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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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May 4, 2018

Summary:

Over her 40 years of dog training, Michele Pouliot has presented scores of seminars and has been responsible for bringing science-based clicker training to guide dog training around the world. In her "hobby world," she has actively competed in both horse and dog sports since 1970.

In dog sports alone that includes A.K.C. dog obedience, attaining three OTCHes, agility, tracking, and then, starting in 2006, the sport of canine musical freestyle.

A short time later, in 2007, Karen Pryor invited Michele to join her faculty for Clicker Expo conferences, where Michele presents on the application of clicker training techniques for a variety of dog sports, general training, and for the training of guide dogs for the blind. Karen Pryor and Michele collaborated for the development of Michele's online freestyle course, which is available from the Karen Pryor Academy.

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Next Episode: 

To be released 5/11/2018, featuring Amy Cook, talking about thresholds and managing reactivity while you work on changing how your dog actually feels.

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 Michele Pouliot.

Over her 40 years of dog training, Michele has presented scores of seminars and has been responsible for bringing science-based clicker training to guide dog training around the world. In her "hobby world," she has actively competed in both horse and dog sports since 1970.

In dog sports alone that includes A.K.C. dog obedience, attaining three OTCHes, agility, tracking, and then, starting in 2006, the sport of canine musical freestyle.

A short time later, in 2007, Karen Pryor invited Michele to join her faculty for Clicker Expo conferences, where Michele presents on the application of clicker training techniques for a variety of dog sports, general training, and for the training of guide dogs for the blind. Karen Pryor and Michele collaborated for the development of Michele's online freestyle course, which is available from the Karen Pryor Academy.

I’m incredibly thrilled to have her here today!

Hi Michele! Welcome to the podcast!

Michele Pouliot: Hi Melissa, and thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here, and I want to thank Fenzi Dog Sports for having me here.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. So thrilled to talk to you. To get us started out, do you want to just share a little bit about your own dogs and what you’re working on?

Michele Pouliot: My current dogs are two. One is my English Springer Spaniel Déjà Vu, who is 8-and-a-half years old now, and I have a 4-and-a-half-year-old Australian Shepherd, Saki. They are both continually working on coming up with new ideas for tricks. It’s what canine freestyle pushes you to do is always trying to come up with new moves and new behaviors to make your next routine interesting. So other than that, they’re having fun just being dogs, running around the property.

Melissa Breau: I know that you got started training horses. Do you mind sharing a little bit about how you originally got into training, and what led you then from horses to dogs? Just a little bit on your background?

Michele Pouliot: Sure. We’re going to go way back now. Straight out of high school, I really wanted to have a career in horses. I’m an Air Force brat, so my father, our family, moved all over the world as I was growing up, and in high school we landed on an Air Force base in Louisiana. My entire life I’d wanted a dog, couldn’t have a dog, my mother was not a dog person and used the excuse of us moving so much as to why we couldn’t have one.

And I also wanted a horse. My father had always promised me that if we ever got to an Air Force base that had a stable, that I could have a horse. Well, we did, when we were stationed in the Philippines when I was in junior high school. I just fell in love with working with my horse, and I thought, This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

My father was very supportive when we came back to the States and ended up in Louisiana. In high school I got another horse, and he went ahead and allowed me to skip college and use the money to go to the Pacific Coast Equestrian Research Farm, which was run by Linda Tellington and her husband at that time, Wentworth Tellington, very well-known equestrian professionals. My whole goal was to be a professional horse trainer and instructor.

After spending a year there with Linda and Went, I got my first job, which was running a new equestrian program in Fargo, North Dakota. What happened there was I was giving riding lessons to a woman who was a dog trainer. I got my first dog as soon as I got there, so I had a yellow Labrador. As soon as I got away from home on my own, I got my first dog. So I had this dog, loved it, didn’t know what I was doing.

But one of the gals I taught riding to was a dog trainer locally, and I look back on that experience realizing how lucky I was that the person I ran into about training dogs was such a good dog trainer. She was a traditional trainer, of course, back in those times, but she was a really good traditional trainer. So she taught me, in exchange for riding lessons, all about how to work with this young Labrador puppy that I had and make it a nice, mannerly pet.

