Mike specializes in working with aggressive dogs — we had him on the podcast to share how he defines the term and what tools and analogies he finds useful in working with these dogs and their owners!
To be released 11/02/2018, our follow up on bringing home an adult dog series with Dr. Jessica Hekman, PhD, DVM
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 Mike Shikashio.
Mike is the past president of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), and provides private consultations working exclusively with dog aggression cases through his business Complete Canines LLC. Michael is fully certified through the IAABC and is a full member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). He also offers mentoring and training to other professionals.
Mike is sought after for his expert opinion by numerous media outlets, including the New York Times, New York Post, Baltimore Sun, WebMD, Women’s Health Magazine, Real Simple Magazine, The Chronicle of the Dog, and Steve Dale’s Pet World.
He is a featured speaker on the topic of canine aggression at conferences and seminars around the world, and he currently teaches “Aggression Cases: A to Z” through The Dog Trainers Connection and the “Aggression in Dogs Mentorship” through the IAABC.
Hi Mike! Welcome to the podcast.
Mike Shikashio: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat. To get us started, can you give us a little background about your dogs and what you work on with them?
Mike Shikashio: I’m kind of a mixed blended family of dogs right now. My girlfriend just moved up from Chile, and she brought her black Lab/mixed-mutt dog up. But she makes me look good, this dog, because she was already trained because my girlfriend is also a trainer. So I haven’t been doing a whole lot, but I do enjoy some off-leash hikes with her, and she’s got a great recall, and so I’ve got it easy right now with dogs.
Melissa Breau: Hey, that’s the best. New dog comes in fully trained? You can’t beat that.
Mike Shikashio: Yeah, bonus!
Melissa Breau: How did you originally get into dog training and end up in this crazy world?
Mike Shikashio: I actually started out in the rescue world. I did a lot of fostering dogs when I was much younger, and as you get good as a foster parent, the rescues will start sending you more and more difficult dogs, so that’s how I caught the training bug and the behavior bug, so to speak. I wanted to learn more about how to work with these foster dogs.
At the same time, I always wanted to open my own dog business and dog-related business, so my original aspiration was to have a dog daycare/dog boarding kind of place. But then I got more into this training and behavior side of things, and that led me down the road of doing more research on my own and learning, and going to my first conferences and seminars, and doing things like that, and that’s how it led me to where I am today, really getting focused on training behavior. So those foster dogs, I can give them the credit for making me want to learn more.
Melissa Breau: Starting without necessarily a specific background in dogs or what have you, were you always a positive trainer? Is that where you got started, or what led you down that path?
Mike Shikashio: I started out as more of a “traditional balanced trainer.” One of my first mentors had a working military dog background, so that’s what I started with, and some of the more traditional tools — pinch collars, e-collars, and things like that.
Coincidentally, I was at the APDT conference this week and finally got to meet Jean Donaldson in person, believe it or not. I hadn’t met her in person ever, and she mentioned to me she’s not big into traveling, and so I think that’s one of the reasons I hadn’t met her at any of the previous conferences. But I got a chance to finally thank her, because one of the first books I read about the positive training world was The Culture Clash, and that really had an effect on my training methodology and getting into that side of the training world. So I finally got to say thank you to her.
So I didn’t start off as a positive trainer. I started off more on the balanced training side of things to where I moved on to where I am today with my training methodology.
Melissa Breau: Would you mind talking a little bit about what your methodology is today? How do you describe it or what have you?
Mike Shikashio: My work is exclusively with aggression in dogs, so I only take aggression cases. Most of the work I do, the methodology I use, is through behavior change strategies using desensitization and counter-conditioning, and also differential reinforcement or positive-reinforcement-based strategies to teach the dogs that … the old saying we hear, “What do you want to do instead?” So a lot of it is focused on that, and of course antecedent arrangements.
A lot of it isn’t just training and behavior modification. A lot of times I’m working in conjunction with vets in terms of addressing underlying health issues. So most of it is a combination of management and safety, environmental changes, and then working in conjunction with ancillary folks like the veterinary field, and then of course using those differential reinforcement and counter-conditioning strategies in my work with the aggressive dogs.
Melissa Breau: Why aggression? You mentioned you do that exclusively now. What led you down that path and what keeps you there?
Mike Shikashio: That’s a question I get a lot. First and foremost, if people listen to this and they want to get into aggression, or they’re taking a lot of aggression, I will say that you do have to love working with aggressive cases, or aggression cases, because there’s weeks that can go by where I can work a bunch of cases and not even pet a dog. So you have to be prepared for that. You have to be prepared to have lots of dogs want to bite your face off the first few times you meet them, and see that day after day after day. So that’s part of it is being able to have that, being able to cope with that and be able to come home and pet your own dog and meet a nice puppy every once in a while.
But I think one of the most significant factors that got me into this is really helping the people and helping the dogs reestablish that human-animal bond. I think that’s fractured a lot in aggression cases. A lot of clients are on their last leg or really struggling emotionally, and I found that repairing that and focusing on helping that relationship and affording the best outcome for the dog is what really got me into it. I saw I was able to make some significant changes in the future for these dogs by focusing on it.
I also think that specializing — we see a lot of this now, and Denise Fenzi’s a good example of that — specializing in certain areas of the dog-training world. Now we have the CSATs that focus on separation anxiety, we have people focusing on certain aspects of dog training, the dog sports world. If people asked me how to teach a dog how to go through weave poles, I would say, “I have no idea,” and I would refer that on to somebody else.
I think specializing allows you to get much better at the thing that you’re specializing in much faster than if you were taking a variety of different cases. I also found that was one of the reasons I wanted to get just solely into aggression — because I wanted to be really good at it. So I said, “Let me try just taking aggression cases exclusively,” and it’s worked out really well.
I think because you get to see the same things over and over, and so you’re able to troubleshoot much faster. You’re able to see the same things happening and get a general idea of what is happening in a case even before you step into it you’ll start to see the same things over and over. I think that has a lot also, what to do, I want to focus on one area. Rather than being good at a lot of different things, I want to be great at one thing, so that’s what led me down the road of working with just aggression.
Melissa Breau: I think that’s really important for professionals to realize that sometimes niching down is a great way to grow a business. It’s not limiting the business. It’s actually a way to become more successful. So I think that’s a great point.
Mike Shikashio: Absolutely, absolutely. I just listened to one of your recent podcasts and it was focused on business, and I think that’s such an important point. A lot of folks are worried about, “I do this one thing exclusively, and now all those other clients I could take doing other behavior problems are off the table,” but believe it or not, once people know you specialize in something, the business really takes off because you become that go-to person for that one area.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Just to make sure everybody’s on the same page in terms of terminology and what we’re talking about here, when you say you only take aggression cases, what’s the range of severity there? What does each end of that spectrum look like? Dig into that a little bit for me.
Mike Shikashio: That’s a great question, Melissa. I think piggybacking off the last question, I define aggression as basically whatever the client thinks is happening when they call me.
I advertise for aggression in dogs, or people having problems with aggression, that keyword right there, because that’s usually what people are searching for online, and that can fall into a wide range. Aggression itself, that’s a construct or a label, so it can have different definitions.
Even when you’re talking to experts, or behavior experts, depending on who you’re talking to, that definition is going to differ, so I just classify it or define it as whatever the clients are calling me for in the first place.
That can be anything from a dog barking and lunging on leash at people and dogs, but no bite history, and it’s perfectly social when they are close to people or other dogs, and so that might be labeled “reactive,” or may not be labeled aggression, but the client contacted me because they think it’s aggressive, so they will call me for that. The other end we might have true aggression, like aggressive behavior with biting, severe bite injuries, and things like that. So you can get any one of those extremes.
You might even get, I get this sometimes, where it’s a client that’s got a puppy that’s new to the home and they’re just mouthing, and the client’s not savvy with dogs, or it might be their first dog, and I’ll get an e-mail: “Help, my dog is being so aggressive and is mauling me.” You get there and it’s just a typical case of a very mouthy puppy and those sharp puppy teeth.
In my area you get a lot of retirees, so I’ll get an elderly couple on blood thinners with a young Golden mouthy puppy, and it’s a perfect storm of it looks like a horror show when you get there because the poor folks have all these Band-Aids and marks all over their arms. It’s kind of a mismatch at that point of young puppy with elderly folks, but that’s not of course what we would classify as aggression.
Melissa Breau: Sometimes it’s what you show up for, which leads really well into my next question, which is, how do you prepare for that first session? Sometimes owners definitely don’t describe things the way that we would. What kind of information is “need to know,” and how do you figure out what’s really going on? Sometimes, like you said with that puppy situation, they’re going to think the puppy is crazy-aggressive, and you show up and it’s like, “Oh, this is actually pretty normal.” How do you approach that? What do you do to prepare for a new client?
Mike Shikashio: In terms of communicating with clients in aggression cases, one of the most important things to focus on in your initial contact with that client is getting information about any kind of bite incidents or the aggressive incidents which are why they’re contacting you about. You want to know about the level of biting that’s occurring, the severity of the biting, and also the context in which it’s happening, so that way you can set things up safely for your arrival.
That’s what I focus on during my initial contact. I don’t do a long intake form. I don’t spend a whole lot of time on the phone or e-mailing clients. What I shoot straight for is that context of when the actual aggression incidents happen, so I can get information about how I’m going to set it up safely for my arrival, because even when you can go into very thorough, detailed information with a client on the phone, you still might not get a full picture. So I always err on the side of caution and assume that a bite might happen, if the dog has a bite history, so I’m always setting things up very safely.
A good question to ask is, “What do you do with the dog now when people come over?” A lot of the clients will have already set up a system. Most of the time it’s, “Oh, I just put him away,” and that works really well also when I arrive, because then I can get detailed information during the first 15 to 30 minutes or so, where I do the information-gathering step of my consultation. That’s usually, again, going to give you the most information about how to safely set up the dog, or get the dog out. That way, I can then get thorough information in front of the client and see the environment, and then determine the best way to meet the dog after that. I always stress that you always want to be very, very safe during your initial greetings with dogs, and your initial consult, until we have more information.
Melissa Breau: I guess the hard question: Do you think that all dogs can be rehabilitated?
Mike Shikashio: That term “rehabilitation” is sort of arguable in a sense, because it depends if you look at it from a behavioral standpoint when people talk about rehab, as sort of it leads you toward the dog having a certain illness, because that’s sort of an ugly term in the human world, and if you look at physical rehabilitation, it implies fixing an issue.
We know with behavior, once it’s in the animal’s behavior repertoire, it’s technically always there. So I’m very careful about when clients use that term “rehab.” I want to know their definition of it, because if they’re implying that we’re going to fix the problem, or the dog’s never going to do the behavior again, that’s going to skew potentially their goals. So I always explain to clients that the behavior — our goal is to make it less likely to happen. We reduce the likelihood of it to happen and to management and to behavior modification.
So to say all dogs are rehab-able, again that’s an arguable term. I think all dogs we can change behavior. In all animals we can change behavior. So that’s what I focus on — making sure the clients understand how behavior works and how we can reduce the frequency of behaviors, and then they can start to understand. And also, of course, looking at the variables that affect behavior, the antecedent arrangements and the antecedents and things that can affect behavior.
Once the client starts understanding and grasping those concepts — and using the layman’s terms, not using the behavioral terms with clients — but I think once they start to understand those concepts, then they realize that this is something that is not going to be like a light switch which we turn it on or off. So that’s how I approach it generally with clients.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned earlier some of the tools that you use. Can you talk a little more about those? What things do you use most often? Feel free to break it down into layman terms for us. I know we have a wide range of backgrounds in the audience.
