Dr. Deborah Jones -- better known around FDSA as Deb Jones -- she is a psychologist who specializes in learning theory and social behavior. An early innovator in the use of clicker training, she has owned and worked with a variety of breeds and has earned top level titles in agility, rally, and obedience over the last 25 years.
In 2004 Deb worked with agility trainer and World Team member Judy Keller to develop the FOCUS training system. FOCUS stands for Fun, Obedience & Consistency lead to Unbelievable Success. Deb has also worked with Denise Fenzi, co-authoring the “Dog Sports Skills” book series and authored several other books, with more in the works!
At FDSA, Deb offers a wide range of popular classes, including a number of excellent foundations classes. Her focus is on developing training methods that are enjoyable and effective for both the dog and the trainer.
To be released 2/9/2018, and I'll be talking to Denise Fenzi about Play, so stay tuned!
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today we’ll be talking to Dr. Deborah Jones -- better known around FDSA as Deb Jones.
Deb is a psychologist who specializes in learning theory and social behavior. An early innovator in the use of clicker training, she has owned and worked with a variety of breeds and has earned top-level titles in agility, rally, and obedience over the last 25 years.
In 2004, Deb worked with agility trainer and World Team member Judy Keller to develop the FOCUS training system. FOCUS stands for Fun, Obedience & Consistency Lead to Unbelievable Success. Deb has also worked with Denise Fenzi, co-authoring the “Dog Sports Skills” book series, and authored several other books, with more in the works!
At FDSA, Deb offers a wide range of popular classes, including a number of excellent foundations classes. Her focus is on developing training methods that are enjoyable and effective for both the dog and the trainer.
Hi Deb! Welcome back to the podcast.
Deb Jones: Thanks, Melissa. I’m really happy to be here.
Melissa Breau: To start us out, do you want to just reacquaint listeners with the furry friends you share your household with?
Deb Jones: At the moment, we have four dogs and one cat. We have a wide variety. Smudge is the oldest dog. He’s a Blue Merle Sheltie. He’s 14 now, and sadly, he’s sort of in the hospice stage of life. He’s having more and more issues, so that’s always a tough thing to deal with. But we’re taking it day to day and seeing how he is.
Then I have Zen, my red Border Collie, who’s 10 years old. Zen still is his wild and crazy self. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. Star is my black-and-white Border Collie, and she’s going to be 7 this year, which is just stunning to me because it seems like she’s still just 2 years old. I can’t believe they keep getting older. I tell them to stop, and I tell them 7’s a perfect age, just stay 7 forever and I’d be thrilled because it’s just the right time.
Then we have little Tigger, who is the tiny little Sheltie. He is just going to be turning 2 next week, and he only weighs 7 and a half pounds, so he’s very, very small for a Sheltie, but he’s full of himself. He’s got enough attitude for everybody.
And finally we have Tricky the cat. I think Trick’s about 8 or so now. He’s been around for a while. He was the star of the Cat Class that we put on last year. So that’s the group for the moment.
Melissa Breau: Last time you were on the podcast, I know we talked quite a bit about focus, since that’s a big part of what you teach. For anyone who’s listening who wants to go back and listen to that, which I recommend, it’s Episode 14. But I did have a question or two that we didn’t get to last time, so I wanted to dive into that just a little bit. On your syllabus for the Get Focused class, you have a line that says, “What is focus? How is it different from attention?” So I wanted to ask, what is your definition of focus, and how is it different from attention?
Deb Jones: OK, I’m glad to talk about that. That’s a common question that we get all the time. The way that I think about focus is that it’s the ability to concentrate on a task despite distractions. So whatever it is that we’re doing, you can keep doing that without being pulled away or pulled in other directions by things going on around you.
In the dog training world, attention is often considered to be either the dog’s looking at you or making eye contact with you. Focus is a lot more than that. That’s a part of it, but it’s actually a small part. With focus, my dog might be working on a task totally independently of me, and I don’t want them looking at me or making eye contact. You can imagine, for example, pretty much most of agility, nosework, working in obedience at the upper levels in particular, something like go outs — there are lots of times when the dog needs to focus on what they’re doing, and then appropriately switch back to trainer focus when it’s necessary.
So there’s a lot more going on there than just “Look at me,” because if you just look at me all the time, we’re not going to get very far in our training. We start out with that, we start out with “Pay attention to the trainer,” because that is really the first step. But it’s also, I think, a lot more about persistence at the task, sticking on task once you start doing something, no matter what is going on around you. That’s sort of my expanded answer of the difference there.
