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Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast

Updated 2 days ago

Education
Sports
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Published every other Friday, the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Each episode of the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast will feature an interview with a leading name in the competitive dog sports training world, talking in depth about issues that often get overlooked by traditional training methods.

Read more

Published every other Friday, the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Each episode of the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast will feature an interview with a leading name in the competitive dog sports training world, talking in depth about issues that often get overlooked by traditional training methods.

iTunes Ratings

133 Ratings
Average Ratings
120
9
1
1
2

An hour long infomercial

By trishiriye - Aug 26 2019
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I listened regularly this year (2019) because I kept hoping that the next week would be different...but each week is just talking about this class or that class starting up and not much more than marketing for upcoming classes. Disappointed ☹️

Learning a ton about positive, healthy relationships with my dogs ... and humans too

By BanditsFriend - Feb 26 2019
Read more
Outstanding podcast - thanks! I have referred this podcast & the dog training academy to friends.

iTunes Ratings

133 Ratings
Average Ratings
120
9
1
1
2

An hour long infomercial

By trishiriye - Aug 26 2019
Read more
I listened regularly this year (2019) because I kept hoping that the next week would be different...but each week is just talking about this class or that class starting up and not much more than marketing for upcoming classes. Disappointed ☹️

Learning a ton about positive, healthy relationships with my dogs ... and humans too

By BanditsFriend - Feb 26 2019
Read more
Outstanding podcast - thanks! I have referred this podcast & the dog training academy to friends.
Cover image of Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast

Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast

Latest release on Feb 21, 2020

The Best Episodes Ranked Using User Listens

Updated by OwlTail 2 days ago

Rank #1: E98: Sara Brueske - "Bombproof Behaviors"

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Summary:

Sara Brueske has been training dogs for over 15 years; she became a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner in 2011 and jumped into the world of professional dog training.

Sara and her dogs work at Purina Farms in Missouri where they demonstrate the sports of disc, agility, and dock diving for the public in over 200 shows each year.

She and her dogs also compete nationwide. Currently, she is active in the sports of disc dog, agility, mondioring and dock diving -- plus, she’s a trick dog enthusiast.

Sara believes in positive reinforcement not only for dogs, but for their handlers as well.  Her biggest joy in training is watching a handler and dog become partners and grow as a team.

Next Episode: 2/1/2019

Jan 25 2019

22mins

Play

Rank #2: E95: Leslie McDevitt - "Behavior Modification With Canine Consent"

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Summary:

Leslie is a dog behavior consultant, author, and speaker. She specializes in creating operant counterconditioning procedures to empower working, performance, and pet dogs to feel safe and comfortable so they can function confidently in stressful environments.

Leslie’s books have been translated into multiple languages and Leslie has taught the material from her seminal book Control Unleashed: Creating a Focused and Confident Dog to people and dogs all around the world. Leslie lives near Philadelphia with two kids, three dogs, two cats, one bunny, and one husband. She is a member of the 2019 Clicker Expo faculty.

Next Episode:

To be released 1/4/2019!

Dec 28 2018

1hr 1min

Play

Rank #3: E90: Dr. Amy Cook - Dogs with Noise Sensitivity

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Summary:

Amy Cook, PhD., has been training dogs for nearly 25 years and has been specializing in the rehabilitation of shy and fearful dogs for over 15 years. She’s the creator of The Play Way, her process for helping dogs learn to cope with the world around them. She’s also a certified dog behavior consultant, a long-standing professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, and has attended all four Chicken Camps in Hot Springs, Arkansas, taught by Bob Bailey.

Amy returned to school in 2006 to get her PhD in psychology from UC Berkeley. Her research there focused on the dog/human relationship and its effect on problem-solving strategies dogs employ. She also recently started a blog at playwaydogs.com, and everyone should definitely go check it out.

Links:

  • Leave FDSA A Voicemail! We're collecting questions for our annual anniversary edition! Have a question for an instructor? Leave it here!

Next Episode:

To be released 11/30/2018, we'll be talking to Lucy Newton about tracking! 

TRANSCRIPTION:

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 Dr. Amy Cook.

Amy has been training dogs for nearly 25 years and has been specializing in the rehabilitation of shy and fearful dogs for over 15 years. She’s the creator of The Play Way, her process for helping dogs learn to cope with the world around them. She’s also a certified dog behavior consultant, a long-standing professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, and has attended all four Chicken Camps in Hot Springs, Arkansas, taught by Bob Bailey.

Amy returned to school in 2006 to get her PhD in psychology from UC Berkeley. Her research there focused on the dog/human relationship and its effect on problem-solving strategies dogs employ. She also recently started a blog at playwaydogs.com, and everyone should definitely go check it out.

Hey, Amy, welcome back to the podcast.

Amy Cook: Hi Melissa. Always good to be here. So happy that I get to talk to you about stuff again.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat. To just briefly remind everyone, can you just share a little bit of information about the dogs you share your life with and what you’re working on?

Amy Cook: Sure. There’s over there on the couch, where you can see her, Marzipan, in her full glory, doing what she does best, which is sleep in a nice little ball. That’s what she does. She had an injury a bit back, and so we’re still discovering what the second half of her career will be like.

And then I have Caper, who you also can see right over my shoulder. She’s a little … I don’t know what, terrier something or other. She’s learning agility, and she’s very happy that we just bought a teeter. I now have a teeter in my yard. It’s my first big, expensive piece of agility equipment, because now we get to do teeters every day. It’s so exciting!

Melissa Breau: That is exciting!

Amy Cook: It is!

Melissa Breau: I want to dig into I know a topic that you’ve been talking about often recently: noise sensitivity. What is it? Can you describe what behaviors people might see if they have a sound-sensitive dog — both at the “slightly sound sensitive” end and the “extreme” ends of the spectrum?

Amy Cook: It’s an interesting topic because this runs the gamut. Everyone has a different experience with noise sensitivity, and it’s one of those dog trainer catch-all terms, like reactivity, where we may mean a lot of different things about it, and in this sense I think that’s OK.

It does run from the slightest noise in the category of things I’m afraid of, makes me panic and salivate and run to dive under the bed, or sit there catatonically, or it might mean I have some slight trepidation about that sound out there and I’m not exactly sure what to think about it.

They may turn to us in those times, and I think what we most don’t want is for it to get to the extreme. It might already be there for a given dog, but it’s one of those things where, because it can be so impactful in their life, we don’t get to control sounds, we don’t get to change where dogs are when sounds happen as much as we’d like, that we need to take almost any presentation of this really seriously. Behaviors can range and vigilance is often missed by us, I think, where a dog hears something, puts their ears a little bit back, shows a little bit of a worried face, but then maybe it’s gone before we saw them worry about it.

So I think doing a little bit of protective noise work, as I like to call it — not the protective part, but the noise work part — can never hurt. Teaching a dog that noises are just harbingers of fun times is a good and protective thing to do, even in dogs that don’t seem to have a problem just yet. So it really runs the gamut.

Melissa Breau: Is it typically tied to a specific noise? Do folks usually come to you and they’re like, “Hey, this particular beeping thing,” or is it more generally just noise? What have you seen?

Amy Cook: I do see both of those. There’s definitely dogs that feel like anything sort of sudden that makes a noise is worth worrying about and is scary for them. And I don’t know if, when we have “environmentally sensitive dogs,” if part of that or a lot of that isn’t just that environments have a lot of strange noises in them and if it isn’t noise sensitivity folded into general environmental sensitivity.

So I do see that a lot, where we don’t have just one specific noise, it’s just this, and all the rest of the noises “I’m OK with all of the suddenness.” I see dogs like that as being tense in a lot of ways all the time. Not a hundred percent of the time, of course, but dogs who are tightly tuned can be affected by all sorts of unexpected noises in the environment.

And then there are dogs who have very specific triggers. The ones that we commonly hear about or think of are the ones who are afraid of large booming noises that we find on Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve, and then the thunderstorm-type noises, because those are the big, very dramatic, out of the norm, completely scary, gunshot-type noises.

But it doesn’t cover all of them, because a lot of dogs are afraid of, weirdly, beeping or high-pitched metallic or electronic sounds, so the sounds from your microwave, the sounds from an electronic timer, sounds from a whistle at flyball, from a timer at flyball trials, sounds you might make in the kitchen that are high-pitched, something metallic hitting your kettle, for example. Those can be really distressing to dogs.

And then I would say anything that your dog hasn’t had a lot of exposure to. Maybe you’ve moved somewhere … I don’t live somewhere where there are thunderstorms, so it’s not something that I tend to see a problem with, but if I were to move to places with summertime thunderstorms, which is pretty common across the country, I would expect them to feel a bit sensitive to anything that’s new like that. So noises can run the gamut too, just like the behavior that shows from them. We never really know what it’s going to be probably until we see it, but again, not a bad idea to prevent it if we can.

Melissa Breau: Is it typically something people see show up early in the dog’s life? Is it something they have forever? Do they develop it? Do we know anything about what causes it?

Amy Cook: I don’t personally know anything super-scientific about what causes it, but as a practitioner of helping dogs, I see a lot of dogs develop it later in life. It certainly won’t be all dogs, but it’s so many of them that we have that sort of dog trainer lore of, if someone says, “Hey, my dog has become noise sensitive,” the question you first ask them is, “Is your dog 7?” Because it’s so super-common that somewhere in middle life, middle age, and that’s of course going to range for breed, it can just develop. It’s some kind of brain change where there’s a noise processing change, the areas of the brain that process noise, are they changing, are they aging, is something happening there?

Also some say, “It’s been seven years now, you’ve had seven years of storms, seven years of fireworks, you’ve had them long enough that you could sensitize.” It could be something like that, although I would expect to see it happen more gradually if that were true. But that’s not necessarily the way it would present. Maybe you’re hiding it, or you’re dealing, you’re coping, and now you just can’t cope, and so you show it. That’s possible.

Or it could be that hearing is changing around that time, and so the way things sound have just become a bit distorted. But this is just speculation. It’s hard to say.

You can certainly have noise sensitivity your whole life. It can be a thing that shows in puppyhood or adolescence as a thing they just don’t know how to process and don’t have a positive opinion about, and they definitely need our help at that point, for sure, so they can get through that.

I think dogs who develop it later in life, who didn’t have a problem before, can accept and change, I think, at least in my experience, more quickly from an intervention because they’ve had a fair amount of time in their life of doing OK with it, and maybe just learning something new about whatever this new sound feels like to them can stick pretty well.

But of course if it shows up in puppies or young dogs, we really want to get on it, because we certainly don’t want the dog to have a lifetime of feeling terrible about the normal sounds of their environment.

Melissa Breau: I know from reading through some of the things you’ve written, this is one of those problems that often gets worse if folks ignore it. What are some ways that it can escalate? What might that look like?

Amy Cook: It is one of those things that I feel is really important to get on right away, and I suppose I would apply that argument to almost any fear-based behavior problem. Dogs are suffering when they’re afraid. If they’re afraid often, that’s a terrible feeling, so we want to get on almost any behavior. I don’t mean to overly highlight noise in that way.

But one thing that happens to noise phobias, noise sensitivities, that doesn’t seem to happen at least the same way as, say, a fear of strange men, is that it escalates and can escalate really quickly. A dog who shows some sensitivity to a beep, beeping sounds — say they were in your house when your smoke alarm batteries went bad. Now it’s been six months, they need replacing, and it beeped all day while you were at work and they couldn’t escape that. You could come home to a dog who’s sensitized to that sound.

Of course not all of them, but some will, and then they start hearing anything that’s similar to that and feeling the same triggered way. And then things that are not terribly similar to it, such as the microwave beep, which would be similar, but now a fork on a plate can do it. Once you’re afraid of noise and you’re vigilant about noise, dogs can become more and more sensitive very, very quickly, whereas fear of men tends to stay relatively stable, if you control the trigger some and nothing much is happening.

It’s not like that’s going to make them better, but they’re not likely to get massively worse over the next few months, whereas in noise sensitivity that’s coming up really quickly, you need to get on top of it because it can spread too quickly, and once it’s all over the place, and as most noises or many noises that are sudden, we really do have to be talking about medical intervention because of how difficult that is.

So if you see something in your dog that shows he might be getting a little sensitive to the banging of the metal door at that trial that you go to, or the gunshots that you know you’re going to hear a lot in hunting season, you want to get on it right away and really quickly, just in case this is going to be one that spreads to a point where your dog will be suffering.

Melissa Breau: Looking at your syllabus for your class on this, it looks like there are a few pieces that you use to help sound-sensitive dogs — starting with classical conditioning. I want to talk about that, but can you just start by explaining what classical conditioning is, for anyone who might not be familiar with the terminology?

Amy Cook: Yes, definitely. There’s two models we use in dog training, or in changing behavior in dogs. One is the one that everyone is familiar with, whether the terms or not, where we reward things we like and we punish things we don’t like. We of course try to minimize any of those experiences, but that’s part of the model of operant conditioning, and it’s about responding to a behavior and having that behavior work or not work for the dog.

In classical conditioning, it happens irrespective of a dog’s behavior. What you’re trying to draw a picture of the dog, draw the line between for the dog, is that, “Hey, this thing that just happened is a predictor of this next thing that’s going to happen, and that’s it. It doesn’t matter what you do about it. You can have any reaction at all, but these two things are tied.”

When it comes to noise work, which I’m saying distinctly so it doesn’t sound like nosework — it’s just a cute thing I like to call it, noise work — when it comes to working with noises, what you’re trying to say is, “Hey dog, this sound that you hear — you don’t know it yet, but it’s actually the thing that comes right before this other thing that you might enjoy.”

If you can set things up such that they come to that conclusion, they see the connection between those two, that noise that has been troubling them up until now will take on new meaning. It’s like, “That thing I don’t like … oh wait … but doesn’t that always mean that this other thing is going to happen?” When you can crack that door open a bit and let them see that the relationship exists, and it’s not just, “Hey, the noise happened and now you’re just scared,” but “The noise happens and now you have something to look forward to,” it can help them change their reactions and their feelings about the whole thing.

So classical conditioning is just saying, “I will draw a connection between one event and another event, one stimulus and another stimulus, technically, and through drawing that connection for you so that you can see that relationship, it can help you, dog, feel better,” or at least take new meaning from the sound that before maybe had a pretty terrible meaning and give it something that hopefully has a positive meaning, if we can get in there carefully and do it just right.

I do it mathematically, I guess … that’s not fair to say because there’s no math involved. Don’t be afraid! There will be no numbers! But I do it strictly. I really think about the relationships of those two elements, those two pieces that I’m trying to put together, the strength of the noise and the strength of the thing I’m following it with, so that I’m much more able to make that conclusion for the dog as clear and as powerful as I can. So it’s doing classical conditioning, but the way I do it for this class is very strict and very specific so that I can have the best bang for my buck, if you will, in doing it.

Melissa Breau: I want to talk about that a little more. I think people who ARE familiar with the term classical conditioning, you’re talking about, most of the time, a visual stimulus — something where you use a lot of distance and it’s something the dog can SEE. How does that change or how is it the same when you’re talking about a noise instead of something visual?

Amy Cook: I had to give that a lot of thought when I wanted to work specifically with this and have a way I think that everybody can follow and have it step by step, because when it’s something you see, you do fully control the strength of it.

I can put the thing right in the environment right when I need to, or have you look at it right when it would be appropriate, and I can play with strengths a little better than I can with noises, because noises, maybe, whether they’re loud or soft, might already be so disliked by a dog that you can’t get it down to be safe enough to experience while you’re teaching them something new.

Because if you just have noises happen, and then try to follow them with something good, you’re very likely to get a dog who says, “Oh my god, that was so awful. Oh look, it’s followed by something good that I don’t care about right now because I feel so awful because oh my God that just happened,” and then you’re not going to get any change. So you do have to play with these things.

And with noises, yeah, sure, there’s many of them you can make smaller. I know people who have CDs and they play them really lightly, but what I like to do instead is teach them the entire framework of how noise work, noise therapy, will go on sounds that are not frightening at all, so therefore I completely control the upsetting stimulus by not having it be there at all.

I teach them the framework of noise therapy, and once they really have that, I can attach the entire therapeutic picture to any noise I want to, starting with, of course, the most very neutral noises that I’ve got. And then I can attach it to all sorts of unexpected noises. I dropped something — “Oh, look, we’re going to do our noise therapy.” In time, when they’re very, very good at putting those connections together, I can start simulating and then eventually really using the noises that they already have a negative opinion about.

I find that teaching a dog out of context is one of the most important parts of dog training. It’s very important in this work because you cannot upset a dog before you try to make him feel better. You want him to feel better from neutral, not from “I’m already upset,” and now you have to dial it back. So training out of context is super, super important, and I find that true in all sorts of dog training, we mostly don’t honor what we train. People ask me all the time, “I don’t know if I can simulate this thing my dog’s afraid of, so I don’t know if we can do the work.” I’m like, “I don’t want you to simulate that thing your dog’s afraid of. Don’t worry, we’re going to do a lot of work just fine.” Out of context is really the key there.

Melissa Breau: Another piece mentioned on your syllabus and that you pull in here, and you lead to a little bit in there, this idea of having the dogs make sounds themselves. What’s the purpose of that, and can you talk about that a little bit?

Amy Cook: Part of what makes anyone feel better, feel more secure, or feel like you can handle, or cope with, or feel OK about something is having some control over it. It’s not something we can always give a dog in every scenario, but I am always looking for where I can apply that. Where in any program I’m doing with a dog are there choice points where I can say, “Hey, you can have some agency here, you can choose to do some of this stuff, you can drive whether we continue or not,” where can I put that.

In working with noise, not all dogs have to do this, it’s not appropriate for every particular case that comes forward, but for given dogs — especially in the class, I assess whether it would be helpful — for given dogs it can be really powerful to have them make a noise themselves and then see that that triggers the entire therapeutic sequence, that they get to go have fun in these ways that we have for them.

When sounds just happen, when you’re afraid of something and it could just happen any old time, you don’t know when it’s going to be, so having them at least be able to make a very safe, very neutral, very totally OK sound for them and show them that it connects to it is, I think, a kindness. It gives them a chance to have some agency. I also do it even if they’re not going to make the sounds. When we first make our sounds to teach them the therapeutic piece, I show them the object I’m going to make sound with. They can sniff it, they can investigate it, they can nose it, roll it, play with it, whatever. So it’s neutral, and I show them right before I make a sound with it, like, say, dropping it an inch on carpet, barely making a sound. I show them I’m about to do it. I make sure they’re looking, and then I make the sound right clearly in front of them very simply so that nothing is surprising, nothing is coming out of the blue. Surprise is a much, much later variable that is not part of the introduction of therapy.

So I show them how I’m going to do it, and I think that’s one step toward giving them some control. Maybe they don’t have exact control, but they have all the warning in the world, and then, if they make the sound themselves, they have total control and they know it’s going to make a sound.

It’s all part of an extension of “How can I help you best be an active partner in your therapy and not just a receiver,” which I look for places I can do that in just about all my work, so that I can keep expanding that idea.

Melissa Breau: How do you teach them to actually go about initiating noise and avoid having them in a situation where they end up scaring themselves?

Amy Cook: Yeah, exactly. If you have a whole lot of time, if you’re doing this work all by yourself, you can get that done with just about any dog.

With dogs in the class, because we have limited time and not every dog is going to need this part of it, we want dogs who can already move objects, say, with a nose touch. Can you shove something with your nose? Can you shove your toy with your nose? Can you shove a toy with your paw? Many dogs already have that, and we can completely use that.

What I like to use is treat bags that they already really like the sound of, maybe a Charlie Bears bag, it’s big, crinkly, or a box, a small cardboard box you might have a small amount of crackers in or something like that, assuming again that’s completely out of the category, so for a dog who’s really nervous about banging outside, probably a small cardboard box on the floor is not going to be in their category.

So we start with that, and we teach them what would happen if you nudged it and it fell over. I prop it so that it’s not horizontal and not vertical, but diagonal, and I’m holding it up. If they nudge it, I drop it slightly, and then it goes “bing” on the floor and I’m like, “Yay, here we go, now to our noise therapy stuff.” And they’re like, “Oh, I did the thing, I guess it made a noise, whatever, it was carpet, and now we get to play. That’s amazing.” Once they get that, many dogs can make their own noises very easily without being scared, if you pick carefully. A dog can nose a crunched-up piece of paper across something, and those do make noise.

You want to start very, very, very simply. If you start in a place where a dog is already challenged, you do it either to do the behavior or to withstand the sound it makes, you’re starting behind the start line. You don’t want to be triggering anything scary at all. I know, again, everybody thinks, I have to trigger it a little bit to get rid of it, and I completely disagree. I think you should teach completely out of context. So we would pick the world’s quietest noisemakers, the world’s safest objects, even their own toys to begin with, so that they’re starting from a place of real confidence.

Melissa Breau: I know part of the process is this concept of a treat/play party. I’m noticing some students posting about it on Facebook, and I could probably guess a little bit, but can you share what it is and how it factors into all this?

Amy Cook: Absolutely. I sometimes affectionately call it a noise party. You can really call it anything. It’s just the idea that you need to have an event with your dog that would be something you might do if you had just won the lottery, if your dog had just won whatever dog lotteries there are out in the world, to where whatever it is you’re doing with your dog — and it can be having a bunch of food together, playing with their toys together, the options are pretty endless — it needs to be really, really exciting, and your dog has to see it’s really, really exciting. I don’t mean you have to be super-excited and then your dog stands there and watches you do it, but instead, your dog thinks this is the best party he or she could possibly ever have.

Most of us have some kind of reinforcement strategies for our dogs that make them really happy. In the class I’ve seen the favorite tennis ball, certainly, a great game of tug, I had someone in the last term do hose play, going outside and using water from a hose. I guess it’s winter for most of us now, but I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t do it. I was like, “I don’t know, I haven’t tried that before,” and we ran with it and the dog was like, “This is the best thing that’s ever happened.” And when you have in your pocket, so to speak, the best thing that’s ever happened, you have a lot of power to change minds.

So we spend the first … I don’t know … how-long-until-I-like-it amount of time developing some kind of noise celebration lottery-winning party, and you need to throw that party with your dog until your dog is like, “I can’t believe we’re doing this again! This is so amazing. Can we do it more? I love it!” I don’t care what it is. It can be tossing cookies all around and they’re chasing them and running back and forth. As long as their tail’s up, and their face is happy, and they’re sprightly running, and they have energy, and they really look forward to it, it can be literally anything that your dog likes.

And why I want it to be so big is because for me to get any movement and emotion and making a strong association, you want the second stimulus — remember, you’re trying to connect two things together: one, the noise, although for us it will be very neutral noise, and the thing that follows it. The thing that follows it needs to be pretty big and impressive. It needs to make a serious impact on your mind and on your emotion, and so I want these parties to be super-exciting, really fun, and when they’re that fun, they give us a lot of power to change a dog’s reaction to something when we pair it with the different things we might pair it with.

So the party is really the biggest part of this, and there are a lot of details to how I connect those things that I wouldn’t be able to list right here, but you have to take the whole class to get to the pieces of. But if you want to change minds and change hearts and change opinions, you have to have really, really powerful tools, and we spend a long time making sure that party is absolutely powerful enough to do that work.

