Competitive sports dog trainer and founder of FDSA Denise Fenzi talks about how she got into dog sports, her journey from traditional training to her current all positive approach, and more.
To be released 1/6/2017, featuring Sarah Stremming
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 FDSA founder Denise Fenzi. Denise has competed in a wide range of dog sports, titling dogs in obedience, tracking, Schutzhund, Mondioring, herding, conformation, and agility.
She is best-known for her flashy and precise obedience work, as demonstrated by two AKC OTCH dogs and perfect scores in both Schutzhund and Mondioring sport obedience. Her specialty is in developing motivation, focus, and relationship in competition dogs, and she has consistently demonstrated the ability to train and compete with dogs using motivational methods in sports where compulsion is the norm.
Hi Denise, can you tell us a bit about the dogs you have known and what you’re working on with them?
Denise Fenzi: Hi Melissa, how are you?
Denise: Good. I’m excited to do this. Yeah, I’ll tell you. Let’s see, I have three dogs here now. I have Raika, she’s my oldest dog, she’s 12½ and she is retired and mostly spends her days hanging out with me and going for long walks. That’s what she wants to do now. My two younger dogs are Lyra, she’s also a Belgian Tervuren, and Brito, who’s a little mixed-breed, and I primarily train them to learn new things. So I do a lot of play skills with them, I do a lot of obedience with them.I just use them as, I want to say sample dogs, that’s not quite the word I want. But I like to experiment with them and try out new things. And right now I’m sort of in a coaching phase of my life more than a competitive phase of my life, so I’m not actually sure if or when I’ll compete. I have done some of the TEAM obedience levels with both of them, and I think they both have a TEAM Two title, [but] I’d have to look. And at some point if I get inspiration I’m going to keep going. So those are my dogs.
Melissa: So I know it wasn’t on the list of questions I sent over, but do you want to briefly just tell us a little bit more about TEAM?
Denise: Oh, TEAM is Training Excellence Assessment Modules, and it’s the new obedience program that we started for people who want to compete via video and with more emphasis on quality of training and less about the competitive environment. So anybody who wants can look it up at fenziteamtitles.com. It’s, in my opinion, an extremely well-designed program and worth taking a look at.
Denise: Yeah, my parents showed dogs, and I’m 48, so I was sort of born into it. They actually competed with Lhasa Apsos in obedience, which is _____ (3.23). I know my parents got a CDX on a Lhasa Apso; it took 23 shows. I think their final show was a 171 1/2, but they did it. So I give them credit for that. It was kind of an ugly way of getting titles back then, it was uglier to watch, but they did it.
Melissa: So is that what originally got you into dog sports?
Denise: Yes, I guess I inherited it. When I was about 10 I raised a couple of guide dog puppies, and my parents said that if I did that then I could have a dog of my own. So my first dogs were Shelties, because they had to be small dogs. And I just sort of went from there.
Melissa: What got you started with positive training?
Well, I had been competing in AKC obedience for a long time, and then I decided to try IPO. And when I went over and watched the IPO training at that time, which would have been, I don’t know, 20 years ago now I guess I started, I was kind of appalled actually, because they were using so much compulsion and such poor training that my reaction was to go the opposite way. And so I felt obligated to use as little as little as possible and to be successful. But I still absolutely would have called myself a balanced trainer, and I absolutely used compulsion with that dog. He did end up a Schutzhund III. But I did my best to minimize it.
And then as time went on I found that I became a better trainer, and I wouldn’t say I was trying not to use compulsion so much as just becoming a better trainer and needing less and less. Also, I had some good dogs, that really helps, that were cooperative. And I continued to use compulsion with my student dogs well after I stopped myself. And actually I was thinking about that recently, looking back, why was that? I think I was using it to compensate for my lack of ability to communicate with the humans who owned the dogs how to be better trainers, so it was a bit of an out for me.
It’s much easier to say, “Correct your dog when the dog sniffs,” than to take the time to try to figure out why the dog is sniffing and then adjust your training, i.e. my training, to get the handler to do it correctly. And so I did use compulsion there, and I can actually look back and see why I did that and also really how under the particular circumstances how unfair it was, because both of those corrections almost certainly were the result of the dog showing displacement behaviors.
And then I taught seminars as I traveled; because those weren’t my personal students I didn’t feel as vested in the same way in the entire process. And so it was pretty obvious when I would walk in that the problems were handler-generated, and so I never got around to correcting the dogs, I was pretty busy correcting the handlers.
