Sarah Stremming is a dog trainer, a dog agility and obedience competitor, and a dog behavior consultant. Her credentials include a bachelors of science degree in psychology from Colorado State University, and more than a decade in the field of dog training and behavior. Her special interest area is problem solving for performance dogs.
To be released 11/24/2017, featuring Hannah Branigan getting geeky about tuck sits.
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 Sarah Stremming, of Cog-Dog radio and the Cognitive Canine back on the podcast to talk about… dog behavior.
Welcome back to the podcast, Sarah!
Sarah Stremming: Thanks, Melissa.
Melissa Breau: To start us out, I know it’s been a little while since you were on the show, can you just remind listeners how many dogs you have now and who they are?
Sarah Stremming: Sure. Between my partner and I, we have five. I’ll tell you about my two. I have Idgie, who’s an 8-year-old border collie, and Felix, who’s a 2-year-old border collie, and my primary sport’s agility, so that’s what they’re both working on. Idgie doesn’t really train much in agility anymore, she just competes, and Felix is mostly training with hardly any competing. And then I also play around in obedience, so they’re both working on some of that stuff as well.
Melissa Breau: So, I know that last time we talked, we just touched on the 4 steps to behavioral wellness briefly, covering what they are… but since I definitely want to dive a little deeper this time, do you mind just briefly sharing what those 4 steps are again and giving folks a little bit of background so that they’re not totally confused when we start talking about it?
Sarah Stremming: Sure, of course. The four steps to behavioral wellness are something that I came up with a long time ago when I was primarily working with pet dog behavior cases, and they are exercise, enrichment, nutrition, and communication. And basically they’re the four areas that I find are often lacking in our basic dog care, and that includes sport people. What I found is that when trying to modify behavior, if one or more of these areas was lacking so the dog’s basic needs were not being met, we would always hit a point where we couldn’t progress with the behavior modification. So that’s where they came from.
Melissa Breau: Now I believe — though I could be wrong — that most of your students today come to you because of a problem training for a specific sport, but listening to your case studies in the podcast and talking to you a bit, it seems like the solution is often a lifestyle change. So I wanted to ask why it is that a dog’s lifestyle can have such a huge impact on their performance in their sport?
Sarah Stremming: That is true. Most of my clientele now, really all of my clientele now, is sports dog people who are having some kind of behavioral issue, usually a behavior problem that is preventing their dog from being able to compete or being able to compete well. And we definitely do work on specific behavior change protocols, so we definitely do go through behavior modification. But I’ve just come to find out that, over the years I’ve seen that if a dog’s basic needs are not being met, you will not get where you want to get with the behavior modifications. So when we go through a lifestyle change, it is typically about meeting dogs’ basic needs. I think a lot of people look at what I’m doing and they think I’m trying to give every single dog an exceptional life. Now, yes, I would like every dog and every person to have an exceptional life, but that’s not necessarily the goal. The goal first is to meet basic needs, and I think that, unfortunately, that few people understand what some of those basic needs are. And so I think that’s what shines through a lot of the time when I’m talking about my cases is I always want to look through those four steps of behavioral wellness as I want to look at what adjustments were made there, and then after that’s done, we can then get into the nitty-gritty of the behavior modification work.
Melissa Breau: Can you tell me just a little bit more about that? What are some of the common problems that you run into where those 4 steps can help?
Sarah Stremming: Some of the most common things that I deal with are things that people label as “over-arousal issues,” and they’re usually in agility, though I’ve definitely worked with a few obedience clients and a couple other clients from other sports on these issues. The behaviors that we label as over-arousal behaviors tend to be biting the handler during agility, oftentimes at the end of the run but a lot of times during the run, inability to hold front line or contact in competition, and then things that I just call spinning, barking, madness. The dog might spin, might bark, might also bite, just basically explosive behaviors that occur on course or during work. Those are some of the biggest issues that I deal with. Some of the ways that the four steps can help those issues are that when I see these dogs that have these … what we call over-arousal issues, especially in agility, often this is because agility is the most fulfilling thing the dog experiences in their life. So if their agility time is the only time that they actually feel satisfied mentally and physically, they become what I think looks like desperate to do the sport. Anybody that has ever felt desperate for something understands that that’s a yucky way to feel, and I think that I observe dogs feeling desperate to do agility when I’m at trials. I’ve certainly seen it in my own dogs as well. And I think that some of the ways we train them encourage that, but the ways that we can help them feel less desperate are through exercise and enrichment, so those two steps out of the four. With adequate exercise, the dog’s going to feel more like its body has been worked adequately, so that agility isn’t the only time that the dog’s body actually feels physically satisfied. And then enrichment needs to be part of … environmental enrichment needs to be a part of every dog’s daily life, because they do have brains and they do get to use them and they are not a couch ornament for us. If that sounds a little harsh, I don’t mean to say that most people think that way. I do think, unfortunately, it’s very common in the agility world to feel like agility class is enough. If we’re going to agility class tonight, I don’t have to do anything else today. Or if we had a trial all weekend, I don’t have to do anything else this week to fulfill my dog physically or mentally, and that’s just not true and that can definitely create problems. A couple of the others, just hitting on a few other steps to behavioral wellness, anything I deal with that has to do with generalized anxiety, so things like separation issues or fear responses that keep dogs out of the ring, anything that has to do with overall anxiety, my anecdotal experience is that diet can have an enormous effect on that. So when you feed the gut appropriately — and there is actually some cool research coming out about, cool research that exists and then also more and more research coming out about the relationship between mental health and gut health — but what I have observed anecdotally is that when a dog has a healthy GI, its overall anxiety is reduced, and so diet is a place that we look at. There’s some nutrition being the one of four steps that I emphasize on the anxiety front, and then there just isn’t any behavior problem that isn’t going to be helped with better communication. Communication helps everything. No matter what we’re talking about, that definitely helps everything.
