Cassia Turcotte has been involved with the dog training world for nearly two decades and has been training professionally since 1999. She has a background in private behavior modification, and has worked as a kennel manager, volunteer shelter staff, veterinary technician, Search And Rescue training officer, and taught classes for both reactive and fearful dogs. She completed her first professional certification in 2003.
Midway through her career, Cassia decided to combine her passion for positive dog training with her love of the outdoors, and a background in waterfowl and upland game hunting.
She channeled her training efforts into developing a program for versatile real world hunting companions, building hunt test teams using positive training techniques.
Her students have titled dogs for both retrieving and pointing breeds. During the hunting season, you will most likely find Cassia and her dogs in a duck blind or kayak doing what they love most.
Cassia has titled her own dogs in numerous dog sports including hunt tests, obedience and rally, agility, conformation, and Nosework.
Additionally, she has been involved with both wilderness and urban Search And Rescue teams, including the evaluation of operational readiness.
Cassia believes in finding joy in the process of training rather than adopting an outcome oriented mindset and she believes strongly that dog training should be a form of structured play.
She is an advocate for positive training methods for field dogs.
To be released 9/29/2017, featuring Donna Hill to talk about training service dogs, perfecting the retrieve, and cue concepts.
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 progressive training methods. Today, I’ll be talking to Cassia Turcotte. Cassia’s been involved in the dog-training world for nearly two decades and has been training professionally since 1999.
She has a background in private behavior modification and has worked as a kennel manager, volunteer shelter staff, veterinary technician, search and rescue training officer, and taught classes both for reactive and fearful dogs. She completed her first professional certification in 2003. Midway through her career, Cassia decided to combine her passion for positive dog training with her love of the outdoors and a background in waterfowl and upland game hunting.
She channeled her training efforts into developing a program for versatile, real-world hunting companions, building hunt test teams using positive training techniques. Her students have titled dogs through both retrieving and pointing breeds. During the hunting season, you’ll most likely find Cassia and her dogs in a duck blind or kayak, doing what they love most.
Cassia’s handled her own dogs in numerous dog sports including hunt tests, obedience and rally, agility, confirmation, and nose work. Additionally, she has been involved in both wilderness and urban search and rescue teams, including the evaluation of operational readiness. Cassia believes in finding joy in the process of training rather than adopting an outcome oriented mindset, and she believes strongly that dog training should be a form of structured play. She is an advocate for positive training methods for field dogs. Hi, Cassia. Welcome to the podcast.
Cassia Turcotte: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, can you tell us a little about your dogs and what you’re working on with them?
Cassia Turcotte: Oh, sure. I have six Chesapeake Bay Retrievers and they’re currently all in different levels of retriever hunt test training. Some of them are versatile hunting companions, so they do both retriever work and real-world hunting and upland hunting. I have one who just started nose work training, literally like day one, and she’s the one we refer to as the soccer mom.
She’s never done any performance sport before, and I didn’t get her until she was five, so she’s just learning how to learn, but everybody else is various stages of training, and we do the breed ring, so we do a little bit of tracking and a little bit of nose work.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. How did you get started in dog sports and training?
Cassia Turcotte: Oh, gosh. Originally, let’s see, I was involved with helping a sheriff’s department with laying tracks, and I think I was about 16, and they were kind enough to let me tag along on their training because I think I annoyed my parents to death training our cocker spaniel, and so they let me volunteer, and eventually, I did some decoy training with them, and I got really involved in search and rescue and ended up getting my own dog, and the dog I got at the time was a problem dog, so he had quite a few issues in terms of…he was, you know, nervous with people.
So we did the search rescue training just as kind of a fun thing to do with him, and he ended up becoming certified later down the road, which was kind of a pretty cool thing. So it sparked my interest in both behavior modification and how that works as well as, you know, performance sports and working dogs.
Melissa Breau: I don’t think there are many people who can say they got their start working with police dogs, so that’s a pretty neat start.
Cassia Turcotte: It was a small town.
Melissa Breau: So what got you started…I mean, maybe it was right from the start, but what got you started on positive training specifically?