I was intrigued with how easy it was to train the dog versus the horses, so it got me interested more in training the dog versus just training it for being a nice pet. That is how I slowly started shifting my focus for my profession towards dogs, yet I always kept horses, so I haven’t ever been without a horse since then. I just slowly, when I left North Dakota after my first winter — that was a sign that I never wanted to stay in North Dakota for another winter — but when I came back to the West Coast, I just decided, You know what, I really like this dog thing, so let me start that. And that’s how I ended up going into dogs.

Melissa Breau: That’s really quite interesting, and I know you started to touch on a little bit there the similarities and differences in training the species, that dogs were a little easier. Do you mind sharing a little more about what you learned, compare and contrast a little bit for us?

Michele Pouliot: Sure. Of course, when you’re thinking that we’re talking back in 1970 -’71, there was no positive training that was known of, so everything was traditional. We were training horses in traditional techniques, training dogs in traditional techniques, and when you’re training traditionally, the gap between training a dog and a horse was huge, because what you had with this dog was a species that really wants to please in general. So not only are they maybe more domesticated than a horse, but they surely love to work with people. That was what stuck out so much to me. Whereas horses, being traditionally trained, it isn’t like they’re all excited to go out and work with you. It was good traditional training, they weren’t afraid, but they certainly weren’t the way horses can be nowadays when they are positively trained.

So I think my first realization in that frame of reference, when you think of the times of training at that point in time, was just how much easier the dog was to train because they were so much more like, “What can I do for you?” The horse took so much longer to train because you didn’t seem to have that automatic impulse from a horse you’re working with to say, “What can I do to please you?” That was the big difference then.

There’s still a big difference, so even though my horses are clicker trained, as my dogs are, you’re dealing with a big animal, so the difference in your safety is a big one. Even though we’re not talking about an aggressive horse, it’s still a big animal. If you think about dogs that will mug people and get in their bait pouches and jump up and want rewards, well, imagine a 1200-pound horse doing that to you.

You have to be much more thoughtful about every step of the training process with a horse to make sure that you’re not inadvertently creating an excitement or an energy in your positive training that can actually be dangerous for a human on the ground. Whereas with dogs, we don’t really think about it that much as far as something that’s going to be dangerous. If I teach a dog to leg kick and he happens to clock my leg, yeah, that’s not great, but it’s not life-threatening.

Melissa Breau: Right. You talked a little bit about the fact that back then everything was traditional training, that approach. What led you to become a positive trainer and to clicker training?

Michele Pouliot: When I got into dogs, first I kind of got my foot in the door with that first dog I had. Once I had him trained, I heard something about AKC and obedience, and I entered him in local obedience trials, and for some reason I was winning. People would meet me outside of the ring and say, “Ooh, do you give lessons?” and I felt weird because I didn’t think I knew anything yet. But I started giving lessons and I was really enjoying that aspect.

I ended up working at a kennel, figuring, You know, Michele, you’ve really got to learn more about dogs. So I took this entry-level position at a kennel in Long Beach, California. I was cleaning kennels and all that, but in the afternoon I would be giving some training lessons to the public, which was a great experience for me. But I wasn’t there very long before I read an article about guide dogs and training dogs for blind people. Remember, there’s no Internet back then. This is a magazine, and in the magazine was this article, and in the end were addresses of three guide dog schools in the country. The article was fascinating to me, and all I could think of is, Oh my god, what an amazing combination: the love of training dogs, and I’m also helping people. This is what I want to do. It just hit me like a thunderbolt that I had to do this work.

We’re in 1973 now, and I write all three schools. One of the schools never responded. Another one, I still have the letter framed on my wall today. The letter reads, “I’m sorry, but women are not emotionally or physically capable of training guide dogs.”

Melissa Breau: Oh dear!

Michele Pouliot: Understand that in 1973, that was not an affrontive letter. My reaction, as this naïve young woman, was, Oh, I didn’t know that, in my head. Whereas ten years later, my hackles would have gone up reading something like that.

Anyway, I got a letter from Guide Dogs for the Blind that invited me to fill out an application. I filled out the application, sent it in, and they had me come for an interview. Everything was great, I got the job, I was so excited.