Melissa Breau: To go back a little about the couch potato bit, even if someone doesn’t necessarily think that way, it can be hard if you’ve worked all day for eight hours and then come home and you have agility class. It can be hard to fit something else in. So even if it’s not intentional, sometimes it can be totally easy to de-prioritize those things.
Sarah Stremming: It is. It’s easy for us to go, “OK, the dog box is checked because I have agility class tonight.” Where I want to encourage people to at least provide environmental enrichment for the dogs during the day when you’re gone. So feeding them out of puzzle toys or Kongs as opposed to out of a bowl is a really simple, easy way to do that. And then just basically enrich their environment. Take a page out of the zookeeper’s book and provide them with things in their environment that they have to forage through or rip apart or something. Even if they’re crated during the day, give them stuff in the crate so that they literally aren’t just left to lay around with a bowl of water and maybe a Nylabone that they’ve had for five years.
Melissa Breau: I know that you recently published a series of podcasts on behavior change, talking about things like replacement behaviors… How can someone decide if what they need is just to teach a dog not to jump all over them or if they have a stress problem? And when is it time to look at things like nutrition and exercise — you got into this a little bit, but — versus going back to foundations to prevent frustration and stress through clearer communication in that sport?
Sarah Stremming: The answer is yes. The answer is you should always be doing all of the above. Trying to look at behavior as one thing, or trying to look at a problem behavior as one thing, meaning a behavior is always serving a function for the animal, so it doesn’t exist if there isn’t reinforcement present for it. It doesn’t exist if it doesn’t serve a function. So you always want to look at it like that first, and you always want to make a plan to change it that way first. But you have to understand that if the dog’s needs are not being adequately met that you may not be able to get anywhere with that plan. And then, as far as deciding between “Do I just need a training program, or do I also need a lifestyle change,” I think when most people get down to it and examine their dog’s lifestyle, they will see the answer. I have certainly had clients who showed up and they were pretty much doing everything right. They just needed to tweak some training stuff. That is rare, but that has happened. So I think, to try to make it a simpler answer, I think we should always, always assess the functionality of the behavior you’d like to change. So if it’s jumping all over you, try to look at what the dog is getting out of that, and try to help them to get that a different way, and make a plan to do that. And then also be sure that the dog’s needs are being adequately met, because if you make a plan to solve this problem behavior, so let’s say it is jumping all over you, what do they need? Is it that they are missing you all day long and feeling lonely? A little bit of assigning some human emotions here, but is it that? I mean, I do think that my dogs can feel lonely, but who knows? We can’t ask them.
Melissa Breau: It’s a dog podcast. You can absolutely do that.
Sarah Stremming: Right! So if it is that they’re missing out on that human connection, can we address that as well as making this behavior change plan? And not just saying, “I want to change this behavior, therefore I will,” but also respecting that that behavior has a function, and that behavior came from a need that this dog has, and it’s up to us to fulfill it always.
Melissa Breau: Most of our listeners are probably pretty familiar with the idea of stressing up versus stressing down… that is, having a dog that’s easily over-aroused versus one that completely shuts down. I know you have classes for both ends of the spectrum. So I wanted to ask a little bit about, now that we’ve talked about these four steps and a little bit about behavior change, how are the solutions to the problems different, depending on which end of the spectrum the dog falls on? Can you talk about that a bit?