Cassia Turcotte: Well, it was a little bit right from the start. I think I was fortunate to be part of a program that, while they certainly weren’t purely positive, they were really exploring newer methods, so I would say it was more a balanced program that I started out in, but the first dog that I started with, I had the grandeur that he was going to be a great retrieving dog, and I still remember taking the ball out and throwing the ball, and he took off after it, and it was going to be this great moment, and then he just sniffed the ball and kept on running, and he had zero retrieve desire whatsoever.
And so I ended up having to look for alternative methods to teach his retrieve, and that ended up being with Karen, how…you know, Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot The Dog, and we learned how to shape or retrieve, and it was all downhill from there.
Melissa Breau: So if you were to describe your philosophy now and kind of how you train, how would you describe that for people?
Cassia Turcotte: I think it’s really about living with and playing with dogs. You know, I love teaching. I like breaking things down, and I like for them to have a purpose, but I’m okay if they pick their purpose, you know? I have Chesapeakes, so generally, retrieving is something that they enjoy, but you know, my philosophy is really about let’s find what the dog’s good at and expand on it and teach them games and things that they really seem to naturally want to do, and you know, every dog has strengths and weaknesses, and it’s about finding balance and making them enjoy the things that are their weakness and how that works, so really just living and playing with dogs.
Melissa Breau: I know I mentioned in your bio that you believe dog training should be a form of structured play. It sounds like that’s a little bit what you’re talking about, but can you explain a little more what that phrase means, or at least what it means to you, and what it looks like in practice, like within a training session?
Cassia Turcotte: Sure. I think that…I’m trying to think where I actually first heard that term, and it may have been even Lindsey that said it, but really, it’s…you know, I don’t want the dog to feel like what we’re doing is work. If you feel like you’re being dragged to work every day, it’s mentally hard, but if they go out and they go, oh my gosh, this is the coolest thing ever, I can’t wait to do more of it, then the attitude’s up, the motivation’s up, and you don’t have any trouble with compliance.
You know, they’re really willing to play the game, and it’s fun. It’s fun for me and it’s fun for them, so you know, it’s one of the things…you know, how would it look in a training session? One of the things that we do in field work is called the walk up, and all that is, is a bumper is thrown in the air as you’re heeling with the dog, and it’s thrown in front of the dog, and the point of it is to challenge the dog to stay heeling and stay steady with you, and the traditional way would be to correct them for not doing that.
So in our way, we jackpot with Chuckit! ball or tug or food as a reinforcement for being steady, you know, so they see the bumper go up, and they sit, and we say, oh my gosh, that’s awesome, and we throw a Chuckit! ball in the opposite direction, and so it’s all a game, and it’s about keeping them guessing and mentally challenging them and getting it so that they really understand what they’re being asked to do, and they’re not just corrected for not understanding. So I think that’s pretty much what it would look lie in an average day.
Melissa Breau: So I know that you’ve got a new class in the schedule for October called Instinct Games - Leadership In Drive, so I was really…I wanted to dig into that a little bit and find out what that means, and then kind of what you’ll cover in the class.
Cassia Turcotte: Well, instinct games, the way I initially thought of it was all different types of dogs have different natural instincts, whether it’s sighthounds who see things or scent hounds who smell things or retrievers who, you know, as in my breed, they tend to pick things up. They don’t necessarily want to give it back, but they tend to want to carry things in their mouth, so there’s a lot of different natural instincts that are governed by the dog’s senses, and I think that’s the piece that as trainers, we frequently miss.
We miss that moment where the dog is…there’s a change in arousal or a change in stimulation based on the initial sensory response, so all of a sudden your dog’s toddling through the woods, and oh, their body language changes because they smelled something. You know, certainly search and rescue handlers notice those really minor alerts that a dog, when they first start getting with the something, but they haven’t gotten fully into a scent cone.
You know, I notice with my dogs, the second they’re watching a bird or a bumper fly through the air, they’re visually watching it, there’s a change in the body language and there’s a change in their stimulation, and I think that in general, in dog training, if you miss those initial moments, it’s really hard to stay ahead of the dog and to be the leader in the relationship and to kind of drive where you want to the train to go.
If you miss that first moment, you’re always reacting, and you’re behind the eight ball, and I think a lot of people struggle with that, so what I started doing with all of my puppies is just developing games that were meant to not only work on self control and impulse control and all of those things that we need for a functional adult dog, but they also work on developing the handler’s awareness of, oh, there’s that moment that I need to respond to, and how do you get that moment, an increased arousal levels?