Melissa Breau: A lot of people tend to ask about focus. They’re those students that have worked really hard, and they finally managed to achieve good focus from their dogs, and then they’re really scared to ruin it. They’re working at their desk, or they’re watching TV, or who knows, but they’re doing something of their own that does not involve the dog, and the dog comes over and offers focus, offers to engage, and wants to work, and they feel like, OK, my choices are ruin my dog’s focus and all this work that I put in, or ignore my dog, and they struggle with that a little bit. How do you handle that? What do you recommend in that kind of situation?
Deb Jones: That’s something that does start to happen, especially if you’ve done very much focus work. All of a sudden now, too much focus is a problem. But it’s really not a problem. We’re all happy when we have more focus. We can’t say that’s a problem.
Melissa Breau: It’s a good problem.
Deb Jones: Yes, it’s a very good problem. So if your dog wants to interact with you, I always think that is fabulous. Take it. I always acknowledge it. That doesn’t mean I’m going to get up and train you right now, but I am going to respond to you in some way, even if I’m just petting you and saying we’re going to do something later. That’s still responding to you. I don’t jump up every time that you focus on me.
In our work, in the system that we have set up and the way we teach focus, we set up expectations for when we want focus and when we don’t need it anymore, and we’re clear about when those times are. We want focus work for training sessions. When I’m training my dog, I want focus a hundred percent of the time. But when we’re lounging around the house, we don’t need focus anymore. So we set up the dogs to understand, These are the times, these are the signals I’ll give you that focus will be reinforced, and these are the signals that I give you that we are done for now and you can pretty much do whatever you want … well, within reason. You can’t get into trouble, but you can pretty much do whatever you want. So we have those on and off cues that we use with them.
If I had a dog, though, who was very sensitive, or really hardly ever engaged with me and was very new to this, I would probably leap up from my desk and have a party if they showed me that they wanted to be engaged. So it really very much depends on the dog, as well as the level of training you’re at.
If I did that now, though, with Zen, I would never do anything else. It would be like a constant 24/7, so with him it’s the opposite. It’s “We’re done for now. We don’t need any more focus at the moment.”
We do actually in focus training, the second exercise we do, we capture focus when it happens, and we acknowledge it with something that’s non-food. So we want to get into the fact that my paying attention to you, my interacting with you, playing, praise, petting, all of those things, we will do. And what surprises people is how often then the dog starts focusing on them around the house. So it shows us that they’re willing to do it, as long as we’re willing to acknowledge it.
The other thing I want to mention here, because this is something that also comes up a lot, is people will talk about doing focus work while they’re walking their dog, or hiking, and I tell them, “Don’t do that.” To me, that is totally separate from my focus work. When we’re out hiking, or out walking, that’s my dog’s chance to relax, and to sniff, and to do again whatever they want to do within reason. I’ll stop when they stop, I’ll move when they move, I don’t make a big deal about it. It’s for them to relax as much as for me, and that’s not a time when I want focus. I may have to give you a cue at some point, I may have to call them back to me, or ask them to lie down or something, as necessary, but we don’t ever combine focus work with those informal activities. We keep those totally separate, again so it’s clear to the dog: I’m expecting focus from you now; I’m not going to be expecting it from you in these other situations.
Melissa Breau: Hearing you say this, it almost sounds like you’re essentially putting it on stimulus control.
Deb Jones: Exactly. I could have said that and not gone through all these explanations. Yes, that is exactly what we’re doing is putting it on stimulus control. Maybe I need to stop being so wordy.
Melissa Breau: No, no, I think that was good, because I’ve taken the class and I hadn’t thought of it that way until you described it this time around. That’s an interesting way of thinking about it. Now, I know in addition to Get Focused this session, you’re teaching a new class, and the topic is kind of fascinating. You called it Achieving a Balance Between Motivation and Control, which I think everybody wants that, right? So can you share a little bit about what the class covers?
Deb Jones: Well, I can probably share a lot about what the class covers, because it’s on my mind. Whenever we develop a new class, we think about it 24/7. It’s on my mind a lot, and I’ve been thinking about this class for a long time and trying to figure out how to put it into the format that I wanted in order to teach it. When I was thinking back, I realized I was writing lectures for this when we went to camp last year, on the plane to camp, so it’s been a while. I’ve been working on pulling this together, and the thought’s been in the back of my mind even longer.
