Hannah Branigan has been training dogs and teaching people for more than 12 years. In addition to being a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, she is a faculty member for Karen Pryor Academy and a teacher at the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Hannah is a Professional Member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer.
She has presented at APDT and Clicker Expo and teaches workshops all over the USA.
Owner of Wonderpups, LLC, Hannah is committed to training both dogs and people with positive reinforcement methods. She has titled her dogs in Conformation, Obedience, IPO (Schutzhund), Agility, and Rally.
To be released 2/3/2017, featuring Shade Whitesel.
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 Hannah Branigan. Hannah has been training dogs and teaching people for more than 12 years. In addition to being a Karen Pryor Academy-Certified Training Partner, she's a faculty member for Karen Pryor Academy and a teacher at the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.
Hannah is a professional member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and a certified professional dog trainer. She has presented at APDT and Clicker Expo, and teachers workshops all over the US.
Owner of Wonderpups LLC, Hannah is committed to training both dogs and people with positive reinforcement methods. She has titled her dogs in conformation, obedience, IPO, agility, and rally.
Hannah Branigan: Thank you for having me.
Melissa Breau: Thanks for joining us. To get started, can you just tell us a bit about the dogs you have now and what you're working on with them?
Hannah Branigan: We're actually down to four right now, which is kind of weird. I still keep getting out five bully sticks, and then I wonder why I still have one left in my hand.
Right now, I have…Stormy is my oldest and she's pretty much retired from anything competitive. She acts as sort of my guinea pig if I have a new, crazy idea that I want to try out on something. So, I'll often try it out on her because I figure, hey, she's 14, she's not going to be in a dog show again, and so if I completely ruin her heeling, then that's not a big deal.
So, she will often show up in some of my videos that you'll see in class or on YouTube. So, she still stays busy and still likes to stay active that way.
And then there's Gambit. So he's an AKC Champion. We finished his UDX. He's got an OM--something, I don't even remember which number we're on at this point, finished his CDSP OCH last year. We tinkered a little bit in Nose Work. I think this year we're going to go ahead and finish up his RAE, and he's still showing in CDSP, mostly for fun.
He's older and he's had a knee injury when he was younger that's starting to kind of catch up with him, so that we appreciate the lower-jump heights of the CDSP Obedience, and we're still hitting the occasional AKC trial locally, depending on how he's feeling, but that's sort of where he is right now, and also, again, guinea pig and often video star.
And then the next one down, in order of age, would be Spark. She's also an AKC Champion. In AKC, she's finished her UD and she has I want to say 25 or 30 OCH points, all in Utility. She has some personal space issues with other dogs that have caused me to be a little reticent to put her back in the open stay ring situation. So, I haven't quite decided what I'm going to do with her in that area yet, and we may just kind of rest on our laurels there. She did, this year, just finished her CDSP OCH, where of course there is no group stay. Right now, our main focus with her -- with me and her together -- is in expanding our agility skills. So, we've been doing a lot of playing in agility and doing some trials in that.
And then the baby of the family is Rugby, who I think everyone on the internet knows, and he is, let's see, he's currently training in obedience and of course also rally and then also cross-trains in agility and flyball.
This past year, he debuted in CDSP Novice and picked up his first High-in-Trial and was basically awesome, so I was really, really happy with how he's working there, and I think we're going to set our eyes on going into the AKC Novice Ring this coming year. I need to look at my schedule and actually see when I have a weekend available to aim for, but he likes to do a little bit of everything. So, we're hopefully going to be competing, eventually, in all four of those sports and maybe a little barn hunt, maybe a little nose work. He's a terrier, so I feel like I feel compelled to at least…
Melissa Breau: ...Honor that side?
Hannah Branigan: Show up. Yeah, exactly, take advantage of that, those instincts, rather than always working against them. I think he would definitely enjoy barn hunt.
Melissa Breau: Congrats on the High-in-Trial. That's very exciting, especially with your baby dog.
Hannah Branigan: Thank you. Yes.
Melissa Breau: Now, I'm lucky because you're here in North Carolina, not too far from me, and I had the pleasure of actually attending one of your workshops…I think it was at Lap it Up, and you tend to describe yourself as a dog-training geek, and I think you started the workshop out by kind of mentioning that. So, I wanted to ask you to tell us a little bit about what you mean by that.
Hannah Branigan: Yeah. I usually apologize in advance when people have me in person. There's no editing involved.
You know, honestly, it's more in the more modern sense of the word geek, really, rather than the original definition, but well, all I really mean by that is just that I'm sort of inordinately fascinated with dogs and behavior and learning, possibly to the point of obsession, and I really love, you know, like I love really digging into those sort of like microcosmic details of the behavior and really looking at how things can be broken apart atomically and how they're all interconnected, and that's really sort of what I spend my Friday nights doing, watching videos in slow motion and trying out stuff and just really, yeah, okay, obsession is probably the right word. Yeah.
Melissa Breau: So, I'm guessing you didn’t start out that way. How did you get into dog sports and training and kind of into being interested in all this?
