Lucy was involved in search and rescue for over 15 years, training numerous personal dogs for wilderness search and rescue, as well as land and water human remains detection. She has deployed for hundreds of missing person cases in both urban and remote wilderness locations. She has also provided training to hundreds of search and rescue dog handlers and their canines.
Lucy also worked for 10 years as a full-time police sergeant and police canine handler and handled multiple dual-purpose patrol/narcotics canines for her police department. Lucy raised and trained all of her police and SAR dogs from puppies. Lucy was a state certified police canine training instructor and served as a field training officer for her department.
In 2013, Lucy took a full-time position as an instructor and trainer for the Randy Hare School for Dog Trainers, teaching detection trainer schools and working dog training classes to law enforcement, military, and professional dog trainers.
In 2017, Lucy relocated to Mebane, North Carolina, where she continues to offer high-level training and instruction to police, search and rescue, work and sport dog handlers.
In addition to training dogs for police and search and rescue, Lucy competes in a variety of sports with her own dogs as well. Her now retired patrol/narcotics detection partner, Steel, has the distinction of having achieved an AKC Tracking Championship as well as an IPO TR1 title, in addition to having been a certified police tracking dog. Lucy has achieved titles on her dogs in obedience, tracking, and Schutzhund. She is also a National Association of Canine Nose Work Judge.
Lucy is also currently the service dog trainer for the American Humane's Pups to Patriots Program. This program trains dogs to be service dogs and pairs them with veterans coping with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. And she says that’s the bulk of her work these days.
To be released 12/07/2018, we'll be talking to Chrissi Schranz about finding time to train.
Amy Cook, PhD., has been training dogs for nearly 25 years and has been specializing in the rehabilitation of shy and fearful dogs for over 15 years. She’s the creator of The Play Way, her process for helping dogs learn to cope with the world around them. She’s also a certified dog behavior consultant, a long-standing professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, and has attended all four Chicken Camps in Hot Springs, Arkansas, taught by Bob Bailey.
Amy returned to school in 2006 to get her PhD in psychology from UC Berkeley. Her research there focused on the dog/human relationship and its effect on problem-solving strategies dogs employ. She also recently started a blog at playwaydogs.com, and everyone should definitely go check it out.
To be released 11/30/2018, we'll be talking to Lucy Newton about tracking!
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 Dr. Amy Cook.
Amy has been training dogs for nearly 25 years and has been specializing in the rehabilitation of shy and fearful dogs for over 15 years. She’s the creator of The Play Way, her process for helping dogs learn to cope with the world around them. She’s also a certified dog behavior consultant, a long-standing professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, and has attended all four Chicken Camps in Hot Springs, Arkansas, taught by Bob Bailey.
Amy returned to school in 2006 to get her PhD in psychology from UC Berkeley. Her research there focused on the dog/human relationship and its effect on problem-solving strategies dogs employ. She also recently started a blog at playwaydogs.com, and everyone should definitely go check it out.
Hey, Amy, welcome back to the podcast.
Amy Cook: Hi Melissa. Always good to be here. So happy that I get to talk to you about stuff again.
Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat. To just briefly remind everyone, can you just share a little bit of information about the dogs you share your life with and what you’re working on?
Amy Cook: Sure. There’s over there on the couch, where you can see her, Marzipan, in her full glory, doing what she does best, which is sleep in a nice little ball. That’s what she does. She had an injury a bit back, and so we’re still discovering what the second half of her career will be like.
And then I have Caper, who you also can see right over my shoulder. She’s a little … I don’t know what, terrier something or other. She’s learning agility, and she’s very happy that we just bought a teeter. I now have a teeter in my yard. It’s my first big, expensive piece of agility equipment, because now we get to do teeters every day. It’s so exciting!
Melissa Breau: That is exciting!
Amy Cook: It is!
Melissa Breau: I want to dig into I know a topic that you’ve been talking about often recently: noise sensitivity. What is it? Can you describe what behaviors people might see if they have a sound-sensitive dog — both at the “slightly sound sensitive” end and the “extreme” ends of the spectrum?
Amy Cook: It’s an interesting topic because this runs the gamut. Everyone has a different experience with noise sensitivity, and it’s one of those dog trainer catch-all terms, like reactivity, where we may mean a lot of different things about it, and in this sense I think that’s OK.
It does run from the slightest noise in the category of things I’m afraid of, makes me panic and salivate and run to dive under the bed, or sit there catatonically, or it might mean I have some slight trepidation about that sound out there and I’m not exactly sure what to think about it.
They may turn to us in those times, and I think what we most don’t want is for it to get to the extreme. It might already be there for a given dog, but it’s one of those things where, because it can be so impactful in their life, we don’t get to control sounds, we don’t get to change where dogs are when sounds happen as much as we’d like, that we need to take almost any presentation of this really seriously. Behaviors can range and vigilance is often missed by us, I think, where a dog hears something, puts their ears a little bit back, shows a little bit of a worried face, but then maybe it’s gone before we saw them worry about it.
So I think doing a little bit of protective noise work, as I like to call it — not the protective part, but the noise work part — can never hurt. Teaching a dog that noises are just harbingers of fun times is a good and protective thing to do, even in dogs that don’t seem to have a problem just yet. So it really runs the gamut.
Melissa Breau: Is it typically tied to a specific noise? Do folks usually come to you and they’re like, “Hey, this particular beeping thing,” or is it more generally just noise? What have you seen?
Amy Cook: I do see both of those. There’s definitely dogs that feel like anything sort of sudden that makes a noise is worth worrying about and is scary for them. And I don’t know if, when we have “environmentally sensitive dogs,” if part of that or a lot of that isn’t just that environments have a lot of strange noises in them and if it isn’t noise sensitivity folded into general environmental sensitivity.
So I do see that a lot, where we don’t have just one specific noise, it’s just this, and all the rest of the noises “I’m OK with all of the suddenness.” I see dogs like that as being tense in a lot of ways all the time. Not a hundred percent of the time, of course, but dogs who are tightly tuned can be affected by all sorts of unexpected noises in the environment.
And then there are dogs who have very specific triggers. The ones that we commonly hear about or think of are the ones who are afraid of large booming noises that we find on Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve, and then the thunderstorm-type noises, because those are the big, very dramatic, out of the norm, completely scary, gunshot-type noises.
But it doesn’t cover all of them, because a lot of dogs are afraid of, weirdly, beeping or high-pitched metallic or electronic sounds, so the sounds from your microwave, the sounds from an electronic timer, sounds from a whistle at flyball, from a timer at flyball trials, sounds you might make in the kitchen that are high-pitched, something metallic hitting your kettle, for example. Those can be really distressing to dogs.
And then I would say anything that your dog hasn’t had a lot of exposure to. Maybe you’ve moved somewhere … I don’t live somewhere where there are thunderstorms, so it’s not something that I tend to see a problem with, but if I were to move to places with summertime thunderstorms, which is pretty common across the country, I would expect them to feel a bit sensitive to anything that’s new like that. So noises can run the gamut too, just like the behavior that shows from them. We never really know what it’s going to be probably until we see it, but again, not a bad idea to prevent it if we can.
Melissa Breau: Is it typically something people see show up early in the dog’s life? Is it something they have forever? Do they develop it? Do we know anything about what causes it?
Amy Cook: I don’t personally know anything super-scientific about what causes it, but as a practitioner of helping dogs, I see a lot of dogs develop it later in life. It certainly won’t be all dogs, but it’s so many of them that we have that sort of dog trainer lore of, if someone says, “Hey, my dog has become noise sensitive,” the question you first ask them is, “Is your dog 7?” Because it’s so super-common that somewhere in middle life, middle age, and that’s of course going to range for breed, it can just develop. It’s some kind of brain change where there’s a noise processing change, the areas of the brain that process noise, are they changing, are they aging, is something happening there?
Also some say, “It’s been seven years now, you’ve had seven years of storms, seven years of fireworks, you’ve had them long enough that you could sensitize.” It could be something like that, although I would expect to see it happen more gradually if that were true. But that’s not necessarily the way it would present. Maybe you’re hiding it, or you’re dealing, you’re coping, and now you just can’t cope, and so you show it. That’s possible.
Or it could be that hearing is changing around that time, and so the way things sound have just become a bit distorted. But this is just speculation. It’s hard to say.
You can certainly have noise sensitivity your whole life. It can be a thing that shows in puppyhood or adolescence as a thing they just don’t know how to process and don’t have a positive opinion about, and they definitely need our help at that point, for sure, so they can get through that.
I think dogs who develop it later in life, who didn’t have a problem before, can accept and change, I think, at least in my experience, more quickly from an intervention because they’ve had a fair amount of time in their life of doing OK with it, and maybe just learning something new about whatever this new sound feels like to them can stick pretty well.
But of course if it shows up in puppies or young dogs, we really want to get on it, because we certainly don’t want the dog to have a lifetime of feeling terrible about the normal sounds of their environment.
Melissa Breau: I know from reading through some of the things you’ve written, this is one of those problems that often gets worse if folks ignore it. What are some ways that it can escalate? What might that look like?
Amy Cook: It is one of those things that I feel is really important to get on right away, and I suppose I would apply that argument to almost any fear-based behavior problem. Dogs are suffering when they’re afraid. If they’re afraid often, that’s a terrible feeling, so we want to get on almost any behavior. I don’t mean to overly highlight noise in that way.
But one thing that happens to noise phobias, noise sensitivities, that doesn’t seem to happen at least the same way as, say, a fear of strange men, is that it escalates and can escalate really quickly. A dog who shows some sensitivity to a beep, beeping sounds — say they were in your house when your smoke alarm batteries went bad. Now it’s been six months, they need replacing, and it beeped all day while you were at work and they couldn’t escape that. You could come home to a dog who’s sensitized to that sound.
Of course not all of them, but some will, and then they start hearing anything that’s similar to that and feeling the same triggered way. And then things that are not terribly similar to it, such as the microwave beep, which would be similar, but now a fork on a plate can do it. Once you’re afraid of noise and you’re vigilant about noise, dogs can become more and more sensitive very, very quickly, whereas fear of men tends to stay relatively stable, if you control the trigger some and nothing much is happening.
It’s not like that’s going to make them better, but they’re not likely to get massively worse over the next few months, whereas in noise sensitivity that’s coming up really quickly, you need to get on top of it because it can spread too quickly, and once it’s all over the place, and as most noises or many noises that are sudden, we really do have to be talking about medical intervention because of how difficult that is.
So if you see something in your dog that shows he might be getting a little sensitive to the banging of the metal door at that trial that you go to, or the gunshots that you know you’re going to hear a lot in hunting season, you want to get on it right away and really quickly, just in case this is going to be one that spreads to a point where your dog will be suffering.
Melissa Breau: Looking at your syllabus for your class on this, it looks like there are a few pieces that you use to help sound-sensitive dogs — starting with classical conditioning. I want to talk about that, but can you just start by explaining what classical conditioning is, for anyone who might not be familiar with the terminology?
Amy Cook: Yes, definitely. There’s two models we use in dog training, or in changing behavior in dogs. One is the one that everyone is familiar with, whether the terms or not, where we reward things we like and we punish things we don’t like. We of course try to minimize any of those experiences, but that’s part of the model of operant conditioning, and it’s about responding to a behavior and having that behavior work or not work for the dog.
In classical conditioning, it happens irrespective of a dog’s behavior. What you’re trying to draw a picture of the dog, draw the line between for the dog, is that, “Hey, this thing that just happened is a predictor of this next thing that’s going to happen, and that’s it. It doesn’t matter what you do about it. You can have any reaction at all, but these two things are tied.”
When it comes to noise work, which I’m saying distinctly so it doesn’t sound like nosework — it’s just a cute thing I like to call it, noise work — when it comes to working with noises, what you’re trying to say is, “Hey dog, this sound that you hear — you don’t know it yet, but it’s actually the thing that comes right before this other thing that you might enjoy.”
If you can set things up such that they come to that conclusion, they see the connection between those two, that noise that has been troubling them up until now will take on new meaning. It’s like, “That thing I don’t like … oh wait … but doesn’t that always mean that this other thing is going to happen?” When you can crack that door open a bit and let them see that the relationship exists, and it’s not just, “Hey, the noise happened and now you’re just scared,” but “The noise happens and now you have something to look forward to,” it can help them change their reactions and their feelings about the whole thing.
So classical conditioning is just saying, “I will draw a connection between one event and another event, one stimulus and another stimulus, technically, and through drawing that connection for you so that you can see that relationship, it can help you, dog, feel better,” or at least take new meaning from the sound that before maybe had a pretty terrible meaning and give it something that hopefully has a positive meaning, if we can get in there carefully and do it just right.
I do it mathematically, I guess … that’s not fair to say because there’s no math involved. Don’t be afraid! There will be no numbers! But I do it strictly. I really think about the relationships of those two elements, those two pieces that I’m trying to put together, the strength of the noise and the strength of the thing I’m following it with, so that I’m much more able to make that conclusion for the dog as clear and as powerful as I can. So it’s doing classical conditioning, but the way I do it for this class is very strict and very specific so that I can have the best bang for my buck, if you will, in doing it.
Melissa Breau: I want to talk about that a little more. I think people who ARE familiar with the term classical conditioning, you’re talking about, most of the time, a visual stimulus — something where you use a lot of distance and it’s something the dog can SEE. How does that change or how is it the same when you’re talking about a noise instead of something visual?
Amy Cook: I had to give that a lot of thought when I wanted to work specifically with this and have a way I think that everybody can follow and have it step by step, because when it’s something you see, you do fully control the strength of it.
I can put the thing right in the environment right when I need to, or have you look at it right when it would be appropriate, and I can play with strengths a little better than I can with noises, because noises, maybe, whether they’re loud or soft, might already be so disliked by a dog that you can’t get it down to be safe enough to experience while you’re teaching them something new.