Mike Shikashio: With aggressive behavior, or aggression, you’re looking at two components. The simple way that I explain to clients is that you have factors that make the behavior more likely to happen, but that doesn’t mean the behavior is going to happen unless you have the antecedent. I use this analogy a lot with clients, where if you have an empty fuel drum or fuel can, and what we can do is add more fuel to it, we can add layers of fuel, which the more fuel you have, the more likely you are to get an explosion, or that progressive behavior we don’t want. And those are what we refer to as distant antecedents in the animal world. So when you have those factors, if you add in more and more layers, you’re going to have at one point a fuel can that’s ready to explode. But again, you need a spark or a match to actually make that explosion happen. Those sparks or those matches are the antecedents, or what sets that behavior in motion, so you need both often to see the aggressive behavior.
So I start to teach clients about how to recognize factors that can influence behavior. For instance, a dog that is growling near the food bowl, or biting people when they come near the food bowl, factors that can increase the likelihood of that are a dog that is really hungry, or a dog that is stressed, or a dog that might be on medication, for instance, or underlying medical issues that make it more likely to do that behavior, because those are what we call distant antecedents, or again, factors that are adding layers of fuel. So if you have a dog that just ate a full, huge meal and then you put a food bowl down, you’re less likely to see that behavior if somebody approaches.
Now, the person approaching, that’s the match, that’s the antecedent or what can spark that explosion, so one day it might be somebody approaching from 10 feet away and the dog explodes, or the next day it might be the person can literally reach near the food bowl because the dog doesn’t have all those fuels fueling it.
Once the client starts to understand that, rather than them assigning personality traits to the dog, or underlying reasons for the behavior, you know, “My dog is dominant,” or “My dog is like, 90 percent of the time he’s good, 10 percent of the time he’s bad, I just don’t know when,” once the client starts to understand how there’s got to be fuel there and then there’s those matches, those matches are not always present, there’s going to be times when those antecedents or those matches come into play, and that’s when you’re going to likely to see the behavior. Once we see that, then we can start modifying those behaviors.
So then, again with the food bowl we present the match, or the person approaching from maybe 11 feet away, and we can change the dog’s association with that match approaching. That’s the desensitization and counter-conditioning that I mentioned before. We’re changing the association: somebody approaching the food bowl means something good is about to happen. A lot of times I’m often using food in my work with dogs, so it may be as simple as somebody approaching means they’re about to throw a treat, a higher-value treat than what you have in the food bowl, from 11 feet away. We’re doing it at a safe distance where we’re not causing the explosion, and we’re changing the dog’s association.
Then you may also incorporate differential reinforcement of an alternative behavior. That’s just a fancy term for “What do you want the dog to do instead?” when that match approaches, and so lifting the head up out of the food bowl. We can start to catch that, and if we’re doing marker training with our dog, we can say “Good,” or “Yes,” or even click for lifting the head up out of the food bowl, which is an alternative behavior to growling or barking or lunging or biting. So we can start to catch that.
So you’re doing two different things at the same time: you’re doing operant conditioning, which is teaching the dog what to do instead, and you’re doing the classical counter-conditioning — you’re changing the association for the dog with the very simple procedure of, “Anytime I approach, if you lift your head up out of the food bowl, something good is about to happen, and when you lift your head up out of the food bowl, I will reinforce that.”
That can be incorporated with a number of aggressive behaviors. Think about your typical dog that barks and lunges at other dogs on leash. Set the dog up, set the stage correctly, keep enough distance from the other dog so there’s no explosion. You’re presenting the match of the other dog, so instead of starting from 5 feet away, you might start from 50 feet away, where the dog is not close enough to cause that explosion, and you wait for your dog, the one that has that issue with barking and lunging, to just notice the other dog, and then you would reinforce that. That’s a behavior you like, just notice the other dog, you’re going to mark and reinforce that, and what happens at the same time is the associated learning, so that way the dog knows, “Oh, when I see another dog, the person handling me is going to mark and then feed me.”
So again, two things happening at the same time: the dog learns what to do instead, and the association starts to change. As the dog gets better at it, as you’re reducing fuels because you’re reducing the stress of that situation. You might also be addressing the fear or the anxiety, the arousal, all of those other fuels that might come along in that package. You’re reducing the fuel, but you’re also changing the dog’s behavior around that match so you can get that match closer and closer and closer to that fuel without any kind of explosion.
That’s exactly how I explain to clients without using the technical terms. I explain that fuel and match analogy, and clients really start to get it, because they’re assigning things like “territorial dog,” or “red zone dog,” or “alpha dog,” which really isn’t helpful, again, because we know those are constructs or labels. So I focus on what we want the dog to do instead and in those contexts. That’s pretty much the tools I use most of the time, most times food, and sometimes it’s play, and sometimes it’s toys, depending on the dog and the context.
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome, and I think that analogy works really, really well. It explains all the right pieces and it’s still a concept that people definitely quickly grasp. That’s neat. I hadn’t heard that one before, so I like that.
Mike Shikashio: Thanks.
Melissa Breau: We were introduced because you’ve got two webinars coming up at FDSA on some of this stuff. For those listening, they’ll be back-to-back, they’re on the same day, and Mike will be talking about intra-household dog-to-dog aggression. So Mike, I was hoping we could talk a little bit about those. First, can you explain the terminology there for anybody who might not know what intra-household dog-to-dog aggression means? And then can you share a little bit about what you’ll be focusing on?
Mike Shikashio: Sure, sure. Intra-household dog-to-dog aggression, a.k.a., two or more dogs fighting in the same home when they live together, is the topic that I’ll be focusing on.
We’ll be talking about things like common factors in dogfights or why dogs fight in the home. We’ll talk about factors that can influence dogs fighting and having those conflicts. We’ll talk about the overall prognosis in these cases and what the typical outcome can be, depending on a certain number of variables, because each case is going to differ and some cases are going to be more difficult than others, depending on those variables. And we’ll talk about how to start changing the behavior and how to get dogs to live harmoniously again, using a variety of techniques and management tools. And we’ll again focus on the aspects of differential reinforcement and counter-conditioning with most cases as well, because it works on intra-household cases. That’s it in a nutshell. We’ll briefly touch on how to break up a dogfight safely, because I think all clients that have dogs fighting in the home should be able to do that safely as well.
Quite a bit to cover and squish down into those two webinars, but I hope to be able to cover it all and we’ll have some fun.
Melissa Breau: The first one’s, if I remember correctly, talking through some of this stuff, and the second one is more case studies. Is that right? Am I recalling that correctly?
Mike Shikashio: Yes. I’ll be showing a couple of cases that show two dogs that had a history of conflict in the home and how we worked on those cases to resolve it with the clients. And the first webinar will be detailing the reasons why dogs fight, safety and management strategies. The second one feeds off of the first, so it’s good, if you can, to attend both of them so it all makes sense in the second one when we start working with the dogs in those videos.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely awesome. I’m trying to pull up the exact date and time, because I should have pulled this up in advance and of course I didn’t. So, for anybody listening, they will be on November 1, that’s an easy date to remember, and the time for the first one is at 3 p.m. Pacific time, the second one is at 6 p.m. Pacific time, and they are currently on the FDSA website if anybody wants to go sign up.
Mike Shikashio: That makes them 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Eastern time, if I’m correct.
Melissa Breau: You’re absolutely correct. I’m Eastern, and I have to do that time conversion way more times in the day than I care to count. So I have a couple of questions I usually ask at the end of every episode when I have a first-time guest. I’d love to work through those. The first one is, what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?
Mike Shikashio: That’s a good question. I would have to say after this weekend, speaking at APDT and then talking to Jean Donaldson, I would say that I’m just really, really humbled and very happy to be able to share the information that I have now with others. I think that’s how I, of course, learned from many folks that were generous enough to share information about how they work with behavior, and I’m just really happy that I’m able to do that now.
If you had asked me seven or eight years ago, when I was attending these conferences, if I would ever imagine myself speaking to an audience, I would say, “No way. I’m just doing my thing, learning training and behavior.” There is no way I would have thought I would be speaking to a crowd at APDT and other conferences and traveling the world giving these workshops. So that’s the thing I feel really good about is being able to share that information.
And I think a big part of it is validating for what other trainers are doing. I hear that a lot. Trainers will come up to me and say, “Thank you so much for validating what I’m doing now,” because what I’m doing now isn’t a whole lot different than what a lot of other trainers are doing.
It’s just a lonely world sometimes, this dog training world, because some people don’t have a local network, or they don’t really know anybody else taking aggression cases, so they’re not sure if what they’re doing is the latest-greatest or whatever technique, or if they’re doing things correctly. And what I’m doing a lot of times is validating. I’m not showing them much different techniques or strategies. They’re just seeing that, “Oh, OK, Mike’s doing a lot of what I do.” So that’s very validating for them. I feel like that’s something I love about traveling and meeting other trainers and just making the world a little bit smaller for them.
Melissa Breau: When you think about it, aggression, it’s one thing if you’re trying to teach a dog to sit with a cookie. It’s a whole other story when you’re talking about, “OK, this dog has serious behavior problems, and do I know what I’m doing, and can I really fix this.” I can see how that would be really validating to say, “Look, here’s somebody who’s doing it, and doing it successfully on a consistent basis.” So that’s awesome. Next question, I’m afraid it’s not much easier: What’s the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?
Mike Shikashio: I don’t know if it’s a piece of training advice, but I think, again, because I’m working in training and behavior, they’re kind of two of the same, when I use the term “behavior world,” I’m talking about just general behavior with all animals, and one of the things I started to really hone down on is just this empowerment thing.
One of Susan Friedman’s quotes is, “The central component of behavioral health is the power to operate on the environment to behave for an effect.” She’s one that really opened the world of empowerment and allowing animals to act on their own environment, rather than always micromanaging all their behaviors.
Giving them the power of choice can have a significant impact, especially in aggression cases. An example I use sometimes is that we focus on getting the dog to watch me, if they’re reactive to other dogs, or we tell them to go to a mat, or we add these behaviors that we ask for, which, don’t get me wrong, they work really well as a great alternative for incompatible behaviors. If the dog’s looking at me, they’re not going to be barking and lunging at other dogs. Or if they go to their mats, they’re not going to be charging the door.
The issue sometimes doing that is it’s not fully allowing the animal to act on their own environment.
Follow me for a second here. You ask a dog to go to their mat in the home, and say they have a fear of strangers coming through the door. If I put that mat in a place that’s going to not allow them enough distance, so we’re now introducing strangers past their critical distance, getting into their critical distance, in other words this bubble around them, that we are artificially removing their flight option.
So it looks great on paper. “Go to your mat” — that’s better than biting the person that comes through the door. However, if we artificially remove that flight option, what we’re basically asking the dog is to not move away if you’re scared of that person, which doesn’t fully empower them to act on their environment. Now, of course we don’t want them charging and biting the person, because that’s acting on their environment, but we want to preserve that option, that choice of being able to move away.
Similarly with dogs that are barking and lunging at other people or dogs on the streets or on a leash, we can say, “Watch me, watch me,” and again, it works really well because the dog’s focused on the handler. Again, however, that doesn’t allow the dog to assess the provocative stimulus or the threat. And what you can run the risk of is that you’re not really changing the association if the dog is watching the handler. So it’s a great alternative behavior, however it puts us at risk of not allowing the dog to act on their own environment and move away if they want to, or just notice the threat and assess that threat and then move away.
So a lot of what I focus on now is allowing the dog to act on their own environment. However, I reinforce desirable behaviors without cuing them, so I wind up capturing behaviors I like. Sometimes I will cue, but most of the time I’m just allowing the dog to say, “Hey, there’s a person over there.” I’ll reinforce the heck out of those behaviors, so that way the dog starts to learn that, “OK, I can do this instead, and that will pay off for me,” and then we can increase distance. So there’s a lot of benefits to allowing the dog have that choice and control over their environment.