Melissa Breau: So for folks struggling with this, or even just those who are interested in learning more about it, you’ve got both a webinar and a class coming up. Can you share a little bit about each, and who might be a good fit for it?

Amy Cook: When it comes to behavior problems, I tend to be of the opinion that everybody’s a good fit in a way, because you can’t … like, for my Play Way classes, you can’t go wrong teaching your dog good therapeutic play, because you never know when you’ll have a problem.

So in that vein, you’ll never go wrong teaching your dog what could happen from sudden noises. Having a framework already in place helps a dog not draw their own conclusions that might be negative, but gives you a chance to influence it.

But certainly any dog who’s showing even mild worry about some stuff that’s just come up and they’re not sure how to respond to it will be a good candidate, all the way to dogs who definitely have trouble with the thunderstorms and the fireworks, even though that only happens a few times a year. This is really helpful for that too, although you have to lay a lot of groundwork to get all the way up to the level where it would work for something that big. We start with very small sounds, of course, and work our way up.

The webinar is a small version of the class, sort of like this is, an introduction to all the pieces and how to put them together and why, and then of course some ideas of what to do when you can’t help them because things got too big all of a sudden.

And the class, doing classical conditioning is not super-complicated. You do have to get the pieces right. You have to get each piece exactly where it goes. But that’s not complicated. That’s just technical. Where the power really is is in doing it a bunch of times, lots and lots and lots of times, and making sure you’re doing it right lots and lots and lots of times so the dog understands that.

The good part of a class where I can be guiding you through each of the steps is that you will get the number of repetitions it takes that by the end of class your dog has an understanding of how all these things get put together and has an immediate response that’s very quick to any new sound you make, and you tell them that it’s noise-party time, they go, “Oh my God, lottery again? Oh my God, that’s amazing.”

I make sure each step of the way through the whole class that you get each of those pieces together, so by the end the relationship is very tight, and then you’re just off and running and you can apply it to all sorts of different situations.

So the webinar is an introduction to how that all works, and the class would be, “Let me make sure you’re getting it all together and give you a chance to get as many repetitions as you need,” because the repetitions, while possibly not super-exciting — you’re doing the same thing a lot, over and over again; that is where the power is in classical conditioning — you have to get a lot of them done. So I’m there to support the students in getting that done.

Melissa Breau: Last question — the one that I’ve been asking everyone who comes back on now. A little bit of shift in topic, but what’s something you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training in general?

Amy Cook: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about perspective, and about a dog’s perspective, and what it might be like to have your whole life be that someone trains you and someone takes care of you and someone takes you everywhere, what that actually might be like.

I’m taking a whole bunch of parenting training right now in a system called RIE, which is respectful way of raising and dealing with infant care, raising infants, and I’m astonished at the overlap, because babies also have their own perspective, but they don’t get to express it to us in the same way that they will later, and dogs do and also don’t get to express it to us.

So I’ve been lately trying to look at everything I do from the perspective of a receiver, from the perspective of the dog, and see where there are points where I could give them even more say and even more control. Even if I can’t always go the way they need to go, I want to hear that they wanted to or didn’t want to do that, so that I can be a much better caretaker.

It’s an ongoing challenge because we have habits and we have ways we think already of how dogs are or what my dog already likes, and I have to continually — and really doing it these days — remind myself to stop, at least in the analytical phase of it all, and consider if what I think is really true, and if there isn’t another way they could be perceiving this that I’m blind to, because I think that’s where positive training 2.0, if I will, if you can call it that, is going: what is the dog experiencing, could they use more say, could they use more control in some of this, what would it be like if we gave them more of a voice. That’s what I’m visiting a lot these days.

Melissa Breau: I like that phrase: dog training 2.0.

Amy Cook: Positive training, we’re going forward! Absolutely.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Amy! This has been great.

Amy Cook: Always a pleasure. Have me on anytime.

Melissa Breau: And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We’ll be back next week, this time with Lucy Newton to talk about tracking!

If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.

CREDITS:

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.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Nov 23 2018

30mins

Play

Rank #4: E138: Denise Fenzi and Shade Whitesel - "The Spaces In Between - Part 1"

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Description: Denise and Shade come on the podcast to talk about the state of positive training in the sports world today, the skills they feel dogs are missing that they need most in seminars and competition, and what people tend to overlook when training a sports dog.

Nov 01 2019

45mins

Play

Rank #5: E103: Deb Jones - "Train it before you need it"

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Summary:

Cooperative care. All too often dog owners don't work on it until they need it, and then it's too late. We brought Deb Jones on to talk about how to be proactive, instead of reactive when it comes to handling. 

Next Episode: 3/8/2019 with Laura Waudby on pivots and getting your novice ready!! 

Mar 01 2019

37mins

Play

Rank #6: E114: Sarah Stremming - Training Teenage Tyrants

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Description: Sarah Stremming and I talk about training to get through the teenage years — what it takes to get through them and how to create the foundation for a well-balanced adult dog.

We'll be back next week with Nancy Tucker to talk about getting better greetings. 

May 17 2019

29mins

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Rank #7: E79: Julie Daniels - Building Canine Confidence

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Summary:

Julie Daniels has worked with dogs her whole life. In fact, she learned to walk by holding on to a German Shepherd. Today she is one of the foremost names in the sport of dog agility in the United States. She was one of the early champions of the sport and helped many clubs throughout the country get up and running.

She owns and operates both Kool Kids Agility in Deerfield, NH, and White Mountain Agility in North Sandwich, NH.

Julie is well known as a premier teacher at all levels of play. She has competed, titled and won with all sorts of dogs throughout the years, including two Rottweilers, a Springer Spaniel, a Cairn Terrier, two Corgis, and four Border Collies. She is the only person to make USDAA National Grand Prix finals with a Rottie or a Springer, and she did it two times each. She is also a two-time national champion and a two-time international champion.

Next Episode: 

To be released 9/14/2018.

TRANSCRIPTION:

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 Julie Daniels.

Julie has worked with dogs her whole life. In fact, she learned to walk by holding on to a German Shepherd. Today she is one of the foremost names in the sport of dog agility in the United States. She was one of the early champions of the sport and helped many clubs throughout the country get up and running.

She owns and operates both Kool Kids Agility in Deerfield, NH, and White Mountain Agility in North Sandwich, NH.

Julie is well known as a premier teacher at all levels of play. She has competed, titled and won with all sorts of dogs throughout the years, including two Rottweilers, a Springer Spaniel, a Cairn Terrier, two Corgis, and four Border Collies. She is the only person to make USDAA National Grand Prix finals with a Rottie or a Springer, and she did it two times each. She is also a two-time national champion and a two-time international champion.

Hey Julie! Welcome to the podcast.

Julie Daniels: Hi Melissa. So glad to be back with you!

Melissa Breau: I’m glad to have you! To start us out, can you just share a little bit of information about the dogs in your life right now and what you’re working on with them?

Julie Daniels: Oh yeah, everybody’s favorite question. My current pack is just three Border Collies. I have one who’ll be 13 very, very soon, and she does whatever she wants, completely spoiled, it’s just wonderful to see. She’s doing great.

And my competition dog is now 10 years old, which seems impossible to believe. I’ve just moved him down from Championship to Performance and Preferred level so that he can jump a lower jump height. But he’s doing great and we’re having a ball.

And I have a youngster named Koolaid, whom anybody who takes my classes has been following now since the last couple of years. She’s just turned 3, and she’s dynamite and so challenging and fun to train. Always has been, always will be. She keeps me young, keeps me getting smarter, keeps my chops honed every single day.

So those are my three Border Collies.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to talk today about canine confidence. Can you define what confidence is when it comes to our dogs?

Julie Daniels: Oh boy. Confidence can be so elusive, and I also find confidence in dogs and people both to be very elastic. It sort of comes and goes, and they look great, and then all of a sudden we’re shrinking because something makes us feel insecure, and sometimes it’s not environmental, it’s mental. So confidence is tough to define, but let’s consider confidence to be a sense of personal well-being felt by the dog. How does that sound?

Melissa Breau: That certainly makes sense to me.

Julie Daniels: In other words, an optimism that all will be well.

Melissa Breau: If that’s our definition, what are the differences between a confident dog and a not confident dog? Why is that confidence so important for dog sports and stuff we want to be doing with our dogs?

Julie Daniels: I think it’s so important, because the world throws us curve balls on a regular basis and life does not go as expected. When that happens to the confident dog, as it will every single day pretty much, the confidence of some dogs carries through a sense of wellbeing and optimism that all will be all right when the world surprises them. A dog who is not confident doesn’t feel that way.

I think what happens is a dog who has an internal or higher level of confidence tends to say, “Oh boy, what is that?” when he sees something unexpected, and that’s of course what we’re trying to develop. The dog who is not confident, whether it be in the moment or whether it be an overall set point, that dog tends to say, “Oh no, what is that?”

So there are the two extremes: “Oh boy, something new!” “Oh no, I’ve never seen that before!” Those are the two extremes between the dog who has the wellbeing, the optimism, afforded by internal confidence versus the dog who has a much lower confidence set point.

Melissa Breau: How much of that is just innate — who the dog is — versus something you can train or teach?

Julie Daniels: Tough question, but not as tough a question as it used to be, because we know that quite a bit is innate, and we also know … actually, if I can borrow from research done on humans, we know for a fact that human beings can reset their confidence set point, their happiness set point, their optimism set point. We can rewire and reframe in humans.

And certainly it’s the same in dogs. You can see overall changes in the confidence set point and the happiness set point as you work with these problems, so it’s not a life sentence. If the innate set point is low in terms of confidence, happiness, optimism, all these things which we want for our dogs in their lives, there is so, so much we can do.

Thanks to research on humans via, let’s say, SPECT analysis and many other brain work, we can measure the activity centers and the levels of involvement in different areas of the brain, and we can know for a fact that it’s quite possible to reset and rewire even, neurologically, the happiness and confidence and joy centers in the brain.

So we can change, for our dogs as well as for ourselves, we can change the hand that we were dealt with. It is quantifiable and measurable, at least in humans, that many, many people have successfully done so. So it’s not something that is fated, if your dog happens to have been born less confident than you would like.

Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting. I hadn’t realized there was research that’s been done on that in people. That’s neat.

Julie Daniels: Let me make mention of my personal favorite book, which is definitely a layperson’s book. It’s by Daniel Amen, M.D. Dr. Amen is one of the leading experts in the world on SPECT analysis of the brain in humans, and his book is quite amazing. Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.

Melissa Breau: Interesting.

Julie Daniels: Well worth looking up.

Melissa Breau: For those who are starting out with a dog that’s a little on the less confident side, where do you start? What does that type of training look like? How do you help them reset their brain?

Julie Daniels: Well, it goes without saying, but it should be mentioned: there are no mistakes. We don’t call out mistakes on a dog who already is harder on himself than any of us would ever be. I think that’s probably the best start point is there are no mistakes. Anything that the dog offers is going to be well received and reinforced.

It’s not simple, and yet it is that simple. We want to build the dog’s feelings of wellbeing first, so no mistakes. By that I mean anything that the dog offers is by definition correct and reinforceable. That’s where to start.

And this is in daily life. This is not a measure of “I told you to do this,” or “I told you to do that.” I’m not talking about training. I’m talking about anything the dog offers in daily life.

Melissa Breau: What does that look like? Can you walk me through an example?

Julie Daniels: I would want to help any dog of any age who feels insecure. I would want to help that dog become attracted to life. To, let’s say, novelty. So one of the things that I advise people to do all the time, and I’m just saying this over and over and over, it’s so easy to do, and it’s amazing that days go by and we don’t think to do it. When your dog lacks confidence, you should make a habit of taking beloved familiar items around your house and putting them in unfamiliar places. That is the first step toward developing attraction for novelty. That’s what we want.

Remember when I said earlier we’re trying to develop the dog’s ability to say, “Oh boy, what is that?” and we currently have a dog that says, “Oh no, what is that?” So by taking beloved items … they can’t be just neutral items. They really should be things that the dog already enjoys, for example, his food bowl. There’s a good one. Put it on your head. Just put it upside-down on your head after you’ve washed it.

There you are, standing in the kitchen, washing the dog food bowls, and your dog’s probably going to be interested in that because it’s a beloved item, a familiar and well-trusted item, and there you go, you just put it upside-down on your head. Perfect. Do something like that every single day. Pretty soon, when you make yourself do it every day, pretty soon you’re doing it ten times a day because it’s just fun.

Melissa Breau: Makes you laugh.

Julie Daniels: But you forget, if you don’t make it a conscious effort initially, and sometimes you’ll think at the end of the day, Well, what did I show this dog that was different in a positive way, that was unexpected and novel in a positive way? Because obviously if you’ve scared him, you haven’t done any good. So it’s got to be a beloved item, and it’s got to be put in a novel place but a familiar place. We’re not talking about taking it on the road, because you said, “Where do you start?” You start at home. You start in a comfortable, happy place.

Melissa Breau: If you put that food bowl on your head, are you then going to get lower so that the dog can sniff you and sniff the bowl?

Julie Daniels: That’s a great idea! See? You’re good at this already! Yeah, that’s a great idea. But play that by ear, Melissa, because if your dog said, “Oh no, what is that?” then that’s a mistake. But if your dog said, “Hey, that’s my food bowl,” now it’s perfect, and I think what you said is just great: scootch right down.

You don’t need to say anything. This is one thing that I think is difficult to do. We want to talk our dogs into something: “Come and check it out.” And that really is not what you should do. You should allow the dog to show you whether he’s interested or curious enough to come and see it.

Anything that he offers you is reinforceable, even if he decides to leave the room. And the best reinforcement if he backs away would be what? What would the absolute best reinforcement you could give him if he backs away, because that’s not really what you intended to do, because you realize that unexpectedly you’re on the wrong side of confidence. So what it’s very important for you to do, if he shows you that he’s actually concerned, is take it off immediately.

I would say take the food bowl off your head, put it right side up, put it on the floor between you, and say nothing. Allow your dog to make a decision to be attracted to his beloved food bowl in this new context of it being on the floor “where it belongs.” Now you can have your reinforceable event and you’re not going to cause a problem.

I think very often, it happens so very often, either with young puppies or generally with dogs who lack confidence, I think so often we mean well, but we scare them.

Melissa Breau: Because they’re already not sure about things, and we’re throwing novel things at them, and that can be intimidating.

Julie Daniels: Yes.

Melissa Breau: I know a lot of people who wouldn’t appreciate being put in front of a full room to give a presentation, because that’s one of the things that makes them feel not confident.

Julie Daniels: Yeah, I think so.

Melissa Breau: Would you mind sharing maybe one of the other exercises that you use to help build confidence, or a little bit more on how you work on that with them?

Julie Daniels: Attraction to novelty, I think, is fundamentally first. That really is where to start. But let’s look at once we’ve made a few inroads, and now, in addition to being able to put the food bowl on your head and your dog thinks that’s funny, now you switch to a colander and you’ve got other things on your head.

So I think once you’ve got an inroad made with your dog, I think the next thing for me is substrates. Now you want to put things under foot and allow your dog to feel them. It’s not just about “Oh my gosh, plastic is so hard,” and “Tarps make a lot of noise,” and “Bubble wrap — oh no.” It’s not just about that. It’s about things that might feel different neurologically.

For example, when I started working with a teacher in canine fitness, my little Koolaid didn’t like the nubby Paw Pods. Anybody who’s done any fitness work knows about those little nubbies on the various pieces of equipment. They almost always have them, and she just didn’t like that at all.

This is in general quite a confident, self-assured puppy, but those things, boy, she just didn’t like the nubbies, and so of course being the mom I am, I thought, Well, why don’t I just teach her the skills on smooth surfaces first, and then we’ll transfer to nubbies, which would sound like a logical progression, but I was advised against it for a very important reason, which I have internalized and embraced. And that is those little nubbies are actually very important stimulators neurologically, and so we want the feet to be on the nubbies. I really took that to heart and went with it, and I am so glad that I did.

Just so you know the end of the story, Koolaid loves the nubbies and can pound onto four Pods, pretty much stick the landing, and is very happy beyond the nubbies. But it was a process getting her used to it. But that sort of fits the good advice that I was given from very good teachers who have the eye and have the chops to guide me in my canine fitness classes.

That sort of thinking fits perfectly with how I feel about substrate training to build confidence. You want obviously to start with things that are relatively non-threatening to that particular dog. Some dogs need to start with smooth surfaces. Plastic, for example, meaning hard, molded plastic. It just feels different and is smooth underfoot. Other dogs would do better to start with crinkled-up paper inside a box or shredded paper. Some dogs are a long ways away from being able to step on empty water bottles, and other dogs just jump into the kiddie pools full of empty water bottles. So it’s a continuum as to who likes what.

Remember you said earlier about it’s so a dog can be confident about one thing but not another thing. Well, look at little Koolaid who didn’t like the nubbies, but boy, she loves empty water bottles. And normal, everyday grinding sounds that many dogs are offended by, she was actually attracted to going in. So you never know. We all have different feelings about substrates, and I think one of the best things you can do as a second step after novelty would be to introduce and to find out the hierarchy of what feels good to your dog under foot and what feels a little bit concerning to your dog under foot, and try to build … not just tolerance, I don’t work with tolerance, but try to work for attraction to these things that might be concerning to your dog initially. So substrates come after novelty.

Melissa Breau: I want to talk about that just a little bit more. Some dogs definitely seem confident in a lot of situations, like you mentioned Koolaid, but they’re terribly unconfident in other situations, or in a particular setup, or something. I was curious how common that is, and how someone can work to break apart one of those more complex cases to figure out what it is that they’re actually seeing, what it is that the dog is maybe not so sure about.

Julie Daniels: It’s very common, and what is more, it’s very normal. I think probably most of us have little things that are harder for us than they are for other people, and little things that other people find difficult which we find easy. So I don’t think it’s the least bit strange. I think it’s to be expected.

I do find that if you have a dog who’s in general a little bit more reserved, it’s tempting to assume he’s reserved about everything, and that’s not necessarily the case either. So it could be that you just need to explore and experiment with what kinds of things do bother this dog, and what kinds of things is this dog a little bit more self-assured about. By that I mean he has an optimistic sense when he goes toward it that this might be a good thing.

When you see that in your dog, I think you want to make note of it, that your dog is not afraid of everything. Many people who think their dogs are afraid of everything are just plain wrong about that. And if you don’t give the dog a chance at this early level that you and I are talking about, then you really won’t know where your dog’s strengths do lie, and almost every dog has some.

Melissa Breau: So, I’m going to take the next step here. I know we’re planning a rerun of your webinar on all of this stuff on building canine confidence. That’s what inspired me to bring up the topic to do a podcast about it. Can you share a little bit on what you cover in that webinar? Maybe who might want to take it?

Julie Daniels: I hope everybody will take it! First of all, it makes me so proud and happy that I work for a person who values the quality of the webinar, the quality of the recording of the webinar, so much that she is going to give this webinar to the people who bought it the first time for free, because the audio — my fault, not your fault, Melissa — was absolutely terrible, and it was not what it should have been. So you and I have been practicing, you’ve coached me on where to be, and you and I have been playing with the microphone to make sure. I bought a better microphone, I have a better setup, and I know that the audio will not fail this next round.

But it just makes me so happy that I get another crack at this, Melissa. That I’m going to get a chance to present the material in a way that everybody can hear it the way I intended it to be heard. And the fact that my boss is somebody who wants everybody who bought it the first time to have the benefit of this improved recording production values makes me so happy. So I hope everybody will tune in, of course.

We will be talking about the various things that we can do to help dogs who feel insecure, and we’ll be talking about what’s that look like, what does it mean. We’ll pretty much take off running with the kinds of questions that you’re asking me here today.

We’ll be talking about creating attraction to novelty, and we’ll be talking about building of course a positive conditioned emotional response. The all-important CER that everybody talks about these days has so much to do with whether the dog is able to work on confidence in the first place. So this initial attraction, this initial feeling of wellbeing becomes a baseline of optimism so that the dog can feel happy about coming into training situations expecting to do well. It means a lot to me.

The next step is really that we want to build initiative. The subject of this webinar, building canine confidence, is way too broad. But we’re zeroing in on two factors: initiative and self-reliance. After we’ve talked a little bit about the baselines that you and I are talking about, we’re going to talk about building initiative as a major force in helping dogs become more confident and rewiring their brains to change their confidence set point and their happiness set point even, if you will.

So building initiative, obviously in small steps, and the first steps will vary from dog to dog, as we’ve already talked about. But all first steps should come from a feeling that all will be well. That’s what we’re after, that positive CER, and maintaining that positive conditioned emotional response as we go forward and ask the dog to experiment in the world with more and more novel stimuli.

I think I also will be talking a little bit about how it’s OK if the confidence of the team, the dog-person team, originates with the handler. I know many, many successful dogs in sports, and I’ve had several myself, who would not be able to run with anyone else, for example. And I know obviously many dogs who don’t much care who they run with. They just want to run, and if they get good information from their handlers, so much the better, but the game is so much fun and it has value of its own.

But it doesn’t have to be that way in order for a dog to be successful, no matter what the sport is. Obviously my sport is agility, but I don’t think it matters. I’ve seen many, many, many teams where the dog gets that initial charge of confidence from the handler, the leader if you will, and then from there it just energizes and snaps, and you can see that teamwork, that confidence, being passed back and forth from the dog to the handler. And they reinforce each other as they go, whatever the sport may be.

So I want to build that for people and their dogs, and it’s so very doable for us to be able to help dogs in that way and build a team using these kinds of exercises to build confidence. So I have several fun things to do along the way that make that much easier, including we raise the dog’s energy level, very important, motion builds confidence. I have people feeding in motion rather than, “Oh, we’re done. Now let’s stop and eat.” I don’t do it that way. I feed in motion because movement gets the brain working, movement helps optimism, movement builds confidence, believe it or not. It’s very important.

I also work hard to put the dog, if you will, in his prefrontal cortex, since we were talking about the brain earlier. But if you consider it a continuum from the unconscious reactions to the conscious reactions, the dog who has a low confidence set point is, generally speaking, operating from the limbic system, is operating where fear resides, operating where the “Oh no” resides.

What we want to do is bring him forward into his rational brain so he can be engaged with his brain, he can use his brain to solve problems in a constructive way. So here’s where we absolutely need the dog to welcome novelty rather than shrink from novelty, so that the dog can predict fun and predict happiness as he comes forward into a novel task, a novel presentation in the world, whatever it be.

And then we talk in the webinar a good deal about choice and control, how important those things are, how important it is to let the dog make decisions, to give the dog choices all along the way. Not just with the end goal behavior, but all along the training continuum the dog should be able to make small choices and find that every single choice is reinforceable.

The whole bit about breaking things down into small pieces, as you said, part of the beauty of being able to break things down into small pieces is that the dog gets to make all these tiny choices and every single choice is reinforceable. It’s a wonderful thing for the dog to learn how successful he can really be. So yeah, we might have an end goal behavior, and we’re breaking it down for that reason, but we really should be vested in the process rather than the outcome, and we should be thinking of this as, “He’s going to get to make twenty little choices, twenty correct choices, in the next two minutes, and that is plenty for this one session, and then we’ll come back and do it some more.”

