Loretta Mueller has been involved in agility since 2003. Loretta and her dogs are no strangers to the finals at the USDAA World Championships and she currently coaches the World Agility Organization USA Agility Team.
She also runs FullTilt Agility Training in central Minnesota. Outside of the agility world, Loretta has been involved in herding, competitive obedience, rally and service dog training.
To be released 3/3/2017, featuring Nancy Gagliardi Little.
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 Loretta Mueller. Loretta has been involved in agility since 2003. Loretta and her dogs are no strangers to the finals at the USDAA World Championships and she currently coaches the World Agility Organization USA Agility Team. She also runs FullTilt Agility Training in central Minnesota. Outside of the agility world, Loretta has been involved in herding, competitive obedience, rally and service dog training. Welcome to the podcast, Loretta.
Loretta Mueller: Thanks for having me Melissa, I’m excited to be here.
Melissa Breau: Excited to be talking to you. So, to get us started out, can you just tell us a little bit about the dogs you have now and kind of what you’re working on?
Loretta Mueller: Sure, yeah. I have six dogs. Their names are Clink, Gator, Lynn, Even, Crackers and Gig and I train all of them in agility. I also work the dogs on sheep, except for the terrier.
Melissa Breau: And Crackers is your terrier, right?
Loretta Mueller: Yes, correct.
Melissa Breau: Okay. So how did you get into competitive dog sports and training?
Loretta Mueller: It all started out with my first dog, Ace. He was a rescue from a no-kill shelter and he had a lot of fear issues. On top of fear issues, he also had separation anxiety and an excessive amount of energy, so I started taking some dog obedience classes with him to see if that would help with some of his behavior issues, and it did of course. After obedience, I discovered agility and pretty much never looked back. I still do obedience and I still train it a lot, but agility is my passion for sure.
Melissa Breau: So in your bio on the Fenzi website, it says that you believe there’s never a one size fits all method in training. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Loretta Mueller: Sure, yeah. I never just go into a lesson or a seminar thinking today we’re going to learn about “insert topic here.” I go with a general plan, but I let the dog dictate what we work on. I’m about the entire picture. So, to try to teach each dog and each handler in the exact same way doesn’t make sense to me. There’s always adjustments, sometimes to the point of trying something totally different so the team gets it. I really want to teach people to read their dogs to try to put themselves in their dog’s place as much as they possibly can. There’s always a reason the dog does something, and I feel it’s our job to know why they’re doing it, or at least to help them find the correct path. And you can’t know why if you don’t observe.
Melissa Breau: Do you have any examples where that’s kind of happened recently that you can give us or kind of talk us through?
Loretta Mueller: Yeah. Just recently at a seminar I actually had a woman that was having some major issues with start line stays. The dog was breaking in trials. The dog was breaking in training and she was really frustrated because, of course, the normal does everything perfect at home, and so she came in to the seminar wanting that help, and what happened was it turned into a, what is your dog’s emotional state, and are they stressed, and in this situation, the dog was definitely stressed. And so, we had to adjust all the training that she had planned for the day to work on the dog’s emotional state and then by the end of the day the dog’s emotional state was awesome and magically the dog was able to do a start line stay with no issues whatsoever. So, I think it’s just about seeing what dog comes into the ring and you have to figure out what the main issue is and then go from there and I make sure I do that with each and every team so if you go to a seminar with me, you’re going to see me do a ton of different techniques and a ton of different things for dogs. Each dog’s going to be a tiny bit different or majorly different, depending on the dog.
Melissa Breau: Do you kind of see that as a philosophy of how you teach and train?
Loretta Mueller: For sure. Yes, definitely. It’s all about the dogs in my opinion and I think that if I can get a person to understand that and to learn how to communicate with their dog, that’s the number one thing I’m there to do. Once that happens, everything falls into place.
Melissa Breau: So, how did that kind of come about? Like, how did you reach that conclusion that that’s really how you wanted to teach and train?
Loretta Mueller: I think, you know I used to do research, and so my years in research taught me that there are always things you’re looking for, obviously, or expect to happen, and people are really good at that, right? They know to expect this and they know to expect that, and usually that’s not the issue. It’s normally those small moments that missing a tiny change in behavior or not taking into consideration the dog’s emotional state that can really get you into trouble. I’ve never met a dog that was bad. I’ve only met dogs that were trying desperately to communicate with their owners. Sometimes their form of communication isn’t what we want, so it’s up to us to learn how to communicate with our dogs. It’s hard I think for us to get into that mindset sometimes that we have to make all the changes so that the dog understands. Can dogs change? Of course they can, but they are going to communicate with us in the only way they know how, and so for us, we have to learn their language and I think once that happens it’s amazing how obvious everything turns out to be.
Melissa Breau: So I was doing some googling and looking up stuff and doing my research before we got on the phone, and I came across a review from one of your seminars where a student was singing your praises and she mentioned that you’ve a quality that’s really hard to find in a trainer. She said that you were “able to work with fast dogs, motivate slow dogs, build confidence in the shy and calm the crazy.” She said that you were “equally good at handling both experienced and inexperienced trainers.” What do you think, I mean we’ve been talking a little bit about the idea of adapting to the dog, but especially that piece in there about both experienced and inexperienced trainers. What do you feel that you do differently that’s allowed you to be so successful with a wide variety of dogs and handlers?
Loretta Mueller: I think I try to not get myself so much into rules but more about guidelines. I always tell people I would be that dog that everyone doesn’t want. So, I’m that environmentally sensitive dog who can stress up or down. I personally am the type of dog that if the leader doesn’t know what they’re doing that’s going to stress me out, so, if a person’s learning a front cross, things like that, people make mistakes. I only have a limited number of reps and in my opinion, what’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. I can be very food motivated, not always toy motivated and I can be very oppositional, so if I feel I am being forced into something, anything basically, I’ll put the brakes on instantly. And if you start to get frustrated with me or I feel like you’re not being fair with me, I’m done. So, that’s how I train people too. I just think in terms of, I don’t want to put them over their head. I want to minimize any frustration and I want to give them a good experience as far as that goes.
