Heather Lawson is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA-CTP), a CGN Evaluator and a Freestyle judge. She has been training dogs and their humans for more than 20 years, after deciding that the corporate world just wasn't cutting it anymore.
She is the owner of dogWISE Training & Behaviour Center Inc., where she teaches group classes for companion pets, competitive obedience, and rally, in addition to providing behaviour consults and private lessons.
To be released 6/8/2018, featuring Amanda Nelson, talking about introducing distance to your agility training!
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 Heather Lawson.
Heather is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA-CTP), a CGN Evaluator and a Freestyle judge. She has been training dogs and their humans for more than 20 years, after deciding that the corporate world just wasn't cutting it anymore.
She is the owner of dogWISE Training & Behaviour Center Inc., where she teaches group classes for companion pets, competitive obedience, and rally, in addition to providing behaviour consults and private lessons.
Hi Heather, welcome back to the podcast!
Heather Lawson: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me again.
Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat. To start us out and to refresh listeners’ memories a little bit, can you just tell us a little bit about your dogs and what you’re working on with them?
Heather Lawson: I currently am down to just two dogs, two German Shepherds, Piper, who will be turning 3 at the end of May, and my old boy, Tag, who just turned 12 a couple of days ago.
Tag obviously is now retired and having the good life with my husband when I take off with Piper.
Piper, I’m working on confirmation with her and trying to get my last two points I need for my championship. At the same time, I’m also working and training her for obedience and rally and all the other fun stuff that I’m going to do with her.
Melissa Breau: We chatted a little bit before this about what we were going to talk about today, and I asked you to chat about some of the fundamental skills that are covered in TEAM that can be reused over and over again throughout a dog’s career to teach a variety of other skills — those things that serve as a building block. It’s in the back of my mind ever since you did your webinar on all the different ways you use a chin rest to teach other skills, which I was a little blown away by the so many different things you do with chin rests. To start us out, for anyone who didn’t join the webinar, would you mind just sharing some of those things that you use that chin rest skill to build out?
Heather Lawson: The chin rest I ended up starting mainly because I needed a way to just get my dogs’ focus. So I started using the chin rest for that, just to say, “Here I am, check in, look at me.” And then I started to turn it into a whole bunch of other things and realized I can use it for my cooperative care, which is your veterinary care and anything else that I have to do with the dogs.
When, for instance, I’m administering medication to ears or eyes or anything like that, I can just ask for a nice easy chin rest and I can apply the medications. There’s no fuss, no muss. My dogs are used to putting their head in the chin.
I can also, as I said, use it for confirmation, so when I’ve got Piper in a show and I need to settle her down, or to stack her for presentation to the judge, I can just hold my hand out and she puts her chin there, and I can move her back and forth or keep her in position while I appropriately stack her legs and get her ready for examination. It also allows me to put out my hand for her to put her chin on for the judge to take a look at her mouth. She keeps her head there nice and quiet and I can lift up the lips, I’ve even taught her to open her mouth on cue, and he can take a look nice and easy, and he doesn’t have to put his hands into her mouth.
The other thing that I like the chin rest for is teaching the concept of holding still. Once I’ve taught the chin rest, or even a nose target, a duration nose target, I find that once the dog understands that concept of holding their nose or their chin rest somewhere, they actually can translate holding still to many other behaviors that I need them to do.
I can also use it for the dumbbell hold by using the chin rest for the dog to place their chin as they grip the bar of the dumbbell, and it’s an easy, just a slight, holding up. It teaches them quiet and allows me to gradually decrease my hand from that position.
I can actually turn that chin rest into a nice close front as well. Teaching Piper, this is the first one I’ve used the chin rests for the fronts, with Piper is I wanted her nice and close, right up touching me, so I got her to target my hand, and then I transferred it onto my body, and now when she comes in for her fronts she is 90 percent straight most of the time. We’re still working on it, but she’s 90 percent straight most of the time and she’s close. At this point she is touching me, but that’s fine. I will take the points if she continues to touch me in a trial situation, but generally that will back off a little bit when you get different kinds of ring stress and things like that involved that dogs usually don’t come in quite as close sometimes, but I’m still going to keep her working at that. So that’s basically what I do with my chin rest. I’ve got all different kinds of things that I can use it for.