And after a year of that, seminar after seminar realizing I was never correcting the dogs at all, that I never even got around to the dogs, then it started to be a philosophical thing. And that’s when I started looking at it and saying, there’s something wrong with holding the dog responsible when in every single case I can look at the situation and see how the handler caused it, and that’s when I switched. And that was sort of interesting.
Because in terms of solving problems, if you come in with a philosophical point of view and you don’t decide that you have the option of reverting to compulsion if you get stuck, I can tell you your ability to problem solve will skyrocket, because it’s not sitting there any more as an option. And you get a lot more clever, and you learn to think much more broadly. So it’s actually a very good thing for me in my training.
Melissa: It always seems easier to train the dog than to train the people. Sometimes the people are definitely the hardest part.
Denise: That’s true.
Melissa: So you kind of mentioned your training philosophy now. Do you want to just describe that a little more for us and tell us kind of how you approach training now?
Denise: Well, I think most of us continue to evolve over time, and there’s no question that I continue to evolve. Right now I really am looking at dogs a little bit differently. For me it’s less than what can the dog do for me to humor me, so I like to do dog sports. So rather than thinking, how can I get the dog to do this for me, I’m more in a place of, how can I get to a point where I can enjoy my time with this dog? And instead of thinking, how can [I set up the] environment so that time spent with me is the best part of their day I’m thinking more, how can I become important to this dog so they want to do things with me?
And at first it may sound the same, getting the dog on my team as opposed to me joining their team, but if you think about it you start to realize it’s not the same. So I’m perfectly happy to spend time with my young terrier who loves to hunt lizards, and I will sit with him in his little lizard territory telling him, “Did you see that one? Did you look over there?” It’s a lot of fun, it really is. It sounds odd, but it’s a lot of fun. And I think when I do that with him, I think it creates a really nice place for both of us that makes me appreciate him for who he really is. And then I think he’s more willing to play my games.
And so it’s very much a relationship-based way of thinking about dog training, and sometimes this is hard for people to understand. But I really believe that if your dog genuinely likes you because you are interested in them and because you make their life more interesting, I think that skyrockets what the dog is capable of doing for you. So it’s not because the rest of your life is miserable that you want to spend time with me. My dogs have great lives, they have a lot of freedom. I think it’s because we just like doing stuff together and it’s really fun.
So if you can get that relationship down, like I tell people, if you can get your dog to play with you, just run and play and be silly, your dog will start to look at you more, which is really interesting. It’s not a trained response at all, it’s because we look at others that we enjoy. And that’s true with people too. So for example with my older son, he’s 16 now, and so he’s getting into that, well, independent’s not the word I want, but perfectly happy to lock himself in his room sort of phase. And recently he sent me by message text a game, and it’s pool, billiards. And he had done a turn, and then says, “Next.”
And so when I opened it up it showed me his turn, and then I had a chance to play back. So then I played, and then I sent it back to him. And so we do this, and it’s not because I have some great interest in playing pool via text with my son. But what means a lot to me is that he wants me to do that with him. It’s something we can do together. So while it would not be my first choice, you bet I respond when he sends me those. And then what I find is, it changes how he interacts with me in general.
So that when I need things from him, I think because we have that baseline relationship that we’re trying to maintain even as he gets older, I think it allows us to have a better relationship in general, not just about what I want or what he wants. And so I think that dogs are very similar, that if you can find a way to just simply be generically important to them, and accepting, and forgiving, and have a little give and take… You don’t always have to get your way. What a concept. It’s okay. Your dog does not go through life trying to manipulate you. And I think really internalizing that would sum up where I am right now in terms of how I see training.
Melissa: So I know that you kind of touched on this a little bit there with your son, but we’ve talked before about just the impacts that your training beliefs have had on your other relationships. Do you want to talk a little more about that? I know you’ve said it’s influenced almost all of your relationships, including with your parents and things like that.
Denise: It’s been probably the most significant thing that’s happened in my entire life. When I changed how I trained dogs, you have to be pretty obtuse not to recognize that we all learn the same way. And if you’re a positive trainer with dogs and you really emphasize catching what they do right and ignoring what they do wrong, I mean, you really have to choose not to think about it, to realize that exactly the same thing is true with people. So for example both of my kids have very good manners, and I know how that came about in part. One thing is, I’m simply a respectful person and I encourage that.
And it’s not something I comment on any more, because they’re older, they’re 12 and 16, but they do it by habit. And I know that some part of their brain is always aware of it. So I’ve never said to them “Say please, say thank you,” I don’t tell them what to do, but when it happened I really worked to catch those moments and acknowledge them. And I think dog training is a lot easier than child training, that’s just my perspective. But I try to work with that, and I try not to think in terms of getting my kids to go to school and do well because I’ve restricted the rest of their lives, and I try to think in terms of balance and cooperation.
