To get us started, do you want to just remind listeners who you are and tell us a little bit about the dogs you share your life with?

Andrea Harrison: Sure. I’m Andrea Harrison. I’ve been doing the mental management stuff in some capacity in my life professionally for nearly 30 years. I can’t believe it. The dogs we’re currently living with has changed a bit since the last time I was on the podcast, Melissa. We lost two of our older dogs.

Melissa Breau: I’m sorry.

Andrea Harrison: Yeah, it’s hard. It happens to everybody, but it’s never easy. Now we’re living with Sally and Thea, our senior dogs, and they’re the two dogs that have done the most competitively. Sally was in a feature film. They’re the dogs who really push my dog training along. Then we have my husband’s Golden Retriever, Samson, who is his dog very much. I try to keep hands off, although it’s hard sometimes because he’s lovely and really athletic, so I sneak out and do some stuff with him sometimes, but he’s Tom’s dog, I leave him alone as best as I can. He’s the farm dog. We also have two younger dogs, Yen, who is a toy American Eskimo, and Dora, who is a feral little Cairn terrier mix. They’re both great and lots of fun, and they basically bum around the farm, keeping me company, and I get my eye on them, which we’ll chat about in a bit, I think.

Melissa Breau: To jump right in, are there benefits to having set goals for our dog sports?

Andrea Harrison: There are so many benefits to goal setting, and I think when we’re talking about dog sports, one of the really important things to remember is goals can actually give you power. And I don’t mean power in a dictator sense in an all-controlling way. I mean power of ourselves. Power of understanding that we are good enough and strong enough and competent enough. So many of us in dog training land look to someone else and admire them, and wish we were them, and perhaps have a little envy or jealousy. The goal setting that we do can give us the strength to do our own thing, to manage our own expectations, to create training plans, to create competitive goals, all of those kinds of things.

So when I talk to people about goal setting, I try to remember to focus on goals, and FOCUS is one of my silly acronyms I like to use. The F stands for facing the present. You never want to dwell on the past, and you never want to just dream of the future. Goals give you the opportunity to focus on and face the present moment, because you look at where you are right now and determine what your goals will be. They let you offer a vision, so you decide, are your goals going to be around structure and plans, or are your goals going to be around skills and those sorts of things. So they give you that vision through offering it to you. C I think of as being for clarity. Goals will bring you clarity around what you want to do. If you want to train your dog to do draft titles and you get yourself sucked into doing obedience fronts, that’s not going to be that helpful to you. So if you have good goals, you’ll find it’s easier to find clarity around what to do and those steps to build. I use the U for understanding the choices and priorities that you make. Say you’re looking at what class to take next term at Fenzi, as an example. We all know it’s hard to pick. There are so many great choices and we get ourselves spun. If you’d taken the time and done some goal setting, you can actually see which of the classes will help you move forward with your goals and which of the classes that you need. So to be able to understand the choices and set your own priorities can be really important too and really beneficial. And then of course when you achieve your goals, you get both success and satisfaction from them.

People laugh at me when I say one of the reasons to goal set is to reach success and satisfaction, but it’s so important. So many people don’t internalize their own worth, and if goals give you a way to internalize your worth and feel better about yourself, that’s a really good thing. So I think goal setting is a really important skill to develop, and I think it can add a lot to us as multi-dimensional positive dog trainers.

Melissa Breau: To reiterate that acronym one more time: F is facing the present, O is offering vision, C is clarity, U is understanding, S is success and satisfaction.

Andrea Harrison: Exactly.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. That’s great. I think that’s really helpful for people to have that to keep in mind as they go through that process.

Andrea Harrison: Exactly, and that’s the thing. It gives you a way to break it down to remember it, because you’re like, “Oh, goal-setting, it’s too much work and you have to think too hard.” You know, you wake up in the morning and drive to work, and you start thinking about a goal, and the phone rings or whatever, and you get distracted. Why would you go back to it? Well, focus. Remember FOCUS and focus on those goals.

Melissa Breau: Right, right. I think people probably set goals that require their dogs to learn new skills when it comes to dog training, or to achieve specific things, like in their first OTCH or what have you… but since we’re relying on another being, our dogs, what special considerations should we be keeping in mind as we set those goals?

Andrea Harrison: Such an important question, and I think the thing I want all of my students, and I hope all of the FDSA students and everybody listening, to remember is that the dogs don’t get a say in the goals we set for them.

My little Chihuahua, Thea, I wanted her to do agility. She’s a Chihuahua, she weighs 6 pounds, agility was not really her thing. She’s quick, she’s a character, she bombs around the field, but every different teeter I put her on dropped at a different rate of speed, even though they’re not supposed to, and she had a couple of quite scary fly-offs. What I did was I started running her in classes that didn’t have a teeter. My goal maybe was to do some more advanced agility titles with her, but my goal was to enjoy agility with her, and she did very, very well as long as she wasn’t getting on strange teeters. Strange teeters were scary for her, and they were dangerous, and because I didn’t let my own personal goals supersede her need to be safe, it allowed us to both enjoy a sport I really love.

So you’ve got to remember the dog didn’t get a say in your goal. If you would run if you were sore and achy, but your dog is sore and achy, it might not be a good day to run, because your dog doesn’t have the same goals as you.

When you look at that, you alluded to it earlier, too, this concept I talk about all the time, the difference between a process goal and an outcome goal. The outcome goal is getting the OTCH, it’s getting the ribbon, it’s going to Nationals, it’s coming first at Nationals for on the podium or whatever, it’s those big sort of ribbon goals. That’s what I think of when I talk about outcome goals. And process goals are all the little steps that get you there. So a process goal might be training at least three times a week, or teaching my dog to find three different scents, or all of this sort of step-building goals. So when you’re thinking about dog training, make sure that you’re remembering to build more process goals than outcome goals. I’m not opposed to outcome goals, but the process goals will help you and your dog reach the outcome goal anyhow, and they’re a little bit fairer for your dog, given that your dog doesn’t have a say in the goal setting.

The weekend warriors who say, “I’m going to a trial on Sunday, and I’m going to start training Friday night, and training like mad Friday and Saturday,” they’re not doing themselves nor their dogs any favors by that kind of goal setting. A systematic method of goal setting that includes process goals as an actually defined piece of the process are going to get you much, much further than just ping-ponging around from outcome goal to outcome goal and getting frustrated when you and your dog aren’t achieving them the way you want.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned outcome and process goals, and you got a little bit into my next question, which is how can people be smart about the goals they set for themselves and their dogs? Is there more you want to get into there?

Andrea Harrison: Well, yeah, because I think you want to remember that process goals allow you to learn. Through the mistakes that you make, through the opportunities that you get through process, through watching what happens, that lets you learn the most from the goal-setting process. Outcome goals are around performance and they’re important too, but outcome goals really are an opportunity to perform and show what you know. So when you’re thinking about smart training, it’s about picking the model goal setting that’s going to work best for you.

I’m always happy to share, there are hundreds of different kinds of goal setting models, but a really easy one is the smart goal setting. You hear about it all the time, and that’s another acronym that’s been around forever. There are some issues with it, but for people who have never goal set before, it can be a good place to start. It looks at having specific goals that are measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely, and those are each of the smart: S-M-A-R-T. And so a specific goal would be: I want Dora to do a dog walk. Measurable: Can she do a dog walk when I’m standing behind, at the side, or recalling her over it to me? Is that achievable for her? Yeah, she’s confident on all kinds of shaky surfaces, she’s absolutely fine with that. Is it relevant? Well, I like agility, so yeah, for me it is. Is it timely? Yeah, she’s a mature little dog, she’s still young enough to be fit, all of those kinds of things. So smart goals can give you a nice framework. It can be an intelligent way to look at goal setting.

You want to make sure that you’re making your goals positive, that you can choose to be positive about your goals and make them changing and affirming, as opposed to negative in things that you’re likely to fail at. Some people will set a goal of “I don’t want my dog to bark at strangers.” That’s a good goal: I don’t want my dog to bark at strangers. A better goal for many of the goal setting experts would be to frame it as “I want my dog to walk quietly beside me down the street.” So you can take that negative goal and turn it into a positive goal. That’s one thing to keep in mind when you’re trying to be intelligent about how you goal set.

Also think about making intrinsic goals. When we get into goal setting, we often set our goals for someone else. So we might think, Oh the breeder would love it if I had a versatility title on this dog, or My husband says I’m spending so much money on dog training; I really should bring home some ribbons to show for it, or whatever. We intrinsically tend to set our goals, and that’s why I like process goals, too — because they remind us to remember to be internal, set our goals in an intrinsic sense. You need to goal set for yourself. Not wholly — balance is OK — but make sure that you’ve got that balance, that you’re remembering that you matter in this goal-setting regime that you’re setting up, too.

Melissa Breau: So for those out there, it’s SMART: specific measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely. Was that it?

Andrea Harrison: Correct, yeah.

Melissa Breau: All right. I’m taking notes as we go through so I can remember some of the acronyms.

Andrea Harrison: You’re good! The acronyms — not everybody does them. They may or may not work for you, and that’s fine. But I’m finding more and more people the acronyms help them hang on to stuff. That one I did not come up with, but I’m trying to create other ones around some of the work that I do to help people who are figuring that stuff out.

Melissa Breau: It helps it stick in your head when you can remember a single word and you go, “Oh wait, I’m missing something, what was the M again, OK.” So, I know that they say something like 80% of New Year’s resolutions tend to fail by February – I wanted to address that a little bit. How can people who set a goal for themselves — a good goal for themselves, following the guidelines you laid out — how can they stay motivated past February, hopefully all the way through the year?

Andrea Harrison: A few things, and we’re lucky with our FDSA community because we’ve got a natural accountability system, partnership. If you’re working on your TEAM titles, you’ve got the TEAM group. If you’re working in a class and working through your bronze, you can post in your local group. There are lots of opportunities for that, and that’s a really important thing. People need to remember to do that.

But one of the things is to take your time and plan your goal. So here we are sitting on December 26 or whatever, and this will come out at the end of the week with hardly any time before New Year’s to do our goal. People will be like, “Oh my god, I didn’t goal set yet! I want to goal set!” And they’ll jump into it and … don’t. Stop, take your time, reflect around what matters to you, talk to an instructor you like or a training buddy already, and figure out what realistic goals are. If we set unrealistic goals, we will fail. We’re setting ourselves up to fail when we do that. You’re much better to invest the front-end time into making your goals realistic and appropriate for you, and attainable for you in the moment — and we can talk more about that — but make sure that you’ve got a way to plan those goals that are sensible for you.

Then make sure you’ve got a system to record-keep, so you know if you’re meeting those goals or not, or where you’ve got some holes, the accountability piece. I suggest people take the occasional goals class just to build in a little bit higher degree of accountability. If they haven’t tried it yet, it can be a really good thing. An in-person a class, if you’re in an area where that’s possible. Something to look forward to. For me, I like going to clinics and seminars sometimes just to remind myself. It reminds me to try and make sure I’m ready for it, and I think that can be a helpful thing.

Identify and accept your flaws when you’re thinking about motivation. Not all of us are equally good at things. If your February’s going to be crazy and you get derailed a little bit, that’s OK. You don’t need to be perfect every day, all the time. If your flaw is that you train in short, intense bursts, make sure your goal reflects that you’re better off training intensely six days and then taking four days off, or whatever it is. So know who you are. Spend a little bit of time identifying who you are as well.

And then, of course, with motivation you always want to know which of direction, intensity, and persistence are your downfall. Direction is your developing the plan, intensity is how often you’ll do it, and persistence is how long you’ll stick with it. If you know which of those three things is your biggest issue in motivation, it can help you figure out how to overcome that. Even sometimes knowing just that that’s your hole, you can be like, “Ah, I just can’t get off the couch tonight. Oh, wait, my direction’s failing me and I set those goals on purpose. Let me get up and go to it.” Or “I trained three times last week. I’m not going to train this week at all. Wait a minute. That’s persistence. I need to get up and get back to it.” So often, just by understanding ourselves, we set ourselves up to be more successful, in this particular regard, anyways.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned setting goals that are attainable for you in the moment. Do you want to go into that just a little bit more, since it came up?

Andrea Harrison: Sure. Attainable for you. So what I’m saying is, if you want … you said your OTCH, and that’s a huge deal in obedience. I hadn’t realized until I started working with somebody who’s well on her way to it. She wanted her OTCH, and she and I spent quite a long time figuring out what her realistic timeline was for it, because so much of that is out of your direct control. You can’t say you will get that in six shows, because it depends on who else is at your show, or twenty shows or whatever it is from where you start. So you have to make sure you build in a little bit of what I would call a buffer. So you think it would take you twenty trials to get it from where you are right now, I would say to you, “Give yourself thirty shots at it.” If you get there faster than you thought, that’s OK. It’s good. No problem. You can always adjust a goal. Goals are highly adjustable. They’re designed to be adjustable. So if you’re reaching it already, that’s great. But if you had said to yourself you’re going to get your OTCH in fifteen, and you needed every one of those fifteen trials to be completely successful and win the class and all that stuff, then you’re going to be really disappointed when you get to trial 14 and you realize you actually still need 13 trials. You’re going to feel like a huge failure.

So you want to make sure that when you’re setting attainable goals, and that’s one of the reasons I said talk to your instructors and your friends, because sometimes we get rosy-colored glasses. We’re like, “Oh, oh, oh, I can do this! I can do this! This is great!” And then somebody will say, “Mmm, you know, three months isn’t a lot of time when you live in a place where …” — well, for me, there’s major snow — “ … you might get snowed in and not be able to get to a trial.” “Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought of that.” You have to make the whole picture, and the more people you can draw into helping you with that, the easier it’s going to be for you in the long run.

Melissa Breau: The other thing you mentioned was record keeping, and I know that’s a topic that comes up over and over again in the alumni group, that whole tracking your training process, or your training progress, and how to do it, and what are the advantages of it. People share their whiteboards, or their bullet journals, or all sorts of stuff. So I wanted to ask what recommendations do you have for people interested in tracking their progress or coming up with a system?

Andrea Harrison: I love this question because it goes right to the heart of me, because my answer is, it depends, and it depends on what works for you. You can set up a really, really simple system that is literally putting a plus, a minus, a plus — it went really well — a minus — it wasn’t such a great day — or a big fat zero with a line through it that you didn’t train at all that day. You can do that on a calendar on the wall in your kitchen, and that is record keeping. That’s legitimate record keeping. You can say to yourself, “I’m going to video every session I do on Friday nights.” And whenever you remember to train on Friday night, you video it. That’s record keeping. Those are legitimate forms of record keeping, and they might be what you want to do. That’s simple, simple, simple, and it’s fine.

