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Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast

For the last 4 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 Friday, so stay tuned--and happy training!
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Mar 23, 2018

Summary:

Nancy Tucker is a certified pet dog trainer and behavior consultant in Sherbrooke, Quebec. She regularly teaches seminars, webinars, and workshops on dog training, dog behavior, and the business end of training to dog owners, trainers, and veterinary staff in Canada, the U.S., and in Europe.

She specializes in common behavior issues that affect the family dog, including more complex issues like aggression and anxiety.

Nancy has written numerous articles on dog behavior and is a regular contributor to the Whole Dog Journal. At FDSA, she’s offering a great class on separation anxiety and a new class on desensitization and counterconditioning for the April Session.

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Next Episode: 

To be released 3/30/2018, featuring Nancy Tucker to talk about desensitization and counter conditioning.

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 Nancy Tucker.

Nancy is a certified pet dog trainer and behavior consultant in Sherbrooke, Quebec. She regularly teaches seminars, webinars, and workshops on dog training, dog behavior, and the business end of training to dog owners, trainers, and veterinary staff in Canada, the U.S., and in Europe.

She specializes in common behavior issues that affect the family dog, including more complex issues like aggression and anxiety.

Nancy has written numerous articles on dog behavior and is a regular contributor to the Whole Dog Journal. At FDSA, she’s offering a great class on separation anxiety and a new class on desensitization and counterconditioning for the April Session.

Hi Nancy, welcome to the podcast!

Nancy Tucker: Hi Melissa, hi everyone, I’m very happy to be here.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to have you here. To get us started out, can you just share a little information about the dog you share your life with and what you’re working on with him?

Nancy Tucker: Sure. I have a Border Terrier named Bennigan. He’s not quite 9 months old yet, but he’s creeping up on 9 months, so right now we’re working on helping him navigate canine adolescence. That means we’re teaching him the basics, with an emphasis on things like impulse control, and good, solid recalls, and trying to remain calm.

Melissa Breau: With two classes on the calendar, I want to make sure we get to talk about both of them, but I wanted to start with the shiny new one. You named it “Feelings Change.” What inspired that name?

Nancy Tucker: Well, it was catchy, because we’re talking about feelings and we’re talking about changing feelings. In training, we focus a lot on shaping behavior, and when we’re dealing with behavior issues that are rooted in fear, we need to address the emotions that are driving that behavior. Lucky for us, there’s a way to zero in on those emotions and help our dogs change how they feel about something, and that’s huge.

Melissa Breau: I know the core is desensitization and counterconditioning; I mentioned that during the intro. I think anyone who's been in the dog world for a while has probably heard those words thrown about, or at least seen the abbreviations, usually ds/cc, but can you explain what they actually mean?

Nancy Tucker: In a nutshell, when we’re talking about desensitization, we’re describing a process that involves exposing our dog to something they fear, and that’s done in a very measured and systematic way. We would start exposing them in a way that is completely non-threatening to them. It doesn’t induce any fear at all, and we gradually work our way up from there. That’s desensitization.

Counterconditioning involves pairing the scary thing with something that elicits a positive emotional response in the dog, so now we’re working with building an association. When that’s done correctly, we can actually change the dog’s emotional response in such a way that he’s no longer fearful of the thing that he used to be afraid of. Typically we’re aiming for a neutral response, that he’s just not afraid of that thing anymore, but if we’re lucky, we might even go as far as to create a positive emotional response, which means that he actually now feels good about the trigger that used to scare him.

So we’re talking about two separate and distinct methods here, desensitization and counterconditioning, but together they complement each other and they’re very effective in treating fearful responses.

Melissa Breau: Listeners of the podcast have definitely heard us talk before about the idea of creating a positive conditioned emotional response, or a CER. How is that concept, that idea of creating a positive CER, different from what you’re talking about with desensitization and counterconditioning?

Nancy Tucker: CERs — I’m giggling because now every time I hear the term CER, all I can think about is “ball feelings,” as they’re known at Fenzi, thanks to … for those who don’t know, that was coined on Hannah Branigan’s podcast on CERs.

When we’re talking about CERs, we’re dealing with creating a positive response to something that was previously neutral to the dog. So we’re starting from scratch, basically, with a clean slate. When we’re talking about desensitization and counterconditioning, we’re not starting from scratch. The dog has already formed an association with something, and it’s not a good one.

