Self-proclaimed taining nerd, Hannah Branigan is back to talk about training those clean, precision behaviors that get obedience competitors everywhere drooling... tuck sits and fold back downs.
Hannah has been training dogs and teaching people for more than 10 years. She is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA-CTP). Hannah is the owner of Wonderpups, LLC, and teaches workshops nationwide, as well as conducting behavior consultations, teaching private lessons, and conducting group classes on pet manners, rally, and competition obedience. She has titled her own dogs in conformation, obedience, rally, schutzhund, and agility.
To be released 12/1/2017, featuring Julie Symons. We will be talking about Handler Scent Discrimination and AKC Scentwork.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today we have Hannah Branigan, of Wonderpups Training back on the podcast to talk about creating precise behaviors — things like tuck sits and fold back downs.
Welcome back to the podcast, Hannah!
Hannah Branigan: Thanks for having me!
Melissa Breau: I’m thrilled to be talking about this today. To start us out, can you just remind listeners who you are and share a little bit about the dogs you currently share your life with?
Hannah Branigan: Sure. As you said, my name is Hannah Branigan. I married into the name — the last name, not the first name; I was born with that one. My business is Wonderpups Dog Training, and I am very excited/passionate about finding training solutions using positive reinforcement techniques. I can get really nerdy really fast, but I try to kind of tone it down so that it’s appropriate for public consumption. I have a podcast as well. I am a dog trainer/podcaster, and my podcast is Drinking From The Toilet. As you can probably guess from the title, it’s a little less polished than this one, but it’s my own flavor. And my primary sport that I do with my guys is obedience, although I’m a big fan of cross-training, so I tinker in a lot of other sports. We play a lot in agility, Rugby is learning a little fly ball, we’ve tinkered in freestyle and barn hunt, we’ve done a little tracking, and some Schutzhund stuff with the big dogs, not with Rugby. And yeah, if there’s a sport out there, I’ll usually at least dip a toe because I love learning new things, and I love teaching my dogs new behaviors and seeing how everything comes together and how the principles of positive training reinforcement can apply in a wide range of settings. It’s real exciting for me and I could easily get too excited, so I’m going to stop right there. I think that’s most of it. I do have specifically, I have in my house right now, we are down to five, no, we’re down to four. Oh, that’s kind of sad. OK, we’re down to four, and I have three Belgian Tervuren, and they are Gambit, because everybody needs to know the names, Stormy and Spark, and they are, let’s see, 15, 12, and 8, respectively, and then Rugby, who is 3, is a Border Terrier. All of the Tervs are dual-titled in conformation and multiple performance sports, and then Rugby is just starting his career. He will not be titled in conformation due to, well, disqualifying physical characteristic, which he doesn’t like to talk about in public. He has just started novice, and he finished his CDSP novice title with two high-end trials and is looking forward to making his AKC novice debut, I don’t even know what date we’re on, but very soon. In the next month or two, actually, I think.
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I know that for most people, when they start thinking about precision skills, which will be kind of our focus today, they think fronts, finishes, maybe some heeling. But I know it’s as possible to get just as geeky about sits and downs. So I think a lot of people teach sit and down early on, then decide maybe it’s not as clean or precise as they eventually want it to be, and I wanted to ask you how you handle that. So what do you recommend? Do you just stop paying for what you don’t want? Do you create a new cue? How do you decide?