You might want to do something a little more medium, where you’ve got a blog going, or you’ve started a tiny little Facebook group with you and two of your friends and you share your successes, or you write on the backs of agility maps how the run went when you show. I had a book full of maps. I still use them. I still set up training based on my book of maps, and I love them. I remember most of my courses that way. There are so many sorts of medium. You might videotape twice a week, or every time you teach something new, or lots of those sorts of things.

And then there are really complex systems, like you mentioned bullet journaling. Bullet journaling’s hot, hot, hot. People love it. It’s great. It’s pretty. Lots of people disappoint themselves because they set up these beautiful bullet journals and then they don’t keep them. They’re colorful. They’re great. If it works for you and you love it, great. If you set it up your own way, set it up your own way. You don’t have to do it the way anybody else tells you to. It’s for you. It’s tracking what you want to track. People get confused, like, “Should I have my grocery lists and my dog training in the same journal?” It’s up to you. If you want to have your grocery lists and your dog training in the same journal, go for it. If you want to have every dog having their own separate folder, go for it. If it doesn’t work for you, you won’t use it. With record keeping, almost more than anything else I teach, it has to work for you. So start simply successfully and build from there.

The last chat I saw they weren’t sharing them, but people share the most beautiful Excel programs that they’ve set up with the exercises and the dogs and the colors. We’ve got some really, really talented people in our group who are happy to share stuff, so I love seeing that conversation come up. I sit back now because people know I’ve got folders and folders of bookmarks and stuff, but people are all doing all kinds of different things, and if it works for you, great. If it isn’t working for you, don’t beat yourself up. Stop, think, try something else. There’s no failure in not setting up a record-keeping system that works for you the first time you try, or the second time, or the fiftieth time. My record keeping has changed so much over the last 15 years of dog training. I can’t even tell you all the different systems I’ve used, because they’re different times in my life. It’s busier and less busy, so I work and I do it and it’s great, but it has to work for you in that moment.

Melissa Breau: You touched on this a little bit in there, but I know for a lot of people, the hardest part of all of that — achieving a goal, tracking it, anything — is when something happens and they miss a day, or life intervenes and maybe they miss a few days… so I wanted to address that too. How can people recover if they do fall off the bandwagon, or if they wake up one morning and realize they have gotten off track and haven’t been working on their goal the way they originally envisioned?

Andrea Harrison: It’s such an important thing. I mean, life happens to us all. No matter how good your goals are, no matter how clear your vision is, life happens. I had a relative diagnosed with cancer, got a call at a trial, left the trial, didn’t do competitive agility for four months, that was just my reality. I beat myself up about it — this was a long time ago — I beat myself up about it and was really upset and mad at the money and the training and all of that. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter. I went back to agility, loved it, hit my podium finishes, and did just fine. You have to accept that those sort of throwaway days will happen. Sometimes it’s a throwaway week or a throwaway month.

We do this for fun. The dog sports are about fun, and if we’re in a place where it isn’t fun, we need to stop and regroup and rethink and plan it out. Imperfect action, though, is better than no action, so if you find that you’re stalling out just because you’ve had a few bad days and you don’t know how to get going again, grab a toy and go play, grab a clicker and go teach something, watch a shaping video and try it yourself. Do something. I would rather see someone take imperfect action than just be stalled. If there is a place for that. If there is no place for you mentally, that’s OK too, but it’s a separate issue right there.

There are two reasons life happens to us: one is we can’t overcome it, and one is we get so down on ourselves we can’t. And when you’re that down on yourself, remind yourself of why you’re doing it. Put a picture of a ribbon … hang a ribbon on your bathroom door so you’ll see the ribbon and be like, “Oh yeah, I want to do that.” Put Denise’s book right front and center and think about telling her that what you’re actually achieving that day. Jump on the FDSA thing and say, “Hey, I’m feeling down,” and I guarantee you fifty people are going to say, “Hey, it’s OK. I’ve been there too.” We’ve all been there. Get out there and get training. Have fun with your dog. Use those days to reclaim.

I talked a little bit earlier about power, goals giving us power. Those days actually give you a funny sort of backwards opportunity to reclaim that power, because you’re busy feeling down about yourself, and if you can get yourself to train for just five minutes … I’m not talking about a great training plan that catches up on all the process goals that you missed last week. I’m saying spend five minutes doing something with your dog. That gives you that little bit of power back, and then you can go on and do a little bit of power again so you can build. Take one tiny, tiny, small, imperfect step forward when it’s not working very well, and then you will find that you will be able to make sense of it.

If your training is getting derailed, though, and that’s why you have stopped, that’s OK, and that’s important to stop and redress. You want to look at your goals and make sure they are in fact realistic and measurable and achievable for you in that time, and relevant to what you want to do, and you might need to regroup and change your goals a bit. Sometimes when we get stalled out it’s because the goals we’re working on aren’t really the goals we should be working on. So remember that nothing could be a good choice in that situation. So you’ve gotten really mad at your dog the night before and you’ve done something you aren’t proud of, then you might need to stop and regroup and reassess what your goals are, and that’s OK too. Again, you’re a human being. We’re all human beings. We’re not perfect.

Melissa Breau: You said something in there that I love, and it’s just that idea that we do this to have fun with our dogs, and ultimately if that’s not happening, something’s wrong, and it’s worth taking some time off for rethinking those goals or looking at things again. I just think that’s important for people to hear and to recognize. I just like that line.

Andrea Harrison: Yeah. It’s so important. To me, it’s the heart of why I do what I do. My dogs are the good thing in my life, and I know that’s true for many of us. So I’m glad it resonated with you.

Melissa Breau: Despite our best efforts, sometimes we just don’t achieve our goals. It just doesn’t happen. Do you have any tips for when that happens, handling it, handling the disappointment and those feelings of having failed, or of failure?

Andrea Harrison: Of course I do! This is my bread and butter! This is what I do. And I can hear half my students laughing, going, “Oh, I know what she’s going to say.” I’ve got some new stuff for some of you coming up, I promise. But when that happens to you, I want you to really stop and think, is this goal too much for you right now? And if it is too much for you, that’s OK.

I often teach people to frame their goals around “at leasts.” Instead of saying, “I’m going to train five times a week,” we’d much rather someone say, “I’m going to train at least four times a week.” You set your goal for what you think it is, and then you backup a step. And then, if you find you’re only training three times a week, you say, “I’m going to actually train at least twice a week.” So as soon as you start to feel that sense of disappointment and failure, reword your goal, rework your goal a little bit, and give yourself a bit of a break.

I already talked that we are humans. You need to balance that fun in the work piece. You want to make sure that fun and work are in good balance. In my blog you’ll see I strike out training and work. Years and years ago I started striking them out and put play, because really that’s what I do. I play with my dogs, and we get some training done, and we have lots of fun doing it. That’s been a very basic philosophy of mine for a long, long time. So that balance is super-important.

Here’s a growth mindset. We can have these fixed minds. That’s where we think this thing is going to be the way it is forever, and our brains are really very changing, they’ve got great plasticity, they’re very accommodating, so remember that, and remember not yet doesn’t mean never. I love that we use “not yet” in the Team stuff, because it’s so true in all of life. If you didn’t get that cue that you wanted, it doesn’t mean you’re never going to get that cue. It means you didn’t get that cue right then — not yet. So not yet is not never.

And mistakes are learning. I say it all the time, and I feel like it’s so trite to say it, but it’s so true. Look for the learning in the mistake that you make and embrace it. You aren’t going to get the opportunity to learn that any other way other than through the mistake you made. If it’s an error of enthusiasm, as I like to call them, that’s great. Celebrate it. If it’s another kind of error, if you over-trained your dog and they’re tired at the trial, or you set up beside the wrong dog and your dog snarked at them and you were asked to leave the show — which is terrible, but it happens — then you know, OK, I need to be more careful about where I set up the next time. No matter how big and bad and awful it feels in that moment, Andrea’s Rule of Five, kick it in: Is it going to matter in five minutes, five hours, five days, five years? At what point is this thing not going to have such a devastating impact on you?

We take things so very, very personally sometimes, and ultimately it really isn’t personal. Most of what happens around us is not personal to us. Even our own failures in some way are just circumstances happening to us. Bad things happen to good people, and if it’s a bad thing, I’m sorry, and I’ll be commiserating, but I’m not going to say to you, “This is the end of the world,” because in all likelihood it probably isn’t.

Melissa Breau: I think the other piece of goal setting that we haven’t touched on is the pressure that sometimes comes with trying to achieve big goals. If someone is feeling stressed out about what they want to achieve, how can they manage that in a way that’s healthy and not destructive or beating up on themselves?

Andrea Harrison: That’s a really good question, and it’s so important to access your toolbox Most of my classes talk about a toolbox, and these few things I’m thinking of as we chat are things that try them out, test them, see if they work for you. If they work, put them in the top drawer of your toolbox so you can use them when you feel stressed and pressured.

Of course I’ve talked about breathing before, I think, and there are two easy breathing techniques. I am, where you breath in and you think I am, and as you breathe out, you think the good thought, so I am a good dog trainer, I am confident, I am successful. Whatever any of those things are, that I am breathing is very useful. Count breathing can also calm your nerves because it makes you focus. It’s a mindfulness practice. You breathe in for a count of four and breathe out for a count of five, so it goes in, two, three, four, out, six, seven, eight, nine. If you can’t breathe for that long, you can do it shorter. Breathe in one count less than you breathe out, so you could breathe in, two, three, out five, six, seven. That can really calm you down quite quickly and give you a thing...

Write down what you’re worried about. Write it out and then tear it up into tiny little strips of paper, or burn it, gives you great satisfaction sometimes, if it’s safe. If you’re frustrated or you’re angry about something, that can be a very helpful tool. Write it down.

Throw a dance party for yourself. You’re mad, you’re grumpy, you’re unhappy, you’re sad, whatever. Crank up a tune you love and bop around the house. Your dog will think you’re nuts, your spouse might think you’re nuts, but get your frustration out. Shake it off.

A grounding thing people can try when you’re absolutely shaking you’re so upset, think about how your feet are touching the ground. Really feel your feet. And in fact you can teach yourself to use that as an anchoring thing when you’re standing still and you can’t get away. For most of us, movement is a release, just like with our dogs. So if you can move, it’s going to help more. You can shake your hands, or push your arms together, or any one of those things. But if you can’t do any of that and you have to just stand there, really concentrate on how your toes are touching in your shoes, and your shoes are pressing into the floor, and feel that root to the ground. That can be a really nice tool.

I talked briefly about my Rule of Five already. You can strike a pose, very Ann Cuddy, power person. I had lots of fun talking about striking Wonder Woman poses and various poses in mirrors. Go sneak into a bathroom, strike a power pose, and then away you go. That can just root you and reground you a little bit.

Another one I like is something I call “traffic light.” When you’re getting tense and fried and upset, think about a traffic light. Red: stop. Amber: think about it and make a plan. Green: try your plan. It’s a very quick way to just go “traffic light,” and you can actually run through it in, like, 10 seconds sometimes, from red to green, and then reset yourself. It’s just a way to reset, and then of course reframe, and whatever’s going on can be really helpful, too, when you’re feeling really stressed out. I’m stressed, but I’m remembering to do my breathing exercise. I’m stressed, but Andrea would tell me I’m learning from this. Somebody messaged me once, I laughed and said, “Did it work?” And they said, “Yes, it did.” So however you can reframe it. I didn’t have a really good show, but I got out of housecleaning today. Whatever it is that will work for you, go ahead and steal it and use it. Reframing can be a very useful tool.

But the thing about all of these tools, Melissa, I wouldn’t want anyone to forget is they all take practice. You can’t just grab one on the fly and go, “Yeah, yeah, I like that ‘feel your feet’ thing,” and try to do it only when you’re stressed. If it’s something that you think might work for you, start trying it now, like any of my tools. I’ve got hundreds, and I just picked out a few, and I picked out some ones that I hadn’t shared in classes very often, if at all, but just to do something a little bit different. But if you don’t practice them, they will not work for you in a stressful situation.

Melissa Breau: So more to Amy’s concept for her management class for managing dogs: you have to practice with the dog so that it becomes second nature before you actually need it in the moment. Same idea. Works on us, too.

Andrea Harrison: Exactly, exactly. We’re all mammals.

Melissa Breau: So I know you touch on a lot of these topics in your “Handle This” class, which is on the calendar for February – and I wanted to ask you to share a little bit about the class and tell students what’s in it, tell students what might make them want to take it, that kind of thing.

Andrea Harrison: Good question. You know, it’s a funny class. When I first developed it, I thought it would be one of the very most popular classes, and it’s one of the most intense classes that I teach — and I teach lots of intense classes. People think hard in my classes and I always apologize, “I’m sorry, you’re thinking,” and they’re always, “No, it’s good, it’s good.” “But I didn’t mean to make you think that hard!”

One of the things we get into is creating a master plan, so whatever it is that you’ve gotten that you want to figure out how to handle. Lots of people come because they’re still really nervous in the ring. It was set up to be a follow-up course to All In Your Head, but you don’t have to have done All In Your Head anymore to do it. I’ve figured out how to work through without having to have it. So lots of people who are nervous come into it, or lots of people who are struggling with trial situations, but there are also now lots of people who are just trying to figure out how to get to a show, so they don’t even know if they’re going to be nervous or not yet because they haven’t gone to a show yet.

It’s become, as well as the nerves piece, it’s become setting up a master plan, like, how are you going to get from where you are to where you want to be, applying all of the different things that have come up in Denise’s class, and Hannah’s class, and all the different classes that you’ve taken. How are we going to marry them all together into a vision of success for you? There’s a lot about change, and being realistic, and adapting to change, and dealing with stressors that come up in your life, but if I was going to give you the one thing, I think it’s that ability to create a master plan to bring in lots of different elements.

And it’s kind of cool because my classes, people come to them from lots of different sports. I have a barn hunt person, a scent work person, an obedience person, an agility person, a drafting person. I usually get lots and lots of variety in the classes, dock diving people have shown up in my classes... so you get to see how all these different sports create these master plans, and sometimes you’re able to use ideas from different threads that you can carry over to your sport. So I really like that about my classes. I think it’s a quite cool way to do it.

