Sarah Stremming is a dog trainer, a dog agility and obedience competitor, and a dog behavior consultant. Her specialty is working with behavior problems in competition dogs.
During her interview we talk about her approach to training -- including allowing dogs their dog-ness -- and the 4 things she looks at before making behavior recommendations: exercise, enrichment, diet and communication.
To be released 1/20/2017, featuring Hannah Branigan.
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 Sarah Stremming. Sarah’s voice may be familiar to some of you since she owns the excellent Cog-Dog Radio. Sarah is owner and operator of the Cognitive Canine. She has been working with dogs in the realms of performance training and behavior solutions for over a decade.
Her special area of interest has long been helping dog owners address behavioral concerns in their competition dogs. Reactivity, anxiety, aggression, and problems with arousal are all major concerns for many competitors, and Sarah works to help her clients overcome these issues and succeed in their chosen arena. Hi, Sarah, welcome to the podcast.
Sarah Stremming: Hi, Melissa, and thanks for having me.
Melissa: Absolutely. Sarah, to start out, can you just tell us a little bit about the dogs you have now and what you’re working on with them?
Sarah: Sure. I have Idgie, who is an 8-year-old border collie, and she’s competing in agility and her agility training is really just kind of in maintenance phase, but I’m getting her ready to go into the open level of obedience next year; and I have Felix who is also a border collie and he’s a year and a half, so he’s learning everything. He’s learning agility, obedience, and mostly how to just kind of keep his head on his shoulders in the agility environment is our number one project… and those are my two dogs.
Melissa: Excellent. How did you originally get into dog sports?
Sarah: I saw agility on TV when I was probably nine or ten and immediately knew that that was for me, and it was like five years later that I actually got to do agility, but as soon as I saw it I wanted to do it and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Melissa: That’s awesome. So did you start out R+ then, since you started in agility or kind of what got you started on that positive training journey?
Sarah: I definitely did not start with all positive reinforcement. I am definitely what I would call a crossover trainer. I started in not just agility but competitive obedience. Agility really got me started, but the kind of local dog training school required an obedience class before you started agility training, and I actually really liked the obedience side as well, so I competed in obedience and agility with my first dog Kelso.
He had some really severe behavioral problems, primarily aggression towards other dogs, and so I learned to do all kinds of nasty things from people who…everybody I worked with was really trying to help me, and so I did all kinds of corrections as far as obedience is concerned and as well as his aggression was concerned.
Because he had these behavior problems I reached outside of the realm of performance training into the animal training world and found out that all of these corrections that I had been taught from really the competitive obedience sector were not only not necessary but probably causing some of my problems. So when I started to realize that and started to change the way that I did things, he started to get better and that was really all that I needed to see.
Melissa: I know that for most trainers it’s definitely an evolving journey, so how would you describe where you are now in terms of what your training philosophy is and kind of how you approach training?
Sarah: My training approach I actually have a philosophy that I really sat down and figured out and wrote out a while ago so that I could reference it and come back to it in my work with my own dogs as well as with other people and so it’s kind of four different mantras, and the first one is ‘Do not deny dogs their dogness.’ So meaning dogs are dogs, they’re going to act like dogs.
Dogs like to bark and pee on stuff and dig holes and do things like that, and we really have no right to deny them those things because we chose to bring dogs into our lives, but that segues into the next mantra, which is to teach dogs what we need from them in a kind way, so we need them to not do those things all the time and it’s important for us to teach them what they need to know to live in our world in a way that is kind. Then the next one is ‘Provide dogs what they need,’ which is a big deal to me to just make sure that their needs are being met.
I find that a lot of dogs living with people don’t have all of their basic dog needs met, and then the last one is just ‘Above all honor the dog,’ which means always honor their experience of what you are doing, that this isn’t just about you. They’re here. They have autonomy. They have ownership over their own lives and we really have no right to not take their opinions and experiences into account.
Melissa: I know you kind of mentioned Kelso at the beginning, and your specialty now, at least as far as I understand it, is over-arousal in competition dogs. Does that kind of tie back to that or can you tell me kind of how you got started in that and kind of just a little bit about your work now?