I found out later, when I arrived, I was the only woman besides one other woman who had just started working six months prior. It was not an easy place for a woman to step into, because there was a belief system that women can’t do this. It’s way too rigorous physically, and emotionally it’s very difficult. So this woman and myself were like the pioneers of trying to get our feet in the door for proving ourselves that we could do it.

When I first got my job at Guide Dogs, which was really my first serious, in my head, dog training assignment, I also was always focused on trying to do so good that I was paving the way for other women to come and do this work. That was the first goal.

A part of that —which you’re probably wondering, Is she ever going to get to answer my question? — a part of that is that I knew that I could do better what they were doing. I was so surprised when I showed up and realized that I was a darn good dog trainer when I was watching some of the techniques that I saw being used. What I saw was some very harsh traditional training. Very harsh. And I just knew I could do better than that.

So, from the day I arrived, I started putting this subtle pressure from demonstrating that you don’t really have to do it that way. My focus was always to be the best trainer I could be, the kindest, the gentlest, even though I was totally understanding of traditional training and that’s what you do, there was no other option.

But because that was my background in the 1970s, when I started hearing in the 1990s about this new, modern training, I was fascinated. Through those twenty years, before I heard about positive training, I had helped the program get better, better, better, and I mean in the early 1990s, our school was doing really good traditional training. I was so happy that the program had come so far that no dogs were being treated really unfairly. Even though it was traditional, it was good traditional training.

I always have this flavor in my heart of, How can I be kind and gentle and still get the job done? Even when you’re a good traditional trainer, you might be focusing on that, but you also inherited the belief that using a lot of punishment to teach is OK. It’s a belief system that you are born into. So as I started opening my mind to looking at this new positive training thing I was seeing, I was so excited that, oh my gosh, there’s other possibilities, and that’s really what led me to start looking at videos and going to seminars and going to conferences and trying to figure out how this fits into my world, especially how does it fit into guide dog work.

Melissa Breau: So, I’d love to hear a little bit more about some of what you did with the guide dog program, if you don’t mind. I know that you spent a large chunk of your career focused there. How did that evolve? Can you share a little more?

Michele Pouliot: Sure. I retired two years ago with forty-two years, so I’ve been doing it a long time. When I chose to introduce positive reinforcement training to my school, my guide dog school, my intent at that time was just, can we even make this better, kinder, gentler, and overall more positive for everybody, including the trainer. Because it was a very physical type of training when you’re doing traditional training, too, so we had injuries. We had people coming in and being injured.

By the way, by this time the staff was majority of women, so over the twenty years a lot changed. The men were in the minority, and I’m not really saying I even know why that is, because it’s kind of true in the guide dog industry and in the cane mobility industry — meaning instructors who teach blind people how to travel with canes — it’s interesting how through the last several decades the majority are women. I think it has to do with being nurturers and wanting to help is why we have more people in there now that are women versus men.

Anyway, back to guide dogs. When I first brought the idea to my supervisor, my supervisor had a lot of faith in me. I had already done a lot for the program and had everyone training so much better than they used to train, so I had a good relationship with my supervisor, but he looked at me like I was crazy.

Now, you have to understand that in the guide dog world, guide dogs have been trained since World War I. That’s when it started. The techniques used for guide dog training were from World War I, meaning war dogs. How do you train a dog to be a war dog? And you know those dogs were hardy, hardy, tough, courageous dogs. So all the guide dog work that started was with very heavy-duty traditional training, and the thought process was you have to be tough to make the dog reliable. No matter how weird that sounds today in the positive training world, it’s a reality for when it started. It was such a unique idea that somebody had in World War I to do this, and they were doing it successfully.

So imagine if you say, “Can we train a guide dog to help a blind person get around safely and keep them from being injured?” and it worked, what does that do for your ego? It pushes it up there pretty big. So when you join a guide dog school and you are in awe of what they do, I was in awe of what they did. It’s like, oh my god, this is like miracles. Those dogs are saving people’s lives.