The other class I’m running this semester is Unleash Personal Potential, which is the Gold-only class, which is basically whatever people want to do works. The lectures are just around mindfulness, but people do exactly what they want, so we might have somebody trying to peak for performance in March, or somebody who wants to know how to help their boyfriend like their dogs better, or somebody who wants to get a job in a dog-related field. Lots and lots of different things have come up in the class, and it’s a lot of fun too. It’s Gold only, and you have to have taken some class from me at some level to get into it.

Melissa Breau: Alright, I have one final question for you, Andrea… I wanted to ask you if you have any dog-related resolutions or goals that you’re planning on trying to achieve in the next year — at least any that you care to share?

Andrea Harrison: Great question. I always have goals, and I didn’t … I don’t think I blogged about it yet this year. If you look at December in my blog, you can see my goals most years. My goal for Sally and Thea is to keep them as healthy and happy as possible. Sally’s almost 12 and Thea’s 15, and they both have some chronic disease issues that mean they probably shouldn’t still be with us. So that’s my goal for the old guys. But the cobbler’s children, the two young dogs I’ve got, Dora and Yen, I’m quite determined to get Yen going, and I haven’t quite decided whether that means in public doing scent work or agility, or maybe both. She’s quite good at both. She’s a little flying squirrel, so I’ve got to figure out how to manage the flying squirrel, but apart from that, that’s my goal with her. Dora, I would like very much, because she’s feral and quite reactive and quite a character, I’m going to continue working on some of my online stuff. She’s working on her trick titles and has been doing quite well at them. I was thinking of adding parkour to it as well. And then personally, because I like agility and she likes agility, we’ll do some agility at home, because one of my real goals is to get out and keep doing some personal growth stuff for me, so attending some seminars, attending some workshops. I hope I’m going to be, if I’m invited, driving down to camp for one night, and hanging out for the afternoon and overnight and the morning after. That’s my intention, so to get to camp to see everybody. That’s actually high on the list of my personal dog goals. And yeah, I think it will be a fun year. I’m looking forward to doing lots of stuff. We’re also planning on holding an Iron Dog competition here at the farm. So that will be something new for me.

Melissa Breau: Oh, fun!

Andrea Harrison: We’re going to run one, I think, and a couple of FDSA students have offered to help, and I think it’ll be great, so I’m looking forward to setting that up. We have over 200 acres, including a lovely hill that’s quite steep, so we’re going to have options where you can do the Iron Dog thing or do a training thing. You choose your option, so that people will get different points for doing it, and it’ll be a little less of a physical challenge if you choose to do the training options all the way along. A nice walk with some training walks. So there’s lots going on in my life I’m looking forward to in a doggy sense for 2018.

Melissa Breau: I certainly hope you make it to camp, and do you want to mention where you’re located, in case there’s anybody listening who’s close enough to come out for the dog event?

Andrea Harrison: Oh yeah, yeah. I’m in Prince Edward County in Ontario, so in between Ottawa and Toronto, pretty well halfway in between Toronto and Ottawa, so a pretty, pretty part of the world. Lots of wineries and craft breweries and art galleries, and lots of things for spouses to do while you play with your dog in the morning. We’re a hotbed of tourism here. Oh, and you know something else I forgot to mention when we were talking about when you’re down and out and you can’t think of how to get going again, people would be more than welcome to pull one of my task cards out of the deck, so I will make sure I send you a link for how they can get a task card to re-motivate themselves.

Melissa Breau: Perfect. And just because I know you mentioned your blog earlier, and I’m assuming that would be the best place to get more info on the Iron Dog stuff, but correct me if I’m wrong, do you want to mention what your website is?

Andrea Harrison: It’s a blogspot. It’s Andrea Agility Addict at blogspot, and you’ll find it quickly. It’s got really good SEO, despite the fact that I’ve done no work on it, Melissa, you’d be proud of me.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. I will include a link to it in the show notes for anybody who wants to go check that out.

Andrea Harrison: Perfect.
Melissa Breau: Thank you so much, Andrea. I’m really glad you could come back on, and I honestly couldn’t think of a better time to talk goals, so thank you.

Andrea Harrison: It’s always a pleasure talking to you, Melissa, either on- or offline. I love our conversations, and I always feel like I’ve learned lots too, so thank you so much.

Melissa Breau: And thank you, to all of our listeners for tuning in, both this week and every week this year. We’ll be back next week, this time with Amy Cook to talk about the science of dog training.

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


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Dec 22, 2017


For our one year anniversary we're releasing a special edition of the podcast... a compilation of some of the most popular clips from the year in an extra long bonus episode. I hope you enjoy!


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 I’m here with Teri Martin -- for those of you who don’t know her, Teri is Denise’s right hand woman; she handles setting up the classes for all of you each session, plays tech support, and is the main organizer for camp each year.

Teri and I will be doing something a little different this episode… roughly a year ago today, December 23rd, I launched our very first episode, which was an interview with Denise Fenzi.

To celebrate our anniversary, today we’re going to reshare some of the more memorable moments from the last year. But before we dive into that, Teri is here with me to talk a little about the plans for FDSA Training Camp 2018.

Welcome to the podcast Teri! Excited to have you co-hosting this special episode with me.  

Teri Martin: Thanks, Melissa. Happy to be here.

Melissa Breau: Alright, to start us out, do you want to just remind everyone when and where camp is going to be next year?

Teri Martin: Camp is going to be June 1st to 3rd, that’s a Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and it’s going to be at the Roberts Centre/Eukanuba Hall in Wilmington, Ohio. I’m super excited about the venue. It’s going to have six different rings running and it’s going to be amazing.

Melissa Breau: I’m super excited because it’s the first year that it’s been close enough that I can drive, so I can bring a working dog, and I have a puppy, so can’t beat that.

Teri Martin: Cool.

Melissa Breau: How does registration work? I know it’s a little complicated and people tend to ask questions.

Teri Martin: Working spot registration is complicated. The regular stuff isn’t. Working spot are given priority registration, so there are two phases for those. The first one is Phase 1, and it’s going to open on January 8th at 9 a.m. Pacific Time. If you have eight or more courses at any level in FDSA, you will get an invitation to register for that phase. After that, we have Phase 2, which is for people who have four or more courses at any level. That will start January 10th. And then after that we open it to everybody. I should add that auditing is also available and you don’t need to register super early for that, but we do suggest you do at least fairly soon, but it’s not going to be the same as the demand for the working spots.

Melissa Breau: Can they start registering for that on the 8th, did you say?

Teri Martin: If you’re eight or more, then it will start on the 8th, and if you’re four or more it starts on the 2nd. And then general registration opens on the 15th.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. Where do people go for the official schedule and all the additional information that you’ve got out?

Teri Martin: Go to the FDSA website and it’s up on there under “More FDSA Education.” You will see a link for the training camp and all the information is there.

Melissa Breau: All right, last one -- what is your favorite thing about camp?

Teri Martin: Oh, so many things. For so many of us it’s getting to see all these people that we feel that we’ve formed these friendships with, and it’s just like you’re greeting an old friend that you haven’t seen for so long. And those instructors are exactly the same way as they appear when they’re giving you advice. They’re friendly and warm and funny and fabulous. So it’s just the sense of bringing that whole community together in real life and getting all inspired to go home and train your dog.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I’m so looking forward to it. It’s been an amazing experience the last few years being able to attend as a volunteer, and so I’m totally looking forward to seeing things from the other side!

Teri Martin: We’re going to miss having you as a volunteer, though.

Melissa Breau: I’ll be back next year. Do you want to introduce our first clip, or should I?

Teri Martin: (something about the question I asked that led to this -- how Denise’s training philosophy has influenced other aspects of her life -- maybe “First up is that first episode, an interview with Denise, from when you asked her…” ).

I think it’s pretty appropriate that we start with our fearless leader Denise. I think you had a question in the very first episode where you asked her how her training philosophy has influenced other aspects in her life, and for me that just totally sets the ground for how this whole wonderful school and the sense of community that surrounds it has come to be.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. Let’s play that clip.


Denise Fenzi: It’s been probably the most significant thing that’s happened in my entire life. When I changed how I trained dogs, you have to be pretty obtuse not to recognize that we all learn the same way. And if you’re a positive trainer with dogs and you really emphasize catching what they do right and ignoring what they do wrong, I mean, you really have to choose not to think about it, to realize that exactly the same thing is true with people. So for example both of my kids have very good manners, and I know how that came about in part. One thing is, I’m simply a respectful person and I encourage that.

But I remember our first outings to restaurants when they were smaller, and if they said they would order for themselves, and they would say please and show nice manners, the second that person would walk away from the table I would say to my husband who’d be there, “I am so proud that we have kids who are so respectful and have such good manners. It makes me happy to go places with them.” And you could almost see the difference the next time that opportunity came up again, you could almost see them go just a little bit further with their good manners.

And it’s not something I comment on any more, because they’re older, they’re 12 and 16, but they do it by habit. And I know that some part of their brain is always aware of it. So I’ve never said to them “Say please, say thank you,” I don’t tell them what to do, but when it happens I really work to catch those moments and acknowledge them. And I think dog training is a lot easier than child training, that’s just my perspective. But I try to work with that, and I try not to think in terms of getting my kids to go to school and do well because I’ve restricted the rest of their lives, and I try to think in terms of balance and cooperation.

Of course with people you can talk things out more. But at the end of the day if you’re having any kind of conflict with another person, whether it’s a family member or some random person you see on the street, the question I ask myself now is, do I want to feel better or do I want to change behavior? So if I want to feel better I may well behave badly, I may yell. I do yell, by the way. I do yell at my children, I do yell at my dogs. I know some people say, “That’s amazing you do, you’re not supposed to do that.” Well that’s great, I’m glad you’re all there. I’m not, so I will yell, “Get off the couch,” or whatever.

I’m not really training, I’m expressing my upsetness. So that’s, do I want to feel better? Yes, so I’m going to yell. Or somebody irritates me on the street because their dog runs up to mine and is off-leash, and so maybe I’m having a particularly bad day, and I might respond inappropriately. But then the second question is, do I want to change behavior? And I think recognizing that those are different things is really important because never, ever, ever am I yelling if I want to change behavior, and never am I talking to somebody like they’re dumb, or ignorant, or anything, because it’s all perspective, because they just have a different perspective.

So maybe they don’t understand that their off-leash dog running up to my old dog is a problem. And the reason it’s a problem is, my dog is old and she doesn’t like other dogs jumping on her. And I’ve had much better luck saying, “I know your dog is friendly, but my dog is very old and she has a lot of arthritis. And when your dog comes up like that it really scares her, and it hurts her.” And when I say that, without fail they apologize and they put their dogs on a leash. And I smile, I’m not angry. I might be inside, but I don’t show it. The next time I see them we continue with a pleasant set of interactions.

And that kind of thinking, do I want to feel better or do I want to change behavior, has been really quite impactful, whether in my family or with people. We often talk about with our dogs, sometimes dog trainers are a lot nicer to their dogs than people. I find that very incongruent, and I don’t like to live my life that way. I like my life to make sense. And I think we need to be very aware of not only how we treat our pets but show that same courtesy to each other, and I find that from there I am a happier person.

Because when you are kind with people instead of getting your emotions from stewing in your, "oh my God, I can’t believe how stupid that person is," that I understand that we take pleasure in those periods of time when we feel superior to other people, because I guess that’s where that comes from, I understand that.

But it is a short-lived and negative form of emotion, and in the long run it leaves you feeling worse about the world. Whereas when you take the time to think about things from somebody else’s point of view, I find that that leads to an understanding, and honestly it makes my life a lot better. It makes me a more pleasant and happy person, so that has a lot of value.


Melissa Breau: I think that one has really stuck with me. I think it’s really influenced what FDSA is and how it works, too.

Teri Martin: A little-known fun fact about all of that: As you know, we have a really active Facebook group that’s been so much of this community, and that started way back in November 2013, which was maybe two sessions in. There was a group of us that had taken both of these courses and were totally all excited about the FDSA thing and wanted to start a Facebook group. So I pushed Denise about it, and she was like, “Oh, you know, I’ve had so many bad experiences with groups. People get really nasty and mean, and I just don’t want to have that. Well, you guys can go ahead, if that’s what you want to do, but I don’t want to be part of it.” and then she comes back about a week later and she says, “You know what, I thought it over and I think this is actually a pretty good thing, so let’s go for it.” And from there on, the rest is history.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, think about how big a part that plays in the community today. It’s huge.

Teri Martin: Yes. And another fun fact is she has to be really nice to me, because I can actually kick her out of the group because I’m the original founder.

Melissa Breau: That’s funny. Since you brought up the early days, for our next clip let’s use the clip I have from Amy Cook, where she shares how she became one of the first instructors here at FDSA.


Melissa Breau: So I wanted to ask you too about the early days of FDSA because I believe, I think you actually told me that you were one of the first teachers that Denise brought on at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. So I was really curious to get some of your impressions on how you think it’s changed and kind of what happened when she initially approached you.

Amy Cook: Oh, boy. You know, it was standing in the right place at the right time, I swear. You know, she had taught online elsewhere and decided to do this endeavor, and I was just…I’m pretty sure I was just finishing grad school and saying, well, I guess I’m going back to dog training. I wasn’t sure what I had in store, I’ll just revamp or ramp up my business again, fine. And I can remember, I was standing near a freezer in her garage and I can’t exactly remember how it came up but she said, “We have a behavior arm, could you teach what you teach, teach a class in what you do?”

Boy, I felt…the answer was both yes and no. The answer is no because I’ve never done that, but the answer is yes because well, it has to be possible, right? Sure. I’ll certainly try it. I really wanted to do something like that. But for a second there I was like, really? Behavior? Behavior, though. I mean, behavior. It’s complicated. People are all over the place. Dogs are behaving all over the place. It’s a lot to…how will I do this online?

But I had faith. She really had vision early on for how this was going to go and we brainstormed, I was really excited about it. She actually came up with the title of the class, Dealing with the Bogeyman, that’s hers. She’s like, let’s call it that. I was like, sure. It was exciting. It was exciting times and I was really just like, well, I’m happy to run a class and see what I can do for people. If it’s something I don’t feel is resulting in improvements that are reasonable for the dogs I’m helping then it’s not right, then online is more suited for skill-based stuff and not so much the concepts or the complicated behaviors.

I shouldn’t have been afraid because it’s been amazing.


Teri Martin: It’s just so cool how all this online stuff works. There was a conversation elsewhere about this with Amy where she said she couldn’t believe how much her online students progressed. They get to digest all their information on their own time frame, they get their feedback quickly, they can take the time to set up the scenarios properly so they don’t get dogs overwhelmed, and can ask daily questions of the instructor. That’s just so more efficient than meeting once every two weeks. So it’s really a great way to work behaviour stuff.  