Melissa Breau: That’s a great philosophy for thinking about really what it’s like to be in the dog’s shoes for all of that.
Mike Shikashio: Absolutely.
Melissa Breau: Last question: Who is somebody in the dog world that you look up to?
Mike Shikashio: Oh boy. I have a long list of people I look up to. I would say … I think I have to give that one to Susan Friedman again because … and again, she’s not necessarily in the dog world, she’s in the animal behavior world.
Melissa Breau: That works.
Mike Shikashio: I’m sure a lot of listeners could agree if they listen to Susan. You could listen to her for hours. She could talk about watching paint dry and you’d be sitting there with your mouth open, like, “Wow.” And she’s got that soothing voice, too. She’s got such a soothing voice. You could put a Susan Friedman podcast on and go to sleep to it every night because she’s got a soothing voice as well. But she’s just amazing the way she understands animal behavior, so I would definitely put her as one of the top on my list for people I look up to in the animal behavior world.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Mike. This has been fantastic.
Mike Shikashio: I really appreciate you having me. This was fun.
Melissa Breau: I look forward to the webinar!
Thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in!
We’ll be back next week, this time with Jessica Hekman for Part 2 of our series on adopting an adult dog. For that episode we’ll be focusing on what is genetic and what isn’t … that is, what can we likely change!
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I got an email a few weeks ago from a listener, asking if I’d consider doing a podcast on doing sports with rescue dogs and/or dogs who join the family as adults. She suggested a number of excellent questions, so this will be the first of two podcasts where we’ll look specifically at rescues and training for adult dogs, with plans to do sports with those dogs!
To be released 10/26/2018, an interview with Mike Shikashio to talk about working with dog-dog aggression.
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 doing something a little bit differently — I got an email a few weeks ago from a listener, asking if I’d consider doing a podcast on doing sports with rescue dogs and/or dogs who join the family as adults. She suggested a number of excellent questions, so this will be the first of two podcasts where we’ll look specifically at rescues and training for adult dogs, with plans to do sports with those dogs.
For this episode of the podcast, I’m here with Sara Brueske.
Sara has been training dogs for over 15 years; she became a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner in 2011, and jumped into the world of professional dog training.
Sara and her dogs work at Purina Farms in Missouri, where they demonstrate the sports of disc, agility, and dock diving for the public in over 200 shows each year. She has a mix of purpose-bred dogs and rescues, and also frequently fosters dogs who have sports potential.
She and her dogs also compete nationwide. Currently, she is active in the sports of disc dog, agility, mondioring and dock diving — plus, she’s a trick dog enthusiast.
Sara has recently re-entered the world of competitive Disc Dog and was the 2016 overall UpDog International Champion as well as the 2017 UpDog Freestyle Champion.
She believes in positive reinforcement not only for dogs, but for their handlers, and her biggest joy in training is watching a handler and dog become partners and grow as a team.
Hi Sara! Welcome back to the podcast.
Sara Brueske: Hi Melissa. Thank you for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, can you remind everyone just a little bit about your dogs and what you’re working on with them?
Sara Brueske: Sure. I have a lot of dogs, and every time I listen to your podcast, everybody lists off their dogs and what they do with their dogs. I’m not going to do all of that because I do have twelve dogs.
Like you said, I have a mixture of purposely bred dogs, as well as rescue or rehomed dogs that were rehomed later in their lives. My smallest dog is a 6-pound Papillion named Rush, and he does all the sports everybody else does — he does agility, Frisbee, and dock diving, believe it or not — all the way up to I have a couple of Malinois that I do a few sports with. Creature is my youngest Malinois, he is training in mondioring. Famous does mondioring as well as dock diving, Frisbee, agility. I have a few Border Collies, a Border Staffie, I do breed Australian Koolies as well, so four of those. And I have a Labrador Retriever. So lots of dogs.
Melissa Breau: How many of that current mix are rescue dogs or dogs that you have as adults?
Sara Brueske: I have five of those twelve that are either rescue or rehomed dogs. I want to touch on that a little more before we get into this. I lumped those dogs in together, whether they were adopted from a shelter or a rescue organization or if they were privately rehomed, and so five of my dogs have been acquired through one of those means.
Edgar — I have a Boston Terrier/Shih-Tzu mix — I adopted him from a local animal shelter when he was about 5 or 6 months old. He was turned in because he had had double cherry-eye surgery and his family couldn’t afford that. So I have him, and I have Taboo, my Border Collie/Staffordshire Bull Terrier mix, and she was rescued from a little bit of a neglectful situation — her owner had too many dogs and couldn’t properly care for them.
And then I have Kickstart, who was a private rehome, as well as Knockout Nellie, my Labrador, who was a private rehome, and then Zuma, who is my very first Frisbee dog. She’s a Border Collie mix who was adopted from a herding-breed-specific rescue up in Minnesota. She was found as a stray in Missouri.
Melissa Breau: You’re kind of in a unique position, since your dogs are your job and they earn their keep. I’d love to talk about how you evaluate potential dogs to determine if you think they’d be a good fit for sports. Maybe you could start by talking a little bit about general temperament. What kind of temperament do you want for a sports candidate and how do you begin to evaluate if a dog has that temperament when you’re meeting them?
Sara Brueske: I do a lot of evaluations for potential sport dogs. I am approached quite often by either rescue shelters or private adopters who want a dog evaluated to see if they think it’s a good sport candidate.
I do have a bit that I’m looking for versus what a normal, average sport handler could handle. What I’m looking for is pretty excessive as far as the temperament soundness of a dog because of what I do. We do perform in front of thousands of people, a lot of times they’re waving corndogs in our dogs’ faces, there’s a lot of loud noises, it’s an unpredictable atmosphere, and so I really need a very stable temperament dog, somebody who has crazy-high drive for toys or food, one that has nice, natural handler focus where I don’t really have to spend a lot of time building that relationship. So for me that’s really, really important, having those things. So that natural handler focus, food drive, toy drive — I want to see all of those.
I would love it if a dog has a natural retrieve and you throw something out and they automatically re-orientate back to me, because that’s less I have to teach them. And I love it if the dog already has tug, because tugging is a huge thing as a reinforcer.
Melissa Breau: What other traits do you look for when you’re evaluating a dog?
Sara Brueske: I look for, personally, a very environmentally stable dog, one that will perform anywhere, regardless of the distractions. So when I evaluate those dogs for myself, or even dogs that people bring to me, I always try to evaluate them in a new location, somewhere that doesn’t have a lot of distractions, because I don’t really want to put them through the test, but somewhere they haven’t been before, rather than in maybe the foster home’s backyard, or a dog park that they frequent, or something along those lines. I want it to be a novel location for that dog.
The other thing I want to do is I want to try to observe that dog. I don’t want to just interact with them right away. I want to see how long does it take for them to seek out attention from me, how long does it take them to stop sniffing one spot in particular, or to stop looking at the birds, or that sort of thing.
The other part is — I want to dive back to that handler focus — is I don’t really necessarily worry if they don’t interact with me, the new person, the evaluator, right away. I want to see how they interact with their established handler. This doesn’t work so well with shelter dogs because they typically have many handlers that work with them, but maybe dogs that are in a foster home situation or a private rehome situation. I want to see that they’re engaging easily with their handler, their owner, foster, whatever it may be, or are they fighting for their attention, that sort of deal. Do they immediately engage and start playing with them in that new location.
Melissa Breau: You said in there how long it takes them to refocus on you, and stuff like that. When you talk about time length, obviously anybody who hears this is going to go, “What is a really long time, and what is a reasonable amount of time for a dog in a new environment need to absorb things?”
Sara Brueske: I was thinking about this before I came on here. It’s such a gut instinct when it comes to these sort of things. I don’t want a dog that takes minutes, obviously. They sniff one spot and they check in with me, and they go sniff another spot and they check in with me, that sort of deal. I don’t want them just head down the entire time.
And maybe if I do come towards that dog, I want them interacting with me a little bit. A head check back to me sort of deal, or if I call them over, I want to see some sort of interaction and some sort of reaction to me seeking out their attention. I don’t want a dog that just blows me off because there might be a rabbit smell further out there.
Also, if I go out there with cookies, do they come out and do they want the treats right away, or do they take one and then wander away. That sort of deal.
Melissa Breau: Are there “red flags” or things that immediately make you think, “This dog would probably not be a good sports candidate”?
Sara Brueske: I have a few red flags I tend to avoid personally, and then there’s some red flags I tell a lot of people to avoid.
Aggression to handling — this is somebody they know, their handler or somebody they interact with on a daily basis, and that person says, “I can’t really reach and grab their collar,” something along those lines that shows me that the dog might be distrustful of people. That’s a big hurdle to overcome. When you’re looking for a sport candidate, a lot of people just want to dive right into the fun training right away, and so that’s something that would be a big obstacle for them to have to overcome before they start that sport training.
I don’t want to see them ignore that current handler, so if that handler is calling to them and the dog is like, “No, I’m going to sniff over here, I’m totally ignoring you,” or they’re not taking food from that current handler, or they’re not out playing with that current handler, those are huge red flags to me. That shows me that maybe the drive isn’t quite where we want it to be, maybe their handler focus isn’t quite where we want it to be, or maybe there might be an environmental issue. We don’t really know in that short amount of time, but it’s going to be one of those issues.
A couple of other red flags would be reactivity to dogs or people, combined with low drive or lack of handler focus. So not reactivity by itself. I have a few dogs that are either human-reactive or dog-reactive, or even environmentally reactive, but because their food drive or their toy drive or their relationship with me is strong enough, that naturally overcomes and allows me to have some way to work with that reactivity, so it’s easier for me to overcome that particular obstacle. But if I have a dog that has lower drive and lower handler focus, it’s going to be a lot harder for me to overcome that obstacle in a reasonable amount of time. The other red flag … we all know that dog sports is not just going there and competing with your dog and doing the exercises. There’s a lot more to it. There may be travel, there may be going to classes, there might be a whole weekend experience where your dog is in a crate a lot of the time. So if I have a dog that can’t settle and relax in a crate, or they have a previous history of showing separation anxiety, or escaping out of crates, or any of those type of issues, it’s going to be harder for my dog to adjust in a trial setting, and that’s very important when you’re looking at a sport or performance dog.
The same with what I do with shows. If I’m traveling across states to do a show, I need a dog that can do that and relax, so that by the time I get there to the show I have some dog left rather than an anxious dog to work with.
Melissa Breau: I think we saw a lot of interesting bits and pieces in there, especially when it came to the reactivity not necessarily being a disqualifier for a dog that you’re evaluating for sports, so long as you have tools in the toolbox right — something so that you can work with it?
Sara Brueske: If we look at Zuma, she is my first rescue dog, a dog I trialed in agility, she has a few titles before she injured her shoulders, as well as I competed in Frisbee with her and she still does shows with me today. She is very dog-reactive, but I was able to use some management tools based on her drive in a trial setting for agility as well as Frisbee that it didn’t really impact our performances at all. It didn’t take a long time to overcome that issue because she was so driven to work with me, as well as having adequate food drive and toy drive for that.
Now if you look at Edgar, my Boston Terrier/Shih-Tzu mix, he’s pretty human-reactive. He’s very uncertain around people, especially adults, and so that’s very challenging for him to perform in front of a crowd. However, his food drive is off the charts. He is a nutty, crazy boy, and so I was able to help him overcome that pretty easily so that he works in our shows on a regular basis and he does a great, phenomenal job, and he has fun, which is the most important part.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. That’s definitely not to be under-valued: making sure that they’re still having a good time.
Sara Brueske: Yes.
Melissa Breau: Are there things that immediately make you think a dog is especially trainable, or traits that are “must haves” when it comes to potential sport dogs?