Hannah Branigan: Those are all really good questions, so just bear with me, but I get real excited! So obedience has a lot to do with sits and downs. If you think about it, the sit is a critical component of so many of the exercises in obedience. If you think about all the places where a sit comes up, so at every setup, the beginning of every exercise, we set the dog up in heel position in a sit, and then all of the halts, those are sits again, every single front, every single finish. So if you add up all of the sits that happen, like, say, in one utility run, you’re into — I did this once, I should have written it down and put it in front of me — but I think we have something like twelve or fourteen fronts and finishes, plus the halts in the heeling pattern, which you’re going to have at least one, maybe two halts and heeling, and then maybe seven or eight setups, so you have, like, twenty-something sits. And so having a dog that sits square, sits fluently, sits quickly, and can sit straight, and then we put it into all these situations, you’re already ahead of the game. And if you don’t have that, then you’re already starting from behind. So having a really clean, square tuck sit is an important piece that we want to have. And what I ran into, and what I think a lot of folks run into, is the way we are taught to teach sit, like in that first puppy class when you take before you know that you think you’re going to do dog sports, because I think most of us rarely get that first dog with the idea of, like, “I’m going to go get a puppy and go do competitive obedience.” Usually we get a puppy because we want a puppy. At least that was me. And then we go to puppy class, and puppy class goes pretty good, and we go to the next one, and the next one, and then what else could we do? And then we start getting into rally or obedience or whatever. So in most puppy classes, most people are taught to teach a sit by putting a treat in front of the dog’s nose and then you lift the treat and push it back over the dog’s back, and so as the puppy follows the treat up in the air and back, they sit down on their rump. And it’s a quick way to lure and teach a sit, and you can get a sit on cue very effectively like that. But it’s a sit where the puppy’s rear feet stay in place and the front feet walk back, so that’s what we call a rock back sit. It’s very much a weight-shifted behavior, because the puppy is looking up and following the treat over his head. A super-fast way to get a sit. And then we’ll often teach a down by luring them up into that rock back sit first, and then we pull the treat down between their paws and forward, and they crawl forward into a down. Again, it’s a super-fast way to lure a puppy into a sit and a down. It takes very little skill on the part of the trainer, the handler, but it is the exact opposite of the mechanics that we need for competitive sports. So a lot of people find themselves in a situation where they had originally taught their puppies to sit and lie down using this particular movement pattern, and then, when their dog is 3 or 4 or 5, now they suddenly care how the dog sits, and not only is their dog not sitting the way they want them to, but they’ve actively taught their dog to sit the complete opposite of what they need for participating in the sport. And that’s what happened to me, and again, I hit that kind of wall when I first started competing with my older dog. I had no idea that there was a different way to sit, like sitting that butt on the ground. And so that’s pretty good, and we had gotten her first title, we had gotten her novice title, and we were competing in open, and I could not figure out for the life of me why on every single retrieve she would hit me in the stomach with a dumbbell and then end up sitting a full arm’s length away. Like, how is that even happening? I was just totally, like, mind blown, perplexed, and some random stranger — I don’t even know who it was — on the sidelines says, “Well, it’s because she’s rocking back into the sit. If you taught her to tuck sit, that wouldn’t happen.” And I’m like, “What are you even talking about? A sit is a sit.” And now of course it’s really obvious, but it was not obvious back then. I don’t know what year that was, 2010 or something, and now I recognize what was happening was she would come in with the dumbbell, bam, punch me in the stomach with it because that’s kind of her style — she’s still like that at 15 — and then, instead of leaving her front feet in place and pulling her pelvis and her rear feet under there, which would leave her close to me, she would leave her rear feet in place and then walk her back feet into that rock back sit, so she would be a full body length away from where she started when she had that dumbbell. Which we were still able to qualify, but it was an expensive deduction that I could have avoided with the correct sit mechanics from the beginning.
Melissa Breau: So what do you do in that situation?
Hannah Branigan: Well, I can tell you we can still fix it, even in a 5-year-old dog, but it is a lot easier to fix it sooner rather than later. Starting with a 5-month-old dog is a lot easier than having a 5-year reinforcement history of rocking back into the sit. But we can actually still, we can still teach the dog, “No, I need you to actually do this differently. I need you to support your weight on your front legs and bring your hind legs underneath you for this behavior.” It is hard, because it … I think you asked earlier should we put it on a new cue, and that would certainly be ideal, because I do think that a rock back sit and a tuck sit — and the tuck sit is what we’re looking for, where the front feet stay still, and a rock back sit is what we don’t want for the purposes of halt or a front or finish — they can be easily defined as different behaviors because there are different body movements, there are different muscles involved in moving the dog through space to achieve. Even if it looks like the same end position, they’re very different movements that get the dog there. But say you have a dog that’s in open, that’s in a retrieve. There is no sit cue there. The cue is the context of you’re doing it in a retrieve, so it’s a part of the cue is that the dog has a dumbbell in her mouth, and part of the cue is you standing there with that formal front posture, and those aren’t things we can change. So we do have to recondition that old cue with a new behavior, which is harder than if we were starting from scratch. But we can still do it, which is cool, and that’s why I get so excited.