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome, and I think that explains to people both what your approach is for this, and gives them a little bit of insight into what they can expect to learn even more about if they join for the webinar. I also wanted to ask you about the other thing you have coming up, which is your new Magic Mat class. Can you share a little on what the class will cover and what kinds of problems those skills help with?

Julie Daniels: Oh boy, yeah, let’s change the subject. This is a new class, which I’ve just been designing over the summer. It’s called Magic Mat: Where to be, when to go, and what to do. But it really is more broad than that. Magic Mat is a good, catchy name, and everybody knows me for my dedication to matwork, and certainly mats will be covered. But it’s really about what I call placement props – stations and platforms. So yes, we will cover some targeting and perch work and matwork, for sure, but we’re also doing platforms and stations and boundary training and that kind of thing, all by dog’s choice. So all kinds of methods and problem-solving techniques based on where to be.

I put up a picture in the course description today. I put in my front yard, in my door yard, driveway, I literally hauled out a whole bunch of stations and platforms and targets and various things, a perch or two, that I use around the house on a regular basis. I put them in my front yard and took a picture, honestly, because I want people to understand that (a) you need a variety and (b) you’ve got this stuff around your house. Everybody’s got something. You don’t have to buy an expensive item, a Klimb table. One of my favorite raised stations is a wooden pallet that I got for free, and I put a yoga mat on it.

It’s very common in my class for people to use a chair, a sling chair, a canvas chair because we take those to the shows all the time, so it’s very handy to have your dog trained to hang out on your chair. Not that you would leave them there, that’s not really what I mean, while you go have a Pepsi. But it’s a hangout place with you so that the dog can hang out with you in a comfortable and confident way without disconnecting. It’s a place to relax, a place to be, and a place to, for example, wait your turn or wait for something exciting to happen or be polite during dinner. That’s a good one. We use stations here for that.

It’s not taught by “You have to go to your station, now stay.” That’s the opposite of anything I would do. It’s taught around … here, I’ll just give you an example of how on earth would you train your dog to go wait in a certain place while you’re having dinner and just hang out there, and do it all the time.  

My now 13-year-old was instrumental in choosing her own place to wait during dinner, and she chose this very cushy armchair in the other room, the living room, being right next to the dining room. All of a sudden the other dogs were a little bit closer, and I noticed that she was over there in the living room, on this chair, with her adorable little chin coming over the top of the chair, “Hello, anyone, anyone?” So I decided, OK, she’s getting some macaroni. So I just got up from the table, walked over, and gave her a piece of macaroni. That’s awesome for her to decide.

My friend from Virginia used to say, “Go long. Teach them to go long.” Instead of being the dog who’s bugging the people, be the dog who’s out in the backfield, and good stuff will be thrown to you. So that’s how I treated her, and that’s how she taught herself to station on a chair in the other room when we were eating. Isn’t that clever?

So dog’s choice is a big component. For example, where I live now, in quarters that are a lot smaller, I have set up a couple of stations which I think will work fine during dinner, and I’ll let the dogs tell me whether I’m right nor not right. They will hang out, they’ll tend to go to the station and usually sit. One of my dogs would always choose down over sit. That’s fine. A default sit is what I’m developing in Koolaid, and so she would be more apt to sit on the station. But they can do whatever they want. This is a place where they are allowed to show patience in hopefulness of being rewarded.

I will admit out loud, here and now, that I am a person who would toss a piece of macaroni to the dog on the station. Perhaps you wouldn’t do that, so that’s fine. You’ll develop your own reinforcement delivery systems. But we’ll talk about things like variable interval reinforcement, and some of the things about how to develop duration by dog’s choice, because it’s not always that easy when good things are going on.

So in this class we’ll do things like take turns. We will use stations so that one dog is a waiting dog and one dog is a working dog, and then we switch back and forth. I’ll talk about things like, How do you do that by dog’s choice? Does waiting need to pay more than working?

I can use my own example of two brilliant agility dogs, Sport and Colt, who were very good at taking turns in this way. All of a sudden one day, I noticed a funny thing in Sport. I went to trade dogs and it was going to be Colt’s turn to wait on the station and Sport’s turn to work. As I made the switch, I saw in Sport’s face, as I said his name, I saw him say with his face, “Oh, OK, I wanted to be the waiting dog.”

Of course he came out and looked pretty happy to have a turn. However, why did he want to be the waiting dog? Dogs don’t lie. Why was it a disappointment for him to hear that it was his turn? You’ve got to look at those things, and in my family it was very clear: Sport had to be paid more for working and less for waiting, and Colt had to be paid more for waiting and less for working. It was much harder for Colt to wait. But in Sport’s case, once he learned what a great deal, a better deal, I had made waiting than working, guess what: “Actually, I’d rather be the waiting dog, if you don’t mind. If it’s all the same to you, just throw 17 cookies over here by the station, and Colt can have another turn.”

So you’ve got to go dog by dog, and you’ve got to be prepared to switch it up, as I had to do. Over time, the dog is a member of that thinking, working team, and the dog is going to have opinions, and the dog’s feelings are going to develop as the game goes along and the dog becomes an expert in the game. So be prepared. It’s a two-way feedback system. All training should be a two-way feedback system. Learn from your dog as the game goes on, and listen to what he’s saying about how it’s going to play.

Such fun, it is so much fun to use placement props. And of course if you’re interested in the TEAM Foundations training, I’m terribly interested in that, I absolutely love it. I don’t know that I’ll ever go for TEAM titles, although I guess why not? But I don’t think they’re necessary in order to get the utmost out of the program.

Denise did a podcast at one point, maybe you remember it, about TEAM, and one of the things that she mentioned still resonates with me. I still advise my students to do it. She said, “If you’re having trouble in obedience,” she of course was talking about obedience, but I’m not, I’m talking about agility, the exact same thing applies. She said, “If you’re having trouble with some of the advanced exercises in obedience, just take …” I think she said a week, maybe she said two weeks, but “take that time off from all that advanced training and just do the exercises from TEAM 1, Level 1, and then go back to your advanced work and see if you don’t notice improvement.”

Well, I heard that and decided I’m going to do that with my agility people, and it was such a resounding success for the exact same reason. TEAM Foundations is for all sports. It’s not just for obedience. I don’t think it’s sport-specific at all. And much of TEAM training benefits from good station work, good platform work, good targeting skills, perch work, all kinds of really fun challenges that use what I’m calling placement platforms.

Yeah, where to be, when to go, and what to do is the whole concept of this Magic Mat class, and we’ll use lots of fun things. Please, anybody who’s interested, go to the course description and click on the … I think it’s called Prerequisites and Supplies. Click on that tab to see the picture of all the cool stuff that I dragged out into my front yard, which is a subset of all the many different training props and placement platforms that I use around my own house in my everyday training. So you don’t need anything fancy.

I will want you to develop a station before class so you come to class ready with a target and with a perch and with a station and with a platform. It’s not hard. We’ll be talking about that before the class actually begins on October 1. So between the week and a half or two weeks between registration and the beginning of class you’ll have lots of chance to talk about what you’d like to build or make or find, or what’s the best dimension and size for your size dog. We gear the platforms, we gear the stations, to the size of each dog, so there are some good rules of thumb to go by, and we’ll be talking about those before the class gets going.

So it’ll be busy. All my classes are busy. I like them like that. There’s lots to talk about and lots of fun along the way as we see what the dog has to say about each game that we play. It’s a very, very fun process.

Melissa Breau: For folks who have already taken some of your other classes, which I know you do some matwork in some of those, can you talk about the difference between what they learn in that class and what the new material in this class will dive into and what you’re planning to cover?

Julie Daniels: I will cover matwork in Magic Mat. With a name like Magic Mat, I think you have to. But I’m best known for my matwork.

In Week 1 of the Magic Mat class, we will do both Step 1 and Step 2 of my four-step Magic Mat protocol, so we’ll go through it a little bit more quickly. The class I’m doing now, Cookie Jar Games, dives deeply into matwork, and likewise in Baby Genius I actually go through the different steps at length. But in this Magic Mat class we will do all four steps of matwork, but we don’t dive into it quite as deeply because we have so many other kinds of placement props to use.

But matwork is one of my dearest loves and really is a foundation behavior for any dog that I raise. And any dog that comes here for board and train learns matwork as well. I think it’s that powerful a motivator for the dogs.

Melissa Breau: If somebody’s listening to this and trying to decide if it’s the right class for them, do you have anything on who should take the class, what kind of guidance you can give for that?

Julie Daniels: Sure. I guess you could call it a concept class, because it’s a patience class. Some dogs lose confidence when they’re forced to wait, and some dogs just fry their brains over how difficult it is to wait. So it’s very compatible with people who have problems with impulse control in their dogs. For example, the dinner example that I gave is a good one. If your dog can’t hang out politely, if you have to lock your dogs away whenever you want to eat something, this is a very good class for you.

It wouldn’t hurt the over-eager door greeter, either, to do a little station work. It’s very helpful for them. In my limited experience with reactive dogs, station training is very, very helpful in giving them a secure place to be where nobody will bother them. So I think it could be useful for that, but I’m not an expert in that and will not be diving into that specifically. But in terms of impulse control, I think it’s a great class for dogs who need impulse control.

I think it’s a great class for confidence building and for training that is all about hurry up and wait: “We’re not going to go yet, and now you have to wait, and now we’re going to go now, and I need you at full energy now.” A lot of dogs who once you institute a pause, a major pause, in the action, inertia wins and now the dog has a great deal of trouble getting back up to full energy. This class is very good for that as well, because the “when to go” builds anticipation along with patience, and raises the value of the exercise that’s going to come after the station work is completed rep by rep. It actually builds the dog’s enthusiasm for the work at hand as well. So I think it does a lot of good for dogs who tend to get bored with training, and I think it has a lot to offer dogs who need impulse control in their training.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. Awesome. I’ve got one last question for you, Julie. It’s the question I’m asking all of my guests at the end lately. What’s something you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Julie Daniels: Oh gosh, that’s way too easy. It just hit me over the head this past weekend. I don’t get to show all that often in agility anymore, and my competition dog, Sport, who is now 10, is a pro. Thankfully, he’s still going strong, and we’re having a lot of fun whenever we do get to get out to an agility trial.

I got to trial this past weekend, not every day of the weekend, but two days out of three, and all of a sudden it became glaringly apparent that I had no start line. Here I am doing start line work on a regular basis in all my classes, in person and online. OK, I guess I haven’t trained that lately, but the dog is such a pro it would never have crossed my mind that my start line would break. But everything breaks. Everything breaks. Behavior doesn’t stay the same when you don’t work on it.

So that’s the lesson. We don’t stay in the same place when we stop training. We go backwards. That’s the way it is. And here’s me leading out on the outside of a curve because I have such a good start line, and my dog passed me going 90 miles an hour. I was able to save that run by having him wait in his contact, which drew uproarious barking from him. He thought that was about the stupidest assignment he’d ever heard. But he did wait, and I got around the corner and was able to complete the opening. Not pretty.

But that’s the lesson, boy, it just hit me like a ton of bricks over the weekend, like, Hmm, better do a little start line work with your pro dog, because nothing stays fixed if you don’t work on it. You have to constantly maintain all these foundation behaviors that you think you have control of.

Anyway, so that was my lesson, and boy, nobody had more fun with that than all my students who were at the show.

Melissa Breau: I’m sure you shared your lesson, and I’m sure they’ll take it to heart, right?

Julie Daniels: I hope so. I can only hope so, yes.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Julie! It was great to chat again.

Julie Daniels: Likewise, Melissa. Thanks for having me. Such fun to talk to you.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We’ll be back next week with Sarah Stremming and Leslie Eide to talk about raising a performance puppy.

If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.

CREDITS:

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!

Sep 07 2018

45mins

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Rank #8: E86: Mike Shikashio - Dog-Dog Aggression

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Summary:

Mike specializes in working with aggressive dogs — we had him on the podcast to share how he defines the term and what tools and analogies he finds useful in working with these dogs and their owners! 

Next Episode: 

To be released 11/02/2018, our follow up on bringing home an adult dog series with Dr. Jessica Hekman, PhD, DVM

TRANSCRIPTION:

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 Mike Shikashio.

Mike is the past president of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), and provides private consultations working exclusively with dog aggression cases through his business Complete Canines LLC. Michael is fully certified through the IAABC and is a full member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). He also offers mentoring and training to other professionals.

Mike is sought after for his expert opinion by numerous media outlets, including the New York Times, New York Post, Baltimore Sun, WebMD, Women’s Health Magazine, Real Simple Magazine, The Chronicle of the Dog, and Steve Dale’s Pet World.

He is a featured speaker on the topic of canine aggression at conferences and seminars around the world, and he currently teaches “Aggression Cases: A to Z” through The Dog Trainers Connection and the “Aggression in Dogs Mentorship” through the IAABC.

Hi Mike! Welcome to the podcast.

Mike Shikashio: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to chat. To get us started, can you give us a little background about your dogs and what you work on with them?

Mike Shikashio: I’m kind of a mixed blended family of dogs right now. My girlfriend just moved up from Chile, and she brought her black Lab/mixed-mutt dog up. But she makes me look good, this dog, because she was already trained because my girlfriend is also a trainer. So I haven’t been doing a whole lot, but I do enjoy some off-leash hikes with her, and she’s got a great recall, and so I’ve got it easy right now with dogs.

Melissa Breau: Hey, that’s the best. New dog comes in fully trained? You can’t beat that.

Mike Shikashio: Yeah, bonus!

Melissa Breau: How did you originally get into dog training and end up in this crazy world?

Mike Shikashio: I actually started out in the rescue world. I did a lot of fostering dogs when I was much younger, and as you get good as a foster parent, the rescues will start sending you more and more difficult dogs, so that’s how I caught the training bug and the behavior bug, so to speak. I wanted to learn more about how to work with these foster dogs.

At the same time, I always wanted to open my own dog business and dog-related business, so my original aspiration was to have a dog daycare/dog boarding kind of place. But then I got more into this training and behavior side of things, and that led me down the road of doing more research on my own and learning, and going to my first conferences and seminars, and doing things like that, and that’s how it led me to where I am today, really getting focused on training behavior. So those foster dogs, I can give them the credit for making me want to learn more.

Melissa Breau: Starting without necessarily a specific background in dogs or what have you, were you always a positive trainer? Is that where you got started, or what led you down that path?

Mike Shikashio: I started out as more of a “traditional balanced trainer.” One of my first mentors had a working military dog background, so that’s what I started with, and some of the more traditional tools — pinch collars, e-collars, and things like that.

Coincidentally, I was at the APDT conference this week and finally got to meet Jean Donaldson in person, believe it or not. I hadn’t met her in person ever, and she mentioned to me she’s not big into traveling, and so I think that’s one of the reasons I hadn’t met her at any of the previous conferences. But I got a chance to finally thank her, because one of the first books I read about the positive training world was The Culture Clash, and that really had an effect on my training methodology and getting into that side of the training world. So I finally got to say thank you to her.

So I didn’t start off as a positive trainer. I started off more on the balanced training side of things to where I moved on to where I am today with my training methodology.

Melissa Breau: Would you mind talking a little bit about what your methodology is today? How do you describe it or what have you?

Mike Shikashio: My work is exclusively with aggression in dogs, so I only take aggression cases. Most of the work I do, the methodology I use, is through behavior change strategies using desensitization and counter-conditioning, and also differential reinforcement or positive-reinforcement-based strategies to teach the dogs that … the old saying we hear, “What do you want to do instead?” So a lot of it is focused on that, and of course antecedent arrangements.

A lot of it isn’t just training and behavior modification. A lot of times I’m working in conjunction with vets in terms of addressing underlying health issues. So most of it is a combination of management and safety, environmental changes, and then working in conjunction with ancillary folks like the veterinary field, and then of course using those differential reinforcement and counter-conditioning strategies in my work with the aggressive dogs.

Melissa Breau: Why aggression? You mentioned you do that exclusively now. What led you down that path and what keeps you there?

Mike Shikashio: That’s a question I get a lot. First and foremost, if people listen to this and they want to get into aggression, or they’re taking a lot of aggression, I will say that you do have to love working with aggressive cases, or aggression cases, because there’s weeks that can go by where I can work a bunch of cases and not even pet a dog. So you have to be prepared for that. You have to be prepared to have lots of dogs want to bite your face off the first few times you meet them, and see that day after day after day. So that’s part of it is being able to have that, being able to cope with that and be able to come home and pet your own dog and meet a nice puppy every once in a while.

But I think one of the most significant factors that got me into this is really helping the people and helping the dogs reestablish that human-animal bond. I think that’s fractured a lot in aggression cases. A lot of clients are on their last leg or really struggling emotionally, and I found that repairing that and focusing on helping that relationship and affording the best outcome for the dog is what really got me into it. I saw I was able to make some significant changes in the future for these dogs by focusing on it.

I also think that specializing — we see a lot of this now, and Denise Fenzi’s a good example of that — specializing in certain areas of the dog-training world. Now we have the CSATs that focus on separation anxiety, we have people focusing on certain aspects of dog training, the dog sports world. If people asked me how to teach a dog how to go through weave poles, I would say, “I have no idea,” and I would refer that on to somebody else.

I think specializing allows you to get much better at the thing that you’re specializing in much faster than if you were taking a variety of different cases. I also found that was one of the reasons I wanted to get just solely into aggression — because I wanted to be really good at it. So I said, “Let me try just taking aggression cases exclusively,” and it’s worked out really well.

I think because you get to see the same things over and over, and so you’re able to troubleshoot much faster. You’re able to see the same things happening and get a general idea of what is happening in a case even before you step into it you’ll start to see the same things over and over. I think that has a lot also, what to do, I want to focus on one area. Rather than being good at a lot of different things, I want to be great at one thing, so that’s what led me down the road of working with just aggression.

Melissa Breau: I think that’s really important for professionals to realize that sometimes niching down is a great way to grow a business. It’s not limiting the business. It’s actually a way to become more successful. So I think that’s a great point.

Mike Shikashio: Absolutely, absolutely. I just listened to one of your recent podcasts and it was focused on business, and I think that’s such an important point. A lot of folks are worried about, “I do this one thing exclusively, and now all those other clients I could take doing other behavior problems are off the table,” but believe it or not, once people know you specialize in something, the business really takes off because you become that go-to person for that one area.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Just to make sure everybody’s on the same page in terms of terminology and what we’re talking about here, when you say you only take aggression cases, what’s the range of severity there? What does each end of that spectrum look like? Dig into that a little bit for me.

Mike Shikashio: That’s a great question, Melissa. I think piggybacking off the last question, I define aggression as basically whatever the client thinks is happening when they call me.

I advertise for aggression in dogs, or people having problems with aggression, that keyword right there, because that’s usually what people are searching for online, and that can fall into a wide range. Aggression itself, that’s a construct or a label, so it can have different definitions.

Even when you’re talking to experts, or behavior experts, depending on who you’re talking to, that definition is going to differ, so I just classify it or define it as whatever the clients are calling me for in the first place.

That can be anything from a dog barking and lunging on leash at people and dogs, but no bite history, and it’s perfectly social when they are close to people or other dogs, and so that might be labeled “reactive,” or may not be labeled aggression, but the client contacted me because they think it’s aggressive, so they will call me for that. The other end we might have true aggression, like aggressive behavior with biting, severe bite injuries, and things like that. So you can get any one of those extremes.

You might even get, I get this sometimes, where it’s a client that’s got a puppy that’s new to the home and they’re just mouthing, and the client’s not savvy with dogs, or it might be their first dog, and I’ll get an e-mail: “Help, my dog is being so aggressive and is mauling me.” You get there and it’s just a typical case of a very mouthy puppy and those sharp puppy teeth.

In my area you get a lot of retirees, so I’ll get an elderly couple on blood thinners with a young Golden mouthy puppy, and it’s a perfect storm of it looks like a horror show when you get there because the poor folks have all these Band-Aids and marks all over their arms. It’s kind of a mismatch at that point of young puppy with elderly folks, but that’s not of course what we would classify as aggression.

Melissa Breau: Sometimes it’s what you show up for, which leads really well into my next question, which is, how do you prepare for that first session? Sometimes owners definitely don’t describe things the way that we would. What kind of information is “need to know,” and how do you figure out what’s really going on? Sometimes, like you said with that puppy situation, they’re going to think the puppy is crazy-aggressive, and you show up and it’s like, “Oh, this is actually pretty normal.” How do you approach that? What do you do to prepare for a new client?

Mike Shikashio: In terms of communicating with clients in aggression cases, one of the most important things to focus on in your initial contact with that client is getting information about any kind of bite incidents or the aggressive incidents which are why they’re contacting you about. You want to know about the level of biting that’s occurring, the severity of the biting, and also the context in which it’s happening, so that way you can set things up safely for your arrival.

That’s what I focus on during my initial contact. I don’t do a long intake form. I don’t spend a whole lot of time on the phone or e-mailing clients. What I shoot straight for is that context of when the actual aggression incidents happen, so I can get information about how I’m going to set it up safely for my arrival, because even when you can go into very thorough, detailed information with a client on the phone, you still might not get a full picture. So I always err on the side of caution and assume that a bite might happen, if the dog has a bite history, so I’m always setting things up very safely.

A good question to ask is, “What do you do with the dog now when people come over?” A lot of the clients will have already set up a system. Most of the time it’s, “Oh, I just put him away,” and that works really well also when I arrive, because then I can get detailed information during the first 15 to 30 minutes or so, where I do the information-gathering step of my consultation. That’s usually, again, going to give you the most information about how to safely set up the dog, or get the dog out. That way, I can then get thorough information in front of the client and see the environment, and then determine the best way to meet the dog after that. I always stress that you always want to be very, very safe during your initial greetings with dogs, and your initial consult, until we have more information.

Melissa Breau: I guess the hard question: Do you think that all dogs can be rehabilitated?

Mike Shikashio: That term “rehabilitation” is sort of arguable in a sense, because it depends if you look at it from a behavioral standpoint when people talk about rehab, as sort of it leads you toward the dog having a certain illness, because that’s sort of an ugly term in the human world, and if you look at physical rehabilitation, it implies fixing an issue.

We know with behavior, once it’s in the animal’s behavior repertoire, it’s technically always there. So I’m very careful about when clients use that term “rehab.” I want to know their definition of it, because if they’re implying that we’re going to fix the problem, or the dog’s never going to do the behavior again, that’s going to skew potentially their goals. So I always explain to clients that the behavior — our goal is to make it less likely to happen. We reduce the likelihood of it to happen and to management and to behavior modification.

So to say all dogs are rehab-able, again that’s an arguable term. I think all dogs we can change behavior. In all animals we can change behavior. So that’s what I focus on — making sure the clients understand how behavior works and how we can reduce the frequency of behaviors, and then they can start to understand. And also, of course, looking at the variables that affect behavior, the antecedent arrangements and the antecedents and things that can affect behavior.