Sarah: That being my special interest area was really shaped by the competitors and the current climate of agility. Kelso actually wouldn’t be described by anybody who knew him as over-aroused. They would describe him more as one of those shut-down type of dogs, so he was overwhelmed by the environment, but it translated into a dog that was slow and didn’t do agility very fast versus most of the dogs that I work with now are kind of the opposite.
They are also overwhelmed by the environment, but it comes out in big displays, big behaviors of biting the handler, excessive barking, not being able to stay on the start line, that kind of thing. I do work with the dogs that shut down too. Most of the dogs that I work with are over-aroused, and I think that that has been largely cultivated by just the culture in agility right now, which is we’re breeding dogs with hair-trigger arousal on purpose and we are fostering really, really high levels of arousal in training and the reason is everybody wants faster.
Everybody wants speed, and they really think that this is how they’re going to get there. When you put all of this arousal into the picture and you’re not actually sure how to deal with it once you’ve got it, you run into problems and it’s everywhere. Every single time I go to an agility trial, which is frequently, I see dogs that are really struggling with the environment and really just if they were people would be screaming and banging their fists against the wall and instead they’re a dog on a leash being asked to stand next to a handler quietly. So we see a lot of problems come out because that arousal has got to come out somewhere.
Melissa: So I’m actually going to shift gears slightly and then come back to this topic. Before starting this podcast, I asked around for other good dog training podcasts. Cog-Dog came very highly recommended, which is how I first learned a little about you and a little about what you’re doing. For anyone listening who may not be familiar with it, can you just briefly tell us a little bit what Cog-Dog Radio is and kind of how you have it set up?
Sarah: Yeah. So I really started getting out there through my blog, which is at the cognitivecanine.com and I wanted to cover specific cases that I have worked on. I thought that was a good idea for material basically, and I tried to write them as blogs and they really weren’t working out, and a friend of mine suggested that I try a podcast and so that’s how Cog-Dog Radio was born and so it’s my podcast. You can find it on SoundCloud or iTunes just by searching for Cog-Dog Radio. You can also get it through my website.
The format is that I do a series of three episodes at a time, and the three episodes cover a case that I worked on. So I start out talking about kind of the basics of the case and then in the next episode I talk about specific behavior modification that happened in the case and then the third episode, which is turning out to be everybody’s favorite episode is that I interview the owner of the dogs that we’re talking about.
Melissa: Now I know, kind of to tie this back to the previous question, which is why I wanted to make sure we talked about this first. In one of your early podcasts, you talked about like the four things that you consider before creating a program or a behavior modification process for a dog. Exercise, enrichment, diet, and communication. Did I get all of them that time?
Sarah: You got them. So this is what I call the four steps to behavioral wellness and this is something that I came up with a long time ago when I was working primarily actually with the general public with their dogs so general public versus the dog sport public, which is more who I work with now, and it’s basically just these four areas.
If you come back to my philosophy in dog training, one of them was to provide dogs what they need, and since we examined these four areas, we find out where we maybe aren’t giving them what they need and that way we can adjust it. So exercise is the first one that you mentioned and I really advocate a specific type of exercise for dogs. I find that them being allowed to just mill around and sniff around and be a dog in an open space type area is best so off-leash or on a long line and a harness if off-leash is not safe where you are.
I find it really best for them as far as reducing overall anxiety and stress in their life versus the exercise that most dogs get, if they get any, it’s fetching a ball or a Frisbee. Going to agility class, a lot of people tell me that they see that as a form of exercise for their dogs, and I would totally disagree, or just walking on a short leash around the neighborhood. A lot of times that even does the opposite of what we would like it to do. It creates more stress for the dog so exercise is a big one for me. I find that most dogs aren’t getting enough and I would include my own dogs in that statement. I mean, it is very difficult to get them what I would call enough, right?
And so the next one is enrichment, which is basically just that we’ve got a hunter/scavenger species on our hands here, and we put kibble in a bowl and hand it to them twice a day and we could be using those calories in a way smarter way. We could be having them work to find their food essentially, so giving them projects that they can do that help them meet their own needs somehow as opposed to a lot of people recommend giving all the food through training and there’ve definitely been situations where I’ve recommended that, but usually I think if they also are allowed to search and find food as their way of getting food as well as not all dogs are super-hot on food and we’ll use toys and hide toys and have them find it.