Melissa Breau: It often seems like everybody wants to talk sit, but nobody really knows how to get one. Do you want to explain why people go so crazy for a good tuck sit, and then you walked through a little bit of what a tuck sit is, but if there’s anything you want to add there for anybody who doesn’t know?
Hannah Branigan: Because a tuck sit leaves the dog’s front legs in place and this is — I’m actually having a little harder time with this than I expected, because normally when I talk about this you can see me and I can wave my hands and have a whiteboard and video, visuals, and stuff — so with a tuck sit the difference is, if you imagine your dog has four legs — or should, most have four legs, dogs have four legs — and to sit they bring their front and hind legs closer together, because the back is parallel to the ground and then we put it on a diagonal. So the dog goes from being rectangular shaped to a triangle shape. Now he can either do that by leaving the front feet in place and bringing the hind feet closer to the front feet to shorten that base, or he can leave the hind feet in place and walk the front feet back. So either the dog will … since we measure where a dog is, so for our purposes, for our sport, because this is fairly arbitrary but it is what it is, in obedience we are measuring the dog’s position and space based on where the dog’s shoulder is. So when a dog is in heel position, we are measuring that the dogs, our observable criteria, that the dog’s shoulder stays next to the human’s leg, underneath their shoulder, hip, or heel, depending on how tall your dog is, comparatively, and how tall you are. So if the dog is standing in heel position, then his front feet are in line with your front feet. You only have two feet. With your ankles, with your legs. The dog’s front feet are in line with your legs. And if the dog leaves his hind feet in place to sit and walks his front feet back, well, now he’s going to be actually out of heel position because his shoulder will move backward in space. If he leaves his front feet in place and tucks — this is where tuck sit comes from — tucks his hind legs up underneath, so he walks his hind feet closer to his front feet, his shoulder stays in one place, stays in a plane, and so he stays in heel position. So for all of our setups in heel position, all of our halts, all of our finishes, we need that tuck sit so that the shoulder stays in place, so that the dog starts and finishes the whole action in heel position. And then front’s the same basic idea, that we’re measuring front by how close a dog’s front feet are to your front feet, your hind feet, your feet, feet, feet. Your human feet. And so once the dog places those front feet there, I need them to stay put and I need him to bring his hind feet up underneath him. And so how well he can manage that action is part of how we’re scored on those halts, those finishes, and those fronts. So being able to have that set of actions, move the dog from a standing position to a sitting position, is really pretty important for performance.
Melissa Breau: For good scores in performance, at least.
Hannah Branigan: Well, for good scores and even to the point of an end cue. Because for any of our fronts, that threshold between points and an end cue is the dog has to stop within arm’s length of you, so you have to be able to reach the dog’s collar or reach for the dumbbell without moving your feet. And of course if you have a Chihuahua, it’s not going to make a big difference because a 9- or 10-inch dog can sit 9 or 10 inches further away and that’s not going to make that much difference, but if you have a big, let’s say, German Shepherd or other longer dog whose body length exceeds the length of your arm, then your dog could actually conceivably start off standing as close as possible to you for a front and end up sitting in end cue territory if they sit back further than you can reach. So it is important for the scores but may also actually be the difference between a title and no title.
Melissa Breau: I think a lot of people, even people who know they want a tuck sit and understand the difference, still really struggle actually to get one from their dog.
Hannah Branigan: Totally.
Melissa Breau: Why is that so hard?