So when somebody tells you that you can’t use food when you train guide dogs, and the reason is the handler’s blind and there’s food all over the environment, everywhere you go, there’s food, because of that, you believe it. I believed it. I was totally brainwashed. And I brainwashed so many of my blind clients over the years, like we all did, because we didn’t want them hand-feeding their dogs. It was about food only comes in their food pan two times a day when they get fed.

So the first thing that we had to tackle, we were the first school in the world that tackled this whole belief system, which was, believe me, very deeply entrenched worldwide that you can’t use food in training guide dogs. There are still some outliers now that are holding to that, and their programs probably won’t change until there’s a few individuals that retire or leave the program, just because they’re so entrenched in the belief system, and I understand that because I was there too. Thank God I had an open enough mind to say, “Maybe there’s a way.”

So the first task at hand was to show that we could teach the dogs, with food, how to not take food in the environment, and how to avoid offered food in the environment. If you picture that you’ve got this handsome, cute little dog out in harness and you’re blind, how many people do you think a day come up and say, “Oh, he’s so pretty. Can I give him this cookie? I have a little piece of meat.” You have all sorts of people doing that and not even asking. Guide dogs actually are offered food a lot. And imagine how many restaurants that you would go sit in, and your dog goes under the table, and guess what they find under the table that somebody previously dropped on the floor. There’s food all over the place.

So we thought — ha ha — we were doing this great job of teaching food avoidance through correction. The dog, of course, if they went for food, would be corrected. The comical part about that is although the response we trained looked really good at the end of guide dog training, because that means the professional was handling the dog, and the professional has sight, so the professional can do what? Time a correction. They can see what the dog’s about to do.

Well, hand the dog over to a blind client, and guess how long it takes a guide dog who’s been trained that way to figure out that the blind person isn’t responding at all when they head toward some food. We had ourselves brainwashed that we were doing a good job.

The really cool thing about coming up with “How do we teach them with food to leave food?” was incredibly rewarding for us to go, “Oh my gosh, we just blew that belief system out of water.” The dogs are so much better now than they ever were with environmental food. And it’s because they’re choosing. It’s their choice. They’re not being threatened. They know that, If I leave this food alone and if I refuse this food from this person offering it, I know at some point in the near future I’m going to get a reward too.

That was the huge hurdle to get over because of how entrenched that belief system is in the world. From that point on it was saying, OK, let’s look at this clicker training thing, and look at all the skills we teach, and what can we teach with clicker training?

I’m really glad my school took it really slow. At the time I felt like I was dragging them forward — “Please, let’s do more, let’s do more” — but the reality is traditional trainers have to learn these skills, it’s totally new skills. So for us to just overnight decide we were going to change would not have been a good idea. We took it really slow.

I look back at 2006, when all of our instructors were using clicker training, and it’s comical to me to think that we thought we were so advanced, because it’s come so far. Things that we transfer over to clicker training, it was clicker training, but now it’s been improved to where it’s really good clicker training.

So it was a very long haul. The good news was that when we made this change, we had a couple schools that had heard through the grapevine that we were doing this who asked if we could help them out. Management made a decision then that really changed the course of the entire industry, because the industry could be very protective over what they did and their information, not necessarily willing to share “secrets.” Our management at that time decided that we’re going to share this. We’re not going to keep it quiet. And so at that time, around 2007, they started sending me out on the road to any school that wanted help. That is what kind of started the road to changing the industry, because the word started spreading.

And then we started presenting at the International Guide Dog Conference, which happens every two years. That was like an international community, and presenting and showing video of all that we’re doing, showing them data on success rates that skyrocketed higher than ever historically from the day we started clicker training. There was so much information that our school made available to the guide dog industry besides us actually personally helping. I mean, it’s just wonderful.

Let me give you an idea. There’s about a hundred-plus guide dog schools in the world that belong to this International Guide Dog Federation. In 2006, there were three guide dog schools out of that group that were using positive reinforcement. Now it’s over sixty-five. That’s a big deal in ten years.

It’s a really cool thing to see it happening, and it’s a really cool thing that I get to still do. I’m a consultant. I just got back from South Africa in February, helping a South African school, and it’s just wonderful to see the excitement, because most of the staff are younger people now. There are always still some staff that are more senior, and traditional trainers who are learning new skills, but everyone has gotten to the point where they realize this is really a better way to go. So it’s rare for me to run into people now that haven’t realized, because we proved it. Basically our school proved it.