When I’m teaching, and this is very, very important I think, is I don’t have expectations of a team when they come into the ring. I don’t assume that I know what the team is or what they need. I observe them for that moment in time that I’m with them and I show them the things that they need to work on or change. Again, it all starts with the dog and then goes to the human. I like to think of it as I’m observing a science experiment. I write down what the team needs in a totally non-emotional way and then I work to solve the problem. As I said before, I’m all about the dog, so people ask me all the time, how do you work with people who are not open to change, because I get that in seminars sometimes. And people are amazed, I guess that I can get people who are normally like, I don’t want to do this and I don’t want to do that, to change and to be honest with you, from my standpoint it’s very simple. They see the dog change and they change, and so I think that that’s a really important thing.
Another thing for me, is it’s just my experiences, so I’ve had so many experiences with all different types of dogs and teams and I need to make sure I thank the people that have really helped me with that and the big, big group of them was my very first set of private students, though I like to call them my island of misfit toys, and that’s actually a good thing. They were all people who were ready to give up agility and they came to me and asked me for lessons. The dogs were frustrated or had behavior issues. The people were frustrated and it just wasn’t fun for them. One of my examples is one of my dearest friends, she had a lab and the first lesson she put the dog on the start line and let out to cue jumps and said, okay, and the dog spent an hour chasing birds. So these students, they taught me so much, and their dogs taught me so much and I wouldn’t be here without them, you know. I’m still giving lessons to all of them 13 years later with their newer dogs and just seeing that type of evolution.
I’m all about what the dogs have to teach me. So, every dog I’ve had has taught me something. I’ve had the range of dogs. People always say, oh border collies are all the same, and you know, I’ve had one really good border collie that was a nice mix of high drive, but totally could control herself. She was great between training and trialing. She didn’t change. The rest of my dogs I’ve had a range, so some of them are scared. They were unmotivated. Some of them were over threshold, losing their brain, and each one of my dogs has also taught me so much in my opinion. They really are the best teachers. They’re super consistent and we can learn a lot from them if we just choose to listen.
Melissa Breau: So, kind of talking a little more about your dogs, and switching gears at the same time, I guess, Denise mentioned that you have, what she considered, a different approach to raising puppies, at least those first couple weeks and months after you bring them home. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Loretta Mueller: Yeah, I can. I thought she’d maybe do that. So, this doesn’t sell books or DVDs, but when I get a puppy home, I don’t normally do what everybody else does. I don’t instantly start training them. I observe. So, I’m sure you noticed that the word observation comes up a lot in this interview, but I observe my puppies, and yes, I do some playing, so like normally, with or without toys, and I get them out. But I do a lot of watching and I write down things, and what that allows me to do is, it allows me to get a baseline for this puppy so I know what the ins and outs of the puppy are. I believe with each training session you’re changing the dog and one must always realize that when they’re training, so I think it’s so important to know exactly what you have. What’s the base model so to speak? Are they timid? Are they bold? Do they problem solve well? Do they get frustrated easily? All those things come into play when I work on how I want to train that specific dog. And the only way you can get a totally sterile idea of what the puppy is, is just to observe them those first few weeks. It’s really quite fascinating and you’ll learn so much about your puppy. It’s not that you’re just letting them do whatever they want, but a lot of trick training and stuff like that, I just don’t do the first few weeks just so I can really get an idea of what kind of puppy I actually have.
Melissa Breau: Is there anything specific you look for in a puppy that you’re trying to validate or not validate, or what have you?
Loretta Mueller: You know, people always ask me if I want doers or thinkers, and personally I’m okay either way. It doesn’t really bother me. What I’m looking for usually in a puppy is I want to see that they’re taking on the world, they can be cautious if they want, but that they bounce back. I want to see a puppy that’s curious, but the one that just throws himself into situations, I don’t necessarily care about that positively or negatively. But I just want a puppy that’s going to bounce back from things. That’s to me the biggest thing because the bottom line is, for me in competitive sports, you can have the most amazingly structured dog and the dog can move just perfect, but if they can’t handle noise, if they can’t handle flags flapping in the wind, people behind them, things like that, it doesn’t matter how well they move. All that matters is that they can’t compete if they’re like that or they’re going to be a challenge to compete.
So, that’s really what I’m looking for and if I get a puppy that’s not quite how I want it, the nice thing is I can get a good sense for where they’re at and then from there I can design some training whether I’m building confidence or building some control into the training and things like that. So, it’s a really good place to start and get a great idea before you start training something you may or may not have wanted in a dog.
Melissa Breau: So after this first couple of weeks of observing their behavior and kind of getting to know them, do you mind just telling us a little bit about how you approach this first steps of building a relationship and socialization and what training you do do with a young dog or a puppy?
Loretta Mueller: Sure, yeah. If you would compare how I used to train versus how I’m training now, it’s really changed a lot. I could say with each dog I’ve gotten, it’s taught me so much about this. I guess for me it’s all about in the beginning just being there which I know probably sounds kind of weird. But just the act of being with the puppy is so much more important than teaching tricks. Now, I have no problem with teaching tricks. I love teaching tricks. I’m going to usually start with basic tricks like wave and things like that. I think it’s a great way to get your dog’s brain worked and teaching them to be resilient and keep trying, but honestly it cannot be a replacement for just being with your dog.
