Donna Hill has had a lifelong love affair with dogs and is fascinated with dog behavior. She has broad practical experience in the dog world, volunteering in working in kennels and shelters, dog sitting and walking, fostering rescue dogs, teaching behavior modification privately, and teaching reactive dog classes. She also has a background in zoology and teaching.
She stays current in dog behavior in learning by regularly attending seminars by top trainers and researchers, however she is probably best known for her YouTube videos.
She's active locally as co-founder and professional member of Vancouver Island Animal Training Association and the founder and instructor for the Service Dog Training Institute.
With her own dogs and other pets Donna loves to apply learning theory to teach a wide variety of sports, games, tricks and other activities such as cycling and service dog tasks. She loves using shaping to get new behaviors. Her teaching skill is keeping the big picture in mind while using creativity to define the small steps to help the learner succeed. That is to say she is a splitter. Donna has competed in agility, flyball, and Rally-O and teaches people to train their own service dogs.
To be released 10/5/2017, featuring Barbara Currier to talk about agility training and handling and I’ll ask her about her work with Georgia Tech which is creating wearable computing devices for military search and rescue and service dogs.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods. Today we’ll be talking to Donna Hill.
Donna has had a lifelong love affair with dogs and is fascinated with dog behavior. She has broad practical experience in the dog world, volunteering in working in kennels and shelters, dog sitting and walking, fostering rescue dogs, teaching behavior modification privately, and teaching reactive dog classes. She also has a background in zoology and teaching. She stays current in dog behavior in learning by regularly attending seminars by top trainers and researchers, however she is probably best known for her YouTube videos. I’ll include a link to her YouTube channels in the shadows so listeners can check her out.
She's active locally as co-founder and professional member of Vancouver Island Animal Training Association and the founder and instructor for the Service Dog Training Institute. With her own dogs and other pets Donna loves to apply learning theory to teach a wide variety of sports, games, tricks and other activities such as cycling and service dog tasks. She loves using shaping to get new behaviors. Her teaching skill is keeping the big picture in mind while using creativity to define the small steps to help the learner succeed. That is to say she is a splitter. Donna has competed in agility, flyball, and rally O and teaches people to train their own service dogs.
Hi Donna welcome to the podcast.
Donna Hill: Thanks for having me!
Melissa Breau: I am looking forward to it. So to get us started out, do you want to just tell us a little bit about your dogs and what you’re working on with them now?
Donna Hill: Okay. Let’s start with Jessie. She’s my little German shepherd mix possibly min pin believe it or not. She's 10 1/2 right now and we got her at seven months old from the local city pound. She is doing a public presentation with me next week, so I'm actually currently acclimating her to the new location and we're practicing the known behaviors in the new environment. It's really important that I do this in particular with her, more so than just doing with any dog, because she has a really fearful nature and she needs a lot more support than say your typical dog, whatever that might be. So we tend to spend a lot more time in acclimating with her. My border collie/vizsla mix, Lucy, is actually nine years old today! “Happy Birthday Lucy!”
Melissa Breau: Happy birthday!
Donna Hill: Yeah! We're working on discriminating cues for sound alerts. Yesterday we were up at a campsite at a lake (that’s not very far from our house) and we were working on discriminating a sound alert, which is a nudge behavior. She nudges her nose to my knee. Then the cue for it is actually a knock. I can knock on anything and that becomes the cue for her to run over to me and push her nose against my knee. So one of the discriminations that we have to do is to find my car! The car has a similar behavior in that I tell her “Go find car.” and she takes me to find the car and nose nudges or nose tap targets near the handle of the door. Because they’re so similar behaviors and especially if I'm standing close, she needs to learn what's the difference. Which one is she having to target depending on the cue?
That was what we were doing in the distraction level of the campsite environment. Actually, the other thing we're working on with her too, was working on a “Forward” cue which is using a mobility harness. You teach the dog to actually put some pressure forward to help people with say knee issues or just balance issues. That forward momentum really helps people as they're moving forward, so we were also working on generalizing that as well. We like doing stuff from all over the map! (laughing)
Melissa Breau: So I know you mentioned in your bio that you’ve kind of been involved, you've lived with dogs all your life, but how did you specifically get into training and dog sports a little bit, like how did that part start?
