Mariah Hinds’ love affair with dogs and fascination with their behavior began young. She’s wanted to be a dog trainer since she was eight years old. She’s now been training dogs and teaching people for more than 14 years and is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Mariah has broad practical experience in the dog world, volunteering and working in kennels, shelters and veterinary hospitals, dog sitting and walking, fostering rescue dogs, and two years of veterinary technician college.
She has a passion for finding the best way to communicate with the human half of the dog handler team, because she knows small changes in the handler and practice can yield big results in the long run. Her specialty at FDSA is teaching skills that require self-control from the dog including proofing, impulse control, stays and greetings while using positive training methodologies.
To be released 12/22/2017, and it will be a special anniversary edition of the podcast, so stay tuned!
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 Mariah Hinds.
Mariah has been training dogs and teaching people for more than 14 years and is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). She also just recently put a UD on her awesome border collie, Clever. And she’s here to today to talk about proofing and what it takes to get ready for competition.
Hi Mariah! Welcome to the podcast.
Mariah Hinds: Hi.
Melissa Breau: Can you just remind listeners a little bit about who you are and who the dogs that you share your life with are?
Mariah Hinds: Sure. I have Jada, my Doberman, who is 11-and-a-half years old. I got into competition obedience with her and she’s my novice A dog. We started training for the ring at age 4, and she earned her novice, open, and utility titles, and some optional titles as well, between the ages of 4 and 8, and she’s the one who taught me that positive training methods are much better for her and they’re a lot more fun.
Clever is my 5-year-old border collie. She got her novice title with 198 from 199. She won first place in Open against 100 other dogs last year with the 199, and she just got all three of her utility legs for her title a few weekends ago. She also knows a ton of tricks, and we train in agility as well. My goal with her for 2018 is to compete in open utility at all the local trials, and hopefully we’ll earn some OTCH points along the way, and hopefully we will compete at the Classic next year and place in the top twenty as well. Those are my goals for her for the next year.
And I have Talent, who’s the baby dog. Her name is Squishy because she likes to lay on top of me. She’s 14 months and we’re just building the foundations for precision for obedience, and I hope to earn her MACH as well her OTCH and UDX, so we’re doing a lot of agility training right now as well. So that’s all about my dogs and a little bit about me. Is there anything else you want to know about me?
Melissa Breau: Gee, I don’t know. Is there anything else good that I should want to know?
Mariah Hinds: Not really. I moved from Orlando to Fort Mill, South Carolina, a year ago, and so I’m just having fun getting to know people around here.
Melissa Breau: I know that the core of our conversation today, I’m hoping we’ll get really deep on proofing and getting “ring ready,” but before we dive into that stuff, I figure it makes sense to get some terminology stuff straight. So I wanted to ask what proofing means to you, and then maybe a little bit about why it’s critical for success in competition.
Mariah Hinds: Sure. So for me, proofing means that we’re adding achievable challenges to a skill. So once a dog can do a behavior reliably on cue — and it can be a verbal cue or a hand signal as a cue — then we ask the dog to do the behavior in different locations, and perhaps we can ask the dog to do the behavior with other dogs around, and perhaps we can ask the dog to do the behavior in different locations in proximity to us, so “Can you sit in front of me? Can you sit at heel? Can you sit on the right side of my body? Can you sit between my feet?”
I really think that proofing is critical to success in competition, because there are tons of distractions at a trial, and although you can’t actually train for every single distraction, you can practice adding distractions in training. And if we add distractions in a strategic way so the dog is really successful, then we’re really building the dog’s confidence, and the dog learns to say, “Yes, I know exactly which behavior you want me to do, and no matter what’s going on, no matter how far away I am, or where my handler is, or how quickly I’m moving, I know that this is the behavior that gets me closer to earning my reward.”
Melissa Breau: You mentioned your dogs’ different ages and different stages. At what age or point in your training journey do you really begin to add proofing, and what does that look like?
Mariah Hinds: I think everyone proofs their dog, whether they realize it and they work through the behavior strategically or whether they don’t. We work on adding distractions to our heeling, we work on adding distance to our position changes for utility, we work on adding out of motions to our downs for open, we work on adding distractions to our stays, we work on practicing in new locations, and once the dog has a basic understanding of these cues with different locations and durations and distance, we can oftentimes add another layer of understanding with even more distractions and more proofing.