Sara Brueske: I think those are actually two very different things. When I think of a dog that’s especially trainable, I think of a dog that is far on the spectrum of, “This dog is going to be really easy,” or “I can get this dog in shows really fast,” or “This dog is going to make a fantastic trial dog for somebody without having to do a lot of additional training on top of the training required for that sport,” versus a “must have.”
For must-haves, I kind of mentioned those already. I want to have some drive for either food or toys, preferably both, because it’s a lot easier to manage arousal levels and that sort of thing if you have both of those drives. But depending on the sport, one or the other works great.
And then an environmentally stable dog would be nice to have so you don’t have to overcome a lot of anxiety issues, as well as a dog that is OK being crated in a strange situation, or a dog that at least doesn’t have a history of being anxious in a crate, so that you can start from scratch with that.
For a dog that’s especially trainable, when I’m evaluating them in that new environment, I want a dog that acclimates super-fast. They know the game of fetch, they’re throwing their ball at me immediately, or at least throwing it at their handler immediately. They want to engage, they want to play, regardless of their surroundings. That, to me, is like the best dog. One that’s focused and engaged with the current handler, one that plays with me easily without even questioning it. They’re just like, “Somebody throw this ball, somebody play tug with me, somebody give me a cookie.”
And one that doesn’t disconnect despite the distractions around, so if another dog happens to walk by, they’re not like, “Oh hey, let me go check out that dog.” They’re super laser-focused onto what we’re doing.
There have been a few dogs I’ve evaluated that that’s what I get. They walk onto the field, leash comes off, and they are throwing their toys at me, ready to play right away. And there’s obviously dogs I’ve evaluated that don’t connect with me at all, or their handlers, and they’re completely distracted by that new environment.
Melissa Breau: We’ll get to this a little bit more later on, but I think that that’s really the key between what people think of as drive versus what’s actually useful drive. But before we get there, I wanted to ask what you think when you’re evaluating a dog. What do you think is likely “fixed behavior” in an adult dog, something that would require a lot of work to modify or change, and comparing that to something that you think is realistically probably pretty easy to modify or change, and how do you figure that out, especially if you only get a brief time to do your initial evaluation when you meet that dog?
Sara Brueske: Everybody has experienced at one point, whether you’re working with somebody’s dog, or you have a rehomed rescue dog, or it’s your friend’s dog, or your spouse’s dog, or whatever it is, where the dog acts a certain way with one handler and acts completely different with a second handler. It might be something like, “Oh, my dog only barks at strangers when my wife is walking him, but he doesn’t bark at strangers when I’m walking him.”
It’s kind of the same thing when you adopt an older dog. It’s a blank slate. It’s an opportunity for you to start off from the right foot, and if you know that that dog has potential bad habits, like maybe dropping … we’ll take a Frisbee dog, for example. They love Frisbee, but they drop the Frisbee 10 feet away from you, so you can’t ever grab it in a timely fashion. So you know your dog has that problem. The retrieve’s broken with their current owner. There are steps you can take to prevent that from occurring in your new game with your new partner, especially if you know they’re going to happen, and there are steps you can do to train them to do it the right way right off the bat.
It’s the same thing with any kind of behavior problem, in my opinion. If you know the dog is really reactive towards men, there are steps you can take right away to set up good experiences with men, prevent the bad habits from creeping into your new relationship, and take that step forward right off the bat.
And so, for me, there are very few problems that are fixed behaviors when you’re adopting a new dog. It’s beneficial knowing what those are, but if you don’t know what they are and they crop up and you see them, immediately you can change what you’re doing, because your dog doesn’t have a set routine with you. They don’t have a relationship with you yet, and so it’s your chance to mold that relationship and those habits into what you want them to be right off the bat.
I think the only one that really comes to mind as far as one that’s difficult to fix are those crate problems. Once again, it’s really hard to change the picture of being crated to a dog without some serious intervention. So if the dog has bad experiences in a crate to the point where they’re trying to break out, they’re not settling, they’re spinning, they’re barking, all of those anxiety-type behaviors, and you take that dog to a trial or anything like that, that’s a picture that’s always going to be the same to them, and so it’s difficult to take that from their old home, those bad habits they’ve already developed, and then flip-flop that to a dog that’s perfectly able to go anywhere and be crated. That’s one of the ones that I struggle with personally as far as looking past it when I adopt a dog.
Melissa Breau: I think when it comes to things like “drive” or energy levels, a lot of the times rescues or shelters may think a dog with a lot of energy necessarily is a dog with a lot of drive and therefore a really good sports dog. Is there a certain amount of reading between the lines that needs to happen when looking at descriptions for dogs? How do you decide if a dog is even worth going to take a look at?
Sara Brueske: It’s all reading between the lines. Everybody is so fantastic at spinning things into a good way, or they like to over-share the truth. They’ll say, “Oh, my dog has so much energy, they’re literally jumping off the couch or over the couch,” or “They have so much energy, I can’t keep them contained in the backyard. They love to jump fences,” or “My dog loves to play so much, he plays with other dogs nonstop.” All those things, to me, are red flags.
So we have a dog that’s just crazy in the house. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they enjoy playing with the handler with balls or tugs or anything along those lines. A lot of times I’ll ask those people, “Do they love to play fetch?” And the person is like, “Well, I don’t know. I’ve never tried.” And so that’s kind of a red flag there. Now I have this dog that has so much energy, and they never learned to put that energy into a useful game, and so now they created their own games, jumping over the couch, or jumping out of the backyard, or something along those lines.
And the one where he plays nonstop with other dogs, he needs a job to do, he never stops moving. Now they’ve created a dog that is hyper-focused on playing with other dogs, and they’re going to learn that if they want to expend all this energy, they have to go interact with another dog. So you get those dogs that are really excited about playing with other dogs, but they have no real human interaction history built up. So those are the red flags to me.
But as far as things that I love to see, I want to see somebody tell me that the dog is obsessed with her ball, and once they say they’re obsessed with their ball, I’m like, “I need to meet that dog right away.” “They’re crazy about their ball,” “They’ll play fetch nonstop for hours,” or something along those lines. “They carry the ball everywhere with them,” something like that. Or “He’ll do anything for a treat.” If he’ll do anything for a treat, that’s probably a dog that has pretty high food drive, most likely, and I’m crazy about those dogs as well.
The one thing I tell everybody, anybody that contacts me regarding a dog that they think might need a sport home, I say, “Send me video.” I want to see a video of the dog playing fetch, if he knows how to play fetch, or tug, if he knows how to play tug, or taking food and showing off whatever tricks he knows, or something along those lines. I don’t want to see video of him interacting with other dogs unless there is a concern that the dog is going to be reactive or anything along those lines. That doesn’t interest me as much as showing those drives. A lot of times we just want to see unedited videos of that — two minutes unedited of trying to play with this dog is all I want to see.
Melissa Breau: I think most people, whether they’re adopting from a rescue situation or a rehome situation, or unless you’re walking straight into a shelter, it’s probably pretty possible to get those two minutes of video footage in this world of smartphones and whatnot.
Sara Brueske: It absolutely is. And even when I’m contacted by shelters, a lot of the time they’ll say that they have a dog that’s crazy about toys, “Why don’t you come out and evaluate?” Most of the time they can get us video, even 30 seconds of them playing fetch with the dogs — they’re doing that anyway — and with our cell phones nowadays it’s really easy to get that. And generally they have some sort of play area. Even if it’s inside, we can evaluate dogs pretty well as far as that goes.
Melissa Breau: Let’s say you get a dog, you don’t know their training history, you don’t really know anything about their history, maybe. How does that impact what you do with them in terms of training, and how does that process compare to what you do with a brand-new puppy who obviously has a clean slate?
Sara Brueske: It is exactly the same as a new puppy, because even if you get a new puppy and they’re a clean slate, they always have those built-in fears and anxieties and drives and happinesses and those sorts of things that are individual to that particular puppy.
If I adopt an older dog, even if they’ve had previous training, I don’t necessarily want to know it, because — and I have done this before, I’ve adopted a dog that is fully trained and knows Frisbee or whatever it is along those lines — it’s not trained the way that I would train a dog, and so if that behavior falls apart, I don’t know how to rebuild it in the way the dog originally learned it.
So I’d rather just retrain the behavior from the ground up and hope it goes quickly, if they already know it, with my way of training it, so that I know how to fix it when it starts to fall apart, or I know how to maintain it as we go throughout my dog’s career.
So if I adopt a dog that maybe has done a pet agility class in the past, where they’ve gone on the agility equipment, I wouldn’t handle that dog any different from a dog that I was adopting that was … or a puppy. I would teach it all from the ground up right away.
Melissa Breau: I know that you have a pretty involved puppy protocol that you go through with new puppies, too, which I imagine that that would give you a really good sense probably pretty quickly with a new dog, even if it’s an adult dog, of where their strengths are and where their weaknesses are and where they might need some work, and give you a really good sense of what they need and what they don’t need, and where their balance is or isn’t, so to speak.
Sara Brueske: Exactly. I guess the benefit of adopting an older dog, if it comes from a private rehome or a foster situation is, like I said earlier in the podcast, knowing those bad habits.
So if we’re talking, like, a Frisbee dog, we all hate it when our dog drops the Frisbee 10 feet away from us and we’re in a competition and we have to run and grab that Frisbee and we’re wasting valuable time. So if we know that our dog has a tendency toward bad habits like that, we can just avoid those and make sure that we set our dogs up for success to counteract those bad habits right away, if they’re an adult dog, versus a puppy, we don’t know what bad habits are going to be inclined to do genetically as far as that.
So if I have, like, a Border Collie that loves to stare at something rather than move towards it and tug, I can fix that right away by my play style with that adult dog, versus a puppy, I wouldn’t know if they were really inclined to do that behavior.
Melissa Breau: It’s funny because you keep bringing that up, and it’s like, hmm, were you sitting there watching when I was training Levi this morning?
I want to shift gears a little bit. I know that in addition to your own dogs, you foster, and typically the dogs you foster are dogs that are likely going to be good sports prospects. I was hoping you’d share a little bit about that. How do you wind up with the dogs you do? How did you become a foster home for those specific types of dogs? I think a lot of people think that maybe fostering dogs would be a good way to find one that’s a good fit for them and their sport and whatnot.
Sara Brueske: Yes, fostering is definitely a good way to go. It’s a hands-on experience. You’re helping the dog out, you’re helping the rescue out, or the shelter out. Worst case you’re giving the dog a good experience, hopefully you’re giving the dog a good experience, by fostering them, and you’re learning more about that dog, But I am always one for foster-to-adopt. I think that’s definitely a good way to go.
My network of adopters is just sport-dog people. I don’t have a good network of adopters that are looking for a good pet. All the people I know in the world of dog, they all do agility, fly ball, disc, diving, they’re all looking for their next competition dog, and so that’s why I really focus on sport candidate fosters versus just whatever dog is in the shelter, because I’ve had dogs that have had lower drive that I’ve tried to foster before, and it takes me forever to find them a home, versus most people when they’re looking for a pet, they go to specific shelters or rescues, and those dogs get adopted and they get the appropriate eyes on them right away.
And so I look for the dogs that I can place relatively easy, the ones that other resources like shelters or rescue groups don’t have the network towards, and so it’s my little niche area that I can make sure I get those dogs the right eyes on them right away.
A lot of times the rescues I’ve worked with in the past they’ll contact me and say they have a candidate that they would like a foundation on, or maybe further evaluated, or they just don’t have an appropriate foster for, and I’ll take that dog there.
Sometimes individual people will contact me. They’re struggling with their dog and they want to rehome, but they don’t have the resources, they don’t have the knowledge of where to go, so they’ll contact me that way.