This is another what we would call a concept class, meaning the class is not about any particular behavior or skill. It’s more like it’s built around a theme, and everything we do then kind of supports that theme or helps us explore it or find ways to make changes based on that. Concept classes in general are harder because they require more from the trainer. They require more thought and effort. And they’re harder for the instructor for the same reason. They just are a little bit different. A skills class is just, “We’re going to work on this thing, like a retrieve, and that’s all we’re going to work on for six weeks,” which is a lot more straightforward. But concept classes tend to be a bit different.
I first really started thinking about this idea of balance in dogs back when I was doing a lot of agility. You would see what would happen over time pretty regularly. Somebody would start out, say, with their first agility dog, and often the dog was never gotten with performance in mind. They just stumbled into it. And as they started to do agility, typically what happened was they would say, “Oh, this dog isn’t fast enough,” “This dog isn’t interested,” or “This dog isn’t very driven” — and I’ll talk about drive in a second here — and then they would go, “I need a dog that’s going to be better suited for this,” which I’m good with that. I think that’s a very smart thing to think about: Is the dog I have suited for what I want to do?
But then they would get a faster model, oftentimes a model with no brakes, so typically a herding breed. And then they have this little baby puppy herding-breed dog, and they spend about a year building drive in the dog because they’re so worried. Since their last dog didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm and energy, they’re going to get it with this next dog. Of course what happens is this dog already had plenty of motivation, and what you’re doing is not building drive in any way at all. What you’re doing is building over-arousal. So now you have dogs that are high as kites, and what happens? No control, because the person was afraid to work on control because that was a bad idea with their last dog. We’re pretty much always training our last dog, and it’s usually very different from what the dog in front of us needs right now. So we end up with these dogs that are highly over-aroused, often around agility, and that’s just the first place I saw it. People do it in other sports as well.
Let me get back to the term drive, though, because this is one that I very carefully left out of the description of the class. I purposely thought about it and left it out and changed it to motivation. The term motivation, I think, is a better one for what we’re talking about. When you’re motivated, you want to do something. You have a reason to do it, you have the energy to do it, you have the desire to do it. That’s what we think of in dogs when we talk about drive. But scientific terms we never use the term drive. That’s just something that’s seen as not even a real thing. It doesn’t exist. It’s a word that can be described better in many other ways, or a quality that can be described better in many other ways.
On the other hand, dog trainers use it all the time, so it’s not like I can say I will never use that word, because people do understand what you’re saying when you talk about drive. Actually, in my first lecture in the class, I talk about … say a little bit about this and why I don’t use that term, but I understand that a lot of people do. To me, it’s more of a motivation issue than it is a drive issue. That’s why I don’t use that term a lot. I may lapse into it now and again, if I forget myself.
But typically, so let’s go back to my example of the totally over-aroused dog. So now what we’ve got is no control. What that really means is there’s no balance. You’ve got all arousal, no control, or all motivation, no control. That’s not a good place to be for the dog or the trainer — trust me, I’ve been there. You wish greatly for your more careful, thoughtful dog when you have a dog that just “go, go, go” a thousand miles an hour, and you cannot get them to slow down for a second. That’s a problem. That’s a big problem.
I think in general it’s hard for us to know who our dogs are, to really, clearly see them, and to see what they actually need. Again, we have this illusion that either we’re training the dog we had before, or we have this mythical, idealized version of who the dog is. So we’re not actually thinking and really analyzing who’s this dog and what do they need to get them more into this balanced place where they can do whatever we want, yet they can still make good choices and decisions and think about what they’re doing.
This is where we get into nature and nurture a little bit in my thinking about it. Genetics matters. There’s no question about that. You can’t say they don’t, and I sort of believe they matter more than 50 percent. Of course in psychology, for years we’ve talked about the nature-nurture controversy and what determines how you turn out as an adult. Was it all determined by your genetics, or does your environment and experience have a lot more to do with it? Of course it’s not one or the other. It’s an interaction of the two. But lately the thinking has been going back to the nature part of it, and that there are some things that were hardwired into us, and it’s really hard to change them. You can’t override nature. You can modify it a little bit.