Typically, I find that those fall into a few different categories. It hasn’t been introduced yet, the skill is just being learned, the dog is more than 50 percent reliable with behavior, we’re adding new locations, or we’re proofing for duration and stimulus control, we’re adding distance or distractions, and so on. Those are all the categories that behavior can really fall into. And when the dog’s just learning the skills, we setup the environment so that the dog can be really successful, and if we set it up well, then the dog goes up to being successful with behavior 50 percent of the time or better really quickly. Then we can start practicing in new locations, such as in the bedroom instead of the training room, or on the patio, or at the training building after the dog is acclimated, and we can also work on building duration and putting behavior on stimulus control. Then we can add distance and distractions.
So I start adding distractions strategically to my dog’s behaviors the moment that the behavior is robust and strong enough that the dog will really likely be successful. And if we practice the skill the same way without building more challenges with the behavior, then our training might just go stagnant and we might not make any real progress toward our goal.
Melissa Breau: Is there ever a point when you stop proofing?
Mariah Hinds: Not really. When I’m first working on sequencing behaviors together, such as for the retrieve over a jump, that’s a behavior sequence, and it starts with the dog sitting in heel position. Then they go over the jump on cue, then they automatically retrieve the item, then they return over the jump, automatically do a front. So when I’m teaching that sequence, then I’m definitely going to start sequencing those things together with much fewer distractions than if I’m just working on one piece of that behavior.
But before that, I want my dog to be able to do those behaviors separately with distractions. I want the dog to be able to pick up the dumbbell off the ground with distractions around. I want the dog to be able to go over the jump with my jump cue and take the cookie as the reward for that behavior. I want the dog to be able to set up in heel position and stay while I throw a distraction such as a cookie or a dumbbell or a toy. I want the dog to be able to come over the jump from a sit/stay at any angles with the cue to jump. I find that that’s a really overlooked part of that behavior sequence and that falls apart really easily.
If the pieces are solved separately before we sequence them together, then sequencing the behaviors together happens really quickly, and if a piece of the sequence falls apart, then we can easily fix that piece of the sequence just by revisiting that piece. And once the behavior sequence or the chain is solid, then we want to go back through and add more layers of understanding, and more layers of confidence, by adding distractions and proofing the entire behavior sequence.
For example, with Clever, we’re working on adding some distractions to our slow heeling. So at the trial, at our third leg, she really was a little forge-y with the slow heel, and so I really wanted to get that a little more reliable. She’s consistent with it until we add distractions, so that’s what we’re working on. The goal, ultimately, for her will be that my training partner can fling a toy and that she’ll remain in heel position while we’re walking. Right now we’re working on food distractions while she heels, because she finds that a lot easier. She’s way more toy motivated than she is food motivated, so I’m building confidence with her with that so that she understands, so then I can add more layers of confidence.
The other thing that we’re working on proofing is doing a finish with the pressure of a judge, without her squeaking from the stress of the pressure. So at home I’m practicing finishing, having her finish on cue with a dog bone as a distraction, or some other distraction, food or toy distraction. And then, when I have my training friends to help me, then I’ll do a few repetitions of what she’s been successful with at home, and then I’ll replace the distraction with a person and see if she can do that successfully.
Melissa Breau: I know that precision and maintaining criteria are super-important to you, so I wanted to delve into that a little bit and ask you what the relationship between proofing and getting really precise, consistent behaviors is, and if you could just talk about that for a minute.
Mariah Hinds: Sure. First, we need to add the behavior. We need the behavior to be precise with our desired criteria. So that means that has to happen first, and that needs to happen before we add layers of proofing. And we can certainly use different reinforcement strategies to help maintain the desired criteria without losing attitude, and that’s really important to do. I do that a lot with my puppy when I’m building reliability, so she’ll get one reward for trying, and she’ll get multiple rewards for doing it accurately.
We can also think about where we place the reward so that we’re getting the most effect for our desired behavior. This is talked about a lot in the Precision Heeling class that Denise does. If a dog is lagging, we want to build more reliability for being in heel position, and then we really want the reward to happen ahead of heel position, and if the dog is heeling too wide, then we want the reward to happen with the dog really close to us, with the rear in as well, because otherwise we’ll create crabbing, and if the dog is heeling and they tend to crab out and forge ahead, then we can have the dog spin away from us, which encourages their butt to get in, and then we can reward them from behind heel position, or even from our right hand. The dogs tend to anticipate when a reward will happen, and they will gravitate more to that area.
