Sarah Stremming, founder of The Cognitive Canine and host of Cog-Dog Raido and her partner, Dr. Leslie Eide, join me to talk about their latest addition: Watson, a 6-month-old Border Collie puppy.
To be released 9/21/2018.
Today we have two guests joining us, for the first time ever: Sarah Stremming, of Cog-Dog Radio and the Cognitive Canine, and Leslie Eide. Longtime listeners are undoubtedly are already familiar with Sarah, but let me share a little about Leslie.
Leslie graduated from Colorado State University’s Veterinary School in 2006. She completed a rotating internship in small animal medicine in Albuquerque, N.M., and then became certified in canine rehabilitation with a focus in sports medicine. She is now a resident with the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation. Dr. Eide also helped to create and teaches some of the classes to become a Certified Canine Fitness Trainer (CCFT) through the University of Tennessee's NorthEast Seminars.
Like Sarah, Dr. Eide is involved in the agility world. She has trained two dogs to their ADCH Agility Dog Champion title and one to ADCH Bronze, an Agility Trial Champion title and a Master Agility Champion title. Three of her dogs have qualified and competed at USDAA Nationals with multiple Grand Prix Semi-final runs. And today, these two lovely ladies are here to talk to us about puppies, especially one in particular … . But we’ll get to that.
Welcome back to the podcast, Sarah — and hi Leslie! Pleasure to “meet” you.
Sarah Stremming: Hi Melissa.
Leslie Eide: Hi Melissa.
Melissa Breau: To start us out, Sarah, can you just remind listeners how many dogs you have now and who they are?
Sarah Stremming: I have two Border Collies. Idgie is 9 years old and she’s my main competition dog right now. And Felix is 3 years old, and he’s in training and just keeping me on my toes.
Melissa Breau: Leslie, would you mind sharing the same intro for your dogs, including the newest addition?
Leslie Eide: My oldest is Brink, a 12-year-old Border Collie, and he right now is champion of holding the couch down. Next would be Stig, my 7-year-old Border Collie, who’s the main competition dog right now and who most of my online training videos have in them. Next is Ghost, my 5-year-old Australian Shepherd, and she is quickly trying to surpass Stig as the main competition dog. And then finally the puppy, Watson, is 6 months old and 1 day, and he is a new Border Collie.
Melissa Breau: So, it’s Watson I really wanted to talk about today. Leslie, would you mind sharing a little on how you wound up with him? And why him … even though that meant bringing him over from Japan?
Leslie Eide: It just kind of happened. I didn’t go out looking for a Border Collie and saying, “Japan is the place to get him!” I actually met Miki, who is sort of his breeder but not really, a couple of years ago at Cynosport, which is the USDA agility national competition, or international competition, but it’s always held in the U.S. One of her dogs had something happen to him, and I worked on him at the event and he did really well, and we became Facebook friends and stayed in contact.
Last year, she won Grand Prix with her dog Soledea. And Soledea, the weird part about it, actually belongs to someone else. She just competes with her. She announced that Soledea was having a litter, and I had been looking for, I don’t know, probably had my feelers out for about a year, looking for a Border Collie puppy. I really liked Soledea, so through Facebook I was like, “Hey, I’m sort of interested,” and she was really excited about it.
When the puppies were born, I many times thought it was too much trying to get a puppy from Japan, and everything you have to go through, and blah, blah, blah, blah. I kept saying, “No, no, no, no,” and finally she said, “I’m getting the puppy to L.A. Make sure you’re there to go pick him up.” And I was like, “OK.”
So that’s how it ended up getting a puppy from Japan. It all comes back to the world of sports medicine, and that’s how you find puppies. So a little bit of fate in a way of it was just meant to be, despite all the odds.
Melissa Breau: Sometimes, when it’s meant to happen, it’s just meant to happen, and it doesn’t matter how many times you say, “Well, that’s pretty complicated.” You end up with the puppy.
Leslie Eide: Yeah.
Melissa Breau: I know Sarah has talked a bit about him on her podcast and you’ve both blogged about him a little bit. My understanding is that you guys are doing things a little … for lack of a better word … differently than other agility handlers or even dog trainers might with a new puppy. Can you share a little bit about your approach thus far with him? What are you working on, what have you worked on?
Leslie Eide: For me, it’s not much different than I would say I’ve raised my other puppies. I’m maybe what you would think of as a lazy trainer. I’m more about building a relationship than necessarily having a list of things I have to accomplish — “He’s this old, he must be able to do these ten things.” I just let everything happen in a more organic manner of he shows me he can do it, and then I say, “OK, I’m going to reinforce that.”