Because if you just have noises happen, and then try to follow them with something good, you’re very likely to get a dog who says, “Oh my god, that was so awful. Oh look, it’s followed by something good that I don’t care about right now because I feel so awful because oh my God that just happened,” and then you’re not going to get any change. So you do have to play with these things.
And with noises, yeah, sure, there’s many of them you can make smaller. I know people who have CDs and they play them really lightly, but what I like to do instead is teach them the entire framework of how noise work, noise therapy, will go on sounds that are not frightening at all, so therefore I completely control the upsetting stimulus by not having it be there at all.
I teach them the framework of noise therapy, and once they really have that, I can attach the entire therapeutic picture to any noise I want to, starting with, of course, the most very neutral noises that I’ve got. And then I can attach it to all sorts of unexpected noises. I dropped something — “Oh, look, we’re going to do our noise therapy.” In time, when they’re very, very good at putting those connections together, I can start simulating and then eventually really using the noises that they already have a negative opinion about.
I find that teaching a dog out of context is one of the most important parts of dog training. It’s very important in this work because you cannot upset a dog before you try to make him feel better. You want him to feel better from neutral, not from “I’m already upset,” and now you have to dial it back. So training out of context is super, super important, and I find that true in all sorts of dog training, we mostly don’t honor what we train. People ask me all the time, “I don’t know if I can simulate this thing my dog’s afraid of, so I don’t know if we can do the work.” I’m like, “I don’t want you to simulate that thing your dog’s afraid of. Don’t worry, we’re going to do a lot of work just fine.” Out of context is really the key there.
Melissa Breau: Another piece mentioned on your syllabus and that you pull in here, and you lead to a little bit in there, this idea of having the dogs make sounds themselves. What’s the purpose of that, and can you talk about that a little bit?
Amy Cook: Part of what makes anyone feel better, feel more secure, or feel like you can handle, or cope with, or feel OK about something is having some control over it. It’s not something we can always give a dog in every scenario, but I am always looking for where I can apply that. Where in any program I’m doing with a dog are there choice points where I can say, “Hey, you can have some agency here, you can choose to do some of this stuff, you can drive whether we continue or not,” where can I put that.
In working with noise, not all dogs have to do this, it’s not appropriate for every particular case that comes forward, but for given dogs — especially in the class, I assess whether it would be helpful — for given dogs it can be really powerful to have them make a noise themselves and then see that that triggers the entire therapeutic sequence, that they get to go have fun in these ways that we have for them.
When sounds just happen, when you’re afraid of something and it could just happen any old time, you don’t know when it’s going to be, so having them at least be able to make a very safe, very neutral, very totally OK sound for them and show them that it connects to it is, I think, a kindness. It gives them a chance to have some agency. I also do it even if they’re not going to make the sounds. When we first make our sounds to teach them the therapeutic piece, I show them the object I’m going to make sound with. They can sniff it, they can investigate it, they can nose it, roll it, play with it, whatever. So it’s neutral, and I show them right before I make a sound with it, like, say, dropping it an inch on carpet, barely making a sound. I show them I’m about to do it. I make sure they’re looking, and then I make the sound right clearly in front of them very simply so that nothing is surprising, nothing is coming out of the blue. Surprise is a much, much later variable that is not part of the introduction of therapy.
So I show them how I’m going to do it, and I think that’s one step toward giving them some control. Maybe they don’t have exact control, but they have all the warning in the world, and then, if they make the sound themselves, they have total control and they know it’s going to make a sound.
It’s all part of an extension of “How can I help you best be an active partner in your therapy and not just a receiver,” which I look for places I can do that in just about all my work, so that I can keep expanding that idea.
Melissa Breau: How do you teach them to actually go about initiating noise and avoid having them in a situation where they end up scaring themselves?
Amy Cook: Yeah, exactly. If you have a whole lot of time, if you’re doing this work all by yourself, you can get that done with just about any dog.
With dogs in the class, because we have limited time and not every dog is going to need this part of it, we want dogs who can already move objects, say, with a nose touch. Can you shove something with your nose? Can you shove your toy with your nose? Can you shove a toy with your paw? Many dogs already have that, and we can completely use that.
What I like to use is treat bags that they already really like the sound of, maybe a Charlie Bears bag, it’s big, crinkly, or a box, a small cardboard box you might have a small amount of crackers in or something like that, assuming again that’s completely out of the category, so for a dog who’s really nervous about banging outside, probably a small cardboard box on the floor is not going to be in their category.
So we start with that, and we teach them what would happen if you nudged it and it fell over. I prop it so that it’s not horizontal and not vertical, but diagonal, and I’m holding it up. If they nudge it, I drop it slightly, and then it goes “bing” on the floor and I’m like, “Yay, here we go, now to our noise therapy stuff.” And they’re like, “Oh, I did the thing, I guess it made a noise, whatever, it was carpet, and now we get to play. That’s amazing.” Once they get that, many dogs can make their own noises very easily without being scared, if you pick carefully. A dog can nose a crunched-up piece of paper across something, and those do make noise.
You want to start very, very, very simply. If you start in a place where a dog is already challenged, you do it either to do the behavior or to withstand the sound it makes, you’re starting behind the start line. You don’t want to be triggering anything scary at all. I know, again, everybody thinks, I have to trigger it a little bit to get rid of it, and I completely disagree. I think you should teach completely out of context. So we would pick the world’s quietest noisemakers, the world’s safest objects, even their own toys to begin with, so that they’re starting from a place of real confidence.
Melissa Breau: I know part of the process is this concept of a treat/play party. I’m noticing some students posting about it on Facebook, and I could probably guess a little bit, but can you share what it is and how it factors into all this?
Amy Cook: Absolutely. I sometimes affectionately call it a noise party. You can really call it anything. It’s just the idea that you need to have an event with your dog that would be something you might do if you had just won the lottery, if your dog had just won whatever dog lotteries there are out in the world, to where whatever it is you’re doing with your dog — and it can be having a bunch of food together, playing with their toys together, the options are pretty endless — it needs to be really, really exciting, and your dog has to see it’s really, really exciting. I don’t mean you have to be super-excited and then your dog stands there and watches you do it, but instead, your dog thinks this is the best party he or she could possibly ever have.
Most of us have some kind of reinforcement strategies for our dogs that make them really happy. In the class I’ve seen the favorite tennis ball, certainly, a great game of tug, I had someone in the last term do hose play, going outside and using water from a hose. I guess it’s winter for most of us now, but I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t do it. I was like, “I don’t know, I haven’t tried that before,” and we ran with it and the dog was like, “This is the best thing that’s ever happened.” And when you have in your pocket, so to speak, the best thing that’s ever happened, you have a lot of power to change minds.
So we spend the first … I don’t know … how-long-until-I-like-it amount of time developing some kind of noise celebration lottery-winning party, and you need to throw that party with your dog until your dog is like, “I can’t believe we’re doing this again! This is so amazing. Can we do it more? I love it!” I don’t care what it is. It can be tossing cookies all around and they’re chasing them and running back and forth. As long as their tail’s up, and their face is happy, and they’re sprightly running, and they have energy, and they really look forward to it, it can be literally anything that your dog likes.
And why I want it to be so big is because for me to get any movement and emotion and making a strong association, you want the second stimulus — remember, you’re trying to connect two things together: one, the noise, although for us it will be very neutral noise, and the thing that follows it. The thing that follows it needs to be pretty big and impressive. It needs to make a serious impact on your mind and on your emotion, and so I want these parties to be super-exciting, really fun, and when they’re that fun, they give us a lot of power to change a dog’s reaction to something when we pair it with the different things we might pair it with.
So the party is really the biggest part of this, and there are a lot of details to how I connect those things that I wouldn’t be able to list right here, but you have to take the whole class to get to the pieces of. But if you want to change minds and change hearts and change opinions, you have to have really, really powerful tools, and we spend a long time making sure that party is absolutely powerful enough to do that work.
Melissa Breau: So for folks struggling with this, or even just those who are interested in learning more about it, you’ve got both a webinar and a class coming up. Can you share a little bit about each, and who might be a good fit for it?
Amy Cook: When it comes to behavior problems, I tend to be of the opinion that everybody’s a good fit in a way, because you can’t … like, for my Play Way classes, you can’t go wrong teaching your dog good therapeutic play, because you never know when you’ll have a problem.
So in that vein, you’ll never go wrong teaching your dog what could happen from sudden noises. Having a framework already in place helps a dog not draw their own conclusions that might be negative, but gives you a chance to influence it.
But certainly any dog who’s showing even mild worry about some stuff that’s just come up and they’re not sure how to respond to it will be a good candidate, all the way to dogs who definitely have trouble with the thunderstorms and the fireworks, even though that only happens a few times a year. This is really helpful for that too, although you have to lay a lot of groundwork to get all the way up to the level where it would work for something that big. We start with very small sounds, of course, and work our way up.
The webinar is a small version of the class, sort of like this is, an introduction to all the pieces and how to put them together and why, and then of course some ideas of what to do when you can’t help them because things got too big all of a sudden.
And the class, doing classical conditioning is not super-complicated. You do have to get the pieces right. You have to get each piece exactly where it goes. But that’s not complicated. That’s just technical. Where the power really is is in doing it a bunch of times, lots and lots and lots of times, and making sure you’re doing it right lots and lots and lots of times so the dog understands that.
The good part of a class where I can be guiding you through each of the steps is that you will get the number of repetitions it takes that by the end of class your dog has an understanding of how all these things get put together and has an immediate response that’s very quick to any new sound you make, and you tell them that it’s noise-party time, they go, “Oh my God, lottery again? Oh my God, that’s amazing.”
I make sure each step of the way through the whole class that you get each of those pieces together, so by the end the relationship is very tight, and then you’re just off and running and you can apply it to all sorts of different situations.
So the webinar is an introduction to how that all works, and the class would be, “Let me make sure you’re getting it all together and give you a chance to get as many repetitions as you need,” because the repetitions, while possibly not super-exciting — you’re doing the same thing a lot, over and over again; that is where the power is in classical conditioning — you have to get a lot of them done. So I’m there to support the students in getting that done.
Melissa Breau: Last question — the one that I’ve been asking everyone who comes back on now. A little bit of shift in topic, but what’s something you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training in general?
Amy Cook: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about perspective, and about a dog’s perspective, and what it might be like to have your whole life be that someone trains you and someone takes care of you and someone takes you everywhere, what that actually might be like.
I’m taking a whole bunch of parenting training right now in a system called RIE, which is respectful way of raising and dealing with infant care, raising infants, and I’m astonished at the overlap, because babies also have their own perspective, but they don’t get to express it to us in the same way that they will later, and dogs do and also don’t get to express it to us.
So I’ve been lately trying to look at everything I do from the perspective of a receiver, from the perspective of the dog, and see where there are points where I could give them even more say and even more control. Even if I can’t always go the way they need to go, I want to hear that they wanted to or didn’t want to do that, so that I can be a much better caretaker.
It’s an ongoing challenge because we have habits and we have ways we think already of how dogs are or what my dog already likes, and I have to continually — and really doing it these days — remind myself to stop, at least in the analytical phase of it all, and consider if what I think is really true, and if there isn’t another way they could be perceiving this that I’m blind to, because I think that’s where positive training 2.0, if I will, if you can call it that, is going: what is the dog experiencing, could they use more say, could they use more control in some of this, what would it be like if we gave them more of a voice. That’s what I’m visiting a lot these days.
Melissa Breau: I like that phrase: dog training 2.0.
Amy Cook: Positive training, we’re going forward! Absolutely.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Amy! This has been great.
Amy Cook: Always a pleasure. Have me on anytime.
Melissa Breau: And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in!
We’ll be back next week, this time with Lucy Newton to talk about tracking!
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In 2004 Barbara Currier and her husband Michael were relocated to Richmond, VA, where she began teaching agility at All Dog Adventures. It was there that Barbara was introduced to Susan Garrett and her foundation-based training, centered around impulse control and relationship building with your dog.
She continues to train with some of the best handlers in the world and has implemented what she has learned from each of them into her training program. She became heavily involved in the OneMind Dogs handling method in 2014. She has successfully competed in agility with over 10 different breeds of dogs.
Along the way, she started her own in home training and behavioral rehabilitation business. She was the trainer for Richmond Boxer Rescue and also assisted Southeastern Virginia Golden Retriever Rescue in assessing some of their dogs. Over the years, Barbara has worked extensively with many rescue organizations in numerous states.
Barbara has also worked as an animal wrangler for Marvel’s Ant-Man, 90 Minutes in Heaven, the TV series Satisfaction and various commercials. She is also the head dog trainer for the F.I.D.O Program run at Georgia Tech which creates wearable computing for military, SAR and service dogs.
To be released 11/23/2018, we'll be talking to Amy Cook about overcoming sound sensitivity.
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 Barbara Currier.
In 2004, Barbara and her husband Michael were relocated to Richmond, Va., where she began teaching agility at All Dog Adventures. It was there that Barbara was introduced to Susan Garrett and her foundation-based training, centered around impulse control and relationship-building with your dog.
She continues to train with some of the best handlers in the world and has implemented what she has learned from each of them into her training program. She became heavily involved in the OneMind Dogs handling method in 2014. She has successfully competed in agility with over ten different breeds of dogs.
Along the way, she started her own in-home training and behavioral rehabilitation business. She was the trainer for the Richmond Boxer Rescue and also assisted Southeastern Virginia Golden Retriever Rescue in assessing some of their dogs. Over the years, Barbara has worked extensively with many different rescue organizations in numerous states.
She also worked as an animal wrangler for Marvel’s Ant-Man, 90 Minutes in Heaven, the TV series Satisfaction, and various commercials. She is the head dog trainer for the F.I.D.O Program run at Georgia Tech, which creates wearable computing for military, search-and-rescue (SAR), and service dogs.
Hi Barbara, welcome back to the podcast!
Barbara Currier: Hi, thanks for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely! Excited to chat again. To start us out, can you remind listeners who your dogs are and what you’re working on with them?