So we’re going to be looking at what has nature given you with this dog. I have sort of a temperament test. It’s not really a test. It’s you answering questions about your dog from what you know of them, trying to answer them honestly in terms of what is this dog, who is this dog, what do they bring into the world in terms of core characteristics? In humans we talk about something called the “big five personality characteristics,” so I sort of built it off of that, that these are the things that people think are genetic. Where do you fall on introvert/extrovert, where do you fall on resilience when something bad happens and you recover from it — those kinds of things.
So we’ll look at that, but of course the flipside of that is your environment and experiences. They matter. They may not again override what you normally are going to be, but they certainly matter a lot. So we’ll look at those as well and talk a little bit about it.
It used to be the early behaviorists like John Watson would say, “Give me a baby and I can make him anything I want him to be.” And I’m, like, Oh, I don’t think so. Parents everywhere would tell you that is so very wrong. That’s not the case at all that you could possibly … nobody comes into the world a blank slate, or the Tabula Rasa idea that we have from John Locke. That just doesn’t happen, really.
We’re not all interchangeable when we could be whatever we wanted, and that’s not true for our dogs, either. We know they’re different, and we have to take that into account. So we look at that interaction. I’m going to talk a lot about that the first couple weeks of class, the interaction of nature and nurture, and look at where we’re standing with these dogs right now. So, what is my dog, to the best of my knowledge, really like?
Then we’re going to talk a lot about arousal levels. I’ve mentioned arousal a few times because you can have too much. Too much, too little, over- and under-arousal. But that’s something that we can modify. Classical conditioning, in particular, plays a huge role in this process of arousal. We connect certain stimuli to being over-aroused or under-aroused.
So we’ll talk about how that works, and look at how we might change some of those fairly automatic responses. They just happen. When you are exposed to stimuli, you have that response. I’ve had dogs, personally — Smudgie, the old dog, right now is a good example of that. You get within a certain distance to the agility ring, and he had no brain. Absolutely no brain. Screaming, lunging, just … you know, he didn’t do it on purpose. It was just his automatic response because the stimuli of agility brought out that response. We had to work very, very hard to change that and to get him at an appropriate level where he could think at least a little bit as he went into the agility ring, because if you go in like that, nothing good ever happens afterwards. It tends to be a train wreck. So we’ll talk a little bit about — I’ve had some train wrecks now and again — we’ll talk a little about how arousal levels and classical conditioning work.
One of the things that has been fascinating to me lately is to think about what they call “tells.” Tell is a subtle sign that you could easily miss that something is happening or is going to happen. They talk about it in gambling, that if you’re good at understanding another player’s tells, you can tell what kind of hand they have, even if they’re trying to hide that. So learning this about our dogs, what are the precursors to arousal changes? If we can see those early, we can jump in there and make some changes so that they don’t go too high or too low. We can get them in that optimal state of arousal where they have plenty of energy and yet they still can think and learn.
Tells are really different for every dog and very, very easy to miss. I think here’s where video is really helpful, because you didn’t see it when you were training, but when you go back and look, you start to see this pattern. I was actually doing some video for this class, for the later parts of this class, talking about tells, and I realized that I was ignoring one from Star. I was getting it regularly that it was definitely one of her tells, and I was ignoring it and not even thinking about it. When I looked back over the videos, I was like, Oh, she does do that regularly when she’s too aroused, and then the next thing’s going to be a bark. So that led me to go, If I could change when I see this, the very beginnings of it, then everything would go better. So we’ll work with people to try to figure out what their dogs’ tells are, and to pick up on them earlier in the training process.
I think there’s a lot here, and it’s taken me a long time actually to pull it together in a way that made sense to me. We still go on things like … typical things like the reinforcers we’re using, when we’re using them, how we’re using them. Even the markers and the fact that markers can lead to different levels of arousal. I know I see that in many dogs. There are lots of dogs that the click is a signal for over-arousal, and as soon as they hear a click, they’re off. They’re just higher than possible. I can’t even use a click — I rarely use a click, I should say — with Zen in shaping anymore because I realized I had done that with him. So I switched to a verbal marker, and he doesn’t get nearly as high when we do that.