Hannah Branigan: Yeah. I'm not even really sure. That was kind of a complete accident. I think, like a lot of trainers, I had a pet dog, who was a rescue, and he turned out to have more challenges than I knew how to handle, and so through the process of learning more about training and learning more about dogs to figure out how to help him, so that he would stop biting me, I got kind of like hooked on this concept of training, and then somehow that turned into, once I had the dog that I could take for walks around the neighborhood and be relatively safe with, then I had to teach him to retrieve beer from a fridge.
That one, in all honesty, was also to impress a boy, who I then married, so it turned out to be worth it.
So, after the beer retrieve, then it was like well, what can I teach him next, and so we tried a little bit of agility, but that was going to be a lot for him, behaviorally, to manage, to handle that environment, and we kind of just ended up finding our way into a UKC Obedience Trial, and I still don't even really remember exactly how that happened, but there we were, and then I thought, well, that was kind of fun, what if I got a registered dog?
And I started from scratch, because of course if you buy a purebred dog or, in my case, were given a purebred dog, it's absolutely a guarantee that they'll be easy to train for sports, right?
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. That's everybody's favorite line. I think that may be the first time I've ever heard somebody get into dogs to impress a boy, though.
Hannah Branigan: Well, I mean I did get the dog on his own merits, but it was the beer retrieve that was…
Melissa Breau: That was to impress the boy?
Hannah Branigan: Was really, yeah, to show him up. That's how I impress boys, I prove that I'm better than them at whatever the thing is, and it's actually kind of a funny story because, so, my husband, who I was dating at the time, was a computer engineer, and for his project in college, his team was making a beer robot, a robot that would basically retrieve a beer, and I said that I could train my dog to do that faster than he could make a robot do it, and so I did, and I was right.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome.
Hannah Branigan: I know, right? Exactly. So, and that's how it happened.
Melissa Breau: I mean, I think that's a great story to tell. Now, I know that at FDSA, one of like your big series is the skill-building series, the obedience skill-building series, so I wanted to make sure we talk a little bit about that and the role of foundation skills overall. So, do you mind talking for a moment kind of how foundation skills turn into obedience exercises and kind of why they're so important to start out with?
Hannah Branigan: Sure, and I think the skill-building series is kind of a…it's an interesting place to start because it's not structured the way most people who are used to competition obedience training expect.
So, your average obedience club will typically have, they'll have, you know, maybe some kind of introductory class, if you're lucky, or they may start right out with novice, but they'll have a novice class where you learn how to do novice, and then you go to the dog show and you get your novice title, and then you start attending the open class, and you go to the open classes and learn how to teach that, and you get your open title, and then you go to the Utility class and you learn how to do those exercises, and that's really what most people are expecting when they're thinking about sort of a training progression, but that's not how the experienced elite dog trainers actually train their own dogs.
Nobody who is really successful in obedience teaches that way, so, or trains their dogs that way, at any rate.
So, when we designed the skill-building series, the goal was really, or our priority was let's set up a series of training progressions that actually mirror the way we would actually train our own dogs. So, you know, when I get a young dog and I intend to compete with that dog in obedience, I don't start with novice. I actually start with most of Utility, so, you know one of the first things that I teach a puppy is scent discrimination and we get started with some of the beginning steps that are going to become go-outs and directed jumping, and also there are things that will lead into heeling, but I don't wait until I have the novice title.
We're actually, you know, mostly almost teaching it in reverse, right? So, with the skill-building series, we've very much done that. So, like the skill building one class, we're giving you the building blocks for scent discrimination, for directed jumping and go-outs, for the retrieve, for signals, drop on recall, all of the jumping-related exercises, all of the retrieving-related exercises, and getting those first steps trained, and then as we move through the progression of the classes, we build on those and we start to put them together and form sequences that become the exercises.
So, it's a much more logical progression from a behavior standpoint, assuming that you're planning to take that dog into Utility at some point. The way that I think about it is really, like, well it's sort of like Legos, right?
So, if you open up a box of Legos, which I was just playing with a minute ago, so that's where my mind is, there's really only like 5 or 6 different types of Lego blocks, right? So, they come in lots of different colors, but there's really only a couple of different shapes. There's the ones with like the 2 dots, and then there's the ones with the 4 dots that are kind of square, and then there's the 6 and then 8 and 12, and using just those blocks, you can really build almost anything, right, like anything from a Millennium Falcon to a dining room table, and it's just by putting those blocks together in different orders and repeating different ones, and I'm kind of getting lost with this metaphor.
I don't remember where I was going with it, but…yeah, yeah, yeah, okay, so my point is that all of these exercises really only break down into kind of a handful of behavioral units that we can then sort of change the colors of, right, like we can put them together in different ways and we can modify them in kind of cosmetic ways, but there's not that much, really, to teach, and so if we concentrate on building these really strong, ubiquitous units of behavior that go into all of these advanced exercises, well, the exercises don't turn out to be quite that hard, right?
So, the challenge is in getting those really strong little individual units, and then I can build lots of different things out of those, so, a dog that really understands concepts of targeting, that really understands the concept of stimulus control. I can teach a new behavior with a target, fade the target, get a cue on it really, really fast, and it's a strong behavior because they really understand how it works and how we're communicating that way.