Of course with people you can talk things out more. But at the end of the day if you’re having any kind of conflict with another person, whether it’s a family member or some random person you see on the street, the question I ask myself now is, do I want to feel better or do I want to change behavior? So if I want to feel better I may well behave badly, I may yell. I do yell, by the way. I do yell at my children, I do yell at my dogs. I know some people say, “That’s amazing you do, you’re not supposed to do that.” Well that’s great, I’m glad you’re all there. I’m not, so I will yell, “Get off the couch,” or whatever.
I’m not really training, I’m expressing my upsetness. So that’s, do I want to feel better? Yes, I’m going to yell. Or somebody irritates me on the street because their dog runs up to mine and is off-leash, and so maybe I’m having a particularly bad day, and I might respond inappropriately. But then the second question is, do I want to change behavior? And I think recognizing that those are different things is really important because never, ever, ever am I yelling if I want to change behavior, and never am I talking to somebody like they’re dumb, or ignorant, or anything, because it’s all perspective, because they just have a different perspective.
So maybe they don’t understand that their off-leash dog running up to my old dog is a problem. And the reason it’s a problem is, my dog is old and she doesn’t like other dogs jumping on her. And I’ve had much better luck saying, “I know your dog is friendly, but my dog is very old and she has a lot of arthritis. And when your dog comes up like that it really scares her, and it hurts her.” And when I say that, without fail they apologize and they put their dogs on a leash. And I smile, I’m not angry. I might be inside, but I don’t show it. The next time I see them we continue with a pleasant set of interactions.
And that kind of thinking, do I want to feel better or do I want to change behavior, has been really quite impactful, whether in my family or with people. We often talk about with our dogs, sometimes dog trainers are a lot nicer to their dogs than people. I find that very incongruent, and I don’t like to live my life that way. I like my life to make sense. And I think we need to be very aware of not only how we treat our pets but show that same courtesy to each other, and I find that from there I am a happier person.
Because when you are kind with people instead of getting your emotions from stewing in your, "oh my God, I can’t believe how stupid that person is," that I understand that we take pleasure in those periods of time when we feel superior to other people, because I guess that’s where that comes from, I understand that.
Melissa: That kind of transitions us really nicely into my next question, which was going to be, what led you to start FDSA, the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy? And I want to say kind of before you respond to that, that I think that that’s part of the reason that there’s been such a fantastic community kind of that’s grown up around the school, is just because you have that belief and it spreads through the other teachers and the students. It’s really created a really welcoming community for dog sports competitors. Now that I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself, so what did lead you to start the school?
Denise: It was a numbers thing. If I spend a half-hour with one person I can work with one person for half an hour. Online, if I can do it well, then I can spend a half-hour with a much greater number of people. And we each have our own drivers in life, and one of my big drivers is, I want to see change in the dog sports community, and that’s very important to me. So to be able to affect a large number of people as opposed to a small number of people was very appealing to me. The school in many ways has just sort of exceeded any expectations I could have possibly had, in many ways.
But probably one of the most valuable is, I did not recognize what would happen in terms of the culture, not just with each other. There’s a second culture that people wouldn’t really know about, and that’s the one among the instructors. The way they interact with each other, the way they talk on the mailing list, the support they offer is extraordinary. And I see the same thing with the students, the way they interact. And there really is a sense that your accomplishments mean a lot to you, and everybody else is willing to honor that.
So if you figured out how to teach your dog to lay down and it’s the first time you ever did that, I find that people are just as excited about that for you as another person who went to a dog show and got maybe a high in trial. Because we’re each at a different place in what we value. And I think people have really internalized that, and it is extraordinary. I get a fair number of e-mails from people saying thank you for something or the other, maybe with their dog.
But the ones I value the most are the ones where people say, “Over time I started to recognize that the same things we do with our dogs work with each other, and I have become kinder to myself, kinder to people around me, and you know, generally I’m just a much happier person.” That’s enormous. And starting an online dog training school I really never saw that one coming. I didn’t realize how that could work out like that, and it’s been really amazing for me.
Melissa: Yeah, I mean, the community’s probably one of the few places online where even controversial topics are handled very politely. And people honor each other’s opinions and honor each other’s thoughts, and they don’t break down into insults and arguments, at least not that I’ve seen yet.