To give a visual here, if creating a positive CER is like building a brand new house on a vacant lot, with only brand-new materials, desensitization and counterconditioning is like remodeling an old house. You first need to tear down some things, and you’re never quite sure what you’re going to find when you start knocking down walls. Anybody who’s remodeled a house, I think, can probably relate to that. So maybe you discover you can rebuild a whole new fabulous design on a really solid foundation, or maybe you’ll need to make some adjustments and compromises along the way, and build something wonderful but not quite a brand new design. Does that make sense?

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I love that analogy. That’s fantastic — the idea of building from scratch versus remodeling. And for listeners who aren’t Hannah fans, Hannah’s podcast is “Drinking From The Toilet,” and I will try and find the specific episode that Nancy’s talking about to include a link to it in the show notes.

To get back to our conversation, the general concept sounds simple enough — the idea that we want to build this positive association — but I know a lot of people really struggle to do this stuff well. What are some of the common pitfalls that lead folks to struggle and to be unsuccessful?

Nancy Tucker: The reason that I want to teach this course in the first place is because of these common pitfalls. The course focuses on the skills and mechanics that we need to have in order to be successful at desensitization and counterconditioning. There are natural laws at play here that we just can’t get around. Things need to happen in a very specific way in order to work. We can’t cut corners, and we can’t speed up the process, and honestly, that’s something that we’re all guilty of when we’re training our dogs. We can be really impatient, and we try to skip a few steps to reach our goal just a little bit faster.

Sometimes we’re lucky and our dog figures things out on his own, so hurrying up ends up being very reinforcing for us because it worked, so we do it over and over, again and again. But, when we’re treating fears, that’s just something we can’t do, and understanding the process better and practicing our own mechanical skills is the best thing that we can do to finally be able to help our dogs overcome their fear. And it’s actually a very rewarding process.

Melissa Breau: Can you share a little more about the class? How you approach teaching this to your human learners to help them go through that process with their canine partners?

Nancy Tucker: At the start of the class we’ll all be on the same page, so we’ll all be practicing the same set of skills, regardless of everyone’s individual training experience. And you don’t need training experience to do this class.

It’s quite an eye-opener. Once you start to really break down your own mechanical skills — and naturally this is a Fenzi class, so everything is done in the spirit of positivity and support, and there’s no judgment — so there will be nitpicking, for sure, there’ll be a lot of analyzing mechanics, but it’s not about judgment. It’s about helping to perfect these skills. So a lot of nitpicking, but in a very good way. The students’ skills will grow from this experience, and they’ll be able to transfer these skills to their other training projects as well.

So at first we’ll be making sure everyone fully understands the process and practices their mechanical skills, and then we’ll tackle some actual issues. Students will be able to work on changing their dogs’ fearful response to something.

Melissa Breau: I know the other class you’re teaching in April is on separation anxiety. How is separation anxiety different from what we’re talking about here – from general desensitization and counterconditioning – and how does that lead to how you treat it?

Nancy Tucker: Treating separation anxiety definitely involves desensitization, and a lot of it, in fact. It’s the meat of the program. Desensitization is the meat of any program to treat separation anxiety. We very slowly and very gradually expose the dog to the thing that he fears the most, which is being alone or being separated from a particular family member. We make sure the dog only experiences being alone for however amount of time he can handle without experiencing fear or distress. That can be a very time-consuming process, so again, this is one of those things that we can’t rush and we can’t cut corners. But along with some environmental management, desensitization is really the most effective way to treat separation anxiety.

Melissa Breau: I think a lot of the time when people talk about separation anxiety, they are actually talking about a few different things. It’s not necessarily one of those terms that has a hard and fast definition in common use. Do you mind sharing what separation anxiety is — your definition — and what some of the symptoms are of true separation anxiety?

Nancy Tucker: We tend to use separation anxiety as an umbrella term for what are essentially a few different issues, so most of the time, we’re using it incorrectly. But it’s so widespread as a label for a common problem that it’s easier to use it. I know that’s not correct, it’s not scientifically correct, but sometimes when everyone misuses a term the same way, it’s just as effective to use the term, if that makes any sense.

In truth, what most people are dealing with when they say that their dog has separation anxiety is a dog who fears being alone. That is more common than actual separation anxiety. He fears isolation and he panics when he’s left alone. True separation anxiety is when a dog experiences distress if he’s apart from a particular person or persons. A dog who suffers from fear of isolation will be fine as long as someone, anyone, is with him. A dog who suffers from separation anxiety will experience distress even if someone else is there with him, if that makes sense.