Barbara Currier: Sure. My oldest is Piper. She’s a 10-year-old Parson Russell Terrier, and she pretty much just does dock diving. She loves that. She’s not happy that the season has ended now, so she’s in her winter rest, which doesn’t make her real happy, but she loves her dock diving. And then I have Blitz, who is my 9-year-old Border Collie. He is retired from agility. He also does dock diving now, and he is also my medical alert service dog. And then I have Miso. She is my 4-year-old Miniature Poodle. She is my main agility dog right now. She is also a medical alert service dog. And my newest is Eggo. He will turn a year tomorrow. He is my English Cocker that I imported from Europe. He is doing agility. He’s not competing yet, he’s still very young, he’s only going to be a year. But he is hopefully going to have a promising career in agility, and he’s also doing dock diving, which he already is obsessed with.
Melissa Breau: That’s fun. The waffle, right?
Barbara Currier: Yes, that’s the waffle.
Melissa Breau: So I wanted to focus on weave poles today, since I know you have a class on that coming up, but as a non-agility person I’m going to totally admit that some of my questions are a little on the basic side. First off — wow. Without knowing how to train them, if you look at weave poles in general, it seems like such a complex behavior. Can you break it down for us a little bit? What pieces or skills have to come together to have really well-trained weave poles?
Barbara Currier: Weaves are actually my most favorite piece of equipment to teach out of all the agility equipment. It’s the hardest behavior for the dogs to learn because it’s the most unnatural. But if you look at agility as a whole, it’s pretty much all natural behaviors for the dogs, things that you would see them doing if they were out running in the woods, except you don’t normally see them weaving through trees. So weave poles is very unnatural, and so it can be quite difficult to teach them that. I find it such a fun puzzle to teach it, and I love to make it a game for them so that they find it as much fun as I do.
The downside on weaves is it can be hard on their bodies, so you just want to make sure that they’re physically ready to ask what we want them to do. You want to make sure that they’re old enough and that they’re strong enough, because it can be quite taxing on them.
One of the parts of weave poles is the dog must learn to always enter with the first pole at their left shoulder and then continue the rhythm through all twelve poles. It’s a very specific behavior, and it can be difficult for the dogs to do this at extreme speeds and still maintain all twelve poles. So they have to learn how to use their bodies so that they’re at full speed and they can hit all twelve poles. Oftentimes the dogs will pop out if they haven’t been taught properly how to do that, or they’ll get their entry and not be able to hold on to the poles, because there’s a lot of things that come together with weave poles. There’s a lot of body awareness, there’s a lot of them knowing how to rock their weight back on their haunches to collect to get into the poles, there’s footwork involved.
There’s two different styles of footwork in poles. There’s the swimming or the single-stepping and then there is the bounce stride. Most big dogs single step and most little dogs bounce stride, which looks like a rabbit hopping in between. I say “most” because I do know quite a few big dogs that bounce stride and they do just fine, their weaves are just as fast, it’s not a problem. But people sometimes get a little too hung up on the footwork. If they have a big dog and they see their big dog is bounce striding, they don’t like that, they want to make them single-stride. But I think it’s important to let the dog choose what is most comfortable for their body type and for the way they move, as long as they’re not doing a combination of both. That tends to have problems.
But you really want it to become muscle memory for the dog, so that when they’re doing the behavior, they’re not thinking about it, they’re just doing it. That’s where the speed comes from. The more that they think about it, the slower it is, the more methodical it is, so we want it to become muscle memory so that they’re just going through the motions.
Melissa Breau: Just to make sure everybody’s on the same page, single step you’re talking about when they go into the weaves and it’s, “OK, I’m on my left foot on the left side and my right front foot on the right side,” and bounce is when they have both feet on the ground on each side, right?
Barbara Currier: Yes, yes.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. I wanted to make sure because, you know, terminology and stuff. Even not knowing much about the topic, I’ve heard of things like 2X2 training, I’ve seen trainers use guide wires, moving poles and gradually bringing them closer together, and things like that. Can you briefly explain what some of the different methods ARE that are out there, what those things are, what people are talking about?
Barbara Currier: There’s basically three different methods to training weave poles. There’s the 2X2 method, where you teach them — much like it says in the name — you teach them two poles at a time.
The channel method, where it basically looks like a chute of weave poles and you slowly can close the chute — it’s the way the base is made so that it slowly comes together — so the dog starts with running down the middle of the poles in a straight line, and then as the poles start to come closer and closer together, the dog has to start weaving to do it.
The third one is the guide wires, where it’s guide wires that are put on the poles, so it looks like a maze that the dog walks through and they can learn that way.
Melissa Breau: That’s interesting. Which approach do you usually use for your dogs and what are you using in the class?
Barbara Currier: My preference is the 2X2 method. The base of my preference is from the method that I learned from Susan Garrett with her 2X2’s, and then I have, over the years, adapted for some things with my own dogs and some holes that I was constantly seeing with dogs that were coming to me.
I’m kind of known as the weave guru in my parts, and so whenever people start having weave problems, they come to me. I kept seeing a lot of the same issues, and even with people that had taught their dogs with 2X2’s. But what was interesting was I didn’t see the issues with my dogs, and I wasn’t sure quite at first what I was doing differently than what everybody else was doing, where my dogs weren’t having this issue but other people’s were.
I took a young dog that I was just training, and I basically documented every single thing I did to try to find what I was doing differently than what everybody else was doing, and found that it was a lot in my beginning stages of my approaches that would prevent these holes from happening that I was seeing in other people’s dogs. And so I have modified it to adding more of that stuff in, and a little bit of other things that I have found here and there that have helped with it, I think.
Melissa Breau: When you say approaches, you mean the dogs approaching the poles, or are you talking about something else?
Barbara Currier: Yes, when the dog approaches the poles. In the class, we do what’s called “entries” on an around-the-clock game, so you have your poles in the middle, and you pretend you’re standing on a clock and you work through your different entries.
But what I was finding with a lot of people is a lot of people stayed at the straight-on approaches or the more straightforward easy approaches, and I wasn’t being methodical about this, I just didn’t do it. I did not stay at those approaches much. I stayed at the harder approaches. And so right from the beginning the dogs would learn to bend and hit those weave entries from a more difficult angle and would speed right from the beginning. On two poles, it’s easy. The reward comes fast and it’s easy to find, and so I was finding that with my dogs I was building up the muscling along their spine right from the beginning and was building up that drive to find the pole, really dig in, and grab that entry. So I do very few easy entries right off from the beginning, and I don’t really concern myself with those entries until I start adding in the full six and the full twelve, because I consider those entries easy.
Where those entries become difficult is when the dogs are at full speed and they have to learn how to power down to get into their poles. So I worry about that once I start adding in sequencing and that type of thing, but from the beginning I work those hard entrances right at the first two poles, and it seems to help with some of the fallout that happens down the road, like getting the entry and not being able to hang on to the poles, or missing the entry and going into the second pole, and those types of things.
Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting. I was actually going to ask you, this feeds well into what my next question was, which I think our listeners, in particular, are probably pretty familiar with the idea of building up skills gradually, but it seems like there are so many pieces to the weave poles. There are so many different axes that you have to gradually make more difficult. You’ve got your speed, you’re got the number of poles, you’ve got the entries, you’ve got the sequencing, your more advanced handling … so can you talk a little more about how you juggle all those different pieces? Is there an order that makes sense for people as they try and put the things together? Do you work on them in different training sessions? How does that work? How do you approach it?
Barbara Currier: I start with two poles and teach the dog to find the entry from all the different angles, and with speed and enthusiasm right from the start. And then, again, like I mentioned before, the reward comes fast when you’re only using two poles, so it’s the perfect time to get the dog to think that the game is really, really fun.
I also keep my sessions incredibly short, like, three correct entries on each side and then done. So my dogs are looking at me like, “Seriously, that’s it? That’s all we get?” And I’m like, “Yes, that’s it, we’re done. That was the session.” And so the more we play this game, and it’s super-fast and it’s super-fun and it all happens really fast, the more they’re like, “Oh my god, this is the most fun game ever.” All my dogs love weave poles so much because I keep everything so fast and exciting, and when they’re like, “This is the most fun on Earth,” I’m like, “Yeah, I know, and we’re done now.” And they’re thinking, “What, what? No, I was just getting into it.” And I’m like, “We’ve got to wait until the next session.” So I really want them to love, love the game.
The other thing that’s important is that I don’t worry about if they’re wrong. I want them to make mistakes. If they’re not making mistakes, it’s too easy. But I also want them to understand that making a mistake is not a big deal. I want them to learn how to fail and just keep trying with the same amount of enthusiasm. Often, dogs, when they make a mistake, they’re like, “Oh, I can’t do it anymore. It’s so hard. That reward didn’t come, I can’t do it, I can’t do it,” and then the owner gets stressed and then the dog gets stressed, and suddenly it’s a meltdown for everyone. When my dogs make a mistake, it’s just, “Oh my god, we’re going to try that again!” and they just don’t get the reward and they’re like, “OK, OK, I’ll be better this time. I’ll get it, I’ll get it.” To them, it’s just like a mystery they’re trying to solve, or a puzzle they’re trying to figure out, and so they’re super-happy to try again for me and it’s not a big deal. There’s never any shutdown and “Oh, this is too hard, this is too hard.”
Now, if they fail twice in a row, I will take a step back and I might back-train, like, “This maybe standing here at 3 o’clock is a little too hard for you, but what if I stand at 2:30? Can you do it at 2:30?” And we’ll go from there. If they’re correct a couple of times at 2:30, then I’ll go to 2:45 and “How is this? Can we do this now?” And so on and so on.
From there we move to four poles and follow the same thing as above, and then we move on to six poles. Of course we angle them a certain way, and then we gradually make them straighter and straighter. I stay at six poles until I’m in love with the dog’s footwork, speed, and understanding of their job.
Oftentimes a lot of people will get to six and then they’re like, “Now it’s twelve.” But the dog doesn’t fully understand their job yet, and all we’ve done by adding in six more is we’ve just made it harder, we’ve made the reward farther away, and the dogs really start to slow down. So I’m in no rush to leave six until I’m in love with the behavior the dog is showing me.
I really want them to be confident in their footwork. I really want to see what we talked about earlier, the muscle memory, and not so much the hard thinking about the job. I want all that to come out now, so that when we move on to twelve, then it’s just getting the stamina of doing this behavior longer for twelve poles and just getting the speed going for that long of a distance.
Once I have the footwork and the speed that I really like at the twelve, then I’ll start working in distractions like, Can you do your weave poles when there’s a dog playing tug next to them? Can you do your weave poles if I’m throwing a Frisbee? Can you do your weave poles if I have a plate of chicken next to you? All these things so that when they get into working in a trial environment, the stuff that I like to call my “torture,” which my dogs love because it’s like a super game to them, that they’re like, “Oh yeah, trial distractions. This stuff is easy compared to what Mom does to us at home.” Because they get these huge, massive jackpots when they can go through the weave poles when I’m throwing a Frisbee.
I’ve had a few dogs over the years that were food-driven dogs only, and of course we worked up to this, but one of the things I do with my food-driven dogs for a distraction is I will line the base of the weave poles with steak, and they have to weave over the top of the steak and not touch it. And then, at the end, if they’re successful, they can come back and eat all the steak. It’s so much fun.
Recently, I have a young group of dogs in a class that just started trialing, and they had been with me since they were 8-week-old puppies. Now they’re all trialing and it’s been really cool to see. When they were all learning their weave poles, I had a little Sheltie that was very food-driven, not toy-driven, and we did that and she’s like, “Oh, she’s never going to do it,” and she did it like a rockstar. She was like, “Steak on the weave poles, we’ve got this. I know my job.” So it’s really, really fun.
Once I work through distraction stuff, then I start handling moves. Can you stay in your poles when I’m front crossing before and after the poles? Can you stay in your poles when I’m rear crossing, when I’m blind crossing? And then I add a jump, and now, Can you do your poles when another piece of equipment’s been added to it? Can you do your poles when a jump is after the weave poles, when you see something else coming? Can you do your weave poles when there’s a tunnel nearby, when we’re going to go to a tunnel? Then, once I’m loving all that stuff, then I add the next six and we do the distractions again, and then we start adding in more difficult sequencing.
Melissa Breau: You’ve definitely got it down like a method, an approach, and all the pieces are there. I think that’s important for people to recognize that you do have to work through all those things systematically.
Barbara Currier: Yeah, for sure.
Melissa Breau: Both in the course description and just now, you mention the idea of having your dog LOVE the weave poles. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like a big piece of that is about confidence, making sure that they know how to do the behavior correctly. Can you talk a little bit about that? How does loving the weaves and confidence, how do those things go hand-in-hand when it comes to getting good performance on course?
Barbara Currier: Like I talked about before, it’s all about teaching the dogs that the game is awesome. That means keeping the sessions super-short, making them always want more, making them understand that mistakes are fine, mistakes are not a big deal, and that it’s just a puzzle, this didn’t work, good try, let’s try something else. And the more value that they have in knowing exactly what their job is, the better the performance is going to be and the drive into the weave.
So I do little … I call them mini-weave drills, which I go over in the class too, that I do with my dogs a couple of times a week. I go outside with one stick of cheese, and when that stick of cheese is gone, game over. I take off really big bites, huge hunks, probably an inch piece of cheese, so super-easy to see, not crumbly, and I get maybe four to six pieces of cheese out of one stick. I go out, and whatever course I have set up in my field, and I take all the jumps and I just put the bars in the ground, because for me, when I’m working my mini-weave drills, it’s not necessarily about the jumping. It’s about the love for the weave.
So I put all the bars in the ground, and then I just randomly walk around the field, and from different approaches of jumps without having bars, I send my dogs to the weaves, sometimes with motion, sometimes with no motion, and I will sometimes do very weird handling moves, things that you would never see in a course. I will send them to the weirdest types of entries.