So, a large part of what we're doing, when we're talking about those foundation skills, is establishing these kind of, you know, we're looking at kind of two categories, right?
There's the movement skills that I need the dog to know how to use his body in a certain way, so I need him to be able to shift his weight back and forth and I need him to be able to control his body and then use that to form these positions and understand the communication strategies that we're going to use to communicate with each other, and once I have those things, I can build so much out of it, and I get very excited, so, sorry.
Melissa Breau: No. Absolutely.
Hannah Branigan: So, yeah, so that's my goal. I want to take this like really mystical, challenging Utility exercise or any of the obedience exercises — I think heeling is more mystical than scent discrimination, really, but that's just me —and how can I break that down into its atomic units, like what are the things that the dog needs to know that then I put together that makes that heeling pictures, makes that scent discrimination picture?
Those blocks, those little, individual Lego blocks, are really very achievable for anybody, and that makes it…it takes away that mysticism element, right, and it makes it very actionable, very practical training, and then it also then makes it easy to put them together, and then when they break, take them back apart and fix it and put it back together again.
Melissa Breau: I think that leads really naturally into the next question, which is how does having strong foundation skills really help when it comes to proofing and problem solving, when you get to that point where you're starting to prep for competition?
Hannah Branigan: First off, I don't love the word proofing, but I know why you're using it and I'm okay with that. I like words like fluency enhancement, just because it puts us in a little bit more of a positive reinforcement mindset, but I understand what you're saying.
So, yeah, so having those really strong units of behavior, what I love about that is when I think about training an exercise in sort of a modular way, then if something does break, it's really easy for me to separate out the broken piece and figure out what's wrong here, what does he not understand, because the problem with teaching, and it's just as much of a problem while working human-to-human as gosh, well working between species, human-to-dog, is are they actually learning what I'm teaching, and the answer is not always yes.
So, when we start putting together more increasingly-complex behaviors and chains of behaviors and sequences, we'll often find out that no, actually what I was laying down is not what he was picking up, and I need to figure out where that miscommunication happened and what I need to do to clarify that, or is there a legitimately missing skill here, you know, just from a mechanic standpoint, my dog can't do the thing.
When I've gone through the thought process, the mental process, of breaking that complex sequence into individual behavioral components, then that really saves a lot of time when I need to go back and kind of debug, right? So, like what is wrong here, and I can check. I can pull it out and I can say okay, is it Unit A? No, looks great. Unit B? Looks great. Unit C? Absolutely perfect. Unit D? Oh gosh, oh, this isn't right.
So, all right, this is where I need to spend my time. So, it really saves a lot of time because I've done all of that thinking in advance, right, during the original training process. I mean the behaviors are always functioning as behavioral sequences. That's not something that we've invented. It has a lot more to do with our approach for how we're thinking about it and how we go about teaching it that have the advantage.
Melissa Breau: So, to take that and kind of, I don't want to take it from conceptual to practical, but kind of to take that idea just to that next step. Is there a common problem that students run into again and again where maybe you can kind of talk us through having strong foundation skills might help?
Hannah Branigan: Like so the vast majority of problem-solving issues that people bring to me come down to exactly that thing, right? There's a piece, there's one of those components that was not well-understood, that the human part of the team thought they had taught, and the dog was not learning exactly what the human thought that they were teaching, and in fact I've dropped the term problem-solving or troubleshooting from my workshop materials just because, again, it so often puts us into that mind-space, which then makes it really hard to take a proactive approach to the training when we're trying to come up with a training plan, but so a really common example that I'll get all the time, and I get it online, I get it in person, so it's the drop on recall. It's a really common one.
It's, you know, relatively easy to squeak through your novice, and you get into open and there's a really big monster on that drop on recall, and it catches a lot of teams, and a lot of teams struggle with it, and so people come to me that the dog is, you know, classically they're not dropping when I call him or he's dropping very slowly or he's creeping forward or he sits or he just stands and stares at me, and it is a complex exercise.
There's a lot going on there, both bio-mechanically and behaviorally, with that exercise.
We give a cue 'come,' and then we interrupt that behavior with a cue to do something completely different, suddenly stop and lay down, which is weird, and so there's a lot of stuff that can go on there, and it's a fairly complex training process, and when we have that kind of complexity, that opens a window for a lot of emotional problems when the people get frustrated, and the dog gets frustrated and confused, and so there can be a whole lot of baggage there, and what often it comes down to is that, you know, we start peeling away the layers and digging. Now, what's actually broken here is, well, it turned out the dog didn't actually have stimulus control on the down itself, right?
So, the handler thought when I say down, the dog understands to lay down, and of course we're kind of on thin ice for a cognitive science standpoint when we talk about what dogs know and what dogs understand, but we're going to go with it, and what frequently has turned out to be the case, like, we could write a book about it, is the handler has taught the down with some kind of lure or prompt, nothing wrong with that. That's often how I teach it myself, right?