Melissa Breau: That’s fantastic. That’s got to be such a good feeling to know that you’ve had such a huge impact on that field, and to really be able to look at the numbers and see how much change you’ve really created.

Michele Pouliot: It is. It’s an extremely satisfying time in my life to go ahead and retire.

Melissa Breau:  Fair enough.

Michele Pouliot: It was about five or six years ago now I was considering retiring, and I just had a funny feeling that I needed to give it a few more years to make sure that my program that I was leaving was really set to still move forward and not slide back if they didn’t have me bugging the heck out of them all the time, for instance.

Melissa Breau: Right. It’s fantastic you’ve created this change, but I know there are still some fields that are, for lack of a better word, struggling to make the switch, or fields where traditional methods are still the norm. Do you have any advice for people who are maybe positive trainers in those situations, or positive trainers who are surrounded by others who aren’t, when they’re trying to maybe create change or inspire change in others?

Michele Pouliot:  Over the past ten years — I guess more than that now, actually — I feel like I’ve done this so many times with so many different people and organizations, at least in the guide dog and service dog industry, I’ve been involved with so many now that I’ve learned the hard way what not to do.

Even when somebody acts like they’re open-minded and ready to listen, you have to be very careful that you respect them and avoid criticizing then, because the tendency in positive reinforcement trainers is to look down on traditional trainers as if they’re being mean or even abusive or harsh or whatever. So when they’re talking at a traditional trainer, they have that attitude of, “You need to change because da-da-da-da-da.”

Well, the reality is traditional trainers love their dogs, too, and if you think they’re doing it because they want to be meaner than they need to, that’s not so. They inherited that. That’s what they learned. I never thought I was being mean or harsh or too rough. I was a good traditional trainer and I used techniques that worked. My dogs were happy, they worked happy, they weren’t cowering. But when I look back now, of course I realize, wow, there’s so much of a better way to do this, and the animal is so much more joyous in its work.

But people approach, if you want to call it the other side of the fence, they approach that with criticism, even if it’s not direct criticism. You need to give a person respect for what they’ve done, what they’ve accomplished, and not in any way punish them.

The comical part, to me, is if you’re truly a positive reinforcement trainer, then why are you punishing these people? Are you going to punish them long enough that you think they’re going to change? You should know that punishment isn’t very effective. It only works with threat, so are you going to threaten them? No. The way you get them to change is reinforce them for their efforts, support them when they’re having trouble, and sometimes that means you have to ignore something that’s still happening and just go, “That will come in time. Leave it alone.” Right now, give them something you can actually help them with, because that reinforces them.

When you solve a problem for someone or some organization with positive reinforcement and it’s a problem they continue to have, you are now God. Now it’s like, “Wow, we were never able to solve that with traditional training, and they just solved it.” That’s all about reinforcement, so it’s no different than applying positive reinforcement to animal training. It’s how do I get this animal, which happens to be human, I have to want and get them inspired and motivated, don’t I? I have to have something they want. So I have to give them the feeling of reinforcement, and usually that comes in the shape of showing them how it works. Don’t just tell them. Show them.

There are a lot of people in the horse barns, for instance, that are certainly surrounded by traditional horse trainers, and they’re the one person in their barn that wants to do clicker training with their horse, so they day in and day out feel like they are one against a hundred. The best thing they can do is just smile and say, “Thank you. That’s really cool that you’re doing that, but I want to do it this way. I’m really enjoying this. This is really fun.” And then, on the side, you’re showing them, from them noticing, that it really works.

There’s no sense in having a war, because the war never gets you anywhere. I’ve been at those wars. I’ve been the positive reinforcement and the traditional trainer wars. It doesn’t work. It just makes the traditional trainers dig their trenches deeper because you’re making them feel they have to defend themselves. The last thing you want to do is make a traditional trainer feel like they have to defend themselves. You have to get them curious so that they’re really interested in how that works.