Melissa Breau: I think that was on her blog, where she wrote about the impact of online training.

Teri Martin: I know it’s come up a few times, so it very well could be in her blog.

Melissa Breau: Not only is it an awesome way for people to train where they can set up scenarios and whatnot, but because it’s online, it lets our students learn from some of the best trainers in the world, no matter where they live, it gives them access to these training concepts that maybe haven’t quite become widespread enough for there to be classes on those topics locally. I think a good example of that is Julie Flanery’s Imitation and Mimicry class. It’s this really interesting concept that I couldn’t imagine a local trainer trying to run a class on that. They’d be scrounging up students left and right. So I want to make sure we include a clip of her explaining that concept from her interview back in May.


Melissa Breau: You kind of mentioned shaping and luring in there, but you wrapped up a class on Imitation and Mimicry and I have to say that’s like such a fascinating concept. If you could start by just kind of explaining what that is for the listeners in case they’re not aware of it, and just kind of sharing how you got into that, that would be great.

Julie Flanery: Yeah. No, I’d love to. Imitation and Mimicry is a form of social learning or learning through observation, and we’ve long known it to be effective in human learning, but it wasn’t until probably the last 10 years or so that we’ve really seen any studies on its use in dog training. I first heard about it at a ClickerExpo, a talk that Ken Ramirez gave on concept training in dogs, and then further researched Dr. Claudia Fugazza’s study that she did, and in 2006 she created a protocol that showed that dogs can learn these new skills and behaviors by mimicking their owners and it’s her protocol that we use in class.

Also what’s fascinating is that Ken Ramirez has developed a protocol for a dog-dog imitation and mimicry, and some of the videos I’ve seen on that are just truly, truly amazing. So, things that we didn’t think were possible now we know are and we’re actually able to bring to more people now. The class was really quite inspirational for me because my experience of course had been limited with it in working with it with my own dog and then some of my live classes, my students there in my live classes, we worked through it, and when Denise asked me to do a class on it I was really excited, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and I have to say my students in that class are just amazing. They have really shown me what this protocol can do and how truly capable our dogs are of learning some of these concepts, so it’s been a really exciting class for me. And matter of fact, I’m going to go ahead and put it back on...I think it is already...Teri’s added it to the schedule for August, and so I’m really excited about doing it all over again.


Melissa Breau: I love that our instructors are really well versed in such a wide variety of animal-related training and research.

Teri Martin: No kidding! I think there’s been tons of podcasts where you’ve had discussions about all sorts of cool research with dogs including I think even Kamal talked about teaching dogs how to fly a plane. I listened to one with our newest agility instructor just recently, Barbara Currier, who said that she was doing some wonderful things in the field of service dogs.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Let’s give that a listen.


Melissa Breau: So, I have to say, kind of working on your bio, it seems like you’ve had the opportunity to do lots of different really interesting things, in the world of dogs, from animal wrangling to working on wearable computing, so I wanted to ask a little more about what you do now. Can you tell us just a little bit about the FIDO Program there, at Georgia Tech, and what you’re working on with the dogs there?

Barbara Currier: Sure. So, FIDO stands for Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations. My best friend, Dr. Melody Jackson, she’s a professor there, at Georgia Tech, and she runs the brain lab and the animal computer interaction lab. She came up with the idea of creating wearable computing for service dogs, military dogs, police, search and rescue, any type of working dog, and she asked me to come on to oversee the dog training aspects of the work. Within the last year, I’ve been really busy with travel, and so I, actually, haven’t been working a lot with them, on the project, and she’s actually taking over most of the dog training aspect, the pilot testing, with her dog, but up to this point, a lot of the stuff that they’ve created, it’s kind of funny, when I tell people what I do there, the team that creates all the stuff, it’s Melody Jackson and her lab partner Thad Starner, they’re brilliant people, and the students that all work there are super brilliant. I am not a techy person. I’m lucky if I can turn my computer on, I just train dogs, so I kind of compare it to like the Big Bang theory, and I’m Penny amongst all of these brilliant people, and they just say stuff and I’m like, that’s great, just tell me what you want the dogs to do. That’s, kind of, where my expertise is, and I don’t have any idea what the technical aspect of it is, but we’ve, actually, created some really cool things.

They’ve created a vest that a service dog is trained to activate that has a tug sensor on it, and so we had a woman come to us that had a speech problem where she doesn’t have, she can’t project her voice out very loudly, and she’s also wheelchair bound, and she was at the dog park, one day, with her dog, and her wheelchair got stuck in some mud, and she couldn’t holler to anybody because her voice just didn’t project like that, and she really needed, like, a way that she could send her service dog to get help to come back, and you know, but a dog running up to somebody, at a dog park, barking, nobody is going to think that’s anything unusual. So, they created a vest that has a computer on it, and the dog has a tug sensor, on the vest, so she can direct the dog to go to somebody, and the dog can go up and it will pull a tug sensor and the vest will actually say, excuse me, my handler needs assistance, please follow me, and the dog can bring that person back to the handler.  


Teri Martin: And how cool is that!  FDSA instructors have also been on the forefront of some of the new force free happenings with veterinary medicine. It makes so much sense to extend the positive philosophies when dealing with things that are so often necessary but not necessarily pleasant for the dog.  I think Debbie Gross has some great views on that?   

Melissa Breau: Yup, let’s roll that clip.


Melissa Breau: Now, I think that veterinarians and the medical field in general isn't always known as the most positive part of dog sports, so I'd love to get your take on that. How do positive training and rehabilitation overlap, and are there places where they just can't?

Debbie Gross: Yeah. And that's a very good question. I belong to an organization, I sit on the board called Fear Free, and their whole goal and mission is to establish fear-free veterinarians’ offices, rehab offices, looking at training facilities, boarding facilities, things like that, so it's all aimed at making sure the experience is positive and fear free. And certainly…you know, we laugh in our clinic because we're not the vet, so dogs come in and they know they're getting copious amounts of cookies, and it's going to be a great place, and they love it, and so I think it's very important to, you know, right off the bat we want to make sure the owner and the dog are very comfortable.

Certainly, dogs often will become fearful or potentially aggressive if they're in pain, so I always tell the trainers that I work with, assume that it's physical before behavioral. Now, I'll hear so many times from owners, "Oh, my dog didn’t want to do the A-frame this morning. It's probably because …" You know, they make something up and then get steak for dinner. They swear they don’t think like that. You know, they probably didn’t want to do something because they're in pain. Something like the A-frame puts a lot of stress on the dogs back, and the hips, and stuff like that, so understanding if a dog is fearful, or doesn’t want to do something, looking at the reason why, you know, so is it pain that is prohibiting them from doing something.

And certainly, some dogs are not candidates, like, we've turned dogs away because they're either too fearful, or they just can't do … they don’t want to do anything, and rather than forcing them, we won't do that, you know, and that's a little bit different than traditional vet medicine where dogs need to go in. They may need to get an exam, or their vaccinations, or things like that, but this fear free movement is fantastic, and you know, looks at everything from the lighting, their potential pheromones in the air to relax the dogs, and cats also, and other animals, so most the time in rehab dogs love it. They love coming into our office, and it's fun, and it's all positive, and you know, that's the way I want it to be. I mean, I love when the dogs pull their owners into the office, so you know that they're having a great time, so it's great.


Teri Martin: And of course, using positive training in places where it hasn’t historically been used,  carries over into training sports that have been resistant to positive methods too -- like IPO and Gun Dog sports.

Melissa Breau: Cassia offers positive gun dog training classes here at FDSA, so I wanted to include this clip from her on the importance of work and play.


Melissa Breau: I know I mentioned in your bio that you believe dog training should be a form of structured play. It sounds like that’s a little bit what you’re talking about, but can you explain a little more what that phrase means, or at least what it means to you, and what it looks like in practice, like within a training session?

Cassia Turcotte: Sure. I think that…I’m trying to think where I actually first heard that term, and it may have been even Lindsey that said it, but really, it’s…you know, I don’t want the dog to feel like what we’re doing is work. If you feel like you’re being dragged to work every day, it’s mentally hard, but if they go out and they go, oh my gosh, this is the coolest thing ever, I can’t wait to do more of it, then the attitude’s up, the motivation’s up, and you don’t have any trouble with compliance.

You know, they’re really willing to play the game, and it’s fun. It’s fun for me and it’s fun for them, so you know, it’s one of the things…you know, how would it look in a training session? One of the things that we do in field work is called the walk up, and all that is, is a bumper is thrown in the air as you’re heeling with the dog, and it’s thrown in front of the dog, and the point of it is to challenge the dog to stay heeling and stay steady with you, and the traditional way would be to correct them for not doing that.

So in our way, we jackpot with Chuckit! ball or tug or food as a reinforcement for being steady, you know, so they see the bumper go up, and they sit, and we say, “Oh my gosh, that’s awesome,” and we throw a Chuckit! ball in the opposite direction, and so it’s all a game, and it’s about keeping them guessing and mentally challenging them and getting it so that they really understand what they’re being asked to do, and they’re not just corrected for not understanding. So I think that’s pretty much what it would look like in an average day.


Melissa Breau: We also mentioned IPO, before sharing that clip from Cassia, and the trainer best known for that at FDSA, hands down, is Shade Whitesel.

With driven dogs, frustration problems can be a real issue; Shade has spent the last few years looking at how to prevent frustration through clear communication. During her interview back in February, she talked about location specific markers, which are one of the things she’s known for here at the school.

Teri Martin: I’m taking Shade’s class right now with my young, 6-month-old puppy, and I’m absolutely loving this concept. It’s really cool to see the clarification in how my dog knows that chase means [26:33] and you get the ball and [26:34] grab it out of my hands and [26:37] you can see the clarity, so I’m happy to see this clip.


Shade Whitesel: No matter how you train, communicating as clearly as possible is so important, because 99.9 percent of our problems are due to the unclarity of our teaching.

And all of our problems with dogs — I mean it’s really our problem it’s not theirs — go away when you look at the clarity, or more accurately the ‘not clarity’ of your teaching.

When your communication is clear arousal levels go down, frustration from your learner dog goes down, and you get more confident and fluent behaviors from them. And this holds true over trialing, over living with them, over everything, just to be as clear as possible and predictable, that goes into predictability too. So, no matter what method you do that is just so important I think — obviously, since I talk about it.

Melissa Breau: So, I think one really good example of that is the work you’ve done with location specific markers. Do you mind just briefly kind of explaining what that means and kind of how you use them?

Shade Whitesel: You know, markers are such a good thing and people are exploring them, and figuring out that it’s really nice to bridge what behavior your dogs doing to get their reward. Tell the dog where to collect their reinforcement, like, technically I want a different marker that means collect it from my hands, whether that’s food or a toy and I want a different marker that means collect it away from there, whether it’s go pick-up the toy on the ground or whether I’m going to throw the toy, and again it’s just that clarity. And I notice with my own dogs if I had a different marker word for, “Strike the tug out of my hand,” versus, “I’m going to throw it,” the dog stopped mugging me, they stopped looking for where the toy was all the time when I was asking for behaviors. Because they knew that I would tell them exactly how to get their reinforcement. And again, it just goes back to the clarity.

So, location specific markers is just the dog knows exactly where to go and they don’t have to be checking where the toy is or the food — is the food in your pocket? Is it over there in the dish? Because you’re going to tell them so they can put 100 percent of their attention to figuring out what behavior you want them to do, because they can trust that you’re going to tell them where the reinforcement is.


Melissa Breau: The other person who really focuses on helping frustrated dogs at FDSA is Sarah Stremming. Sarah has her own podcast, but I’ve been lucky enough to chat with her twice so far, and wanted to share her take on frustrated dogs vs. dogs who just lack impulse control.

Teri Martin: Let’s roll that clip.


Sarah Stremming: I think that for the worked-up types of dogs the most common misconception that I hear about is that these dogs lack impulse control, that a lack of impulse control is the problem. Or that a lack of … if we’re going to be very accurate, we would be saying a lack of impulse control training is a problem. Just the phrase “impulse control” makes my eye twitch just a little bit because I think that it implies that there’s this intrinsic flaw in these dogs that if they can’t control themselves that there’s something wrong with them, or that teaching them to control their impulses is something that we can do. I don’t think that we can control their impulses one way or another. We can certainly control their behaviors with reinforcement. Whether or not we’re controlling their impulses is probably one of those things that we would have to ask them about, kind of like asking them if they were lonely and if that was why they were jumping all over the person coming home. So I like to stay away from stating that lack of impulse control is a problem. I also think that in agility specifically we accept that our dogs will be in extremely high states of arousal and be kind of losing their mind, and we almost want them that way, and any kind of calmness is frowned upon. The dogs that are selected to breed for the sport tend to be the frantic, loud, fast ones, and looking at behaviors, there’s just kind of a distaste in agility, I feel — and I’m going to get a million e-mails about this — I love agility, people! I love agility! I’m just going to put that out there! But there is a distaste for calm and methodical behaviors in agility. We push for speed, speed, speed from the beginning, and we forget that sometimes maybe we should shut up and let the dog think through the problem. So I think, to get back to your original question, “What’s the misconception?” The misconception is that we need to put them in a highly aroused state to create a good sport dog, and that impulse control is the be-all, end-all of these things. And then, for the hidden-potential dogs, I think the misconception is just that they lack work ethic. They say, “These dogs they lack work ethic, they give you nothing, they don’t want to try, they’re low drive,” yada yada. I think that’s all misconceptions. Everything comes back to reinforcement. When you realize that reinforcement is the solution to everything, you can start to solve your problems and quit slapping labels on the dogs you’re working with.


Teri Martin: I love that. She says, “Shut up and let the dog think,” and also that she says to quit slapping labels on the dogs, because we see so much of that. I love how she’s challenging people to think outside the box on all those arousal questions.

Melissa Breau: I couldn’t agree more. Those are definitely topics that have come up again and again on the podcast, just the idea of not labeling your dog and giving your dog time to process through things. But they definitely aren’t the only running themes. I think probably one of the most popular things I’ve heard, talking to FDSA instructors at least, is how important foundation skills are, and how much of a difference a strong foundation can really make. In fact, Kamal said it was his absolute favorite thing to teach.

Teri Martin: Cool. Let’s hear.