But as part of the training process, if we're using some kind of physical gesture to teach the dog to lay down, and it's assuming that it's not a legal one that we can use in the ring, which in the case of food lure, of course you can't, and under no circumstances, for the drop on recall, can you step towards the dog, put your hand in front of his nose, and point towards the ground, right? That's not a valid cue at any venue that I compete in.
So most of the time we transfer that either to a hand signal, and the classic hand signal, of course, is the one-hand-straight-over-head like a traffic cop, or verbal, down, plotz, whatever, and so we have to do some kind of fading of the prompt or lure, that extra, illegal physical gesture, which often involves some amount of dropping of the head and shoulders towards the ground and/or into the dog's personal space, which is a really common way to teach a drop is we use a little bit of that spatial pressure to push into the dog's space, which causes the dog to lay down, and then we go through the steps of fading that, and then hopefully, we're now completely still and quiet with our body language. We can stand completely neutral, say "down," and the dog hits the dirt, right?
What often happens is the handler thinks that's the process that's happened, but what's actually occurred is that the handler's continuing to do some amount of gesturing with the upper body, either at the same time as they say down or even just before it, and then they get in the ring, they say come when the dog is 25 feet away, they say down without that little ducking movement of the head and shoulders that has become the functional cue for the dog, and then, of course, there is no down because you did not give the same cue that you've been giving in training, and classic way to solve that is while you call the dog, and while they're coming towards you, you say down. If they don't down right away, you lean forward, step into them, with or without some amount of intimidation, and then perhaps the dog downs, and then you can say good boy and you can repeat it.
Well, we can't do that in the ring, so it still doesn't solve the problem in the ring, and what the problem really is, is that original piece of the behavior, the down, is not actually on the cue that the handler thinks that the dog should be responding to.
Melissa Breau: So, for problem-solving that, you then break that piece out and go back and work on just that piece, right?
Hannah Branigan: Right. So, you know, what we would do to test it, then, is well, let's try just stand there and give your cue for down, and so, like 99 percent of the time, if we have the hander cross their arms, look at the ceiling, and say down, the dog just looks at them hopefully and wags his tail, right? So, "I know you're talking to me but I've never seen that cue before," and if you have them, you know, how would you normally handle this, and they will often drop their shoulders, lean forward, maybe point at the ground and gesture down, there's some upper-body movement, and the dog goes, "Oh, right, right, right!" and lays down, with or without emotional baggage, depending on what the last six months of that dog's life have looked like, right?
My standard protocol is, okay, so now we know this is the situation. Let's just walk through the progression that you used to teach it originally, and so, you know, a lot of the time it's a food lure, which is fine, so we'll lure them down, great, that looks fantastic, fade the lure, now it's a gesture, dog's still dropping really nicely, start fading the gesture, the dog's continuing to drop, and then we'll get to some point in that progression where something's not quite right, like either there's a little bit of a hesitation on the part of the dog or the behavior starts to degrade. Great.
That's where we want to act, right? We don't want to wait until we're at a complete failure. We're looking for that first glimmer that there's a question mark. Is it a down? Did you still want me to lay down? And then we shore that up and then continue through the progression from there.
Melissa Breau: So, that kind of covers what my next question was going to be, which is what would your recommendation be to a student struggling with this issue. Is there anything you'd want to add there? I just want to make sure that, since I sent you the questions in advance, you get a chance to say anything else that you may have wanted to say.
Hannah Branigan: I know. I cheated. They sent me the questions in advance.
I think the main thing is kind of my visualization that I would love to share with people is when you use words like foundation, and I think that's a completely valid word to use because we are building our exercises out of these critical supporting concepts — but we often kind of think of it as like, it's like a one and done, like once I've trained these foundation skills, whatever you consider…you know you put these particular items in the foundation box, and you're done, and you tape it closed, and then you keep going.
And I think that that doesn't really do us any favors, and I really kind of prefer the learning model that we'll run across a lot in human learning and human sports, which is really more of a spiral staircase, rather than like the house, right, with the bricks, and then you just start building the house on top of the foundation, but it's more like the spiral staircase because we're never done with these behaviors.
Behaviors, always, are dynamic. They're always changing, and they're always responding to their environment and processes of reinforcement and punishment and everything else, and so when I'm thinking about it in the way that I approach training and I think the way that a lot of people do, whether it's conscious or not, is I'm always moving up, I'm always moving forward, and we're always progressing, but we're always also circling past these same concepts and refining them and strengthening them and building on them, and sometimes yes, picking up gaps and filling them in as we discover them, because dogs are really good at letting us know when we've left a gap in our training, and so that's, you know, I think that spiral staircase is a really good visualization for me because I do spend a lot of time, so, you know, working on maybe positions, like the mechanics or the positions.
Well, all of my dogs have sit down and stand on cue, I think, and then it's not a done thing. So, we periodically, you know, we're circling back around, and now what does my sit down and stand look like? Oh, how could I sharpen that up? What if I improve the latency on this one a little bit, or those mechanics are slipping, I need to make sure that my dog is really planting his rear end before he pushes into that drop, before we get into the drop on recall, and there's always little things that we can keep improving and refining and strengthening as we continue to build on these behaviors and make bigger, more complex exercises out of them.