A lot of local people that come out and watch our show and know that we work with a lot of rescue dogs, they’ll contact us when they know of a dog that needs a home that they think is a little toy-crazy or nutty, or sometimes I just see a dog that’s shared on Facebook, and I think it’s a very interesting dog, and I’ll offer that I can foster and maybe put a foundation on it, and sometimes they take me up on it and sometimes they don’t. So they kind of come from all over the place.
Melissa Breau: As somebody who has fostered and owned a wide variety of dogs and breeds, are there similarities that you see? Differences? Anything we haven't gotten into?
Sara Brueske: I think it’s just your typical breed differences. Anybody who has taken any of my seminars or classes, I always say, if I say something like, “Your dog’s doing that because it’s a Border Collie,” or anything along those lines, it’s not a bash on the breed at all. Or “Your dog’s doing that because it’s a Cattle Dog,” or because it’s a Koolie or a Malinois, those are just the traits you tend to see. So depending on the breed, there are definitely things that you see that are similar from breed to breed to breed, and when you see an outlier that’s always a cool thing because it goes against the normal grain for that breed.
I think I tend to like a certain type of dog, and so I tend to gravitate towards those dogs, dogs that are just kind of crazy and off the wall, crazy about their toys, but other than that there’s such a big difference between breeds and dogs that it’s pretty crazy.
I love fostering, so I get to know so many different dogs. I get a random itching to foster some random, weird, scruffy dog that I see, and I’m like, “I need to have that dog.” And part of it’s really cool for me because it gives me that hands-on experience with that breed that I wouldn’t have experienced another way. So yeah, I definitely want to foster the Golden Retriever puppy that I haven’t had the chance to work with one-on-one before, or some other random breed. It’s a learning experience always.
Melissa Breau: One last question to summarize all of this stuff. If somebody is listening and they’re looking for a new sports dog, and they want to go that adult dog or rescue route, to bring it all together, what advice would you give that person?
Sara Brueske: If I was looking for a new sport dog or had a close friend that was looking for another sport dog, I would definitely point them towards either breed-specific rescues or sport-dog-specific rescues. Just a situation where the dog is in a home, and that foster home has had a chance to properly evaluate them in a bunch of different situations, and that they know that dog’s tendencies, there are not going to be any surprises that crop up on you as far as that goes, and it gives you a good chance to really evaluate that dog versus a dog coming from a shelter situation.
I’m not saying you can’t find great dogs at shelters. You absolutely can. I’ve found some amazing dogs through shelters — a bunch of my fosters, Edgar, tons of dogs from shelters. But if you’re kind of limited as far as resources and that sort of thing, having those dogs that are in a foster home is really the way to go as far as that goes.
There are a few dog-sport-specific rescues, Epic Sport Dog Rescue is one of them, and then breed-specific rescues like Midwest Border Collie Rescue or All Herding Breed Rescue of Illinois, or any of those that tend to get those type of herding breeds or whatever breed that they’re looking at. If they’re looking at Labs, look at a Lab-specific rescue type of a deal.
And just get the word out there. If you are already in a sport, tell as many people as you can that, “Hey, I’m in the market,” and just be prepared to wait for the right dog. So get the word out there, contact as many different people as you know on Facebook, and say, “I’m looking for this, these are the requirements I’m looking for,” a 30-pound dog that might be good at Frisbee or agility or whatever it may be, and just see what comes your way.
There’s also a lot of really great Facebook groups as well. Adoptable Performance Dogs, Adoptable Sport and Working Dogs, both of them are groups on Facebook where a lot of people will cross-post dogs that are available for adoption.
Melissa Breau: Thank you so much, Sara, for coming back on the podcast. This was great.
Sara Brueske: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week with — and I’m sorry, guys, I’m probably going to butcher his name until I talk to him and find out how to pronounce it — but we’ll be back next week with Mike Shikashio to talk about working with dog-dog aggression.
If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.
Nancy Gagliardi Little has been training dogs since the early 1980s, when she put an OTCH on her Novice A dog, a Labrador Retriever. Since then she has put many advanced obedience titles on her dogs, and multiple championships in herding and agility.
To be released 10/19/2018, an interview with Sara Brueske on bringing an adult dog and/or rescue into your household as a sports prospect.
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 have Nancy Gagliardi Little back on the podcast. Nancy has been training dogs since the early 1980s, when she put an OTCH on her Novice A dog, a Labrador Retriever. Since then she has put many advanced obedience titles on her dogs, and multiple championships in herding and agility.
Welcome back to the podcast, Nancy!
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Thanks Melissa. It’s great to be here.
Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you just remind listeners a little bit about who you are and who the dogs are that you share your life with?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: I’m Nancy Little and I live in Minnesota. I train in obedience and agility, but I’m competing most in agility.
We have four Border Collies in the house and a Toller. The Toller is my husband’s dog. He’s a 3-year-old dog named Rugby. My dogs are all spanned out from 14 years to 10 months of age.
Score is my oldest. He’s retired, obviously, he’s 14 years old. I trialed him in herding and agility. He has his herding … actually he’s very, very close to finishing his herding championship, but I never did finish it. And he has MACH … I don’t remember how many, I think it was a MACH 2. Schema is my 10-and-a-half-year-old Border Collie, and I’m just blessed that she’s still trialing. She’s still trialing in agility, and she has a MACH 2, a PACH, which is a Preferred Agility Championship, and an ADCH from USDAA. Like I said, she’s running in Preferred. She is qualified for AKC Nationals. This is the sixth year, I think, that she’s qualified, which is amazing. I’m really proud of her accomplishments this past year.
Like I say, I’m just blessed that she’s still running. She’s 10-and-a-half years old. She had an injury this year. She was out for three months with a bit of a back strain. She still ended up being the Number 3 Preferred Border Collie in the AKC Invitational rankings, which I had no plan on. I’m not doing anything in terms of Invitational rankings, because with Border Collies it’s just ridiculous. But I got notified that she was the Number 3 Preferred dog, which is amazing since she was out for three months. She’s just very consistent and she’s very fast.
She also, for all breeds, there’s another ranking system called the Power 60, which is done by Bad Dog Agility for the year ending in … I guess it was the second quarter. She was the Number 1 All Breed in the 16-inch Preferred. Of course she, in June, brought me back into obedience for a little bit. Our agility club that I was on the trial committee was also hosting, besides an agility trial, we used to have a two-ring agility trial, and we put on an obedience trial as well. She’s trained in obedience, and I brought her out for the first time in Beginner Novice, and that was kind of fun to get two legs.
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: It was fun to finish that off. Then there’s Lever. He’s 5. He just qualified for the first time for AKC Agility Nationals and he’s working on his MACH in AKC. Then I have my youngest, her name is Pose. She’s Lever’s daughter and she’s 10 months old.
So that’s my group. I have a lot of fun with all of them for different reasons.
Melissa Breau: It’s neat because you’ve got a wide range of skills and ages and can do lots of different stuff. I’d imagine training day at your house is probably quite the mix of things.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: It is, because I still want to work … Score goes out with me and trains. He’s around when I’m training all the time. He just kind of hangs out. It gets him exercise and he enjoys being out with the other dogs. He provides a great distraction because he’s always trying to get in close to me.
Melissa Breau: Since you have a young dog, what are you focusing on with her right now? What do you hope to achieve long-term?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Well, I love agility obviously a lot, so my goals are going to be, or hopefully will be, that we compete in agility. But I plan on training her in obedience and herding as well, and time will tell what I decide to do in those areas. But I absolutely love puppy training, so I’m enjoying this time with her.
She’s learning lots of very important skills right now. I’m lucky that she’s able to come to work with me when I teach at the training school. Also when I’m at competition, she comes with me. She goes everywhere with me. She’s learned to be relaxed and quiet. I keep her in an X-pen when I’m teaching.
Also when I’m competing with Lever and Schema, she’s crated, and she’s learning how to exist among all the chaos at the agility trials and when I’m teaching. She hears my voice and she’s super quiet. So I’m really proud of how she’s adjusted to that. She acclimates nicely when she’s crated at the trials. I really like that. She’s one of the best dogs I’ve had coming up in terms of being able to relax and chill.
What she’s learning — there’s nothing really big right now. She’s 10 months old and I feel like she doesn’t know anything, but yet she does know a lot. I’ve focused a lot on toy games, tugging games, some personal play she’s really good at, and food games. We do that in different environments, and I’ve got a lot of opportunities around the school to be able to train around other dogs, also including my own dogs, which are quite the distraction for her because it gets her arousal up and some competitiveness, which is always good. So we work on things like that.
I like to move her back and forth between high-arousal and low-arousal behaviors, because that’s an issue with Border Collies is that a lot of times they get that high arousal and they can’t mentally function, so just getting her to shift around from being pretty high to thinking things through has been fun. She’s done really well. She can make that shift really well.
In terms of the foundation stuff I’m working on, event markers, do a lot of stuff with that, stationing, just to make sure that I have a place to start and stop and think about things, and then I also work my startlines from stations. I start that initial work, pivots, targeting, wraps around wings or cones, and the beginning of two on, two off.
This is funny — I listened to Shade’s podcast, and she was talking about her puppy and the sit, and it’s like, “Oh, that’s exactly what’s going on with Pose.” I just recently started working her on her sit because I didn’t really like the way she was sitting. She was growing fast and her rear feet were all over the place. I mean, she would sit, but she’s so bendy and all over the place that I was like, “Well, I don’t think we’re going to do this right now.”
I just started working on it now, and she’s really tightened up everything. It’s interesting how many people ask puppies to sit, and she just looks at them like, “What? I don’t know what that means.” So it’s surprising for them to learn that she doesn’t know how to sit. That’s the big thing we just started working on now, because I wanted to start working on her startline and her different positions — sit and down and those kinds of things.
Melissa Breau: You’re talking a little bit about startlines in there. Have you started working on startlines with her yet?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Yes, she does have the beginning of a startline. The sit is not really something that I need before I start working on the beginning of a startline, and as we talk through here, you’ll see that most of it is just for her learning what the release cue is, and you can do that from any position. So she’s actually got a fairly decent and I’ll still call it beginning of a startline, so I’m happy with that.
Melissa Breau: I saw a question pop up in one of the Fenzi Facebook groups the other day where a competitor mentioned her dog’s startline had eroded and she was starting to retrain it. What are some of the early signs that a dog’s startline may be beginning to or about to fall apart?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: What happens is most people watch for the dog’s feet or body movement as mistakes. By doing that, you’re missing the early signs that there’s issues. So in terms of getting early signs that the startline is about to fall apart, I think it’s more important to pay attention to facial expressions and what’s going on emotionally: what is she looking at, how is she processing, how is she evaluating what’s in front of her, how is she really seeing toys as reinforcement for whatever is happening there, and then just paying attention to how she’s appearing and how she’s responding, I know whether the startline is confident and stable.
Those are the early signs, and I don’t think people pay attention to that, that look on the dog’s face of “Huh?” or something’s bothering them, their head dips, there’s lip licking, ears are back, the kind of facial expression that tells you that something’s happening, That’s in the context of the startline, and once that starts happening, you’re going to start to see more movement. So it’s kind of a head issue, a mental issue, it’s just checking their emotional state.
Melissa Breau: If somebody does catch it early, or they start to see some of the signs start to creep in, what is the best way to re-establish that strong startline that hopefully they had at one point?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: If they had a really good startline and are catching it early, then there’s some things to keep in mind. When there’s mistakes, like I said previously, the focus should be first on the dog’s emotions, because a confident, happy dog is much more likely to be able to understand what’s being asked. It’s also going to make the trainer more aware of frustration or confusion coming from the dog, focusing on that emotional state. Like I said previously, the trainers are relying on the dog’s body movement as an indicator of an issue, and that is always too late, in my opinion. So that’s the most important step in re-establishing or maintaining a startline.