Hannah Branigan: Most of the dogs that I work with, that I have seen — I don’t want to claim all dogs in all of the world, but the dogs that I have had the chance to work with either in person or online usually offer … they fall on a spectrum. They’ll offer a range of sits. So we’ll see a sit that is 100 percent tuck. The front feet plant and stay put, and everything about the dog’s weight moves forward into that sit. And we’ll see dogs that 100 percent rock back, where it almost seems no matter what the circumstances are, the hind feet stay put and the dog walks back into the sit. And then most dogs are somewhere in the middle. They’ll offer some of the time they’ll tuck sit, and some of the time they’ll rock back, and we’ll even see what I consider a hybrid, where they’ll almost move on a diagonal, and they’ll rock back with one front foot and tuck with one hind foot and so they’ll end up a little bit crooked, which also of course affects the straightness of the front or the finish. And so for some dogs that conveniently fall in the middle of the spectrum, it’s just a matter of setting up a situation where a tuck sit is a little more likely. Maybe we’re luring them into a tuck sit, or even just reinforcing them for the tucks and not reinforcing for the not tucks. And there are dogs that you get it for free. So after the dog where I learned about the difference between rock back sits and tuck sits, my next dog, Gambit, came with a tuck sit. I did nothing. It was lovely.
Melissa Breau: Lucky, lucky dog.
Hannah Branigan: Right. The universe loves balance, and I’ll tell the story about my third dog following that. But Gambit came with a tuck sit, so he came at 9, 10 weeks old. If he sat, nine times out of ten it was a front foot planted tuck sit, so that was pretty easy. I could just selectively reinforce those and then all I really had to worry about was straightness. But then my next dog was the opposite. Again, the universe loves balance. And it was … actually it’s kind of funny because it was around the same time I’m really becoming aware of these things, I’m refining my shaping skills so that I have the mental space to pay attention to that kind of detail, and she was the complete opposite. If she sat at all, it was a rock back. It was a real rock back. She’d move one-and-a-half body lengths backwards into that sit, and I was like, “That’s OK, because I’m a dog trainer and I can fix everything if I just love it enough.” I’m just kidding. But I felt like for sure this is a solvable problem, and so I was, like, “Well, I’m going to lure her into a tuck sit,” and I would put food on her nose and I would follow the very best, most effective luring motion up and forward, and she would rock back away from the food into a sit. And we would both just look at each other with rumpled brows, like, “Why aren’t you doing this right?” “No, why aren’t you doing this right? This is how we sit.” And it was actually I started to freak out a little bit. I took her to see a local trainer that was very experienced in obedience, and she basically had me doing what I was already doing and it still didn’t work, so I took her to see a seminar with another nationally recognized, very successful obedience trainer and she helped me problem-solve. We tried a couple of other things, and she couldn’t get her to lure her into a tuck sit, and we tried a couple of other things, we put her on a platform, and there was no tucks. I may as well have asked her to fly. No matter how good the food, no matter how talented and skilled the luring hand that held the food, we could not get her into a sit. She would sit all the time, but it was just a rock back sit. And so I put it on the shelf for a little while, like, I don’t know, seven months, because I couldn’t put a cue on this rock back sit because I was going to compete with this dog in obedience. And so I made, like, a really nice mental block for myself. And the piece that I realized was missing, so then I go, one of my primary defensive strategies is research. So if I don’t know what to do, or I don’t like the answer, I’ll go and “Let’s just do more research.” We can learn more about it, and that’s better than acting and actually making a decision or something. So I go and I start watching a lot of video of dogs sitting, and I watch dogs in person in trials, coming into a front, tucking and sitting, like, what are they doing, what are they doing that my dog is not doing, so that I can break this down into its individual motions. And the first thing that I’m seeing that these dogs do that’s different is that the dogs that tuck into a sit are shifting their full body weight onto their front legs before they even bend a single knee. And my dog was doing the exact opposite. Her head was coming up and she was pushing her body backwards, so her whole weight was rocking backwards to get into the sit. And so then, what happens, if your weight’s shifting backwards, you’re going to tend to move your body backwards. If your weight’s shifting forward, you’re going to tend to move your body forward. So what I needed to do was get that forward weight shift. So I started experimenting with what are places where I get that kind of weight shift. And I tried a lot of it because luring just wasn’t working. So I couldn’t get a full sit, but I could put her front paws on a target, or a low platform, or a step, and she would lean forward over that step. So then I had the weight shift and I could reinforce that. And that turned out to be the pivotal behavior to get a tuck sit out of this dog, and then of course because I’m a good scientist and so I have to test it, so then I tested on all my local clients, and then I tested on my online clients, and so dog after dog, this is the piece for all of those dogs that just seem to be incapable of tucking into the sit. Once we get that forward weight shift, not a sit but just a standing forward weight shift where they lean their weight onto their arms — their front legs, our arms; you can tell I do a lot of projection and gesturing when I’m working through these problems, and if you could see me on video now you would see that I am doing all these actions with my own body on my desk and chair, but anyways. So yeah, once we get that forward weight shift, getting the tuck sit becomes really pretty easy. And if we try to somehow skip that, it’s really hard to get the tuck sit and everybody gets frustrated. So that was the piece that finally clicked into place. And there’s lots of ways to get that weight shift, but the front feet planted, lean your weight forward, and watching her shoulder muscles — at this time she had really no coat; she has a lot more coat now, so it would be harder to see — but I could see her shoulder muscles actually working as she leaned her weight forward onto those front legs. And being able to mark and reinforce that and then work from there into the sit, then from there it was just like rolling a ball down a hill. It was really easy.