Donna Hill: Okay. Well training started way back. I remember when I had a basset hound as a kid. I taught her to pull me on the toboggan and also run beside me on the bicycle. Now for a basset hound, that's not…neither one are very typical behaviors, (laughing) and they're not known to be particularly trainable, but I don't remember how I did it but I managed to do it. Especially sitting behind the dog and getting the dog to pull forward. I actually don't even remember how I did it. But she was doing it and it was great fun for me! (laughing) I was about ten I think when that happened.
I remember ticking my brother off when I was teaching his little lab cross to retrieve, and he was hoping to have her as a hunting dog (and I mean she was all of about 30 pounds, this little lab mix,) and instead of teaching her to come back and retrieve and sit on my side, I would actually sit cross-legged on the ground and she would come and sit in my lap. (laughing). So my brother was not very happy with me.
And so for the more formal sport stuff, it sort of came later. I had a number of generations of dogs that we went through. My dachshund which I’ll tell you about a little bit later, and then along came this amazing dog. He was a Dalmatian/springer mix and honest to goodness I think he was half-human! He was just an amazing dog and we had an instant bond! He was definitely MY dog and he was just so smart! You know, I would try things two and three times and by the third time he’d kind of look at me like “Really? I'm not stupid Mom! I got it.” He was really, really quick. He’d pick behaviors up so fast!
He was, you know, one of those dogs that makes you look really good as a trainer, so of course I thought I was a great trainer. (Laugh) Of course, looking back I go “Yeah! No! It was all Ollie. It wasn't me!” Well I guess some of it was me, but you know mostly it was him.
He loved doing all kinds of stuff so we started with fly ball because that was one of the first dog sports that mixed breeds could actually participate in. The interesting thing was he didn't like retrieving! In my interpretation, he thought retrieving was for dumb dogs! So he was “No. We're not doing that!” but because we took it and he had to do it in order to be competitive (he was incredibly competitive), and he HAD to win against other dogs!
So we used the competitive nature of the sport to teach him to retrieve and he was awesome! He was in the top levels, I forget the numbers whether it was one or five, but they had five different class levels according to speed and he was in the fastest category and he was really good. And if he sensed that another dog might potentially be beating him, he would just turn on the speed as much as he possibly could to make sure that he won! He was just that kind of dog. I've never had seen a dog like him. He was a lot of fun! He also had a really stylized high jump too, where he would like do this exaggerated jump about three feet high over an eighteen-inch jump. It's totally hilarious to watch him! So I started from there.
That's kind of where we went. We put our golden at the time as well into flyball. She did really well, although she was slow. She was at the other end of the category she was the slowest category, but she was very consistent. Then from there, I just started dabbling in rally obedience because that popped up at the time. As more and more sports kind of came, that's where I started getting more involved. Not at a really high level… I like the training aspect more than I like the competing part and so for me the competition was more of a goal. You know, “Can we enter this?” or “Maybe I might think about doing that one day. Let's train towards that?” If we never actually compete, I don’t care. It’s all fun because I just like the training part of it. So that’s kind of where that all came from. (laughing)
Melissa Breau: At what point did you really start looking at positive training specifically? What got you started focusing on positive training?
Donna Hill: Well I wasn't really aware that there were different kinds of training or different approaches to training. At home, we just sort of did our own thing. I actually never took any formal training classes until I was about fifteen and I had my little daxie mix. She was six months old. At the time you had to wait until the dog was six months old to take it to classes. And of course once we did, then we realized why. Because the classes were so punitive, the dog had to be six months of age or you'd actually break the spirit. So we dutifully took her.
There'd been a change in our life. I had moved from the Midwest area of Canada to the West coast with my mom and dad, leaving three siblings behind in the city. So we also left the dog I told you about, my brother's dog, with him because he was old enough that he could stay there as well. Anyway, so Dad decided we were getting a new dog and he marched me off to this litter of dachshund puppies (unbeknownst to my mom). That was my classic dad who was constantly bringing dogs home without letting Mum know. (laughing) So with five kids, we always usually had at least two dogs around.
Anyway, we got this little dog and marched her off to training class. We’d never ever taken any of our dogs to training class before, but we thought “Well, you know this is a new dog and the classes are new!” and okay. So we took her to this this class and let's just say that force- based behaviors and training didn't work with her independent nature. (laughing) She's got a really good oppositional reflex. (laughing) So after the end of class she graduated ninth out of twelve dogs for her, shall we say, lack of obedience! (laughing)
She never did learn how to do a recall because I never figured out how to do it positively. So the ironic thing that I kind of looked at later though was at home I was able to teach her more than 35 tricks! and she did them enthusiastically and eagerly! and I was like “Okay this is really interesting! Hmmm. ” So that was her.