Some of the telltale signs that a dog is experiencing distress during your absence, if you’re listening to this and you suspect that your dog may be suffering from this, some of these signs — and what I’m about to mention is in no particular order of importance here, and the dog might display one or several of these behaviors, and at different intensities … and before I go into describing what these symptoms might be, I want to point out, too, that the level of intensity of a symptom does not correlate to the level of severeness of the fear. If a dog overtly displays symptoms, it doesn’t mean that he is more fearful than the dog who cowers in the corner and does not move all day. That dog could be equally as in distress. Anyway, some of the signs are vocalization, barking, whining. Actually, that’s how quite a few people learn that there is a problem is when their neighbor complains about barking during their absence. That’s often the first clue. They don’t know until somebody complains about it. So vocalization is one.

Excessive drooling is another. You might come home and find a puddle of drool that some people might mistake for pee, but it’s actually drool. There can be that much of it on the floor, or the dog’s bed is soaking wet.

Anorexia is a very common one as well. The dog won’t touch his food or a treat toy. Sometimes I discover a problem when a client has called me for another issue. When I’m doing my history intake, I ask them how often the dog eats, or when is he fed, and they say, “We feed him in the morning before we go to work, but he doesn’t touch that. He’s not hungry in the morning. He doesn’t eat until we get home.” And I find out that when they get home, the dog devours his food. That’s a sign to me, if the dog hasn’t touched his food all day from the moment that they leave, that there may be an issue there, that he might not appreciate being alone and there could be a problem there. So anorexia.

Obvious signs that the dog has scratched or chewed an area, especially near an exit, near the door that the owner uses to leave the house.

Peeing and defecating, usually a lot of it during their absence, even just a short absence.

And self-mutilation, signs of excessive licking or chewing at the paws.

If you’re not sure what your dog might be doing when you’re not home, set up a camera and video him, or watch a live feed. There’s lots of apps now that we can use to keep an eye on our dogs. Some dogs might pace while you’re getting ready to leave. They’re pacing and then they continue for another five minutes after you’re gone, but then they settle down quickly and they go to sleep without a problem. Or, on the other hand, some dogs might appear perfectly chill for a few minutes after you leave, and then they begin to panic. So you can’t know unless you record it or watch a live feed.

Melissa Breau: Right. And technology is our friend, for sure.

Nancy Tucker: For sure.

Melissa Breau: Do we know what actually causes separation anxiety? It seems like some dogs struggle with it and others are never fazed at all. Is there a reason?

Nancy Tucker: That’s a really, really good question, and I’ll start by talking about what doesn’t cause separation anxiety. Owners. Owners’ behavior does not cause their dog to develop separation anxiety. If you have a dog who panics when left alone, it is not your fault. It’s not because of something that you did. It’s amazing how many people feel, or are told, that it’s because of something that they did. It is not because you’ve spoiled him.

In fact, if you have a puppy, helping him feel secure by responding to his needs will go farther towards building a confident adult dog than if you try to use tough love by letting him cry it out at night. Don’t be afraid to shower your puppy with attention and to provide that sense of security. You do need to teach your young dog that being alone is nothing to be afraid of, but you can do that systematically.

Back to causes. For starters, dogs who suffer from this problem, they tend to already be predisposed to having anxiety issues. Just like people, some of us might be more genetically predisposed to experience mental health issues, and this is true for dogs as well.

It is worth mentioning that there is correlation between a few things in separation anxiety, but it can’t be said for sure that these things actually cause it. For example, dogs who are surrendered to a shelter might display some isolation distress once they’re adopted into a new home. Actually, that’s pretty common. But it’s possible that these dogs had this issue in their previous homes, and maybe that’s the reason that some of them were surrendered in the first place. It’s not always easy to tell. So it’s not always accurate to say that a dog develops a fear of isolation because he was surrendered to a shelter or abandoned somewhere.

Another possible correlation is dogs who are sick as very, very young puppies might develop separation anxiety as adults. And again, there’s correlation there, but nothing to say that this is a cause.