Once the client starts understanding and grasping those concepts — and using the layman’s terms, not using the behavioral terms with clients — but I think once they start to understand those concepts, then they realize that this is something that is not going to be like a light switch which we turn it on or off. So that’s how I approach it generally with clients.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned earlier some of the tools that you use. Can you talk a little more about those? What things do you use most often? Feel free to break it down into layman terms for us. I know we have a wide range of backgrounds in the audience.

Mike Shikashio: With aggressive behavior, or aggression, you’re looking at two components. The simple way that I explain to clients is that you have factors that make the behavior more likely to happen, but that doesn’t mean the behavior is going to happen unless you have the antecedent. I use this analogy a lot with clients, where if you have an empty fuel drum or fuel can, and what we can do is add more fuel to it, we can add layers of fuel, which the more fuel you have, the more likely you are to get an explosion, or that progressive behavior we don’t want. And those are what we refer to as distant antecedents in the animal world. So when you have those factors, if you add in more and more layers, you’re going to have at one point a fuel can that’s ready to explode. But again, you need a spark or a match to actually make that explosion happen. Those sparks or those matches are the antecedents, or what sets that behavior in motion, so you need both often to see the aggressive behavior.

So I start to teach clients about how to recognize factors that can influence behavior. For instance, a dog that is growling near the food bowl, or biting people when they come near the food bowl, factors that can increase the likelihood of that are a dog that is really hungry, or a dog that is stressed, or a dog that might be on medication, for instance, or underlying medical issues that make it more likely to do that behavior, because those are what we call distant antecedents, or again, factors that are adding layers of fuel. So if you have a dog that just ate a full, huge meal and then you put a food bowl down, you’re less likely to see that behavior if somebody approaches.

Now, the person approaching, that’s the match, that’s the antecedent or what can spark that explosion, so one day it might be somebody approaching from 10 feet away and the dog explodes, or the next day it might be the person can literally reach near the food bowl because the dog doesn’t have all those fuels fueling it.

Once the client starts to understand that, rather than them assigning personality traits to the dog, or underlying reasons for the behavior, you know, “My dog is dominant,” or “My dog is like, 90 percent of the time he’s good, 10 percent of the time he’s bad, I just don’t know when,” once the client starts to understand how there’s got to be fuel there and then there’s those matches, those matches are not always present, there’s going to be times when those antecedents or those matches come into play, and that’s when you’re going to likely to see the behavior. Once we see that, then we can start modifying those behaviors.

So then, again with the food bowl we present the match, or the person approaching from maybe 11 feet away, and we can change the dog’s association with that match approaching. That’s the desensitization and counter-conditioning that I mentioned before. We’re changing the association: somebody approaching the food bowl means something good is about to happen. A lot of times I’m often using food in my work with dogs, so it may be as simple as somebody approaching means they’re about to throw a treat, a higher-value treat than what you have in the food bowl, from 11 feet away. We’re doing it at a safe distance where we’re not causing the explosion, and we’re changing the dog’s association.

Then you may also incorporate differential reinforcement of an alternative behavior. That’s just a fancy term for “What do you want the dog to do instead?” when that match approaches, and so lifting the head up out of the food bowl. We can start to catch that, and if we’re doing marker training with our dog, we can say “Good,” or “Yes,” or even click for lifting the head up out of the food bowl, which is an alternative behavior to growling or barking or lunging or biting. So we can start to catch that.

So you’re doing two different things at the same time: you’re doing operant conditioning, which is teaching the dog what to do instead, and you’re doing the classical counter-conditioning — you’re changing the association for the dog with the very simple procedure of, “Anytime I approach, if you lift your head up out of the food bowl, something good is about to happen, and when you lift your head up out of the food bowl, I will reinforce that.”

That can be incorporated with a number of aggressive behaviors. Think about your typical dog that barks and lunges at other dogs on leash. Set the dog up, set the stage correctly, keep enough distance from the other dog so there’s no explosion. You’re presenting the match of the other dog, so instead of starting from 5 feet away, you might start from 50 feet away, where the dog is not close enough to cause that explosion, and you wait for your dog, the one that has that issue with barking and lunging, to just notice the other dog, and then you would reinforce that. That’s a behavior you like, just notice the other dog, you’re going to mark and reinforce that, and what happens at the same time is the associated learning, so that way the dog knows, “Oh, when I see another dog, the person handling me is going to mark and then feed me.”

So again, two things happening at the same time: the dog learns what to do instead, and the association starts to change. As the dog gets better at it, as you’re reducing fuels because you’re reducing the stress of that situation. You might also be addressing the fear or the anxiety, the arousal, all of those other fuels that might come along in that package. You’re reducing the fuel, but you’re also changing the dog’s behavior around that match so you can get that match closer and closer and closer to that fuel without any kind of explosion.

That’s exactly how I explain to clients without using the technical terms. I explain that fuel and match analogy, and clients really start to get it, because they’re assigning things like “territorial dog,” or “red zone dog,” or “alpha dog,” which really isn’t helpful, again, because we know those are constructs or labels. So I focus on what we want the dog to do instead and in those contexts. That’s pretty much the tools I use most of the time, most times food, and sometimes it’s play, and sometimes it’s toys, depending on the dog and the context.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome, and I think that analogy works really, really well. It explains all the right pieces and it’s still a concept that people definitely quickly grasp. That’s neat. I hadn’t heard that one before, so I like that.

Mike Shikashio: Thanks.

Melissa Breau: We were introduced because you’ve got two webinars coming up at FDSA on some of this stuff. For those listening, they’ll be back-to-back, they’re on the same day, and Mike will be talking about intra-household dog-to-dog aggression. So Mike, I was hoping we could talk a little bit about those. First, can you explain the terminology there for anybody who might not know what intra-household dog-to-dog aggression means? And then can you share a little bit about what you’ll be focusing on?

Mike Shikashio: Sure, sure. Intra-household dog-to-dog aggression, a.k.a., two or more dogs fighting in the same home when they live together, is the topic that I’ll be focusing on.

We’ll be talking about things like common factors in dogfights or why dogs fight in the home. We’ll talk about factors that can influence dogs fighting and having those conflicts. We’ll talk about the overall prognosis in these cases and what the typical outcome can be, depending on a certain number of variables, because each case is going to differ and some cases are going to be more difficult than others, depending on those variables. And we’ll talk about how to start changing the behavior and how to get dogs to live harmoniously again, using a variety of techniques and management tools. And we’ll again focus on the aspects of differential reinforcement and counter-conditioning with most cases as well, because it works on intra-household cases. That’s it in a nutshell. We’ll briefly touch on how to break up a dogfight safely, because I think all clients that have dogs fighting in the home should be able to do that safely as well.

Quite a bit to cover and squish down into those two webinars, but I hope to be able to cover it all and we’ll have some fun.

Melissa Breau: The first one’s, if I remember correctly, talking through some of this stuff, and the second one is more case studies. Is that right? Am I recalling that correctly?

Mike Shikashio: Yes. I’ll be showing a couple of cases that show two dogs that had a history of conflict in the home and how we worked on those cases to resolve it with the clients. And the first webinar will be detailing the reasons why dogs fight, safety and management strategies. The second one feeds off of the first, so it’s good, if you can, to attend both of them so it all makes sense in the second one when we start working with the dogs in those videos.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely awesome. I’m trying to pull up the exact date and time, because I should have pulled this up in advance and of course I didn’t. So, for anybody listening, they will be on November 1, that’s an easy date to remember, and the time for the first one is at 3 p.m. Pacific time, the second one is at 6 p.m. Pacific time, and they are currently on the FDSA website if anybody wants to go sign up.

Mike Shikashio: That makes them 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Eastern time, if I’m correct.

Melissa Breau: You’re absolutely correct. I’m Eastern, and I have to do that time conversion way more times in the day than I care to count. So I have a couple of questions I usually ask at the end of every episode when I have a first-time guest. I’d love to work through those. The first one is, what’s the dog-related accomplishment that you’re proudest of?

Mike Shikashio: That’s a good question. I would have to say after this weekend, speaking at APDT and then talking to Jean Donaldson, I would say that I’m just really, really humbled and very happy to be able to share the information that I have now with others. I think that’s how I, of course, learned from many folks that were generous enough to share information about how they work with behavior, and I’m just really happy that I’m able to do that now.

If you had asked me seven or eight years ago, when I was attending these conferences, if I would ever imagine myself speaking to an audience, I would say, “No way. I’m just doing my thing, learning training and behavior.” There is no way I would have thought I would be speaking to a crowd at APDT and other conferences and traveling the world giving these workshops. So that’s the thing I feel really good about is being able to share that information.

And I think a big part of it is validating for what other trainers are doing. I hear that a lot. Trainers will come up to me and say, “Thank you so much for validating what I’m doing now,” because what I’m doing now isn’t a whole lot different than what a lot of other trainers are doing.

It’s just a lonely world sometimes, this dog training world, because some people don’t have a local network, or they don’t really know anybody else taking aggression cases, so they’re not sure if what they’re doing is the latest-greatest or whatever technique, or if they’re doing things correctly. And what I’m doing a lot of times is validating. I’m not showing them much different techniques or strategies. They’re just seeing that, “Oh, OK, Mike’s doing a lot of what I do.” So that’s very validating for them. I feel like that’s something I love about traveling and meeting other trainers and just making the world a little bit smaller for them.

Melissa Breau: When you think about it, aggression, it’s one thing if you’re trying to teach a dog to sit with a cookie. It’s a whole other story when you’re talking about, “OK, this dog has serious behavior problems, and do I know what I’m doing, and can I really fix this.” I can see how that would be really validating to say, “Look, here’s somebody who’s doing it, and doing it successfully on a consistent basis.” So that’s awesome. Next question, I’m afraid it’s not much easier: What’s the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Mike Shikashio: I don’t know if it’s a piece of training advice, but I think, again, because I’m working in training and behavior, they’re kind of two of the same, when I use the term “behavior world,” I’m talking about just general behavior with all animals, and one of the things I started to really hone down on is just this empowerment thing.

One of Susan Friedman’s quotes is, “The central component of behavioral health is the power to operate on the environment to behave for an effect.” She’s one that really opened the world of empowerment and allowing animals to act on their own environment, rather than always micromanaging all their behaviors.

Giving them the power of choice can have a significant impact, especially in aggression cases. An example I use sometimes is that we focus on getting the dog to watch me, if they’re reactive to other dogs, or we tell them to go to a mat, or we add these behaviors that we ask for, which, don’t get me wrong, they work really well as a great alternative for incompatible behaviors. If the dog’s looking at me, they’re not going to be barking and lunging at other dogs. Or if they go to their mats, they’re not going to be  charging the door.

The issue sometimes doing that is it’s not fully allowing the animal to act on their own environment.

Follow me for a second here. You ask a dog to go to their mat in the home, and say they have a fear of strangers coming through the door. If I put that mat in a place that’s going to not allow them enough distance, so we’re now introducing strangers past their critical distance, getting into their critical distance, in other words this bubble around them, that we are artificially removing their flight option.

So it looks great on paper. “Go to your mat” — that’s better than biting the person that comes through the door. However, if we artificially remove that flight option, what we’re basically asking the dog is to not move away if you’re scared of that person, which doesn’t fully empower them to act on their environment. Now, of course we don’t want them charging and biting the person, because that’s acting on their environment, but we want to preserve that option, that choice of being able to move away.

Similarly with dogs that are barking and lunging at other people or dogs on the streets or on a leash, we can say, “Watch me, watch me,” and again, it works really well because the dog’s focused on the handler. Again, however, that doesn’t allow the dog to assess the provocative stimulus or the threat. And what you can run the risk of is that you’re not really changing the association if the dog is watching the handler. So it’s a great alternative behavior, however it puts us at risk of not allowing the dog to act on their own environment and move away if they want to, or just notice the threat and assess that threat and then move away.

So a lot of what I focus on now is allowing the dog to act on their own environment. However, I reinforce desirable behaviors without cuing them, so I wind up capturing behaviors I like. Sometimes I will cue, but most of the time I’m just allowing the dog to say, “Hey, there’s a person over there.” I’ll reinforce the heck out of those behaviors, so that way the dog starts to learn that, “OK, I can do this instead, and that will pay off for me,” and then we can increase distance. So there’s a lot of benefits to allowing the dog have that choice and control over their environment.

Melissa Breau: That’s a great philosophy for thinking about really what it’s like to be in the dog’s shoes for all of that.

Mike Shikashio: Absolutely.

Melissa Breau: Last question: Who is somebody in the dog world that you look up to?

Mike Shikashio: Oh boy. I have a long list of people I look up to. I would say … I think I have to give that one to Susan Friedman again because … and again, she’s not necessarily in the dog world, she’s in the animal behavior world.

Melissa Breau: That works.

Mike Shikashio: I’m sure a lot of listeners could agree if they listen to Susan. You could listen to her for hours. She could talk about watching paint dry and you’d be sitting there with your mouth open, like, “Wow.” And she’s got that soothing voice, too. She’s got such a soothing voice. You could put a Susan Friedman podcast on and go to sleep to it every night because she’s got a soothing voice as well. But she’s just amazing the way she understands animal behavior, so I would definitely put her as one of the top on my list for people I look up to in the animal behavior world.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Mike. This has been fantastic.

Mike Shikashio: I really appreciate you having me. This was fun.

Melissa Breau: I look forward to the webinar!

Thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We’ll be back next week, this time with Jessica Hekman for Part 2 of our series on adopting an adult dog. For that episode we’ll be focusing on what is genetic and what isn’t … that is, what can we likely change!

If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.

CREDITS:

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.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Oct 26 2018

34mins

Play

Rank #9: E102: Hannah Branigan - "Awesome Obedience"

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Summary:

Today Hannah Branigan is on the podcast to talk about her new things - a new book on Awesome Obedience and her new series of classes on heeling!!

Next Episode: 3/1/2019 with Deb Jones, PhD., to talk about her new book on Cooperate Canine Care!

Feb 22 2019

32mins

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Rank #10: E60: Kathy Sdao - "Plenty in Life is Free"

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Summary:

Kathy Sdao is an applied animal behaviorist. She has spent 30 years as a full-time animal trainer, first with marine mammals and now with dogs and their people.

She currently owns Bright Spot Dog Training where she consults with families about their challenging dogs, teaches private lessons to dogs and their owners, and coaches novices and professionals to cross over to positive-reinforcement training.

She’s been interviewed pretty much everywhere worth reading — at least as far as dog info is concerned — consulted with organizations including Guide Dogs for the Blind, appeared on Bill Nye the Science Guy, and is one of the original faculty members for Karen Pryor’s long-running ClickerExpos. She is also the author of Plenty in Life is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training, and Finding Grace.

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Next Episode: 

To be released 5/4/2018, featuring Michele Pouliot, talking about being a change-maker in the dog world.

TRANSCRIPTION:

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 Kathy Sdao -- Kathy is an applied animal behaviorist. She has spent 30 years as a full-time animal trainer, first with marine mammals and now with dogs and their people.

She currently owns Bright Spot Dog Training where she consults with families about their challenging dogs, teaches private lessons to dogs and their owners, and coaches novices and professionals to cross over to positive-reinforcement training.

She’s been interviewed pretty much everywhere worth reading — at least as far as dog info is concerned — consulted with organizations including Guide Dogs for the Blind, appeared on Bill Nye the Science Guy, and is one of the original faculty members for Karen Pryor’s long-running ClickerExpos. She is also the author of Plenty in Life is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training, and Finding Grace.

I’m incredibly thrilled to have her here today!

Hi Kathy! Welcome to the podcast.

Kathy Sdao: Hi Melissa. Thanks so much for the invitation. This is going to be fun.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, do you mind just sharing a little bit about your own dogs and anything you’re working on with them?

Kathy Sdao: What an embarrassing way to start! I currently have just one dog of my own. His name is Smudge. He’s a … who knows what he is. He’s a mixed breed. Let’s call him a Catahoula mixed breed. He’s about 3 years old, and as I’m reminded after my walk in the woods with him this morning that the combination of young man in a hoodie on a skateboard with an off-leash dog running beside this young man — too much for Smudge to deal with on our walk in the woods, so rather than dog sports, I’m still training this young dog that the world is full of interesting adventures and you really don’t have to bark at them when they startle you. So we’re still doing real-world training just getting him out with me every day in my environment here in Tacoma, Washington, which is beautiful. We spend a lot of time outside. I also am very good friends with the magnificent Michele Pouliot, and she has offered to choreograph a freestyle routine for Smudge and me, and I feel like that would be crazy for me not to take her up on that. So if I ever dip my toe into the water of dog sports, it’s likely to be freestyle, because I have an awesome friend offering to help me.

Melissa Breau: That’s fantastic, and hey, I can’t blame him. I think that if a guy showed up suddenly and surprised me wearing a hoodie and a skateboard with a dog running next to him, I might be a little startled too.

Kathy Sdao: I was having such a peaceful walk, and then we turned a corner and I’m like, Uh-oh, this isn’t going to work. Fortunately, that kid was really nice about it. We all kind of laughed, so it ended up well, but anyway, training goes on, right?

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. How did you originally get into training? Can you share a little bit on your background?

Kathy Sdao: When I do Career Days at schools. I think kids always think it was planned, like “You had a plan.” I didn’t have a plan. I was a premed student in college and took an elective, animal behavior, a psych course, which I thought, That’ll be easy. The professor, Dr. Pat Ebert, had a need of someone to help her with some research she was doing and just happened to be at the aquarium where I lived in Niagara Falls, New York. She needed a research assistant, and I went to the aquarium and did some observation work there and fell into the rabbit hole and quit premed and changed my major to psychology.

My beloved dad will turn 97 years old next month, and he still has not gotten over the shock that his daughter left premed to do this crazy career he has never once understood. So it was serendipity that got me to that aquarium where I ended up training my first animal, a harbor seal.

My professor, Dr. Ebert, passed away very suddenly and at a very young age, 32, from liver cancer, and I don’t know, I always felt like there’s some way to pass the gauntlet on to me to study the science of animal learning and be brave about it. I applied to graduate school after I got my bachelor’s degree in fields that could study animal behavior, and all the schools I was going to study either rats or pigeons, except the University of Hawaii, where I would be studying dolphins.

I got accepted to the University of Hawaii to study dolphins, got accepted to Rutgers to study rats, it wasn’t much of a choice: Newark to study rats or Honolulu to study dolphins. That was the beginning. The second animal I learned to train was a dolphin at the University of Hawaii, so that started my career in a really different kind of way.

Melissa Breau: I certainly understand that decision. I think most people would choose dolphins over rats or pigeons.

Kathy Sdao: You know, it’s funny, Melissa. Rutgers gave me a big scholarship and I turned it down and they really were mortified. They couldn’t believe I was leaving money on the table there. In retrospect, I think I made a good choice.

Melissa Breau: It certainly served you well. From dolphins to dogs, it’s a pretty big bridge there. What led you to go from marine animals and zoo animals — because you did some of that, too, if you want to talk about that — to dogs?

Kathy Sdao: When I was fortunate enough to start my career working with marine mammals, I actually worked in three different, amazing settings. For several years I worked at the University of Hawaii, when I was a graduate student, on the research done there that included, among other cool things, teaching sign language to bottlenose dolphins back in the 1980s. That was just an amazing way to start a training career.

I got my masters degree and then was hired as one of the first women to work for the United States Navy’s Department of Defense that was training dolphins at the time to do mine detection and detonation work, also a job in Hawaii, working to prepare those dolphins to be turned over to sailors to actually be in the military. Another amazing job and worked there for several years, and then decided that it was time, even though I loved Hawaii, to go to a place that was more reasonable to live, just cost of living-wise. Honolulu’s gorgeous but expensive.

There were two jobs on the mainland in the United States that year that I decided I was going to transition back to the mainland. One was at Disneyland in Orlando and one was at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. I never lived either place, I didn’t know anybody in either place, but decided that I much more preferred the Pacific Northwest and so took a job as a staff biologist at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, and got to work with beluga whales and porpoises and sea lions and fur seals and walruses and polar bears and sea otters and an amazing collection of marine mammals.

Having worked at the zoo for five years, though, realized it was a difficult job. It was tough physically, it can be tough emotionally — I know people are listening; if they’ve done some zoo work, it’s challenging — and so made the decision that it was time to leave the zoo. But I didn’t want to leave Tacoma, Washington. I still live here. I love it. So training dogs was my creative solution to earn a living and not have to move, and I can’t even recall to you, Melissa, how humbling that switch was, because I was cocky enough to go, “Hey, I’ve trained really cool, big, exotic animals. Dogs are going to be a piece of cake.”

And oh, they weren’t. I really didn’t know what I was doing at all, and quickly found out that I needed a lot more dog savvy if I was going to do a good job, and opened up the first dog daycare in Tacoma, Washington, back in the mid-1990s. Nobody had ever heard of a dog day care here. I had to get special zoning from the city. They thought we were nuts. But I opened that dog daycare to be able to get my eyeballs on dog behavior more and to be immersed in it. I know you’ve got listeners that work in dog daycares, own dog daycares, it’s a good immersion process for the human to learn about dog behavior.

So that was my entry into dog work, and started teaching classes at night in clicker training, and that was really new at the time, a new way to set up dog training classes back in the late 1990s, so haven’t looked back since. And though I loved my time with marine mammals and other exotic species, I really don’t miss it. I’m just as intrigued working with dogs and their people as I ever was with the exotics.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that there was a little bit of a transition there. Can you share some of the similarities and differences and what they were as you went from training dolphins and zoo animals to dogs?

Kathy Sdao: I really look right now, when I’m looking for teachers for myself … it’s interesting, Melissa. One of the reasons I asked you if you would be so kind as to delay our appointment for this recording was so that I could spend a couple of hours this morning listening yet again to my colleague and friend Dr. Susan Friedman. She was doing a webinar this morning on a topic I’ve heard her teach on before, but I’m like, No, I would like to listen to Dr. Friedman again.

What I look for in my teachers when I’m making choices is I really love teachers who are transparent and authentic. So your question invites me to be transparent and authentic, because I’m going to say to you that transition, which should have been smooth in terms of training techniques, I really was able to learn to be a trainer in some extraordinary settings that really call out the best skills.

People often say, “You know, it’s amazing that the dolphins could learn that mine detection and detonation work,” and keep in mind the work I did for the Navy was classified, it is no longer classified, I can tell you about it. The dolphins’ lives were not in danger. That sounds really dramatic, like we were risking the dolphins. We were not. The dolphins and the sailors, the military, all the personnel, all the military personnel, dolphins and people, moved away from the setting before anything was detonated. I don’t want any listeners to think, oh my gosh, how cavalier I am about that training. It was as safe as possible for everybody.

But in saying that, people go, “That’s amazing you could teach that to the dolphins,” and I say, “No, no. What was amazing is every one of those dozens and dozens of dolphins that we took out to the open ocean every day had to jump back in our motorboats, our Boston whalers, to go back to their enclosures every evening, every afternoon, good training session, bad training session. They were free, and they had to choose to jump on a boat and come back to the enclosures.”