But I’m going to work on…you know I have a dog with a lot of motion sensitivity. Obviously, they’re all herding bred border collies, and so I’m going to work on a lot of motion desensitization as far as look at me games and getting them to redirect automatically, and that’s the first thing I teach all of my puppies is, they see something they want, they immediately look to me. And that’s the foundation obviously for recalls and it’s the foundation for attention and things like that, and I’m going to be working on that the entire time they’re growing up because it’s really important that my dogs don’t look at a jogger and say, ‘oh, great. Taking off now, thank you very much.’ I don’t want that, and so that’s going to be a big one. But as far as tricks, whatever you want to teach your dog. If you’re playing with your dog, I’m happy. But for me, a lot of times what I see with my students, is they have a working relationship, which is great. That’s what you want to build, but sometimes I see some of it lacking in the actual just relationship of being with a puppy.
A good example of this is my youngest border collie, Gig. She’s two now, but when she was six months old, she tore a muscle in her shoulder after a freak accident where her leg got caught in a metal crate, and I had nothing to do with her. Yeah, it was tough you know. A six-month-old very high drive border collie puppy and I didn’t have much I could do with her. If you’re familiar with shoulders, they’re just really a pain in the rear end to have to rehab, and the only things I really had that I could do with her was, I could be in an ex pen with her and just kind of sit with her, pet her. I could nap with her… which, she didn’t sleep much, and I could do some little tiny playing, like I call it bitey face. You know, where the puppy kind of bites at your hand type of thing, and that was it. I couldn’t teach her anything, and it kind of broke my heart when this happened, obviously because it happened, but also because this puppy was by far my most independent dog that I’ve ever raised. She was an eight-week-old puppy and she would just run away. So when I put her down, I’m thinking eight-week-old puppies they come with me, yay, right? Nope, gone. See ya. Bye-bye.
And so I spent months going, this is going to be horrible when I get this puppy out of an ex pen, when I can put her on a leash and take her for leash walks, because all I had was just the act of being with her. That’s it, and without tricks and training could we bond, and the bottom line is, yeah. She’s the most bonded dog I have, and so just being there in the moment with puppies, no expectations, I think is key to having great relationship and building a foundation for all the tricks, training and things like that that you want to do. Socialization is also key, right, but then again, I’m just there. I don’t force the dogs to interact with the environment. It’s just kind of one of those, here you go puppy, we’re at the park. What do you think? Take them. Let them take it all in. No expectations, and you know when I’m doing training, as far as the actual skill sets, like I mentioned before, there are doers and there are thinkers.
The doers just like to go, and then the thinkers are always trying to analyze stuff, and I like to take my training and make the doers more into thinkers and vice versa. I do a lot of drive training with my dogs and what that does is for the dogs that are thinkers it makes them more into a doer and they grab at the toy and I say kind of go a little feral for a while and get that drive up, and then the doers have to put a little bit more control, control their drive and I think that that works great with all of them. And everything’s going to be tailored using that information that I gathered in the first few weeks of having that puppy. I know what I have. I can start my training program adjusted for each puppy. Of course I have general guidelines, so dogs all need to start line sync, but how I get to that finished product isn’t the same for each dog, and then also when they’re young, I’m not much of a record keeper. I kind of have tendency to not do that, because if I put things down in a record, what happens is my type A personality says, okay, in this session you must do dumbbell retrieves. But the problem is, sometimes the dog changes the program and you have to adjust.
So, I tend to not write down plans for stuff, but I will, for my young dogs and I do have a book for each one of my dogs the first two years of their life, I reevaluate my dog each month. So, I treat it just as if I was evaluating a new student’s dog. So, dogs change constantly and they should, because you’re training them, and so I want to make sure that, for example, the timid dog that I had at eight weeks has not gotten more timid, or I need to definitely change something. And if I had a high drive dog, let’s say that I put too much control on, so the dog won’t do anything on its own, then I will adjust my training to get them to party a bit more, and it’s all about that balancing act. Dog training’s definitely an art in many situations and so it’s nice to be able to look back and then be able to somewhat predict or change things to make sure I’m progressing in a way that takes me where I want the dogs to go.
Melissa Breau: Now when you say you evaluate them each month, do you have a specific way that you do that? Or do you just kind of reflect on what you’ve done or reflect on how they’ve been the last couple of training sessions, or what’s your process there? Because that’s really interesting.
Loretta Mueller: Yeah, so what I do is I kind of go through a series of little situations. So for example, I’m going to write down the dog’s weaknesses, and what I do when I’m doing this, is I don’t read the previous month, because I believe that it kind of will make you change things. So, I just say, what is the dog I have right now today? If a student brought this dog in, what would I say about it? So, what are the dog’s weaknesses, whether it’s a skill set or something like that? What are the dog’s strengths? What do they know? What do they not know? And resiliency. So, does the dog bounce back? Does it care if there’s a mistake made? Things like that. I work pressure work with my dogs so people behind my dogs to prepare them for trialing, and I always take note of how the dog’s handling it. Do they care about the pressure this month? Do they not? At what point does that bubble happen where the person invades their pressure and they don’t like it? Things like that.
So, I’m looking at those skills. Delay of reward. Are the dogs able to work through that as far as you not having any treats or toys on you, because that’s something you definitely have to work on before you start trialing, and things like that. So, I’m looking at individual skill sets, but also just the overall picture of, is the dog in drive? Are they staying in drive? Are they emotionally happy, and are they resilient and bouncing back? And if I see anything that doesn’t make sense or when I look back the previous month, that I noticed that they did something where they kind of backslid a little bit, then I’m going to adjust things.
I just started working on that actually with my young dog, Gig, who has suddenly started, when the weave poles are in situation, she will, instead of going to the weave pole, she will come back and try to redirect to me and usually it’s my sweatshirt, which is not an appropriate behavior and she wasn’t doing it a month ago, and now she’s doing it now. And so, I’m in the process of saying, okay that’s a big change. I have to figure out how to make that better and for her, it was just mainly an over threshold thing. So, we’re working on different levels of threshold and she’s getting it. So next month, I’m probably going to have another thing, right, because dog’s just continuously change things, and that’s a big thing I always think of in terms of, is instinctive drift, right?