So, you know, when you’re dealing with a high-drive dog, your reaction time has to be really fast, and to be able to really stop them out of motion, you have to be able to read them, and so it’s all about developing the team based on little games that mean nothing to any sport, but they can be applied to pretty much any sport you do with your dogs.
Melissa Breau: I kind of mentioned that you’ve done a number of different dog sports, but I’d imagine that something like hunt skills are very different than something like agility, so how does teaching those different skills kind of involve a different process for you, or how is it…maybe it’s very similar and just you kind of figured out the secret. I don't know.
Cassia Turcotte: Well, I think there’s a lot of vast similarities, and then there’s differences. I think the biggest difference between, say, agility and obedience with a breed ring for us would be that you’re generally within a confined space, whereas in fieldwork, the distance and the environment is such a big factor. So you know, even when I do other sports, going to a big venue where there’s big loudspeakers, that’s something I have to generalize, but we’re still generally in a similar looking ring.
When we do field work, you know, especially when we travel around the country, there are so many…there’s different plants, there’s different smells, there’s different animals, and there’s so many factors, and I think that’s the big thing. The generalization factor itself is the biggest difference, so it’s really just about people have to get out there and do it, and they have to do it in a number of different environments until their dog feels really confident doing it anywhere, and I think that’s one of the challenging aspects, but I think that the underlying teaching…you know, I teach my dogs to go over the hay bale the same way I would teach them to go over a agility jump, and in fact, I use a lot of the skills that I learned from agility instructors years ago to teach that stuff.
You know, look for the obstacle to jump over, so it’s a lot of that foundation stuff is going to be the same. I teach my obedient jumps the same way, so the underlying methodology is the same. I think it’s the generalization, that it really is different.
Melissa Breau: Now, kind of to pull those two questions together, I guess, is it possible to take the dog’s natural instincts and their drives, things like those things from herding or that nose work, kind of those things that are in them instinctually, and channel them for all sports, or is it kind of more specific to the sports…you know, some sports are a better fit than others, for those types of skills? Is it possible to kind of harness those things for everything? I mean, it sounded like a little bit from your class description, it can be, if it’s done well.
Cassia Turcotte: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think the way to look at it is every dog’s an individual, and you know, they need to have a great class on actually train the dog in front of you, and I can’t emphasize how important that is to me, too. You know, it’s the...it really is about each dog is an individual, and yes, they have these natural instincts. First of all, you know, knowing your dog, and what are their natural instincts?
You know, I talked about the dog that has no natural birdiness, and she also has very little desire to just hunt for things. Is she better suited to be a retriever or be a hunting dog? Maybe. Maybe not, you know, but she’s doing fantastic right now, and what we did was we developed those things that she doesn’t have naturally. We developed those, and then the things that she does have naturally, we tried to put a stimulus control on them so she doesn’t just do it all by herself.
Understanding how your dog, you know, how they sense those things…first of all, how they sense those things that are natural to them and how they react to them, and then being able to harness them and use them as part of your training system, regardless of what sports you’re doing, so you know, if you’ve got a dog who’s really interested in scent, sometimes, you know, obedience trials can be painful because they want to sniff the whole 100 yards of the floor, and I have my…one of my older males is very interested in dog smells, so to get his head up and to get him connected in new environments was really challenging.
We have used his natural desire to sniff as part of his reinforcement program for obedience work, so it’s just…it absolutely works for every sport, it’s just how you learn your relationship with your dog. How you learn your dog and how you utilize those things that are naturally reinforcing to them to begin with.
Melissa Breau: So I don’t have the syllabus out in front of me fro the class, but it sounds like it will be part observation skills, part games, part kind of figuring out training plan? Is that accurate? I mean…
Cassia Turcotte: Yeah. I think what it does is the first six weeks is really about learning to observe your dog, learning to develop some basic game skills, and then within those games, we can take those games…you know, for a team that’s more advanced and has done a lot of work, we can apply that game to their sport, or if somebody’s just starting out, you can learn how to put just the basic…how to teach the game step by step, and maybe you only get through the first part of the game, but it will give you that foundation of teaching whatever you need to teach in your sport.