Denise: No, it’s amazing. I mean, it’s not that it’s perfect. We have a few thousand members, so you’re always going to have differences. But I find that people have become quite good at saying, “This has been my experience, and this is my feelings,” as opposed to, “You’re dumb and stupid for thinking that.” And I know that people don’t mean to come across that way, but sometimes the online communities, all of them, people simply write and don’t think too carefully about how what they just said might be interpreted by another person.
And within the alumni group or within the Academy group I find an awareness of considering how you phrase things. And anyway the reality is, if you want to change behavior it’s the same thing I said earlier. It may make you feel better to say, “You’re dumb to think that way,” but you won’t change behavior. If you say, “This has been my experience,” now you might actually change behavior, but you have to give up being self-righteous, and that’s not always what people have in mind.
Melissa: So I know that we wanted to talk about some of the other stuff you’ve been working on too. FDSA isn’t the only thing you’ve created in the last few years. So you have another new book coming out.
I don’t know if you want to take a minute and tell us about some of the books that you already have out and then the new book, or if you just want to talk about the new book. I’ll leave that up to you.
Denise: Oh, so many. I didn’t even know I was such a writer until I started writing, and now I can’t stop writing. I’ve written seven, I’m actually looking at them. Four of them I wrote with Deb Jones, that’s the Dog Sports Skills Series. Those are all generic to all dog sports but provide a really nice foundation for dog training. I wrote a book called Beyond the Back Yard, which was targeted at the pet market to help them understand how to get from the point of cookie in the hand in the kitchen and hoping for the best to actually getting some very cooperative real-world obedience.
That book has done very well, and a lot of people are using it to teach their classes, which makes me very happy. It does have a free instructor’s guide to go with it. And then I wrote Blogger Dog, Brito!, which is about Brito. It’s, well, I’m going to say a true story, but keep in mind the dog wrote it, so take that with a grain of salt. And it’s designed for about a fourth grade audience to read to themself. And if a person reads it they will learn quite a bit about dog behavior without learning that they learned about dog behavior, which was really what I had in mind.
And then my newest book is Train the Dog in Front of You. I would call that my personal pet book, and what I mean is, it is how I feel about training and dogs. I feel that every dog is very unique, and I tried hard to find dimensions that people could work with to say, is your dog more secure, more cautious, more handler-focused, more environmental, and then offered suggestions for how to work with a dog based on those qualities. Actually I’m running a class online right now on that topic.
And as you might expect there are many, many nontraditional breeds in that class, and I actually find it extremely interesting to watch different dogs behave in different ways under different circumstances. So you can see some of the dogs do a lot with their eyes. They stare when they go to a park. And other dogs’ noses never come off the ground when they go to a park. And other dogs air sniff the whole time they’re at the park. And other dogs just jump on their owners.
And all of these things are really quite relevant to how you train your dog. So if you understand that your dog’s dominant sense is going to be sniffing you might be better off training in a shopping center, whereas another dog that has a lot of pressure issues with people in buildings would be much better off in a big open park than in a shopping center. So thinking that way is very interesting to me. And I hope a lot of dog sports people pick this book up, because I think it has a lot to offer.
Melissa: I mean, having had a chance to read an advance copy of the book I think it’s a fantastic guide, even just as a thought exercise to think through kind of where your dog falls on some of those different meters, and what they are closer to than other things, and what traits are more true for your personal dog than others. Just to kind of give people a little more sense of what’s inside the book, do you mind talking about any one of your dogs that you want, just kind of where they fall on some of those spectrums?
Denise: In the first chapter I actually did go through the dogs. Well, Brito is, he’s the little terrier dog of mine, he’s about 10 pounds. He’s a small dog. But he’s very terrier, he’s classic terrier. He’s not handler-focused. So if I take him somewhere his nose goes down, he doesn’t do a lot of looking with his eyes, he uses his nose. He does very little air sniffing, it’s to the ground. Vegetative surfaces, he will not look back at me, it doesn’t cross his mind for 15, 20 minutes.
He is not what we’d call naturally handler-focused when he’s in a new environment. But there’s a piece that goes with that. He’s also a very confident and social dog, so he likes people, he’s confident with people. He’s a little careful with dogs. They’re big and that makes him nervous. He’s also got a little bit of that terrier behavior, so he can get kind of puffed-up. And if he sees aggression around him he’ll go there fast, so I keep an eye on that.
And in some ways a dog like that is the polar opposite of Raika, my oldest dog who’s here. Raika’s always liked to be with me, she just does, it doesn’t matter where I go. And actually I had to go to some trouble to teach her to look around, which is something I talk about in the book. Why would I do that? Why would I teach her to stop staring at me? It was a very good decision. And she does get nervous about people and dogs, whereas Brito, it just wouldn’t happen to him. And knowing these things about them does make a difference, because Raika, I just take her to a park, I can take her anywhere and work with her, and that’s easy and makes sense.