Melissa Breau: Awesome, and I think that that spiral staircase, I actually haven't heard it used quite that way before and I think that's really interesting and really helpful, even for me to just kind of think through training in that way.
Hannah Branigan: Yeah. I invented it myself. I just thought of it. You can call it the Branigan Spiral Staircase Method.
Melissa Breau: Deal. Done. I'll name the whole episode that.
Hannah Branigan: Perfect.
Melissa Breau: So, to round things out, I just have three more short questions for you. So, to start, what's the dog-related accomplishment that you are proudest of?
Hannah Branigan: Yeah, so now we're into the beauty pageant section of the interview. Okay. So, it's not dog-related, but it's kind of fresh in my mind since we've been out of school and home for a whole week…I mean it's dog related, but not the dogs themselves.
I would say that right now, at this stage, life stage that I find myself in, I am most proud of how my daughter Harper has learned to invite the dogs for petting and attention, rather than reaching out for them or grabbing them.
That was something that we've worked really, really hard on for, well, four years now, and it's so awesome to watch it starting to solidify into this interaction that they have, and it started out…it's something we still coach her in, and it was very, very coached. We used a lot of tag teach to initiate it, because as a toddler, she's very grabby because she's a small primate infant person, and so I was like okay, we have to invite dogs to be petted. We don't reach out for the dog.
She learned to pat her knee, pat-pat, clap her hands, clap-clap, and then she opens up her hands, palms up, and invites the dogs to come and greet her, and what is so cool is she pats pat and they're like okay, and when she opens her hands, they clearly make a choice of yes, and they come push their neck and chest into her hands and she can start petting them, or they'll just do a beautiful, smooth head-turn away, very canine, thank you, not right now, and we're still working on handling disappointment.
That's, of course, that's something I, as an adult, continue to struggle with, but watching them communicate that smoothly when I'm cooking dinner and she's sitting there, and she sees Gambit and she really wants to pet him because, of course, who wouldn't? He's gorgeous. And she pat-pat, clap-clap, opens her hands, and he says oh, yes, please, finally someone to rub me, and he just melts into her hands, and she pets him, and it's so smooth and just seamless and natural, and that's another thing that, you know, when I see it, even though it's just one of those little daily miracles that kind of makes me like, oh, I get chills.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. You share lots of parenting and dog stories online, on Facebook and in other forums, so it's kind of neat.
Hannah Branigan: It's all the same thing, completely the same.
Melissa Breau: So, what is the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?
Hannah Branigan: Oh, that one's easy. So, Leslie Nelson: "When in doubt, throw food."
And I fall back on that all the time. Whenever there's a question, something weird comes up in a training session or even at home, I don't know what to do right now, that was a very weird behavior and I have no idea how I should handle it, throw a handful of food on the ground, and while they're gobbling the food, I can think about my solution, and it turns out that there's a whole lot of behavior problems out there in the world that we can solve in very practical ways by throwing a handful of food at them.
Melissa Breau: Both to give ourselves five minutes to think and to give them something else to do?
Hannah Branigan: Exactly.
Melissa Breau: All right. So, the last one, who is someone else in the dog world that you look up to?
Hannah Branigan: Oh, okay. So, well, of course, you know I really admire Denise and Deb and Shade and all the other folks in the FDSA community. Outside of that, Ken Ramirez is really somebody that I admire a lot, well, basically because he's perfect in every way. So, I'm definitely a member of the Ken fan club. We're going to get t-shirts, maybe to share.
Melissa Breau: I hope he listens to this, just so he can hear you call him perfect in every way.
Hannah Branigan: He knows. I've told him.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome.
Well, thank you so much for joining us, Hannah, and thank you everybody else for tuning in. We'll be back in two weeks with Shade Whitesel to talk about location-specific markers and being a top IPO competitor, using R+ philosophies. If you haven't already, please subscribe on iTunes or the podcast app of your choice, and our next episode will automatically be downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.
Today’s show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang and transcription written by CLK Transcription Services.
Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!
Sarah Stremming is a dog trainer, a dog agility and obedience competitor, and a dog behavior consultant. Her specialty is working with behavior problems in competition dogs.
During her interview we talk about her approach to training -- including allowing dogs their dog-ness -- and the 4 things she looks at before making behavior recommendations: exercise, enrichment, diet and communication.
To be released 1/20/2017, featuring Hannah Branigan.
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 Sarah Stremming. Sarah’s voice may be familiar to some of you since she owns the excellent Cog-Dog Radio. Sarah is owner and operator of the Cognitive Canine. She has been working with dogs in the realms of performance training and behavior solutions for over a decade.
Her special area of interest has long been helping dog owners address behavioral concerns in their competition dogs. Reactivity, anxiety, aggression, and problems with arousal are all major concerns for many competitors, and Sarah works to help her clients overcome these issues and succeed in their chosen arena. Hi, Sarah, welcome to the podcast.
Sarah Stremming: Hi, Melissa, and thanks for having me.
Melissa: Absolutely. Sarah, to start out, can you just tell us a little bit about the dogs you have now and what you’re working on with them?