An example is I had him at the agility trial this weekend. He hopped on the measuring table and … we’ve never worked on “stay” a day in his life, and because he was willing to stand on the table, I took the opportunity to say, “Hey, I can reinforce this,” and got some really good training in when it was again more organic of him telling me he knew he was ready for it, rather than saying, “He has to know how to stay by a certain age,” or “He has to be able to know how to wrap a wing jump by a certain age,” that kind of thing.
Sarah Stremming: For me, more what I do with Watson is teaching him how to be a dog in this house, and how to go out on off-leash walks — as everybody knows I’m pretty into — and providing him with lots of environmental enrichment. I just want to make sure that he maintains this delightfully optimistic personality that he has.
I know that you had Julie Daniels, I think just last week, and she talked about optimism. I loved it. I like that word for describing what he is, because it’s not like he doesn’t have any fears, because they all do. That’s not real. That’s not realistic. It’s more that when he encounters something novel, his first guess is that it’s going to be good for him, and I just want that to stay there, because if that stays there, then agility training is a piece of cake.
If you’re not trying to overcome fear of other dogs, or fear of strangers, or fear of loud noises or weird substrates or anything like that, agility training is not that hard, especially for a pretty seasoned competitor like Leslie. I think both of us feel pretty confident in training agility skills and also handling. Not that we can’t improve and that we’re always trying to improve, but for me, I want him to maintain that really optimistic outlook on when something new is happening, he’s game to try it.
Leslie Eide: I guess I would add, goes along with what Sarah was saying, is I also want him to learn what it’s like to be a dog in my life. So, like she said, being able to live in a household with lots of dogs, but it’s also about getting used to our schedule.
I’m a busy person and usually work 12-hour days, and while he may get to come with me to work, he also has to realize there’s going to be some really boring time at work where he just has to sit and chill. And that happens at home too.
So that’s really important to me that he doesn’t necessarily get upset or get stir-crazy or all upset when he doesn’t have something to constantly do. Border Collies are definitely busy, smart dogs, and so learning what our life is like, and not necessarily doing things out of the ordinary while he’s a puppy, and then suddenly, when he’s grown up, being like, “OK, now you’re an adult, and you just have to live with how our life is,” but rather teaching him how to handle it when he’s young.
Sarah Stremming: You said, “How are you guys doing stuff differently?” I think that is the primary component, because most sport people that I know, especially in the agility world, really, really want their puppy to have tons and tons of drive to work with the handler.
I’m not saying that’s bad. We want that too. But they tend to go about it in a way that seems really imbalanced to me, and the dog experiences isolation/boring-ness or super-exciting training time.
That’s not how we live. I guess if your dogs all live in kennels and they come out to train multiple times a day, then you could pull that off. But we both want our dogs to be free for 90 percent of their time. We just don’t want them to be crated, kenneled, etc., for large portions of their lives, so they have to learn how to just hang out early on.
Melissa Breau: I don’t remember if it was the blog or the podcast, but I feel like I remember something one of you at one point put out about planning to hold off on teaching certain skills until he’s a bit older. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about that too. What skills are you holding off on, maybe, and sharing a little bit of the reasoning. I know we’ve talked about it a little bit already.
Leslie Eide: I think mostly the blog was relating to agility skills, and that a lot of times we start teaching the foundation movements right away with a puppy, like wrapping a wing, groundwork. You’re not necessarily putting them on equipment or doing anything like that, but everything that you are teaching them in some way relates to eventually an agility skill, including convincing them to tug with you. That’s a big thing of “They have to tug,” and it goes from there. Those things I think will come. I’m not going to push for them too soon.
That’s kind of going back to the story of working on a stay on the table this past weekend. If he shows me he’s ready for something, then I’ll take advantage of it, but I’m not going to push him ahead of his comfort level. I’d rather him be comfortable with everything, be happy with playing with me, and know that good things come from me and that we’re going to do fun things, rather than taking it straight to an agility focus.
Melissa Breau: I’d assume the two of you have had a pretty big influence on each other, and your approach to dogs and all that good stuff, over the years. From the outside, at least, it seems like you’re essentially taking all Sarah’s developed with her Whole Picture approach and applying it to Watson. Sarah, is that accurate? And for those not as familiar with your approach, can you give us the down and dirty version of what I’m talking about?
Sarah Stremming: I would say that’s accurate. The Four Steps to Behavioral Wellness is what we’re talking about. That would be communication, nutrition, exercise, and enrichment.