You know, I just kind of dabbled and played and as I said I was a teen and I went off to university and we’d never had any problems with any of our other dogs, so I was like “Okay, what gives here?”
So that started the ball rolling to kind of down the positive way. Then of course once I got my Ollie dog I told you about, my dog of a lifetime. He was a very sensitive boy and I realized that I could not use some harsh methods. We enrolled him in classes too. Some of the methods they were using were again, not so positive. (Sighing)
One of the things I remember distinctly with him was a recall. The teacher had us put him on a long line and if we called him and he didn't come, we were to back up and pop really hard twice on the long line and then just keep backing up until he came towards you and got to the point where you could grab his collar. And I did this all of twice.
The second time, I looked at him and he was so much in a hurry to get to me the second time, that he crammed himself at me as soon as he knew that pop was coming, he ran as fast as he could and he crammed himself right against my legs (almost knocking me over in his effort to get to me). But I could see it was in fear. It wasn't that he wanted to come to me. It was that he was scared he was getting popped. I thought “You know what? I can't do this to you!”
His nature was that I just couldn't do that! and then I went, “You know what? We're not using that.”
So we continued going to classes. I just chose not to use the methods that the instructor told us. I found other ways to go and then down the road we found a second level class which actually started using food. “Oh my God! They actually used food in training classes!” and from there I had him…He was a dyed-in-the-wool puller on leash, and to him, the leash was a cue to pull. That's exactly the way he saw it. So when we trained him using the food, heeling beside me without a leash, he was awesome because the leash was no longer the cue. He was like, “Oh you want me to stay right beside you. No problem! This is cool!” And it used his brain, which is what he liked doing. So, it was just the whole shift at that point. I started going “Okay, let's use some more positive methods. I don't need to use punitive methods to communicate with my dogs and I never liked using it anyway.” It just felt bad to me. But of course, you know you're young, you're impressionable and you're following the instructors because they supposedly know what they're talking about.
I discovered on my own that you don't need to use that stuff. You can you can use lots of positive stuff and communicate with your dog. Tell them what you want to do before they're going to do it and they are happy to comply. They just want to do and be with you and do stuff with you!
Melissa Breau: What about now? How would you describe your training philosophy today?
Donna Hill: It's always evolving. I'm really eclectic and I take things from different disciplines. I'm really interested in the more cognitive aspects of training. I see dogs as being very thinking animals. I really like that part of them. To me that's how I develop the relationship so I look at how they problem solve and how they try and communicate. I really like the to “Do as I Do” philosophy or approach. Mimicry is something that I've always kind of played with, even with my current dogs that I have now. I notice that Lucy is really good about mimicking Jessie and I've actually used that to train her some behaviors.
I really like the idea that dogs are able to use modifiers. So things like left and right, they can recognize colors by name, shapes. They can count. They can do so many more things than we ever dreamt of when I was a kid, that we never even thought of thinking! Do they do this? Can they do that? So that really is what intrigued me, so the more of the cognitive kind of stuff comes out and the neurological kind of stuff comes out, I just yum that right up and that's what I'm incorporating more and more into what I do.
But basically, I see that they learn in the same way that humans do. In humans we learn in many, many different ways, so depending on the dog their predominant way of learning might be one way, and another dog might have a different way of learning. So I try and learn what those are and then cater to that the dog’s needs using those.
Melissa Breau: So I wanted to ask you a little more about the service dog work, that piece of what you do. How did you get started down that road?
Donna Hill: Okay that's a great question! That actually started with Jessie my current dog when she was young and I still had my senior golden. Ollie had just passed away, but I was doing rally obedience with my golden and I decided that I was going to be using positive methods if I could at all with Jessie, and so I started with the clicker with her and she took to it really well. My golden took to it really well and I just started playing with it.
I had thought that my golden was actually ready to trial in rally obedience until I found Sue Ailsby’s original “Training Levels Program”, and I worked right from scratch through that. It was actually exactly what I was looking for!
I was looking for a structured program to help me learn how to clicker train and how to work with my dogs and learn all of the concepts behind it and it was perfect!