What I see most commonly is after a major change in a dog’s life, like a move or a major disruption, a divorce, or a huge disruption in a dog’s routine or schedule, that can lead to this type of problem. But again, in most cases we’re talking about a dog who is already predisposed to experiencing anxiety. So it’s not ultimately because you moved into a new house that you caused your dog to develop this problem. Rather, the move may have triggered an anxiety disorder that was already there but hadn’t yet manifested into a behavior issue, if that makes sense.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. It’s really interesting. I hadn’t realized there were those specific things that were correlated with the issue. That’s news to me, so it’s interesting. I know you’re not a vet, but I know that on the syllabus or in the description you mention that you do touch on meds in the class. I was curious if you’d talk about that a little bit. How do you determine if a student should talk to their vet about their options?

Nancy Tucker: I really respect my limitations as a trainer and a behavior consultant, and I avoid talking about meds, except to say that everyone should do their own research and find out what’s available to you to help your dog deal with an anxiety issue, and there are quite a few options out there. So if your dog is at risk of hurting himself — self-mutilation, or a dog who is scratching or throwing himself through glass, which I experienced that myself, a dog who is simply overwhelmed with fear or anxiety in general — I strongly urge you to look into medication to help him out.

I will say this much: medication can be a huge help. It can create a sense of calm in a dog so that he’s able to learn the new behaviors that you want to teach him. It puts him in a better state of mind to learn and for behavior modification to take place.

A lot of the antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds out there, they will allow for learning to take place, so in other words, they aren’t simply a sedative that can affect short-term memory. So that would be an important thing to discuss with the vet. If you’re looking for medication to help your dog deal with anxiety or immense fear, you want to use a medication that will allow him to learn. The whole point of using medication to treat separation anxiety is to be able to work through a desensitization program so that the dog can eventually be comfortable alone at home.

Melissa Breau: Right. You mention in the class description that, when done right, Gold videos in this class may be sort of … boring, I think is the word you used. Why is that?

Nancy Tucker: This is true. This is very true. There isn’t a whole lot of action going on when you’re teaching a dog to remain calm. Videos are good, and I can still help guide students by watching what’s happening in a video. I can dissect the dog’s behavior and body language, and I can make recommendations based on the layout of the home, because we talk a lot about finding that home alone space, and sometimes it’s good to have a second set of eyes to look at the layout and see what might work, or even based on the student’s own movements.

So video is good. I might see something in the environment that the student has missed. Sometimes you’re just so familiar with something that even when it’s right in front of you, you don’t see it. But the bottom line is that we are literally aiming for the dog to look bored and chillaxed.

So Gold students don’t have to post video, actually, but that’s OK, because we tend to do a lot of problem-solving and creative planning and troubleshooting on the forums through discussions. During this class the discussion boards are really important. If you want to follow a case, follow the discussion, because even without a video there is a lot of back and forth and a lot of troubleshooting going on.

The Gold-level students are still getting a personal coach as they work through this, and because every single case is completely different, all students get to follow and learn from each individual scenario, which is great. In the last couple of sessions we had a lot of trainers join, so I think they benefitted from seeing the different types of cases.

Melissa Breau: There’s certainly nothing to sneeze at there about taking a Gold spot just because videos don’t play a big role. In an area like this, where there’s so often those feelings of, “Oh my god, am I doing it wrong?” or “Oh my god, my dog’s panicking,” having somebody to hold your hand and say, “No, actually, it’s OK, let’s take a step back, let’s do it this way,” that can be a huge, huge help.

Nancy Tucker: Absolutely. It’s great to have a second set of eyes with a problem like this, for sure.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to ask about common misconceptions or places where students often go wrong when it comes to working on this kind of thing — separation anxiety, that is. Can you share any tips or suggestions?

Nancy Tucker: I think that we tend to circle back to the most common problem of all when treating a behavior issue that’s based on an emotion like fear, and I mentioned it earlier: we move too fast. We try to rush things.

Sometimes I get the feeling that the students somehow feel bad that they don’t have more to show, that they feel they need to push it along in order to look like they’re progressing. But that’s OK, because I know that behavior change takes time, and I am far more giddy about seeing a student take their time and really progress at the dog’s speed, whatever that may be for that dog. When I see that, I know that the student is on the right track and they’ll get there eventually.

So again, the common problem is just moving too fast.

Melissa Breau: If students are trying to decide whether either of these classes is appropriate for their dog, I wanted to ask if you have any advice. How can they decide if their dog is a good candidate?