Kamal Fernandez: My actual favorite topic is foundations for any dog sport -- that is by far my favorite topic, because that’s where all the good stuff happens. That’s where you really lay your… well, your foundations, for a successful career in any dog discipline. And I think the irony is that people always want to move on to what I would qualify as the sexy stuff, but the irony is the sexy stuff is actually easy if your foundations are laid solidly and firmly. And I think I’ve had more  “ah-ha” moments when I teach foundations to people than I have with anything else. I also, i have to say, i like behavioral issues. You can make GREAT impact, and literally change somebody’s life and their dog’s life, or save somebody’s life with behavioral work and giving them a new take on how they deal with their dog at present, but i would say really, really extreme behavioral cases are really, really juicy to get involved in, and dogs that people say they’re on the cusp of writing the dog off, and the dog is so phobic or aggressive or dog reactive or whatever the case may be, and you can literally turn that person and that dog’s relationship around. That’s really rewarding and enjoyable to work with. But I would say as a standard seminar, I would say foundations by far. It’s just you’ve got young, green dogs, you can see the light bulbs going off for the dogs, you can see the pieces being strung together, that are going to ultimately lead to the dog being this amazing competitive dog, and you can see it literally unfold before your eyes.


Teri Martin: Foundations are one of those things that keep coming up. We see it at camp all the time. People think it’s part of an exercise that’s wrong, and it’s something that’s in that exercise, but nine times out of the ten it comes back to how that foundation was taught.

Melissa Breau: I definitely want to share one more clip on that because, like you said, it’s constantly coming up. This next one’s from Deb Jones, who’s known for covering all of the awesome foundation skills in her Performance Fundamentals class and her Get Focused class. So I asked her that exact question: Why are foundations so important.


Melissa Breau: Right, so both the Focused class and your current class, the Performance Fundamentals class, seem to fall into that foundations category, right? So I wanted to ask you what you thought it was so…what is it about building a good foundation that is so critical when it comes to dog sports?

Deb Jones: Foundation really is everything. I truly believe that. If you do your foundations well you won’t run into problems later on or…I won’t say you won’t. You won’t run into as many problems later on or if you do run into problems you will have a way to fix them because the problem is in the foundation. Ninety-nine percent of the time something wasn’t taught to fluency or you left something out somewhere. You’ve got a gap or a hole, so going back to foundation and making it strong is always the answer. It’s never a wrong thing to do.

So I really like being able to try to get in that really strong basis for everything else you want. I don’t care what sport people are going into or even if they’re not going into sport at all. If they just like training and they want to train their dog this…a good foundation prepares you for any direction in the future because oftentimes we change direction. You have a dog you think you’re going to be doing obedience with, but if you focus in the beginning too much on obedience behaviors, it may end up that dog just isn’t right for that, and so you have kind of these gaps for.. "Oh well, let’s see if I want to switch to agility. Now I need to train a new set of behaviors." We don’t want that to happen, so we’ve got the foundation for pretty much everything.


Teri Martin: So true what Deb says. Having those foundations just sets up the basis for everything we do in a dog’s life, including how they have to function in our society today ... which I believe takes us nicely into our next clip, which is Heather Lawson talking about life skills in her Hound About Town classes.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. Let’s let it roll.


Melissa Breau: Now, you didn’t touch on two of the things that stood out to me when I was looking at the syllabus, which were the Do Nothing training, and Coffee Anyone, so what are those and obviously how do you address them in class?

Heather Lawson: Yeah. I always get kind of weird sideways looks when I talk about Do Nothing training, because it’s kind of like…people say, ‘What do you mean do nothing training,’ and I say, “Well, how often do you just work on having your dog do nothing,” and everybody looks at me, “Well, you don’t work on having the dog do nothing,” and I say, “Oh yeah, you do.” That’s what we call settle on the mat, chill, learn how to not bug me every time I sit down at the computer to do some work, not bark at me every time I stop to chat with the neighbor, stop pulling me in all different ways, so it’s kind of like just do nothing, because if you think about it the first maybe six months of your dog’s life it’s all about the dog and the puppy.

Then when they get to look a little bit more adult all of a sudden they’re no longer the center of attention, but because they’ve been the center of attention for that first eight weeks to six months, and there’s been all this excitement whenever they’re out and people stop, and you chat or you do anything, it’s very hard for the dog all of a sudden now to have this cut off and just not be acknowledged, and this is where you then get the demand barking, or the jumping on the owner, or the jumping on other people to get that attention, whereas if you teach that right in the very beginning, okay, and teach your puppies how to settle, whether it be in an x pen, or in a crate, or even on a mat beside you while you’re watching your favorite TV show. If you teach them to settle, and how to turn it off then you’re going to not have that much of a problem going forward as they get older.

The other thing, too, is that by teaching the dogs all of these different things that we want to teach them, that’s great, and that’s fabulous, and we should be doing that, but most dogs aren’t active 100 percent of the time, they’re active maybe 10 percent of the time. The other 90 percent they’re chilling out, they’re sleeping, they’re…while their owners are away working if they’re not lucky enough to be taken out for a daily hike, then they’ve got to learn how to turn it off, and if we can teach them that in the early stages you don’t end up with severe behavior problems going forward, and I’ve done that with all of my puppies, and my favorite place to train the “do nothing” training is actually in the bathroom.

What I do with that is my puppies, they get out first thing in the morning, they go their potty, they come back in, we get a chewy or a bully stick, or a Kong filled with food, and puppy goes into the bathroom with me and there’s a mat, they get to lay down on the mat and that’s when I get to take my shower, and all of my dogs, even to this day, even my 11-year-old, if I’m showering and the door’s open they come in and they go right to their mat and they go to sleep, and they wait for me, and that’s that “do nothing” training, right, and that actually even follows into loose leash walking. If you take that “do nothing” training how often are you out in your loose leash walking and you stop and chat to the neighbor, or you stop and you are window shopping, or anything else that you when you’re out and about. If your dog won’t even connect with you at the end of the line, then just…they won’t even pay attention to you while you’re standing there, or they create a fuss, then the chances of you getting successful loose leash walking going forward is going to be fairly slim, okay.  

The other thing that you mentioned was the coffee shop training, and that is nowadays people go and they meet at the coffee shop, or they go for lunch, and more and more people are able to take their dogs to lunch, providing they sit out on a patio, and on the occasion where the dog is allowed to stay close to you we teach the dogs to either go under the table and chill or go and lay beside the chair and chill, and teach them how to lay there, switch off, watch the world go by. Even if the waiter comes up, you just chill out and just relax and that allows the dog, again because they’ve got good manners, to be welcomed even more places.

Melissa Breau: Right. It makes it so that you feel comfortable taking them with you to lunch or out.

Heather Lawson: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. There’s lots of places that dogs can go, providing, and they’re welcome, providing they do have those good manners, and if we can keep those good manners going then regardless of whether or not your dog sports or not, it just opens up the avenues for so much more of us to do…more things to do with our dogs.


Melissa Breau: Of course training and competition aren’t entirely about our dogs… we play a big role in their success or failure in the ring. And that can lead to some serious ring nerves on both ends of the leash.

Teri Martin: It always comes back to us, doesn’t it? But the good news is FDSA has our resident “people trainer,” Andrea Harrison, to help us with this.  


Melissa Breau: So let’s dig into a couple of those specifically just a little bit more, because I know there are a couple that we talked about a little bit before the podcast and whatnot as being particularly important. So I wanted to dig into this idea of kind of ring nerves and people experiencing nerves before a competition, things that really impact their handling. I was hoping you could talk a little more about that, maybe include a tip or two listeners can use when it comes to ring nerves and tackling it themselves.

Andrea Harrison: Yes. For sure. One of the things I really encourage people to do is test those tools. So people go off to a trial and they’re really, really, really nervous, but they don’t know whether those nerves are physical, right, or in their head, or if they’re affecting the dog at all, right? Because they’ve never really thought about it. All they know is that they’re really, really, really nervous. They feel sick but they don’t know is it in their tummy, is it in their head, is it their respiration, is it sweat glands, is it all of them, right? They haven’t thought about it, they know it makes them feel sick so they push it aside, they don’t work on it between trials, they go back to a trial and they’re like, oh my God, I was nervous again. Well, of course you were nervous again. You didn’t try working on anything, right?

So like everything else it’s almost like a training exercise. You have to think about what is making you nervous, how are you manifesting those nerves, and how can you break them down? It’s just the same, right, just the same as positive dog training. Break it down into these tiny little pieces that you can then find a tool to address.

So for example, if your mouth gets really, really dry and that distracts you and you start sort of chewing cud, as it were, as a cow, you’re like, trying to get the water back in your mouth and it makes you nervous. Well, once you figure that out you take peppermints with you in the car, you suck on a peppermint before you go in the ring, and that’s gone away. Right? And that’s gone away so you feel more comfortable so you can concentrate on the thing you need to concentrate on, right?

You want to always build to those results slowly. When you look at the nerves, I can’t say to you, “Here’s my magic wand, I’m going to wave it over you and all your nerves will be gone.” But you get that sick, sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, why is that? Are you remembering to eat the day before a trial? Are you eating too much the day before a trial? Are you remembering to go to the bathroom? Because when you’re nervous you have to go to the bathroom, so make sure you make time to go to the bathroom because then there’s less to cramp in your tummy, right?

So step by step by step, you know, you make a plan, you look at the plan. What kind of music should you listen to on the way to the show? Should you listen to a podcast that’s inspirational to you? Should you put together an inspirational play tack? Do you know exactly where the show is? If you’re anxious and worried and always run late, for Lord’s sake, please drive to the trial ahead of time or Google Map it really carefully and build yourself in 15 minutes extra, because being late to that trial is not going to help your nerves. You’re going to arrive, you’re going to be panicked, you’re going to be stressed.

So where is that stress coming from? How are those nerves manifesting themselves, right? So the music that you listen to on the way, having the mint if your breath is dry, remembering to go to the bathroom, thinking about what I call Andrea’s Rule of Five. So Rule of Five is really simple. Is it going to matter in five minutes? Five hours? Five days? Five years? Right? So if something is stressing you out you can actually stop, ground yourself, which I’ll get into in a sec, but ground yourself and think, Rule of Five. And the vast majority of the time, yeah, it might matter in five minutes because your run will just be over and it was not successful and you’re embarrassed, maybe, or maybe it was great, and like, super.

But very, very few of us are going to remember a run in even five months, let alone five years. I mean, you might remember in general, but your anxiety is not going to still be there, right? I mean, a great run you can remember. I can probably still tell you the details of some of Brody’s amazing agility runs or Sally’s amazing work, right? Like, I can describe going from the A-frame around to the tunnel and picking him up and staying connected and it was beautiful. I can remember the errors of enthusiasm, right, like when he took an off-course tunnel, and he’s never done that in his life, and I was like, oh my God, he took an off-course tunnel. That’s amazing. That’s so cool, and we celebrated. So I just loved that he was that happy about it. But do I remember those very first, early trials where…do I remember the courses where I stood thinking, I’m never going to get my agility dog to Canada? No. I don’t really remember. I remember being sad that he was three seconds over the time and _____ (18:35) [47:44], and that was kind of sucky, but it was okay, right? Like, now with all this perspective it’s fine.


Teri Martin: There’s a lot, really, that affects both ends of the leash. After all, we’re all learners… it can be easy to forget that sometimes.

Melissa Breau: Nancy, for example, shared during her interview how her father influenced her training. He was a football coach, and she’s a dog trainer, but that doesn’t matter -- because it’s all training. Let’s listen to that clip.


Nancy Gagliardi Little: He was a master at analysis, details and creative solutions and i think that's something that I've either inherited or I've learned from him.

Melissa Breau: I was going to say, even just listening to you I can hear the parallels to dog sports; just the idea that breaking things down into pieces and foundation skills.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Exactly. This is the other piece that I think is so cool is he expected them to be excellent players, as well as excellent human beings, and he believes in people, and he respects people, loves to learn about people. There's so much about his coaching that parallels the way I train my dogs because I expect and focus on their excellence too. I believe in my dogs -- I always believe in them. I believe they're right and they're telling me things. I listen to them and try to make changes to my training based on what they need. Those are all things that my dad taught me from the way he coached his players. There are so many parallels between coaching and dog training; just his way of coaching, it helped me as a dog trainer.

Melissa Breau: I'd really love to hear how you describe your training philosophy now -- what's really important to you? Or what do you see as the big things that you believe in how you believe in training when you work with dogs today?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Well, I guess to sum it up, it's not a really long philosophy. What sums it up for me is I just always look at my dogs as my coaches. So the dogs are my coaches, whether they're my students' dogs, whether they’re my dogs, they're the ones who they're helping me develop a plan, and I like to think of it that way because it keeps me always evaluating and looking at things.


Teri Martin: Dogs as coaches is one of those gifts that sometimes takes us in new directions we never expected. Take Stacy Barnett, nosework instructor, for example. She sort of fell into that sport because of her dog, Judd, just needed to have something, and now it’s  turned into this incredible passion for scent sports. I think she talks about that on her podcast and how the sport is so good for dogs that might struggle in some of the more traditional sport venues.

Melissa Breau: She did! Let’s give that a listen.


Stacy Barnett: Nose work is not only a confidence builder. It can also help reactive dogs. Nose work itself is very reactive-dog friendly in those venues because the dog doesn't have to work within eyeshot or earshot of another dog. They get to work on their own. However, it really does help from a confidence perspective. The sense of smell is actually pretty amazing. It goes through the limbic system, which means that it goes through the hippocampus and the amygdala. So the amygdala is kind of the fight or flight area, and the hippocampus is responsible for developing those early memories.

So what happens is, is that the dog is scenting, and the dog is using about one-eighth of his brain with scenting, and this is all going through this system that’s responsible for emotion and responsible for memory. If we can develop this positive feeling toward sensing and toward scent, we can actually help to put the dog into a really good space so that they can work, and also, you know, as long as you’re working the dog under threshold, the dog is able to continue to work and will actually become more confident over time and actually less reactive over time.

I saw this particularly with my little dog, Why. When he came to me, he could not work at all away from the house. He was also fairly reactive to other dogs. Had about 100-foot visual threshold to seeing other dogs. Now, through nose work, he has developed a lot of confidence. He’s now able to search in novel environments with very little acclimation, and he’s also quite a bit less reactive. He’s got about an eight-foot visual threshold now to other dogs, which I think is absolutely amazing. So the behavioral benefits, especially for a dog like Why, they’re off the charts. Absolutely off the charts.


Melissa Breau: It has been a lot of fun to see the sport of Nosework grow so quickly in the last few years. The AKC has even added it to their list of sports. I caught up with Julie Symons on the new handler scent portion that is part of the new Scent Work competition program with the AKC in Episode 39.