The second thing would be teach a reliable release. The release cue is truly the easiest way to get a reliable startline stay. Training a strong release cue. In the world of agility, there’s so much information for the dog to process because of the atmosphere and the energy in the sport. For a dog to have a well-trained startline, the handler needs to eliminate all these extra prompts and movements that are associated with, and they also predict the release cue. Many dogs are breaking the startline because they’re frustrated, or they’re anxious or confused because the actual release cue is different than the handler is intending it to be.
The other thing that can happen is the dog just can’t predict when the release cue will be given. There’s all kinds of extra motion, and they’re back there watching the handler and getting all twitchy because they’re not sure when they’re going to turn and give the release. Training a reliable release is another one of the big ones.
The third one is — this is another issue, too, that I’m kind of surprised at — is startline behaviors that the dog has, or what you have to train. Make sure that the dog is trained so that they understand the criteria and the dog is in control of it. A big issue is when handlers attempt to control the stay. They physically place the dog into position, or they’re repeating the stay cue over and over, verbal … I’ll say threats like, “You stay, you stay,” or “Hey,” things like that, as the handler leaves.
Another thing is facing the dog. As the handler is moving away, they’re facing the dog.
All of these behaviors, these are behaviors by the handler. They’re all controlling behaviors, and it’s a sure way to create a frustrated and confused dog. Those are eventually going to break down any trained behaviors, because dogs want to be in control and they like being in control. The funny thing is, I hear this a lot, is that handlers will label their dogs as pushy or naughty, and usually it’s the handler’s fault for not training the behavior so that the dog offers it and maintains it on their own without the handler intervening.
The very last thing that is important is handler connection. The dogs do much better with startlines when the handler leads out and is super connected with their dog. Some dogs don’t have issues with a lack of connection with the handler, but lots of times the startline issues are resolved when the handler learns how to lead out and continues to stay connected with the dog.
So those are four areas that I keep in mind when there’s mistakes, and those are based on if the dog had a strong startline previously. That way, when some of these things are caught early, it’s really easy to fix.
Melissa Breau: I’d imagine, though, that sometimes figuring out what it is, or breaking it down, can be hard, especially if a dog doesn’t maintain their stay and you are getting some movement, and then you let them run anyway, that’s reinforcing that behavior, assuming the dog likes agility, which I think is probably a safe assumption for our audience. And if you don’t let them run, you’re increasing frustration, which might further erode the stay and have other fallout. So can you talk about that a bit, how you handle problems if they do pop up? And maybe what some of the pros and cons are of the options that competitors have in that situation?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: You’re right. Every time the dog leaves before the release cue, that behavior gets stronger, and as you said, dogs love doing agility, and so it’s a really strong reinforcement to go and to run. So there’s lots of strong behavior chains that are unintentionally built into the startline routine as the dog starts a set of unwanted behaviors. Those behaviors continue to be reinforced as the handler moves forward in that routine until the dog’s running the course. So problem-solving startlines are kind of complex and they depend on the history of the issue, the dog, and the handler.
The cool thing and the reason why I like this so much, this stuff, is there’s never a simple, cookie-cutter approach. But obviously the best scenario is catching it early and not allowing it to occur at the trials. Once it continues at the trials, you get a long history of that behavior, it’s a little more difficult, but you can still fix them. So I like to help handlers develop a plan for their particular situation, and they vary a lot. It would involve a training plan, handling plan or changes, and how to handle mistakes. Those are big ones because every dog is different. It’s going to vary a lot between teams.
Regarding the pros and cons, that’s going to vary a lot also, depending on the situation. For instance, there can be both pros and cons leaving the ring if you actually remove a dog. Say if the dog breaks a startline, and you remove the dog or you leave the ring. Some dogs have built up such a strong reinforcement history for going before the release cue that leaving the course without running will eventually get rid of that behavior, and it’s sometimes the best way to do that. It’s also important, when you do that, that you’re not adding any more emotional baggage, that you just leave happy, because those dogs want to run, so even when the handler leaves happy and even reinforces the dog, or rewards the dog, and exits, it’s still going to positively affect that dog’s ability to focus on the release cue in the future, because that’s really what they want to do.
But then there’s other dogs that are more sensitive to mistakes, and then if you remove those dogs from the course when a mistake happens, it’s going to cause a lot more anxiety and frustration. So in that situation I’m going to probably suggest running the dog, and then evaluating the training and handling plan to ensure success, because those dogs care a lot about being right, so something probably was amiss in training or handling.
Melissa Breau: Let’s say, looking at it from the opposite angle, somebody has a strong startline now, and they realize that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Is simply reinforcing that stay by continuing to release the dog to play agility — is that going to be enough to maintain that behavior? Are there other things they should they be doing to maintain that behavior?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Once the dog has a lot of value for agility obstacles, and a good understanding of handling, and has a well-trained startline, then yes, I strongly believe that releasing that dog from the stay at the startline will reinforce that startline. Most dogs love agility, and they want to go, and they’re much more reinforced by going forward than having the handler return to reward them.
So strong startline behaviors, they can deteriorate a lot, and I’ve seen that happen when the dogs, all they want to do, they want to go, and the handler wants to reinforce that or wants to reward that, and the behavior is interrupted by the handler returning to reward. So I really feel that if they have a strong, solid startline and they like agility, they like to play agility, then releasing them forward is a great reinforcer.
Melissa Breau: I want to get into — you talked about this a little bit — the emotional component of startlines for a minute. If a dog is breaking their stay, what is that really saying about their emotional state? How does that play into that bigger game of agility?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: I believe this is the area, like I said before, that most trainers miss — that emotional component. It’s about recognizing the expressions or behaviors that indicate the dog is frustrated or anxious and confused.
When they miss that, they continue on the same path in their working skills, attempting to address mistakes, and what happens is that the dog’s stress level continues to increase because they’re feeling all these emotions, And as you know, when the dog is stressed, they can be over-aroused, or they can be even under-aroused, and they can’t think or function anymore, and then any of the skills that were taught are going to deteriorate, and there’s going to be bad feelings at that startline.
So when there’s a negative emotional issue at the startline, once they go, that’s carried into the performance once the dog starts running. So yeah, it’s a big deal.
Melissa Breau: I’d love to talk a little bit about proofing and lead-outs. With the variety of all the different course layouts out there, and all the different options when it comes to course layouts, there’s so many different pictures that the dog has when working on their startline or when they need to maintain their startline. Do handlers … is it really just about training as many of those “pictures” as you can, or is there a better way to help a dog generalize an awesome startline to understand that no matter what obstacle or no matter what layout they see, that it’s still the same behavior?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: That’s a really good question, and it might be another thing that is missed a lot. I’m pretty proud of my dogs’ lead-outs, because they’re fast and it’s always such an advantage to start out running a course being fairly far ahead, so I have some pretty nice lead-outs on my dogs.
Part of it is practicing all different types of patterns. The first step is to teach them to be able to jump. Most of the startlines are either tunnels or jumps, and I practice a lot of slice jumping, so that the dogs can take a lead-out, but still take a jump at a sliced angle. Even though I’m very much in the picture, they’ll still take the line that I set, and that gives me a lot of options. Basically, you’re going to lead them at a jump at a slice, they might be facing the jump at sideways while you’ve led out.
Most people, what they’ll do is they’ll face their dog straight ahead toward the jump, and then they’re at a disadvantage because the dog doesn’t really see Obstacle 1 and 2. If I can put my dog on a slice, then he or she can see Jumps 1 and 2, or Obstacles 1 and 2, and it’s an advantage for me to be able to get out a little bit further, because Jumps 1 and 2 are taken care of. So I do a lot of complicated patterns, mostly with jumps, but then I’ll add some tunnels as well in there. Because tunnels are super arousing. So those patterns are really important.
The other thing I’ll work on is long lead-outs. There’s many times it’s a jump to a contact, you jump, dog walk or jump, weave, can you lead way out and way past the beginning of the contact, maybe to the end, and can your dog do that pattern. So patterns are very important, and as long as you’re consistent about the dog’s line and supporting the line, they should be able to handle that.
But the other part of that question is that I’m going to also add lots of distractions to startlines because there are distractions at the trials. One way I do that is I’ll use other dogs, or people, or just set it up in a variety of environments, and then what I’ll do is I’ll execute a startline routine, which means just come into the ring, do my setup, lead out, and release, so that’s just basically … not really necessarily running a sequence. I’ll do that starting, like, with dogs maybe standing still at a distance, or then the dog is moving a little bit at a distance, or the dog is running sequences at a distance.
The other thing is you add people, because there’s people at trials. They’re everywhere. They’re behind the dog at the startline, getting ready to take the leash, they’re sitting in chairs, sometimes they’re moving to set bars. You just start adding movement, decreasing distance, having a leash runner behind the dog. These are all external distractions. You don’t want to just have them happen once the dog starts trialing. You want the dog to be introduced to those things because they are a big part of the startline, and can the dog focus while those distractions are there, can the dog execute that startline routine.
The other distraction I like to add is handler distractions, like, can you hold your stay while I’m disconnected, if I’m a super disconnected handler or a super over-excited handler, or I might pair some movement with a few releases, and then I go back to a clear cue release. They’re just some fun games to ensure that the dog understands the whole startline routine that I’ve set up.
Melissa Breau: Of course, we’re talking about startlines because your class on the topic is running this term — so anything that we didn’t get into that might be useful for students to know, if they’re considering the class?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Lots of people ask about what type of dogs are best for this type of class. It’s one of my favorite subjects, so I love doing it because of the variety and creativity. But it’s great for young dogs because the class is basically building that startline behavior, and then also working with handlers so that things are going to be maintained properly.
It’s good for dogs learning startline behaviors and it’s also good for dogs that are having issues with their understanding of it at trials. I’m working with the handlers to ensure they’re giving clear information to their dogs, because lots of times they’re not aware that some of that is actually causing the issues. Once they see that, it becomes clear. I help the handlers individually changing their behavior. And then, as I mentioned previously, there’s different strategies to change the dog’s behavior, too, and it’s going to vary with all the different types of dogs.
The question, too, people have about taking it at the Bronze level, which you can’t really ask questions. You’re just going to be watching the Gold students and looking at the lectures. I’m really good about explaining to people why I’m giving certain advice for a certain dog, because I realize there are going to be Bronze students out there that are going to be wondering, Is that something I should do with my dog? I want them to understand that this is in particular what I would do with this type of dog.
With this particular class, because it started — today is October 1st, so it just started — I do have a very interesting class. There’s a lot of variety in it. There’s some dogs that actually need a little more speed, and then there’s the other typical, lightning-fast dogs that just require a lead-out in the class. So there’s something for everyone.
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I want to change topics a little bit. I know you have your open and utility problem-solving class on the calendar for December, so I just want to chat a little bit about obedience. What are some of the common problem areas when teams are competing at that level — places where the teams just seem to struggle?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: For some reason, the most popular exercises seem to be signals and directed jumping, and specifically go-outs in utility. There’s a lot of that. In open it’s usually a variety of issues, lots of heeling, fronts, finishes, drop on recall, that’s more of a variety of things. But signals and directed jumping are really, really, really popular exercises to work on. That’s where people seem to struggle.
Melissa Breau: It’s one of those classes where I’m sure you see the same couple of issues or common issues come up, the same exercises pop up over and over and over again, right?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: It does, but interesting enough, there’s always a little bit of a difference between each of the teams because of the dog, or specifically what the issue is in each of the areas.
Melissa Breau: Once a handler has identified signals or go-outs or one particular exercise as the sticking point for their particular dog, what’s involved in developing a plan for taking and saying, “OK, this is a problem. How do we improve our dog’s understanding of this exercise so that we can get it right?”