Just any kind of mental enrichment that we can give them that helps them meet a need of theirs on their own without human interaction tends to be really helpful and the people that I work with learn a lot about their dogs through these things. If you hide food and give your dog a puzzle to figure out, the way that they figure out how to get to the food or if they figure it out at all tells us a lot about them.
So if you, for instance, wrap a bully stick up in a paper bag and then stick the paper bag in a box and then put the box underneath a blanket, there are going to be dogs that are not even going to try to figure it out. There are going to be dogs that are going to plough through it really, really quickly and really frantically.
There are going to be dogs that think really hard but wind up getting there and basically learn a lot about what kind of problem solver your dog is and what kind of thinker they are just by giving them problems to solve. And then over time if you don’t give them things that are too hard, but you give them things that are kind of just hard enough, they start to be this dog that says I can solve problems and their confidence in training gets better and their confidence in other situations, maybe competition, gets better because, and this is purely anecdotal, I don’t think there’s any research on this, but what I witnessed is that over time they start to have more self-confidence because we’ve provided them with puzzles to solve.
Then diet is something that I am not specifically trained in and technically cannot advise specifically on. I get a lot of emails asking for specific diet recommendations and formulas and I always tell people that I can’t give them that. What I can tell you is that what I observe anecdotally is that a fresh food diet is best when we’re talking about behavior and I think all of us know that already when we think about ourselves, whether it’s a better idea to have a meal made of fresh whole food or a pre-processed powder, I think we all know which is better for us.
We just forget what’s better for dogs because there are so many processed options for dogs that are supposedly healthy and good for them, and I’ve just seen too many of my cases where the behavior change that we really, really needed happened after the diet change. I have to mention it, and I really do think that even if you switched from one processed food to maybe a better one that works better for your dogs, diet should always be considered, especially when anxiety or over-arousal are involved.
Then the final one, communication, I just want people to better tell their dogs when they’re right and to have a better system for telling their dogs when they’re “wrong.” But basically we need to be telling them when they’re right more often. And I really like Kathy Sdao has a system for this that she calls SMART x50, and SMART stands for See, Mark, and Reward Training and then x50 is just that your goal is to do it 50 times a day. And all that means is you see the dog doing something right, you tell them, hey, that was right, I liked that and then you give them a piece of food or a game or something.
So that’s how you can reinforce behavior throughout the day that’s working for you and then I have people do something so instead of corrections I want them to instruct, so we are going to replace correction with instruction and then always follow up that instruction with reinforcement. So if my dog is let’s say barking at the front window and I ask her to go lie on the mat instead and then I give her a cookie for doing that, that’s a more effective way for me to alter her behavior than to spray her with water or throw something at her or yell at her for barking. So those are my four areas.
Melissa: And I’m assuming those didn’t sort of immediately pop into your brain all together fully formed. How did you come to that?
Sarah: That’s a good question, and to be honest I came to them through my own kind of journey with mental health. So I have an anxiety disorder and that really, even though it’s not fun for me, it helps me to really help dogs better. There’s some really great research in the human world as far as anxiety disorders go and other mood disorders go as far as what we can do in our daily lives to help lessen our needs for medications.
One of them is exercise. You’re not going to find a single resource on any mood disorder, whether it’s depression, anxiety, or anything else that won’t tell you exercise will help. For me personally I know that getting out and walking up a dirt path with a forest and trees and animals and everything is better for my brain than getting on a treadmill, and I see the treadmill as like us walking our dog around on concrete in the neighborhood. So that’s the exercise piece.
The enrichment piece is just you have to feel that’s being satisfied in your daily life so that’s liking your job, finding your job interesting, not being bored, that’s the enrichment piece for people. Being involved in hobbies so not just sitting and watching a television but reading a book or writing or something like that. These adult coloring books. There’s a craze right now, adult coloring books and it’s because of enrichment. It’s because we all need a little bit more of it in our lives.