The communication front — that’s just training. That’s just having a positive-reinforcement-based training relationship with the dog, where you give the dog a lot of good positive feedback all the time.
Nutrition is kind of self-explanatory, and Leslie’s a vet, so I pretty much defer to her in that regard with him.
Exercise — I like free exercise. He certainly goes on leash walks, but the leash walks are more about learning how to walk on a leash than exercise. Again, I defer to Leslie in the exercise department because her field is sports medicine. You definitely don’t want to be overdoing it with a puppy at all, and he would like to be completely wild and run and run and run all day long, so we have to talk about that.
The enrichment piece is really big for me. We do lots of things for him to shred. You should see our house. There’s cardboard shreds everywhere. So just giving him things to shred, feeding him his meals out of a slow bowl, we have all kinds of little kibble-dispensing toys around, lots of chew bones, things like that.
So just making sure that his brain is exercised, his body is exercised, he is not confused, he is communicated with appropriately, and that he is fed well. That’s what we’re trying to do.
Melissa Breau: Leslie, I’d guess your background’s had a pretty big influence on your general approach, right? How has your experience as a vet and a canine rehab specialist influenced your views on this stuff and led you to take this approach?
Leslie Eide: It’s maybe changed it a little bit, but not much. I’ve always been a little bit more laid back with my approach with puppies. I’ve always had this belief that puppies should get to be puppies and experience their puppyhood, and not just be thrown into intensive sport training right from Day 1. Maybe that’s a little bit of backlash from my own experience of being thrown into competitive swimming as a 5-year-old and doing that for most of my young life, and everything was about training and being really serious.
I also would say, from the vet side of things, I think there’s a lot of injuries that can happen when they’re young, and by pushing things and doing stuff repetitively that causes problems at a young age, or maybe they’re not as visible at a young age, but then they show up a little later in life and can definitely cut their careers short.
I want to be successful, but I also want to do it for a long time, and not just a year or two and then have to give it up because they’re hurt for some reason.
Melissa Breau: We’ve talked quite a bit about what you’re NOT doing. So I’d love to hear … I know you mentioned a little bit of leash walking. I’d imagine you’re doing some other training with him. What ARE you focusing on as far as training goes with Watson right now?
Leslie Eide: Well, Sarah’s trying to teach me how to teach him marker cues. We’ll see how that goes. So we definitely have that going on. He gets the basics of “sit” and “down,” and again, most of it is capturing offered behavior, rather than setting out as a training session of “OK, we’re going to learn this behavior.”
We do fitness exercises, so I have my building blocks that I use to make all my canine fitness exercises. So starting to work on ones that are appropriate for him, like learning targeting, front paw targeting, rear paw targeting, being comfortable getting in an object or on an object, like a box or a disc or something like that.
And then a lot of new experiences still. Most recently, over the past couple of weeks I’d say, I worked to introduce him to the underwater treadmill so he can start getting some exercise in that, since that’s a really easy way for me to exercise him at work.
Melissa Breau: That’s so cool.
Leslie Eide: Going places, we went to the beach for the first time, he goes to shops and meets people, he goes to agility trials and hangs out. Like I said, at agility trial learned how to do a stand-stay on the measuring table.
So I’m the anti-planner. I don’t set out with “We’re going to learn this.” It’s more see what happens and go from there.
Sarah Stremming: For me, the things that I need to teach him are things that make him easier for me to manage in a house with six dogs.
We’ve recently started working hard on all the dogs are trained to release out the door by name, and so I want Watson also to know that with everybody else. So we’ve been working on some very early iterations of that. And things like the best stuff for puppies is not on the counter or the kitchen table. The best stuff for puppies is on the ground.
And body handling, so handling your feet, and looking in your mouth, and accepting passive restraint, as is so important for all of them to learn. Things like that are more my focus with him.
Leslie Eide: I would say something that’s really big is playtime, too. That’s not necessarily something like a skill we’re teaching, but just making sure that playtime happens every day in some form.
Melissa Breau: Are there skills that you think get overlooked that you’re making sure to cover right from the start? You mentioned handling, you mentioned play skills. Anything else on that list for you?
Sarah Stremming: I do think body handling gets overlooked, but for me, especially within the sport of dog agility, I think a lot of people start out with puppies ringside, watching agility, trying to “teach them” to be cool waiting their turn. And then what happens is at a certain age the puppy notices what’s going on in the ring, and they start to wiggle and scream and not contain themselves.
And then, depending on the trainer, the puppy might get a correction, or the puppy might be removed from the arena, or they might try to distract the puppy with food, or I saw a competitor once basically just hit the side of her puppy with a tug toy until the puppy decided to turn around and latch on the tug toy instead of squeal at the dogs in the ring.