Sometimes my husband will come out with me, and he doesn’t really know agility very well, so I’ll say, “Tell me how to get some of these weaves, tell me something.” He’ll be like, “All right. Go from that jump to the weave.” And it’s completely random, she has to skip, like, four jumps, or do this massive, crazy entry, and we do it and it’s fun and she thinks it’s the most amazing game. I do that a couple of times a week and it’s super-easy, it’s quick, she gets these big hunks of cheese, which are like a meal for her, and so she thinks that weave poles are the most fun thing in the world to do.
In fact, my agility field is fenced off from the rest of my property, so when the dogs are outside, they can’t get into the agility field. They all run to the field gate all the time, and if I let them in, the first thing they do is run over to the weave poles because they’re like, “Oh, are we doing those drills? Because those are super-fun.” That’s what you want to get from your dogs, and that’s going to get that performance. When I’m at trials and I say to my dogs, “Go weave,” they hit those weaves with such intensity and such stride, and they dig in so hard to get those entries and keep those poles, and they work so hard because I created so much value for the poles.
Melissa Breau: To take a little bit of a step back, I guess, when people are working on things, what are some of the common training mistakes people make as they’re trying to teach weaves? What problems do they cause? If you’re looking at a little bit of problem-solving there, what do you see people doing that maybe isn’t optimal?
Barbara Currier: The biggest one is moving too fast. Moving to twelve poles before the dog is solid at six. I tell my students there’s no trophy or title for the person who can train their weaves the fastest.
When people get six, they’re like, “I’m just going to add on the next six and it’s going to be great,” because we all want to say, “My dog has twelve poles,” but all you’re doing by moving too fast is that the dog is not clear on what their job is, you’re getting slow, inconsistent weaves that have to be managed or babysat because the dog doesn’t really understand. So they’re just going to get slower and slower, and they’re going to get frustrated because they’re going to be confused, and then you’re going to get frustrated, and it becomes this vicious cycle.
That’s usually when people start coming to me and “My dog can get the entries, but they can’t hold on,” that type of thing. So then they come to me, and I often find that they moved to twelve poles before the dogs really understood six, and my advice is always, “Let’s go back to the beginning. We need to redo this.”
Melissa Breau: My next question is, how do you problem-solve some of those issues? Do you basically just do that, take a step back, go back to six poles and retrain all those different aspects before you go back to twelve, or is there more to it?
Barbara Currier: It depends exactly what the issue is. The most common problems are missing entries at speed. If it’s a missing entry problem, I usually recommend that we go back to two poles, so that we can start with, Can you find your entry from all different areas without having to have the dog wait for the reward to get through all six poles, if that makes sense. Because, again, the reward comes quicker on two poles than it does on six poles, so it’s easier gratification for the dog. So I like to, for missed entries, start back at two poles, and then I work up to the four, up to the six.
Now, with a dog that already understands the concept of poles, it goes really fast. It doesn’t take long at all to revisit these things and get the dog to understand. If the dog is having problems with they get their entry, but then they can’t hold on to the poles because they’re going at speed, then I will start them back at four poles or six poles, but add in sequencing, so coming off of a tunnel so we’ve got some speed, and teaching them how to grab that entry and hold on to the poles.
With that, they also need to be building up some muscling for it. And so a lot of it, I think, with those dogs comes from doing more straight-on approaches and not enough of the angle approaches from the very beginning, where they can build up that strength along their spine.
One of the other ones is the popping out at ten poles, which a lot of dogs do. Oftentimes I find those are from the handlers that try to lead the dogs, whether they’re going lateral, or they’re trying to get a little bit ahead, and they never taught the independent poles from the beginning. They really babysat the poles because they wanted the dog to be right so badly, so they stayed back and they matched the dog’s speed and they were right there, but once they wanted to put them into sequencing, they wanted to leave, but we didn’t actually teach the dog that, and so now the dogs are like, “Well, you’re leaving, so I’m leaving too.” So when I teach this from the very beginning, it is completely independent from the handler. We are quite far away from the beginning. We have nothing to do with it, we don’t help them, we don’t lure them through the entry, we don’t do any of that. It’s all on them.
So it’s quite easy the way I teach it from the beginning to have that lateral independence, because we teach it to them from the very beginning, as long as you continue with it. Because oftentimes what I’ll see is the dogs have these amazing independence when we get through the end of the training, but then the owners go right back to babysitting and then the dogs will lose it. So I have to constantly remind my students, “Your dog has the skill. Trust them. Let them show you they can do it, and leave them.”
Melissa Breau: This is a question I don’t usually ask here on the podcast, but I used to love, back when I was a journalist asking this question, because it seems to always get unexpected nuggets of interesting information, and since I have never trained a dog to weave and don’t know a ton about the topic, obviously you’re the expert — is there anything important that I didn’t think to ask or that you’d want people to think about as they’re working on weave poles with their dog?
Barbara Currier: Probably the most important thing about weave poles that I think sometimes gets overlooked, forgotten, or people don’t think it’s as important as it should be is: your dog must be done with growing before you teach weave poles.
Like I said in the beginning, it’s one of the hardest obstacles on their body, and I always make sure, when I have young dogs, that I take them and have them x-rayed to be positive that their growth plates have closed before I start training weave poles. You can do a lot of damage to them. It’s very hard on their shoulders, it’s very hard on their spine, it can be hard on their neck, and it’s not something you want to do until you’re a hundred percent sure that they are done growing.
The other great thing about doing the x-rays is that usually, around 14 months, I always have full x-rays done of shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees, and so, one, I can tell if the growth plates are closed or not closed, and depending on your breed … I have a student that has a borzoi, and she x-rayed her at 14 months and her growth plates were nowhere near done being closed. But she’s a Borzoi, but it was good information to have, because we certainly, especially with a breed that large, don’t want to be doing even contacts, if their growth plates aren’t closed, and hers didn’t close for quite a while after that, so that’s really important information to have.
It also gives you a picture of what your dog’s body looks like before you do the sport with them, whether you’ve got any elbow dysplasia or hip dysplasia. Without getting a picture, some dogs don’t even show these things, and to me, I just think it’s super-important to know what you’re starting off with.
Melissa Breau: Right, right, and I would imagine it’s good to have those, heaven forbid they do get injured at some point later on, you have a baseline, a picture to refer to.
Barbara Currier: Yes. For sure. The other thing that I always … and I bring this up in the class, too, is if I have somebody come up to me and they say, “My dog has always weaved really well, and they’re now popping out at pole ten,” or “They can’t hit their entry, but they never had a problem with it before,” my first thought is, Your dog probably has an injury, and that needs to be addressed first.
As all the Fenzi instructors try to teach, dogs are not out to try to make us mad and push our buttons. That’s not the way dogs work. So if your dog is all of a sudden exhibiting something that is unusual for them, the first thing I check is injuries.
My poodle, who loves her weave poles, a tell for me that she has a rib out is if she misses her weave entry, because she never misses weave entries. So if she can’t hold on, I immediately leave the ring and will bring her to a chiropractor, and sure enough, she’ll have a rib out. I certainly don’t want her running with a rib out. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a rib out before, but it is incredibly painful, and I don’t want her running like that.
And so I let my dogs tell me. I don’t just assume, “Oh, she’s being bad,” or “She’s being lazy.” I assume, “Oh, you’re really trying to tell me something, and what you’re telling me is, ‘That really hurts, I need some help here.’” Once we get everything back, she’s totally fine, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be annoyed at her and expect her to run all weekend like that. So that’s something that I try to instill in my students is make sure that we’re thinking about that, first and foremost.
Sometimes there is … something’s happened. Sometimes what can happen is if they get an injury, the injury is then fixed, but they now associate poles with pain. And so sometimes we have to go back and desensitize them to that and say, “Look, see, it doesn’t hurt anymore, so we can do these again.” Or something has happened and our training has whittled away and we need to go back and take a look at that. But I always try to stress that people make sure that somebody checks them first that it’s not an injury or something going on that way that’s affecting their weave poles.
Melissa Breau: Let’s chat about the course for a minute. It’s called “Love ’em and Weave ’em,” and it’s on the calendar for December, which this is coming out on, I believe, the 16th of November, so registration will be opening the week after this comes out. What level of training should dogs and handlers have, if they’re interested in the class? Can you talk a little bit about that, and what you’ll cover, who it’s designed for, that kind of stuff?
Barbara Currier: For this class, the dogs should already know weave poles. It moves a little too fast for a dog that doesn’t know weave poles. I think later on in the year Julie Daniels has a foundation weave class coming up, and that would be the class for the dogs that don’t know weave poles at all yet. But this one is for dogs that know weaves, but the handlers aren’t in love with the performance.
It will address all the common problems: the going too slow, the inconsistent footwork, the getting the entry but not being able to hang on, missing the entry, popping out pole ten, it will address all of those things.
It will also give you the independence so that you can put them in the weaves and leave them and get to where you need to go next. The way I think about my weave poles is, when I send my dog through a tunnel, I want to just be able to say “tunnel,” and know that they’re going to come out the other end. I’m not expecting that they’re going try to dig out the middle of the tunnel. So I want my weave poles to be the same way. When I send you in Pole 1, I expect to see you exit at Pole 12, and I’m going to go do what I need to do. That’s your job, I’ve got my job, we’ll meet at the end, is my theory. So that’s what this course will teach.
Melissa Breau: One last question – it’s the question I’ve been asking everybody when they come back on. What’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Barbara Currier: Probably to train the dog that’s in front of you. Often we go out expecting to train one thing, and the dog’s telling us that they need to work on something completely different. And we really have to listen to them and be flexible in what they need, because if you think about it, they’re the ones doing the hard work. They’re the ones running and jumping and doing all of this crazy stuff. Oftentimes I go out with my plan of, “Today we’re going to go out and work on threadles,” and my dog says, “No, today I’m struggling with my start line stay, and so that’s what we’re going to end up working on.” So you have to be willing to abort mission and listen to what the dog is telling you.
Sometimes my dog says, “You know what, I’m not feeling it today,” and I say, “All right, let’s go play a game instead,” or “Let’s go for a hike,” because I wake up some mornings and don’t want to work, and my dogs are no different. So you really need to listen to your dogs and hear what they’re trying to tell us.
And also to embrace and love the dog that you have and stop mourning the dog that they’re not.
Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Barbara! I love that.
Barbara Currier: Thanks for having me. It’s so much fun!
Melissa Breau: It is! And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with Amy Cook to talk about noise sensitivity in dogs and what you can do about it.
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.
Linda P. Case is a science writer, dog trainer, and canine nutritionist who lectures throughout the world about dog nutrition, training, behavior, and health. Her academic training is as a canine and feline nutritionist and trainer. She earned her B.S. in Animal Science at Cornell University and her M.S. in Canine/Feline Nutrition at the University of Illinois. She was a lecturer of companion animal science at the University of Illinois for 15 years and taught companion animal behavior and training at the College of Veterinary Medicine.
Linda currently owns AutumnGold Consulting and Dog Training Center in Mahomet, IL. She is the author of numerous publications and eight books, as well as the popular blog “The Science Dog,” which I’ll make sure we link to in my show notes.
To be released 11/16/2018, we'll be talking to Barbara Currier about teaching and training weave poles for agility!
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 Linda Case.
Linda Case is a science writer, dog trainer, and canine nutritionist who lectures throughout the world about dog nutrition, training, behavior, and health. Her academic training is as a canine and feline nutritionist and trainer. She earned her B.S. in Animal Science at Cornell University and her M.S. in Canine/Feline Nutrition at the University of Illinois. She was a lecturer of companion animal science at the University of Illinois for 15 years and taught companion animal behavior and training at the College of Veterinary Medicine.
Linda currently owns AutumnGold Consulting and Dog Training Center in Mahomet, IL. She is the author of numerous publications and eight books, as well as the popular blog “The Science Dog,” which I’ll make sure we link to in my show notes. (http://thesciencedog.wordpress.com/).
Hi Linda! Welcome to the podcast.
Linda Case: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me.
Melissa Breau: Did I totally butcher the name of where you live?
Linda Case: No, you got it exactly. It was great, first shot.
Melissa Breau: To start us out a little bit, do you want to tell us a little bit about the dogs that you have, and what you’re working on with them, and a little about you?
Linda Case: Sure, sure. Currently my husband and I live with and love two dogs, which is low for us. We had a bad year last year and we lost two dogs in succession. But our two current dogs are Alice, who’s a 3-year-old Golden Retriever, and Cooper, who is a 7-year-old Golden Retriever.
What we’re working on with them right now, which I know a lot of folks are excited about, all of the AutumnGold instructors — I have a group of great instructors that work with us at our school — we went to ClickerExpo last spring and we all got excited about concept training with Ken Ramirez, so I’m working on match-to-sample with them. We’re also working on object and identification in concept training with objects — colors and shapes and things like that. That’s not going so well, but match-to-sample is going well.
Melissa Breau: That’s pretty cool.
Linda Case: It is. It’s really cool. I love it because it brings together what’s the topic of my latest book is animal cognition and higher levels of thinking with behaviorism. I think it meshes those two so beautifully.
I no longer show competitively, but I love to train tricks, so I’m doing quite a bit of tricks training with Alice and Cooper. My current goal … Alice is being trained to scoot backwards, like a backwards crawl, under a bunch of … it’s like basically a backwards Army crawl, and she loves that. And Cooper is doing a forwards Army crawl. My goal is to get them to do it together. Again, not going so well, but that’s my ultimate idea.
Also I just want to mention that our school — I kind of separate these two — our school primarily works with what I call the highly interested pet owner. We have folks who want to do basic manners training and oftentimes want to do more, but they’re not generally dog sports folks. They’re people who just want to get out and have fun with their dogs.
And so our school, we’re kind of challenged a lot of the time to provide things that are fun for them but not too intense, because then they may not want to do the competition stuff. So we recently came up with a concept that we call Life Skills Courses that are a bump up from your basic manners courses and things like good greeting behaviors, or being out in a park or even a dog park behaviors, or behaviors at doggie daycare, or behaviors at the vet. We also do things for CGC.