Sarah Stremming: Sure. And the two classes are Worked Up, which are the dogs that are worked up, just as it sounds, and then I call the other class Hidden Potential, which is about more of the stressed-down types of dogs. And I get this question probably every time I teach a seminar on one or the other. So if I’m teaching a seminar on worked-up types of dogs, the hidden-potential dogs come up and vice versa. And the reason that that’s OK, and the reason that that should be expected, is because the solutions are similar. Both dogs are dealing with states of arousal that are not optimal. So if we’ve got a dog that is in a hyper-aroused state, he’s not able to do his job because his adrenalin is off the charts. And if we have a dog in a kind of suboptimal arousal state, he can’t do his job either, because he would rather go back into his crate and sleep and just may be bored. If we are talking about anxiety or stress, then that’s where things start to change. So if we’re talking about almost a temperament difference, we’ve all seen dogs that movement for them is cheap. They move a lot and they move quickly, versus dogs that … if you’re training a border collie versus a bassett hound, you’ve got the border collie, movement is cheap for them. They will jump a bunch of times, they can heel a bunch of times, and that’s cheap for them. They have a lot of energy. Versus maybe your basset hound has less energy than that and movement is more expensive for him. So then we’re just dealing with differences in arousal states, and what we would do is play games to either bring the arousal up or bring the arousal back down. When we’re dealing with anxiety or stress, that’s where I might deal with it … that’s where I see most of the dogs that fall into the hidden-potential category are. It’s usually more of an anxiety-based or a stress-based or maybe a fear-based issue, and that’s where I would address it in a different way. So if we can identify what the stressor is, I would actually want to tackle that head-on with a specific treatment protocol for whatever the stressor is. A lot of those dogs are worried about other dogs, and then we go to a dog show where there are tons of them. And then a lot of them are worried about people, and we go to a dog show and there’s tons of them. The good news is they can be helped with those things. Certainly some of the worked-up dogs are experiencing environmental arousal or environmental anxiety, and if they are, then we want to go down that path as well and again address it the same way. So a lot of the times the same solution exists. It’s just that we’re looking at a different picture in the beginning and still trying to get to the same picture in the end.
Melissa Breau: What are some of maybe the misconceptions people have about those kind of issues, or what do people commonly think about that maybe isn’t 100 percent accurate when it comes to stressing up or stressing down and managing that? Can you set the record straight?
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.
Melissa Breau: To be clear, it’s not that people who have a dog that’s shutting down in the ring aren’t rewarding their dog enough. It’s that there is a kind of misstructure there somewhere, right?
Sarah Stremming: Yes. Thank you, Melissa. And actually I’m really glad that you said the word “reward” instead of reinforce, because they probably are rewarding their dogs plenty, but they’re not reinforcing their dogs enough. And the difference is that a reward is just a nice thing that doesn’t necessarily affect behavior. Reinforcement, by definition, affects behavior. So if behavior is not increasing, improving, etc., reinforcement is not present, though rewards well may be present. So if you get a Christmas bonus at work, that’s nice, but that’s not why you showed up the rest of the year.
Melissa Breau: Well, maybe! But …
Sarah Stremming: I’m going to argue it’s not. I’m going to argue the paycheck that you got every other week is why you showed up the rest of the year, and then the reward might have affected your feelings about the job. It might have made you feel nicer about it. It might have made you feel nicer about your boss. Or it could have the total opposite effect, and be a $20 Starbucks card and you’re, like, thanks a lot. But my point being there’s so many
lovely, kind people who are rewarding frequently who don’t have enough understanding of the reinforcement procedures that they could be utilizing to actually increase the dog’s behavior or change the dog’s behavior. I don’t mean to imply that those people are not training well or training nicely and training kindly and being generous. I think they probably are. In fact, they’re probably a lot more generous. But a lot of the people I see training those super-high dogs, I see a lot of super-high dogs that do not get a high enough rate of reinforcement in training, which that’s just amping them up, whereas the other end of the spectrum is that the other dogs are shutting down. So thank you for bringing that up, and I think, yeah, it’s about the fact that understanding that if reinforcement is present, then the behavior will be present as well.
Melissa Breau: I am glad that we went into that a little bit more. That was good information that people maybe don’t hear often enough.
Sarah Stremming: Good question, thank you.
Melissa Breau: Thanks for answering it. Before I let you go, I mentioned earlier that you have a series that you’ve been publishing on effective behavior change, and I wanted to ask a little bit about that. First, what led you to explore that topic?