For me, again, it’s an answer of what are we omitting? But it’s about the teaching him the skill of waiting his turn before we ever ask him to wait his turn. The early, early iterations for that, for me, look like feeding all of the dogs a little bite of something, and I say their name and I feed them, and then I say their name and I feed them.
Watson is trying to eat everything that I’m feeding, but he doesn’t get anything until I say his name and then feed him. So he’s bouncing around and being ridiculous, and all the other dogs are sitting and waiting, and eventually they go, “Oh, this isn’t that hard. When she says my name, I get to eat.”
Just like what Leslie was talking about, they show you that capability when they have it. It’s kind of like a 3-year-old child only has so much self-control, and I really feel that way about puppies too. They only have so much ability to “wait their turn.” So teaching him the skill of waiting his turn way before we ever ask him to wait his turn is a big one for me that I think people maybe don’t overlook, but go about it in a way that I wouldn’t.
Leslie Eide: For me, it’s relationship. He can train, and he knew how to do that from pretty much the moment I got him, but he didn’t necessarily know that I was a special person to him. So, to me, it’s about building a relationship before asking him for a list of skills that he needs to be able to do.
Definitely, training can help build that relationship, but I think it’s also just one-on-one time, especially when there’s a large number of dogs in the household. And it’s about snuggles and play and that kind of thing.
Melissa Breau: Obviously we all TRY, when we get a new puppy, to do everything right, and there’s definitely nothing more stressful than that feeling. But inevitably something goes wrong. We’re out and about and another dog barks and lunges at the puppy, or kids come flying at the puppy’s face, screaming, and they scare the bejesus out of him. Have either of you had to deal with any of those types of moments yet? And if so, how did you handle it? Is there prep work you’ve done, or things you do in the moment … or even afterwards, stuff you do for damage control that you can talk about a little bit?
Sarah Stremming: We honestly haven’t had anything big that I have experienced, but there have been things that he saw and went, “Huh, I’m not sure about that.” Like, we had him in this little beach town after running on the beach and there was a lot of construction going on, and so there was a jackhammer going into the concrete, and he wasn’t sure if that was what should be happening, and I can’t blame him, really.
What was important for me, and what I usually tell people to do, is as long as the puppy is still observing the thing, allow them to continue to observe the thing. So he looked at it until he was done looking at it, and then he turned away from it, and then we all retreated away from it together.
I think what people try to do instead is they try to distract the puppy away from it with food, or they try to make it a positive event with food, or they try to drag the puppy towards it, maybe, or lure the puppy towards it, and it’s best to just let them experience their environment from a distance that they feel comfortable with.
He really hasn’t had any huge startles about anything. I tend not to let him see a lot of people unless I know them, because he is going to jump on them and I don’t want them to be a jerk about that. He did meet one strange dog that I hadn’t planned on him meeting once on a walk. And that dog — I actually posted a video of this on the Cognitive Canine Facebook page — that dog was inviting play before Watson was ready, and he scared Watson a little bit, but not terrible. What was amazing was that Felix walked up and intervened, and then the dog played with Felix. Watson still stayed there, and then he was like, “OK, I can tag along if there’s three of us, but I don’t want to be the center of attention.”
If he had run away, let’s say that dog had really scared him and he had tucked his tail and run towards me or something, if the puppy is coming to me looking for shelter from whatever it is, I always give it to them. So I would have absolutely picked him up and just allowed him to look at the dog from a distance.
But I tend not to try to involve food in those moments unless the dog is trying to approach. Let’s say, when Felix was a puppy, he saw a fire hydrant, seemingly for the first time, and decided that it was monster. I let him look at it as long as he wanted to the first day he saw it, and then we walked away. And then the next day, he looked at it and he wanted to sniff it and approach it, and I fed him for that. And then the third day, he was like, “Oh, here’s the thing. Feed me.” And I was like, “OK, good. Done. Here’s one cookie, and now I’m never going to feed you for that again because it’s over.”
I think people freak out, and if you freak out and they’re freaking out, then we’re all freaking out, and it’s not a good thing.
Leslie Eide: Yeah, he really hasn’t had anything, but I completely agree with Sarah. And I’m pretty good about it, again, going along with not planning everything. I’m pretty chill about everything, so when he reacts to something, I’m not going to feed into it by being like, “Oh my god.” It’s about, “Cool, dude. Check it out. I’m not going to force you into anything. We’ll just stand here. If you’re comfortable staying here looking at it, then that’s where we’ll stay.”