When you have that as your school for learning, you get an ego. So I got an ego to go, “Hey, I trained open ocean dolphins. How hard is it to train dogs?” Not only was it hard, here’s the thing I’m sort of dancing around that I’m humbled by. I didn’t think dogs could be trained using the same methods as marine mammals. So I really, switching over species, switched training methods and apprenticed with a local balanced trainer. That wasn’t a term at the time in the mid-’90s, but used leash corrections and also positive reinforcement, but all mixed together.

So I learned how to pop a choke chain, and I trained that way for, I want to say, at least a year, with only the mildest cognitive dissonance in the back of my head going, Why would dogs be different than every other species I’ve ever worked with? But of course we’ve got a mythology about why dogs are different. We can tell that story about pack leaders and hierarchies, and we can spin a good tale about why all other animals can be trained using positive reinforcement and a marker signal, but not dogs, they need corrections.

Karen Pryor, fortuitously, happened to be talking in Seattle. She was giving a seminar, and I went to the seminar because Karen’s a friend, so I just like, Hey, I’ll go visit Karen. I don’t need to learn anything about training. Now I’m mortified to say that out loud. Karen started the weekend seminar — I still remember it, it was more than twenty years ago — Karen started the weekend seminar to this big room filled with dog trainers, hundreds of dog trainers, and she said, “I’d really be grateful if no one gave a leash correction over the time we’re together this weekend. It’s upsetting to me, and it’s upsetting to the dogs and anybody who has to watch it.” And then she just went on to talk, and like, What? What is she talking about? There’s going to be anarchy in here. What does she mean, no leash correction? I had no idea what she was talking about.

Oh my gosh, I’m so glad I wandered into that seminar with her, because she started the dominoes falling in my mind to be able to say, Why, possibly, would you not do this with dogs? She was such a good friend and mentor to me, to help me be brave enough to teach classes in my city in a completely different way that dog training colleagues were saying to me, “Absolutely impossible. You’re going to fail at this.” So I’m grateful to her and so many people that taught me that it was possible.

But my transition was ugly, so if you saw me in that time of me trying to figure out, does all the learning and training I did with marine mammals for over a decade, does it really fit in with dogs? Aren’t dogs different? And the answer really is, no, they’re not. Good thing I could bring all my other skills into the training. It’s a different way to train dogs, but I’d say it’s a better way and it’s certainly more fun. So that kept me going for a long time, because I don’t think we all agree on that yet, so there’s work to do.

Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting. It’s a specific pivot point or turning point for you. At what point would you say you actually became, to steal a line from your website, focused on positive, unique solutions, and what has kept you interested in positive training and made you transition to that so completely?

Kathy Sdao: I owned that dog daycare for several years, and then at some point felt like I could fledge from that work. It was good work, but it wasn’t really feeding me, so I switched at that point to becoming a behavior consultant, becoming a certified applied animal behavior consultant. And so, at that point, to be able to help people create solutions for challenging problems — that brought out a different level of my knowledge than running a daycare.

So I’d have to say it was at that point that you have to make decisions about … today we’d look at the Humane Hierarchy and we’d go, “Wow, that algorithm, that sort of model for choosing behavior interventions to be least intrusive for the learner” — I couldn’t have given that language back in the late 1990s. That’s in reality what I’m doing with the best teachers I can to help me, because I’m now entering people’s lives and their families to help them resolve behavior problems with a family member, so that changes things.

The idea of that algorithm for interventions, for our training methods with nonhuman learners, comes to us from the work that behavior analysts do with children. And so to make that line fuzzier, to stop saying “humans and animals” like that’s a dichotomy, humans or animals, we are animals, and the that learning we do, the teaching we do with animals and people, I want there to be no line dividing those two.

So to be able to say, to help a family understand they can help their dog become less aggressive through skilled behavior intervention that’s mostly focused on positive reinforcement of alternative behaviors, if I can help a family do that, it changes their lives. It not only changes that dog’s life, but if I do my job right, it helps that family become curious about how behavior works.

And you know what? We all behave. I love the kids’ book Everybody Poops. I want there to be a kids’ book called Everybody Behaves. We had the zookeepers read the Everybody Poops kids’ book. I’m not a parent of human children, but parents tell me, “Oh yeah, that’s a classic book. We read Everybody Poops in our family.”

Where’s the book Everybody Behaves, so that you can understand if you can change the behavior in one family member, and it happens to be your four-legged dog, and you’re successful at that, and you sort of had fun doing it, and you didn’t have to be coercive, oh my gosh, then what does that open up for you in terms of all the other behavior change solutions you can come up with? The reason that’s interesting to me is I like my species a lot. The colleagues I have that say, “Oh, I work with animals because I don’t much like people” are in the wrong business. We should like our species, because I feel like we’re doomed if we don’t learn some better ways of interacting.

So I honestly feel like I’m helping people learn about better ways of interacting. I’m teaching them nonviolence in an around-the-corner, sneaky way to go, “Yeah, we’re just training your dog,” but not really. That’s never how I’m going into a situation. I’m hoping we can all be learning together to be effective at the same time we’re being nonviolent. There’s tons of work to do on that. I’m never going to run out of work. It’s a tall mountain to climb.

Every dog that comes into my consultation office — I mean this sincerely — I’m still fascinated at the learning. I had a new … it’s a new breed for me … I always joke when people first contact me and they say, “What do you know about this obscure breed?” Like, in other words, “Are you an expert in …?” My answer to this is “No, but I’ve trained like fifty different species. Does that count that I don’t know?”

So a new breed for me this month was a lovely, lovely client with two Berger Picards, Picardy Shepherds. Beautiful dogs, but the breeder talked my elderly client into taking two puppies — “As long as you’re going to take one, why don’t you take two?” Breeders! Breeders, breeders, breeders! Anyway, lovely woman, retired, her husband just retired, now have two very active herding puppies. As those dogs come into my office, and they’ve got some behavior issues, but just to watch them learn. Tuesday I was sitting on the floor with them, teaching them just basic behaviors, and to watch their behavior change and their agency kick in that they realized, wow, their behavior is controlling my click, I don’t know, it never gets boring for me. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m still as excited with each dog that comes in as I was in the beginning. Aren’t I lucky?

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome, and it totally comes through in that answer. I do want to back up for a second, because you mentioned two things there that I’m curious. All listeners may not be familiar with what the Humane Hierarchy is, or what it means, and I was hoping you could briefly explain the phrase.

Kathy Sdao: I shouldn’t presume people know it, but I’m hoping it becomes a common term in our conversations about training, because, Melissa, you’ve been doing this a long time, too, you know trainers like to have opinions about what’s the right way to do things. And unfortunately, at least in the United States, there aren’t a lot of laws about what are the right ways to do things, and it’s a Wild West out there, at least in my neck of the woods, about what’s considered acceptable training practices.

I’ve had two different clients come to me, new clients come to me, in the last couple of months, having gone to another local … we’ll call it a trainer. Both of their dogs were in the course of a ten-week package of private lessons. In Week 6, both dogs were hung until they passed out, in Week 6, to make sure that the dogs knew who the leader was. Were hung until they passed out. This is acceptable training. It boggles my mind. So to be able to have an algorithm model to be able to say, “What’s OK when you’re intervening in another organism’s behaviors? Is effectiveness all we care about, that it works?”

I first learned of the Humane Hierarchy through Dr. Susan Friedman’s teaching, and the easiest way, I think, to find out about it would be on her website, behaviorworks.org. I certainly think if you Googled “Humane Hierarchy in training,” you would see that it’s a series of, the last time I looked at it, six levels of intervention. Six choices you would have as a trainer for how you could change your learner’s behavior, starting from the least intrusive way, basically looking at the learner’s physical environment and health situation, to the most intrusive way, Level 6, which would be positive punishment, and that there would be lots of cautions and prohibitions before you’d ever get to Level 6, and that often, if we’re doing our jobs really in a skillful way, we never have to consider using positive punishment, the addition of something painful, pressuring, or annoying, contingent on our learner’s behavior.

Positive punishment is done so casually and flippantly in dog training, especially in the United States, without a second thought, and this sort of hierarchy of methods we might use really calls out our best practices to say we have a lot of other approaches to go through before we jump right to punishing our learner for behavior we find dangerous or destructive.

So I think learning and conversation that continues around the Humane Hierarchy, which comes to us trainers from where? From the rules for behaviorist analysts working with children, human children. They can’t just go in and do whatever they want. They have professional restrictions, as should we, as trainers. But that day is not here yet for us. It’s coming, I hope. So I find that to be a really helpful model. It’s not the only model out there, but it’s the one I go to most often when I’m teaching and also when I’m being a consultant.

Melissa Breau: Thank you. I appreciate you taking a moment just to break that down and explain it for everybody. And then you mentioned Everybody Poops, and I haven’t read that book. So actually I’m curious. Can you give us the gist of what we can imply from the title?

Kathy Sdao: You know what? I’m being really serious. I have not read it since I was a zookeeper and was required. I’m not kidding. It’s a kids’ book, I would think the age group is probably 4-year-olds, to be able to say to your child, “Poop is normal. Poop is good. Don’t worry about your poop. We all poop. We’ve got this thing in common. It’s cool.” It’s actually a powerful message, like, “Wow, all right, there’s nothing weird about that. Everybody poops.”

But seriously, in the back of my head I’ve got this Everybody Behaves book, because if you understood behavior in one organism, seriously … I’ve got dear clients right now, they’re just lovely, they’ve been my clients for a long time. I’m actually friends with the family now, and one of my clients has a 9-year-old son. As a birthday present he got the fish agility set from R2 Fish School, so 9-year-old boy, he’s got his fish agility equipment. What he said to me when I saw him just two days ago, he said to me, “Kathy, I have a science fair coming up. Can you help me teach the fish to do weave poles?” I’m like, This is the best question I’ve ever been asked. Seriously, I’m so ecstatic I can’t even stand it. That a 9-year-old would say, “For my science project I’m going to teach fish to do weave poles”? Aren’t we hopeful what that 9-year-old boy is going to grow into, just for the good of the world? Seriously.

Melissa Breau: That is so cool.

Kathy Sdao: He is going to have the perfect approach to being a parent and a boss and a friend. He’s got it at the age of 9, because he’s going to teach that fish. And how do you teach the fish? The same way I taught the dolphins and the same way I teach the dogs. It’s all the same learning, so that learning principals are general and everybody behaves. Figure it out with one and then it spreads. It’s so exciting. So yes, I’m going to help Ryan with his goldfish-training project. We’re in the process now of choosing the right fish. It’s just making me very happy.

Melissa Breau: I seriously hope you video some of that and share it, just because that’s so cool. It’s such a neat project. It’s such a neat science project.

Kathy Sdao: One of the most valuable books I’ve got on my shelf, and I will never sell it, it was vanity-published probably 20 years ago. The title of the book is How to Dolphin Train Your Goldfish, and the thing that made me buy it in the first place is the author, C. Scott Johnson, was a really high and bio-sonar Ph.D. at the Navy, seriously geeky researcher into sonar. He helped us set up some of the training for the dolphins.

I’m like, That’s such an odd name, C. Scott Johnson. I see it on a book list, I’m like, He wrote a book. It’s a 20-page, black-and-white, vanity-published, it is not a high-end book, but it is a perfect description of teaching five tricks to a goldfish and it’s brilliant. So now everybody’s going to go on Amazon and try to find the book and it’s impossible. I wrote to him once and said, “If you’ve got cases of this book in your garage, I can sell them for you, because it’s awesome.” So I’ve got good resources to help Ryan, and yes, Melissa, it’s a great tip. I will videotape.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I wanted to ask you, as somebody who has been a full-time animal trainer for over 30 years now, and in dogs for quite a while too, how have you seen the field change? What changes are you maybe even seeing today?

Kathy Sdao: Oh my gosh, how long do we have? Oh my gosh, the changes. I don’t even know where to start. I just taught at my 35th ClickerExpo — 35th. I’ve gotten the honor and privilege of not only teaching but attending 35 ClickerExpos over 15 years with amazing faculty as my colleagues, oh my gosh. To look back at the first ClickerExpo 15 years ago, what we were teaching and talking about, and now? I wonder when is it that I need to retire, because everything’s just moved beyond me. It’s so, gosh, I feel like a dinosaur sometimes.

So, first off, I already alluded to the idea that whatever species we train is not unique in how they learn. Now, they might be unique in what reinforces them, how we’re going to choose our reinforcers, or how we’re going to set up the environment, or what behaviors we might teach first, absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that the actual laws of learning and that choice of what training methods we will use, maybe with the Humane Hierarchy as a reference for us on how to do that effectively without taking control away from our learner, to be able to say that’s general throughout species, to me, that’s new.

I like that we’re moving in that direction and stopping the conversation, or maybe not having so much of the conversation, that says, “Rottweilers learn this way, and they need this kind of training,” and “High-drive dogs, they need this particular kind of training.” I like that the conversation’s moving to more general. In fact, even the terminology, my terminology, has changed from saying “the animal learned” to “the learner,” so we are actually using a noun that encompasses nonhuman animals and human animals. And actually even the word training is being replaced by the verb teaching. I’m liking that. It’s just a reflection that we teach learners rather than train animals just is taking that it’s not just politically correct, it’s reflecting the science, which says we can use some of these general principals to our advantage and to the learner’s advantage, right?

Melissa Breau: Right.

Kathy Sdao: Even the idea that we want to empower our learners, you know, when I started with dogs, that was heresy. You would empower the dog? You’re supposed to be the leader. You’re supposed to be in charge. This is not about empowering. It’s about showing them their place. They need to learn deference. They need to learn their place in the hierarchy, and if they get that sorted out, all the good behavior will come along with it.

To be able to say that your learner can not only make choices but … I’m so intrigued by this; this is kind of new learning to me and I’m still playing with it. So to be able to say, “Give your learner a way to say “no” to opt out of anything, opt out of a social contact, opt out of a husbandry behavior you’ve asked the dog to do.” If the dog says, “No, I don’t feel like, it,” that we not only accept that no, we reinforce the no — this is like mind-blowing. What does that mean that you say to your learner, “You don’t have to. You don’t have to”?

I’m just intrigued that this doesn’t produce complete opting out, the animal doesn’t want to do anything, you get no compliance at all. No, instead, you set the animal free to feel so brave and safe in your presence that they’re not compelled or pressured to do behaviors. I don’t know. I feel like this is a new conversation that I’ve had with colleagues, again not just about allowing animals to opt out, but reinforcing them for opting.

Ken Ramirez talked about training beluga whales, a specific beluga whale, to have a buoy in the tank that she could press with her big old beluga melon, her big head, and say, “No, I don’t feel like doing it.” The data he collected with his team at Shedd Aquarium — what did that actually do? What did we get in her behavior? Less cooperation? Or did it provide her safety to be able to work with us in a more fluent way? I don’t know. Twenty years ago I can’t even imagine we would have had a conversation like that.

Melissa Breau: That’s so cool. It’s such a neat concept. I’ll have to go look up the specific stuff that Ken’s put out on it, because I don’t think I’ve had the chance to hear him talk about it. So that’s cool.

Kathy Sdao: You know, it’s funny that you say that, Melissa. The timing is really great, because the videos from this year’s ClickerExpo — there’s two ClickerExpos a year in the U.S., one in January on the West Coast and one in March on the East Coast. The presentations, and there’s a lot of them — there are three days, five simultaneous tracks, it’s a lot of presentations — but those are recorded, and they’re usually not available until the summer, but I know that they’re going to be released later this week.

So clickertraining.com, you could actually look for Ken Ramirez’s presentation on — I think it’s called Dr. No — on teaching animals to be able to opt out of procedures. You would actually not only be able to read about it, Ken has written on clickertraining.com about that procedure, you’d actually be able to hear Ken teach on it. So just to know there’s a wealth of educational stuff. Gosh, there’s lots of good stuff out there, but those ClickerExpo recordings are just one thing you can take advantage of and soon.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. And actually this will be out next Friday, so by the time this comes out, those will be available, so anybody who wants to go check them out can.

Kathy Sdao: Thanks Melissa.

Melissa Breau: We talked about the change that you’ve seen. What about where the field is heading, or even just where you’d like for it to go in the next few decades? What do you think is ahead for us?

Kathy Sdao: It’s a different question between where it is going and where I want it to go. I don’t actually know where it’s going. What I dream about. I dream about this. We need some guidelines. We need some legal guidelines. We need some way to have a field that has professional standards, and I don’t know what that looks like, and I know that’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s just not OK. Yes, we continue to educate, and we continue to raise the standards, but I want to bring everybody along with us, meaning all my colleagues. That big line we tend to draw — I’m certainly guilty of this — of this “Us, the positive trainers, and them, the other trainers,” and there’s this big chasm between us. I want to feel like there’s not a big chasm between us. We’re all doing the best we can with the knowledge we have, and you’re putting more information out there through these amazing podcasts and through all the classes that I’m going to call the Academy, it’s not the Academy, I don’t know …

Melissa Breau: FDSA.

Kathy Sdao: The acronym doesn’t trip off my tongue. But to be able to go, there’s amazing education and I know there is, because I’ve got colleagues teaching for you, and I’ve got students who take those courses and rave and are learning so much. That’s great. I love the increased educational opportunities, and the bar has really gotten higher. They’re better. We’re better at teaching this stuff.

But I feel there’s got to be a way that there’s a professional ethic that comes along with. We’ve all got to be striving and moving toward better practices. It’s no longer OK to say, “We’ve always used these coercive tools with dogs, and we’ve been able to teach them just fine.” I want that not to be so OK anymore.

I’m not sounding very eloquent on this because I don’t know exactly how to say … I strive for the day when I’m not losing sleep over what the dog trainer down the street is doing in the name of training. I would like to not lose sleep over what a professional dog trainer with a slick website can do.

Melissa Breau: And I totally get you. I want to transition for a minute there. I’d love to talk a little bit about your book. I mentioned it in the intro, the title is Plenty in Life is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training, and Finding Grace. Can you start off by explaining the name a little bit, and then share a little on what the book is about?

Kathy Sdao: Thanks Melissa. I sort of love my book, so thanks for giving me an opportunity to talk about it. I have to credit my publishers at Dogwise. Larry Woodward — what a lovely, kind man. My original title for that book, and I don’t actually remember it because it was so horrible. I didn’t see it. I thought it was really clever. I like puns, and so I’d come up with … honestly, I don’t remember. That’s how much I mentally blocked the bad title I had. Larry so graciously talked me into something else, and Plenty in Life is Free was his idea, and I really love it.

The thing that really inspired me to write the book is I was becoming disenchanted with “Nothing in life is free” protocols that not only was I running into that my colleagues would use, but I used all the time in my consultation practice. I would hand out instructions on “For your aggressive dog,” or your anxious dog or whatever behavior problem brought my clients to me.

Basic rule of thumb we would start at was your dog would get nothing that the dog would consider a reinforcer without doing a behavior for you first. Often these are implemented as the dog must sit before any food, toy, attention, freedom, there can be other behaviors, but it’s sort of like you don’t pay unless the dog complies with one of your signals first.

Those were at the time, and still in some places, not only ubiquitous, like everywhere, but applied to any problem. So not only were they really common, they’re applied to any problem, and the more I used them and really looked at them, I found them wanting in a lot of ways. Not only were they inadequate, but it seemed to me that they were producing really constrained relationships, like not free flowing, spontaneous, joyful relationships between people and their dogs, that everything was all those reinforcers were minutely controlled and titrated.

I had clients say to me, “Oh my gosh, I pet my dog for nothing, just because she’s cute.” I’m like, When did that become a problem? When is loving your dog the issue? And so the more I took a look at them, I realized I and maybe some of my colleagues were handing those out because we didn’t have a way to be able to say, “Yes, we want to reinforce good behavior, but we don’t want to be so stringent about it that we don’t allow for the free flow of attention and love between family members that we aspire to, to have a joyful life.”

Not only did I want to point out the concerns I had for those “Nothing in life is free” or “Say please” protocols — they come by different names — but to give an alternative. So to be able to say, if I looked at my masters degree in animal learning, what would the science say would be the replacement foundation advice we would be giving people. If I’m going to pull the “Nothing in life is free” handout out of my colleagues’ hands — and that’s what some people who have read the book said: “Wait, that’s my Week 1 handout for class. What am I going to do?” “I know, let me give you another handout.”

So, for me, it would be the acronym SMART. I don’t use a lot of acronyms. I worked for the military, you can get really carried away with acronyms, but SMART — See, Mark, And Reinforce Training — is a really nice package to be able to tell my clients what habits I want to create in them. Because I’m actually changing their behavior. Anytime we teach, we’re changing the human’s behavior.

What is it that science says we want the humans to do more of? Notice the behavior. Become a better observer. See behavior in your learner. Mark the behavior you want to see more of. Use a clicker, use a word, use a thumbs up. We’re not going to debate too much about has to be one particular sort of marker signal, but marking is good. It gives information to your learner that’s really important. And reinforce. So to be able to say, if I can develop that see, mark, and reinforce habit in my humans, the animal’s behavior, the dog’s behavior, is going to change, reflecting how much your habit has developed. Just to be able to shift people from that “I’m controlling every reinforcer in your life” strategy to “It’s my responsibility to notice behavior I want to see more of, and to put reinforcement contingencies in place for that to make those behaviors more likely” — that’s a huge shift. If we can get that going, I hope my little book might start the ball rolling in that direction.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. I know the book came out in 2012, and since then you’ve done some on-demand videos and you have all sorts of other resources on your site. I’d love to know what aspect of training or methods have you most excited today. What’s out there that you want to talk about?

Kathy Sdao: It’s going to probably be a surprising answer to that. In my talks most recently, my presentations most recently, at ClickerExpo, because I’ve been on faculty for a long time there, interesting conversations happen about this time of year between the folks who put on ClickerExpo and me and all the other faculty and say, “Hey, what do you want to talk about next year, Kathy?” When that conversation happened last year, maybe even the year before, one of the things that’s been really on my mind a lot is burnout, is burnout in my colleagues, and so sort of jokingly in that presentation, call it my Flee Control presentation, meaning I see lots of really skilled colleagues leaving the profession. I see some skilled colleagues leaving more than just the profession, leaving life.

It’s a really serious problem for trainers, for veterinarians, and where does this sense of burnout come from when we’ve spent all this time developing our mechanical training chops? We’re actually good at the nuts and bolts, the physical skills of training, and we’re studying the science, and we’re taking courses and we’re getting all this education. How is it that so many colleagues quit?

It’s a hard profession that we’ve got, those of us that are doing it professionally, and it can be exhausting. And so to be able to take a look at how we can support each other in a really skilled way, meaning taking the skills we have as trainers and applying them to our own longevity and mental health as practitioners.

I think we’re missing some sort of support mechanisms that are there in other professions. For instance, I have a client who’s a psychiatrist and she works with a really difficult population, patients who are suicidal, very frequently suicidal and significantly suicidal, so she has a very challenging human patient load. When we were talking a little while back, she was at a dog-training lesson with her Rottweiler, we were working together, she said, “You know, every Thursday at 1:00 I have to meet with three of my peers. I have to. It’s one of my professional demands. I would lose my license if I didn’t. We don’t look at each other’s cases. We don’t offer problem solutions. We give each other support. We’re there to vent, we’re there to listen, we’re there to offload some of the grief and heartache that comes from doing our jobs well, and so that’s just part of our professional standards.”