So that’s where our school is, too. We wanted to do concept training with the school, but again that’s probably a little bit higher level than most of our clientele like or are interested in.
Melissa Breau: I can see that. It definitely takes some commitment and some playing with things and a pretty solid understanding of training mechanics.
Linda Case: Yeah, yeah. Sometimes I think we have a view … we look at it through rose-colored glasses, like, “Oh, everyone will love this!” And people are like, “Yeah, but I really just want my dog to sit when he says hello.”
Melissa Breau: Right. I mentioned in your bio that you’re a science writer, dog trainer, and canine nutritionist — so which came first? How did you originally end up “in dogs,” as they say?
Linda Case: I came by it very naturally. I actually grew up training, so I guess training came first. My mom was a dog trainer and she showed dogs, primarily in obedience, some tracking, and a little bit of conformation. She was also the leader of our 4-H Club when I was a kid, and that was a dog-training club, which was pretty cool, because back then those things were pretty rare.
I started out with a Sheltie, and then, when I graduated from undergrad, that’s when I got into Goldens. My mom and I did a lot of training and showing around the country together, because when I started moving around, she would meet up with me and we’d go to seminars together, we’d go to shows, so that was a lot of fun. It was something really special in my life. So training definitely came first.
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. That sounds like such a unique opportunity to have family-bonding-type stuff but enjoy your dogs, too, especially as you travel around and do stuff with them.
Linda Case: I know. I feel lucky to have had that.
Melissa Breau: How did you get from that to focusing on nutrition?
Linda Case: I would like to be one of those people that would say, “Oh, it’s been a passion of mine all my life,” but that would actually not be the truth. The truth is that I was an animal science major at Cornell, and at that time most animal science majors, if you were interested in companion animals rather than farm animals, you went to vet school.
I wasn’t that interested in vet school, because I was training and showing dogs a lot and I knew I really wanted to do something with behavior and training. But this was a while ago, and at that time — I think things have changed amazingly in the years that followed — but at that time there really were no academic graduate programs in canine and feline behavior training.
So I went back to my advisor, he was a great mentor at Cornell, and said, “I want to go back to school for something with dogs. What is there?” And at the time he said, “Linda, go into nutrition. You’ll get a job that way.” And he was right, because nutrition … it was in the mid-’80s, and nutrition was taking off as a field of study. Luckily my mentor here at U of I was also a former student at Cornell and a good friend with my advisors. She took me under her wing and was both my mentor as a dog person and in nutrition. So I did that and did find that it did become a passion, even though it wasn’t originally a passion, it was just “I want to do something with dogs.”
Melissa Breau: Looking at that, is there a “best” or a “right” choice when it comes to nutrition? I know that’s kind of jumping straight into things, but …
Linda Case: There probably is not a single “right” choice, but what I can say with confidence is that there are too many choices today, and that’s what baffles people and frustrates them and makes people finally throw up their hands and say, “How do I choose?”
In my view, there are two problems with where we’re at right now with nutrition. One is that owners and consumers are not provided with adequate information about the foods that are available to them in order to choose well, and that’s a drum that I beat very hard in Dog Food Logic, in that book, things such as the food’s digestibility, ingredient quality, even ingredient sourcing. Many of those factors are hidden from pet owners, and they shouldn’t be. We should have full access, we should have full transparency, and we do not have that in the pet food industry. In fact, a lot of regulations are set up to hide many things from, or at least to not make them available to pet owners. So we don’t get the information that we need to choose.
And the second is that there are so many choices and there are such small differences. I call it “a distinction without a difference” among these foods that it makes no difference, and people get confused because there are such small and subtle differences among these many choices in the different categories of foods.
So that’s the long answer to say there is no clear choice, and even if there was, it would be hard for owners to choose because of the information they’re given today.
Melissa Breau: Thinking about that, are there factors they should be considering? What should they be looking at when they’re trying to make a nutrition decision for their own dog?
Linda Case: That’s actually the primary focus of my book Dog Food Logic, and the four primary factors that you can break that down into are, first and foremost, the dog, and that’s what I’ll be talking about primarily in the upcoming webinar — your dog’s life stage, their activity level, their health.
And then the second would be the owner, and those factors really have a lot more to do with the owner’s values — what they think is important, what they’d like from a food, and also, sadly, economics. Lately I’ve been exploring some different types of foods, just exploring their digestibility and how valuable they are in terms of their nutrient content and their quality. One thing you’ll find is that there’s such a huge range in price point in these foods, so economics can affect a person’s decisions.
The third thing, of course, is the food itself — the type it is, the ingredients, the information the owner is provided with and can have access to.
And then number four would be the manufacturer — the manufacturer’s size, are they multinational, are they a small, private-owned company, certainly their long-term reputation, how many recalls have they had. Again a big one, this is my drum I keep beating: how transparent they are, how forthcoming they are with information when they’re asked by consumers.
Those four factor categories are, I think, are the most important when you’re selecting food.
Melissa Breau: It’s almost like you knew I was going to talk more about manufacturing in my next question! I used to actually cover pet food and pet manufacturing for my day job. I used to be a magazine editor at a business-to-business magazine covering that stuff. Of course, every manufacturer out there does their absolute best to make a case for why their food is the best on the market. What research is there that actually tells us what dogs need for a balanced diet? What do we really know, from a scientific perspective, about what we should be looking for?
Linda Case: Of the questions that you sent me ahead of time, this was my favorite question, and the reason is that — you present it really well — is that it’s marketing today. Twenty-five years ago, when this field was really first taking off, science did govern the day. There were really great, small, start-up pet food companies that were hiring scientists, hiring nutritionists, they were doing really good research, they were partnering with universities and academic institutions to do this research, and food was about the science.
But starting probably about 15 years ago, marketing — just as in the human food industry — became more and more the driving force, and it now pretty much owns pet food companies, so everything is driven by marketing. And so while marketing is very good at its job at selling pet foods to people, it tends to downplay and sometimes even mislead about the science. In fact, that’s one of the reasons “The Science Dog” was born, was trying to bring the science to the people that need it.
So there is a real disconnect today between the scientific knowledge and the great research that’s being done, and I would argue this is true in behavior and training as much as it is in nutrition, between the science that’s being done and getting it to the people that need it, the people that are really interested in dogs, that want to do the best by their dogs, both in terms of the nutrition and training.
So in terms of what we know, we know a lot. We know all of the nutrient requirements of dogs and cats, we know age differences, how activity affects the dog’s energy and basic nutrient needs, how certain health problems affect a dog’s nutrient needs. That knowledge is solid and it’s backed by good science. The problem is that it often doesn’t get where it needs to go, or it’s again misrepresented because of marketing practices.
We also know a lot about many of the ingredients that are used in pet foods. I’m sure you’re aware of the recent grain-free scare and DCM in dogs. One of the problems with that — it’s a great example of ingredients that are relatively new to the pet food market and have not been studied in-depth.
Things like chicken and rice and even lamb, all of those, certainly meat, pork, have been studied a great deal in terms of their nutrient availability, what happens to them when they’re extruded, what happens to them if they’re fed raw. We know a lot about those ingredients, but what we don’t know a lot about are the newer ingredients such as legumes and peas. They just haven’t been studied that much. It doesn’t mean they’re necessarily bad or they’re necessarily dangerous; they just haven’t been studied.
We also know a lot about ingredient digestibility and safety, but again, does it get where it needs to go. It’s in the literature. It needs to just be disseminated in a better way, in my view.
Melissa Breau: To dive a little more into that, it does seem like there are a lot of people trying to put out information. Everybody and their dog seem to be blogging about dog behavior, nutrition, all these things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are all doing their research, or that the research that they’re doing is very good. Do you have any advice for, when you’re out there on the Internet, figuring out what’s reliable and what’s … not? How can folks tell what is based on research and what maybe is just somebody’s opinion dressed up as fact?
Linda Case: What you’re really describing is evidence-based decision-making or evidence-based choices, which refers to saying, “If I’m going to make a choice, what evidence is there to support that choice and how reliable is that evidence?” Reliability of course is key.
I hate to keep plugging my books, but I have a book called Beware The Straw Man, and the entire purpose of that book was to help interested dog owners and pet owners, and professionals as well, to understand how to sift through evidence that is reliable and evidence-based versus evidence that is just anecdote or opinion.
Of course, you can always go back to the original research, but most folks don’t have the time or the interest to do that, so you have to find out where that information came from, what the original source was, how it’s being presented. But again, as far as the average pet owner goes, it can be really challenging. So I think critical thinking skills and being aware of some of the cognitive biases we have when we make decisions can be really helpful.
This is why I said earlier this could be a three-hour conversation really easily, so I’m going to refer them to a book instead.
Melissa Breau: Fair enough, fair enough. I know in addition to the nutrition stuff, you occasionally debunk training myths. I was curious: What are some of the oddest myths you’ve heard when it comes to training? I was wondering if you could debunk a few for us.
Linda Case: When I looked at this question I thought, Hmm, how do I pick? Because I probably have about twenty that I’ve written about, either on “The Science Dog” or in books.
Probably one of my favorites, and I think many listeners will agree with this, but remember there’s a difference between what we intuit and what we believe to be true versus what we have actual evidence to be true, and it’s pretty common for the evidence to not support what we believe or to at least support part of it and hopefully change our beliefs.
But this is actually one that most trainers already are onboard with but most pet owners are not, and that has to do with the guilty look. There’s the belief, this prevalent belief, amongst pet owners that when they come home and their dog is showing what they call “the guilty look,” which is usually just fear or submission, that that shows the dog knows he did something wrong or chewed something up or did something they didn’t like him to do, and therefore he’s showing guilt.
There was a series of studies by Alexandra Horowitz and Julie Hecht, and Adam Miklosi also was involved in these, that showed once and for all it’s not guilt. It’s fear, and it’s fear of impending punishment. They did this through a series of very unique and creative studies, and I present it in the book Beware The Straw Man. It’s called “Death Throes of the Guilty Look,” and literally walks step-by-step through and say, you can actually fool the dog into thinking he did something, or into thinking that he’s going to be punished, rather, and he will show what’s called the guilty look. My hope is that that information can help trainers then convince their clients who are saying their dog feels guilty and shows guilt to understand that no, your dog has learned to show fear because they’re afraid of an impending punishment.
The importance of that is not so much … we don’t really need to debate what the internal emotional state of the dog is, because I would argue it’s probably the same internal emotional state as humans when we supposedly show guilt. It’s basically fear of being caught at something you did wrong. It’s not that. It’s not that we would say, “Oh, they’re not feeling anything internally.” It’s rather that when we label a behavior as guilt, when we label it a certain way, that can then lead to improper and, in my view, cruel treatment of the dog, because if you say he’s feeling guilty, that means you can do something about it, which means punishing that dog, and that’s where we certainly go awry, rather than to understand your dog’s actually fearful, you should manage his environment better so these things don’t happen. That belief in guilt gets in the way of actually changing the behavior and changing how you manage that dog in another way. So that was one of my favorites.
If we have time, a second one was an essay that I believe is still on the blog, but it’s also in … I think it’s in Beware The Straw Man and I also talk about it in Dog Smart. This one was called “The Kids Are All Right.” This I just found fascinating because we all know that it’s really important to teach children to be appropriate with dogs, to ask before they come up, and hopefully to learn to read a dog’s body language.
I had a personal anecdote very recently with this, in that I was at our veterinarian’s office with Cooper just last week, and Cooper is pretty bombproof. He’s a very steady, easygoing Golden. He loves all people. But he was at the vet’s office, so he was a little nervous.
As I was waiting to leave, I was actually talking to our vet about something, a little girl about 8 years old came up with her mom and she came up and said, “Can I pet your dog?” So I was like, “Good girl. You asked first.” And I said, “Sure, yes. He’s friendly.”
Well, that’s where it went a little wrong, because she did start interacting with him, but she was very inappropriate in that she started — I’m sorry, that’s a dog drinking behind me, if you can hear that — she was very inappropriate with him. She threw her arms around him, she was leaning over him, she was way, way, way too close.
Cooper put his tail down, he backed up, he was showing her every physical sign that he was uncomfortable. I intervened and said, “Hey, honey, you’re a little too close, he’s a little nervous, he’s at the vet’s,” and she was having none of it. This was how she interacted with dogs, and she was going to hug him. And Mom did nothing. Mom just stood there, because I think the mom looked at it as, “My job is done. I taught my child to ask before she went up to greet.” It ended up fine. We told her, “Back off, let him come to you, here’s a treat,” and everything ended up fine. But that story fits right into this essay.
It was called “The Kids Are All Right,” and what they did, it was a series of studies from different researchers, which is wonderful because that is a really good way to corroborate information is if different researchers did the studies.
They looked at a bunch of different programs that are available for teaching kids to be appropriate with dogs, for teaching kids to not only approach them correctly, but to pet them gently and to show appropriate body language and to read also body language from dogs who are unfriendly. They found that, above a certain age, these programs worked great with the kids. They did a test/retest, so they would test to see how the kids were before they’d had the training, they’d give them these trainings — and there were various types of training; some were online, some were onsite, there were various approaches — and then they’d retest to see did the kids learn something, and sure enough, they did. So this was all good.
Then another study looked at the parents’ behavior, and what they found was that oftentimes the kids had learned this behavior, but their parents did exactly what this parent did that I saw. They taught their child to ask first, and then it was kind of like no holds barred, do whatever you want. And even though their child had been given this good information about good interactions with dogs, the parents didn’t follow through. The parents didn’t learn anything.
So this essay basically is saying the kids are all right, they’re learning. We need to get to the parents and to teach them to teach their kids to be more gentle, to not encourage their kids. They even had examples in these studies of the kids showing appropriate behavior, just gently petting, and the parents encouraging them to do more, you know, “Throw your arms around the big dog, lean over him.”