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. My next question was going to be, can you break it down and explain how you were teaching it, but I think you’ve got that covered, unless there’s anything you want to add.
Hannah Branigan: Really, that’s the main thing — if you can find a way to tap into that weight shift. Early on, I was using a lot of front foot targeting, which required the dog have a huge reinforcement history for sticking their front feet to a target, because still front feet is part of it. Since then, I’ve discovered a few shortcuts, like, for example, using a front edge, like a step. I use the front step on my porch, or I have into the training space that I use has three steps into it, so there’s just a front edge. It’s not a full platform, because I don’t care about the side-to-side limitation at this point. I really actually want the dog to feel comfortable leaning, and we tend to feel more comfortable leaning if we have space to spread out, sort of. But, like, a front step, preferably one that the dog has already existing in their environment. A lot of my clients have the sunken living room where it’s one step down into their living room space. I don’t know if that makes sense. So a lot of folks seem to have that. Or a step on their porch. So your dog’s already used to this in their environment and it doesn’t take a lot of extra training to teach them to stand on the top of the step and to lean forward. And the visual I have in my mind as I’m shaping towards this is, if you ever tried to lure your dog into your bathtub, or lure a horse into a horse trailer, or lure your dog off of the dock into the lake, it is amazing how long the dog or the horse’s neck can stretch forward without a single paw or hoof stepping into the bathtub or onto the trailer. And if you pull them forward over this edge and they are sufficiently motivated to stay on the edge, now with a bathtub or a horse trailer there’s a negative reinforcement instantly because they don’t want to put their feet in the trailer or in the bathtub, but if we fed them a bunch of times for staying up on that step and then we present a target or whatever a little bit further forward, they’re going to be a little bit used to having their feet up on that, so we can use positive reinforcement here. And as they lean forward without stepping down, they lean forward to get the carrot, to get the treat, you’ll actually see their front legs take the weight and their back feet start sliding forward up underneath them. And when we start getting that, because they’re leaning as far forward as they can without moving their feet in order to not just flip head over heels off of the step, their haunches come up underneath them. There’s no weight on them yet, we have to fix that later, but again, it’s that first action of moving from the stand, shifting the weight forward, and letting that pelvis come up underneath them. We can capture that, and then it’s really easy to shape into a sit from that point. But trying to get a sit from the stand without that weight shift is really, really hard. So we get that first little activation energy, that first step, and then it’s all really very easy.
Melissa Breau: I wanted to ask a little bit about age. At what age can you really start working on a behavior like that with a puppy? I know I’ve seen mixed recommendations in the past and was curious to hear your take...