Melissa Breau: Especially anybody who’s ever trained a German Shepherd knows that getting the dog in nice and close can be a little harder than with some other breeds, with space sensitivity and whatnot, so that’s awesome.
Heather Lawson: Exactly. And that’s why teaching her, it also, like, the chin rest was a really great exercise to teach her overall handling. She’s not afraid of anybody coming in and doing all those different kinds of things that they need to do to her, because I’ve got that chin rest and she trusts that chin rest, and she trusts that I’m not going to let anything negative happen to her, and it allows me to do that much more with her.
Melissa Breau: Would you mind just taking one of those examples and maybe walking us through it in a little more detail and breaking it down a little bit, how the chin rest helps you get that end behavior?
Heather Lawson: Since I’m doing TEAM 2 at the moment, and it seems to be a bugaboo for everybody, what I like to use the chin rest for is, as I mentioned earlier, just the dumbbell hold. I teach the dumbbell take with teeth on it and with just a little bit of a tiny grip separately, obviously. Then, if I’ve got a little bit of a problem with, for instance, trying to shape the dog to hold it even more, I can turn around and take that chin rest, and I get the chin rest separately on its own, and I can turn around and take that chin rest and add it to the dumbbell hold.
What I do is I will hold my flat hand as if I’m asking for a chin rest, hold the dumbbell just up above it, and as the dog comes in to take the bar on the dumbbell, I can just hold my hand up a little bit more, get that little bit of a hold, hold, get stillness, it allows me to mark stillness.
That seems to be the hardest part for everybody to get is that initial stillness, and by using the chin rest behavior and adding it to the dumbbell take, it allows you to progress onto a really good hold from that point.
Melissa Breau: I know another tool that you’ve mentioned you use in a number of different ways is a platform. I was hoping we could get into that and talk about platforms a little bit. What kind of things can you use a platform to teach?
Heather Lawson: Oh gosh, there is so much that you can, and also, again, it depends on the type of platform. For instance, many people have difficulty in trying to create distance and to have their dogs actually anchored at that distance.
Say, for instance, you’re sending out on your utility go-out. Lots of times your dogs will go out, and then they’ll turn around when you say “sit,” and they walk in three or four paces. That’s not so good. A platform can help to keep them out to that anchored spot.
You can use a platform for fronts. Again, depending on the type of platform you’re using, you can use it to teach heel position, you can teach change of position and precision using the platforms. If I’m wanting to teach my dog different positions in heel position, such as a sit-stand-down all in parallel, having a narrow platform for them to perform those behaviors on helps them remain in that parallel position, and then, of course, gradually you fade it out.
If I want to teach my dogs to go out to a specific spot anywhere, I can place a variety of platforms and I can do directional sends, and because they’re heavily magnetized to them, and by magnetized I mean they have a huge reinforcement history on the platforms, they are just raring to go because that’s what they want to do is they want to get there and they want to get their food.
I use platforms a lot when I’m teaching outside of obedience things. I use it for a stationing behavior, so teaching stays, and things like when I’m doing some of my concept classes, where the dog has to return to a station and wait for their next direction. So it helps the dog when they’re not getting any direction from you, they return back to station or to platform.
Melissa Breau: If somebody out there listening is used to teaching something like a front or a heel position without a platform, what are some of the advantages of using one, or maybe even if they’ve already taught those positions, going back and teaching that platform skill later on, if they, say, taught a front without it?
Heather Lawson: Say for instance you’ve got the issue of the dog maybe not coming in all the way. You can turn around and use a smaller platform to get a smaller, tighter sit in front, you can use a foot-to-target type of little tiny platform to bring the dog in closer. If you’ve got a dog that tends to be quite footsy, for instance in heel position when you’re doing your stands, you can use the platform to teach them how to remain still and not move forward. If you don’t normally teach with a platform, sometimes giving the dog something different allows them to grasp the concept.