I don’t sit down and actually consciously go through it any more, it’s just something that sort of happens in my head. And in the book I talk about case studies, more so in the online class. I put up case studies of specific dogs that I’ve worked with. But after a while you start to see packages, you just start to notice that dogs that tend to be a little more insecure are a little more likely to look to their owners. You start looking for stuff like that, and it helps you make a plan about which direction to try with the dog. And it also helps you recognize when you’ve made a bad decision so that you can back up, turn around, and try something else.
Melissa: So to kind of bring things to a little bit of a close I have three last questions, kind of quicker questions. So the first one is, what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?
Denise: My second OTCH dog had a fairly complete meltdown about a third of the way into her OTCH, and I could not resolve that. I didn’t know what to do, so I retired her for about a year-and-a-half. And while she was retired I finished an OTCH on a different dog. So she must have been, I don’t know, I want to say eight, maybe nine years old. And I just kept thinking about what I now knew, because I had learned a lot, we’re always learning, and I decided to try again. And I thought that we had lots of time to actually pursue the OTCH, because it does take a bit of time, and it helps to have a young and very fit dog.
And I just felt that her jumping days were going to be wrapping up soon, and so I decided to go back into competition with a different goal. I simply wanted to see if I could stay connected with her and keep the stress out of the picture just for one exercise, and just for two exercises. Could I do this? And I went in with such a different mindset.
It was really no longer about finishing the title, I was no longer frustrated, and she finished her OTCH in two months. So just my changing my way of thinking, and it was really amazing. I will tell you that when you hit about 90 points it gets a little hard to say, “Oh gee, I’m just doing this for fun,” but I managed to keep myself under control with it. I’m very proud of that, because it was hard, and I think hard things are always a bigger accomplishment.
Melissa: And what’s the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?
Denise: It’s just behavior. So there’s an expression, it’s just behavior. When something is happening in front of you it doesn’t mean deep and horrible things, it doesn’t mean your dog hates you, it doesn’t mean you’re never going to be successful, it doesn’t mean much of anything. It just means it’s behavior. The dog just showed you something, and it has roots from where? Maybe an emotion. But it’s not more than that. And that is why most of us when we’re training our own dogs, everything is so big and magnified.
So your dog goes around the broad jump and, "oh my God." "It’s oh my God, what am I going to do? It’s over." And we obsess and we stress, and we train and we train on the poor thing and the poor dog, and it’s very hard to walk away. Whereas an outsider looks at it and says, “I have no idea what you’re getting so worked up about. Your dog went around the jump. It’s not a big deal, it’s not the end of the world, and it doesn’t mean it’s going to keep happening.” And I think that expression, it’s just behavior, really helps us remember that it’s not worth quite that much energy. It just happened, it’s okay. Move on, train.
Melissa: That in some ways seems to sum up your philosophy almost as well as some of your other answers.
Denise: That’s true.
Melissa: So for our last question, who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?
Denise: There are actually a lot of trainers out there that I really respect. I’ve often said I don’t think I’m a great dog trainer. I think I’m a pretty good dog trainer. I think what I do well is not dig a grave. I mean, if I see I’m starting a hole I back out of it. Whereas there are a lot of other trainers out there who I think are much better than I am at not starting the hole in the first place. So I can’t go with just skills, because there’s lots of people who are more skilled.
So I think I’m going to say Suzanne Clothier, and the reason is, I have a lot of respect for her ability to look at the situation, the dog, the person, the whole picture, and stand back, and get an overview on what’s happening, and then communicate that in a way that people can understand. So I really respect that.
And she’s been around for a long time, much longer than I would say it’s been popular to be a force-free trainer. And she’s been at it for really some time, and I appreciate that, and I appreciate her honesty and her ability to communicate what I think sometimes people need to hear that might not be very comfortable without getting stuck in how we’re supposed to do things. So I think that’s my answer.
Melissa: All right. Well, thank you so much, Denise. It’s been awesome to chat, it’s been a lot of fun.
Denise: Thank you. I am excited to see who comes after me.
Melissa: Well, let me get to that. So for all of our brand-new listeners, since this is our first official podcast, thank you for tuning in, and we’ll be back in two weeks.
We’ll be back with Sarah Stremming. She’s the founder of Cognitive Canine, and we’ll be talking about over-arousal in sports dogs. If you haven’t already, subscribe now on iTunes or the podcast app of your choice, and you’ll have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. In the meantime, happy training.
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!