If food comes into play, it’s for when he turns around and looks at me and says, “OK, let’s go.” It’s more of a reinforcement of choosing to be back with me and go on with me on our whatever we’re doing, not a reinforcement for necessarily …
Sarah Stremming: Which we would do if the thing was exciting, too, not just if it’s scary. It’s “Choose me over the stuff in the environment that interests you.”
Melissa Breau: I’d love to end on a high note. Can each of you share one piece of advice for anyone out there with their own puppy, hoping to raise a happy, balanced dog?
Leslie Eide: My piece of advice would probably be something like, “It’s all going to be OK.” We all can make mistakes, and luckily dogs are very forgiving, so don’t beat yourself up if something bad happens or you make a mistake. There’s lots that you can do to bounce back and still have a perfectly wonderful puppy.
Sarah Stremming: I think mine is really similar to yours, in that I would say … Melissa, you had mentioned we’re all paranoid about doing everything right and that’s really stressful. So my piece of advice would be to embrace and accept that you will not do everything right. Embrace and accept that you will screw something up at some point and that you’ll survive, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll learn, and that will in the end be a good thing too.
I seriously look back on every puppy and go, “Yeah, could have done that better, could have done that better.” All of us do that, and that’s fine. Embrace it and run with it.
Melissa Breau: For folks out there who are interested in following along as Watson grows up, what’s the best way to do that? And where can people who want to stalk — or at least follow — each of you, where can they go to stay up to date?
Sarah Stremming: The first question, where can they follow Watson, we are running a subscription to a blog just about Watson. It’s called “Puppy Elementary,” and you can find that by clicking the Puppy Elementary tab on my website, which is thecognitivecanine.com.
Again, you can follow me at thecognitivecanine.com. That’s where I blog. I also have a podcast called Cog-Dog Radio, and of course I’m on Facebook with The Cognitive Canine and Cog-Dog Radio, and just me, so that’s where you can find me.
You can find Leslie at work — all day, every day! We are teaching our course together … is it next term? October? Jumping Gymnastics, for FDSA, together, so you can find Leslie there too. But your website is thetotalcanine.net?
Leslie Eide: Yes. And Facebook. I’m on there. My business-y type page is The Total Canine, which has a Facebook page, and then the website is thetotalcanine.net and it is “canine” spelled out. And my real work is SOUND Veterinary Rehabilitation Center, and it’s on Facebook, and the website is soundvetrehab.com.
Melissa Breau: Where are you located again, just in case somebody is in your area and wants to come look you up?
Sarah Stremming: About 40 miles north of Seattle, but the SOUND Veterinary Rehab Center is in Shoreline, Washington, which is just north of Seattle.
Melissa Breau: One last question for each of you — my new “last interview question” that I’ve been asking everyone: What’s a lesson that you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training? Sarah, you want to go first?
Sarah Stremming: Mine is exceedingly nerdy. When I told Leslie what it was, she was like, “Oh God.” It’s to remember not to stay on lesser approximations for too long. In real words, plain English, basically that means to progress as fast as possible. So don’t wait for perfection before moving on to the next thing that you’re going to be reinforcing.
I’m always shooting for low error rates, high rates of reinforcement, I like nice, clean training, and because of that, sometimes I can stay on approximations that are not the final behavior for a little bit too long because I get a little bit too perfectionistic on those, and it bites me every time. I was recently reminded of it in Felix’s contact training.
Melissa Breau: I’ve never done that.
Sarah Stremming: I know, right? I think it’s the sickness, honestly, of people who are really obsessed with training just get way too fixated on the details. But anyway, that’s mine.
Leslie Eide: I think I’m going to pick one specifically to make fun of Sarah.
Sarah Stremming: I expect no less.
Leslie Eide: In that it’s something that I never do, but she probably really wishes I would, and that’s take data.
Sarah Stremming: Leslie never takes data.
Leslie Eide: No.
Sarah Stremming: I take data on everything. I always say that if we could put us together, we’d be a great trainer, because I’m too detail-oriented and nitpicky, and she’s too freeform.
Leslie Eide: Yeah.
Sarah Stremming: Which is why together, with Jumping Gymnastics, I think we do a nice job teaching together, because we do come from both of those different sides.
Melissa Breau: Thank you so much, ladies, for coming on the podcast! And we managed upon a time when both of you could join me, so that’s awesome. Thank you.
Sarah Stremming: Thanks for having us.
Leslie Eide: Thank you.
Melissa Breau: Thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week talking about details with Hannah Branigan to talk about prepping for competition and more.
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