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

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

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

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


Melissa Breau: And while we’re talking nosework, we have to include a clip from my call with Melissa Chandler. Like Stacy, nosework became her passion after she saw the positive effect it could have on a more sensitive dog, like her dog Edge.

Teri Martin: I think there’s some really great takeaways for handlers who have softer dogs in that interview.


Melissa Breau: Now, having worked with a soft dog, do you have tips for others who have soft dogs, kind of to help them let their dog shine or that they should know about setting up training sessions? I mean, what kind of advice would you share?

Melissa Chandler: Sure, this is another subject that I did a lot of research and I attended a lot of different seminars to try and get information, mostly to help Edge, and I think, first and foremost, it’s so important to keep your dog safe and build their trust because once they trust you, that you will keep them safe, that gives them more confidence, and as I always tell my dogs, I have a cue, it’s called “I have your back.” So, if they see something and they get concerned, I’m like, “I got your back.” So, that’s our communication of whatever it is, I see it, you’re fine, I got you, and it just takes time and by keeping them safe you build that trust that they know that you do have them.

I would say never lure or trick your dog into doing something that they don’t feel comfortable doing. Sometimes we find that in parkour because someone really thinks their dog should be able to do that behavior and the dog doesn’t feel comfortable in that environment, so they tried to take cookies and lure them there. Just back off, work on it somewhere else, and eventually it’ll happen. If you lure them, and then they get up there and they’re really afraid, they’re never going to want to do it again. If you let them do it on their own then they’ll be able to do that anywhere in the future.

Teach new behaviors in a familiar, comfortable environment, and then when you’re ready to take it to another room or on the road, lower your criteria and reward any effort that the dog gives you in trying to do that for you. And one thing, when you’re setting up your training sessions, make sure you’re not always asking for difficult behaviors or, in nose work, difficult searches. You want your dog to always look forward to and succeed in your training sessions. If your sessions are always difficult and challenging your dog will no longer look forward to them. Have fun sessions that you reward everything, or just play, or do whatever your dog enjoys most. I had mentioned how much Edge loved his dumbbell, there’s times we just go in the other room and we play with the dumbbell and he loves that, and just think of the value you’re building in your relationship in your training because we just went and did what he loves doing.

And then, for nose work, play foundation games. Just have one or two boxes out, do the shell game, play with your game boxes so it’s fun, fast, quick, highly rewarding searches. And, I have a thing that I put in most of my classes, it’s kind of like your recalls but it’s for odor. How much value do you have in your odor bank. And, when you set up these fun, fast, foundation games, you’re putting lots of value in your odor bank so, then when you have a more challenging side, you have deposits in that odor bank that they can pull out in order to work harder to find that odor.


Melissa Breau: Gotta love those tips from Melissa C. So our next two clips, I think, really speak to Denise’s sixth sense for bringing on new trainers… she seems to excel at tracking down people who really are incredibly good at what they do, but who also truly imbue the FDSA additude.

Teri Martin: I agree. I think our next clip, from Chrissi Schranz, really shows what that attitude is all about.


Melissa Breau: So I wanted to get into your training philosophy, and lucky me, I got a sneak peek before we started. You sent me over the link for this, but I’d love to have you kind of share your training philosophy and how you describe your approach, and for those of you who are going to want to see this after she talks about it, there will be a link to the comic in the show notes.

Chrissi Schranz: Yeah, so I’d say my training philosophy is based on my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. So Calvin has a shovel and he’s digging a hole, and then Hobbes comes up and asks him why he’s digging a hole, and Calvin says he’s looking for buried treasure. Hobbes asks him what he has found, and Calvin starts naming all kinds of things, like dirty rocks and roots and some disgusting grubs, and then Hobbes gets really excited, and he’s like, “Wow, on your first try?” And Calvin says, “Yes. There’s treasure everywhere,” and that is the kind of experience I want people and their dogs to have with each other.

I want them to feel like life is an adventure, and there’s so many exciting things to be discovered that they can do together. I want people to learn to look at the world through their dog’s eyes a little bit and find this pleasure and just be together, and doing things and discovering things, whether that’s digging a hole or playing in dog sports. Yeah, I want them to feel like they’re friends and partners in crime and have that Calvin and Hobbes kind of relationship, because I believe if you have that kind of relationship as a foundation, you can do pretty much anything you want, no matter whether you want to have a dog you can take anywhere or whether you want to compete and do well in dog sports. I think if you have that kind of relationship as a basis, everything is possible.


Melissa Breau: I like that… “Everything is possible.” You certainly can’t predict how far a handler and dog can go, if they build a fantastic relationship. Sue Yanoff talked to that a bit too -- she had some great things to say about how our relationship with our dog makes us a great advocate when they need medical care.


Melissa Breau: Is there anything in particular about veterinary medicine that sports handlers often just don’t understand?

Sue Yanoff: Yeah. I don’t think it’s just sports handlers. I think it’s a lot of people. Veterinary medicine is a science, and the decisions that we make have to be based on science, and not just what people think, or what they heard, and so when you’re making a decision about what the best diagnostics are for a condition, or how best to treat the condition, it has to be based on a series of cases, not just on what somebody thinks, and I go a lot based on what I learn at continuing education conferences, and what I read in the veterinary literature. Because papers that are published in peer reviewed journals are scrutinized to make sure that the science behind the conclusions are valid.

So while, you know, it’s fine for somebody to say , “Well, I did this with my dog and he did great,” what I want to make my decisions on is what worked well for many dogs, dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of dogs, and not just something that might have worked for your dog where we don’t even know if the diagnosis was the same. So I think I want people to know that veterinary medicine is a science, and we have to make our decisions based on science.

Melissa Breau: I think that, you know, especially with the internet these days it’s very common for people to turn to their favorite local forum, and be like well what should I do, but…

Sue Yanoff: I know, like, let me get advice from everybody, and I know it’s hard to make decisions when it involves your dog and you’re emotionally involved, and that’s one of the reasons I want to teach this class, to give people information that they can use to make those hard decisions.

Melissa Breau: What about the reverse? Are there things about sports that you think most vets just they don’t understand?

Sue Yanoff: Oh yes. Yes there’s a lot. Unless you’re a vet who’s involved in this thing, most vets don’t understand the time and the effort, and the emotion, and the money that goes into the training, and the trialing that we do. They don’t understand the special relationship that we have with our dogs when we put the time and effort into training them. I have had dogs that were wonderful pets, and I loved them, but I never showed them for one reason or another, and there is a different relationship when you accomplish something special with that dog. So I think that’s important thing.

The other thing that most vets don’t understand, and might not agree with, but I have had some clients where we have diagnosed an injury, and said, “Okay, we need to restrict activity, and do the conservative treatment route,” and they say, “I will, but my national specialty is next week, and she’s entered in whatever class.” Or they say, “I have a herding finals coming up in two weeks, and I really want to run her in those trials,” and I’m okay with that if the dog has an injury that I don’t think is likely to get much worse by doing a little more training, or trialing, then I’ll say, “Okay. Well, let’s do this in the meantime, and when you’re done with your national or with your specialty or whatever, come on back and we’ll start treatment.”

So I think a lot of vets would not understand that point of view, but I’m okay with it as long as I don’t think that it’s going to do serious harm to the dog, and as long as the owner understands that there’s, you know, a slight chance that things could get worse.


Teri Martin: One of the great things about all these podcasts is hearing all the instructors’ personal stories. For example, you’ve just gotta love a Sue Ailsby story. Her talk stories are well worth the price of admission in any of her classes.

Melissa Breau: She shared a great story about her cross-over dog when we talked.


Sue Ailsby: The first dog I trained, it wasn’t clicker training but it was without corrections, was a Giant Schnauzer and I got her to about eight months and it was glorious. And we were getting ready for an obedience trial and I’m heeling along, and part of my brain is saying, isn’t this glorious? She’s never had a correction and she’s heeling. And the other half of my brain is saying, but she doesn’t know she has to. And then the first part, why should she know she has to? She knows she wants to, but she doesn’t know she has to.

I’m going to put a choke chain on her and I’m just going to tell her that she has to. This is not negotiable. You don’t want to put a choke chain on her, you’ve spent eight months telling her how to enjoy this and you’re going to put a choke chain on her? I can handle it. So I put the choker on and we’re heeling along, and she just glanced away for a second. She didn’t quit or anything, she just, her eyes flicked away and I gave her a little pop on the chain, and my good angel is screaming, “Don’t. Don’t do that.” And the bad angel is, “She can’t refuse.”

And she kind of... “What was that?” And I say okay, so we go on and a few minutes later her eyes flick away again and I give her another shot with the collar. And she stopped and the angel is saying, “Now you’ve done it. You’ve ruined it completely. Why don’t you just go shoot yourself right now.” And the devil is saying, “I could just give her another shot. She can’t just stop.” So she stood there for a minute with a confused look on her face and then her ears came up and her tail came up and she started wagging her tail and she got all excited, and she ran around and started heeling on my right side.

Melissa Breau: Okay.

Sue Ailsby: Okay? Heeling is good, I like to heel. Heeling on the left just became dangerous, let’s do it on the right side instead. And I just sank to the floor and I’m sobbing and apologizing. That was the last time I ever had a choke chain on a dog.

Melissa Breau: She showed you.

Sue Ailsby: She sure did. Oh my goodness. And what an amazing solution.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. She was brilliant.


Teri Martin: Sue was such a great pioneer with her Training Levels and early days of clicker training and she is so willing to share her experiences both good and bad with such amazing style and humour. You’ve got to love her.  

So now we’re getting close to the end of the episode, and Melissa, seeing as how you’ve asked this question in every single podcast, it’s your turn. I wanted to ask you… what’s your favorite piece of training advice?

Melissa Breau: Hmmm. I think if i had to share just one piece of advice, it would be to take a class at FDSA. I don’t even think it matters which one… pretty much any class you take, you’re guaranteed to learn something and have fun with your dog.

Teri Martin: And, since that question is consistently one of the most popular parts of all episodes, to end things tonight we’ve rounded up a bunch of responses to that question, starting with Hannah Branigan’s response from Episode 3.


Melissa Breau: So, what is the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?

Hannah Branigan: Oh, that one's easy. So, Leslie Nelson: "When in doubt, throw food."

And I fall back on that all the time. Whenever there's a question, something weird comes up in a training session or even at home, I don't know what to do right now, that was a very weird behavior and I have no idea how I should handle it, throw a handful of food on the ground, and while they're gobbling the food, I can think about my solution, and it turns out that there's a whole lot of behavior problems out there in the world that we can solve in very practical ways by throwing a handful of food at them.


Melissa Breau: And a response from Donna Hill.

Donna Hill: Not specifically training related although it totally is relevant. Many years ago, I think I was about twelve or thirteen, my older brother who's quite a bit older than I am. I'm the youngest of five kids and there's a bit of a gap between me and the previous four and I'm also the youngest of three girls and back then it was the old hope chest. I don’t if you’d remember what those, were but they were kind of the hope for the future when you get married. There’s things you started collecting in preparation for that. Kind of an old-fashioned concept I know, but whatever, that’s my family.

Anyway, so many years ago when I was about twelve or thirteen, he gave me this little trivet, which is like basically a hot plate that you can put a pot on the stove and stuff on the counter. It’s just this little metal thing and it had a picture of a little yellow tacky caterpillar on it. But it had a little quote on it, and the quote said, “Yard by yard, life is hard. Inch by inch, it’s a cinch!” For some reason it really struck me and I have really taken that to heart and I've applied that to almost everything I do in life.

When I’m faced with something hard, I know it's not this big thing. I can break it down into smaller pieces and we can get through it step by step by step, and ultimately get the final goal that I wanted. And of course dog training is EXACTLY that. It's all about these teeny tiny little pieces that get you to that final goal, that final behavior, the competition, whatever it is that’s at the end. So I take that and apply it in many different ways in my life, and training certainly.


Teri Martin: Episode 26 with Nancy Tucker…


Nancy Tucker: The advice that’s always stuck with me and that I incorporate into every single training scenario is that the learner is always right. So if I’m trying to teach a dog something and he keeps offering me the wrong behavior, the problem lies with me as the teacher. The dog is doing the right thing. If I want him to do something different, I’m the one who needs to adjust my approach, so I think that that has been the handiest piece of advice, the most, uh, what's the word I'm looking for? Not handy…not convenient.

Melissa Breau: Applicable?

Nancy Tucker: Yes. Yeah. For any scenario.


Melissa Breau: Love that. This next one is from Amy Johnson, on photography and dog training.


Melissa Breau: What is the best piece of advice, and this can be either production or photography, that you've ever heard, and bonus points if it applies to both, but it doesn’t have to.

Amy Johnson: The best thing that I've learned to do over the years, and I don’t know that it's ever been told to me exclusively, but it's the thing that I have learned to do is to slow down, and to think, and to just breath, and so that is the thing that I try and tell my students all the time because there's this urge to…the action in front of me is happening really fast and so that means I have to grab my camera fast, and throw it up to my face, and press the shutter, and get the picture really fast, and it doesn’t work that way, or it doesn’t work well that way. So taking a moment to make sure your camera is set correctly for the situation you're trying to photograph, making sure that you understand what's going on in front of you, and can maybe anticipate what's going to happen next, and then just breathing, because if you get out of breath or find yourself holding your breath because you're just so excited you end up messing it up more often than not. And that advice I think applies to dog training as well. Slow down, think, just breathe, and that kind of brings you back to center, and lets you focus on what's important, and focus on what the task at hand is. Block out everything else that is going on around you and just take it one thing at a time, and the results will be much better.


Teri Martin: And from Mariah Hinds…


Mariah Hinds: Well, I think there is a ton of really great pieces of training advice that I’ve heard. My favorite piece of training advice is that training really should look like play. So my goal in my unedited training videos is that it really looks like play with just a tiny bit of training mixed in. But for me, the most impactful piece of training advice is that you don’t have to end training on a success, and when I embraced that, it was really pivotal for me with Jada and my journey to positive training methods.

Originally when a training session was going horribly, I would just keep going and build more and more frustration and anger with our repetitions instead of just calling it a day. And so once I was able to end a training session that wasn’t going well and go back to the training board, then our relationship really improved a lot. So I guess ultimately, it’s play a lot and don’t be afraid to give your dog a cookie and end the training session when it’s not going the right direction.


Melissa Breau: Then from Sara Brueske in episode 17.