So I just worked my senior dog through until she passed away and Jessie, of course I worked her right almost to the end of the level seven. We were about halfway through level seven. Because of Jesse's level of fears we weren't able to actually get some of the generalized stuff out there, but we were able to get a lot of them done and so I started to doing that. Then once I started playing around with teaching her just tasks, just for fun, I mean that's how it started, it was like “Oh! Let’s train her to shut the door and open the door and you know do this kind of stuff.”
Once I realized how easy it was and how ANYBODY could do it because the click is really the communication. You didn't need to have a force. You didn't need to have strength. You didn't have to use your lowered voice that we were always taught in class. Anybody could use it, right? I thought “Well! Wow this is really cool! This could be applied towards training service dogs.” and that's actually when I started my YouTube channel. I thought “I got to get this out there so that other people can see how easy it is and they can train their own service dog.” Service dog training to me was always a mystery and it was really fascinating!
I’d grown up around people that had guide dogs and a lot of people with disabilities and I really didn't know how to train them or how that I could help other people with disabilities, so when everything… all the dots fell in line, I went, “Oh cool! I can do this and I can get out there and I can help other people. This is so awesome!” (laughing) So that's my mantra.
I really like helping people and that's my “AHA” moment when someone gets something because I was able to explain it to them, that's my reinforcer. That's what keeps me going every day. I see someone going “Yes, I got it!” and I'm thinking “Yes. That's me. Woohoo! I helped someone do that.” I also love my feedback. Yeah. (laughing)
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. So you do a lot of different types of training right, so I imagine the stuff like behavior modification of the service dog stuff is very different from the reactive dog classes you offer, and I wanted to see how having experience at those different ends of the spectrum has really influenced your training overall.
Donna Hill: -I am a big picture kind of person. I like seeing the big picture at the end -what is the final goal that I'm going to do? I like to see where the animal is starting and then the puzzle for me is figuring out how to get there. You know, what is the little roadmap, the little steps and whether it’s ten steps or a hundred steps is going to get me from the beginning to the end. Sometimes, of course, along the way you're thrown in a fear period in the service dog, or you know just a regular pet dog as well. Sometimes there's aggression issues come up because some trauma happened to the dog.
So those kinds of things definitely throw a wrench in it, but again it's all part of that big picture. So if I have those little pieces that I can pull together and realize this is where the dog is at this particular point, instead of going along my nice little line of a map or my plan.
Of course, as you know dog training is never a linear progression. It always goes all over the place. It's like the piece of string that somebody drops on the floor. When we hit one of those parts or one of those events then I know, “Ah, okay! Time for lateral training!” or “Time for stepping right out of the training altogether, going back and doing some really basic stuff where there's desensitization or counter conditioning or operant training to help the dog overcome whatever that thing is” before we can continue on with my linear training that I have planned out on paper or in my head depending on what it is that we're working on.
I think in that way, it really gives me flexibility to be able to jump wherever I need to jump because it's the dog that’s sitting right in front of me and that's where they're at and that’s what we need to deal with.
Melissa Breau: I want to talk a little bit about the YouTube videos. I know one of the ones that I see come up all the time and get shared all the time in different Facebook groups, I’ve even posted, I saw a couple of times is the video you have on tricks you can teach a dog that's on crate rest. Do you mind just talking a little bit about that, and for those listening I will share a link directly to that video in the show notes if you don't want to go searching for it. But yeah, if you could talk about that Donna.
Donna Hill: Okay when making my YouTube videos, I tend to look for trends so I look at what is already out there and I look at what's missing and that was one of the pieces that I found missing. I was noticing that there seemed to be a lot of people out there whose dogs were having cruciate ligament issues or just issues that really confine them to a crate for long periods of time, and that can be really hard to deal with for a lot of people. So I thought oh, well there's a hole. You know there's no one has ever shown what kinds of things you can do with a dog that's on crate rest because most of the stuff that's out there is very active- oriented right? So that's just kind of where that came from was, you know there's a need and I try and fill it. Again it's me trying to help people learn what they can do with their dogs.
Melissa Breau: So I know one of the big things that you know your classes seem to have in common, is an emphasis on observation skills and I know even in your bio on the actual FDSA site you kind of mentioned that, so I wanted to ask why being able to watch your dog and accurately read their body language is so important, and to ask you to talk a little bit about the role that doing that plays in training.
Donna Hill: Okay. Well I think observation skills has been a hugely underplayed skill in training dogs until fairly recently. It's absolutely key to be able to SEE the behaviors, because if you can't see them then you have no idea how to interpret what the dog is doing. So if you're not seeing some subtle stuff and you just see your dog going along, you may think “Oh well, the dog’s doing fine!” when in fact actually there are some really subtle behaviors that are telling the dog is not so fine. There's some you know, there's subtle stuff going on and of course subtle stuff usually escalates if it's not dealt with.