So what that particular myth busted to me was that it’s not always the kids, that we really need to educate parents as well. Do you want one more, or do we not have time?
Melissa Breau: Sure, sure, give us one more!
Linda Case: OK, I’ll give you one more very quickly. This has to do with extinction or sometimes negative punishment, which again I’m assuming again probably most of your listeners know what extinction is. It’s removing a reinforcer to decrease a behavior.
The most common use of extinction in dog training of course is dogs who jump up or dogs who pester for attention. Owners are said that to extinguish that behavior, you ignore the dog or you step away, you turn your back to the dog. We have not used extinction at my training school for many years. I’m not a fan of it, I never have been. Although I know it is still used a great deal, veterinarians recommend it, a lot of trainers still recommend it, I’ve never been a fan personally because I think it causes frustration. That’s the short end of the story.
The interesting thing is that there’s actually some evidence that the end use of negative punishment, removing something the dog wants in order to stop a behavior, do cause frustration in dogs. It’s a very quick experiment. They basically taught dogs to offer eye contact for a positive reinforce, for a treat. The dogs of course learned that very quickly. And then they either would continue to reinforce it or they would use extinction. So now the dog offered the behavior and they stopped reinforcing it and would either turn their back or walk away or just not reinforce the behavior.
What they saw — what behaviorist would cause an “extinction burst,” cognitive scientists would call it frustration — that the dogs became very unhappy, they started pawing, they started pestering for more affection, they actually got a little distressed, some of them would whine. And so the conclusion of that study, even though it’s a very small study, was that maybe we need to rethink the use of extinction, especially if it’s not used with training an alternate behavior, which is again the way that a lot of trainers use it. They train an alternate behavior and use extinction. I would argue that just train the alternate behavior and don’t use extinction at all.
This essay basically talked about we need to consider the outcome. “Extinction burst” sounds very pure and emotion-free, but actually what we’re seeing in an extinction burst is a dog who’s becoming frustrated and unhappy, and why do that when we don’t need to, when we have alternate approaches. We can just train an alternate behavior rather than the behavior that we don’t want.
Melissa Breau: So, I know that we were introduced because you’ve got a webinar coming up at FDSA. It’s titled “Canine Athlete or Couch Potato? - Feeding Dogs to Meet their Exercise Needs,” and I wanted to talk about it just for a minute. Can you share a little bit on what you’ll cover, the type of person who might be interested in the webinar, that kind of thing?
Linda Case: Well, first of all, thank you for inviting me to give that webinar. I’m really excited about it and really happy to be part of the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.
I’m going to focus on exercise because I know that many of your audience are interested in dog sports and that that’s an important topic for them.
We’ll start off with just a small discussion of obesity. That’s again recognizing it, looking at different foods that are on the market that are marketed as light or low calorie, and then we’ll really spend most of the seminar on exercise, looking at the three factors that impact nutrition and exercise, and those are the intensity of the exercise, the duration, and its frequency, and how these three factors influence the energy and nutrient needs of the canine athlete.
And then we finish with choosing the best food for a canine athlete, and once again that whole idea that there’s so many choices out there, how do you distinguish among them, and what are the factors that someone who is interested in feeding a canine athlete should pay attention to when they choose a food.
Melissa Breau: We’re getting close to the end here, and there are a couple of questions that I usually ask first-time guests, so I’d love to go through those. The first one is, what is the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?
Linda Case: Oh, that’s a nice one. Can I say two?
Melissa Breau: Sure, sure.
Linda Case: Because I would divide these into an accomplishment that reaches a larger audience versus an accomplishment that reaches a local audience.
I guess one of the things I’m proudest of is my writing, because I think science writing that’s brought to interested people, to everybody, rather than just to other scientists is what I’ve really tried to do in my writing, especially in recent years. And then I feel like it reaches many people outside of my local area, and hopefully to many dog trainers and dog professionals who are interested in learning about the recent science.
The second would be my AutumnGold dog training school for the local audience, that hopefully we strengthen the loving bond that people have with their dogs, and hopefully increase their understanding of positively based training to our local area, because we only serve of course the local area with that.
Melissa Breau: We talked about FDSA is making a ripple and you’ve got to start with your ripple where you are.
Linda Case: Yeah, I love that.
Melissa Breau: My second question here is, what’s the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?
Linda Case: I think the best piece of training advice is also the best piece of life advice I’ve ever received. It started with my dad and it has come from other mentors, and that is just simply “Be kind.” That’s it.
Melissa Breau: I like that.
Linda Case: It’s short. Be kind.
Melissa Breau: Makes it very easy to remember.
Linda Case: It is.
Melissa Breau: And the last one here, who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?
Linda Case: Right now I’d say, because I’ve been thinking about a lot and using his methods, is Ken Ramirez is way up there. Certainly of course Karen Pryor. And one of my personal mentors who I mentioned earlier, who was my advisor in graduate school and who now is also an amazing nutritionist and she’s also a KPA certified trainer, so we connected on many levels, and that was my mentor Dr. Gail Czarnecki, who is in the St. Louis area now. She’s no longer here. But I would say she’s definitely one of my most admired personal mentors as well.
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Linda! This has been great.
Linda Case: It’s been wonderful! Thank you so much, and I’m really excited about the upcoming webinar, and again very grateful and happy that Fenzi Dog Sports Academy has invited me.
Melissa Breau: We’re thrilled to have you! And for everybody who’s listening, just so that you know, the details on that, it’s November 15 at 6 p.m. Pacific time. It is up on the site already, so if you want to, you can go over and look. She’s got a full description up there, and we’ve got a link to her bio, and all sorts of good stuff, if anybody wants to go take a look at that.
Thank you to everybody for tuning in!
We’ll be back next week, this time with Barbara Currier to talk about teaching your dog to love weave poles.
In the meantime, I have a special request. For this year’s anniversary episode, we want to do something special. We want to feature you, our listeners. I’d love it if you’d consider leaving us a voicemail that we can include in that episode.
To do so, just go to SpeakPipe.com/FDSA_podcast. I’ll have a link to that in this episode’s show notes so you can go there and click on it to be taken to the page. There will be a record button there and you can leave us a message. Have a burning question we haven’t answered? A brag you want to share? Your own best training advice? Well, we want to hear about it.
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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 second of two podcasts where we’ll look specifically at rescues and training for adult dogs.
To be released 11/09/2018, we'll be talking to Linda P. Case, well known for her work in nutrition and focus on the science of dog training, about those two topics!
Today we’ll be doing something a little 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 second of two podcasts where we’ll look specifically at rescues and training for adult dogs.
The previous one was with Sara Brueske, and for this episode of the podcast, I’m here with Dr. Jessica Hekman.
Dr. Hekman is a postdoctoral associate at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where she researches how genetics affect behavior in pet and working dogs. Jessica received her Ph.D. in Animal Sciences in 2017 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studied canid behavioral genetics, so very on-topic for us.
Previously, she graduated from the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2012 with a dual DVM/MS degree. Her Master's work was on behavior and the cortisol responses of healthy dogs to being hospitalized overnight. She also completed a shelter medicine veterinary internship at the University of Florida Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program.
Hi Jessica! Welcome to the podcast.
Jessica Hekman: Hey Melissa. Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, do you mind just reminding everyone a little bit about who your current pups are, and maybe share where they came from and at what point in their lives?
Jessica Hekman: Absolutely. We almost heard from them while you were in the middle of your intro. I think somebody went by outside and they both ran to the door and started squeaking a little bit, and I was like, “Shh, shh, dogs. I’m on a podcast. Be really quiet!” This is their downtime.
So I have two. My older one is Jenny, that’s short for Guinevere, and she is a mixy-mix. I had her tested with Wisdom Panel, turns out she’s probably Labrador/Samoyed. She came from a shelter, and we know from the shelter that she is at least part Lab, so that much is true. She’s a very, very cute little blonde, 35 pounder. She looks like a little Border Collie who’s Golden Retriever colored, so she’s super-cute.
And Dash, which is short for Dashell, is an English Shepherd and he is a little bit over 2 years old. I got Jenny when she was 13 months old, and Dash was my first puppy ever, so I got him at 9 weeks.
Melissa Breau: There are, I think, lots of good reasons to have you on, but before we get into some of the professional stuff, I was hoping, as somebody who has one dog that was a rescue and one that you got from a breeder, if you’d talk a little about that piece. With Jenny, my understanding is you adopted a dog, you knew there was some serious stuff going on there, you’d have to work on it from a training perspective. Can you talk a little bit about where she was when you brought her home, where she is now, and what kind of work you put in to get her there?
Jessica Hekman: Yeah, sure. Jenny definitely has a long and interesting story. I had just finished up my Master’s and was going back to finish up veterinary school. I was a third-year vet student and I had a lovely, behaviorally very healthy Golden Retriever named Jack, who I adored, and I wanted to get a second dog.
So I was looking around at shelters, and a really close friend of mine was doing her shelter medicine internship and came across this dog. I later found out she was actually joking when she emailed me to say, “There’s this dog, maybe you want her,” because she was like, “This dog’s crazy. Clearly you wouldn’t want this dog, ha ha ha.” I got the email and I was like, “Oh, that sounds great,” and afterwards she was like, “I don’t know what you were thinking.”
I like to say she comes from an “oops” litter, except it was the “dogs do that sometimes” litter. She was from a farm that was in rural upstate New York outside of Ithaca. I think they had some number of dogs they just knew were going to have litters sometimes — not so much of an “oops” litter as “oh yeah, that happens.”
At some point Animal Control came to that farm and said, “You have nine dogs and that’s too many, and you need to give some up.” So they took the two 10-month-old puppies from their most recent litter, I gather, and took them in to Tompkins County Humane Society and said, “Here, you can have these, and that will get us back down to seven dogs and everyone will be happy.”
Apparently the owner was surprised to discover that these two dogs were super-shy. They hadn’t noticed anything behaviorally wrong with the dogs, but due to the fact, I think, that the dogs had never, ever been off their farm at all, and I don’t believe any socialization had been done with them at all, then the dogs had thought that their whole world was this little farm, and when they came into the shelter discovered the world was much larger than that, they were horrified.
There was one woman working at the shelter at the time as a behavior consultant, had a Master’s in behavior, and she referred to them as “toxically cute.” They were these ridiculously, looked like identical twins, girl and boy, cream colored, so cute, 10 months old, and she said they had people lining up to adopt them, but they knew that they were going to be behaviorally really challenging.
So they gave these two dogs to a pair of guys who tried really hard with them but apparently didn’t have so much the dog skills necessary and did some stuff that we know is not the best way to convince a shy dog to like you, such as luring them close with canned cheese and then trying to pet them when they had lured them close, which then taught the dogs that cheese was terrifying, for example.
After a month or so of that, the dogs were not warming up to them at all, and so Jenny came back into the shelter, but they kept her. She was fostered by this behavior consultant, and that was when I found out about her. Shortly after I took her, her brother came back and moved in and took her spot with the behavior consultant.
They wanted to place her with me because I had this dog who was going to be a really good influence on her and teach her that people were not scary. When I first met her, I couldn’t make eye contact with her because she would tremble. She’s not aggressive at all. She just entirely shuts down, so she’ll huddle in a corner and shake. So I couldn’t make eye contact with her because she would complete decompensate when I made eye contact with her. I couldn’t touch her.
We were living in Massachusetts, and my then-boyfriend and I drove out to Ithaca to meet her and decide that we wanted her and pick her up, and her foster mom had to lift her into the car for us because she would pee whenever we touched her, and when we got home and getting her out of the car, she peed.
She lived for the first few weeks on her dog bed, and I kept a harness with a one-foot-long tab on her at all times. When it was time to go outside, I would crawl on the floor backwards, not making eye contact with her, to attach a leash to the tab so that I didn’t have to touch her, and take her outside.
After a few days of this, I was going through this ritual of crawling backwards towards her as she stood up and very clearly said, “No. I understand the situation. I can take it from here, and you don’t have to put that thing on me. It’s horrifying.” So we went down outside together, and I had this big, safely fenced yard, but it was almost half an acre, and I remember thinking, Am I ever going to get this dog back inside? I was like, Well, let’s just see what happens. So I let her out and she did her business and came back in. And that’s very Jenny, being terrified of the world but really wanting to make her way in it, and thinking outside the box to try to figure out what’s going to happen.
She did not let my husband, my then-boyfriend, touch her for about the first six months that we had her. It took a week before I could touch her. The first time I ever had a stranger in the house after I got her, she hid in a corner, pooped, and sat in it, so that was lovely. It took her weeks to stop submission-urinating.
I still remember the first night that we were sleeping in the bed and she was on her dog bed at the other end of the room, didn’t want to sleep in the bed with us but was willing to be in the room with us, and I had given her a pig’s ear. Whenever I gave her food, she’d tuck it under her chest and be like, “I’ll eat this later when no one can see me and it’s safe.” I remember around midnight, after we’d been in bed for a couple of hours and it was dark, she felt safe enough and I could hear her start to crunch on the pig ear. I remember lying there in the dark, smiling to myself and thinking, Oh, she’s doing better.
So what did I do with her? She came to me on fluoxetine, which is a behavioral medication that is effective in a lot of dogs, but it is the one behavioral medication that general practice veterinarians tend to feel comfortable with, and it was a general practice veterinarian who had prescribed it. So I took her to a veterinary behaviorist. I was a vet student at the time, so I had a friend who was doing her behavior residency. I had Jenny go meet with her. and she prescribed a different medication that she thought would be more appropriate for Jenny’s particular issues, and she has done very well on that. She has continued to improve. I’ve had her for nine years now. Our Gotcha Day anniversary is coming up on New Year’s Day this year. She’s just continued to improve.