We’re always training against instinctive drift, so weave poles. Dog’s don’t weave stuff in nature, ever, and weave poles break. Stopped contacts break. Why? Dog’s don’t run down hills and slam into a sit or a down. They just don’t do it, and so usually those are the things that are going to break. Those are the things that are going to show up most often in those journals, is okay, the weaves are bad this week or the A-frame contact was bad, and normally it’s not necessarily jumping or handling or tunnels. Usually tunnels don’t break, but it’s just those behaviors that the dogs really have to go against what they instinctively know and do naturally that have a tendency to kind of break down and so you’re going to see those. But if I see an emotional thing in looking through stuff, what I’m going to immediately do, is I’m going to say, okay there’s an emotional aspect to all of this. Everything else stops, and I must deal with that.
And so it’s just, those are things I’ve encountered and it’s just really good. Because I think a lot of people…you know I see people that come to seminars and they say, my dog is a bar knocker or my dog is stressy, and a lot of times I’ll end up asking them, well the dog I see is not stressy, so when was this dog stressy? And you know when they actually…you’ll see them kind of sit and think, and they’ll go well, like when he was six months old he was stressy. Okay, well he’s changed since then, right? And so it’s a nice way for us as trainers to be able to let go of stuff, because we have a tendency of holding on to things way longer than the dogs do, and the dogs are just like, you know, I know I was sensitive six months ago. But I’m not now. I’m good. I’m cool. And so then you can train that dog, which could be a totally different dog.
I look at my dog Lynn. As a young dog, she was an analytical…she reminded me of Sheldon off Big Bang Theory. Super analytical, super thinky, didn’t like to try a lot, it was tough. She was sensitive, and now whenever anything goes wrong, very vocal and it is completely my fault. All of it, and I like that. I want a dog to respond to me and say, you know what, you caused all of this. Especially a dog like her who was the type that would just lay down and go, I’m not going to do anything I’m just going to lay here because I don’t know what’s going to happen. And so you know, she’s not at all the same dog, and so it’s just neat to go back and be able to see that, and then the nice thing about having all those journals is, you get another puppy and you can compare and say, okay, so my Clink dog who had over threshold issues, is growing up a lot like my current young dog, Gig, who also has over threshold issues, and I can actually take those two journals and compare them and I see a ton of similarities. So, it’s a nice way to predict a lot of times what you’re going to have and then you can kind of copy some training along with it.
Melissa Breau: And it gives you a sense of whether what you’re doing works or doesn’t work and…
Loretta Mueller: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. Normally I tell people if you’re going to try something different with a method or whatever, give it two weeks. See what you have. See what’s happening. If you have some little steps forward, that’s great. Don’t expect something huge. If you get something huge, awesome, but if you notice steps back then it’s time to reevaluate and to say, okay, this isn’t working and most of the time we get so stuck in patterns of working on usually our strengths, because we want to make ourselves feel better, that we have a tendency to lose some of that stuff and so this just kind of keeps you on track and keeps you honest about what you really should be working on with the dogs.
Melissa Breau: And you mentioned, and I just think this is important so I want to emphasize it, kind of the idea that sometimes we get stuck on labels for our dogs that no longer apply to them, and so we continue training a dog that’s no longer the dog in front of us. I just think that’s so poignant and crucial for people to understand that they need to actually look at their dog for who they are today and not be judging the dog they had six months or a year ago or when they were six months old.
Loretta Mueller: Exactly, and it’s hard for us, because we get wrapped up in this emotionally and we have such a great emotional connection with these dogs that we just, yeah, we get stuck sometimes. I’d be the first person to say that I’ve gotten stuck on a couple dogs and it just…it’s hard for us to let go of it. Meanwhile, the dogs are changing, but at the same time they’re getting treated the same. If you think about when you were five years old versus now, you’re definitely not even remotely the same person you were probably at five and you had a foundation temperament, but in general you’ve changed a lot and so I think it’s just really important, because that’s what I see a lot of. When I do just problem solving seminars or stress seminars, especially, I see people that come in and they are already stressed about something that hasn’t happened yet, and then of course that feeds down to the dogs and then that makes them stressed.
I think that dogs in general, they’re either affected by their environment or they’re not, and so if the person’s stressed and the dog is the type that gets affected by the environment, then you’re going to have a dog that’s going to react differently. And if you can just stop and say, you know what, your dog is not this stressy dog anymore. It’s amazing when you change the person how much different the dog changes and it’s very cool to see the dog go, ah, okay. This is good, and then the confidence comes out, and I’ve had my share of not confident dogs. I’ve had my share of scared dogs.
My ten-year-old dog, Gator, who’s been to finals many, many times, doesn’t like people, and doesn’t like cameras and that’s what happens in the finals and he runs and he’s a good boy and life is good, but that’s due to training and due to trust and the fact of the matter is, now that he’s ten, he doesn’t care about anything. But as a young dog, when he was 18 months old, he cared about everything and all things were horrible and children were bad and now, he’ll play tennis if someone wants to hit a tennis ball or whatever, he’ll play with a kid. He doesn’t care, and so it was up to me to say, okay, Gator, you know what? He’s just pretty normal now, and so it’s easy to get stuck there and so it’s just that book…like I said I only do it the first two years. In reality, I probably should do it a lot more and a lot longer, but it just gives you the ability to say, for most people, wow, you know. We’ve really come a long way, and I think that’s really important for people to be able to see that.
Melissa Breau: Yeah. I feel like that’s definitely a lesson I’ve been gradually absorbing. My shepherd can sometimes get awful environmentally sensitive and barky and all that other stuff and we’ve done a lot of work on it and she’s come a long way and it took me a while to actually realize how far she’d come and realize I didn’t have to be quite so nervous all the time.
Loretta Mueller: Exactly, yeah.
Melissa Breau: I wanted to kind of round things out by saying three final short questions that I’ve asked everybody so far that’s come on the podcast. So the first one is what dog related accomplishment are you proudest of?