So by learning the really subtle stuff you can get in there early on and the dog doesn’t have to get to the level of stress where it's really obvious so that you can deal with it and then that helps them in actually learning. One of the other reasons that I do have such a heavy emphasis on that is because my previous career, I was a nature interpreter, or a “naturalist” most people call it, and what a naturalist does is teaches people how to observe nature.
So I had a long history of teaching people about how to observe, mostly it was nature so animals, plants, things like that, you know watching the birds, that kind of stuff. But it’s just a natural translation to watching dogs because dogs are part of nature in my view. You know they're animals. They have behaviors and I've always been fascinated with their behaviors so it just seemed a natural extension to me to say “Okay. Let's start teaching people about observation skills!”
“Let's look at the dog, what behaviors are we seeing, you know and how does that relate to training and how does that impact training? What information can they give us? So are they relaxed and able to learn? Are they excited about what we're doing with them? Are they frustrated? Are they making mistakes or are they stressed about something in the environment?” By observing them and in context, and that's a big piece of it is what's happening in the context around the dog, that combination allows us to interpret what's happening for the dog.
So knowing that helps us to adjust the pace of training, how far we need to break down what we're doing to help them to succeed. Or maybe the dog’s just zooming right through and we can make the steps bigger to add more of a challenge for that particular dog.
So yeah, so it really affects training in a big way and I am so thrilled that we're seeing now more and more, particularly on Facebook, people incorporating videotapes of dogs and saying, “Oh you know, have a look! What behaviors do you see?”
That's such a critical skill which is separate from the interpretation part of it, where then we kind of try and make our best guess about what is going on for the dog. But without those observation skills we wouldn’t even be able to see or make good interpretations anyway. So it's a really important part of it.
Melissa Breau: So I want to dive a little bit further into your classes at FDSA. So I know that for those listening this will air I think during registration for October. I think it opens the 22nd, so I think this will be after that I hope I'm not lying. Anyway, so I know that you have two classes coming up in October. One is The Body Awareness For Competition Precision Behaviors, and the other is The Elusive Hand-Delivered Retrieve. I want to start with the body awareness class. Why is body awareness an important skill for a competition dogs?
Donna Hill: Well knowing where their body is in space and how to move it is what makes the difference between a performance that's amazing to watch and one that’s sloppy. Most dogs don't have much clue that they even have a back end. Their front end walks along and they might have some sort of awareness, you know their nose, their muzzle certainly, their front paws, they’re really useful for digging at things and touching things. But the vast majority of dogs have no clue that they have a back end and it just sort of follows along, you know the front left foot comes forward and then the back right foot comes forward and they just kind of do this opposition as they walk. But they're not really that aware.
But once we start teaching them that yes, not only do they have a front end, they also have a back end and they also have hips and they also have shoulders and they have chest, and they can move each piece of that body separately, that really starts putting it together for them. So you get, you get a gawky kid right? They know they're a gawky kid. They're not that coordinated. Once they start to isolate each one of their body parts, so they work on their hands, and they work on their head, and they work on their feet, and they work on their body core and how to move that, once they have individual knowledge of all of those, then the whole package comes together and they move much better as a whole package, and they become much more graceful. And so just like dogs, they become more graceful athletes who perform with speed, precision and confidence. So that's kind of the fundamental idea behind the body awareness classes.
Melissa Breau: And for people listening I did double check while Donna was answering that. Registration is currently open when you hear this. So, it opened last week so you can go to the site and register if you are so inclined. So Donna how do you approach teaching body awareness in the class itself?
Donna Hill: Okay, well I just break it down into the separate parts of the body. So we're looking at some specific behaviors. One is a chin rest which also translates to a whole bunch of other behaviors like a chin rest can be turned into teaching a hold for a retrieve. It can be taught for a placement of the retrieve where the dog comes back and delivers it to you, and most of the behaviors do translate into other into specific behaviors for competition, but which is why I've chosen them.