Sarah Stremming: I’m just excited about the topic constantly, but to be honest with you, I decided to explore the topic based on dog trainers on the Internet. I saw a dog trainer on social media talking about behavior change as a kind of mystical thing, when I’m very passionate about training as an applied science and understanding training as an applied science. That certainly does not mean that I discount the art side of training, because there certainly is an artistic side to it, and before I ever knew anything about the science, the artistic side to it is what kept me in it. And so I think that’s very, very important. But I do think that our industry would be better if all trainers recognized training as an applied science, and when I say “better,” I mean just serving the people and the dogs better. I think that all dog trainers, no matter what kind of training they do or what kind of training background they have, are in this because that’s what they want to do. They want to serve the people and the dogs. They love dogs, and they hopefully like the people who own them, and they want to help people to have better connections with their dogs. I think all dog trainers are after that, no matter what kind of dog training they do. But I do see a general lack of recognition of dog training as an applied science, and specifically I think that a lot of positive-reinforcement-based trainers, especially on the Internet, can be very unkind to each other. I know this seems like, “How did you come up with this podcast series based on that? This has nothing to do with it.” Where I came to it, and where I wanted to talk about it, was because we really all should be generally training, generally the same way, or we all should understand some general basic principles, and I just don’t see that as being reality. We should all be able to talk to each other about the effects of reinforcement and punishment and what makes for effective behavior change instead of … I think what we talk about instead on the Internet is how that person over there is doing it wrong and “This is how I would do it, and that’s the right way to do it,” when in reality the right way to do it is treating it like an applied science. And then there are certainly variations within that, but I’m basically talking about it because we need to be talking about it as an applied science, and I think we do that over at FDSA, and Hannah Branigan does that on her podcast really beautifully. And the more I think we talk about it as an applied science, I think the further we can get and the more undivided we can become, and then the more dogs we can help.
Melissa Breau: Not to ask you to take these three episodes and condense them into one tiny, short, little blurb, but to do exactly that I wanted to talk a little bit about what you cover in them. I definitely fully recommend people go listen to all three, if they haven’t already. The first two have been out and I’ve listened to them and they’re absolutely excellent, and by the time this comes out I know that you’re planning on a third one and hopefully that will be available. But I did want to ask you to share just a couple of the key points or major takeaways that you really want people to walk away from after they listen to those episodes.
Sarah Stremming: Definitely. Thanks for the plug there!
Melissa Breau: Absolutely.
Sarah Stremming: I’m glad that you liked them and all three should be available; two of them are as we record this, and I just recorded the other one today, so it should be out soon. The first one I did just talked about replacement behaviors. So if we are trying to modify a problem behavior, we want to use a replacement behavior to come in instead of that behavior. What that means is that instead of squashing a behavior, getting rid of a behavior, we just want to swap it out with something else. And so we generally think about incompatible behaviors, so an incompatible behavior, an example of that would be the dog is dashing out the front door. That’s the problem behavior we want to solve, and we can train the dog to go lie on a mat when the door opens instead, and that would be an incompatible behavior because the two behaviors cannot happen at once. I also talked about the concept of alternative behaviors, which are not necessarily incompatible. I think that’s a really interesting concept, that you can actually train the dog to sit, let’s say at the front window, let’s say the dog is barking at passers-by, you can train the dog to sit instead. Now that’s an alternative behavior. My dog Idgie can tell you, she can bark while sitting just fine. She doesn’t need to be standing to be barking. So it’s alternative because both the behaviors can still happen at once, but what’s really nice about it is that if you’re reinforcing an alternative behavior, the problematic behavior still does decrease. So in the first episode we talk about what are some good qualities of incompatible or alternative behaviors, so basically what makes a good replacement behavior, and to really sum it up in short, what makes a good replacement behavior is that (a) it’s incompatible or alternative and (b) it’s already fluent, so it’s something the dog already knows how to do. There’s a little bit more to it than that, but you’ll have to go listen to it. In the next one I talked about antecedent arrangements, or basically just the principal of manipulating the environment in which the behavior occurs, as opposed to attempting to manipulate the behavior itself. I think a lot of times, as dog trainers, we really focus on trying to manipulate behaviors when we should be thinking more about manipulating environments. The third one, that I recorded today, is kind of the other end of the spectrum of the second one. So you can manipulate the environment, and then you can manipulate the reinforcement. You can manipulate the consequences to the behavior. So the third episode is about reinforcement, and specifically, building what I call reinforcement strategies, so that you have a huge toolbox of reinforcement from which to draw from. So the more ways that you can reinforce an animal’s behavior, the more effective you’re likely to be in attempting to change its behavior. So those are the three that I’ve got.
Melissa Breau: I’m curious now and looking forward to hearing that third one and rounding out the series. I really am glad that you tackled it and it’s been a great series so far, so cool.
Sarah Stremming: Thank you.
Melissa Breau: Well, thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Sarah! I know that you’re in the middle of a long drive, so I will let you get back to that. But thank you.
Sarah Stremming: Thank you. Thanks so much.
Melissa Breau: And thank you to all our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with Hannah Branigan, who Sarah mentioned. Hannah and I will be talking about detail oriented training -- things like getting that miraculous tuck sit or the perfect fold back down.
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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.