The other thing we’ll look at here and talk about are energy levels from us and our dogs, and the fact that we want to change their energy level. We want more or less of something, but we have to be very subtle and careful about how we go about doing it. You can’t force it. You have to move them very slowly in the direction you want. If we change our energy levels too drastically, it doesn’t really help. It only frustrates them or causes them to avoid us. So you have a low-energy dog and you’re acting like a clown — clowns are on my mind because I’m doing the webinar on classical conditioning, and scary clowns seems to come up a lot — so you’re acting like a clown, and you’re actually going to turn your dog off and push them even further away from you, rather than if you just bring up your energy a tiny bit, they’ll likely come up to meet that. So we have to experiment with that and see what works for any particular team.
A lot of this, in fact all of this, is very, very customized to different teams. The good thing is usually in Gold spots you get enough variety in dogs that you see a little bit of everything. We don’t get dogs that are all the same. So we’ll be looking at over-arousal, under-arousal, we’ll be looking at things I’ve probably never seen before in terms of arousal, and working with that, which is always the fun part of teaching — when you get something you didn’t expect. OK, so that’s the long version of what the class is about.
Melissa Breau: It sounds even more fascinating now than it did before. I just think it’s going to be such an interesting topic. It sounds like the Gold spots are going to be invaluable in that class.
Deb Jones: I think it can help people in many ways. I think it really can. As I said, it’s going to be challenging for the trainers because they do more work than the dogs. It’s the same as trained Focus class. It’s more about giving you a lot of information to help you start to see things differently and start to approach your training differently. I think that that’s definitely going to be something that comes out of this.
Melissa Breau: I know the title includes the word balance, and you talked a little bit in there about looking at different skills and thinking about where your dog is. I’ve always thought of it as a little bit of a game of tug-of-war, where you work a little bit on precision, then you have to work a little bit more on building drive, and they impact each other. Is it ever really possible to have a dog that’s equally motivated and controlled?
Deb Jones: I think that there are some dogs who just by nature are pretty equally balanced. It’s nothing we do. They just came that way. In fact, Judy Keller’s first Sheltie, Morgan, I’d say he was just the perfect dog. In terms of arousal and control, he was ideal. She didn’t do anything to cause that. He was her first performance dog. She didn’t even know what she had at the time. Looking back now, you know what you had. But it’s like, yeah, by nature, some dogs are just like that. They just come prewired that way.
But most of us are not that lucky. We’re going to get dogs that come at all different levels of this, and yes, we’re going to be constantly working on it. It’s maintenance. It’s always maintenance. You will push your dog too far in one direction and then have to go a little bit back in the other, though most of them we know.
For example, I know with Zen, his lifetime is about a little more control, because he’s got all the motivation in the world. With another dog, like my Papillon from years ago, Copper, he had so much control just naturally, and he was a little inhibited naturally, so everything for Copper was always about more motivation. That’s all we worked on. I never worked on control because he didn’t need it. He already had that. And in fact the day in agility when Copper actually was running so fast that he missed his contact on the dog walk, we were stunned, and I’m, like, Good for him. The fact that he was in it so much, and moving so fast that he didn’t even hit the contact on the way down, I was proud of myself and him because it’s like, that’s the motivation I want. And in fact the judge didn’t even see it and didn’t call it. We didn’t realize it until we watched the video later, because he was so fast, and I’m sure the judge never expected that this little dog was going to miss a contact zone.
So yes, we’re constantly trying to get them in the zone, in the optimal level or state of arousal is how we often refer to it. There’s something called the Yerkes-Dodson Law that is well known to quite a few dog trainers. It talks about your level of motivation, and when you get too much or not enough, that’s not good. You want that optimal middle state that you’re in, where everything is flowing along, and it’s perfect, and you have enough of both things. You do everything with lots of energy, yet you can still make thoughtful decisions as you go along.
Melissa Breau: Stacy talked a little bit about that when she was on, just looking at that curve and what it means and what it’s like. I know she’s got her puppy now who’s on the opposite end of the curve than what she’s used to.
Deb Jones: Yes, she does, and that’s exactly the thing. It’s almost like you have to learn to train all over again when you get a dog that’s the opposite, because if you don’t, you’ll make some pretty big mistakes along the way and have to try to fix them later on down the line.
Melissa Breau: Looking at it as a balance, how can people start to get an idea of where their dog is now on that scale or in that balance, if they’re too much on the control side or too much on the motivation side?
Deb Jones: First thing I always look at is the energy and enthusiasm level. How excited is the dog to do whatever it is you’re asking them to do? It really doesn’t matter what the task is, but how much energy do they normally bring to it? And is it appropriate for the task? Is it going to be enough? The energy level you need for competition obedience is different than the energy level you need to do well in agility. So are they bringing the right amount of energy? If you take the energy for agility and you put it in a competition obedience ring, it’s probably going to be a hot mess because you’re just going to have too little control. So we look at are they doing what’s appropriate for what we’re working on?