My jaw sort of dropped open and I’m like, wait, what? I didn’t even know that was a thing. Why is that not a thing for us? Why do we not have structures at least to support us being in this for the long haul? Because really, here’s the thing. When I started out being a trainer and people said, “You’ve got to be a really good observer. That’s what trainers do. They observe behavior.”  I’m like, cool, I’m going to get that 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell talks about on watching animals behave. That’s what the dog daycare did for me, lots and lots of hours watching dogs behave. No one says to you, “Hey, let’s warn you that you’re not going to be able to unsee.” You can’t go back. You can’t stop seeing animals in distress and in difficult situations, and it develops a lot of grief in each of us. So I think I’m losing colleagues not just because they’ve got better job offers. It’s because their hearts are breaking.

I don’t know what the structure looks like to say I want to help prevent burnout in a structured way, but even the title of my book is going to hint the other thing I want to say to you, Melissa, which is intentionally that book title has the word grace in it because I talk about my spirituality in that book, which is kind of weird in a dog-training book, but to me they’re all one and the same. Training, to me, is a spiritual practice, completely, and so I don’t think we have comfortable formats to be able to have the conversation about the overlap of animal training and spirituality, not in a really saccharine, Pollyanna kind of way, but in a really open our hearts to what’s deepest and true for us.

I don’t know. I want to figure out ways to facilitate that conversation. Because this is the conversation I want to have, so I’m brainstorming projects I’m hoping to take on in the next year or so that will let us have some formats to have that conversation. We’re always talking about reinforcement for our learners, and I never want us to forget we have to set up reinforcement for ourselves and the work that we do. I think spirituality talks about how we can develop mindfulness practices that allow us to do good work, but also to stay happy and centered while we’re doing it. I’m sure there are resources out there I haven’t tripped upon, but I’m intrigued at developing even more.

Melissa Breau: It’s such an interesting topic, and it’s definitely something I don’t see enough people talking about or even thinking about, just our own mental health as you are a trainer or as you work towards training. It’s an important topic for sure.

Kathy Sdao: Exactly.

Melissa Breau: We’re getting close to the end here, and I want to ask you a slightly different version of the three questions I usually ask at the end of the podcast when I have a new guest. The first one I tweaked a little bit here, but can you share a story of a training breakthrough, either on your side or on the learner's end?

Kathy Sdao: Anyone who’s heard me teach at all is going to have heard something about my favorite learner of all time. That’s E.T., the male Pacific walrus that I got the privilege to work with at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma.

The very short version of an amazing story is when I first got hired at the zoo in 1990, I had worked with seals and sea lions and other pinnipeds, but had never even seen a walrus. So I spent the morning before my interview at the zoo, walking around the zoo and looking at the animals that I would train, and realized that E.T. — he weighed about 3500 pounds at that point — was one of the scariest animals I had ever seen.

When I went into the interview I got asked the question, “If you get hired here, you’re going to have to work with a new species, a Pacific walrus. What do you think about that?” Of course, anybody who’s been in an interview knows that the answer is, “Ooh, I’d be really intrigued to have the opportunity.” Of course, you’re saying how cool that would be, yet on the inside I’m positive that he’s going to kill me.

I mean this sincerely. I had moved into an unfurnished house, I had no furniture, so I have really clear memories of all I have in that house is a sleeping bag, and I’m waking up in cold sweat nightmares, sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor in my empty house in Tacoma right after I got hired, those nightmares are that E.T. is going to kill me.

He is completely aggressive, humans cannot get in his exhibit, he’s destroying the exhibit because it’s inadequate for a walrus. It was designed for sea lions. He came to the zoo as an orphaned pup in Alaska, nobody really expected him to survive, he grew to be an adolescent.

The reason that there was a job opening at that department at the zoo is all the trainers had quit. There were no marine mammal trainers at the time I got hired. I don’t know why they quit, I didn’t ask them, but I suspect it was because E.T. weighed nearly two tons and was an adolescent and he was dangerous, destructive, oh, and he was X-rated — he masturbated in the underwater viewing windows for a couple of hours a day, and you don’t need the visuals for that. Trust me when I tell you, if you were an elementary school teacher in Tacoma, Washington, you did not go to the underwater viewing section. It was awful. We didn’t know what to do with him.

The end of that story that starts with truly I don’t want to be anywhere near him, he’s terrifying me, he becomes one of the best friends I’ve ever had, I trust him with my life. By the time I quit the zoo five years later, E.T. knew over 200 behaviors on cue, we got in the exhibit with him, we took naps with him, I trusted him with my life.

He lived another 20 years. He passed away only a couple of years ago. He was amazing. His behavior changed so much that I am being honest when I tell you I didn’t see the old walrus in the current walrus. There was no more aggression. I don’t mean infrequent outbursts of aggression. I mean we didn’t see it anymore, based on what? We were brilliant trainers? Based on we were stuck with him and we needed to come up — three new trainers, myself and two gentlemen from Sea World — we needed to come up with a plan to make this livable, and what came out wasn’t a tolerable animal. It was genius, and I mean that sincerely. If anyone had had the chance to see E.T. working with his trainers, it wasn’t just that he learned really complicated behavior chains and he was really fluent in them. It was we were his friends, and I mean that in the true sense of the word.

So my biggest breakthrough is that I can say that E.T. considered me his friend. Oh my gosh, that’s it, that’s what I’m putting on my resume. I was E.T. the walrus’s friend, and he taught me more about training and the possibilities, the potential in each learner, that given enough time and resources, we sometimes can unleash and release those behaviors.

That doesn’t mean we don’t ever give up on animals and say, “Oh my gosh, they’re too dangerous, we can’t change this behavior in a way that’s adequate,” but the fact that we didn’t really have that easy choice with E.T., it made us pull out all our best training ideas and to be persistent. Wow, you just couldn’t believe what was in there, and without videos and about ten more hours, I can’t do him justice, but that we were friends? Yeah, that’s my coolest accomplishment.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. My second-to-last question is, what is the best piece of training advice that you’ve ever heard?

Kathy Sdao: Let me do two. I’m going to cheat. Years ago, this is straightforward training advice, but it’s one that I keep in the back of my head, which is, “Train like no one’s watching you.” Because even when I don’t have an audience … sometimes I have a real audience and I’m onstage trying to train an animal, which is nerve-wracking, but I don’t need a human audience in front of me. I have judges in my head, so I always have an audience I always carry around, my critics, and to be able to free myself from those and to instead what happens if I say, “There’s no audience in my head judging me”? It frees me up to see what’s happening right in front of me.

There’s a quote I have next to my desk and it’s from outside of training context. It’s from a Jesuit priest whom I like very much, Father Greg Boyle, and the phrase that’s on the Post-It next to my desk says, “Now. Here. This.” To be able to be in the present moment with your learner and say, “What’s happening right now? What behavior is right in front of me?” sounds really simple, but it’s not. It takes real mindfulness and intention to be in the present moment. When you’re paying attention to your audience, real or imagined in your head, you can’t be really present. So that would be one: Train like no one’s watching you.

And here’s one that comes from my favorite science book, and every time I have a chance to have anybody listen to me anywhere, I’m going to quote the name of the book so that I can get this book in everybody’s hands: Coercion and Its Fallout, by Dr. Murray Sidman. It’s an astonishing book. It’s not a training book. It’s a science book, but it’s very readable, most easily purchased at the behavior website, behavior.org, which is the Cambridge behavioral site. It’s hard to find on Amazon. You shouldn’t pay much more than twenty dollars for Coercion and Its Fallout, by Dr. Murray Sidman.

Here’s the training advice that Dr. Sidman would give. It’s not training advice, it’s life advice, but it’s my new tagline. Let’s see how this works, Melissa, because, you know, you’ve been doing these podcasts for a while, you’re into training deep. It’s hard to go “positive training,” that phrase is kind of vague and weird, and clicker training is … so what am I? I’m going to take Dr. Sidman’s, one of his lines from Coercion and Its Fallout: “Positive reinforcement works and coercion is dangerous.” That’s a seven-word descriptor for what it is I do, and it comes for every learner. Positive reinforcement works, and coercion, Dr. Sidman’s definition is all the other three quadrants: positive punishment, negative punishment, and negative reinforcement. So we’ve got the four operant conditioning quadrants. Dr. Sidman’s going to go, “Positive reinforcement works.” It does the job. It’s all you need. The other three quadrants, they’re there, I know, we use them, but they’re dangerous. I love that summary. I’m using that with my clients now. I’m seeing if I can let that really simple summary of the science and our best practices to see if it works.

Melissa Breau: That’s fantastic. I love that. It’s a very simple, easy line to remember.

Kathy Sdao: It’s Dr. Sidman’s genius, so take it and run with it.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Last question for you: Who is somebody else in the training world that you look up to?

Kathy Sdao: There’s so many. But because he’s now my neighbor … Kathy, what’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to you recently? Ken Ramirez has moved in my back yard. I’m so excited!

That genius trainer, the kindest man you’ll ever meet, colleague of mine for the last 25 years, truly amazing human being, is now not only living a half-hour from me in Graham, Washington, just outside of Tacoma, he’s not only living near me but offering courses. He’s teaching a course this week at The Ranch. It’s Karen Pryor’s training facility here in Graham, Washington. It’s an amazing facility, but that Ken, mentor and friend and genius trainer … a client of mine yesterday said, “Wait a minute. Who’s that guy that taught the butterflies to fly on cue for the BBC’s documentary?” Like, oh my gosh, that’s Ken, yes, he taught butterflies, herds of butterflies, what do you call a group of butterflies, swarms of butterflies to fly on cue to the London Symphony for a big fundraising gig. Oh my god. Now is that someone you want to know more about?

So I’m going to do a shout out to Ken and say you can find out more about the educational offerings at The Ranch at Karen Pryor’s website, clickertraining.com. They’ve got a drop-down on The Ranch, and I don’t live far away from there, so if you want to come beachcombing with me after you’ve visited Ken and learned stuff, I’ll take you beachcombing. I love my beachcombing, so I’m happy to share that.

Melissa Breau: That sounds like so much fun. I keep meaning to get out that way at some point and I haven’t been yet, so it’s definitely on the bucket list.

Kathy Sdao: He’s going to draw some really cool people to my neighborhood, so I’m going to share. I’m going to share.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Kathy. This has been truly fantastic.

Kathy Sdao: Thanks so much, Melissa. You made it fun, and it’s just a real treat to be affiliated with … now teach me the name: FDSA.

Melissa Breau: Yes. Absolutely.

Kathy Sdao: Excellent. So cool to be affiliated with you guys. You do great work, and I’m just honored.

Melissa Breau: Thank you. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with — she was mentioned earlier in this podcast — Michele Pouliot to talk about being a change-maker in the dog world.

If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice and our next episode will be automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.

Credits:

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.

Apr 27 2018

57mins

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Rank #11: E78: Julie Flanery - "Building Beautiful Heelwork"

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Summary:

Julie Flanery has been working professionally with dogs and their handlers since 1993. She focuses on the needs of the dog and helping people form a strong relationship, through clear communication, and positive reinforcement.

She has placed Obedience, Freestyle, Rally-Obedience, Rally-FrEe, Parkour, Agility, and Trick Dog titles on her dogs. She began competing in Musical Freestyle in 1999 and was the first to both title and earn a Heelwork to Music Championship on the West coast. In 2001 she was named "Trainer of the Year" by the World Canine Freestyle Organization and has been a competition freestyle judge since 2003.

Five years ago Julie developed the sport of Rally-FrEe to help freestylers increase the quality and precision of their performances. It has since become a stand-alone sport enjoyed by dog sport enthusiasts all over the world. Julie has been a workshop and seminar presenter both nationally and internationally. She currently trains and competes with her Tibetan Terrier in both Musical Freestyle and Rally-FrEe.

Next Episode: 

To be released 9/07/2018, featuring Julie Daniels, talking about Building Canine Confidence.

TRANSCRIPTION:

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 Julie Flanery.

Julie has been working professionally with dogs and their handlers since 1993. She focuses on the needs of the dog and helping people form a strong relationship through clear communication and positive reinforcement.

She has placed Obedience, Freestyle, Rally-Obedience, Rally-FrEe, Parkour, Agility, and Trick Dog titles on her dogs. She began competing in Musical Freestyle in 1999 and was the first to both title and earn a Heelwork to Music Championship on the West Coast. In 2001 she was named "Trainer of the Year" by the World Canine Freestyle Organization and has been a competition freestyle judge since 2003.

Five years ago Julie developed the sport of Rally-FrEe to help freestylers increase the quality and precision of their performances. It has since become a stand-alone sport enjoyed by dog sport enthusiasts all over the world. Julie has been a workshop and seminar presenter both nationally and internationally. She currently trains and competes with her Tibetan Terrier in both Musical Freestyle and Rally-FrEe.

So welcome back to the podcast Julie!

Julie Flanery: Thanks Melissa.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you just remind everybody a little bit of information about your dog and what you do with her?

Julie Flanery: I have Kashi and she is my 8-year-old Tibetan Terrier. She thinks her primary job is to keep our home safe from all of those wild rabbits out there. She will sit forever, just staring at the fence line, waiting for one to pop its head through, or if she sees one on the other side of the fence, she’ll calmly sit and wait until they believe she’s no threat, then she goes into stalk mode. My sweet, little, adorable dog has four kills to her name now. So it’s kind of funny, because despite her breed name, there is no terrier in Tibetan Terriers, so it wasn’t something that I expected in her.

But she is really, really fun to train, and I find something enjoyable and fun about her every single day. She makes me laugh every single day. I currently compete with her in Musical Freestyle and Rally FrEe.

And maybe in the fall we might be adding a puppy to the family, but I’m not quite sure yet on that. So more news to come, maybe.

Melissa Breau: I will be excited to hear that, if it happens.

Julie Flanery: I will too.

Melissa Breau: I bet. So, I wanted to have you on tonight to talk about something that I think is probably pretty important to a good percentage of our listeners. I want to talk about heeling. Non-freestylers may not realize it, but heelwork is a pretty big part of freestyle, right? Can you just talk a little bit about the role it plays in the sport?

Julie Flanery: To anybody that has done obedience, there is nothing more beautiful than a joyful heeling dog. We all have that picture in our head, and what it looks like, and it can take your breath away. The only thing I think might be more beautiful is watching a freestyle routine with a joyful heeling dog, and maybe I’m biased there, but I think that adds a whole ’nother level of animation to heelwork.

Heelwork is really what holds a freestyle routine together. We often talk about it’s the glue that holds it together, but I think it’s really so much more than that.

In terms of holding the routine together, it’s very easy to get lost in a routine. We have 3 minutes of 50 to 80 cued behaviors, and we don’t always remember our full routine. No matter how much you memorize your routine, and no matter how much you work your routine, it doesn’t always go as planned. I have never met a freestyler that said, “Oh yeah, we went out there and it was perfect.”

So you have to be a little prepared for that, and having a dog that understands heelwork, has a strong desire to be in heel, one that defaults to a standing heel position, then your dog is always in a right place where you can make things right again.

It also means your dog can maintain a sense of purpose. If he’s not quite sure where he should be, or what he should be doing, either maybe there’s a wrong cue, or I screwed up something in my choreography, he can maintain that level of confidence and joy by defaulting to a heel position, and it gives me the confidence then to pull us out of whatever scrape we’ve gotten into.

In freestyle, we train our behaviors, especially behaviors that we use as transitions from a position to a position, so whatever behavior I’m going to include in my freestyle routines, I train it where my dog starts in a heelwork position. In order for that behavior to be completed, she has to come back to a heelwork position, and if she doesn’t understand those positions, then I’m going to lose the accuracy and precision of the behaviors. Those positions give me a stronger execution of all of my freestyle behaviors.

So without that understanding, many of my freestyle behaviors are going to degrade, and if the dog isn’t set up correctly, then not only is that behavior not going to be accurate, but my next behavior isn’t going to start in a correct place and it’s going to lose its accuracy and precision.

So having a dog that understands their heelwork positions is incredibly important in freestyle, because without it, everything else is going to fall apart, and that’s why we say it’s the glue that holds the routines together.

I think that many see freestyle as kind of a loosey-goosey sport, you know, you go out and you move and you dance with your dog, and you have them do some tricks. But if you look at some of the world’s best freestylers, those handlers understand and utilize heelwork to give their routines that polish, that unity, that really make their routines stand out.

So I think as we are moving forward in the sport, more freestylers are trying to make heelwork a much more important piece of their training program than maybe it was in the past.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned in there that you’re looking for a joyful demeanor in heeling. Can you talk more about that and describe what you’re looking for when you’re training your dog to heel? What does that final picture really look like?

Julie Flanery: As you said, first and foremost, I need my dog to learn to love heeling. That’s for the reasons mentioned above, but also I want her both to look and I want her to feel happy when she’s heeling. If heeling allows her to be in a happy emotional state, then she’s more likely to be able to ignore the environment, she’s better able to take and respond to cues, she understands and loves that job of heeling. If she or I get lost in a routine, her default will be to stay in heel, and if she can do that, I can get us through those rough patches.

In terms of physical appearance, I like my dog’s head up. I like her looking at my face. That’s both because I think it looks pretty, but that’s kind of my security blanket. I think if she’s looking at me, she must be paying attention. So that’s part of my picture. I want her looking up at my face as part of my training.

I like that the front end to be lifted so that the weight is off of the shoulders and you can get more lift to the chest and in the front feet. I like a dog that has a little bit of a prance to it, so I try to work that into my criteria.

What people may not know is that in freestyle, the dog and handler team choose their own heelwork position. So if the dog is a little wide, but consistently a little wide, always that distance from the handler, then no points are taken off. Small dogs oftentimes are a little more comfortable not being right under the handler’s feet, so that’s an example where a handler might decide to allow their dog to have a little more distance from them. As long as that distance is consistent, then it doesn’t hurt the score any.

I like my dog to forge a little, to show off that little prance that she has. So as long as she is consistent in her position, that she’s always forging that little bit, maybe my leg is closer to her shoulder or rib, and as long as she maintains that position in relation to me, then that’s not going to hurt our score any. And it actually showcases the part of her heelwork which I really love, which is that little foot action that she sometimes has.

So in freestyle there’s some leeway. There’s some ability to customize your heelwork position as long as it’s consistent. So you can choose, or use A.K.C’s definition, or whatever organization you show obedience under, or you could vary from that a little bit to either help your dog be more comfortable in heeling or to showcase something that your dog really does well.

Melissa Breau: Obviously, heeling is a super-complex thing to train. Just from that description, you talked about all these pieces of that criteria. Different trainers start with different bits and different approaches. I’d love to hear how you approach it. How do you get started?

Julie Flanery: Like all training, we have to look at both the physical criteria and the emotional component. Heelwork is physically demanding, so I want to make sure that my dog is getting a really high enough rate of reward and value of reinforcement for all of that hard work, and I want to maintain that high rate of reward for a really long time, probably much longer and with much greater frequency than I do for other behaviors.

Hand touches are a huge part of my heelwork. They help me both create position and lift and fun, and I can do all sorts of games with my hand touches. And yes, there is a right way and a wrong way to teach a hand touch, and people will learn that in the class that I’m doing in October.

Platforms also, both standing platforms and pivot platforms, are really important in my program. It’s where I start to add the cue. It’s where I know with certainty that I can get my dog to perform that precision criteria that I really want. And the dog learns to use his rear end in a way through the pivot platforms that helps him maintain position. So those are really big tools that I use.

Shaping is part of my heelwork training. I think a dog that understands how to offer correct positioning can fix an issue without waiting for the handler to do it for them, and I think in heelwork that’s huge. It also helps to build a desire to get to heel and stay in heel. That shaping includes both finding the position while I’m stationary and also while I’m moving. For example, I really like Dawn Jecs’ Choose To Heel protocol, and that’s all about shaping how to find a moving heel position.

Too, with shaping, I don’t necessarily want to use the cue I started to add on the platforms, so I want my dog to understand that she doesn’t have to wait for a cue to give me either some or all of that criteria. So shaping gives the dog control of that reinforcement in a lot of different ways, and if she can offer that heelwork criteria that I’ve been working on at any time, or those things that earn rewards, then that puts me ahead of the game, because I don’t have to work as hard at getting that criteria all the time.

And then, of course, there’s fun and games. We don’t want to forget that. Those things are where we don’t really worry about precision or accuracy at all. The rewards come for moving with me or moving to my side with lots of enthusiasm, and it’s that attitude that I want to really create and reinforce through games.

So I teach technical aspects and then I also teach the fun and games aspects all in the same timeline. I don’t do one first and then the other. They’re both being played and trained all in the same timeframe. Once the dog has some experience in each of those, I can start to combine those components. But really I find that it’s the dog that starts to combine them. You’ll be playing a game and that promotes those certain attributes, like lift, enthusiasm, and all of a sudden she’ll move into a perfect heel position. Those are the times you want to be really ready and willing to click. It’s those one or two steps in the middle of a game that she’s suddenly offering, and that’s what’s really cool, when the dog says, through their offering of the things you’ve been reinforcing, that doing this precision work is really part of the game. That’s what I think is really, really fun to see.

Of course, I use the games to sneak in the different components. So a game of chase could turn into clicking collection as soon as I start to slow down, or a game of “catch me if you can,” where I might use a bit of opposition reflex, will turn into the dog putting some lift and energy into that first step off in heel. So the dog is doing these components as part of that fun game again, and all of the components, whether they’re the game pieces or whether they’re the precision and accuracy pieces, they’re all getting heavily reinforced and rewarded, so I can get both that physical criteria, the technical criteria, and a dog that thinks that this is just all one big game.

So that’s how I look at it. Because both of those pieces are super-important, I don’t think I would want one without the other. Certainly you don’t want this enthusiastic, bouncy, out-of-control dog without that precision and accuracy, and that precision and accuracy really just isn’t the picture that I have in my mind of beautiful heelwork without all that enthusiasm and joy. So I want to make sure that in my program I’m bringing them both together, but training them kind of separately.

Melissa Breau: That’s interesting. It’s kind of a different approach.

Julie Flanery: Yeah. I think a lot of people want both those things, and maybe they’re just putting it together in a slightly different way. But I really like it when the dog says, “Oh, this gets rewarded too,” and “Oh, I really like doing this just as much as I like the game aspect of it.” Because even though they’re rewarded separately, the dog learns to bring those two things together.

They say everything bleeds in training. One piece of criteria sometimes will bleed into another piece of criteria. Or one action will bleed into another. One behavior will bleed into another. Those things that are reinforced will bleed into each other. And this is an area where you want that. Some areas you don’t want that. This is an area where you really do want that.

Melissa Breau: We talked a little bit in there about obedience versus freestyle. I’m curious, how does the heelwork you want in freestyle compare to what somebody might want for the obedience ring? What are some of the similarities or differences?