Sara Brueske: That everything’s a trick. From my history -- when I couldn’t do agility anymore, I just did tricks with my dog. So when I actually started looking into IPO and Mondioring, and looking at these very complicated obedience maneuvers, and precision things, it was really kind of eye opening to remember that everything is a trick. And that kind of came from Sylvia Turkman’s DVD, “Heeling is Just Another Trick.” And that was kind of a light bulb moment for me -- this is just another trick, this is just like teaching all those other things I teach.


Teri Martin: This next one from Julie Daniels really stuck with me -- it was one of those total Ah Ha! Moment.


Melissa Breau: So my second and perhaps my favorite question that I ask the guests who come on is what’s the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Julie Daniels: Yeah. I remember hearing that on the other podcasts and I remember thinking at the time, oh my God, how did they choose? It’s such a difficult question. So I actually gave this some thought and obviously it is hard to choose, but I decided to go with some words that struck me at the time like a ton of bricks and still come back to me strongly almost every day when I work with other people’s dogs particularly. And it’s from an abnormal psych class that I took in college, but you said training, you didn’t say dog training. So it pertains to everybody, it pertains to everybody, including dogs. But this professor said in abnormal psych class, I don’t remember the question he was asked that he was responding to, but it was about irrational fears, it was about irrational fears, phobias and the like, and this professor just, I remember the stroking the goatee type thing, and he says, “You can’t help anyone unless you begin by accepting their premise as valid.”

So I think I try to bring that acceptance to all my dog training. So therefore I’m less apt to judge the dog, I’m less apt to waste time trying to talk him into things that he’s obviously loathe to do or certainly afraid to do. I go deeper, I get inside its head, I fall in love, and I help. And I help by starting where the dog is right now and I accept his premise as valid.


Melissa Breau: I love that one too. Next up is Loretta Mueller, with an equally important lesson on recognizing effort.


Loretta Mueller: I’ve gotten to work with so many amazing people in obedience and herding and agility, and I guess, I don’t know what everybody else has said, but to me, one of my most cherished and amazing statements that I’ve heard was from Ray Hunt, who was a horse trainer and he said, “You must realize the slightest change and the smallest try,” and so meaning, reward the effort. Acknowledge that the animal is trying, and if you choose to recognize that smallest try or slightest change, that’s what makes or breaks your training. And if you don’t notice that small change in the dogs, then they do one of two things. They either give up, or they get harder, and they say, you know what? I tried. You didn’t acknowledge it, therefore, meh, I’m good. And for me, if you ever owned a dog like that, they do that. They just go, “Eh, whatever. I’m going to keep doing my thing.”

And so for me it was huge, because we get so stuck in a world of criteria, right? Criteria, criteria. Did they meet criteria? When in reality, when you think about it, it doesn’t matter how much training your dog has. It doesn’t matter if their weave poles are spotless, right? It doesn’t matter any of that stuff. If your dog is in the wrong emotional state, that training will never show. So, what they’re doing, is a lot of the dogs, they are trying so hard, but then they don’t get rewarded and then that causes a lot of issues. So, that’s why I always have kind of a graduated reward system that I do with my dogs. So, I’ll use either lower value, higher value treats. To differentiate, I’ll choose the way I play with the dog, and that way these dogs always get rewarded for that effort and I acknowledge those small changes in their behavior and I don’t ask for too much too soon and I think that that keeps the dogs confident, it keeps them feeling like they’re a champion, because that’s very important if you want a dog to be confident and feel like they can conquer the world, you have to tell them that they can conquer the world.

So, if they give you the smallest change, then you reward it and you have a dog that’s going to try even harder the next time, and so for me that totally changed a lot of my training. Because before, an example would be if my dog didn’t do six weave poles, and let’s say they were in a novice trial and they were baby dogs, I would be frustrated. And if they continuously did it, before I got this little nugget of information, I would go home and say, “Okay my dog has a weave pole issue and I’m going to go train the weave.” But in reality, is it a weave pole issue, or is it the fact that the dog’s not emotionally right? Most likely it’s because the dog’s not emotionally right. So you actually have to deal with that. So what does that involve? It might involve the dog doing three weave poles and you clapping and having a party and leaving. But that’s not to criteria. And so for me, it was just a huge eye opener that the dogs know how to do these skills. It’s just we have to have them in the right emotional state so they can actually perform the behaviors that they’ve been taught. And that’s just to me a cornerstone of what I think of when I’m training. So, it’s just been huge for me to have that statement and understand that and apply it to all of my training.


Teri Martin: Loretta always makes me wish I did agility just so I could take her classes. This next clip is also from one of our amazing agility instructors -- Amanda Nelson!


Amanda Nelson: So this is again from Sunny, she told me just to let it go. I feel like I should start singing “Frozen” or something. You know, things are going to happen, mistakes are going to happen, you know, what kind of mistake you had as a handler is a mistake you had as a trainer, you know, stuff is going to happen and just let it go, because if you keep dwelling on it, you keep thinking about it, you keep beating yourself up over, oh, my gosh, if I would’ve handled that differently, or if my dog hadn’t missed that contact, you know? Learn from it. Learn from it, move on, and just let it go and think about your next run.  That’s the best training advice I’ve ever had.


Melissa Breau: Next up is Laura Waudby, with something I think we all encounter and probably could serve to be reminded of even more often…


Melissa Breau: I think this is probably the question I get told is the hardest question a lot of time, what is the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Laura Waudby: There’s been a lot of good ones out there already, so I thought I would pick the you don’t need to end a session on a good note. Generally if things are going pretty well you should enjoy it, quit before that just one more piece. But when things start going down hill, and they will, just end the session. Quit before you’re digging yourself a hole that’s even harder to get out of. I also would make sure that neither you or the dog are getting frustrated about it. So I have no problem just going, “Well, I guess we’re done for today, or at least done with that exercise,” move onto something else before things get worse.


Teri Martin: Another important reminder came from Lori Stevens… while she was talking about TTouch, it’s definitely true no matter what you’re doing with your dog.


Melissa Breau: Right. So what about training advice, what is the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?

Lori Stevens: You know, it's funny. I don’t really think these are what you have in mind, but…

Melissa Breau: That’s okay!

Lori Stevens: Yeah. Meet the dog where she is or he is. That was the best piece of advice I heard and that was in TTouch, but just kind of change to meet both learners, the dog and the person, where they are. You can't really tell people to change, right, you have to guide them gently, and kind of move with them when they're really to move. People have to decide for themselves to make changes, and communication is so incredibly important. I've seen dogs and people go from, you know, a pretty dark place to an incredible place, and I'm so thrilled with what, you know, with the influence that I had on that. I would have to say just meeting everybody where they are, and recognizing how important communication is, and that it's not just about what we think, or how we think it should be done, but bringing the person and dog along at their own pace.


Melissa Breau: Of course we couldn’t leave out Patricia MCconnell…

Patricia McConnell: Oh man, oh wow. Let’s see. Do I have to pick one? OK, I’ll be really fast.

Melissa Breau: You can share more than one if you want. I’ll let you get away with that.

Patricia McConnell: Good. The thing that pops up in my mind the first time I hear that is actually … it’s not a piece of advice. It’s just a saying and it makes me want to cry. I sound like such a crier.

It makes me want to cry. The saying is, “We train by regret.” It just hits home so hard to me because I think every one of us who cares deeply about dogs and is really honest, and insightful, and learned, and grows, you know, admits that there’s things we’ve done that we wish we’d never done and, you know, some of them are just tiny little stupid things. It’s like, “Oh, I can’t believe I didn’t think of that,” or, you know, so I think that’s a really important saying. But I think that the most important part about it is to remind all of us to be kinder to ourselves. I think a lot of the people I work with who are progressive dog trainers who just adore their dogs and move heaven and earth for them, we’re so hard on ourselves. Don’t you think? I mean, we’re just, you know, I work with clients who are just … they’re just, oh, they’re being so hard on themselves because they haven’t been perfect. They made this one mistake and it’s like, oh man, you know, we are all human here. So I think that strikes home with me a lot.

And I guess the other just sort of solid, quick, concise piece of advice is basically “Say less, mean more.” I just made that up, but I’ve heard people say versions of that, you know, so basically another version is “Just shut up.” I think, I mean, you can hear I like to talk, right, so I can get badly with my dogs, and I think it’s confusing and tiring to our dogs. And I think, you know, some of the people who, you know, those people who dogs just don’t ever want to leave, you know, they meet them, and the second they meet them they sit down beside them and don’t want to leave. There aren’t many of them, and I was never one of those people. I sometimes am now, which makes me really happy, but those are often people who are really quiet. So I think being very mindful of the way we use words and sound around our dogs is really, really important because, I think, frankly, our dogs are often just simply exhausted trying to figure out what the heck we’re trying to convey to them, you know? So I guess I’d just stick with those two things.


Teri Martin: And finally, because it seems like the perfect note to end things on, Sue Ailsby’s response when Melissa asked her what dog-related accomplishment she was most proud of.


Sue Ailsby: I’m proudest of my relationship with my dogs. I’m proudest that I can go to a competition and people watch me in a water trial or whatever we’re doing and people will come up after and say, “That was so beautiful. She was working with you so beautifully that you were like a team. And it didn’t look like you were trying to get her to do anything, it just looked like you thought, I think I’d like her to do that, and she went and did it for you.” And that to me is the essence of why I have a dog.


Melissa Breau: And now I just want to say a couple of thank you’s here at the end. A big thank you to Teri for co-hosting this episode with me. An equally big thank you to everyone who has come on the show … we absolutely could not be more thrilled with how the podcast has gone in this first year, and I’m so excited to be celebrating our first anniversary…. Hopefully our first of many. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We truly would not be here without you, and without all of your kind comments over the last year.

We’ll be back next week with more of our usual programming…


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

Dec 15, 2017


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

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


Next Episode: 

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


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

Today we’ll be talking to Mariah Hinds.

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

Hi Mariah! Welcome to the podcast.

Mariah Hinds: Hi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: They sound very complementary.

Mariah Hinds: They do.

Melissa Breau: They sound like they work well together.

Mariah Hinds: Yes, definitely.

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Dec 8, 2017


Nancy Gagliardi Little comes back on the podcast — Nancy has been training dogs since the early 1980's when she put an OTCH on her Novice A dog, a Labrador Retriever. Since then she has put many advanced obedience titles on her dogs, including 4 AKC OTCH titles, 6 UD titles, 3 UDX titles, and multiple championships in herding and agility. Today, she joins me to talk startline stays in agility.


Next Episode: 

To be released 12/15/2017, featuring Mariah Hinds. We'll be chatting about proofing and building reliably, ring-ready behaviors!


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

Today we have Nancy Gagliardi Little back on the podcast — Nancy has been training dogs since the early 1980's when she put an OTCH on her Novice A dog, a Labrador Retriever. Since then she has put many advanced obedience titles on her dogs, including 4 AKC OTCH titles, 6 UD titles, 3 UDX titles, and multiple championships in herding and agility.

Welcome back to the podcast, Nancy!

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Thanks, Melissa. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: The last time we talked a little bit about obedience. Today we’re talking a little bit about agility. To start us out, do you want to just remind listeners who you are and share a little about the dogs you share your life with?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Sure. Who I am … I guess I’m still discovering that, but I live in Minnesota, about 45 minutes north of the Twin Cities, and I compete mostly in agility, AKC mostly, but also USDAA and UKI. I still train my dogs in obedience, I just don’t compete in obedience anymore. I have aspirations of doing that again, but we’ll see. I teach agility and obedience online classes with FDSA, and I teach agility and obedience lessons and classes at a local center here in Minnesota. I did judge obedience, AKC obedience, for about twenty years, and I judged around the country in all classes and also in some national events. So that’s about me.

And then my dogs. I’ve had border collies since the mid-’80s, and I love everything about the breed, including their quirkiness and their sensitivity. My dogs are Score, a border collie, 13. He’s retired, obviously. He did agility and herding. And Schema is 9 years old. She’s currently my competition dog doing agility. She is competing at AKC Nationals this year in 2018, and I think that’s the fifth time she’s qualified. She’s also competed at Cynosport. And then I have Lever. He’s 4, and he is competing in agility. I train him and Schema too, both in obedience. He’s kind of the up-and-coming guy, I guess. And then my husband has a toller and his name is Rugby. He’s 2, and he trains in agility and obedience.

Melissa Breau: That’s your crew, and we were talking a little bit before I hit “record” that hopefully there’ll be one more joining the family early next year, right?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Correct. I think they’re supposed to be born in early December. It’s one of Lever’s puppies.

Melissa Breau: I look forward to lots of puppy pictures.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Yeah. That will be exciting.

Melissa Breau: I mentioned in the intro that last time you were on we really talked obedience, but today we’re going to talk agility, so specifically we’re diving into start line stays. So, I wanted to start with how they’re different from a stay in any other sport, something like obedience, for example.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: They are quite a bit different in the agility environment. Agility is very high-energy, and the environment itself is fairly unpredictable, and that makes for difficult conditions for dogs that are trying to perform these skills that they learned at home and in class, especially the start lines. That’s kind of the transitional exercise into the course. And then of course most dogs love agility, and it’s pretty reinforcing for them to go. In obedience the stays are very predictable, well, in actually all the exercises are fairly predictable. They’re patterns. Dogs learn those patterns, and that gives them pretty clear information when exercises start and end. Even in obedience, dogs can make mistakes. They might read a pattern and anticipate the finish of an exercise, especially the stay, and it’s probably just when the judge says, “Exercise finished,” so they’re pretty much done anyway. So it’s just much more predictable.