We need to unplug and do something with our brains and our hands and that’s exactly what we’re doing with dogs when we give them a puzzle to figure out. And then diet’s a huge component. It’s a huge component for me, and I know it’s a huge component for everybody that I’ve talked to that has any kind of mental health concern but if they really examine what they’re eating and really adjust what they’re eating towards a whole food-type of diet, they get better and then communication for me that is mostly about dogs.
That stems from my belief that I’ve kind of formulated over all this time working with dogs, that there is nothing that a dog finds more aversive than confusion and there is nothing that they will work harder to avoid than confusion, meaning that’s why you have so many trainers who are still using x, y, z aversive tool, prong collar, choke collar, or shock collar, whatever, who say but look at my dog and look how happy they are working, and a lot of those people are right.
The dogs do it great. The dogs look fine, and the reason is they’re skilled using that tool and the dog is not confused. The dog fully understands how to avoid the correction and they’re not confused. To be clear, I’m not advocating for that, but I believe that their priority one is to better understand what’s going on in their own lives and that we throw them into kind of an alien existence and expect them to just figure it out and I do believe that it causes a lot of stress for them so that’s where that one comes from.
Melissa: Well, I mean that’s true with people too. If you have a boss and you just don’t understand what he or she wants from you and you just don’t understand how to succeed at your job, you get frustrated and upset and unhappy.
Sarah: Absolutely. Any kind of human-to-human relationship that does not have communication will not work for very long.
Melissa: Right. Right. So to round things out, I have three more short questions that I’m trying to ask kind of towards the end of each of the interviews. So the first one, what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?
Sarah: I have to think pretty hard about this one because I feel like every time my dogs do have some minor breakthrough, I’m really proud of it, but this last year at AKC Nationals Idgie and I made the Challengers round and if you’re familiar with AKC Nationals, the Challengers round is not easy to get into.
Just making the Challengers round that’s not what I consider the proudest moment for me, but the fact that Idgie who’s a dog that used to really struggle with arousal issues in agility was able to not only have a clean round and run really nicely but really fully be the dog that I have been training in the most intense pressure-cooker type of arena that she’s ever been in.
Just standing in the dirt in the Challengers round in the main arena with the crowd cheering and a lot of really intense competitors around us and to be able to just stand there ringside with her and know that she was okay and know that I was okay and we could both walk into that ring and we could both do what we know how to do, I would say that’s my proudest moment in dogs so far.
Melissa: I mean that’s a pretty good proudest moment. My next question is what is the best piece of training advice that you have ever heard?
Sarah: I’m not even sure if this is advice but just kind of, I guess it is advice, and it’s not from a specific person but it’s kind of a collective idea that is a common thread amongst some of my biggest influences in training, which is that if something that you’re doing is species-specific, meaning it would only work for the species in front of you, there’s probably a smarter way to do it.
Melissa: I like that. So my final question to wrap everything up is who else is someone in the dog world that you look up to?
Sarah: I look up to so many people in the dog world and a lot of people really in the training world, but a person who’s a competitor in dog agility who I really look up to is my friend Tori Self, and she lives in Wales now, but she has been on the FCI Agility World Team multiple times with a lot of success and she’s a person that to me is able to achieve the highest level types of achievement in my favorite sport and still maintain this really deep, loving connection for her dog that she would do anything for.
For her it’s always been about the dog first and the sport second and yet she’s still able to achieve these really high-level things, and for me that’s the ultimate because I know a lot of competitors really it is about the sport first and the dog second whether they would admit that in words or not, that’s what I observe in their behavior, and that’s never been the case with Tori and I really respect her for that.
Melissa: That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much. I really, really appreciate you taking some time out to chat through this with me. Hopefully it was fun for you. It was definitely fun for me.
Sarah: Definitely. Thanks, Melissa.
Melissa: Thanks for tuning in. We’ll be back in two weeks with Hannah Branigan to talk about the relationship of foundation skills and problem solving. If you haven’t already, subscribe now on iTunes or the podcast app of your choice and our next episode will automatically download to your phone as soon as it becomes available.
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!