So mostly, it’s about learning to read your dog, learning how to teach the games and what the games are, different games to play. We’ll do a couple different games each week, and then how those games can apply to your sport. How can you use this thing that you’ve learned to apply it to your sport or to real life, or whatever you need from your dog? How does this actually carry over?
Melissa Breau: So it sounds like all ages are okay, all skill levels are okay, it’s a good fit for anybody who’s looking to just really understand that piece of it a little bit more, right?
Cassia Turcotte: Absolutely. Yes.
Melissa Breau: Cool. So I wanted to…we talked kind of about general training a bunch, and I want to dig a little bit more into some of the hunt stuff specifically, because I think that while most people in our audience, and probably, at this point, even the general public, are pretty familiar with agility and maybe even obedience, hunt tests are a little less publicized on TV and in the media, just a little bit.
Cassia Turcotte: Understandably.
Melissa Breau: So can you share a little bit about what a hunt test actually involves and what skills they demand of the dogs?
Cassia Turcotte: I think originally, hunt tests were developed to really identify quality breeding stock, and over the years, we’ve gotten away from that a little bit, and particularly with the retrievers…pointing breeds and spaniel breeds, I think, are a little bit more true to what they started out as. In the retriever world, we’ve gone into a completely different game nowadays, but ideally, it’s about retrieving game, regardless of what type of hunting dog you have. It’s when you’re a hunter you don’t want to…you’re also concerned about preservation, so you don’t want a bird that has been shot to get away, and that’s what the dogs are for.
You don’t want to injure things unnecessarily, and that’s the dog’s job, is to make sure that the game is retrieved, so your upland breeds also do…they help you locate the game. So if there’s a field, there’s birds, you don’t know where they are. You can walk through the field, but if it’s 500 yards by 500 yards, one person walking through that field’s going to take a really long time to find some birds potentially, so the dogs are obviously much more efficient at that by smelling them out.
So in the hunt test, it’s really your upland breed, it’s about how they hunt the field, how they look for birds, and as they go up in the levels, it’s about steadiness under gun fire. So there’s a lot of arousal that goes into the sport in terms of…you know, you get multiple dogs out in the field, you get people yelling, you get gun shots, you get live gain birds, and then at the uppermost levels, there’s usually an honor, which means that somebody else’s dog runs right in front of your dog with all this arousal going on, and your dog has to sit and watch them get to retrieve, and that’s a pretty challenging aspect.
So there’s a lot of development of natural abilities and independent work on the dog, but then, they have to come under immediate control and be able to respond to whistle signals and be, we call it, handling, which is basically hand signals that control where they go in the field, and then first and foremost, they can’t hurt the game, so they’ve got to bring it back intact.
Melissa Breau: So some people definitely say that doing all of that while training positively, it just isn’t possible, but you’re kind of proving that it is. So why is that so hard for some people to believe? Like, why are so many people saying that it isn’t, and how do you kind of overcome those obstacles, those skills that most people really struggle to teach positively, how are you kind of approaching those things?
Cassia Turcotte: I think part of it stems from our mentality as a society in general. You know, you break the speed limit, you get a speeding ticket. You break the law, you go to jail. There’s a consequence-based mentality, and I think we really fail at teaching in general, and it’s not that I’ve never said no to my dogs. I’m human. I’ve certainly done it, but I focus a lot more on just teaching them the job and finding what’s reinforcing to them, and basically, if you do it my way, you can have what you want.
If you want your Chuckit! ball, you can go get this bird in this beautiful straight line and come back and give it to me, and then you can have your Chuckit! ball, you know, and a lot of my dogs…I think the thing that’s fortunate about field work is a lot of the dogs find the bird work, and going back to those natural reinforces, you know, natural senses, a lot of them find, you know, hunting for birds naturally reinforcing, in itself reinforcing, so once you teach them the rules of the game and then they get out there, and they’re like, oh, you mean I get to do this with things that I really like doing it with? Then the game itself, there’s pieces of the game that are naturally reinforcing.
So, you know, I think the pieces that people say you can’t train are partially the pieces that we’ve put into the game, it’s…particularly for retriever work, but if you can’t teach a retrieve without force, and going back decades and decades, we bred dogs to retrieve game, and they did it naturally, and now you read, every gun dog magazine that say, oh, you can’t train a reliable retrieve without forceful…I think we’re failing in our breeding programs.