Loretta Mueller: Wow. There’s so many. I have a lot of moments with my dogs and my student’s dogs. It’s really hard to pick sometimes. I would say probably getting a silver medal at the USDAA Cynosports World Championships with Clink. She’s my 11-year-old. She was the dog that at six months I was told would not make a good agility dog because she was so over threshold. She screamed every single moment on course. Every photo I have her mouth is wide open, slobber everywhere, and she was the dog that I would have called the bar knocker. And you know, I have a story about Clink that I always tell people, especially when they’re struggling, and it was during one of my runs at a regional after I was a little frustrated with her because she’d been knocking a lot of bars. I bent down, right before the run, and I kissed her on the forehead, which I didn’t normally do, and I felt her whole body relax, and she went on and ran and got a silver medal, and I realized at that moment that she was not a bar knocker. She was a dog that was really anxious and really, really wanted to please me, and as long as she knew that she was fine. And so overnight at a regional my entire thought process changed about her and I went from thinking she was a tough dog and a dog that didn’t always listen, to a dog that just really kind of had a Dennis the Menace, right? I’ll fix it, I’ll fix it, and do it faster and I learned a lot from her. So, for her to be able to get on the podium at the World Championships USDAA and get a silver medal was just, to me, an amazing thing, because I already knew she was awesome. But then the whole world got to see just how cool she was, and so for her that was huge and for me as a trainer and then also just as my relationship with her for sure.
Melissa Breau: That’s an awesome story. I like that.
Loretta Mueller: Thank you.
Melissa Breau: So, our second to the end, I guess, question. Is what is the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?
Loretta Mueller: I’ve gotten to work with so many amazing people in obedience and herding and agility, and I guess, I don’t know what everybody else has said, but to me, one of my most cherished and amazing statements that I’ve heard was from Ray Hunt, who was a horse trainer and he said, you must realize the slightest change and the smallest try, and so meaning, reward the effort. Acknowledge that the animal is trying and if you choose to recognize that smallest try or slightest change, that’s what makes or breaks your training. And if you don’t notice that small change in the dogs, then they do one of two things. They either give up, or they get harder, and they say, you know what? I tried. You didn’t acknowledge it, therefore, meh, I’m good. And for me, if you ever owned a dog like that, they do that. They just go, eh whatever. I’m going to keep doing my thing.
And so for me it was huge, because we get so stuck in a world of criteria, right? Criteria, criteria. Did they meet criteria? When in reality, when you think about it, it doesn’t matter how much training your dog has. It doesn’t matter if their weave poles are spotless, right? It doesn’t matter any of that stuff. If your dog is in the wrong emotional state, that training will never show. So, what they’re doing, is a lot of the dogs, they are trying so hard, but then they don’t get rewarded and then that causes a lot of issues. So, that’s why I always have kind of a graduated reward system that I do with my dogs. So, I’ll use either lower value, higher value treats. To differentiate, I’ll choose the way I play with the dog, and that way these dogs always get rewarded for that effort and I acknowledge those small changes in their behavior and I don’t ask for too much too soon and I think that that keeps the dogs confident, it keeps them feeling like they’re a champion, because that’s very important if you want a dog to be confident and feel like they can conquer the world, you have to tell them that they can conquer the world.
So, if they give you the smallest change, then you reward it and you have a dog that’s going to try even harder the next time, and so for me that totally changed a lot of my training. Because before, an example would be if my dog didn’t do six weave poles and let’s say they were in a novice trial and they were baby dogs. I would be frustrated. And if they continuously did it, before I got this little nugget of information, I would go home and say okay my dog has a weave pole issue and I’m going to go train the weave. But in reality, is it a weave pole issue, or is it the fact that the dog’s not emotionally right? Most likely it’s because the dog’s not emotionally right. So you actually have to deal with that. So what does that involve? It might involve the dog doing three weave poles and you clapping and having a party and leaving. But that’s not to criteria. And so for me, it was just a huge eye opener that the dogs know how to do these skills. It’s just we have to have them in the right emotional state so they can actually perform the behaviors that they’ve been taught. And that’s just to me a cornerstone of what I think of when I’m training. So, it’s just been huge for me to have that statement and understand that and apply it to all of my training.
Melissa Breau: I think that’s one of my favorite questions in the whole podcast because we always get such great responses. Totally different and fantastic, so thank you for that.
Loretta Mueller: Cool. Yeah.
Melissa Breau: And the last one is, who is someone else in the dog world that you look up to?
Loretta Mueller: Again, I’ve had chances to work with so many people and I’m probably going to go outside of the box here, but for me it’s going to be in the herding world. My mentor has been Kathy Knox, who’s a border collie enthusiast and herding and sheep trials. She’s the first person to really get into my head that there’s always a reason the dog does something, and I think that’s really important to understand, because we have a tendency to say, well they didn’t do this and they didn’t do that. But in reality, we should say, what are they doing? Because they’re obviously doing something that you don’t want them to do, so we have a focus on that and so there’s always a reason they’re doing stuff and for me, before I met Kathy, it was just like, do the thing that I tell you to do, right?
And then it changed from there, and a lot of my students, I always tell them, if you can go to a natural clinician in the herding world, so somebody that just uses the dog and just uses the sheep, so no harnesses or ropes or anything like that, they are the most, in my opinion, talented clicker trainers you will ever witness. Their timing is amazing. They understand exactly how and when to reward and their placement of reward, it’s not based on where they can put it, right? You can’t just tell the sheep go over here to point B. They have to know at that exact moment when the sheep are right and what to do instantly to help the dog, or to reward the dog. And so, I always think in terms of, can you imagine if your reward had a mind of its own. Like trying to train a terrier with a live squirrel would be an analogy that would be quite fitting.