The other part of that is looking at how, say, clear headed your dog is. Can they think while they’re working? Can they seem to make decisions? Can they learn to regulate themselves a little bit and come up or down? That’s one of the things we work on, we want to help them with, is this idea of modulating arousal. Can they do that? Can they respond to well-known cues? Do they have enough control for that or not? If they don’t respond, it isn’t usually a skill problem. It’s a problem of arousal, much of the time.
Melissa Breau: If you have a dog that you know tends to be more on the control side, or more on the arousal side, how do all those different factors play into that? How many different sides of a dog can there be?
Deb Jones: Everything affects it. Everything affects it, and every moment can be different within a given dog. It’s a constant process of adjusting to what your dog is giving you right now. It’s definitely different from dog to dog, but it’s also different in the same dog, I would say, not even day to day but sometimes moment to moment, if you have dogs that can be wildly inconsistent in terms of their ability to work and respond appropriately. So it’s this constant fluid process.
Arousal isn’t a static thing. You don’t get the same level of arousal, because it’s what is the behavior itself, what are the reinforcers you’re using, what is your mood? My little Papillion Copper, for example, who was fairly inhibited, if he thought for one second I wasn’t in a good mood for whatever reason, even if it had nothing to do with him, he was done. That was the end of the day. I might as well just not even bother. So it’s a constant fluid process.
We always have to be thinking about all of those factors and how they’re affecting what we’re trying to do right now, because people say, “Well, my dog did great in this situation and not in another one,” and I’m, like, “Well, I believe that.” I believe that to be the case, and there are probably a dozen things that went into that difference. So at least being aware of them and knowing that there’s going to be a lot of variation. Our job is to read our dogs and to try to help them stay on the path, to try to help them be as consistent as possible with their emotional states and their reactions. That’s what we do.
Melissa Breau: I wanted to ask you to share a couple of tips. First, looking at the dog who is well-mannered and very much under control, but maybe who they are struggling to get to enthusiastically respond or feel really motivated about training or work. Do you have a tip or two that people can try or do to work on that?
Deb Jones: Yeah, kind of a general suggestion. Dogs that are too controlled for whatever reason, either they’re inhibited themselves, or they’re controlled because the environment makes them a little nervous or uncomfortable, or they’re worried about being wrong, there’s a million reasons, but they don’t have enough energy or confidence to do what we want them to do. For these guys, I think the most important thing you can do is to never, ever, ever let your dog know that he made a mistake, ever. The dog is never wrong. You have to keep up that hugely high rate of reinforcement so that success builds on success, and success also builds confidence.
A more confident dog is a sturdy dog. A confident dog can take things that don’t go perfectly and roll with it and move on. But a very sensitive dog cannot, and so letting them know they’re not right is the biggest mistake I think people make. So I’d say that’s the one thing: Don’t ever let them know they’re wrong.
And they learn that, of course, our behavior tells them. They don’t know it’s wrong unless we tell them it’s wrong somehow, so you’re going to have to control your own reactions in order to not let them know that there are mistakes, and then make it easier, or make it easy enough, so they can be successful. That’s the one thing about those types of dogs. They need to feel free to make mistakes, just to do things, and once they start to feel freer, then you start to get a lot more confidence building.
Melissa Breau: What about the opposite? What about those dogs that are driven, they’re motivated, but maybe they’re a little less under control.
Deb Jones: Yeah, a lot of experience with these dogs. A whole lot of personal experience. The dogs that are like, “go, go, go, do, do, do, move, move, move,” any activity is often very addictive to them. Moving feels good. We call them adrenaline junkies, because movement starts to release a lot of these different hormones, adrenalin being a big one, and they’re like, Oh, man, this feels so good. It feels so good to do things where there’s lots of action. It doesn’t feel so good to do things where there’s a lot more control.
The problem with these guys is if we try to squash that enthusiasm, to overdo control work, to stop them from doing the things that they want to do, that typically leads to frustration, and so we get a lot of frustration behaviors like barking and spinning. At the end of agility runs you’ll see dogs that, because they have to stop now, they leap up and start biting their handlers. That’s a frustration, because they’re now having to inhibit something that felt really, really good to them. So it’s a little tricky here because we want to help these dogs see that they can still do everything. They don’t need to be high as a kite to do it.