You know, there’s a problem there. If a dog doesn’t want to retrieve things naturally and then be…in terms of a retriever, I’m going to be concerned. I don’t expect my pointing breeds necessarily to retrieve naturally, but the force breaking came about as ways to train difficult dogs, and then because it was systematic, it gained so much popularity because it was a system. It was a teaching system that the dogs could follow.
It was effective, and so people were having quick results, and so it gained popularity because of that. The dogs were reliable because they’d been taught, and yes, they were harsh methods, but at least it was systematic, and no one really just came behind and said, hey, we can do systematic without all the force. And I do think, to the credit of the trainers today, there are a lot of trainers, professional now, who are really dialing back on the amount of force that they do use in their teaching processes, but really, I just think that nobody has just done the teaching and reinforced the dogs otherwise.
So if everybody says you can’t do it, then who’s going to argue with them, saying oh, it can’t be done that way, but then somebody comes along and says, well, let me just try. You know, I’m okay with failing. I can fail big, but we’re having quite a bit of success and proving that it can be done, over and over again, so I think that’s really the key, is people just seeing that it can be done and that we’re having fun doing it, you know?
Melissa Breau: Right. Right. Well, congratulations on the success that you’ve been having and for doing well in that sphere. So I want to kind of round things out with the three questions that I always ask at the end of the interview. So the first one is what is the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?
Cassia Turcotte: The one of all time that did it has been the dog that I adopted with all the behavior issues, and you know, I started doing search and rescue work with them as a way to boost his confidence, and then he went on to be a certified dog, and he taught me so many things, and then his confidence just bloomed, and I think that, that was a big thing for me, not so much the fact that he got certified, but the fact that we were able to change so much in his life, and he really ended up having a purpose, whereas before, he wasn’t adoptable.
He was scheduled to be euthanized. They didn’t feel safe putting him out with just anybody, you know? So that, to me, is a big accomplishment, and then, probably my second biggest is having people ask for our dogs now. So the retrievers that we’re working with now that, you know, none of our dogs are force fed fetched, none of them use electronic collars, and we’re getting to travel all over the country because our dogs are being requested.
People want to hunt with them. You know, they like what they’re seeing. They like the dogs, and that’s all just word of mouth and people actually seeing the dogs work, and as much as I like the ribbons and I like the accomplishments, I like the fact that people who’ve been hunting for a long time are seeing that these dogs are reliable and they’re consistent and they’re talented, and that, to me, is a pretty big accomplishment.
Melissa Breau: That’s excellent. So my second stumper question is what is the best piece of training advice that you have ever heard?
Cassia Turcotte: Relax. Honestly though, it really is. For me, it’s easy to get serious about training and to want to go faster and do more and be better, and really, what I need to do is relax and play with my dog and teach and have fun, and when I relax and breathe, everything goes much better.
You know, the dogs learn faster, they do better. They do all those things that they want to do when I’m not pushing, so that…honestly, my husband says it to me all the time, which doesn’t actually help me relax, ironically, but it is good advice. He just has poor timing so…
Melissa Breau: So my last one here for you is who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?
Cassia Turcotte: I look up to the people that are brave enough to just try stuff. You know, try new methods that they think are fair to the dog, and even if somebody tells you not to try it. Denise has obviously given us all a chance to come together and do that through FDSA. You know, I think Ken Ramirez, back when I as first getting started, I loved listening to his lectures and teaching on environmental enrichment.
You know, it changed how I do things, not only for my dogs, for my farm animals, who are spoiled rotten thanks to him, and I’m sure they send a big shout out, and you know, in the field world, Robert Milner was a longtime traditional trainer, longtime back when the electronic parts were much more barbaric than they are now, and he came out and was brave enough to say, hey, we screwed up, you know? We shouldn’t do this. He wrote an article on it, and he’s gone the other way now, and I think in terms of fieldwork, that’s one of the people that I really look up to, as well.
Melissa Breau: Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Cassia.
Cassia Turcotte: Well, thank you for having me.
Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with Donna Hill to talk about training service dogs, perfecting the retrieve, and cue concepts. Don’t miss 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.
Today’s show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang and transcription written by CLK Transcription Services.