Nancy Gagliardi Little: The first thing is figuring out where is the issue within the exercise. Lots of times it’s a little bit different than what might have been explained or noted by the handler. Lots of times they’re dead-on, but I might find a little detail that I think is probably going to be important to work on first. Then we find a plan together to address that particular issue, and then I try to get it so that we build that piece back into the exercise, and that’s assuming that the rest of the exercise is healthy.
Making sure that the handling is in place too — that’s super important for all of the obedience exercises is to make sure that the handling is consistent and the dog is not confused. It’s not like I’m proposing certain handling of all exercises, because I’m going to work with whatever they have, and if the dog is confused, then we need to make a change.
So depending on the problem, it might be teaching different skills, it might be working on handling, there’s other things too. We create a plan then to move forward. It’s much bigger than that. That’s a pretty simplified version.
Melissa Breau: Well, there’s only so much you can do if it’s a six-week class to try to explain in a podcast.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Exactly.
Melissa Breau: Would it be helpful to talk through an example? So maybe take one exercise and talk us through an example of a previous dog or a previous issue?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Sure. For example, utility signals seems to be a big thing. Say somebody comes in and they have issues with signals. After I look at the video, I’m going to probably first review the handler signals without the dog, to ensure that they look clear to me and they look different.
I’m really picky about signals. I like them to start differently. The sooner the dog knows what that signal is going to be, the faster the response from the dog. If they have to wait until the signal is complete before they recognize a cue, then obviously the signal is going to be … or the response from the dog is going to be super slow.
So then I’m going to develop a plan for handling, maybe make some … I’m not going to change everything, just the parts that I think are unclear, and usually the dog’s telling us that anyway. So I look at the dog’s response.
I’m going to probably have them do verbal position changes and take a look at those, and see how the dog’s responding to the verbal cues, making sure that there’s no additional prompting occurring from the handler. If the dog can’t respond to the verbal, then I’m going to probably work on that first, rather than the signal, because signals can be a little more complicated.
So get that going first, and then we also have to incorporate a good reinforcement strategy for that dog so that we can maintain that distance from the handler. And then gradually, as things improve, we build a distance with the verbal cues, and then I’m going to start to add the signals in with shorter distance, gradually increase that distance.
Also, some of this I’m using props to help the dog, depending on the situation. Some dogs don’t need it; they’re doing just fine. Some might need it.
The other big thing for me for signals is making sure we’re reinforcing the duration in each of the positions, that it’s not just about changing positions.
So there’s a lot of different things to consider and a lot of different tangents that we can go on.
Melissa Breau: Certainly makes it easy to see why it’s a sticking point. Lots of different pieces.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Right, right, right. There’s a lot of stuff going on. And the thing, too, about signals is it’s difficult for the dog too. I think one of the reasons why it can be so difficult is they’re heeling and they’re with the handler, and then all of a sudden there’s this transition to this distance work, so I think that’s really hard for some dogs, especially the Utility A dogs, or the new dogs that are trialing.
Melissa Breau: Alright Nancy, I’ve got one last question here, and it’s the question I’m asking everyone now when they come on: What’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Nancy Gagliardi Little: All of the podcasts I’m like, “Oh my God, I don’t know how I would answer that question, because there’s so much.” There’s so much stuff out there. But all of a sudden, when I got this question, it was like, bam, I knew exactly what I was going to say. And it might be a bit different, but I attended an event a few weeks ago, it was honoring my dad, and I was reminded of something that’s important in training dogs and life in general.
He coached college football pretty successfully for 60 years, over 60 years, and he’s actually the winningest college football coach of all time. He did things unconventionally then, and it’s actually unconventional now, even. He made changes in his own program that built kindness and respect in a pretty violent sport. I think I even talked a little bit about this in the original podcast that I did with you, where he had no hitting or blocking in practice — and that was way back in the late ’50s — because he noticed that some of his best players weren’t playing in the games because they’d get hurt during practice. So instinctively it felt right to not hit in practice.
That was 50 years ahead of the game. These are actually practices now that are being looked at and incorporated in some of the pro teams and big college programs today. They’re just looking at that. But he trusted his instincts and he didn’t allow any of the distractions of how things are supposed to be done to guide his decisions.
This has kind of always been my thing is I think it’s really important for all of us to focus on what we believe in and to trust our instincts, because if something feels wrong, then don’t do it. If something feels right, do it. Don’t over-analyze why you should or shouldn’t do something. Trust your feelings.
I don’t think we really trust our feelings enough. It might be different than what somebody else is doing, but that’s how new ideas are discovered. So you can still make detailed plans, you can still obsess about those plans, and execute those plans, and evaluate the results, and develop more plans based on the results, but be aware of your feelings as you train, and trust them, because if you’re feeling frustrated or there’s negative emotions, then something is wrong, and if you’re feeling great, then keep going, you’re on the right track.
I firmly believe that emotions are going to guide you in the right direction, so trust them, and don’t be distracted with what your friends on Facebook are doing. Stay aware of those feelings. They can help you stay on track and move in the right direction, and you might discover something incredibly wonderful and different.
Melissa Breau: Right. I like that. I like that a lot. Thank you so much Nancy! This has been great.
Nancy Gagliardi Little: Thanks! It’s been great being here.
Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with Sara Brueske to talk about evaluating potential rescues for dog sports, fostering potential sports dogs, and more.
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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.
Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!
Stacy Barnett is an active competitor in Nosework, Tracking, Obedience, Rally, Agility and Barn Hunt, but Scent Sports are her primary focus and her first love. She is an AKC Judge and contractor, as well as an instructor at FDSA.
She hosts the Scentsabilities podcast and blogs regularly on nosework topics at www.scentsabilitiesnw.com.
To be released 10/12/2018, an interview with Nancy Gagliardi Little on agility startlines and obedience.
Today we’ll be talking to Stacy Barnett.
Stacy is an active competitor in Nosework, Tracking, Obedience, Rally, Agility and Barn Hunt, but Scent Sports are her primary focus and her first love. She is an AKC Judge and contractor, as well as an instructor at FDSA. She hosts the Scentsabilities podcast and blogs regularly on nosework topics at www.scentsabilitiesnw.com — nw is for nosework. I’ll be sure to include a link in the show notes for anybody who is interested.
Hi Stacy, welcome back to the podcast.
Stacy Barnett: Hi Melissa. How are you?
Melissa Breau: Good. I’m excited to chat. It’s morning for us now, so good morning.
Stacy Barnett: Oh, I don’t even know what time it is. I flew in from Reno last night, and I was in Sweden right before that, so my body’s very confused. So if you tell me it’s morning, I’ll just believe you. I’ve got a little bit of jetlag going on.
Melissa Breau: All different sorts of time zones.
Stacy Barnett: Yes.
Melissa Breau: To get us started, do you want to just remind listeners a little bit about who the dogs are that you share your life with?
Stacy Barnett: Sure, sure. I’ve got four hooligans that live in my house and that I love and that I work with. Joey is my senior poodle. He is turning 11, I think this week. He’s at the NW 3 level, which is the third level. Then I have a 7-year-old miniature American Shepherd, or mini Aussie. He’s at the NW 2 level. Then I have two Labradors. They’re my primary nosework competition dogs. I have Judd. Judd is my 9-year-old. He is a Summit title holder, which puts him at the top of his sport. It’s really, really exciting. That happened recently. And an 18-month-old Labrador female named Brava. She’s full of vinegar. Really, really a fun dog, high, high drive, and she’s really teaching me a lot about arousal.
Melissa Breau: I want to do a deep dive on nosework today — starting with some of the science-y stuff. What is it about a dog, biologically, that really allows them to excel when it comes to identifying a scent and then tracking it to the source?
Stacy Barnett: I love the science behind this. This is probably one of the reasons why I love nosework so much is I’m a little bit of a geek and I have a scientific background. But what I love about this is that there’s a lot of history here.
Dogs evolved from wolves. Wolves, if you think about it, have to travel long distances in order to find their prey. They go over miles and miles and miles and miles to find that large prey, and to do that, they have to use their noses, and they have to be able to track, and they have to be able to hunt.
Dogs have inherited that ability, and if you look at them from a biological perspective, they all have that ability. Twelve-and-a-half percent of their brain is dedicated to olfaction, so the olfactory lobe is 12-and-a-half percent, it’s one-eighth of their brain.
The other part of it is that the nose itself. They have the ability to scent directionally. You and I have the ability to hear directionally, so if I’m standing in front of you, you know I’m standing in front of you, because we have space between our ears, and this space is what allows us to hear in stereo. Dogs can smell in stereo because they have space between their nostrils. It has to do with what they call aerodynamic reach. The difference between the space in the nostrils and aerodynamic reach, it’s kind of technical, but it’s one of the reasons why they can scent directionally. Every breed can do this. Every breed, from a Chihuahua up to a Great Dane, it doesn’t matter how big or small their nose is, they still have that space between their nostrils.
So there’s that, and they also have the ability, when they sniff in and they blow out, they have these slits on the side of their nose, so the air blows out of the side of their nose, and it doesn’t disturb the scent that’s being pulled in in the next sniff. It’s fascinating.
Melissa Breau: It is pretty neat, especially thinking about the directional piece of it. I imagine it plays such a big role when you’re doing something like scentwork.
Stacy Barnett: Oh, totally. Totally.
Melissa Breau: Obviously, our noses can’t even come close … so when we’re teaching a dog nosework, once a team is past the basics, what factors influence the difficulty of that search?
Stacy Barnett: There’s so many factors. Airflow is a big part of it. From an airflow perspective, airflow is caused by air pressure differentials, which means that there’s differences in air pressure. Air will move from a high-pressure area to a low-pressure area, so that causes air to flow.
Air also moves because of temperature differentials. We all know hot air rises and cool air falls, so if you get an area that’s more in the sun, the air is going to rise and it’s going to fall in a shady area. So there’s that.
You also have the aspect of how long the hides have been in the area. We call that aging. That is basically, because of the process of diffusion, the longer the hide is aged, the larger the scent cone is going to be. What you’re going to find is that it also depends on how many hides you have and what proximity those hides are to each other, and if you have high hides, if you have low hides, and how the hides interact, because it becomes exponentially more difficult when you have more than one hide out.
The other thing is if you have a change in slope, so if you’re scenting and you’re on a slope, that can make a big difference. Standing water, moisture, rain, really the possibilities are endless, and it’s one of the coolest things about this sport, because every time you go to do a search, it’s different. You can never duplicate the same search. It’s always different, it’s always cool, it’s always fresh. It’s always fun.
Melissa Breau: I want to talk about some of that terminology for a minute — can you just talk us through that? I know you mentioned airflow and aging and scent cones. Can you define what some of those things are, if people are new to this?
Stacy Barnett: Think about a scent cone. We call it a scent cone. People often think in their head, they think of an ice cream cone, but it’s really not that accurate. The scent cone is the plume of odor that we can’t see, but it’s out there because the odor has diffused, or the molecules have left the source, and it becomes like a plume in the air that the dog is following.
A scent cone looks like, if you look at a smokestack, and with a smokestack you can kind of see the plume and it goes in the direction that the air is flowing. So if the wind is going from north to south, your plume is going to go from north to south. That’s going to be more what a scent cone actually looks like.
If you think about it, when you have less airflow, it’s not quite as windy, your scent cone is going to be a little bit wider, and when you get a windy condition, you get a narrow scent cone, which is more like if you had a water hose and you were to put it on high pressure. So that scent cone is going to go farther and it’s going to be narrower, so where the dog intersects is going to be different.
Aging has to do with … we call it aging, and it’s essentially how long the hide has been out and sitting out, because it changes how the dog has to work the hide.
Then we have things like pooling odor. Pooling odor is, if you think about a pool of water, that’s exactly what happens. That odor pools in an area and it collects in an area. That’s a lot of fun too.