Hannah Branigan: I think with puppies there’s a happy medium, as with everything. I would definitely put a lot of energy into making sure that that puppy was really confident and able to shift weight forward and back as a balance proprioceptive, that kind of thing, which I think people do. It’s becoming more common, more popular as part of our puppy raising, getting them used to different kinds of surfaces, getting them used to using their body in different ways, and just a forward backward weight shift with a standing puppy is it’s very low impact, you can do a whole bunch of them in a very short amount of time, keep a really high rate of reinforcement, really keep it really positive, really simple, and easy for the puppy. So I would put a lot of energy into that forward backward weight shift because then, whether you’re looking for that tuck sit or whether you’re looking for the fold back down, having a puppy who can confidently balance on front or back and control that movement is going to find any of the other actions that we want to teach easier. I don’t want to put a whole lot of — and maybe this is a human problem — I don’t want to put a whole lot of pressure on myself or on the human side for getting a perfectly square sit, but I want to be setting up situations where I’m encouraging the mechanics that I do want, because it is easier to teach these correct mechanics when you have that brand new, soft, moldable brain and central nervous system to play with than it is with a 4- or 5-year-old dog who’s been sitting a certain way for several years and you have that reinforcement history to overcome. So I think following good puppy training procedures of short, fun sessions, you don’t have to do … certainly not 10 minutes of sitting, but do three reps here, three reps there in between while you’re teaching him to play with you and cultivating your reinforcers. So you’re teaching them about their body, you’re teaching them how to move their body in space so they can be safe, and they can be confident, and then gradually, and I would start this as soon at as they’re ready to start training, so 5-and-a-half weeks, 6 weeks, whenever they’re interested enough in our food and in our interaction that we have leverage, and or 8 or 9 weeks when you bring them home, if you don’t have access to them that early. But we can start setting those things up in the context of all the other normal puppy stuff that we would do without getting super-rigorous and formal about it. I’m looking at these sorts of behaviors are the function of a well-balanced, physically well-balanced dog, and we can start that very, very early, for sure.
Melissa Breau: So, the other precise behavior I want to talk a little bit about is a fold back down. Can you again just talk about what’s the big deal there and describe the behavior a little bit?
Hannah Branigan: The fold back down is sort of the opposite of the tuck sit. In the fold back down, I want everything about the dog moving backwards. And the two places where this matters is the drop on recall and the down in the part of the signals exercise in utility. With the novice, the only down that we have in the novice is the long down for the stay, and it doesn’t really matter how the dog lays down in that context. But by the time you get to open, the drop and recall and signals exercise, both of those are again scored by the dogs … well, they’re kind of scored by the opposite, by how not forward the dog comes after you give the down cue. So ideally you want them to drop in place or even kind of push back into the down. So that’s the fold back down idea. So again, if we look at the dog as being sort of a rectangle, we want to flatten that rectangle. And I don’t know how many Amazon Prime deliveries you get per month, but you may be breaking down some boxes for recycling periodically. If I have the top and bottom punched out and I’m left with hollow rectangle, I can fold it forward or I can fold it back, and with the dog we want them to fold back, so that everything about their body, their weight shift, is pushing backwards, their hind feet stay planted for this transition from stand to down. And the reason that I want that is (1) in signals the judge is looking at the dog, he starts off in standing position, you’re going to give a cue from 40 feet away for the dog to lie down, and the judge is looking for the dog to lie down without coming forward. And so if the dog pushes back, folds back into that down, you’re good, you’re golden, because he’s not going to come forward at all. In the drop on recall, we have that plus the dog is moving towards you like a freight train. So we need not only for the dog not to come forward as part of his down, but we need him to put on the brakes. And what’s kind of cool, and again I get kind of excited, is that the same muscles that fold the dog back into a down from a stand-up push the dog back into the down are those same muscles that put on the brakes when a dog is moving fast. So the same muscles that stop a dog who’s coming down a contact on a dogwalk, those are the same muscles that are pushing against that forward momentum that are pushing