Sarah: Sure. I have Idgie, who is an 8-year-old border collie, and she’s competing in agility and her agility training is really just kind of in maintenance phase, but I’m getting her ready to go into the open level of obedience next year; and I have Felix who is also a border collie and he’s a year and a half, so he’s learning everything. He’s learning agility, obedience, and mostly how to just kind of keep his head on his shoulders in the agility environment is our number one project… and those are my two dogs.
Melissa: Excellent. How did you originally get into dog sports?
Sarah: I saw agility on TV when I was probably nine or ten and immediately knew that that was for me, and it was like five years later that I actually got to do agility, but as soon as I saw it I wanted to do it and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Melissa: That’s awesome. So did you start out R+ then, since you started in agility or kind of what got you started on that positive training journey?
Sarah: I definitely did not start with all positive reinforcement. I am definitely what I would call a crossover trainer. I started in not just agility but competitive obedience. Agility really got me started, but the kind of local dog training school required an obedience class before you started agility training, and I actually really liked the obedience side as well, so I competed in obedience and agility with my first dog Kelso.
He had some really severe behavioral problems, primarily aggression towards other dogs, and so I learned to do all kinds of nasty things from people who…everybody I worked with was really trying to help me, and so I did all kinds of corrections as far as obedience is concerned and as well as his aggression was concerned.
Because he had these behavior problems I reached outside of the realm of performance training into the animal training world and found out that all of these corrections that I had been taught from really the competitive obedience sector were not only not necessary but probably causing some of my problems. So when I started to realize that and started to change the way that I did things, he started to get better and that was really all that I needed to see.
Melissa: I know that for most trainers it’s definitely an evolving journey, so how would you describe where you are now in terms of what your training philosophy is and kind of how you approach training?
Sarah: My training approach I actually have a philosophy that I really sat down and figured out and wrote out a while ago so that I could reference it and come back to it in my work with my own dogs as well as with other people and so it’s kind of four different mantras, and the first one is ‘Do not deny dogs their dogness.’ So meaning dogs are dogs, they’re going to act like dogs.
Dogs like to bark and pee on stuff and dig holes and do things like that, and we really have no right to deny them those things because we chose to bring dogs into our lives, but that segues into the next mantra, which is to teach dogs what we need from them in a kind way, so we need them to not do those things all the time and it’s important for us to teach them what they need to know to live in our world in a way that is kind. Then the next one is ‘Provide dogs what they need,’ which is a big deal to me to just make sure that their needs are being met.
I find that a lot of dogs living with people don’t have all of their basic dog needs met, and then the last one is just ‘Above all honor the dog,’ which means always honor their experience of what you are doing, that this isn’t just about you. They’re here. They have autonomy. They have ownership over their own lives and we really have no right to not take their opinions and experiences into account.
Melissa: I know you kind of mentioned Kelso at the beginning, and your specialty now, at least as far as I understand it, is over-arousal in competition dogs. Does that kind of tie back to that or can you tell me kind of how you got started in that and kind of just a little bit about your work now?
Sarah: That being my special interest area was really shaped by the competitors and the current climate of agility. Kelso actually wouldn’t be described by anybody who knew him as over-aroused. They would describe him more as one of those shut-down type of dogs, so he was overwhelmed by the environment, but it translated into a dog that was slow and didn’t do agility very fast versus most of the dogs that I work with now are kind of the opposite.
They are also overwhelmed by the environment, but it comes out in big displays, big behaviors of biting the handler, excessive barking, not being able to stay on the start line, that kind of thing. I do work with the dogs that shut down too. Most of the dogs that I work with are over-aroused, and I think that that has been largely cultivated by just the culture in agility right now, which is we’re breeding dogs with hair-trigger arousal on purpose and we are fostering really, really high levels of arousal in training and the reason is everybody wants faster.
Everybody wants speed, and they really think that this is how they’re going to get there. When you put all of this arousal into the picture and you’re not actually sure how to deal with it once you’ve got it, you run into problems and it’s everywhere. Every single time I go to an agility trial, which is frequently, I see dogs that are really struggling with the environment and really just if they were people would be screaming and banging their fists against the wall and instead they’re a dog on a leash being asked to stand next to a handler quietly. So we see a lot of problems come out because that arousal has got to come out somewhere.
Melissa: So I’m actually going to shift gears slightly and then come back to this topic. Before starting this podcast, I asked around for other good dog training podcasts. Cog-Dog came very highly recommended, which is how I first learned a little about you and a little about what you’re doing. For anyone listening who may not be familiar with it, can you just briefly tell us a little bit what Cog-Dog Radio is and kind of how you have it set up?
Sarah: Yeah. So I really started getting out there through my blog, which is at the cognitivecanine.com and I wanted to cover specific cases that I have worked on. I thought that was a good idea for material basically, and I tried to write them as blogs and they really weren’t working out, and a friend of mine suggested that I try a podcast and so that’s how Cog-Dog Radio was born and so it’s my podcast. You can find it on SoundCloud or iTunes just by searching for Cog-Dog Radio. You can also get it through my website.