And so, these people they have this amazing ability to teach these dogs using extremely high value reward that is instinctive that is bred into them and they can get these dogs to totally understand what behaviors they want and use that reward and their timing, and they’re just, a good clinician. They’re going to do just what I do when I go to a seminar. They’re going to look at the dog. They’re going to read the dog. They’re going to figure out what the dog needs, and again, you change the dog, you change the person, and it’s just an amazing thing and I think for me that’s where the passion comes into play. It’s just to see where…I always joke that it’s like the dogs are sitting there trying to decipher things because dogs in agility read motion first and then they read verbal second. So verbals are a second language to them, and so they hear human, human, human, human, dog. So a person suddenly does something that they go, oh my gosh, right? So, if you’ve ever watched a movie that’s been in a language you don’t know and all of a sudden they say one word that you do know, it’s like this sudden understanding. Wow. Oh, I get this. This is what you want.
And so for me, that’s the key is, I don’t want to present the dogs with questions as far as handling goes. I want to present them only with answers so they say, okay, I’ve got this. There’s no thinking required, and to me that’s an important part of it and you can’t present the dogs with answers in quite the best way possible if you don’t understand what language the dogs are speaking. So suddenly, you start speaking dog, and these dogs just go, oh my goodness, thank you. And I see it every single weekend I teach. The dogs just changing and then the people change. I have people come in that you can tell they’re ready to quit agility. You can tell that if this dog doesn’t do something that’s going to give them a little bit of hope, they’re going to quit. And people always say, don’t you get frustrated with that with people that are, you know? No, I don’t get frustrated with them and the reason why is they just, they’re at their wits end. They don’t know what else to do. They’re lost and they’ve tried everything. People have told them a big menagerie of what to do and none of it’s worked.
But a lot of times it’s because people tell you to do stuff based on what? Human. And I’m trying to convey to people, learn dog, and it’s so much easier. Everything becomes so much easier. Then these people do something, and usually it’s a minor thing, like don’t bend over, or make eye contact, or look at the right place, or use your hand this way, and you see the people who go into a situation and they’re very worried and frustrated and you can see all of it just melt away. And it’s just such a fascinating thing for me as an instructor to be able to help people on that level, and we’re not talking just backyard enthusiasts or weekend warriors. We’re talking world team people. It’s all the same. It’s these little things usually that cause the issues, and so for me, I’ve learned from herding clinicians and people like Kathy Knox and Ray Hunt that those little moments are the ones that really matter. Those are the moments where trust is built. Those are the moments that really open up that light for the dog to understand exactly what you want from them. And then, from there, all those little moments build up into a fully trained dog and so we have to concentrate on those tiny moments in time and we have to observe and pay attention so that we can get to where we want to go.
Melissa Breau: Gee, that makes me kind of want to go see a herding seminar.
Loretta Mueller: They’re pretty cool. I’m telling you, it’s pretty awesome.
Melissa Breau: All right. Well thank you so much for joining me Loretta and thank you to our audience for tuning in.
We’ll be back in two weeks with a retired obedience judge, Nancy Gagliardi Little to talk about dog sports from a judge’s perspective. If you haven’t already, subscribe now on iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically 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!
Shade Whitesel has been training and competing in dog sports since she was a kid.
Always interested in how dogs learned, she has successfully competed in Schutzhund, AKC obedience and French Ring.
What started out as an experiment, competing at the national level in IPO without the use of an e collar, has now turned into a firm commitment to positive training and the desire to teach other trainers and dogs how to be successful in bitesports with as little punishment as possible.
Her focus as a trainer is on clear communication with your dog -- as we discuss in the podcast, she believes this relieves frustration and improves the overall quality of the dog's work.
To be released 2/17/2017, featuring Loretta Mueller.
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 Shade Whitesel. Shade has been training and competing in dog sports since she was a kid. Always interested in how dogs learned, she has successfully competed in Schutzhund, AKC obedience and French Ring.
What started out as an experiment, competing at the national level in IPO without the use of an e collar, has now turned into a firm commitment to positive training and the desire to teach other trainers and dogs how to be successful in bitesports with as little punishment as possible. Hi, Shade. Welcome to the podcast.
Shade Whitesel: Hi, Melissa.
Melissa Breau: So, to start out can you tell me a little bit about the dogs you have now and what you’re working on with them?
Shade Whitesel: Sure. My youngest dog is Ones who is 4 years old and he just recently earned his Schutzhund 2 in December. I’m looking forward to getting his Schutzhund 3 this spring and then going on to compete nationally with him if it looks like we’re a good enough team.
Briefly, Schutzhund is kind of like a triathlon for dogs, based on police work. It requires tracking, where they have to follow a person’s track and indicate articles that the person’s dropped, and then an obedience portion, and then a protection portion. So, Ones attained pretty good scores in his one and his two, and I’m excited about his future career.
I tend to do AKC later in the dog’s career, since it’s easier on their bodies than bitesports. I also have Baileys, Ones’s sister, who was returned to me a year ago and we’ve start setting the foundation for AKC obedience, and she’s coming along.
She’s been teaching me a lot about working an older dog with established habits before I got them. So, kind of what to do with that and how to retrain.
And Reiki my old guy, he’s both Ones’s and Bailey’s dad, he’s 10 years old and I had really hoped to get him in the AKC utility ring. He’s got his CDX, but he’s getting older there so we’ll see. And he has numerous IPO 3’s. We competed nationally for four years, that kind of thing, and he did really well. So, that’s my current dogs.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. And they’re all German Shepherds, right?
Shade Whitesel: They are. I have only German Shepherds right now and I’ll add a couple of more breeds eventually, but right now because of Schutzhund, I need to do the bite work and so I’ve chosen the German Shepherd as my breed for that.
Melissa Breau: How did you get into competitive dog sports and training?
Shade Whitesel: Well, I always wanted a dog when I was a kid and I finally got a mixed breed dog. And at that time, your training classes were kind of like AKC obedience and she did really well in her training class, but I couldn’t compete with her because she was a mixed breed.
So, I always wanted to kind of compete and then when I got my first purebred dog I got interested in Schutzhund because it’s a breed test for the Shepherds. And I started really getting into it and getting titles on the dogs.