him back into a down. So dogs that have really clean, fast, sharp fold back downs are going to drop really cleanly on your cue, and a dog that needs to move his legs forward and out — doesn’t need to because he can learn this — but if his habit of moving into a down is to walk his front legs forward, and he’s already moving forward, hurtling forward through space, then that momentum plus the mechanics of that down are going to carry him even that much more towards you forward. And that’s definitely scorable and again to the point of an end cue, because if he moves more than maybe a body length forward after you’ve given the cue, then we’re potentially end cuing. And that drop on recall is such a common weakness in an open performance, it’s something that I’ve put a lot of attention into because I get a lot of folks that come to seminars and, “You know, we’re doing really good in open, but we can’t seem to qualify on that drop on recall.” It seems to be one of the first things that breaks under pressure, and when we pull it apart we’ll see that certainly imperfect drop mechanics can still qualify, but you really have to have a sharp cue response. And since the cue response tends to degrade a little bit under pressure, we get a little more late and see a little slower responses. It doesn’t take a lot to take an adequate down and turn it into an inadequate down in that setting. So we certainly want to do what we can to improve ring stress, we certainly want to improve the stimulus control over the down, but we can buy ourselves a lot of buffer on those very fragile parts of the performance with a down that is a fold back down because, and even if the dog does take a split-second to respond to the cue, at least once he starts responding, he’s not going to come forward any more than he already has. So we get a lot more robust performance with a dog that is, and again we get some overlap there because they’re both fluent in putting on the brakes, they’re fluent in stopping their forward momentum, and they’re fluent in pushing their body back into the down. Those things come together and we get those really flashy drop on recalls, which are also way more likely to hold up under pressure than a little less sharp drop on recall.
Melissa Breau: When teaching a fold back down, where do people struggle, and I guess if you have any tips for how they can teach the behavior, those would be great too.
Hannah Branigan: Again, one of the problems is how we’re taught to teach that down. Teaching the dog to lay down in puppy class is counterproductive to our goals. I mean, it’s truly like a dead end. So if the dog is taught that he has to sit and then lay down, and that’s what a lot of dogs learn because we teach them to down from a sit, we lure them into the sit and then we lure them forward into the down, and then we put that on cue and the behavior becomes sit and then lay down as, like, one big piece. And so if the dog is standing and you say “down,” the dog puts his butt down and then walks his front feet forward to lie down, and again, that’s not helpful. We want that push back into the down. So one of the first things is making sure, “Can my dog actually go from a stand into a down without sitting first?” That’s the first and most important and critical piece. Most dogs actually can. If you pay attention, they often lay down from a stand all the time, and we can take those moments and we can build on them so that we’re teaching a stand from a down because, or sorry, teaching a down from a stand, because a down from a stand is closer to a down from motion than a down from a sit is, in terms of mechanics, in terms of what muscles are being used and how the body is moving them. So teaching it right off the bat from a standing position instead of cuing or luring the sit first is half the battle. After that, I really find that the most effective thing to look at is the hind feet, making sure that the hind feet stay still. I was originally … I think a lot of us were originally taught to watch the front feet, and those are easier to see, especially from a distance, but they are less predictive of the ideal down mechanics than watching the hind feet. If the hind feet stay in place, then the dog’s body tends to stay in place. If the front feet, the front feet can stay in place, but the dog can still kind of hunch up into a down, which again tends to turn into a creep forward when we add any source of pressure or stress. So looking for, it’s the opposite of the tuck sit, so I’m looking for a backwards weight shift, I’m looking for the rear feet to be planted, instead of a forward weight shift with the front feet planted. And we can do this with a target, we can do this with a platform, there’s lots of pieces, but again it’s that focus on the rear feet is what I’ve observed makes the difference between an OK down and those really snappy, sharp, pretty ones that we all want to replicate.
Melissa Breau: Just looking again at sits and downs as a group, and just the idea of precision, are there any common misconceptions people have when it comes to teaching these kinds of behaviors, and can you set the record straight?