Julie Flanery: In both sports, obviously, you want that lift, that animation, that focus, the precision. In freestyle, the dog heels on both the right and the left side, so there’s some additional training time that needs to be put into that. Even if you don’t do freestyle, it’s a good idea to train heelwork on both sides to help build symmetry in muscle development, and I think more and more handlers are starting to do that.

In freestyle, we teach heelwork as a specific place in relation to the handler while standing. So there are no default sits in freestyle. In obedience, there seems to be a lot of emphasis on the sit in heel. When you think about it, though, when heeling, I would guess that maybe 90 percent of the time the dog is actually on all fours, standing.

So I think it’s important in training to separate out the sit-in-heel from the stand-in-heel from the move-in-heel. They’re all very different components with very different criteria. It’s easy to start to lump them together in our training, and I think that’s oftentimes to the detriment of some of the overall wholeness of our heelwork. If we spend too much time on that sit and heel, sit and heel, getting into to sit and heel, we may not be spending an appropriate amount of time on teaching the dog where he should be when he’s standing in relation to our body, and when he’s moving in relation to our body. Does that make sense?

Melissa Breau: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s an interesting point, because you’re right, I see a lot of people practice especially that setup.

Julie Flanery: The setup is huge. In freestyle, the other thing is that we heel in a variety of directions, not just forward. We’ll go sideways or laterally, we’ll be backing in heel or backing in right heel. In obedience, the dog generally is always propelling themselves forward, whereas in freestyle the dog learns that the handler may move in any direction, and that their job is to stay in position no matter what that direction is.

While we do see more and more obedience handlers seeing the value of that, teaching multidirectional heelwork, it’s not required in the obedience ring the same way it is in freestyle. So it’s something that freestylers spend a lot of time on, whereas I think obedience trainers don’t spend quite the amount of time on it that we have to in freestyle. So I think that gives the dog a much better understanding of where that position is.

I train it, I think most freestylers … maybe not all, but I know I train heelwork as a stationary position in relation to the handler. It’s not a moving skill for me to start, for my dog to start. The staying with me is a byproduct of the movement. So if my dog understands that she should be at my left side or at my right side, with her shoulder at my pant seam, then if I take a step backwards and she finds enough value in being there, she’s going to work to get there and stay there. If I step sideways, she’s going to work to get there and stay there. If I step forward, if I pivot, wherever my leg goes, she’s going to work hard to stay there.

But I think some handlers skip the step of building value in the position in relation to the handler and spend more time on teaching the setup, the sit, or teaching forward movement. I think they would have those things if the reinforcement, the time, the energy was spent in teaching the dog to find value in just staying in the position stationary before we start adding a lot of movement, and then teaching the dog to move in more than one direction.

I think that generalizes what we’re trying to teach them, that this is the place we want you to be, this is Disneyland, this is the sweet spot. Everything good happens here, and you only have to do one thing. You don’t have to think about moving forward, you don’t have to think about moving sideways, you don’t have to think about a pivot. All you have to think about is being right here at my side.

I use only a single cue for all of my heelwork, whether I’m going backwards, whether I’m going forwards, or whether I’m doing a lateral side pass or pivoting. It’s all the same cue because it’s all the same behavior to the dog. I think that might be a little bit different than what many obedience handlers train. I think a lot of time is spent on forward-moving heelwork and on the setup. So I think that’s something people will see a little bit differently in freestyle training.

Melissa Breau: I could certainly see how teaching the dog the concept of heelwork from that perspective of sticking with the handler rather than necessarily about a specific direction of what have you. I can see how that would be really valuable, regardless of the sport.

Julie Flanery: To me, I think it simplifies the skill for the dog. It totally simplifies the skill. And in freestyle, again, we have a lot of cues in freestyle. We’re constantly saying, “Oh my God, I’m running out of cues.” To be able to have all of those behaviors — backing in heel, pivots in heel, side passes in heel, forward in heel, forward 360s — to have all of those behaviors be a single cue, I think that really clarifies it for the dog, and it makes it so much easier on both the dog and the handler. The dog doesn’t have to learn all of these different cues and what are the behaviors that they attach to those. They need to learn one cue and one skill. So I think it really simplifies it and clarifies it for the dog.

Melissa Breau: If I understand correctly, one additional piece that maybe you didn’t get into so much is the value that you place on teaching the dog to really listen to a verbal in freestyle and not be cueing so much off your body language. Can you talk a little bit about that, why it’s important and how you work on it?

Julie Flanery: No matter what, our dogs are always going to cue off of our bodies to some extent, and even if you have strong verbal cues, they do look to our bodies for information.

In freestyle we want our verbal cues to override the value of what’s happening with our bodies. That takes a very strong reinforcement history for verbal cues and it takes a very specific process or protocol to teach those verbal cues. I may want to use my body, my arms, my legs, how I tilt my head, to interpret the music, to basically dance to the music or convey a story through a skit.

I want my dog to be able to ignore what I’m doing with my body and favor what I’m cuing verbally. I want to appear as if my dog is performing of her own accord. I don’t want the audience to see my cues, as that can really disrupt the magic that we’re trying to present. We’re trying to show that the dog is not just a willing participant, but is actually initiating parts of this dance.

That’s really the magic of freestyle is when those cues are hidden, when you can’t tell that the dog is being cued, and it appears as if he’s initiating these behaviors. That, to me, is really the magic of freestyle. That’s what I want to portray out there. In getting that, if I really want it, if I need my dog to really respond to my verbal cues, I need to count on his response to those verbal cues, I need to follow a specific protocol that’s going to help her truly learn the meaning of those cues.

I think that, for the most part, handlers make the assumption that if they’re saying it, the dog is learning it, or if they make their hand cue smaller and smaller, the dog will take the information from what we’re saying, rather than that little bit of a hand cue that’s left, and that’s just often not true. We know that by the number of times we say things and our dog just looks at us like, “What?” It’s not until we provide some measure of body cuing that they say, “Oh, it was this. This is what you wanted.” They’ll certainly pick up meanings of certain words that way and phrases over time, you know, “Are you ready to go for a walk?” “Are you ready to get your ball?” And even obedience cues, yes, they will understand those to a certain degree. But I don’t have the time or luxury to assume that they will learn it, either on their own or using a less efficient method.

Like I said, I really need to count on that response in the ring. Otherwise, my performance is just not going to appear polished. If my dog misses a cue in a freestyle routine, the music keeps playing. I can’t give the hand cue then and hope she does it right, because I’ve already lost the opportunity to showcase that behavior. I’ve already lost the opportunity to have it match the phrasing in the music.

So having strong verbal cues is imperative to the freestyler, if they want to put out a really polished routine. And again, we want those cues to be hidden. We don’t want it to look like I’m showing my dog that he needs to spin. I want my dog to spin at a point in the music because the music moved him to spin, or it looks like the music moved him to spin, not that I’m actually cuing him to spin.

And in that same vein I need to proof my cues against my own body movement, because I might be doing something totally different. I might be moving my arm in an opposite direction of the way I want him to spin. So I’ve got to proof those cues against not only the distractions, like we normally proof in training, but I’m going to have to give my verbal cue and make my body do something weird, and reinforce my dog for choosing what I said over what I did.

So that’s a little bit of added training in terms of cueing for freestylers

And then as well, freestylers teach choreographed body movements as new cues. If I know I’m going to use my body in a certain way, I’m going to spin a certain direction, I’m going to put my leg up this way or whatever, I can actually teach my dog that that movement, even though it’s not a lure-like or a leading action, that movement means to do something. It is a cue to do something. But it’s not being used as a leading cue, like if I were putting my hand out in a circle to get my dog to spin. But that’s a whole ’nother podcast. That’s freestyle, not heelwork.

Melissa Breau: Right, right. I know you have a class coming up on this stuff in October. Can you share a little bit on what you’re planning to cover there? What level of class? Is it foundations? Is it intermediate? Problem solving? And maybe a little bit about what skills someone should have if they’re interested in taking it?

Julie Flanery: In a sense, it’s a foundation class. However, it’s going to be most suited to teams where the dog already has some understanding, and has some reinforcement history, of being near or in heel position in relation to the handler. They don’t have to have strong heeling behaviors. They don’t have to have perfect heelwork by any stretch of the imagination. But if they have started on their heelwork skills, and they want to get more out of their training and more out of their dog, they want more joy and lift and precision — we’re going to go over precision and accuracy as well — but if the picture they see in their head of a beautiful heeling dog is not what they’re getting out of their dog in training, then this would be a great class for them.

We are going to go over some precision and accuracy. We are going to go through a lot of different ways there are to build joy in our heelwork training. And then we’re going to be using a lot of reinforcement history and value in each of those pieces to allow the dog to bring that together.

We’re also going to talk a lot about appropriate expectations in your heelwork. There are certain limitations. If you have a certain picture of what you want, and your dog’s structure dictates that that just isn’t going to happen, we still want to get the prettiest and best performance out of your dog that we can get. The Bulldog is not going to heel the same way that a Border Collie or a Belgian is going to heel, so we do want to take those things into account, but there’s still things that we can do to work towards that picture, or build a more dramatic style of heelwork for your dog.

Melissa Breau: You mean a Bulldog can’t get quite that same lift?

Julie Flanery: Not quite, not quite.

Melissa Breau: Poor guys.

Julie Flanery: Doesn’t mean they can’t do beautiful heelwork. I just saw the most gorgeous bulldog — actually it was a mix. I think there was some French bulldog in it, and something else, and oh my gosh, that dog just had such spark in his heelwork, and it was beautiful. It was just gorgeous. No, it wasn’t a Terv and no it wasn’t a border collie. It was just … for that dog, it was just gorgeous heeling, and I enjoy that as much as I enjoy seeing the some of the dogs whose structure is more conducive to the type of heeling that we picture in our heads as being beautiful and joyful.

Melissa Breau: One of the things on your syllabus that caught my eye was that you’re planning on including some information on reinforcement strategies. I know that that’s a big topic. What are some of the common reinforcement strategies someone might want to use when working on heeling? And maybe a little on how to decide which ones you want to use and when?

Julie Flanery: Something to note about reinforcement strategies that I think people aren’t fully aware of, or don’t fully grasp about why we use different reinforcements strategies: Reinforcement strategies are a way to alter future behavior and not the behavior you are currently rewarding.

For example, if I feed with my dog’s head slightly away from me, it’s not an effort to lure her bum in, but rather to get her to start thinking about where reinforcement happens for the next reps.

So if I reward the dog — let’s say just for fronts — if I reward the dog for coming into front by tossing between my legs, I’ve already clicked the behavior. I’ve already said, “You are getting a reward for what you just did.” But by tossing the treat or the toy between my legs, she’s more likely to line up straight and in a way that she can efficiently get to reward faster on the next rep, and that benefits future behavior.

So if I want my dog, say, to take the weight off of her front and drive from her rear for heelwork, I’m likely going to have her reach up and forward a little for her reward, maybe give a little jump up to get her reward. If she starts thinking about that on the next few steps of heelwork and begins to think of, Reward’s coming, reward’s coming, where is it? Oh, it’s going to be up high, she starts to lift herself in preparation for that, and that gives me something I can click. That bit of lift she’s offering in preparation to take the next reward gives me my criteria shift, lets me click that behavior.

Melissa Breau: Even though you designed the class thinking about freestyle, would the class still be a good fit for somebody whose primary interest is obedience or Rally? We talked a little bit about this already, but how would the skills that you value in heeling and in the class for freestyle carry over into those sports?

Julie Flanery: Just given the things we’ve talked about, I think that all of those things, any obedience handler or Rally handler would like to have those things. Especially in Rally, the backing up, in backing up we want that skill to be a very thoughtful, deliberate action on the dog’s part, and I think that in Rally sometimes we’ll see handlers Band-Aiding that a little bit by rushing backwards in an effort to use the dog’s wanting to stay with them, but not really working on the precision aspect of that. For Rally skills such as the side pass — they do side passes in Rally, and they do backing up and heel in Rally — absolutely this class is going to benefit those.

In obedience, again, freestylers are really looking for the same attributes in heelwork that obedience handlers are looking for. So, in many ways, a lot of these things … as a matter of fact, when I worked in obedience, these are a lot of the same skills that I did when I worked in obedience and Rally. The only place where there may not be carryover, and of course this is always added later anyway, would be the sits in heel, the automatic sits, the setup in a sit. But that’s going to be added later anyway. The way I train heelwork, it’s not something I add at the start.

It’s actually going to benefit those obedience folks who maybe have centered their heelwork around that setup or the sit and heel. This is actually going to solidify your dog’s understanding of what it means to keep their body in relation to yours while they’re standing in heel, and while they’re moving forward in heel, and while they’re moving in any direction in heel. So yeah, I think that could definitely benefit obedience and Rally handlers.

Melissa Breau: We talked a bunch about the October class, but I think you have a few other things you’re working on, right? Anything you care to mention?

Julie Flanery: Yeah, just a few! I’m still working on the heeling class, too. I think I just scheduled to do some webinars. I’m not sure when they’re scheduled for, exactly. There was a lot of interest in the mimicry classes that I did, so we thought we would put that in a nutshell and let people experience what that protocol is all about, and try it a little bit with their dogs. So I’ll be doing a webinar on mimicry.

And because my interest is Musical Freestyle and Rally FrEe, and I get a lot of questions from people about “What is it?” “How do you get started?” “How is it different?” So I’m going to do a webinar on Musical Freestyle and Rally FrEe, how they’re related to each other, some of the skills and behaviors that we use, how to start training for that. I’m really looking forward to that one because of course that’s my passion.

I have another class, I think it’s in December maybe, a new class for me, also, Mission Accomplished. That class is going to focus on finishing up and completing all of those dozens of behaviors that we all start and never finish. That might be maybe because we’re stuck, we don’t know how to finish it, or maybe it’s just because we love that acquisition phase. We love starting new behaviors, and so we have dozens of new behaviors started, but we can’t seem to complete any of them. So we’ll help you get through and complete some of those.

I’m really looking forward to that class, too. I think it will help a lot of people get over some training humps that they might be experiencing with some behaviors, and so they just move on because they don’t know where to go from there. So that’s going to be a really fun class, I think, too.

Melissa Breau: Not that I’ve ever done that — had a behavior that I …

Julie Flanery: No, none of us! I’m actually pretty good at finishing out behaviors, because in freestyle I have so many behaviors that I could use. Anything I want to train, I could figure out how to use it in freestyle. So I always have a motivation usually to finish out a behavior, or if I’ve got a theme that I want to use, or anything like that. I always have use for the behaviors that I train, and that motivates me to complete them.

Melissa Breau: I’m sure that will be a popular class because I’m sure it’s pretty common. To round things out, my last question for everyone these days — what’s something you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Julie Flanery: You know, I’ve heard you ask that question before, and so I knew that was coming up. There was a post, a Facebook post, the other day from one of our Fenzi family members. Esther Zimmerman talked about her Golden, and her Golden starting to refuse some cues, or just not seeming right in training.

She talked about some of the steps she went through in her own mind — oh gosh, I’m going to get teary-eyed about this, oh dear — about how her dog’s welfare, and listening to what her dog was telling her, and not assuming that the dog was being stubborn, or blowing her off, or spiteful, or any of those things that we sometimes hear or maybe even sometimes think that in our own training, and that by really considering our dog’s point of view, and why they might not be responding the way they normally do, that really hits home with me. And gosh, this is horrible, Melissa!

Melissa Breau: I think I know the post you’re talking about, where she was, like, the first day your dog doesn’t seem quite into training, OK, well, we just won’t do this today, and put them away. The next day, they’re still not quite into training and you’re, like, “Hmm, I wonder if there’s something wrong,” and by the third day it’s, “OK, it’s time to go see a vet.”

Julie Flanery: And there really was something wrong, and it was just so kind of her, the way she talked about this. I know we all have that same philosophy, but sometimes we need reminding of that.

My dog has had health issues. She’s 8 years old now and she’s had health issues all of her life. It can be difficult for me to sometimes read whether this is due to discomfort, is she not feeling well, but in the end it really doesn’t matter what the reason is. What matters is that we take the dog into account, that we listen to what they’re telling us through their behavior, and that we don’t make assumptions about their motivation. They can’t tell us when they’re feeling not right, not good.

And it might just be a little thing, but continuing to train when our animals are not feeling up to par … if you consider how do you feel when you go into work and you woke up with a stuffy nose and a headache or a migraine, you’re not going to be at your best, and you’re likely going to resent that workplace environment because you have to be there. So it just reminded me to take my dog into account and listen more to her when she’s giving me some of these signals.

Sorry about that! I didn’t mean to go into soap opera mode!

Melissa Breau: No, you’re fine. I think it’s a great reminder.

Julie Flanery: I think that’s really, really important, and we can lose sight of that because we have goals in our training. We have goals when we are working in these performance sports. These aren’t our dogs’ goals. These aren’t our dogs’ goals, and thank goodness they’re willing to do this with us. So it’s up to us to protect them in these environments, in these training situations, where they may not be feeling all that well.

So thank you, Esther, for reminding me of that fact. Keeping track of my dog, my dog’s health, and how she’s feeling during a training session.

Her and Amy Cook. Amy Cook has really changed a lot of my perspectives these last couple of years in training. So a big shout-out to Amy Cook on her work with emotions and training as well.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Julie. I’m so glad you could come back on the podcast.

Julie Flanery: I am glad too. It was really, really fun. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We’ll be back next week, this time with Julie Daniels to talk building canine confidence.

If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.

CREDITS:

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!

Aug 31 2018

41mins

Play

Rank #12: E109: Jessica Hekman, DVM, PhD. - What Makes Dogs' Brains Tick

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Description: This week we bring back Dr. Jessica Hekman to talk about what the science says on topics like when or if you should spay and neuter, how socialization actually works, and more!

Next Week: 4/19 Helene Lawler to talk about herding and living with intact dogs.

Apr 12 2019

28mins

Play

Rank #13: E100: Loretta Mueller - "Small Space Skills for Agility"

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Summary:

Loretta Mueller has been involved in agility since 2003.

She and her dogs are no strangers to the finals at the USDAA World Championships, and she coaches the World Agility Organization (WAO) USA Agility Team. She also runs Full Tilt Agility Training in central Minnesota.

Outside of the agility world, Loretta has been involved in herding, competitive obedience, rally, and service dog training.

Next Episode: 2/15/2019 with Hannah Branigan

Feb 08 2019

17mins

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Rank #14: E97: Positive Training 2.0 - How did we get here?

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Summary:

In this episode we do things a bit differently - a few episodes ago I was talking to Amy Cook and she mentioned something that’s stuck with me - the concept of R+ 2.0. The idea is that positive training has come a long way from when it was first introduced… and likely has further still to go.

So we’re going to dedicate this episode and the next few to discussing that idea - where positive training came from, how it grew in the US, and where the future lies.

This week we’re chatting with Deb Jones — she’s not a stranger to the podcast, so many of you have probably heard us chat previously, but what you may not know is that she was an early pioneer for positive training in the US, so today we’re going to talk about how positive training got to where it is today.

Next Episode: 1/18/2019

Jan 15 2019

27mins

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Rank #15: E124: Bad Dog! Dealing with Unwanted Canine Behavior

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Description: Chrissi Schranz, Chelsey Protulipac, and Tania Lanfer join me to talk about dealing with problem behaviors like resource guarding, jumping, counter surfing, and unwanted chasing! 

Jul 26 2019

56mins

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Rank #16: E122: All About Puppies: Socialization, Foundations, Playtime & More

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Description: I'm joined by Dr. Jennifer Summerfield, Amanda Boyd, Casey Coughlin, and Sara Brueske — our Pet Professionals Program instructors — to talk about working with puppies!

Jul 12 2019

1hr 4mins

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Rank #17: E89: Barbara Currier - Learning to Love the Weaves

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Summary:

In 2004 Barbara Currier and her husband Michael were relocated to Richmond, VA, where she began teaching agility at All Dog Adventures. It was there that Barbara was introduced to Susan Garrett and her foundation-based training, centered around impulse control and relationship building with your dog.  

She continues to train with some of the best handlers in the world and has implemented what she has learned from each of them into her training program. She became heavily involved in the OneMind Dogs handling method in 2014. She has successfully competed in agility with over 10 different breeds of dogs.

Along the way, she started her own in home training and behavioral rehabilitation business. She was the trainer for Richmond Boxer Rescue and also assisted Southeastern Virginia Golden Retriever Rescue in assessing some of their dogs. Over the years, Barbara has worked extensively with many rescue organizations in numerous states.

Barbara has also worked as an animal wrangler for Marvel’s Ant-Man, 90 Minutes in Heaven, the TV series Satisfaction and various commercials. She is also the head dog trainer for the F.I.D.O Program run at Georgia Tech which creates wearable computing for military, SAR and service dogs.

Links:

Next Episode:

To be released 11/23/2018, we'll be talking to Amy Cook about overcoming sound sensitivity.

TRANSCRIPTION:

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 Barbara Currier.

In 2004, Barbara and her husband Michael were relocated to Richmond, Va., where she began teaching agility at All Dog Adventures. It was there that Barbara was introduced to Susan Garrett and her foundation-based training, centered around impulse control and relationship-building with your dog.  

She continues to train with some of the best handlers in the world and has implemented what she has learned from each of them into her training program. She became heavily involved in the OneMind Dogs handling method in 2014. She has successfully competed in agility with over ten different breeds of dogs.

Along the way, she started her own in-home training and behavioral rehabilitation business. She was the trainer for the Richmond Boxer Rescue and also assisted Southeastern Virginia Golden Retriever Rescue in assessing some of their dogs. Over the years, Barbara has worked extensively with many different rescue organizations in numerous states.

She also worked as an animal wrangler for Marvel’s Ant-Man, 90 Minutes in Heaven, the TV series Satisfaction, and various commercials. She is the head dog trainer for the F.I.D.O Program run at Georgia Tech, which creates wearable computing for military, search-and-rescue (SAR), and service dogs.

Hi Barbara, welcome back to the podcast!

Barbara Currier: Hi, thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely! Excited to chat again. To start us out, can you remind listeners who your dogs are and what you’re working on with them?

Barbara Currier: Sure. My oldest is Piper. She’s a 10-year-old Parson Russell Terrier, and she pretty much just does dock diving. She loves that. She’s not happy that the season has ended now, so she’s in her winter rest, which doesn’t make her real happy, but she loves her dock diving. And then I have Blitz, who is my 9-year-old Border Collie. He is retired from agility. He also does dock diving now, and he is also my medical alert service dog. And then I have Miso. She is my 4-year-old Miniature Poodle. She is my main agility dog right now. She is also a medical alert service dog. And my newest is Eggo. He will turn a year tomorrow. He is my English Cocker that I imported from Europe. He is doing agility. He’s not competing yet, he’s still very young, he’s only going to be a year. But he is hopefully going to have a promising career in agility, and he’s also doing dock diving, which he already is obsessed with.

Melissa Breau: That’s fun. The waffle, right?

Barbara Currier: Yes, that’s the waffle.

Melissa Breau: So I wanted to focus on weave poles today, since I know you have a class on that coming up, but as a non-agility person I’m going to totally admit that some of my questions are a little on the basic side. First off — wow. Without knowing how to train them, if you look at weave poles in general, it seems like such a complex behavior. Can you break it down for us a little bit? What pieces or skills have to come together to have really well-trained weave poles?