You know how sometimes a student will hear something from you numerous times, and you’re going over and over and over, “I’ve told you that before, I’ve told you that before,” and then somebody will come along and say, “Oh, why don’t you do this?” and it’s the exact same thing that you told them, but just slightly different, and they go, “Oh, did you know so-and-so told me to do this?” and you’re going, “Uh, yeah, that’s what I was trying to tell you.” Well, sometimes I think by changing your equipment, or changing how you present a particular concept to your dog, sometimes that’s what helps the dogs take that leap and get more precise, or understand the position, or understand the concept that they’re not to move. I think by going back and maybe even taking a look at the platforms and seeing how you can help convey that concept, you’re going to get more precision later on.
Melissa Breau: Are platforms and foot targets basically the same thing? Can you use them in the same ways? I’d love to hear a little bit about what you can or can’t do with one that you can do with the other.
Heather Lawson: With the platforms they’re generally longer, so the length of the dog, so that if, for instance, you put the dog down in a sphinx down, the dog would not be hanging off the edges. The platforms are generally quite narrow, so that, again, when the dog either sits or lies down, they are in a very, very specific position. Foot targets are dealing with just the front feet or just the rear feet. They’re not the same thing, but they can do the same job, if that makes sense. When I want to fade out a large platform, I will go down to a foot target. With foot targets I generally can use, if the foot target is low, I can generally use them for fading out the platform, and if I’m teaching, for instance, position changes, you go down to a small foot target or even a flat foot target, and now you can ask your dog to change positions.
My foot targets that I usually recommend for people to use are generally the size of a 2x4, and generally no wider than what your dog can actually put their two front feet on comfortably and stand at a normal position. Especially if you’re teaching nice, close fronts, the dog comes and puts their feet on that front target, they can then sit properly. If you use a round foot target, like a perch that we use for pivoting, you’ll find that the dogs kind of have a rear-end splay and they therefore won’t sit as straight as they should be.
So when I’m working distance and I want to get rid of the big platforms, I’ll go down to a foot target. It’s basically just a mini-platform, but we call them foot targets because it makes more sense to people.
Melissa Breau: Right. What are some of the different types of platforms or targets that you use and some of the different ways that you use them?
Heather Lawson: The long narrow platforms basically are for position, as I said, either straight in heel position or straight out in front of you. Same thing with the foot targets. They are used for the front and the rear feet. And then your perch, and I like to use a round perch when I’m first teaching the dog how to use their rear end for pivoting.
Later on, if I’m working with the handler for footwork, I’ll use a small square so that you can do quarter-turns to teach the dog also to turn with your body language, and it gets the handler ready for their footwork and how they’re going to use their body to turn their dog.
If I want to do a really nice tight sit in front and still use a platform because, for instance, the dog is coming off crooked, then I’ll use a shorter platform, more so so that the only thing the dog can do is basically sit on this little platform, so you get a nice tuck sit and you can then get straight.
Also, too, you can teach the dogs with the platforms for the various things, you can teach them whether or not you want to have a default stand on a platform, or whether or not you want a default sit on the platform. For long platforms I usually look for a default of a stand. If I’m using a small rectangular platform, I’m looking for a default of a sit. Foot targets, I look for a default of a stand on that foot target, and the same thing, a default of a stand, on the perch as well.
Melissa Breau: I think a lot of people may recognize how valuable a platform behavior can be, but they don’t want to haul all those different platforms everywhere they train. Can you use the same platform for more than one skill? How does that work?
Heather Lawson: You certainly can, and as I said, with the long platform, you can certainly use it for a whole variety of skills and behaviors and positions. You just have to be very careful that you’re encouraging the dog based on the behavior that you’re training.
So if you’re looking for a front, you want to make sure that your dog has learned to plant their front feet as close to you as possible and then bring their rear in so you’re getting a nice little tuck sit, versus standing and then you saying “sit” and they rock back, and now you’ve got a foot-and-a-half distance between you and the dog. You want to get that up as close as you certainly can.
Some people actually make platforms where they can split them off, so that you’ve got a shorter platform for the sit and a longer platform that you can attach to it with Velcro that makes for the long platform that you need. And then you can take the Velcro and split it apart and now you’ve got a short sit platform.