Hannah Branigan: I think really the biggest misconception is either that we can’t change it, like, that’s just how your dog comes, which is total crap because we don’t have to give that away. I’m not going to let you off the hook. We can completely change that. Even if your dog is 5 or 6 years old. We had in the last Devil in the Details class, which is where we work specifically on these behaviors, we had dogs that were, like, 9, 10, and 12 years old, and we were changing mechanics, which was kind of cool. I did not actually expect that. I would have probably not counseled someone with a 12-year-old dog to try and change how their dog lays down. But you know what, they did great, which was really pretty cool. So I think it’s that “This is how my dog comes,” He’s just not good at,” or using a label or qualifying is a characteristic of the dog when it’s just a behavior and we can shape it. All behavior is modifiable, including these. And then the other side of that is, “Well, it’s boring.” And of course that’s not true at all, because dog training is awesome and it’s really exciting, and having clear criteria and a shaping plan — dogs love that. They love clear criteria. So I think there’s this idea of, “Well, if my dog doesn’t sit square and I try to teach him to sit square, then he’ll hate me, he’ll hate obedience, everything sucks, the world sucks,” and that’s really not true. It’s all the same game to the dog. So then it becomes a matter of “How can I set this dog up for success? How can I break down the criteria so that they’re reachable by this dog on this day?” “How can I set up a shaping session that takes me from what my dog currently does, the highest probability version of this behavior, to what my goal for that behavior is?” And being really clear about what each of those steps look like. And when we’re doing that, if you get as excited about shaping as I do — which most people probably don’t and hopefully don’t, for the betterment of the world — then we have these little training projects that we can do, and I’ve not met a single dog that didn’t get more motivated with clearer criteria. As long as they’re reachable, like having more clear criteria first is where we do get in trouble, especially with things like fronts and finishes is if we’re using the word “enough” in our criteria and particularly in our head. Like, if you’re working with your dog on fronts, and you’re watching your dog come into a front and you’re asking yourself, “Is that straight enough to reinforce?” As soon as we’re saying “enough,” then yes, we’re absolutely creating frustration, because if you are thinking, Is this straight enough? you are too late in clicking, you’re too late to reinforce whatever has already happened to impact the outcome. So again, breaking the movements down and having it really, really clear, “What, exactly, what am I reinforcing?” so that you can mark that instant, and when we’re that clear, and our timing is that good, there is absolutely nothing to lose in building that precision. We’ll only create more motivated, more clear dogs that love training because they know exactly what they’re doing, and they feel good about doing it, and they can earn that reinforcement.
Melissa Breau: You snuck in a quick mention there of the Devil in the Details class, and I know it’s coming up again and somehow we managed not to mention it before then, so I want to talk about that for a second. Can you just tell us a little bit about the class and what it is?
Hannah Branigan: The Devil In The Details, I think the title kind of effectively describes it, this is definitely a dog nerd class. It is written for those who enjoy a certain amount of hairsplitting, that love peeling away all the layers and seeing what muscles are moving, and what’s the physiology behind this behavior, and how can I manipulate and adapt my training sessions to effectively change the behavior that my dog is doing. It’s definitely not for a casual, brand new dog trainer. Most people would be bored by it. The right people are going to get totally pumped because it’s really very nerdy. What we really do is we look at these core behaviors, which are certainly critical to obedience but also to a lot of the conditioning and trick behaviors that we want to do involve some of the same mechanics, and so can we look at what’s really going on. If we’re having a problem with teaching a particular behavior, what is the dog doing that needs to be changed, and what are the muscle movements that we need to activate, how we put together a plan to systematically activate the right series of muscle movements to take the dog from stand into that beautiful tuck sit, to square up any straggly feet or crookedness, and build this kind of awesome sit, down, and stand. So it is six weeks on sit, down, and stand, and you’d think, How can you spend six weeks on that? And I could easily spend twelve because you can just keep going. There’s such a rabbit hole there. But if you’ve had trouble teaching a tuck sit, and you are interested in behavior, and you’re kind of a behavior you’d feel like you would maybe qualify as a behavior nerd, then this is a great class for you because we will absolutely get a tuck sit out of your dog. I feel pretty confident in saying that. But we dig pretty deep in terms of mechanics and physiology and criteria and breaking things down to get that, because that’s what the dogs need from us.
Melissa Breau: And that’s offered in December this time, right?
Hannah Branigan: Yes, December. It’s in our December session.
Melissa Breau: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Hannah!
Hannah Branigan: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with Julie Symons. We will be talking about Handler Scent Discrimination and AKC Scentwork.
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Today’s show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.