The format is that I do a series of three episodes at a time, and the three episodes cover a case that I worked on. So I start out talking about kind of the basics of the case and then in the next episode I talk about specific behavior modification that happened in the case and then the third episode, which is turning out to be everybody’s favorite episode is that I interview the owner of the dogs that we’re talking about.
Melissa: Now I know, kind of to tie this back to the previous question, which is why I wanted to make sure we talked about this first. In one of your early podcasts, you talked about like the four things that you consider before creating a program or a behavior modification process for a dog. Exercise, enrichment, diet, and communication. Did I get all of them that time?
Sarah: You got them. So this is what I call the four steps to behavioral wellness and this is something that I came up with a long time ago when I was working primarily actually with the general public with their dogs so general public versus the dog sport public, which is more who I work with now, and it’s basically just these four areas.
If you come back to my philosophy in dog training, one of them was to provide dogs what they need, and since we examined these four areas, we find out where we maybe aren’t giving them what they need and that way we can adjust it. So exercise is the first one that you mentioned and I really advocate a specific type of exercise for dogs. I find that them being allowed to just mill around and sniff around and be a dog in an open space type area is best so off-leash or on a long line and a harness if off-leash is not safe where you are.
I find it really best for them as far as reducing overall anxiety and stress in their life versus the exercise that most dogs get, if they get any, it’s fetching a ball or a Frisbee. Going to agility class, a lot of people tell me that they see that as a form of exercise for their dogs, and I would totally disagree, or just walking on a short leash around the neighborhood. A lot of times that even does the opposite of what we would like it to do. It creates more stress for the dog so exercise is a big one for me. I find that most dogs aren’t getting enough and I would include my own dogs in that statement. I mean, it is very difficult to get them what I would call enough, right?
And so the next one is enrichment, which is basically just that we’ve got a hunter/scavenger species on our hands here, and we put kibble in a bowl and hand it to them twice a day and we could be using those calories in a way smarter way. We could be having them work to find their food essentially, so giving them projects that they can do that help them meet their own needs somehow as opposed to a lot of people recommend giving all the food through training and there’ve definitely been situations where I’ve recommended that, but usually I think if they also are allowed to search and find food as their way of getting food as well as not all dogs are super-hot on food and we’ll use toys and hide toys and have them find it.
Just any kind of mental enrichment that we can give them that helps them meet a need of theirs on their own without human interaction tends to be really helpful and the people that I work with learn a lot about their dogs through these things. If you hide food and give your dog a puzzle to figure out, the way that they figure out how to get to the food or if they figure it out at all tells us a lot about them.
So if you, for instance, wrap a bully stick up in a paper bag and then stick the paper bag in a box and then put the box underneath a blanket, there are going to be dogs that are not even going to try to figure it out. There are going to be dogs that are going to plough through it really, really quickly and really frantically.
There are going to be dogs that think really hard but wind up getting there and basically learn a lot about what kind of problem solver your dog is and what kind of thinker they are just by giving them problems to solve. And then over time if you don’t give them things that are too hard, but you give them things that are kind of just hard enough, they start to be this dog that says I can solve problems and their confidence in training gets better and their confidence in other situations, maybe competition, gets better because, and this is purely anecdotal, I don’t think there’s any research on this, but what I witnessed is that over time they start to have more self-confidence because we’ve provided them with puzzles to solve.
Then diet is something that I am not specifically trained in and technically cannot advise specifically on. I get a lot of emails asking for specific diet recommendations and formulas and I always tell people that I can’t give them that. What I can tell you is that what I observe anecdotally is that a fresh food diet is best when we’re talking about behavior and I think all of us know that already when we think about ourselves, whether it’s a better idea to have a meal made of fresh whole food or a pre-processed powder, I think we all know which is better for us.
We just forget what’s better for dogs because there are so many processed options for dogs that are supposedly healthy and good for them, and I’ve just seen too many of my cases where the behavior change that we really, really needed happened after the diet change. I have to mention it, and I really do think that even if you switched from one processed food to maybe a better one that works better for your dogs, diet should always be considered, especially when anxiety or over-arousal are involved.
Then the final one, communication, I just want people to better tell their dogs when they’re right and to have a better system for telling their dogs when they’re “wrong.” But basically we need to be telling them when they’re right more often. And I really like Kathy Sdao has a system for this that she calls SMART x50, and SMART stands for See, Mark, and Reward Training and then x50 is just that your goal is to do it 50 times a day. And all that means is you see the dog doing something right, you tell them, hey, that was right, I liked that and then you give them a piece of food or a game or something.
So that’s how you can reinforce behavior throughout the day that’s working for you and then I have people do something so instead of corrections I want them to instruct, so we are going to replace correction with instruction and then always follow up that instruction with reinforcement. So if my dog is let’s say barking at the front window and I ask her to go lie on the mat instead and then I give her a cookie for doing that, that’s a more effective way for me to alter her behavior than to spray her with water or throw something at her or yell at her for barking. So those are my four areas.
Melissa: And I’m assuming those didn’t sort of immediately pop into your brain all together fully formed. How did you come to that?