I know I’ve done that a couple of times. I made one like that. They’re easy to make, easy to haul around. The platforms really aren’t all that heavy. You can really make some very, very lightweight ones; you’ve just got to use your imagination. They’re mostly made out of interlocking foam mats. My foot target for my dogs is actually a cork yoga brick that is generally, I think they’re about 4 inches high normally, and I just went and cut it down on the saw, and cut it in half, so now I have about a 2-inch-high small cork platform that is heavy enough that the dog’s not going to tip it, but it’s not so heavy that I can’t cart it around somewhere. It weighs less than a pound of butter. It’s easy to chuck in my car and it’s no big deal.
An upturned food bowl — if you’ve got your dogs in your car, a stainless steel food bowl works for a perch. You can definitely use your equipment for a variety of different things, but most people can be discouraged by the fact that they do think that they have to carry a lot of stuff around. But most of the stuff, if you look at what your regular gear is, you can interchange a whole lot of things.
Melissa Breau: One of the other behaviors that I wanted to talk through that I think maybe people don’t immediately grasp the importance of is the TEAM tests behavior of a “fly,” or a behavior that teaches a dog to go out and around an object. To start out, before we get into the uses, for anybody who isn’t familiar with the behavior, can you describe a little bit of the criteria for it in the TEAM test?
Heather Lawson: For the fly, the handler sends the dog around an object. It can be anything from a cone to a pole to a garbage can to a chair, doesn’t really matter as long as it’s placed 5 feet away or more. The purpose is to teach the dog to go out and around and to work at a distance, so this is obviously useful for more advanced exercises.
You can also use the cone to teach the dog how to find front and/or heel position from a variety of angles, especially if you’re on the move with heeling. Basically, the handler stands 5 feet from the cone and cues the dog from heel position. The dog must start in heel position, which can be standing or sitting. They can send them with any combination of your hand, your arm, verbal, and/or even a forward foot motion is acceptable.
The exercise begins after the handler cues the dog and then ends when the dog has circled the object 180 degrees, so that means the dog must go out to the cone, circle it, and be on their way back. As soon as they’re on their way back to you, that ends the exercise.
So it’s not hard at all. It’s just making sure that you’re getting the dog to go out with one cue and that you’re not moving until after the dog has basically come around the crest of the cone and is on their way back. It’s a pretty easy exercise to do. It can be used for a whole bunch of things, and if you want to go into that, we can cover that too.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. That’s my next question for you: What is it meant to teach and how can we use it?
Heather Lawson: It’s meant to teach, as I said, distance work. It also can be used to teach your dog how to stride out after a broad jump. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the dogs that kind of cut the corner of the broad jump and you think, Oh my god, they’re going to slip, they’re going to fall. I’ve seen that happen, where the dog has, and the only reason that they cut the corners is that basically they want to get back to you as soon as possible and get to that front position.
So in order to get them to take at least two strides out, you can use a cone placed out in front of your broad jump as a way to pattern that two stride out by asking the dog to jump and then fly — most people use the word fly, or away, or around — you can teach the dog to go out, take those two strides, and then turn and come back to you. That eliminates that broad jump injury.
You can also put the cones out in the beginning stages of teaching your directed jumping, so you can teach the dog how to go straight center and have a cone on either side, and it gets them used to coming around at an angle without interfering with your actual jumps or putting your jump stanchions out as you’re working through those initial stages.
You can also teach your dog to go out and around, and especially over a high jump, if you want the dog to go out, round the cone, and come directly back over the high jump without going around the high jump after they’ve picked up their dumbbell, which so often happens.
You can also use it as a way to bring down a dog and give them a brain break when you’re heeling. If you have a couple of cones placed out, and you’re going to be doing some heeling, and it’s going to be a little bit of a … maybe you’re working on something that’s a little bit more difficult for the dog, all of a sudden you can send them off to a fly, they can go out, run around the fly, and then they come back up and catch you in heel position. So you can make more of a game out of your heeling.
You can send them over the jump, over the fly, come back to you, and if you take the cone and you use it, instead of just going out and around the cone and coming straight back to you, you can actually teach the dogs to do tight 270’s in either left or right direction, and that you can do by either shaping it, clicking it, or what I normally do to start the dogs off is I will send them and then I will … whichever direction I’m going to send them, so if I’m sending them from my left and they’re coming around and they’re going to end up on my right, I will take off to my left, and all of a sudden now I’ve got a really nice, tight 270 to the left and the opposite way, 270 to the right.