I have a little section in the class called Arousal Modulation: learning to change your arousal level without going immediately from zero to a thousand, but coming up a little bit and then going back down, and getting used to these changes or transitions in the amount of energy that you would see from a dog for different exercises or different things that we’re training. We start to see these guys like to move. So what happens if you do a moving exercise, and then you go into one that requires more thoughtfulness and control? We work through some experimenting here to see what kind of transitions work best, how can we move from one activity to the other and help them not get too high when we’re doing it. So teaching them basically to gear down, but doing it carefully, and not completely squashing their desire to do anything, because that usually ends badly then.
Melissa Breau: Everybody wants that dog that’s perfectly balanced between motivation and control. But I wanted to ask who you really think is an ideal fit for a Gold spot in this class. What would make a dog a really good candidate? What skills do they need? Can somebody take it with a brand-new puppy? Should they be taking it with a slightly older dog? What kind of dog are you hoping will enroll?
Deb Jones: It’s true for almost everybody that you want that perfect balance, so I would think that a lot of people would. Of course we’ll see certain people who are having problems right now and they want to work on those. If you’re having issues training and showing, and it’s not a skills problem, so you see lots of times dogs do great at home, or great in familiar environments where they’re comfortable, but then you get them out into other settings, and they get too high or too low and they can’t perform, that would be the kind of dog that I think this could help, and the kind of team, I should say — not just the dog; I hope to help the whole team — that this should help.
So when you see that inconsistency between different contexts with your dog. Of course what we always say, “My dog did it perfectly in the living room,” and if I had a dollar every time somebody told me that, I’d be rich. And I believe that. I believe that is very true. Your dog did do it perfectly there because their arousal level was at a good level. It wasn’t too high, it wasn’t too low. So if you see different things in different situations.
If you are one of those people who find yourself saying, and I’ve done it too, “He knows how to do this,” when your dog is clearly not doing it. It’s like, “But he knows this.” Again, I don’t know that it’s a skills issue anymore. I think that is definitely much more an arousal issue, and so that means we have to look at the bigger picture, not just look at, OK, I’ll train some more on this behavior. It doesn’t ever hurt to strengthen behaviors, but I don’t know that that actually addresses the problem that you’re having. It only partially does. So anytime you have a lot of inconsistency in the dog’s behavior.
We don’t have any sort of restriction on age or experience for dogs for this class. In thinking about it, a lot of the things that I think about and do, I do this with my puppies, I start very early on, and I work on it basically their whole lives, so young dogs are fine. Older dogs that are having issues are fine as well.
The one thing I would hope for is that you have a few behaviors that are on cue. It doesn’t have to be much. But for some of our later exercises, we like to move between some trained behaviors and a few behaviors in process that you can use in the exercises. I don’t care what the behaviors are. We’re not even actually going to be critiquing your behaviors in any way. They’re just necessary so we can work on the new things that we’re going to try to be instilling in this class, so the exercises are sort of just we’re going to ignore those. We’re going to ignore the behaviors that you bring in, unless you really want feedback, but that’s not the point. The point is can they do them in these different settings and states and in different ways.
So the class is pretty open, I think. As always, our job is to adjust for every team that we get. We do the best we can to meet them where they are, and to try to help them from that point. That’s why I expect that there’ll be a lot of variety in Gold spots. I think we’ll have it all over the map, and so that makes it a little challenging for me in terms of I can’t just give you any sort of canned answer to something that comes up, but I think that’s also what makes it more interesting for people to watch, the people who are in the Silver/Bronze spots, to be able to see that much variety. So we’re pretty open, and people can always contact me if they have questions about whether they think their situation would be appropriate for class. I’m very happy to answer any questions they might have about that.
Melissa Breau: It really does sound like a fascinating class. I think it’s going to be great. The students who get Gold are going to be lucky, lucky people.
Deb Jones: Let’s hope they think so when class is done.
Melissa Breau: I have every confidence that they will. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Deb! It was really good to chat again and to learn a little bit more about the new class.
Deb Jones: Oh, thank you, Melissa. I always have fun talking about training. What could possibly be better? So I always enjoy this.
Melissa Breau: Thanks again, and thanks to our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with Denise Fenzi to talk about Play.
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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.
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