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 playwaydogs.com, and everyone should definitely go check it out.
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 playwaydogs.com, 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 BenSound.com; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang and transcription written by CLK Transcription Services.
Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!