And you can get them going around the cones more than once, you can add multiple cones, which actually is a way to introduce figure 8s, you can stand in the middle and send your dog on their own figure 8s and their own cones, doing a clover leaf or any other types of things, and it gets them used to working around an inanimate object.
For me, what I do is I have these little scarecrow people that I then stand in my cones, and I will send the dog out and around the cone so they get used to funny things that they have to work around. And I think it would be helpful … if I’m not mistaken, you do what’s the …
Melissa Breau: Treibball.
Heather Lawson: Treibball, yes. You could probably use it to teach your dogs how to go out and away to your left or your right, and straight out, if you needed to. So I’m sure that if people are doing sports like that, or even if you’re doing agility, teaching your dogs to go for directional cues, cones are excellent because they’re not interfering with your actual jumps, and it’s just teaching them directional cues.
Melissa Breau: That’s certainly a lot of different ways.
Heather Lawson: I know. I could probably come up with more, too, but it’s just some of the things that are on the top of my head. My biggest one for me, for my own personal use, is I like to teach the dog to stride out a couple of steps after that broad jump, because I’ve seen dogs be badly hurt because they’ve slipped on floors, and if you’re working a dog and you’re campaigning a dog and they’re jumping and they’re doing the broad jump over and over and over again, that’s a lot of concussion and twisting on that one right front leg when they land. So if they can start to land, start to go out straight, take a stride or two and go around, and then come back to you, that’s much better for their health and long-term working ability.
Melissa Breau: One last question for you, Heather. Are there other behaviors that are super-versatile like the chin rest and platforming and even the send around an object behavior?
Heather Lawson: As it pertains to TEAM there’s all kinds of little behaviors that people don’t really realize how much they’re going to affect as you go through TEAM.
If you’re familiar with TEAM, which I know you are, there’s ten behaviors in the very beginning, and then, as you get further on, you’re actually using all of those little behaviors that you learned in the beginning.
So in the beginning of TEAM we’re very precision-oriented, and then as you get further on in TEAM we’re less precision, and we take that because we know that you’ve learned how to teach your dog the platform, you’ve learned how to use the equipment, you’ve learned how to fade the equipment, you’ve learned how to use the core, the foundation behaviors in the very beginning such as targeting and sending out and away, bringing your dog into heel position, finding front, all these things.
No matter which way you go in obedience, you’re going to use all those different pieces, so there’s not one super behavior; it’s just that they’re all super-versatile. I think what throws a lot of people off is, Hey, I’ve got to learn all these behaviors or I’m never going to get this, and really, once you’ve got the core foundations, you can pretty much do anything you want. You should be able to step into almost any kind of dog sport, take a look at what they have and what they’re doing, and then take what you’ve learned with your send-outs, your targeting, your sends, your holds, your come into heel, come into front, and apply them to those specific behaviors that are required for that dog sport.
So for me, versatile like the chin rest platforms and even send around an object, I use those all the time to teach the precision that I need so that I can now apply that and teach that concept. I’ll say to my dog, “OK, you know that target thing that I kept sending you out to? Well, now I need you to go out there and I need you to stay out there while I go this distance away from you.” And the dogs are quite comfortable to do that because they have, as I said, that reinforcement history on those pieces of equipment, and when I take them away it’s not a big deal because I’ve gradually decreased their requirement for those pieces of equipment and shown them that, “Yes, you can still do this even though I’m maybe fading the equipment out for you,” so that when we finally do get to the final exercise, they understand it completely. There’s no holes.
And if I have a problem, I’ve got something to go back to. I can take out that little piece, I can pull out that platform, I can show my dog again what I need from them, and show them that, ‘Yes, you can do that. Remember that thing that I taught you way back when? I need you to apply it here and I need you to do it this way.” And it’s like a little refresher. If I glossed over all of that and didn’t use those bits and pieces and put that foundation into place, I’d have nothing to be able to work with and I’d have to go back to square one each and every time I had a problem. This way, all I need to do is pull out a little bit and then reinsert it again.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Heather!
Heather Lawson: You’re very welcome. Thank you very much for having me.
Melissa Breau: And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in!
We’ll be back next week with Amanda Nelson to discuss introducing distance into our agility training.
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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.