Melissa Breau: Since we can’t “see” scent, and obviously we don’t smell it, how do we really know all this about the way that scents travel? How do we know what we know?
Stacy Barnett: We call it scent theory, and we call it scent theory for a reason: because it’s theory. My own background is I have a chemical engineering degree. I pull from my understanding of fluid flow dynamics in order to really understand odor.
Air is just another fluid. It’s a gas, but gas is just a fluid in a different state. It all follows fluid flow mechanics. But I think the easiest way to think about it is to think about water. If you think about how water flows, like water in a stream, you can understand turbulence, there’s eddies, all these things happen with air. You get turbulence, you get eddies, because when water hits a rock in a stream, you get the turbulence before and after the rock. The same thing happens with air. So if we can understand how air flows, we know how the odor is carried on that air.
Again, it’s theory, but I think we have a pretty good grasp of it. I like to think about that, or think about a smokestack or something like that, to give a visual, because if we can understand a visual, we can start to figure out what it’s actually doing. We can’t smell it the way that the dogs can smell it, but if we can have a visual, I think it helps us.
Melissa Breau: Thinking through that for a minute, if there are multiple hides in a room, and you get multiple scent cones, and some of those maybe even overlap … how do you begin to teach the dog this idea that there are multiple hides, and OK, they found one, they need to go find another one. I feel like that’s a complex concept, and maybe they even have to return to where they started in order to trace it to source.
Stacy Barnett: That is all about converging odor. That’s what we call it, where you have different scent cones and the scent cones overlap. It’s very complicated for the dog to find it, but they’re absolutely capable of doing this.
What I usually do is I start with the hides fairly far apart, and then I start to set a situation up where the scent cones start to overlap. But what’s hard is that the dog has to … oh, and when they go from one hide and to help them move to another, you can actually help move with your body. And I cue them with a word. I say, “Find another.” “Find another” means “That hide is done, it’s finished, let’s go find another hide.” And the body motion helps to move the dog into a new area, because they’re going to follow your body motion. So that really helps.
You also have to start realizing dogs are hardwired for “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” So they’re going to be hardwired to ignore another hide for the hide that they’re already at, so you have to start to figure out your reward schedules and whether or not you’re going to re-feed at that hide if they come back to it.
What’s easy in the beginning is to work the dog on leash, so that you can use the leash to help them stay, to not return to the original hide. From a re-feeding perspective, I do always re-feed the hide if the dog has confidence or motivation issues or if the dog is very green. Once I know the dog is confident and motivated and the dog is not as green, I start not re-feeding the hide because I want them to know that that hide is finished and they have to find the next one.
Melissa Breau: I think it’s an interesting process where you don’t want to erode your confidence, so sometimes you do want to reward them for finding it, but it definitely depends on the dog and the experience level. That makes sense.
Stacy Barnett: And sometimes the dog actually has to go back to that hide in order to find the next hide because of the way that the scent cones overlap. They can get information at that hide, and we call it anchoring. So they can go back to that hide and they can say, “Oh wow, there’s another scent cone,” and they can go from that hide to the next hide by getting the information for the second hide at the first hide.
Melissa Breau: When there is something pooling odor, or the scent cones intersect, how are you building those things gradually? I know you mentioned usually you start with two hides far apart and you move them closer together. What are some of the other things you do to build those skills gradually and set the dog up for success?
Stacy Barnett: It’s all about hide placement, because if you have two hides, and you have two difficult hides, that’s going to be a lot harder than if you have two easy hides. So I like to do things systematically, especially when I teach converging odor.
And pooling odor, if you add pooling odor with converging odor, that’s really challenging. So I try to avoid the pooling odor aspect when I’m introducing converging odor, and when I’m doing converging odor I try to be very systematic so that the dog understands how to solve these problems.
I want to keep it simple in the beginning and not make it terribly complex, so I make sure that the dog understands and learns how to source different permutations of accessible hides, inaccessible hides, elevated hides, low hides, two hides, three hides. I try to get very systematic about it.
Melissa Breau: I know confidence is a really big piece of what you do and what you train for, so I’d love to talk about that in trialing a little bit. When trialing and you have a dog who isn’t super confident, how can you tell when it’s just that they’re working something that’s more complex versus when they are struggling because of stress or because of a lack of confidence?
Stacy Barnett: You really need to pay attention to your dog. You have to look for the dog’s enthusiasm level, and you have to really look for the stress signals that they’re giving you.
If you look at the enthusiasm level, if the enthusiasm stays up, then they’re not stressed out and they can continue to work. But if you start seeing waning enthusiasm, or the dog is starting to check out, or the dog starts getting distracted, or the dog starts sniffing the ground, or the dog scratches or shakes off, these can be different indications that maybe the dog is a little frustrated or a little confused, and both frustration and confusion can help to lower confidence, which is not what we want.
We want to try to work the dog in a state where they’re not confused and they’re not frustrated, so that they can build up their own self-confidence and their own skill set, and ultimately they’ll be more successful and you’ll be able to keep their focus a little bit more.
Melissa Breau: If you have a dog that isn’t super confident and you’re in that competition environment, what can you do to make sure you’re supporting them or helping them, and set them up for success even at a trial or in that kind of a situation?
Stacy Barnett: I think you also need to know your dog. Nosework really is a confidence-building skill. However, it’s a confidence-building activity. It doesn’t mean that trialing is confidence-building. So in preparation for that trial, you need to get the dog into a situation that you know they’re prepared going into it.
It’s just like any other sport. We certainly wouldn’t want to take a dog who has just learned how to heel, and all of a sudden take them into an obedience trial, or take a dog that has never run a course before and take them into an agility trial.
Training is really necessary in this sport, and I think sometimes we forget that because the dog has an innate ability to sniff. So generalization is really the key. But if you’re in the moment and your dog is starting to stress a little bit, you have to figure out is it salvageable? Is it a little bit of light stress or is it heavy stress?
If it’s just a little bit of light stress and the dog’s got a little distracted, maybe, I give the dog a cookie. I call it a confidence cookie. What that does is it lowers the arousal of the dog, and then that way the dog’s lowered arousal state allows him to relax a little bit, and then they can usually be successful. And you can feed really at any time during your search.
The other thing, though, if the stress gets to be too high, call it quits. There’s no point in going for the cue. I’ve been in this situation before with Why, my mini Aussie. He’s a very, very stress-y dog. I had a trial just a couple of months ago where I thought he was too stressed and I said to the judge, “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to excuse myself,” and she completely agreed with my thoughts on that. You want to look at the long-term game. It’s not just a short-term cue. That’s the biggest advice I can give on that.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned innate skills in there, and I’m curious: When it comes to something like covering an entire search area and doing it efficiently and quickly, how much of that is innate, how much of that is training, how much is handling? Can you talk us through that piece?
Stacy Barnett: It’s probably balanced in-between innate skills, training, and handling. I think all three are really important.
If you’re talking a really large search area, there is a degree of talent that comes into play, and that has to do with a dog’s natural hunt drive. If you have a dog with a certain degree of hunt drive, they’re going to want to go out there and find that odor.
If you have a dog that doesn’t have that strong of a hunt drive, you have to try to build that a little bit. You can build that through different activities and different motivation games and that sort of thing. So there is definitely an aspect of training.
The other thing is training actually helps the dog to become efficient. It really helps them to connect the dots, although I always try to say our dogs do come to us with a Harvard education in olfaction, but with training they become rocket scientists. They learn how to connect those dots.
The other thing, I also think about it in terms of you know when you learned how to read and you had to sound out your words? You had to sound them out and it was challenging. Your brain is hardwired to be able to read language, but you still had to learn how to do it. And now when you read, you don’t even actually look at the whole word. The brain doesn’t look at the whole word. The brain may look at the beginning and the end and connects the dots and you know exactly what you’re reading. So it’s kind of the same thing with sniffing. So all these different things really come into play.
Handling is a big piece of it because you can help or hinder. You can also help your dog get through a search area. This really becomes super important, especially when your search areas get really big, like at the Elite or Summit level. Handling is huge there. So training, talent, handling — it’s all part of the puzzle.
Melissa Breau: The other piece that I wanted to talk about a little bit was startline routines. I know that that’s something that you talk about a lot, but what are some of the different types of routines or some of the options that people have? How can a handler begin to parse those things and decide which routine they need for their dog?
Stacy Barnett: The key to this is arousal. Arousal is like the secret sauce of nosework. If you can have a good startline, it’s going to predict how good your search is, and if you have the right arousal state, that will predict how good your startline is. So you need to have the right arousal state coming in, and some dogs tend to be on the low arousal side of it and some dogs tend to be on the high arousal.
With Judd, who was slightly to the left of the curve — and we’re talking the Yerkes-Dodson Law — he’s not always in drive. He comes in at a slightly low arousal, or at least he used to, and I conditioned it. But with a slightly low arousal I might use a little opposition reflex on the harness and rev him up a little bit, like “ready, ready, ready, ready.” I might do something like that to help him get into a higher state of arousal.
If you have a dog that is a little on the anxious side, or just your high arousal dog, like Brava, she comes into the search area on her hind legs. She really does. It’s kind of funny, she sashays, it’s cute, and she’s still effective, which is amazing.
So if you have a high arousal dog, you need to lower that arousal. Things like food actually lower arousal. With dogs like that, if you feed on the startline, if they’re not handler-focused, it can get them right where they need to be. There’s different tips and techniques that you can do, but it all comes down to arousal states, so whatever you can do to modify that arousal state to get the dog in drive, that is going to be the key to the success of your search.
Melissa Breau: So I know a lot of this is covered in a lot more detail by some of the nosework classes that are on the schedule at FDSA this term. Do you want to share what you have on the October calendar and what’s covered in which class?
Stacy Barnett: Sure, sure. I’m teaching three classes. I have NW 120, which is Introduction to Nosework Elements. That is a class … it’s a follow on from our Introduction to Odor. We teach the dogs how to search interiors, exteriors, vehicles, containers, although we start containers and interiors in NW 101. We also introduce buried, which is an AKC element. So we introduce that. Then I’m teaching NW 241, which is Nosework Challenges Series 2. That is actually a whole class, soup to nuts, on converging odor. We take converging odor and we start with the preliminary skills and we systematically help the dog learn how to work through converging odor puzzles so that they get from the very, very beginning of converging odor to the elements that are necessary to them to be able to be really effective at solving converging odor.
The last class, which is NW 250, which is NW 3 prep, I’ve actually folded the Path to Elite class, which I was going to teach that in December, I took all that information and I pulled that into NW 250. So NW 250 covers both NW 3 and Elite, and it’s all about how do you prepare for these levels and how to be successful at them. So it’s covering a whole lot this term. I’m really, really excited about it.
Melissa Breau: Lots of different levels. Lots of different students.
Stacy Barnett: Yeah. Yeah.
Melissa Breau: Alright, so my last question — what’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Stacy Barnett: Trust. I wrote a blog on this recently, and I think one of the instructor quotes that came out, my instructor quote was, “Yes, but does your dog trust you?” We always talk about “Trust your dog” in nosework, and I like the term, but in a lot of ways I don’t because it’s so one-sided. It’s so important for the dog to trust the handler. Trust is mutual, and the dog has to be able to trust the handler in order to be able to be self-confident in what they’re doing and in order to have teamwork. Teamwork happens when you have trust between the dog, when it’s not just you trusting the dog, but it’s the dog trusting you.
Melissa Breau: I think that’s a great note to round things out on. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Stacy!
Stacy Barnett: Oh, I’m thrilled to be here. This was a lot of fun. This was a lot of fun, and I’m going to try to still figure out what time it is... This was a blast. Thank you so much Melissa. I really enjoyed it.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!
We’ll be back next week, this time with Nancy Gagliardi Little to talk about the other two big topics in the dog sports world: agility and obedience.
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