Muzzle pokes are another thing so the dog is very aware of where they're putting their muzzle so they can poke it through your fingers, they can poke it through a hoop, they can poke it into a yogurt container- those kinds of things and are comfortable doing so, which also gives them more confidence. Like Jessie for example did not like putting her head into anything, so one of the easiest ways I found was actually to use the yogurt containers, and just put some yogurt in the bottom and she would stick her head happily in at the bottom to lick it up. That really built up confidence of facial awareness and you know that kind of stuff. So that's the kind of stuff we're going to be doing in class.
Shoulder, hip, and chest targets, and the other thing we're also going to look at is how to fine tune balance. So if we can get them on like a balance beam and actually teach them how to how to place their feet so that they're not falling off or they're not having to use one foot on the ground and three feet on the balance beam, so that they gain confidence in actually balancing. And that was the one thing with both of my dogs that I really found helped was to build that confidence on narrow surfaces. That in turn of course, once they can do it on a narrow surface while walking on a regular surface and actually moving with precision is much, much easier. In the class, we use the success of approximation and shaping to get the behaviors.
Melissa Breau: Very nice. Well I want to also talk about the retrieve class a little bit. I know that’s something a lot of people struggle with. Why do you think so many people have a hard time teaching retrieves?
Donna Hill: I think most people have an expectation that the dog would just do it, because there's a lot of breeds like the retriever breeds, goldens, labs, flat coats, that have a natural retrieve and look so easy. They make it look so easy because it's bred into them. But what they don't realize is that most dogs that does not come naturally. There's a series, a chain of events, that they do called motor patterns, and the retrieve doesn't really fit in there because most dogs end the motor pattern with either a bite or a consume. Well most dogs don't consume, but some will certainly do a grab bite at the very end. That does not involve picking it up and carrying it anywhere or bringing it back to a person. So what the mistake they make is they toss the ball out, and the dog of course will happily chase it because chasing is part of the prey drive, and then the dog often will lose interest because once the ball stops moving, it's like “Oh yeah. Okay. Whatever.” and they can't do anything with it. So they either drop it and walk away from it or maybe they’ll carry it away and play with it, but they certainly won't bring it back.
The most common error I found is that people don't break it down into the smaller skills the retrieve chain is made up of. It's actually at least six individual skills that are involved in teaching a behavior chain of the retrieve. If people go back and teach the dog each one of those little pieces, then they put the pieces together in a behavior chain, then they can get it right.
The other element as I also will back chain it. That means that we start at the very end of the chain so that the dog is always working towards something that they know, i.e. putting the object in your hand or delivering the object to your lap or wherever it is that you want it at your feet. We start at that point, and then we back up so that eventually the dog is always understanding, “Uh! I have to deliver it at that location, and that's where it has to be. That finishes the chain. That gets me the reinforce.” and it becomes much easier for them to succeed.
So the key thing is breaking them down into the small pieces and then back chaining it. For example, if you need teach a dog to pick up a dime off a smooth floor, you have to train it right? A dog can't just automatically do it. There's a lot of even finer things that go into that. They need to learn how to use their heads and their mouth, to tilt their head and use their mouth and their tongues to pick up the object, and also to place it precisely.
Both of my dogs can take a quarter and place it into a narrow slot, like a piggy bank. That takes a lot of skill to learn. They have to really refine the skills down step by step by step in order to get to that level of accuracy.
It's really interesting to watch the process and to teach them and some of them do it better than others. Jesse is really, really into the fine-tuning behaviors. That’s her specialty. She loves really fine behaviors, whereas for Lucy it’s “Let’s just get it done mom and throw that behavior together!” so for her it was much more of a challenge for me to get her down to that point of taking the quarter and putting in that slot because she really had to get patient and be very careful and be very calm while she does it. She also is very food motivated, so she gets excited about food really easily. So my big challenge with her was learning to keep her calm, which is always another piece of the element for retrieve as well. But each dog does it in their own way.
Melissa Breau: So it sounds like the class would be good for people who are both interested in like a play retrieve with a toy, and more formal retrieve, right?
Donna Hill: Yeah absolutely. A retrieve is a retrieve no matter what kind of sport or environment that you're doing it in. It could be for a sport dog. It could be for a competition dog. It could be for a service dog or it could be for a play dog. So the class really covers the gamut and it was originally designed for…Denise suggested that I design it as a problem solving class. So whatever your problems are, I’m hoping that it covers the main problems.
So you know if your dog rolls a dumbbell, or whether it drops it, or whether it's over excited, I try and cover all of the super common problem areas and then if the goals in particular have additional problems, that's what they're at gold for so that we can actually fine tune it and say, okay you know the dog does well until this point. Let's deal with that point and how do we fix that piece, or maybe we need to go back and retrain something prior to that piece so that when we get to that piece, it just becomes part of the chain and it just flows through and it's no longer an issue.