Sarah: That’s a good question, and to be honest I came to them through my own kind of journey with mental health. So I have an anxiety disorder and that really, even though it’s not fun for me, it helps me to really help dogs better. There’s some really great research in the human world as far as anxiety disorders go and other mood disorders go as far as what we can do in our daily lives to help lessen our needs for medications.
One of them is exercise. You’re not going to find a single resource on any mood disorder, whether it’s depression, anxiety, or anything else that won’t tell you exercise will help. For me personally I know that getting out and walking up a dirt path with a forest and trees and animals and everything is better for my brain than getting on a treadmill, and I see the treadmill as like us walking our dog around on concrete in the neighborhood. So that’s the exercise piece.
The enrichment piece is just you have to feel that’s being satisfied in your daily life so that’s liking your job, finding your job interesting, not being bored, that’s the enrichment piece for people. Being involved in hobbies so not just sitting and watching a television but reading a book or writing or something like that. These adult coloring books. There’s a craze right now, adult coloring books and it’s because of enrichment. It’s because we all need a little bit more of it in our lives.
We need to unplug and do something with our brains and our hands and that’s exactly what we’re doing with dogs when we give them a puzzle to figure out. And then diet’s a huge component. It’s a huge component for me, and I know it’s a huge component for everybody that I’ve talked to that has any kind of mental health concern but if they really examine what they’re eating and really adjust what they’re eating towards a whole food-type of diet, they get better and then communication for me that is mostly about dogs.
That stems from my belief that I’ve kind of formulated over all this time working with dogs, that there is nothing that a dog finds more aversive than confusion and there is nothing that they will work harder to avoid than confusion, meaning that’s why you have so many trainers who are still using x, y, z aversive tool, prong collar, choke collar, or shock collar, whatever, who say but look at my dog and look how happy they are working, and a lot of those people are right.
The dogs do it great. The dogs look fine, and the reason is they’re skilled using that tool and the dog is not confused. The dog fully understands how to avoid the correction and they’re not confused. To be clear, I’m not advocating for that, but I believe that their priority one is to better understand what’s going on in their own lives and that we throw them into kind of an alien existence and expect them to just figure it out and I do believe that it causes a lot of stress for them so that’s where that one comes from.
Melissa: Well, I mean that’s true with people too. If you have a boss and you just don’t understand what he or she wants from you and you just don’t understand how to succeed at your job, you get frustrated and upset and unhappy.
Sarah: Absolutely. Any kind of human-to-human relationship that does not have communication will not work for very long.
Melissa: Right. Right. So to round things out, I have three more short questions that I’m trying to ask kind of towards the end of each of the interviews. So the first one, what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?
Sarah: I have to think pretty hard about this one because I feel like every time my dogs do have some minor breakthrough, I’m really proud of it, but this last year at AKC Nationals Idgie and I made the Challengers round and if you’re familiar with AKC Nationals, the Challengers round is not easy to get into.
Just making the Challengers round that’s not what I consider the proudest moment for me, but the fact that Idgie who’s a dog that used to really struggle with arousal issues in agility was able to not only have a clean round and run really nicely but really fully be the dog that I have been training in the most intense pressure-cooker type of arena that she’s ever been in.
Just standing in the dirt in the Challengers round in the main arena with the crowd cheering and a lot of really intense competitors around us and to be able to just stand there ringside with her and know that she was okay and know that I was okay and we could both walk into that ring and we could both do what we know how to do, I would say that’s my proudest moment in dogs so far.
Melissa: I mean that’s a pretty good proudest moment. My next question is what is the best piece of training advice that you have ever heard?
Sarah: I’m not even sure if this is advice but just kind of, I guess it is advice, and it’s not from a specific person but it’s kind of a collective idea that is a common thread amongst some of my biggest influences in training, which is that if something that you’re doing is species-specific, meaning it would only work for the species in front of you, there’s probably a smarter way to do it.
Melissa: I like that. So my final question to wrap everything up is who else is someone in the dog world that you look up to?
Sarah: I look up to so many people in the dog world and a lot of people really in the training world, but a person who’s a competitor in dog agility who I really look up to is my friend Tori Self, and she lives in Wales now, but she has been on the FCI Agility World Team multiple times with a lot of success and she’s a person that to me is able to achieve the highest level types of achievement in my favorite sport and still maintain this really deep, loving connection for her dog that she would do anything for.
For her it’s always been about the dog first and the sport second and yet she’s still able to achieve these really high-level things, and for me that’s the ultimate because I know a lot of competitors really it is about the sport first and the dog second whether they would admit that in words or not, that’s what I observe in their behavior, and that’s never been the case with Tori and I really respect her for that.
Melissa: That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much. I really, really appreciate you taking some time out to chat through this with me. Hopefully it was fun for you. It was definitely fun for me.
Sarah: Definitely. Thanks, Melissa.
Melissa: Thanks for tuning in. We’ll be back in two weeks with Hannah Branigan to talk about the relationship of foundation skills and problem solving. If you haven’t already, subscribe now on iTunes or the podcast app of your choice and our next episode will automatically download to your phone as soon as it becomes available.
Today’s show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang and transcription written by CLK Transcription Services.
Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!