And we do talk a lot about reinforcement strategies in my class, and it really can help a lot with building reliability.
Melissa Breau: Do you work precision and consistency separately? It sounds a little bit like they’re very closely related. Can you talk about that for a minute?
Mariah Hinds: I do think they’re closely related. I mean, I think that precision has to happen first, and consistency is really just generalizing the behavior. So first I work on precision. Let’s say that I’m working on fronts. The first thing I do is I’m going to help the dog be correct, so I can use a platform to help the dog find front precisely. I can also do step back fronts where I lure the dog into position while I take a step back, and once the dog is precise at finding front from two or three feet away, with the platform or with luring, then I can start fading my lure, so I can ask the dog to find front with my hands pointing at my face instead of luring the dog with my hand. Another reason why I like to do that stuff is because when I’m teaching a dog where I want them to focus when they’re finding front, I don’t want them to accidentally find front on a stranger or the judge. I do want them to look up at my face, and then I can go to teaching them to find the precise position with my hands at my side. Once the dog can find the position precisely from two to three feet away, then I can start adding different angles to come to front, I can toss a treat from the left or to the right and have the dog find front that way. Again, this is from a very short distance away, and that’s quite a challenging thing to do precisely.
So once they’re precise with that, then I can start adding more speed by tossing the reset cookie further away, I can start weaning off of the platform and going back to an earlier step to help guide them, to help guide the dog to where they should go. I like to do a little bit of pointing to my face as I’m weaning off of the platform, and then I can add in my distractions such as the judge and the pressures of the ring gating and so on. So the dog needs to understand exactly where the position is precisely first before we get consistency with that precision with a lot of variables.
Melissa Breau: I think all novice competitors have been at that place where they thought their dog knew something, they show up to compete, and then their dog’s carefully trained behaviors fall apart totally in the ring. Where do people go wrong when that happens? And what kind of things can they do to prevent it?
Mariah Hinds: I think that’s a really common thing that happens, and I think that we all fall into the habit of training at one or two places because it’s convenient, and then we expect that is enough to get reliability in a new place, with new dogs, and new people, and a stranger in the room with you. I think that’s a lot to ask of our dogs.
I find that training at different places is really important, and going to show and gos is a great way to see where your dog is in terms of readiness. If you can’t find a show and go, then I think another great option is to go to places where there are other dogs behind a fence or on leash. One option would be going to a big, grassy area outside of a dog park and practicing there, or you can go to a parking lot near the dog beach entrance, or you can go to a parking lot at a really busy veterinary clinic. For me and my dogs, that always tends to give me a really accurate gauge as to where they are with reliability with distractions.
For me, I like to combine that with distraction work at home. It just isn’t practical for me to go train at a new place more than once a week, but at home I can add challenging distractions that help my dog understand that the way to earn the reward for the cued behavior is really to ignore the distraction.
Melissa Breau: I think the other place that a lot of people really struggle is when it comes to cleaning up their own body language as part of proofing. We get all this reinforcement built in from our dog doing the right thing when we include those extra movements! When we lean forward slightly on the down cue, or when we use our hands a little more than we should. I wanted to see if you could talk a little bit about why it’s important to get rid of that movement, and then share any tips you have, because I think it’s something that you do really well.
Mariah Hinds: Well, thanks. I do find that it’s really important. I find that especially when we’re preparing to go into the novice ring, that we’ve done a lot of helping the dog set up in heel position by doing certain things with our body, or we help the dog halt when we’re heeling by turning our shoulders toward the dog and looking at their rear, or we help the dog find front by always practicing with our hands near the center of our body during practice. And then we go in the ring and we can’t help the dog, so we’ve removed the cues that the dog was familiar with and the dog doesn’t know what you want anymore because we removed the cue and there are distractions everywhere. So it really can be challenging for the dog to go in the ring when they really just aren’t ready yet. Whereas if we actually prepare the dog, and we show them that the cue for the behavior is in all of this extra body movement, then they’re going to be a lot better prepared.
As for tips, I think the first thing that’s really important is discovering what your body is doing while you say the verbal cue. So the more that you actually video yourself, and then watch those videos back, the more you’re going to realize what you’re doing with your body while you’re saying your cues. So once we realize what the body language cue is that we’re doing, then we can start working on fading them.
I also think that one of the longstanding myths of dog training, especially in obedience, is that you should be saying the verbal cue while you help the dog do the behavior with your body language. And what we really want to be doing is we want the behavior to be reliable without body language, and start saying the verbal cue without moving, and then following that verbal cue with your old cue, which will be the body language help or the hand signal gesture that you’ve been using.