Melissa Breau: You talked a little bit in there kind of about your approach to teaching it, but is there more you want to say about that, about kind of how you approach the class?
Donna Hill: Basically it's a combination of shaping each part of the chain and then back chaining the parts together. That in a nutshell, that’s kind of a summary. The dog always works towards something that's more familiar because we've already practiced that end piece lots and lots of times, and the more repetitions we do, the more practice so the stronger they get in coming towards it.
So I don't know how many people have been asked to memorize poems, but when I was a kid we had to memorize poems for school, and one of the techniques we were taught was actually back chaining even though they didn't call it that. What we would do is say we had ten verses in the poem or even songs. What we would do is actually start with the last verse or the last piece of it, and we would memorize that. And then we would go to the second last one, and the last one, and then the third last one, the second last one, and then the last one.
And what that allowed us to do, was as we would progress through the recitation, we actually got more confident because we've had more practice with the end one. What often happens is when we forward chain, we start at the beginning. We got a really solid start and then we sort of peter out near the end because we don't have as much practice near the end. Freestyle is another place that we can actually apply that as well but it works really well for a retrieve.
Melissa Breau: Now I know you've got one more class on the schedule, this time for December, and I wanted to talk about that too. So it's called Creativity With Cue Concepts. So talk me through that. What do you cover in that class?
Donna Hill: We break the various parts of cues into smaller components. That allows us to look at how we use the cues and what our dogs need from us to succeed in using them to do the behaviors that we want them to do. So the kinds of things we're looking at are the cues themselves. What are they? The kinds of cues. There's verbal. There's physical. There's environmental. Then we look at the delivery or the response to cues for something called latency which is the time between when the cue is given and when the dog starts responding to it. The speed of the response, so how fast is the dog walking towards you? Is it running towards you once you give the cue?
Things like what is a concept and how do we generalize cues as a concept so that the dog understands that this specific sound means to do this behavior in any environment no matter where you are. That is a concept. Discrimination between cues, so I was telling you what I was doing with Lucy was we were discriminating between competing cues because she had the car that she nose targeted and she had my knee and we had two different cues that were used. One was a sound and one was a verbal cue. So she had to discriminate between those. How do you start teaching that because that's really confusing for a lot of dogs, especially dogs that like to just throw behaviors at you, the ones that like being shaped.
I really like this class because the students get to choose the behaviors that they want to apply the concept to. So there isn't any prescribed behaviors that they have to work on. They can pick whatever sport that they're working on. “I’m in agility and I want the dog to understand the cue for this and this obstacle. It just makes it easier when I'm sending them out.”
So let's work on that and we apply the concept for the cues in the class to that particular sport, and you can do that with any sport. You can do it with service dogs. It doesn't matter what it is you're training. I really like it because I get to see a wide variety of behaviors from different sports and from different activities with the dogs. It's a really fun class to watch as well as a bronze, but it's even more fun as a gold student because you just get to go wherever you want to go with it. If you want to spend the entire class on one concept, you can do that too. It's entirely up to you. I'm flexible.
Melissa Breau: That's really interesting it's kind of a very different class than a lot of the other classes on the schedule and…
Donna Hill: It is! and you know it for me, it just came together so quickly when I originally developed it! I was just astounded! I thought “This is what we're doing. We’re da da da da.” I explained it and then thought “Oh my goodness! This is so much easier than the rest of the classes where I've had to go through step by step by step.” Whereas this class, it's more conceptual. Once you get the concept, then you can go to the detail. But you want to get that concept first and then get into the detail that’s, hence the class name.
Melissa Breau: So I want to get into those last three questions that I ask everyone at the end of the interview and the first one is what is the dog related accomplishment that you're proudest of?