The good news is in the guide dog world it’s been proven now. We were on new ground when we did it, and when we did it, we didn’t have anything telling us it’s going to work, so we were just hoping we’d get the same quality of response at the end of training, and what wowed us was how much better all the responses were. We were just hoping that going to this new positive thing would be kinder-gentler and we’d still get what we had. We never, never imagined we would get better and better responses than historically the school had ever had.

Melissa Breau: That’s fantastic. I know there are a lot of people out there who are in that exact position, and they’re surrounded by so many trainers who are doing things other ways. They feel like they’re fighting that battle, so I think that’s really useful for folks to hear. What about for those folks that are out there, maybe they’re on the edge, or maybe they’re in the process of crossing over, I think anyone who has done that knows it’s not easy. Do you have any advice for those folks?

Michele Pouliot: The best advice I can give for someone who wants to cross over, they’re in the process, is realize that learning never goes away.

I think in the traditional training world you get to a point — and I say this not just from my experience, but being around so many traditional trainers for so many years in the ’70s and ’80s — you get to a point where you think you’ve learned everything. It’s a little phenomenon. It’s like, I’m there, I’ve got it, I’ve done my thing, and now I just keep practicing it.

As a positive reinforcement trainer I quickly realized that I didn’t know anything about training. It was like, wow, I might be good at actually doing some certain things with animals, but I had never even thought about how the science would affect everything that I’m doing. So realizing that it doesn’t end.

When I first joined the faculty of Clicker Expo, Karen Pryor’s faculty, I was totally intimidated by being on the faculty. It’s like, Oh my god, all these people, they are so much better than me. And then I started getting more comfortable after a few years, but every time I went, I realized I still feel like a novice. Every single time I go to an Expo, I’m learning something else from a faculty member, or two or three of them, that I went, wow, I never even looked at it that way. That has not ended, so I realized it’s an open book. It’s an open end that never stops.

And if you do stop and you say, “I’ve learned enough, this is all I need to know,” that’s sad to me because there’s so much more available to you, even within your own little world and how you’re using it, because it’s constantly got the ability to give you more information and make you even better and better at training both the animal and the student, the person.

Melissa Breau: Even if you’ve learned, say, everything that was out up to a year ago, when you really talk to some of the leading trainers out there, there are always new ideas that they’re trying and they’re testing and they’re playing with, and then going out there and sharing.

Michele Pouliot: Exactly, exactly. Even through things like this, a podcast. You’re listening to a podcast and you go, “Oh, well, that’s interesting. I never quite heard that before.” Or you hear it said a different way, and even if all that gives you is ooh, when I teach that next time, I have another way to say that that might make more sense to that individual person who I’m having trouble getting that concept across to.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I know that that, for me, was a big, big thing when I was teaching pet dog people was that I’d often sit in the class, or listen to somebody talk, and you just come away with, “Oh, well, that was a really great analogy. That was a really good way of phrasing that,” that you can reuse or turn around.

Michele Pouliot: For sure, for sure. And to me, I really always look at myself as when I’m working with somebody, an individual and their animal, I’m never really teaching the animal. I’m teaching them. So it’s my job to be able to be a hugely successful communicator and adjust on the fly when it’s not working, because obviously the way I’m explaining it is not working, so I’ve got to find another way.

Melissa Breau: I know that I mentioned in the intro you’ve done competitive obedience and agility, and that today you mostly compete in musical freestyle. For those who maybe aren’t super-familiar with the sport, can you share a little bit about what it is and how it’s judged?

Michele Pouliot: Most everybody has at some point in the Winter Olympics watched the ice-skating. If you look at that event, the Olympic ice skating, and the short program, long program — years ago they also had the figures that they don’t do anymore because it wasn’t very interesting to watch — but it’s very similar in that you have a piece of music, and what you’re doing is you and your dog are performing certain behaviors and you’re interpreting the music. So freestyle, in its own right, is meaning anything you want to do. Anything goes, so it gives you the open ability to choose a lot of interesting things to do.

Most organizations that you can compete under, and there’s about four or five organizations worldwide, do have some limit in freestyle for safety. In other words, the one limit can be as long as it looks safe for human and dog. Other than that, there really isn’t a limit, other than don’t do something in really bad taste, for instance.