At first, it was really, really hard. When we let her outside, she had trouble coming back in if there had been a stranger in the house over the last few hours. If I was out and my husband let her out, sometimes she wouldn’t come back in. He’d call and say, “Can’t get her in,” and I’d say, “You have to leave the door open and walk outside and get behind her so she’ll go in,” and he’d say, “But it’s January in New England, can’t you come home?” I’d say, “No, I’m on clinics in vet school, they won’t let me leave for another twelve hours.” So it was really hard.
She gradually started being able to make friends. I needed to have someone who could come let her out to pee when I was working these fifteen-hour days, so I had to pay this dog walker to come five or six times while I was there and pay her to come get to know Jenny, and then she was able to start coming and Jenny was able to warm up to her, so that was really nice.
When I finished vet school a year-and-a-half later, and I moved down to Florida for my internship, had to drive the dogs down there, Jenny hadn’t ever taken a long car trip before or really been off the property all that much. We’d been to the vet a couple of times, but I was minimizing it because it was so traumatic for her. So we drove down to Florida, a five-day drive because we took it slow, and she didn’t pee for the first 48 hours, so that was terrifying, but she eventually did. She has continued to improve and to change, and so while we were in Florida, we got to the point where instead of huddling in a corner and shaking when people came over, she would roo, which is not the behavior I was aiming for in the end, but showed that she was feeling more confident.
When we then moved to Illinois for my Ph.D., I still remember the very first day that she was willing to go to sleep in the middle of the floor, just stretched out laterally in the middle of the floor. She’d always slept on couches before. I had never seen her sleep in the middle of a floor. When I first got her, she wouldn’t go into the kitchen. She’d run from the kitchen really fast. Now she’s comfortable in any room of the house.
While we were in Urbana, there was a lovely, really big dog park, really nice dog park, and I was able to go at off hours when there weren’t many other dogs there. She was able to do that and be off-leash, and make dog friends, and eventually even make human friends. She even had some human friends that she really liked there.
Now we’re back in Massachusetts. She’s able to hike off-leash with us in the forest, she is able to go to her chiropractor — she has chiropractic problems, probably from being so tense all the time — and she’s able to handle that and not completely decompensate, and when people come over she now understands that while she thinks that all people are axe murderers, some of them do come with cheese, of which she is no longer scared, and so when people come over, she’s nervous at first, they toss her some cheese, and now she’s at the point where she’ll sit and make cute faces at people to get cheese, which is really nice.
The huge thing recently was I have a dog walker come now for her and Dash, and I tell the dog walker, “Let them both out to pee, that will be fine, but only take Dash for a walk. Jenny won’t go for a walk with you.” I got this text message from the dog walker saying, “I asked Dash if he wanted to go for a walk, and Jenny was really excited about it too. Can I take her?” I was like, “Sure, just be prepared to go home if she freaks out.” But she didn’t, and I got these great photographs of her on the walk really happy. So she’s made massive progress. She’s a really different dog than she used to be.
So a lot of behavior modification, a lot of management, a lot of time, and a lot of her trying as well. She really likes people, and she really likes being near people. She’s just scared of them, and I think she’s really made an effort because of that. If she wasn’t so people-social, I don’t think she would have overcome everything as well as she has. But she continues to improve. I thought she’d plateau after a couple of years, but she has not. Nine years and she continues, she’s better this year than she was last year. It’s amazing. She’s a fabulous little dog.
Melissa Breau: Now on the flip side of that, with Dash you did all your homework, and I know you originally had some hopes to do agility with him, but now you’re not sure that that’s the path he’ll take you down. Are you willing to talk about that a little bit?
Jessica Hekman: When I got Jenny, I was interested in fearful dogs and I got sort of a sad project. When I got Dash, I was like, “I want a dog that will be fun, and I want to learn about what it’s like to raise a puppy.”
I was interested in socialization as part of my job and my research, but I also really wanted to do dog sports, and agility in particular. So I went to a breeder who did agility and nosework and some other stuff with her dogs and got Dash. She said, “He’s a very confident puppy and he’s going to be ideal for agility,” and he did start out that way. He then started around 6 months of age to have some fearfulness and to have off and on lameness. I’m a veterinarian and I am not afraid to take him to specialists. I took him to a bunch of specialists trying to figure out what was up with the lameness, and it took a year to find somebody who could diagnose him. It was a complex problem, and so when he was a year-and-a-half old, we finally figured out that he had a tiny little chipped bone in his right elbow, and because he’d been on it for so long now, that that elbow was really painful and his shoulder was showing changes as well because he’d been compensating.
I’d been doing agility foundations and early levels of agility, not jumping full height, and I’d been doing this and hiking him, he’d been running in the woods, and we were doing parkour, so he was doing all this stuff with his broken bone basically. The vet said it probably was similar to walking with rocks in your shoes, clearly more and less painful at different times. He had also pretty clearly learned that when other dogs approached him, if they bumped into him, it was going to hurt, so he had learned to warn other dogs off proactively.
When we finally had the surgery, got his elbow repaired — the elbow injury, by the way, pretty clearly a traumatic injury. I know the day that it happened. He was 5 months, 5-and-a-half months, running in the woods, and there was ice and snow. He came up lame that evening, and it kept coming and going ever since then. He probably had what the orthopedist called a “jump-down injury,” probably jumped off of something too high that he shouldn’t have and chipped that bone. Had the surgery, was a six-month recovery, and he is fully recovered, so technically I could go back to agility.
There’s a couple of things stopping me. One is that given that he had this issue in that leg, it means that he’s going to develop arthritis earlier than he would have otherwise. The rehab that I was working with put it to me as, “You may only have so many jumps in him, and he’s going to be doing some jumping on his own — into and out of the car, on and off the bed — so maybe you could conserve the amount of jumps you’re asking him to do, so that you put off the arthritis as long as possible,” and that sounds reasonable to me.
The other thing is that he had learned to be very slow and cautious in agility, and I think a lot of that was that it hurt, and also that I’m a green handler, and so we’re doing some stuff that he can learn to really enjoy. So we’re doing nosework right now, which he thinks is fabulous. It’s very low-pressure, there’s none of my expectations, there’s none of anything hurting, and so possibly we’ll go back to agility at a later point, certainly not anything that I would push him really hard to do a lot of jumping.
So that’s how I got redirected with him down into a slightly different road than I had originally imagined.
Melissa Breau: Personal experiences aside for a moment, you also deal heavily in all of this stuff professionally. Can you share a little bit about how your day job ties in?
Jessica Hekman: I had been a computer programmer for twelve years or something like that, and I decided I wanted to learn about what causes dogs to have different personalities and to behave differently — why some are shy, and some are aggressive, and some are really friendly, what’s different in their brains.
It turned out that the best tools that we have right now for getting at that kind of thing in pet dogs is genetics, because you can look at a dog’s genetics without having to actually cut their head open and get at their brain. It’s a better way of doing things than the other alternatives involving laboratory animals.
I am, as you said, currently working at a research institute. The institute actually focuses mostly on human health, and the group that I’m working with, we use dogs as models for humans to study how genetics interacts with behavior, and how it interacts with diseases like cancer, to try to understand more not just about dogs but also about humans. And that’s great, that’s how we get our funding, saying that this is applicable to human health. I’m obviously in it because I care about dogs, figure there’s plenty of other people looking at human health, I’m really more interested in the canine health, but that’s sort of the focus of the lab as a whole.
What we do, anyone who’s interested in learning more about that can go to DarwinsArk.org and check it out. The main project lets people come, sign up their dogs, answer a whole slew of questions about their dog’s behavior, and then get a kit to have us sample their dog’s DNA, which we do just through saliva, so it’s very easy. And then we run analyses and hopefully find fascinating things, although the project is young so far, so we have not solved all the questions of behavioral genetics quite yet.
Melissa Breau: Quite yet. What CAN we know, what do we know about a dog based on their genetics? What kind of traits does research show us come “hardwired”?
Jessica Hekman: A lot of it is still up in the air, and a lot of people are surprised to find out how much we don’t know.
We do know that things like retrieving and herding and pointing, things that you see that are definite differences between breeds, and things that we know that people selectively bred for, those definitely can come hardwired, and so you can see dogs offering retrieving behavior or herding behavior without having been trained to do it, which I think is crazy. How do you program in the DNA that a dog really likes putting things in their mouth and bringing it back to you, or that they really like collecting sheep into a little circle? I think that’s just insane, and we don’t know what it is that does that exactly. We have some initial ideas, but we don’t know what genes are that do that. So we know that that can be more or less hardwired, although, as a lot of you know already, it certainly is not the case that every single Labrador Retriever is interested in retrieving. So even though a particular breed may have many or most dogs in it be hardwired for one particular skill like that, it doesn’t mean that every dog in the breed will be that way.
When it comes to personality, there’s still a lot of differences between dogs. Every dog is really an individual, even though a breed may have some tendencies. So the kinds of stuff that we’re looking at with the Darwin’s Ark project is, what I’m personally interested in, is personality. I would say that personality are traits that change only very slowly over time, that tend to be fairly static over time. They can change, but slowly. Jenny’s example is … I’d definitely say she has a shy personality but that she has become less shy over time, but it has taken a lot of work.
One initial question that we’re looking at based just on the surveys, not even on genetics, has been, “Are there certain personalities per dog breed?” because we know we feel like most Golden Retrievers are friendlier than most, say, German Shepherds, which are more aloof, that kind of question. The initial work that was done by the last person who had my job suggested that that’s not actually the case, that he wasn’t able to see any personality differences between breeds.
It’s interesting, it has occasioned a lot of debate in the lab, because I was sort of like, “That’s shocking, and I think we have to question whether we’re approaching this the right way, because I’m convinced there are personality differences between breeds.” And my boss, Eleanor Karlsson, who’s the head of the lab, said, “Remember a hundred years ago we told ourselves there were differences between humans with different skin color, and we used to honestly believe that based on someone’s skin color we could make assumptions about their IQ. We now know that that was really wrong, at least genetically it was wrong. People of different skin color tended to get different levels of education, but that there were no real genetic differences in things like IQ or personality.” Fair enough, although I would respond that we have not been selectively breeding groups of populations of humans for particular personality traits, and we have been selectively breeding dogs for different personality traits. So I am in the middle of working on trying to dig into that data right now and see what I can see.
One of the first approaches I took … Labradors are a great example for us because they’re the most popular dog in America, and so we have a lot of examples of them, and they’re also kind of behavioral freaks because they have really low risk of being fearful of things and tend very much to be friendly and outgoing. So they’re behavior outliers and there’s also a zillion of them. I look to see what questions in the questionnaire Labs scored really different from breeds of the same size on, and unsurprisingly one of the questions was, “Does your dog like bringing things to you?” Labs statistically, very significantly, were much more likely to want to bring things to you. Whether you want to call that a personality trait or not, I don’t know, but it was a good place to start.
And again, very interesting, not all Labs wanted to bring things to you, but they were much more likely to want to than other dogs. So we’re starting to try to do an analysis of if all these mixed-breed dogs we have, if they have more Labrador in their ancestry, are they more likely to enjoy retrieving. So that’s one of the things that we’re working on right now.
Melissa Breau: Digging into this stuff a little bit more, I think a lot of the time people will have their perfect puppy, and then something goes wrong. The dog becomes reactive or obsessive or … something. And then they decide, “OK, it must be genetic.” Is that true? Is that the case? Is there evidence to the contrary?
Jessica Hekman: I would say that any behavior or ongoing behavior or personality trait is genetic. They’re all genetic. So the puppy being perfect was genetic and the puppy not being perfect was genetic, because it’s all about how genetics interact with environment.
What I caution people against is imagining there’s this pre-programmed switch in the dog’s brain that’s programmed genetically that says, “Around 6 months this dog is going to become fearful, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.” I don’t think that’s true, at least not in our pet dogs.
When we talk about some laboratory populations, where we’re selectively breeding animals, there’s a study with fearful Pointers where they were really, really heavily selecting for super-fearful dogs, and those dogs were never going to be normal. There’s the tame fox study that I used to work on, where they have for many, many decades been selectively breeding some foxes to be very tame and some to be very aggressive, and those, that’s all they breed for. They don’t breed for anything else.
But in our pet dog populations, where we’re breeding for a lot of things, you just don’t see that genetics is going to force an animal to be a certain way in the sense of there being a switch that, “OK, the behavior appeared around 6 or 8 months and I don’t know what caused it and therefore it’s genetic.” I would say that genetics causes risk, and so genetically an animal may be at increased risk of developing fearfulness, for example, and that that risk is going to interact with the animal’s environment. So there may have been something … if you didn’t see the cause … if you see the cause, you sort of know what’s going on — he was just a puppy, and some dog came out of nowhere and bowled him over and bit him, and so of course he was traumatized by that and now he’s fearful of other dogs. You know what happened there.
But sometimes … I think Dash is a fabulous example of I didn’t know what was going on with him. I was very lucky to get to figure out what was going on with him, but I started seeing this reactivity to other dogs. It was never terrible, but it was a real change from how he had been when he was younger and I wasn’t able to perceive that he was in pain and that was why it was.
And it can be much more subtle than that. It can be this stuff that goes on in the environment that sets dogs up to develop in certain ways, can happen while the dog is still in the uterus, it can happen while the dog … super-important stuff happens during that first eight weeks when the dog is with the breeder, and again, stuff that we don’t necessarily have control over. It could be interactions with the other littermates. It could be this is the smallest dog in the litter, and the biggest dog in the litter bullied him and that’s how it turned out. Not the fault of the breeder, not the fault of the owner, but also not a genetic switch, but perhaps that dog was genetically at risk of becoming fearful and that experience made him or her more fearful.
I also feel like we don’t fully understand always … it’s hard for us to grasp quite how complex this concept of environment is, and so you might say to yourself, “Just because two dogs are both in the same environment …” Dash and Jenny, they’re both living in our house, so it’s the same environment, but I would point out that their perception of what environment they’re in differs from each other.
