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Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast

For the last 2 years, FDSA has been working to provide high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports online, using only the most current and progressive training methods. And now we’re bringing that same focus to you in a new way. Each episode of the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast will feature an interview with a leading name in the competitive dog sports training world, talking in depth about issues that often get overlooked by traditional training methods. We'll release a new episode every other Friday, so stay tuned--and happy training!
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Feb 15, 2018

SHOW NOTES:

Summary:

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

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

Next Episode: 

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

TRANSCRIPTION:

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

Today we’ll be talking to Julie Flanery.

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

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

Welcome back to the podcast Julie!

Julie Flanery: Thanks.

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

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

Melissa Breau: Do you want to share her name?

Julie Flanery: Kashi.

Melissa Breau: Kashi. Excellent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julie Flanery: Yeah, I’m sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julie Flanery: Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa Breau: That certainly matched my experience.

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

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

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

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

Julie Flanery: Super.

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

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

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CREDITS:

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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