Donna Hill: I would have to say, it’s probably two if I'm allowed two. One is developing a great training relationship with each of my dogs. Because I'm a process-oriented person rather than results, I feel that the results come if the process is good. They and I could train all day and I mean I love it! I really love it! When I had Jessie by herself for a couple of years, I consulted a certified Karen Pryor trainer that was the only one on the island at the time where I live, and she said to me, she goes, “Donna you have to get a second dog.” (laughing) She said “You are loving training too much.” Seriously, I was overtraining Jessie. I was really careful to try not to, and she’s a really sensitive dog, but I just love training so much I just couldn't help myself. I wanted to do so many things! We always had plans for a second dog anyway, so we went out and we got our second dog. It was a bit of a process. We finally found Lucy and I she is so amazing. She is a driven dog and she would work with me all day, honest to goodness. She loves working. She's a really fun dog to train. She throws behaviors at me. She loves shaping. She's a fantastic dog! So as a second dog she's a fantastic dog, because it really took the pressure off Jessie who is a really sensitive dog, and they are a really good combination because you know if I need more training I just take Lucy out and away we go. So that's the first is developing a great relationship with them.
The second part that I'm really proud of is the You Tube channels. So many people can learn so much on the You Tube channels. It's a really great way or venue to put the information out there and reach a lot of people. It was a bonus for me because one of the main reasons I actually started it as well, or I guess the second main reason, was because I was terrified of being videotaped and I wanted to get over that fear and I thought well if I put these videos together, I have control over the process, so if I videotape myself and I hate what I see, I don't have to include it.
And it's really has given me a lot of confidence now. Seriously, when I was at my wedding, I actually banned videotapes and video cameras because I did not want the added stress of being videotaped. (laughing) So yeah, so now I've mostly overcome it. I'm still nervous, but nowhere near the level of nervousness. It's funny because Denise just recently suggested that videotaping yourself really adds that sort of a fake environment of adding extra pressure to yourself, like practicing for a competition, right? Videotaping yourself is a good start to it, because it adds that little bit of pressure. You know someone's watching and she's absolutely right!
That's what I would totally feel and I still feel that that to this day. When I go out and about in public, I still feel like people are watching me. I still feel that pressure of people around watching which in public actually is interesting. I am more nervous in general public just working my dog one on one doing my own thing, than I am in front of a group simply because I think I have more control in the group. Because usually when I'm working with the group, I'm the one leading the group. I'm the speaker. So then I control the rest of it and I'm a real control freak when it comes to that. So if I'm in control, that changes everything. But when I'm not in control, then that makes me really nervous.
So a teaching role is a really good role for me because I feel like I'm in control and yet I can still let the students do their thing, but it takes the pressure off me. So those are the those are two things I am proud of, developing a great training relationship and my two YouTube channels.
Melissa Breau: So this is normally my favorite question of the entire interview and that is what is the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?
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 want. 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.
Melissa Breau: And that's great I like that so much. It's such a great kind of line to kind of remember, you know.
Donna Hill: It’s an easy one. Yeah, it’s everywhere and I've told so many people, that my husband actually this morning when I was talking about that, I thought, oh I bet she's going to ask this question. And he said you know, I remember when you told me that. He said we were back in university and I was helping him with his writing projects, and he said “I remember you telling me that. Break everything down. It was the yard by yard, life is hard, inch by inch it’s a cinch.” So and that was probably about thirty years ago he remembers that from.
Melissa Breau: (Laughs) It's clearly a memorable line.
Donna Hill: Yeah. (Laughs)
Melissa Breau: So my last question for you today. Who is someone else in the dog world that you look up to?
Donna Hill: I can't say one person! I have to say there’s lots of them. I’m a real eclectic learner, and so again back to that real variety of learning styles, so everybody from Karen Pryor, Bob Bailey, Suzanne Clothier, Turid Rugaas, Denise Fenzi of course, Leslie McDevitt, Susan Friedman, Raymond Coppinger, and Jean Donaldson, Sue Ailsby. I take a little piece of something from a lot of the better trainers that are out there. Just things that really appeal to me and I incorporate them, and I try them.
It's all over the map and I think that comes back from my zoology background and just the general interest in animal behavior, because I do see it. It's not just one way or the other way of doing it. There's a whole variety. Some of the new researchers that are coming out are really affecting me too. A lot of the cognitive instructors, half of them I can't pronounce their names. I take the information that they've got and they're just fantastic. So there's tons and tons of not only trainers, but also researchers out there that I really appreciate their contributions so that I can take what I need and put it all together to create something that works for me and for the students that I work with.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. Well thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Donna.
Donna Hill: Well thank you for having me! This has been a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it!
Melissa Breau: That's excellent and thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Barbara Currier to talk about agility training and handling and I’ll ask her about her work with Georgia Tech which is creating wearable computing devices for military search and rescue and service dogs. Don’t miss it.
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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 BenSound.com; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang and transcription written by CLK Transcription Services.