But if you look at the Olympic ice-skating, in that they are judged both technical and artistic, it’s the same thing. In most organizations you have two basic element types you’re being judged on, which is the technical aspect of the performance, including the precision, including how things flowed, and then you have the artistic, which is the creative part, how unique was this, how emotional was it, was it funny, was it dramatic, was it just really amazingly entertaining. If you look at it with that ice skating analogy, I think you’ll realize, yeah, that’s an easy to understand sport.

It is still a bit of a subjective sport, meaning you could have the exact same performance in front of two different judges and they may judge it a little differently. But that’s not really any different than if you get in a high level of competitive obedience. You’re looking at who’s going to win the classes a half-point ahead of the other, and that could be a subjective judgment between judges, so one judge saw it as a perfect sit and one judge saw it as a half-point-off sit.

So no matter what, the subjectivity comes into most sports, agility being one that probably not. The dog either does the … but you still have some judgments about did he make the contact point, did he miss it, so it is a subjective sport.

The cool thing about the sport is everyone going in the ring is doing something different, so you’re not watching the same routine, like an obedience routine or the agility course. You’re not seeing the same thing again and again. Every single person that goes in the ring is doing something different, even if you — by horrors — happen to have the same music as somebody else, which has happened to me. It happened to me. But they’re still totally different routines because you have a different person and a different dog interpreting it. So it’s very cool that it’s your own creation.

I have tons of video of my dogs doing competitive obedience at way back Games Nationals, really cool stuff, and agility runs. Do I ever pull that footage out and watch it? Not really. But do I pull out my old freestyle routines and watch those? I do. It’s more like you created art yourself, you and your dog together created this thing, and nobody else has done that thing.

It’s something that you did, and when you are in freestyle long enough that you’re losing dogs, obviously they die, I mean, that was the first time that hit me was when I was watching my Springer Spaniel Cabo’s performance to Phantom of the Opera at a seminar. Somebody wanted to see it, and I showed it for the first time after he had passed, and I mean I got really emotional because it wasn’t just seeing him on the screen as much as all that we put into that routine to make it an entertaining routine.

The cool thing to me about freestyle, which is why I got so excited about it when I discovered it, is everything keeps changing. It isn’t that you get to this high level and then you’re doing the same skills and maintaining those same skills. You’re always trying to do something new, inventive, because of the piece of music you’ve picked. It brings out the creativity and it really pushes you as a dog trainer.

So it’s been wonderful for me because it keeps pushing me to what is the next thing I’m going to clicker train — not necessarily that I’m going to use it in the next routine, but maybe the routine after that. So it really does help me, personally, get inspired and motivated to train, because my goal is to come up with some sort of performance that is entertaining to the audience. I just love that.

Melissa Breau: You obviously bring it to the sport. You’re very passionate about it. Is there anything, in your opinion, in particular that has led to your success?

Michele Pouliot: I think for anyone’s success, you have to say you’re obviously doing good training. Again, it’s motivating to me to keep pushing myself to become a better and better trainer for that reason, because it’s going to come out in the performance. Creativity is something that I think I probably was born with, because I always had a wild imagination, and my brother is a very creative person too. I actually don’t know how to teach people creativity, but you can get a lot of great ideas from just watching Broadway plays, movies, shows, you can get some great ideas for what might make a very cool routine.

I would have to say that I entered this sport at a point in my career when I’d only been clicker training on my own with my own animals for maybe four or five years when I got into freestyle. But I had already learned the power of it for teaching really great behaviors, entertaining-type behaviors, so that really inspired me to, like, what else can I do?

When you envision something in a routine that might seem a little up there — meaning, well, maybe I shouldn’t really expect that I can make it look that great by teaching a dog to do something like that — and then you actually do it, that’s really rewarding for yourself as a trainer, but rewarding in that you were able to show the audience something.

It also is a really good ambassador for clicker training, because when you see a good freestyle performance, the one thing you know is there are behaviors you just watch that you know you couldn’t train any other way except with clicker training because it wouldn’t work. There’s no way you could teach that traditional. It just wouldn’t happen.