So, that kind of morphed into people asking me to give training lessons to them and once I put a Schutzhund 1 on a dog then I figured that I could at least start training other people. So, that’s kind of when it morphed into becoming a professional dog trainer.
Melissa Breau: I’ve heard you talk before a little bit about your positive training journey and kind of what got you started. But can you kind of share it for the audience?
Shade Whitesel: Yeah. In bite work sports and in Schutzhund training you’re normally dealing with pretty strong dogs physically and mentally, that really like to bite. So, they have lots of reinforcement history for biting, whether that is the ball or the tug, or the bad guy.
And there’s a culture correction in this sport when it comes to getting control. Because these dogs are really strong willed and eventually you have to get obedience around that high value reinforcer, there’s a lot of correction involved.
When I first started doing Schutzhund I definitely was no different than anyone else. I used a lot of correction with my dogs, but I really started breaking down the behaviors much more than anyone I knew at the time. Teaching them at lower arousal, breaking it down in much tinier steps... and then I realized that I could use the helper as a reward.
So, for instance, “Hey, dog heel two steps and then I’ll send you to the helper for a bite,” and then I really started questioning all the correction, because that worked so well. And so, I kind of started out as a trainer using a lot of correction and then figuring out, and gradually getting more positive as I went till what I am right now.
Melissa Breau: And I’ve seen some of your videos. I mean, you really truly manage to get that same precision and that beauty in the performance that I think most people are looking for. And I know from talking to you, you really do, do it completely positive so it’s really impressive.
Shade Whitesel: I think there’s this thing that sometimes...I remember in Schutzhund even when I used correction we always said we use the ball for reward, but we can’t get as precise behaviors when you do that and that was the argument against using a lot of motivation. And I always was like, “Well, I want both. I want the motivation, I want the strongness and then I want the preciseness.”
So, even when I was figuring out how to do it without correction I was like, “I don’t want to sacrifice anything. I still want really high quality behaviors,” and since Reiki took me to Nationals, now I’m not satisfied with anything other than as good as I can get. So, yeah, it’s been a journey. That’s a cliché thing, but it’s definitely been a journey to figure out how to do that.
Melissa: So, how would you describe your training philosophy now?
Shade Whitesel: Right now, I feel like I haven’t said no to any of my dogs for like four years. No. Seriously, I’m really currently most interested in what the dog is feeling about our training session and what their emotional state is.
That’s been my task. Ones has been definitely my teacher in that way, because I really need to know what his emotional state is in bite work. They’ll tell you way before the behavior skills breakdown. Either lost focus, stressing, whatever that looks like. So, that’s currently what I’m really into, trying to figure out how the dog feels and what that tells me of my training plan. And that kind of segues into creating the toy play as a reinforcement.
So many of us use toys with our dogs because we realize how joyful they can get with that and how excited. But we could get much more efficient training done if we created more of a significant reinforcement if we had some rules in there like bring the toy back. When they all of a sudden don’t drop the toy they’re not being belligerent, they’re pretty much telling us our rate of reinforcement wasn’t up as much as it should be in the training plan. Also, when we use toys to teach stuff it gives us ways to work through high arousal situations, like, we’re going to encounter in agility or bite work, or anything else a dog wants.
I mean really a high arousal situation for my dogs is going from the car to the beach. That’s a situation where they have to be on leash and it is none too fun if I can’t get them to walk calmly from point A to point B.
So, the toy play reinforcement gives us ways to work through that. I’d say that Ones is my most positively trained dog to date, since he’s my youngest and I bred him so I’ve known him since minute one. I feel like sometimes I’ve gotten so positive in my teaching that most cases where we use negative punishment I look at that and I’m like, “We could teach that without even that.” So, I feel like I’ve swung really far in a very positive way in my training, which is good.
Melissa Breau: And just in case anybody’s not familiar with the four quadrants. Negative punish is the removal of something the dog doesn’t like, right?
Shade Whitesel: Exactly. And we as positive trainers tend to use that when we don’t know what else to do or when we’re having a dog that’s doing behaviors we don’t like. That’s accepted for us to go there and it can be good. There’s still some fallout sometimes, but it can be a polishing technique.
Melissa Breau: So, I was super lucky. I got to shadow you at FDSA Training Camp last year. I have to say I definitely learned a ton following you around for a couple of days.
Shade Whitesel: And I appreciated your technical skills, because I don’t have any.
Melissa Breau: Well, it was a pleasure to get to follow you around. I feel like I learned so, so much. And some of my favorites were just listening to you talk about play and how you structure some of that. And just some of the takeaways that I got at camp definitely I brought them home and worked with my own dog differently, and it really has had an impact.
Shade Whitesel: Well, good. Yeah.
Melissa Breau: So, it included everything from play to location specific markers... kind of, you ran the gambit, I think, at camp last year and it seems like, or at least seems to me, that there’s a theme that kind of runs through all of your FDSA classes and all of the talks that I’ve heard you give — this idea of communicating as clearly as possible with your dogs. So, do you mind just sharing a little bit why you feel that’s so critical?
Shade Whitesel: No matter how you train, communicating as clearly as possible is so important, because 99.9 percent of our problems are due to the unclarity of our teaching.
And all of our problems with dogs — I mean it’s really our problem it’s not theirs — go away when you look at the clarity, or more accurately the ‘not clarity’ of your teaching.
When your communication is clear arousal levels go down, frustration from your learner dog goes down, and you get more confident and fluent behaviors from them. And this holds true over trialing, over living with them, over everything, just to be as clear as possible and predictable, that goes into predictability too. So, no matter what method you do that is just so important I think — obviously, since I talk about it.
Melissa Breau: So, I think one really good example of that is the work you’ve done with location specific markers. Do you mind just briefly kind of explaining what that means and kind of how you use them?