Nancy Tucker: Now might be a good time for me to mention that the desensitization and counterconditioning class is not for those dogs who might display aggression towards the thing that they fear. For example, if a dog might bite a visitor entering his home because he’s afraid of strangers, this class is not the place for that kind of issue. That’s because I would much rather deal with aggression in person.

Other than that, what I’d like to see are students working on minor issues throughout the term, throughout the session. I’ll bet almost everyone can name at least one or two things their dog is afraid of. Students might think that their dog doesn’t like something because he avoids it, but really their dog might be afraid of that thing, and this class would be a perfect opportunity to work on that. They’ll get to practice their training mechanics on a minor issue, like a dog avoiding the vacuum cleaner, for example, or getting brushed, or getting their nails clipped. Then they’ll be in a better position to handle a bigger issue later on, like aggressive behaviors that are fear-based, for example.

Another important point about the desensitization and counterconditioning class is that whatever trigger the students choose, they need to make sure that they have complete control over their dog’s access to that trigger while they work on it. In other words, if you plan to help your dog overcome his fear of the sound of kids playing and screaming on the street, you need to make sure you can control when and how your dog hears that sound. You can see how that can be really, really difficult. We can’t control when the kids are going to be out playing, but we can maybe try to control the dog’s access to that, to manage the environment or something creatively so that he’s not exposed to that. That’s just an example.

The point that I’m trying to make is that we need to have complete control over that stimulus in order to work through the program, because the only way that desensitization and counterconditioning will work is if we’re able to exercise that kind of control over the stimulus.

As for the Home Alone class, you don’t actually need to have a dog with a separation anxiety issue to take the class. Like I mentioned before, over the last couple of sessions we had lots of trainers take the class who wanted to learn more about helping their clients. It’s also a good match for people with puppies who want to teach their dog to be alone in a structured way. In fact, a lot of the lecture videos are of my own dog, Bennigan, when he was just a puppy learning to be home alone.

Melissa Breau: I did want to dive in a little deeper there , if you don’t mind, and ask if there are any examples that come to mind of students with problems that would be a particularly good fit for the desensitization and counterconditioning class. Are there particular problems that you’re hoping to get, or that you think might be particularly well suited for that kind of class?

Nancy Tucker: Like I said, the two main criteria are that is not an aggression issue in that there is no danger that the dog will bite, so a dog who is extremely … I don’t like to use the term “reactive” because it doesn’t really describe what’s happening, but a dog who might behave aggressively or lunge and bark at the sight of another dog — this is not a good class for that. I believe that Amy Cook has a good class for that. This is not a good class for that because I personally don’t want to be dealing with aggression, except maybe resource guarding.

If a dog is displaying object guarding and does not have a bite history, that is something that we might be able to handle, but again, I would rather speak with a student first and have them communicate with me to see exactly what’s happening, because that might not be fear-based, and when we’re talking about desensitization and counterconditioning, I think that what we’re aiming for here is to help a dog overcome a fear.

So no outright aggression, and to have control over the stimulus. That is the one thing that is an absolute must.

So to answer your question, no, there is no specific thing that’s carte blanche, and if students are unsure, they can just communicate with me and we can figure it out together.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. I know that your class descriptions mentioned something about CEUs. Do you mind sharing with listeners — and I’m sure there are some ears that just perked up there who may be trainers trying to get those Continuing Education credits — what the deal is there?

Nancy Tucker: Both classes are approved for 21 CEUs for training for those who are certified with a CCPDT. I specified “for training,” because with the CCPDT — the Certification Council For Professional Dog Trainers — there are training credits and there are behavior credits. These are 21 training CEUs for each class.

Students can register at any level, whether it’s Gold, Silver, or Bronze, and throughout the term they’ll need to collect some code words that will be peppered throughout the lectures and the Gold discussion forums. So they have to follow and pay close attention to the course as it progresses, the lectures and discussion forums. And hey, 21 CEUs is almost two-thirds of a full recertification, so that’s not a bad deal. If you take both classes, you get 42 CEUs right there.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. That’s really a fantastic opportunity for those people who are out there trying to get those.

Thanks so much for coming back on the podcast, Nancy! It’s great to chat.

Nancy Tucker: Thanks for having me, Melissa. Always a pleasure.

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

We’ll be back next week with Julie Daniels to discuss confidence-building through shaping.

If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.

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.