Melissa Breau: I know we’re getting close to the end here, and there are three questions I always ask at the end of my first interview with someone. The first one is what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of — and I feel like you probably have some good ones.

Michele Pouliot: I kind of feel like I have two different worlds that I’ve been in. One is a very serious type of work with the guide dog world and the other is my hobby in the sports. I have to say that being able to look back on my career with the guide dog industry, knowing that I’ve made a big change, now I am one of the catalysts that’s really helped to move that whole industry forward, certainly is something I’m extremely proud of and makes me feel really content that I left that career, officially left the career, when everything was really moving along. That would be the guide dog side.

The dog-related side would probably be just individual great performances I’ve had with my wonderful canine partners. When you said it, I probably had to think of my first Aussie in freestyle, Listo, who passed in 2014. But we’ve had some incredible performances. I don’t know if I can pick one out. But one thing that he did do that no other dog has done is he — I know I should say “he and I together,” but I think of him as such an amazing dog performer. He was like an actor. He was so good at this that I felt like he was carrying me through some of the performances. He not only scored perfect scores from judges once, he did it twenty-four times. It is incredible, and a few of those were at international competitions where there was a judging panel of three judges, and all three judges gave him perfect scores. And I realize gave us perfect scores. But I would have to say that probably is one of the highlights of my hobby career.

Just a couple of weekends ago, my young Aussie, we debuted a brand-new routine, and it’s a very cool routine. I’m very, very proud of this routine. In fact, we dedicated it to Listo. It’s a very cool routine, and he did it so well for his first time. I was totally blown away with how well he did, and he got a perfect score.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.

Michele Pouliot: For my young boy to get a perfect score was a really cool thing. So there I gave you the serious side of dog training and the fun side.

Melissa Breau: Congrats on the new perfect score. That’s awesome.

Michele Pouliot: Thank you.

Melissa Breau: The second question on my list is about training advice, and I wanted to ask what the best piece of training advice you’ve ever heard is.

Michele Pouliot: Oh, so many to choose from. I am going to reach down deep to the first one I ever remember hearing that changed my life, and that was Linda Tellington. In 1970, I was having trouble working with a horse. She stopped me, and she walked over and very quietly said, “Listen to him.” And ever since then, I listen so hard to my learners, and that includes horses, dogs, people that I’m teaching. It’s listening, paying attention to what’s happening, because they’re giving you so much information that so many people ignore.

So I think that would be the first one, because it has affected me, it’s so much a part of who I am when I train is really noticing what’s happening quickly, not waiting until we get five minutes into it to go, “Oh, I guess that’s not working.” Then the other one would be Dr. Phil’s mantra, “How’s that working for you?”

Melissa Breau: I like that.

Michele Pouliot: I say that at seminars all the time. I say it to myself. It’s like somebody comes up with all these questions, “Why is he doing that? Well, I’ve been doing it this way.” And I go, “Well, how’s that working for you?” It’s a great mantra, so I find myself going back to that. It actually is usually quite appropriate for most situations to ask yourself that, or to ask someone else, so I’ll just stick with those two for now.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely, and it relates back to the first one. If you’re not listening and you ask yourself, “How’s that working for you?” it’s going to remind you... My last question here: Who is somebody else in the training world that you look up to?

Michele Pouliot: That would probably be Ken Ramirez and Kathy Sdao, both. They have been my lights in the distance when I started this guide dog movement to change to positive reinforcement training. Both of them … without them, I don’t know if I could have made it happen, because they again were so supportive of what we were doing, and yet knowing a lot of what we were doing they did not like at that time. They were able to put blinders on and ignore some of what they were looking at, and focus on the stuff we were getting better at, knowing that when more time went, we’d be ready for the next step to improve.

And then, on a personal note, when I joined the faculty, just to have them be so wonderfully friendly and open and warm, and so interested in the way I think about training and what I do. They’ve just always been really dear to me.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for coming on, Michele! This has been great.

Michele Pouliot: You’re welcome, and I thank you for having me. I enjoyed every bit of it.

Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with Amy Cook to talk about the true meaning of a threshold and how to manage your activity while you work on changing your dog’s feelings about the thing.

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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