Melissa Breau: Why is it so important that people actually have a good start line stay in agility? What benefits does it offer if they put in the work and they get there?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Well, agility is pretty much all about speed, and most people have dogs that are much faster than they can run. I know I do, and most of the people do, and if they don’t, they want that. Being able to lead out gives you an advantage, especially with a fast dog, and actually on many courses it can be difficult to start without a lead out with a super-fast dog. Going into the sequence, you just can’t get where you need to be to cue something. So yes, it’s quite an advantage having that. It gets you ahead. It might even keep you ahead throughout the course. And without that, you’re going to be behind, which isn’t all that bad if you want to do rear crosses throughout the course. Some people are very good at that. I have some students without start lines just because they came to me after their dog was a little bit older and we just decided we weren’t going to teach the dogs the stay. And there are definitely some sequences that they just can’t … or courses with starts that they just can’t do, or they just have issues with it, so it does put them at a disadvantage.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that you decided just not to bother with it. Why do people struggle with it? Why is it something that’s hard to teach? I think a lot of people think a stay is a stay is a stay, right?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Right, right. Well, there’s just so many variations, but it could be that there’s holes in training or holes in generalization. There’s a lot of that that happens. And lots of times handlers try to control the dog’s behavior instead of training, so that would be like a hole in training. It could also be the training sessions are handled differently than the handling at the trials, and there’s a lot of that that’s due to handling. Another thing I see contributing to the start line is — this is interesting — but the handler’s own increased arousal level. And this happens in obedience, you see that too, but in agility it’s pretty much, it’s a big contributing factor where the handlers are too hurried, they’re un-confident and disconnected when they enter the ring, and then, at the beginning of the run, they’re thinking more about the course and they just don’t stay connected and focused on the dog. The dogs sense that, and that can cause — in the dogs we’re talking about, probably the dogs that have increased arousal level — that causes stress and also increased arousal, and that’s never good at the start line. Especially the dogs start reading a disconnected handler, and they start losing the ability to think, and then you have a break. A lot of times there are small issues that crop up along the way and they aren’t noticed by the trainer until it becomes a big problem. And that happens a lot. There’s little things, you know, little things that they just aren’t seeing, or they aren’t aware of, and then they don’t know how they got there.

Melissa Breau: Do you mean on the day of the trial or do you mean …

Nancy Gagliardi Little: I just mean in general kind of building up to that, but it will happen at the trials usually because that’s where the ultimate differences are between the training and the trials.

Melissa Breau: Little stuff like creeping, or what do you mean?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Well, it would be mostly handling. Some of it would be handling. The dogs start getting a little more and more aroused because they maybe can’t predict when the handler’s going to release them. That causes … and it depends on the dog. It could be that this dog, this particular dog, responds to arousal and stress by creeping forward, or they stand up, or even just a glazed look in their eyes. It just keeps changing until there’s actually just an outright break. And that’s when the handler notices that there’s an issue, but it’s actually happened long before that.

Melissa Breau: I know we talked about this a little bit just now, but I think a lot of people attribute start line problems to poor impulse control. The person just didn’t work it enough, or didn’t do it right, or something.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Right.

Melissa Breau: Can you talk a little bit about the role that impulse control actually does play in a good start line stay?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: I hear that a lot. People think their dogs are pushy or have impulse control issues. But I’ve seen more over-arousal issues or frustration issues than impulse control issues. And frustration and over-arousal, they can be caused by lack of clarity, unpredictable cues, and then, like I said before, handlers that aren’t connected with their dogs. The dogs really want that. And impulse control skills, they’re just a part of the foundation of training a start line, and it should be fun for the dog. Some of the issues with start lines might be due to poor impulse control training, but there’s a lot more at play here than that. And actually I’ve seen plenty of dogs that really have great impulse control, but they can’t hold a stay at the start line, and a lot of that is due to just their arousal state. They can’t think. People just call that “impulse control issue,” and really it’s something quite different.

Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting. You commented that you’ve seen a lot of dogs with great impulse control who really struggle with this particular skill. I think that’s something a lot of people don’t think about.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Yeah, exactly.

Melissa Breau: I’d imagine … I don’t do agility, but I’d imagine that part of what often goes wrong with a start line is simply that the dog breaks their stay in a trial situation and people just start the run. And they do that over and over again, and the dog figures out, “Well, we’re just going to go.”

Nancy Gagliardi Little: They’re so smart!

Melissa Breau: Is there a better way to handle that?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: That’s a really good question and it’s a complicated one, too. I think it’s one of those things that’s hard to answer, but it’s part of what goes wrong. Usually there’s an issue, like I said before, that’s starting to manifest long before the dog even breaks the start line, and the handler isn’t recognizing it until the dog finally leaves before that release cue, and it’s actually usually in a really important run for them, so they’re like, “Oh my god.” And a lot of times this has been happening for a while. The dog’s been breaking it, but the handler doesn’t really notice it because they might be just turning back and releasing, and this time they turn back and they don’t release and the dog goes. Something like that. And like you say, the more a dog breaks the start line in a trial, the more it becomes a pattern or a habit, and actually it’s very, very reinforcing to the dog because they love — most of them love — agility and they want to go.

So in terms of a way to handle it once they go, I’m not a big fan of removing the dog for breaking the start line. If you watch some handlers, a lot of times they remove the dog, and the dog’s already taken a few obstacles by the time he realizes that he’s being taken off course, so he’s probably not even going to associate breaking the start line with that removal. And that not understanding why he’s being removed is going to cause more stress and frustration for the dog, and that makes the start line area even more frustrating, and then that causes more mistakes, so how do you handle it? Again, it’s very complicated, and it also depends on the dog and the handler. Lots of times when we decide this with students, I come up with a plan, depending on the dog, the sensitivity of the dog, the experience of the dog, making sure the handler’s being clear, all those things come into play for that. It’s mainly just making sure that the handling is clear. I’ll give you some examples.

Melissa Breau: That would be great.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: And I’ll just use my own dogs because their start lines are very good, but Schema, both of them, have broken their start lines. Schema, so she’s been running about seven-and-a-half years. When she was maybe 4 or 5 years old, it was in a two-ring soccer arena with lots of activity behind and around, and as I’m leading out, I was watching her and she left before I gave her the release cue. But I was watching her, I saw her expression, and she looked the same as she always does. There was no twitching or any odd behavior. I just let her run. I just went on because that’s just the way I feel. It’s like, I’ll look at this later, we’ll deal with this later, and one mistake is not going to affect anything. I looked at the video and I obsessed on it, and then I went to the practice jump between runs, and I tested her with some games, and she was solid, like I figured she would be, and she never broke the rest of the weekend or any time after that run. So I suspect she just heard someone else at the practice jump behind her give the same release cue and truly thought I had released her. So if I would have removed her for that, or done anything but just run her, that would have been very confusing to her, so she never really knew.

An example I have with Lever is he’s got some arousal issues, increased arousal issues, I’ve been working on a lot over the years. He has some great skills but has issues where he’s really gotten, he’s really improved, but his start lines were a little … I guess there’s lots of arousal there, and they’ve gotten better. What I do at the start line is I ask him how aroused he is. I know that sounds funny, but I basically just pause briefly before I leave him, and if he can look at me before I lead out — I step lateral and then wait for him to look at me. It just takes a brief moment. If he looks at me, his arousal level is under control. There was a time when he couldn’t even look at me, and that told me that his arousal level is high. That didn’t mean I was going to do anything different. I just needed to know that. I just would stay super-connected with him as I led out and just be a little bit more focused on him. So about six months ago I waited a little bit too long to see if he could look at me, and that was me trying to control him, a little bit of control. It was too long, and once I decided to leave, he broke. I realized what I was doing at that time and I just went on. I just kept going. And he actually knew right away he made a mistake, and that was not my intention to make him think he made a mistake, because I knew in his case it was arousal. But he did have a really nice run after that. So if I would have pulled him off for that, or handled it in any different way, it would have affected him, and I want him to be very confident in himself at the start line. His start lines have improved dramatically just by me being super-connected to him and just knowing that they’re a work in progress.

So those are a couple of examples. There’s so many different ones, and it really just depends on the team, and the experience of the dog, and what kind of things they’re training for start lines, but they are all very different how you would handle it. The main thing is just ensuring that it’s handled the same in practice as it would be in trials.

Melissa Breau: I was going to say that it sounds like you don’t necessarily have to worry about it a ton until it happens that first time, and then after that first time you want a plan in place in case it happens again.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Right, you really do, because the first time it happens, you want to go back and make sure that it’s not handling. People don’t realize how much in agility people work hard on handling, but there’s a lot of handling that goes into start lines and the whole routine with start lines. There’s a lot of handling, and if you don’t, if your handling’s not clear to the dog, there’s going to be issues.

Melissa Breau: Now that we’ve talked a little about problem solving, I want to take a little of a step back and talk about how you actually teach a start line stay. Is there anything special you do during the foundation stages?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: I probably teach it the same way most people do, but I do a lot of Zen games, I think some people call it “It’s your choice.” I do lots of that, and on the flat, and my young dogs wanted to stay by, they make a choice not to go, and then that decision brings reinforcement. I do lots and lots of games away from equipment, starting without handler motion and then adding more and more motion. It’s the motion that can really, or even the anticipation of handler motion, that can actually cause issues with the dogs, so adding that is important in agility.

And then lots of behaviors to train in the start line routine: entering the ring, moving to the start line area or the area you’re going to set them up, the position of the dog, what position are they going to be in, a sit, a down, a stand, whatever, between your legs, setups, or how they’re going to line up, and I guess that has more to do with going between your legs, or if they’re going to go to the left side, or the right side, or some handlers stand in front of the dog and position them kind of like a front, and the stay, there’s an actual stay, which isn’t really a big deal, the release is the big deal, there’s a lead out, and then there’s handling and training involved in all those areas. So all of them are worked on separately, and then we gradually put them together as each area is mastered. So it’s like a lot of flat work and fun stuff so dogs don’t even know that we’re working towards a start line.

Melissa Breau: I think that a lot of people probably just think about the stay itself, and they leave out all those other pieces you just mentioned about entering the ring and setting up.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Right. And what happens is then they try to control the behavior instead of asking the dog to do the behavior, and then that creates more stress and more issues there, and the dogs don’t want to stay at the start line because they’re never right, they’re always being controlled. So that contributes to it too.

Melissa Breau: So once you’ve gotten the stay that you want, and the entrance that you want, and you’re trialing, what do you do to maintain that stay? How often do you train it, how do you approach it, what do you do to make sure that it doesn’t erode or doesn’t disappear over time?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: I don’t think about it that much, but I guess when I think about it, I do it all the time without even thinking. I’m always looking at videos of my runs, or of training, and I’m always checking to see if the dog … how’s the start line. It’s just maintaining it. It happens by keeping the handling clear and the cues clean. When I talk about the cues clean, I’m talking about making sure that it’s not being any of the cues being paired with any extra motion or movement, because that’s a big deal in agility. Well, it’s a big deal in any sport.

And it’s also ensuring that my dogs are going to be able to predict when the release is coming. That’s what people don’t pay attention to, and then the dogs are sitting back there watching the handlers lead out and just arousal level’s going up, like, “When are they going to release me?” They don’t know, they can’t predict, and so I try to create a predictor that is easy for the dog to read. So I’m watching videos of my runs, and I evaluate my dog’s start lines just as much as the rest of the run. I’m always looking to see did the dog release on my cue, or was there any twitching, or whatever.

It’s just really important to know what to look for, and that’s I think what people are missing. They don’t know what to look for. They’re just looking to see if the dog stayed and not looking at a lot of other things, which is a lot of handling. So my start lines are really important to me because my dogs are very fast. But I find them very easy to maintain if my dogs understand the routine. And whenever I lead out, I’m just always checking to see that my dog has made the choice to stay, and if I’m always doing that, then my dog has always made that choice to stay because the release cue is very reinforcing to my dogs. They get to go, and so they learn to choose to stay because that’s what leads them to go. They love that.

Melissa Breau: For people out there who are listening to this and going, “All right, that’s awesome,” but they are in that position where they taught their dog a stay initially and it disappeared after they started running more regularly. How would you handle that? Would you just look at it as a poisoned cue and start over with a new cue? Would you retrain it with their existing cue? How would you approach it?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: That’s a really good question too. I think the first thing that I’d recommend to people in that situation is to make sure that they’re videotaping their training, the dog in training. And also making sure that they’re in that videotape as well, and also in the trial, and then really look at those two sessions and see if the handling is identical. It really needs to be. It’s important for the dogs. Dogs need to see the same thing. It needs to be clear to the dog. Cues need to be clear and clean. And then also the connection to the dog is super-important to the dog in agility, very, very important, and that’s at the start line, not just during the run.

So the questions to ask are, does the dog understand all of the little parts of his job at the start line, or is the handler trying to control the dog, like leading out and telling them to stay constantly. That’s going to be the beginning of a break because it’s going to stress the dog up, and there’s many reasons why that’s going to cause a break. So any type of controlling rather than training is going to make that experience stressful for the dog, so it’s better to take the time to teach those behaviors for the start line routine. So if that’s the case, we look at that. You really take a look at that picture of the start line. Are all those behaviors trained, and is the dog confident in all those little areas? That’s going to make that whole experience very, very easy for the dog.

And then, in terms of whether a new cue or a new setup routine needs to be trained, that just really depends on the dog and the situation. If it’s been going on for a long time, it might be wise to change the position. If the dog was doing a sit and he’s breaking, maybe you just start him in a down. I don’t really think the cue is usually the issue, because probably most likely the dogs are not even reading that cue. They’re probably reading some type of incidental cue or signal or motion from the handler that’s being paired with that. So it’s not even probably an issue, but yet it can make the handler feel better changing the cue, and it might still be the case that we’d want to change it. But it’s just one of those, again, creative processes you have to go through with each individual team. It just depends.

Melissa Breau: I know that, to mention FDSA, again here at the end, but I know you have a class on this subject running – and it’s supposed to start literally the day this airs, but registration is still open! — can you share a little bit about what the class does or doesn’t cover, and the kind of dog-handler team that might benefit most from taking it?

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Sure. Like I said before, I’m pretty excited about this class. At one time I had another class that was pretty popular that covered agility, start lines, stopped contacts on the table, and that was just filled with a lot of information, probably too much. So I felt it was important to make the subject of start lines into its own class. So this class is perfect for young dogs starting to train or even getting ready to trial. I think that’s a perfect area for these type of dogs. But it’s also a good class for dogs that are already trialing. I just ask, if they’re going to take the class, to make sure that they stop trialing during this retraining period because that’s really important for the dogs, because we do really want to make the trial and the training the same, otherwise they just become different. What it’s not going to cover is how to address over-arousal issues, or environmental issues at the start line, and that subject’s covered in other FDSA classes. So in this class we’re going to work extensively on creating handling and training skills that will help predict the release. That’s the main thing I want people to be aware of is how much your dogs depend on predictability for start lines. It’s amazing, once you clear that up, it just creates a whole different world for the dogs. So with these consistent predictors the dogs are going to get more confident and adapt much easier in different environments, and that’s hugely important in agility.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Well, thank you so much Nancy -- it sounds like a great class.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: Yeah, I’m really excited.

Melissa Breau: I can see why. And thank you again for coming back on the podcast! I’m glad that you did and I’m glad we got a chance to talk about some of this stuff.

Nancy Gagliardi Little: It was great. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with Mariah Hinds to talk about proofing and building reliable, ring-ready behaviors.

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


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

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