Melissa Breau: I know, for example, some instructors use the prompt “always return your hands to neutral,” or “always return your hands to the same spot.” Is that helpful? Is that kind of a strategy useful?
Mariah Hinds: Yes. We want to practice looking formal, if that’s what we’re going to do in the ring. So yes. If, for example, you’re using pocket hand, or putting your left hand to your side to help the dog actually sit when you stop, then that’s fine. But we want to return to formalness when we can to help the dog see that picture as well.
Melissa Breau: Beyond simply proofing, what other skills are there that somebody needs to know to get “ring ready?” And I know that you’re teaching some classes on this, so I thought it might be a good topic to talk about a little bit.
Mariah Hinds: I’m teaching a class on putting the novice exercises together, called Putting It Together, and I’m teaching Proof Positive: Building Reliability. The first thing we cover in Proof Positive: Building Reliability is discussing our reinforcement strategies for the behavior that the student has chosen to work on in the class. We have some people working on fronts, or position changes, or go outs, some heeling, some drop on recalls, some setting up in heel position, some weaves, some running contacts, some freestyle behaviors, and lots and lots of obedience. I really love that variety. It really keeps the class fun and it’s fun to follow along with.
So the next thing in that class is that we talk about fading our extra body language cues, and we work on actually putting it on a verbal cue, and we work on getting the behavior solid under one set of circumstances, and we work on waiting, and we work on teaching stimulus controls, so helping the dog learn to wait for the cue before doing the behavior, and then we start playing games. This week we’re going to work on teaching the dog to ignore our body language and listen to the verbal cue, and we’re going to work on doing the behavior in various locations, and in the upcoming weeks we work on adding sound distractions and spatial pressure, which is the amount of things around the dog, like ring gates and judges, although we’re not actually going to be working on people, so a trash can can provide spatial pressure, a wall can provide spatial pressure. We’re also going to be adding various angles, adding some duration and distance, different locations, adding some out of motion to the behaviors, and we’re going to work on building reliability with food, and scent distractions in a few different scenarios. So overall we’re playing fun games to build the dog’s understandings and reliability with behaviors.
In the Putting It Together class we’re working on making sure that our behaviors for the novice ring are really solid separately. So we’re working on stays, and fronts, and moving in heel position, and setting up in heel position, and stand stays, and our circles for our figure eights, and our complete figure eight exercise, and our turns and change of pace in heeling, taking off the leash, entering the ring, exiting the ring. So first we’re doing some problem solving, helping the dogs understand the desired behaviors, then when those pieces are solid, then we’re working on sequencing those behaviors together, building confidence by adding realistic ring distractions, weaning off of rewards, and practicing our entire ring performance. So we’re looking at all of these pieces in this class, and putting those pieces together when the pieces are ready to come together.
So in both classes we’re talking about reinforcement strategies, and there are lectures on building reliable, precise fronts. The Putting It Together class covers a lot of topics regarding the novice ring, and polishing those behaviors before sequencing them together and putting them into a ring performance practice. The Building Reliability class covers adding distractions, different locations, spatial pressures, sound distractions, handler body language distractions, and adding those things to our simple behaviors like sit and down. Then we can take those games and practice with our complex behaviors, and we can add duration and out of motion and food distraction to those behaviors as well.
Both classes are a lot of fun, and if you do obedience, then both classes can fit your needs. It just depends on where your dog’s behaviors are and their understanding of the behaviors. So if you’re just starting out, and you’re just working on pivots, then Building Reliability would probably be a better fit, versus if your dog is solid with that, and you’re really ready to move on and start sequencing a little bit of find heel positions stationary with actually moving in heel position, then the Putting It Together class is a good fit.
Melissa Breau: They sound very complementary.
Mariah Hinds: They do.
Melissa Breau: They sound like they work well together.
Mariah Hinds: Yes, definitely.
Melissa Breau: Well, thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Mariah. I appreciate it. I know things are crazy, but I’m glad you could make some time for me.
Mariah Hinds: Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!
We’ll be back next week, this time with a special anniversary edition of the podcast… also, just a last-minute reminder that if you want to take a class for the December term, today -- Dec. 15th, the day this episode comes out -- is the absolute last day for registration. So, if you’re a procrastinator, it’s time….
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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 and transcription written by CLK Transcription Services.
Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!