There’s been a lot of research in humans, when we look into how different siblings growing up in the same household basically perceive very different environments, certainly if they’re of different ages. One had been an only child for a while and also maybe was being raised by parents who didn’t make quite as much money early on, and then the parents started making more money and at the same time also had another child, and so the second child experiences a very different environment. They are not an only child, parents are much more affluent now because they’re older, maybe they’re being raised in a house instead of an apartment, so they have very different environments. Even twins, who you think, Well, they’re born at the same time, but they can have very different environments as well, based on just their interactions with each other where one starts being the bossy one, one starts being the more submissive one, they can have different friends in school and different interactions with that environment.
And I think it’s really the same for our dogs, that we just don’t realize what tiny little differences there are that they have this whole world that they perceive that we don’t.
So I think the answer is there isn’t a genetic switch to make a dog be one way or another. There’s only risk, and so it’s all this complex interaction that gets us there. I hope that answers that question.
Melissa Breau: Yeah, absolutely, and you started to talk a little bit in there about how early life experiences can have a big impact on adult personality, right? Can you talk a little bit about some of the research or the science? I know you shared some interesting stuff when you did the webinar, and you’re planning on including some good stuff in your class.
Jessica Hekman: I actually talk a lot about the socialization period in my class on The Biology of Building a Great Performance Dog, and that’s not yet on the schedule to come back, but I definitely will be offering it again.
I am super-lucky right now to be working in the same laboratory as Dr. Kathryn Lord, who is also a post-doc working in Karlsson Lab, and she is the expert on dog socialization. She did her Ph.D. looking at differences in timing in dog versus wolf socialization, and she has amazing insight, so one of the reasons I love my job so much is I can just go hang out with my friend Kathryn and ask her questions about socialization and she will hold forth and I will learn so much. That has been amazing to add on to, in addition to all the reading that I had done on my own, because socialization is super-super-interesting.
One of the things she really emphasizes is how important that first eight weeks is, how much is going on at that time, and how these puppies need to interact with their environment very early on and try to learn what’s normal and expected in their world. Puppies and other mammals are born without a strong fear response, just “whatever I’m interacting with for those early weeks.” Puppies start leaving the nest around 3 or 4 weeks. They don’t actually start being afraid of things until somewhere between 5 and 8 weeks, depending on the breed.
And so they have somewhere between one and four weeks in which they’re interacting with the world without any fearfulness and just being set up to make good associations with everything that they see, the idea being that they would be carefully under their mother’s care at that time, and that then by 8 weeks they’re starting to venture out farther, and then it starts being really useful for them to be afraid of things, because at that point there might actually be predators and dangers that they need to be able to run away from.
So that means that that really important time before they’re afraid of things, when they’re set up to make these good associations, is happening while they’re at the breeder’s. That’s before you get your hands on them, which is one of the reasons why, when I was looking at breeders, I looked into finding someone who had done a whole lot of work with the puppies, giving them a lot of enrichment and taking them offsite.
One of the things that happened with Jenny was she had never left her farm until she was 10 months old. So with Dash, someone who takes the puppies out for exploratory field trips, and does early scent stimulation and all that kind of stuff, that’s really important to do early on, although I think we also sometimes discount how much interesting stuff is also going on with puppies in the uterus. There’s been a lot of work on that with laboratory rodents, and it turns out that puppies start having different experiences from their littermates even in the uterus, so they’re getting, based on where they are relative to the bitch’s blood supply, they can get fewer or more of her stress hormones, or fewer or more nutrients, just based on how the blood supply goes from one end of the uterus to the other, and if there’s a bunch of puppies, it may be a bit depleted of both stress hormones and nutrients by the time it gets to the puppies at the far end.
Melissa Breau: Interesting.
Jessica Hekman: Yeah, a lot of interesting stuff there that we don’t fully understand how that sets dogs up for issues later on, but we do believe that it does.
Melissa Breau: That’s neat, and it’s very different from what some people necessarily think about.
Jessica Hekman: We think about how important it is to socialize puppies when we bring them home, and for sure it is, I’m not discounting that. It is super-important. But there’s a lot that goes on before that first eight weeks that is also really important.
Melissa Breau: I think we’ve gotten into this a little bit already, but thinking about our audience, if you have somebody who’s evaluating an adult dog and they’re not entirely sure where that dog came from, are there things about that dog’s personality when they meet them that they should consider “fixed”? How flexible is that when you’re talking about an adult dog?
Jessica Hekman: Of course, because all dogs are individuals, it’s different for every dog, so it’s really hard to know, when you start working with a dog, how far they’re going to get.
I love using Jenny as an example, as when I got her, I had no idea. I didn’t know. I had been doing rescue work before, and I had known through the rescue there have been some dogs who would come in super-shy, and they made these magical turnarounds in a month or so, when they realized they were in a new home that was safe. So she could have just turned around immediately. She didn’t.
And then, after you’ve had the dog for a year, the question is, How far can she go? At the time, I figured, She’s never going to be a normal dog. I had pretty much given up on being able to take her for walks around the block, even. I thought, I’ll make sure to have houses with big yards, she can exercise in the yard at home, I will minimize trips to the vet and make home visits for her, and that was as far as I thought she was going to go for a long time. She has just continued to improve and that was surprising, and it was powerful to me to see how far some dogs can go.
On the other hand … so I don’t consider personality completely fixed, but it’s also about how hard you want to work on it, and Jenny, obviously, it was really a welfare issue for her. She was terrified of the world, and it was really important to me to make her feel more comfortable in her own skin. I had taken her on knowing that was going to be a project and a learning experience for me that I really wanted to work on.
In terms of sports, there’s this question of, if you get a dog who’s wrong for a particular sport, as it turns out — like I got Dash really wanting to do agility, and it turns out it may not be the best sport for him. Now could I get him to where he was competing successfully in agility and was really enjoying it? I probably could, if I put in the kind of time working just on that that I put in with Jenny. I’m sure that I could get him to where he relaxed more and figured it wasn’t going to hurt so much, and improve my own handling skills so that he’s more confident. I think I could get him much farther than I have so far. But is it worth it? It’s not a welfare issue for him. He doesn’t miss agility. He loves nosework, he loves parkour, so I’m focusing on that stuff.
So there’s this tradeoff, definitely, of how much effort do you want to put into it, and are you doing it for yourself or are you doing it for the dog?
Melissa Breau: Assuming that most of our audience is probably trying to determine whether or not a dog is suitable for sports, evaluating an adult dog most likely, from that angle, what things would you look at? What things would you consider?
Jessica Hekman: For sure, it’s going to be easiest in an adult dog to evaluate how good their structure is, whether they are the right size and shape and conformation for the sport that you’re interested in, and whether they’re medically healthy.
Assessing behavioral health is going to be another important thing. Depending on where they’re coming from, it can be harder to tell behavioral health. So if a dog has been in a shelter for months and is really shut down, it can be hard to tell if when you bring them into your house they’re going to open up. And then some dogs of course the opposite, that you have them in the shelter and they stress up, and so they become really jumpy, mouthy, crazy, and it’s hard to know if once you start working with them they’ll be able to have more self-control or not. It would be very rare to find a dog coming out of a situation where they’d been in a shelter for some period of time where they appeared behaviorally healthy, and it’s hard to know how easy it’s going to be to turn them around.
Definitely looking to see if a dog has an interest in humans is going to be super-important, and that, for me, I think was Jenny’s saving grace was that she was really, really interested in humans and wanted to be around humans. Obviously Jenny is not the kind of dog that any of you I think would go and pick up as a sports prospect. I don’t think she’s ever going to be able to compete. I mean, she’s 10 now, so I’m not looking at her being able to ever be a competition dog, although I am actually hoping to put some parkour titles on her, because we can do that at home just on video.
But for a dog who has their act a little more together than Jenny did, making sure that the dog is interested in people. If you go into the room and the dog is just not interested in you — they should want to check out the new environment first, that’s fine, but if after they’ve had a couple of minutes to sniff around, they should also want to come and check in with you. If a dog is just not interested in interacting with you, that is a major warning sign for me that that is going to be a difficult dog to work with. It’s also ideal obviously to try to assess right away whether the dog has some interest in toys and in food. But again, all of it can change when you bring the dog home.
It’s too bad that there’s no way to a hundred percent guarantee that you’re going to get a dog that is really good at the sport that you’re interested in. It’s something that upsets everybody. We’d all like to have the guarantee that before we commit and tell the dog that they’re going to be our dog for the rest of their lives and we’re going to take care of them, and we become emotionally attached to them, we’d like to know that they’re going to be a good partner for the sport that we want as well, and there’s just not a way to a hundred percent tell about that, unfortunately, either route that you go, whether it be getting an adult dog that somebody else has had, or whether it be getting a puppy from a breeder. You can minimize your risks, but there’s always going to be some risks.
Certainly when you get a dog as an adult you should try to take advantage of all the opportunities that you have to get information about how that dog was in its previous environment. So definitely if you’re getting a dog from a shelter, I would ask them, “Are there staff members who like this dog, who know this dog, who worked with this dog?” A lot of shelters will even have training classes that they do just for enrichment with their dogs, and they’ll be able to tell you some stuff about how the dog has responded to that. But even failing that, if you ask around, you’ll often find people who clean the kennels will say, “Oh, I love this dog, she really got to know me, she’s always so glad to see me.” That’s useful information. Or “She barks, and she seems really nervous of me and was unable to warm up to me, even though I tried to offer her treats.” That would be useful information too.
If you go the rescue route and a dog has been in somebody’s home for a couple of weeks, that’s fabulous. That is just a goldmine of information. Hopefully you all know this already, but definitely sit down with those people and grill them for whatever they can tell you about that dog.
Melissa Breau: Right. As trainers, I think we know that behavior modification works, but what does the science say about how that and genetics interact? You mentioned you’ve done so much work with Jenny, and I’d love to hear the other side of that, the research and that piece of it.
Jessica Hekman: As I said, there’s just no guarantee and biology is really complicated. And it’s really early days yet, too, of figuring out how we’re going to be able to use genetics to predict anything.
What we’re looking at right now is working with some groups who breed dogs for guide-dog work and assistance-dog work. They manage populations of dogs, and we’re trying to get to where an initial goal for us is to try to find some markers in the DNA that will help us say, “Dogs with this marker tend to do better on this trait,” whatever trait it is they’re interested in is. They’re interested in things like not afraid of thunderstorms, and not afraid of walking on unstable surfaces, and how easily stressed-out is the dog. We’d like to be able to give them some genetic tests for stuff like that, with the understanding that these genetic tests are useful for a population of dogs, and there’s always going to be this interaction with the environment, and so even if you have genetic tests like that, that’s to help you decide which dogs to breed and to try to make some selections among the litter, and these are the ones that are going to be better guide dogs and these maybe would be more useful going off and doing some kind of tracking work or something like that.
But it’s still very much never going to be a black-and-white “Yes, he passed genetically, he’s going to be a guide dog.” We’re pretty much never, at least with the current state of the technology, not going to be able to say things like that. And it makes it even harder when you’re asking things about individuals. So those groups working with populations, what we’d really like as sports people would be to be able to say, “I don’t care about the whole population of dogs. I just want one for me that will do my favorite sport.”
Genetics is always going to be really hard, so at this point we don’t even have any sort of tests that we can do. But even when we start getting to where we’re going to be able to do them, it will only give you a hint, it will only be a small piece of information to put into the rest of the picture and try to figure out what’s going on with that dog.
Melissa Breau: To bring it back to what you said initially, it’s really about genetics may put a dog more or less at risk for particular behavioral traits, but there’s really quite a bit of flexibility within that.
Jessica Hekman: Yeah, and remembering that genetics isn’t a switch. It’s all about risk, and whether a dog is more sensitive to their environment maybe and more at risk for developing some problem.
But I think one thing I didn’t really say enough earlier in this conversation, though, is that if you are raising a dog from a puppy, and the dog does end up developing a shy personality, and you’ve done everything right, I do want to emphasize that it does not mean that it’s your fault. It doesn’t mean that the dog had some switch determining that it was going to be shy. It just means that there’s a lot going on that you may not be able to see, and it definitely means you shouldn’t give up and say, “This is just genetic, it can’t be changed.” It probably can be changed.
You aren’t going to know going in where you can end up.
I didn’t know going in with Jenny where I was going to end up, and she’s much less shy than I ever thought she’d get to be. I didn’t know with Dash going in where I was going to end up. I hoped I’d end up in agility. I ended up in nosework. In both cases I’m really happy with where I ended up. They are fabulous dogs and I love them so much. So working with your dog, I guess, and not giving up, but also being open to different paths is hopefully the answer.
Melissa Breau: Okay, for those interested, where do they go to learn more?
Jessica Hekman: I definitely mentioned DarwinsArk.org. That’s where my work project is. And I mentioned that we were working with guide dogs and assistance dogs currently, and we are hoping to start expanding into sports dogs soon.
I’m definitely going to make so much noise about that on the alumni list when it happens, and I’ll probably call you up, Melissa, and see if we can do another podcast just talking about that. But it doesn’t hurt to get signed up now and be prepared for when that happens.
I am also teaching a class pretty much about all of this stuff in December. It’s a class about the genetics of dog behavior, and with the help of some very creative people on the alumni list, I decided to call it The Melting Pot: Genes, Environment, and Personality. And so it’s very much about genetics, but it’s also about how it’s not just genetics, it’s also environment. That’s going to be in December. I think it should be on the schedule, and I’ll make sure that it definitely is by the time this podcast goes live.
Also I am very active on both Twitter and Facebook, and I tweet and message on Facebook a lot of different stories about dog science. It’s some of the stuff that I’ve written, but more often I find stuff out there and share it. So people who want to know more about this stuff, following me both on Twitter and on Facebook is a good way to do it. Twitter is @dogzombieblog and Facebook is Facebook.com/dogzombieblog, or in either case if you just search for Jessica Hekman or go to dogzombie.com, in all those cases you’ll get links to those things.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Jessica. This was great.
Jessica Hekman: It was a lot of fun. Thanks for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with Linda Case to talk about dog nutrition.
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