Shade Whitesel: You know, markers are such a good thing and people are exploring them, and figuring out that it’s really nice to bridge what behavior your dogs doing to get their reward. Tell the dog where to collect their reinforcement, like, technically I want a different marker that means collect it from my hands, whether that’s food or a toy and I want a different marker that means collect it away from there, whether it’s go pick-up the toy on the ground or whether I’m going to throw the toy, and again it’s just that clarity. And I notice with my own dogs if I had a different marker word for, “Strike the tug out of my hand,” versus, “I’m going to throw it,” the dog stopped mugging me, they stopped looking for where the toy was all the time when I was asking for behaviors. Because they knew that I would tell them exactly how to get their reinforcement. And again, it just goes back to the clarity.
So, location specific markers is just the dog knows exactly where to go and they don’t have to be checking where the toy is or the food — is the food in your pocket? Is it over there in the dish? Because you’re going to tell them so they can put 100 percent of their attention to figuring out what behavior you want them to do, because they can trust that you’re going to tell them where the reinforcement is.
Melissa Breau: I think a lot of trainers tend to rely really heavily on one or two training methods. So, somebody may lean really heavily on shaping, while somebody else tends to mostly lure behaviors or throw a ball, or whatever. I know that in the current session at FDSA, which will be current when this goes live, you’re going to be teaching a class to help handlers better use all of their tools. Do you mind just talking a little bit about what that class is, and what it’s about?
Shade Whitesel: Yeah. I think the more we know and feel comfortable about all the positive ways we can train our dogs the more effective we’re going to be as a teacher. And then, if we know how to lure and we know how to shape, and we know how to capture, we can then be more informed about what technique that we want to use to teach a certain behavior. I think we all could use a little more knowledge on how to get behaviors on cue. How to name it, how to get it on stimulus control, whether that behavior is lured or shaped and the one constant that I know I always struggle with is timing. Click, pause, treat.
And I see many students coming through the academy, who are great at one technique, but they’re kind of unsure of the other techniques and I’d like to help out with that. I’d like to teach that and help people figure out what effective technique they want to use to teach their dog a behavior.
Melissa Breau: Now, does the class have specific behaviors that you try and work on through the course of the class? Are the students going to pick their own behavior and use different techniques to accomplish it? Kind of how do you structure it?
Shade Whitesel: I’ll give a couple of examples of what they can do. They can use behaviors their dog already knows or they can pick new ones. But it’s really more about we can, for instance, ‘go to a bed’ behavior, we can lure that, we can shape that, we can capture that so it’s not so much about having behaviors already for your dog, but about explaining the different ways of getting there. It’s good if your dog has some behaviors already on cue; so they can be experienced dogs, where the handler just wants to learn more about it, or it can be a dog that’s brand new to stuff.
Melissa Breau: So, when you’re working with your own dogs how do you decide which technique to use? I assume you’re probably better with all of them than say me.
Shade Whitesel: Well, it’s a steep learning curve for everything.
Melissa Breau: But how do you decide whether you want to lure something or shape something, or capture something? Like, how do you pick which method to use when you’re teaching something?
Shade Whitesel: Well, I have to say when I first started training I was a big lurer and I came late to shaping. I really had no idea and my evolution in my last, I don’t know, six, seven years has been really getting better at shaping. I’d be the first to say I’m not the greatest at it, but I’m getting better. So, for my own dogs shaping and capturing shaped behaviors, like, the dog offering a completed shaped behavior that’s my preferred technique at this point.
If I can communicate to the dog effectively through shaping and then they can choose the behavior, I’ll always teach that way first. I think it creates stronger and then more confident and faster behaviors out of the dog.
But I can’t always figure out how to communicate via shaping. And so, if I can’t figure that out I’ll lure the behavior. I have no issue luring, but I’ll then always put it on what I call capturing. And so, even if it’s a lured behavior, I’ll eventually want to have the dog offer it and then it becomes a strong shaped behavior, so to speak.
Melissa Breau: So, to round things out. I have three more short questions that I’ve asked everyone so far at the tail end of the interview. So, first what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you are proudest of?
Shade Whitesel: That’s such a hard one because every single dog I have had there are accomplishments that I’m really proud of with the individual dog. So, I don’t think of it so much as what I’ve done, but more of what me and dog have done. [I Recently competed with Ones]. Schutzhund is tracking, obedience and protection and you get 100 in each. And he got 99 out of 100 in the tracking phase, he got 95 out of 100 in obedience and he got 96 out of 100 in protection. And that’s a pretty good score for a young dog, because in the one and the two in Schutzhund we’re kind of just seeing what does he know, how is my training going and you kind of get your three. And then, if you want to compete, you compete nationally and that’s where you start to get your good scores. So, I’m excited for what the future holds for us.
Melissa Breau: So, what is the best piece of training advice that you have ever heard?
Shade Whitesel: It sounds cliché, but listen to the dog. I’m so into listening to what the dog says at this point. It holds me accountable in my training, it holds me accountable in their reinforcement and I feel like many people say, “Listen to the dog,” but I think we could be doing a lot more of it.
Melissa Breau: And the last one. So, who is someone else in the dog world that you look up too?
Shade Whitesel: That’s always such a hard question as well. I’ve been training dogs for 20 years and there’s too many to name. I’ve learned so many things from each and every trainer, and person that I’ve encountered and trained with. So, I’ve just learned from so many people and I look up to each and every one of them.
Melissa Breau: All right. Well, thanks Shade so much for joining me.
Shade Whitesel: Yeah. Thanks so much.
Melissa Breau: And for those listening, thank you for tuning in. As a heads-up to those of you who aren’t currently part of the FDSA community, registration is currently open when this airs for February classes, including Shade’s Crucial Concepts for Competition Class, the one we talked about during the podcast.
And in two weeks we’ll be back with Loretta Mueller to talk about why one size does not fit all when it comes to dog training.
If you haven’t already, subscribe now on iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically 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!