Barbara Currier: Weaves are actually my most favorite piece of equipment to teach out of all the agility equipment. It’s the hardest behavior for the dogs to learn because it’s the most unnatural. But if you look at agility as a whole, it’s pretty much all natural behaviors for the dogs, things that you would see them doing if they were out running in the woods, except you don’t normally see them weaving through trees. So weave poles is very unnatural, and so it can be quite difficult to teach them that. I find it such a fun puzzle to teach it, and I love to make it a game for them so that they find it as much fun as I do.

The downside on weaves is it can be hard on their bodies, so you just want to make sure that they’re physically ready to ask what we want them to do. You want to make sure that they’re old enough and that they’re strong enough, because it can be quite taxing on them.

One of the parts of weave poles is the dog must learn to always enter with the first pole at their left shoulder and then continue the rhythm through all twelve poles. It’s a very specific behavior, and it can be difficult for the dogs to do this at extreme speeds and still maintain all twelve poles. So they have to learn how to use their bodies so that they’re at full speed and they can hit all twelve poles. Oftentimes the dogs will pop out if they haven’t been taught properly how to do that, or they’ll get their entry and not be able to hold on to the poles, because there’s a lot of things that come together with weave poles. There’s a lot of body awareness, there’s a lot of them knowing how to rock their weight back on their haunches to collect to get into the poles, there’s footwork involved.

There’s two different styles of footwork in poles. There’s the swimming or the single-stepping and then there is the bounce stride. Most big dogs single step and most little dogs bounce stride, which looks like a rabbit hopping in between. I say “most” because I do know quite a few big dogs that bounce stride and they do just fine, their weaves are just as fast, it’s not a problem. But people sometimes get a little too hung up on the footwork. If they have a big dog and they see their big dog is bounce striding, they don’t like that, they want to make them single-stride. But I think it’s important to let the dog choose what is most comfortable for their body type and for the way they move, as long as they’re not doing a combination of both. That tends to have problems.

But you really want it to become muscle memory for the dog, so that when they’re doing the behavior, they’re not thinking about it, they’re just doing it. That’s where the speed comes from. The more that they think about it, the slower it is, the more methodical it is, so we want it to become muscle memory so that they’re just going through the motions.

Melissa Breau: Just to make sure everybody’s on the same page, single step you’re talking about when they go into the weaves and it’s, “OK, I’m on my left foot on the left side and my right front foot on the right side,” and bounce is when they have both feet on the ground on each side, right?

Barbara Currier: Yes, yes.  

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I wanted to make sure because, you know, terminology and stuff. Even not knowing much about the topic, I’ve heard of things like 2X2 training, I’ve seen trainers use guide wires, moving poles and gradually bringing them closer together, and things like that. Can you briefly explain what some of the different methods ARE that are out there, what those things are, what people are talking about?

Barbara Currier: There’s basically three different methods to training weave poles. There’s the 2X2 method, where you teach them — much like it says in the name — you teach them two poles at a time.

The channel method, where it basically looks like a chute of weave poles and you slowly can close the chute — it’s the way the base is made so that it slowly comes together — so the dog starts with running down the middle of the poles in a straight line, and then as the poles start to come closer and closer together, the dog has to start weaving to do it.

The third one is the guide wires, where it’s guide wires that are put on the poles, so it looks like a maze that the dog walks through and they can learn that way.

Melissa Breau: That’s interesting. Which approach do you usually use for your dogs and what are you using in the class?

Barbara Currier: My preference is the 2X2 method. The base of my preference is from the method that I learned from Susan Garrett with her 2X2’s, and then I have, over the years, adapted for some things with my own dogs and some holes that I was constantly seeing with dogs that were coming to me.

I’m kind of known as the weave guru in my parts, and so whenever people start having weave problems, they come to me. I kept seeing a lot of the same issues, and even with people that had taught their dogs with 2X2’s. But what was interesting was I didn’t see the issues with my dogs, and I wasn’t sure quite at first what I was doing differently than what everybody else was doing, where my dogs weren’t having this issue but other people’s were.

I took a young dog that I was just training, and I basically documented every single thing I did to try to find what I was doing differently than what everybody else was doing, and found that it was a lot in my beginning stages of my approaches that would prevent these holes from happening that I was seeing in other people’s dogs. And so I have modified it to adding more of that stuff in, and a little bit of other things that I have found here and there that have helped with it, I think.

Melissa Breau: When you say approaches, you mean the dogs approaching the poles, or are you talking about something else?

Barbara Currier: Yes, when the dog approaches the poles. In the class, we do what’s called “entries” on an around-the-clock game, so you have your poles in the middle, and you pretend you’re standing on a clock and you work through your different entries.

But what I was finding with a lot of people is a lot of people stayed at the straight-on approaches or the more straightforward easy approaches, and I wasn’t being methodical about this, I just didn’t do it. I did not stay at those approaches much. I stayed at the harder approaches. And so right from the beginning the dogs would learn to bend and hit those weave entries from a more difficult angle and would speed right from the beginning. On two poles, it’s easy. The reward comes fast and it’s easy to find, and so I was finding that with my dogs I was building up the muscling along their spine right from the beginning and was building up that drive to find the pole, really dig in, and grab that entry. So I do very few easy entries right off from the beginning, and I don’t really concern myself with those entries until I start adding in the full six and the full twelve, because I consider those entries easy.

Where those entries become difficult is when the dogs are at full speed and they have to learn how to power down to get into their poles. So I worry about that once I start adding in sequencing and that type of thing, but from the beginning I work those hard entrances right at the first two poles, and it seems to help with some of the fallout that happens down the road, like getting the entry and not being able to hang on to the poles, or missing the entry and going into the second pole, and those types of things.

Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting. I was actually going to ask you, this feeds well into what my next question was, which I think our listeners, in particular, are probably pretty familiar with the idea of building up skills gradually, but it seems like there are so many pieces to the weave poles. There are so many different axes that you have to gradually make more difficult. You’ve got your speed, you’re got the number of poles, you’ve got the entries, you’ve got the sequencing, your more advanced handling … so can you talk a little more about how you juggle all those different pieces? Is there an order that makes sense for people as they try and put the things together? Do you work on them in different training sessions? How does that work? How do you approach it?

Barbara Currier: I start with two poles and teach the dog to find the entry from all the different angles, and with speed and enthusiasm right from the start. And then, again, like I mentioned before, the reward comes fast when you’re only using two poles, so it’s the perfect time to get the dog to think that the game is really, really fun.

I also keep my sessions incredibly short, like, three correct entries on each side and then done. So my dogs are looking at me like, “Seriously, that’s it? That’s all we get?” And I’m like, “Yes, that’s it, we’re done. That was the session.” And so the more we play this game, and it’s super-fast and it’s super-fun and it all happens really fast, the more they’re like, “Oh my god, this is the most fun game ever.” All my dogs love weave poles so much because I keep everything so fast and exciting, and when they’re like, “This is the most fun on Earth,” I’m like, “Yeah, I know, and we’re done now.” And they’re thinking, “What, what? No, I was just getting into it.” And I’m like, “We’ve got to wait until the next session.” So I really want them to love, love the game.

The other thing that’s important is that I don’t worry about if they’re wrong. I want them to make mistakes. If they’re not making mistakes, it’s too easy. But I also want them to understand that making a mistake is not a big deal. I want them to learn how to fail and just keep trying with the same amount of enthusiasm. Often, dogs, when they make a mistake, they’re like, “Oh, I can’t do it anymore. It’s so hard. That reward didn’t come, I can’t do it, I can’t do it,” and then the owner gets stressed and then the dog gets stressed, and suddenly it’s a meltdown for everyone. When my dogs make a mistake, it’s just, “Oh my god, we’re going to try that again!” and they just don’t get the reward and they’re like, “OK, OK, I’ll be better this time. I’ll get it, I’ll get it.” To them, it’s just like a mystery they’re trying to solve, or a puzzle they’re trying to figure out, and so they’re super-happy to try again for me and it’s not a big deal. There’s never any shutdown and “Oh, this is too hard, this is too hard.”

Now, if they fail twice in a row, I will take a step back and I might back-train, like, “This maybe standing here at 3 o’clock is a little too hard for you, but what if I stand at 2:30? Can you do it at 2:30?” And we’ll go from there. If they’re correct a couple of times at 2:30, then I’ll go to 2:45 and “How is this? Can we do this now?” And so on and so on.

From there we move to four poles and follow the same thing as above, and then we move on to six poles. Of course we angle them a certain way, and then we gradually make them straighter and straighter. I stay at six poles until I’m in love with the dog’s footwork, speed, and understanding of their job.

Oftentimes a lot of people will get to six and then they’re like, “Now it’s twelve.” But the dog doesn’t fully understand their job yet, and all we’ve done by adding in six more is we’ve just made it harder, we’ve made the reward farther away, and the dogs really start to slow down. So I’m in no rush to leave six until I’m in love with the behavior the dog is showing me.

I really want them to be confident in their footwork. I really want to see what we talked about earlier, the muscle memory, and not so much the hard thinking about the job. I want all that to come out now, so that when we move on to twelve, then it’s just getting the stamina of doing this behavior longer for twelve poles and just getting the speed going for that long of a distance.

Once I have the footwork and the speed that I really like at the twelve, then I’ll start working in distractions like, Can you do your weave poles when there’s a dog playing tug next to them? Can you do your weave poles if I’m throwing a Frisbee? Can you do your weave poles if I have a plate of chicken next to you? All these things so that when they get into working in a trial environment, the stuff that I like to call my “torture,” which my dogs love because it’s like a super game to them, that they’re like, “Oh yeah, trial distractions. This stuff is easy compared to what Mom does to us at home.” Because they get these huge, massive jackpots when they can go through the weave poles when I’m throwing a Frisbee.

I’ve had a few dogs over the years that were food-driven dogs only, and of course we worked up to this, but one of the things I do with my food-driven dogs for a distraction is I will line the base of the weave poles with steak, and they have to weave over the top of the steak and not touch it. And then, at the end, if they’re successful, they can come back and eat all the steak. It’s so much fun.

Recently, I have a young group of dogs in a class that just started trialing, and they had been with me since they were 8-week-old puppies. Now they’re all trialing and it’s been really cool to see. When they were all learning their weave poles, I had a little Sheltie that was very food-driven, not toy-driven, and we did that and she’s like, “Oh, she’s never going to do it,” and she did it like a rockstar. She was like, “Steak on the weave poles, we’ve got this. I know my job.” So it’s really, really fun.

Once I work through distraction stuff, then I start handling moves. Can you stay in your poles when I’m front crossing before and after the poles? Can you stay in your poles when I’m rear crossing, when I’m blind crossing? And then I add a jump, and now, Can you do your poles when another piece of equipment’s been added to it? Can you do your poles when a jump is after the weave poles, when you see something else coming? Can you do your weave poles when there’s a tunnel nearby, when we’re going to go to a tunnel? Then, once I’m loving all that stuff, then I add the next six and we do the distractions again, and then we start adding in more difficult sequencing.

Melissa Breau: You’ve definitely got it down like a method, an approach, and all the pieces are there. I think that’s important for people to recognize that you do have to work through all those things systematically.

Barbara Currier: Yeah, for sure.

Melissa Breau: Both in the course description and just now, you mention the idea of having your dog LOVE the weave poles. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like a big piece of that is about confidence, making sure that they know how to do the behavior correctly. Can you talk a little bit about that? How does loving the weaves and confidence, how do those things go hand-in-hand when it comes to getting good performance on course?

Barbara Currier: Like I talked about before, it’s all about teaching the dogs that the game is awesome. That means keeping the sessions super-short, making them always want more, making them understand that mistakes are fine, mistakes are not a big deal, and that it’s just a puzzle, this didn’t work, good try, let’s try something else. And the more value that they have in knowing exactly what their job is, the better the performance is going to be and the drive into the weave.

So I do little … I call them mini-weave drills, which I go over in the class too, that I do with my dogs a couple of times a week. I go outside with one stick of cheese, and when that stick of cheese is gone, game over. I take off really big bites, huge hunks, probably an inch piece of cheese, so super-easy to see, not crumbly, and I get maybe four to six pieces of cheese out of one stick. I go out, and whatever course I have set up in my field, and I take all the jumps and I just put the bars in the ground, because for me, when I’m working my mini-weave drills, it’s not necessarily about the jumping. It’s about the love for the weave.

So I put all the bars in the ground, and then I just randomly walk around the field, and from different approaches of jumps without having bars, I send my dogs to the weaves, sometimes with motion, sometimes with no motion, and I will sometimes do very weird handling moves, things that you would never see in a course. I will send them to the weirdest types of entries.

Sometimes my husband will come out with me, and he doesn’t really know agility very well, so I’ll say, “Tell me how to get some of these weaves, tell me something.” He’ll be like, “All right. Go from that jump to the weave.” And it’s completely random, she has to skip, like, four jumps, or do this massive, crazy entry, and we do it and it’s fun and she thinks it’s the most amazing game. I do that a couple of times a week and it’s super-easy, it’s quick, she gets these big hunks of cheese, which are like a meal for her, and so she thinks that weave poles are the most fun thing in the world to do.

In fact, my agility field is fenced off from the rest of my property, so when the dogs are outside, they can’t get into the agility field. They all run to the field gate all the time, and if I let them in, the first thing they do is run over to the weave poles because they’re like, “Oh, are we doing those drills? Because those are super-fun.” That’s what you want to get from your dogs, and that’s going to get that performance. When I’m at trials and I say to my dogs, “Go weave,” they hit those weaves with such intensity and such stride, and they dig in so hard to get those entries and keep those poles, and they work so hard because I created so much value for the poles.

Melissa Breau: To take a little bit of a step back, I guess, when people are working on things, what are some of the common training mistakes people make as they’re trying to teach weaves? What problems do they cause? If you’re looking at a little bit of problem-solving there, what do you see people doing that maybe isn’t optimal?

Barbara Currier: The biggest one is moving too fast. Moving to twelve poles before the dog is solid at six. I tell my students there’s no trophy or title for the person who can train their weaves the fastest.

When people get six, they’re like, “I’m just going to add on the next six and it’s going to be great,” because we all want to say, “My dog has twelve poles,” but all you’re doing by moving too fast is that the dog is not clear on what their job is, you’re getting slow, inconsistent weaves that have to be managed or babysat because the dog doesn’t really understand. So they’re just going to get slower and slower, and they’re going to get frustrated because they’re going to be confused, and then you’re going to get frustrated, and it becomes this vicious cycle.

That’s usually when people start coming to me and “My dog can get the entries, but they can’t hold on,” that type of thing. So then they come to me, and I often find that they moved to twelve poles before the dogs really understood six, and my advice is always, “Let’s go back to the beginning. We need to redo this.”

Melissa Breau: My next question is, how do you problem-solve some of those issues? Do you basically just do that, take a step back, go back to six poles and retrain all those different aspects before you go back to twelve, or is there more to it?

Barbara Currier: It depends exactly what the issue is. The most common problems are missing entries at speed. If it’s a missing entry problem, I usually recommend that we go back to two poles, so that we can start with, Can you find your entry from all different areas without having to have the dog wait for the reward to get through all six poles, if that makes sense. Because, again, the reward comes quicker on two poles than it does on six poles, so it’s easier gratification for the dog. So I like to, for missed entries, start back at two poles, and then I work up to the four, up to the six.

Now, with a dog that already understands the concept of poles, it goes really fast. It doesn’t take long at all to revisit these things and get the dog to understand. If the dog is having problems with they get their entry, but then they can’t hold on to the poles because they’re going at speed, then I will start them back at four poles or six poles, but add in sequencing, so coming off of a tunnel so we’ve got some speed, and teaching them how to grab that entry and hold on to the poles.

With that, they also need to be building up some muscling for it. And so a lot of it, I think, with those dogs comes from doing more straight-on approaches and not enough of the angle approaches from the very beginning, where they can build up that strength along their spine.

One of the other ones is the popping out at ten poles, which a lot of dogs do. Oftentimes I find those are from the handlers that try to lead the dogs, whether they’re going lateral, or they’re trying to get a little bit ahead, and they never taught the independent poles from the beginning. They really babysat the poles because they wanted the dog to be right so badly, so they stayed back and they matched the dog’s speed and they were right there, but once they wanted to put them into sequencing, they wanted to leave, but we didn’t actually teach the dog that, and so now the dogs are like, “Well, you’re leaving, so I’m leaving too.” So when I teach this from the very beginning, it is completely independent from the handler. We are quite far away from the beginning. We have nothing to do with it, we don’t help them, we don’t lure them through the entry, we don’t do any of that. It’s all on them.

So it’s quite easy the way I teach it from the beginning to have that lateral independence, because we teach it to them from the very beginning, as long as you continue with it. Because oftentimes what I’ll see is the dogs have these amazing independence when we get through the end of the training, but then the owners go right back to babysitting and then the dogs will lose it. So I have to constantly remind my students, “Your dog has the skill. Trust them. Let them show you they can do it, and leave them.”

Melissa Breau: This is a question I don’t usually ask here on the podcast, but I used to love, back when I was a journalist asking this question, because it seems to always get unexpected nuggets of interesting information, and since I have never trained a dog to weave and don’t know a ton about the topic, obviously you’re the expert — is there anything important that I didn’t think to ask or that you’d want people to think about as they’re working on weave poles with their dog?

Barbara Currier: Probably the most important thing about weave poles that I think sometimes gets overlooked, forgotten, or people don’t think it’s as important as it should be is: your dog must be done with growing before you teach weave poles.

Like I said in the beginning, it’s one of the hardest obstacles on their body, and I always make sure, when I have young dogs, that I take them and have them x-rayed to be positive that their growth plates have closed before I start training weave poles. You can do a lot of damage to them. It’s very hard on their shoulders, it’s very hard on their spine, it can be hard on their neck, and it’s not something you want to do until you’re a hundred percent sure that they are done growing.

The other great thing about doing the x-rays is that usually, around 14 months, I always have full x-rays done of shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees, and so, one, I can tell if the growth plates are closed or not closed, and depending on your breed … I have a student that has a borzoi, and she x-rayed her at 14 months and her growth plates were nowhere near done being closed. But she’s a Borzoi, but it was good information to have, because we certainly, especially with a breed that large, don’t want to be doing even contacts, if their growth plates aren’t closed, and hers didn’t close for quite a while after that, so that’s really important information to have.

It also gives you a picture of what your dog’s body looks like before you do the sport with them, whether you’ve got any elbow dysplasia or hip dysplasia. Without getting a picture, some dogs don’t even show these things, and to me, I just think it’s super-important to know what you’re starting off with.

Melissa Breau: Right, right, and I would imagine it’s good to have those, heaven forbid they do get injured at some point later on, you have a baseline, a picture to refer to.

Barbara Currier: Yes. For sure. The other thing that I always … and I bring this up in the class, too, is if I have somebody come up to me and they say, “My dog has always weaved really well, and they’re now popping out at pole ten,” or “They can’t hit their entry, but they never had a problem with it before,” my first thought is, Your dog probably has an injury, and that needs to be addressed first.

As all the Fenzi instructors try to teach, dogs are not out to try to make us mad and push our buttons. That’s not the way dogs work. So if your dog is all of a sudden exhibiting something that is unusual for them, the first thing I check is injuries.

My poodle, who loves her weave poles, a tell for me that she has a rib out is if she misses her weave entry, because she never misses weave entries. So if she can’t hold on, I immediately leave the ring and will bring her to a chiropractor, and sure enough, she’ll have a rib out. I certainly don’t want her running with a rib out. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a rib out before, but it is incredibly painful, and I don’t want her running like that.

And so I let my dogs tell me. I don’t just assume, “Oh, she’s being bad,” or “She’s being lazy.” I assume, “Oh, you’re really trying to tell me something, and what you’re telling me is, ‘That really hurts, I need some help here.’” Once we get everything back, she’s totally fine, but I certainly wouldn’t want to be annoyed at her and expect her to run all weekend like that. So that’s something that I try to instill in my students is make sure that we’re thinking about that, first and foremost.

Sometimes there is … something’s happened. Sometimes what can happen is if they get an injury, the injury is then fixed, but they now associate poles with pain. And so sometimes we have to go back and desensitize them to that and say, “Look, see, it doesn’t hurt anymore, so we can do these again.” Or something has happened and our training has whittled away and we need to go back and take a look at that. But I always try to stress that people make sure that somebody checks them first that it’s not an injury or something going on that way that’s affecting their weave poles.

Melissa Breau: Let’s chat about the course for a minute. It’s called “Love ’em and Weave ’em,” and it’s on the calendar for December, which this is coming out on, I believe, the 16th of November, so registration will be opening the week after this comes out. What level of training should dogs and handlers have, if they’re interested in the class? Can you talk a little bit about that, and what you’ll cover, who it’s designed for, that kind of stuff?

Barbara Currier: For this class, the dogs should already know weave poles. It moves a little too fast for a dog that doesn’t know weave poles. I think later on in the year Julie Daniels has a foundation weave class coming up, and that would be the class for the dogs that don’t know weave poles at all yet. But this one is for dogs that know weaves, but the handlers aren’t in love with the performance.

It will address all the common problems: the going too slow, the inconsistent footwork, the getting the entry but not being able to hang on, missing the entry, popping out pole ten, it will address all of those things.

It will also give you the independence so that you can put them in the weaves and leave them and get to where you need to go next. The way I think about my weave poles is, when I send my dog through a tunnel, I want to just be able to say “tunnel,” and know that they’re going to come out the other end. I’m not expecting that they’re going try to dig out the middle of the tunnel. So I want my weave poles to be the same way. When I send you in Pole 1, I expect to see you exit at Pole 12, and I’m going to go do what I need to do. That’s your job, I’ve got my job, we’ll meet at the end, is my theory. So that’s what this course will teach.

Melissa Breau: One last question – it’s the question I’ve been asking everybody when they come back on. What’s a lesson you’ve learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Barbara Currier: Probably to train the dog that’s in front of you. Often we go out expecting to train one thing, and the dog’s telling us that they need to work on something completely different. And we really have to listen to them and be flexible in what they need, because if you think about it, they’re the ones doing the hard work. They’re the ones running and jumping and doing all of this crazy stuff. Oftentimes I go out with my plan of, “Today we’re going to go out and work on threadles,” and my dog says, “No, today I’m struggling with my start line stay, and so that’s what we’re going to end up working on.” So you have to be willing to abort mission and listen to what the dog is telling you.

Sometimes my dog says, “You know what, I’m not feeling it today,” and I say, “All right, let’s go play a game instead,” or “Let’s go for a hike,” because I wake up some mornings and don’t want to work, and my dogs are no different. So you really need to listen to your dogs and hear what they’re trying to tell us.

And also to embrace and love the dog that you have and stop mourning the dog that they’re not.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Barbara! I love that.

Barbara Currier: Thanks for having me. It’s so much fun!

Melissa Breau: It is! And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with Amy Cook to talk about noise sensitivity in dogs and what you can do about it.

If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.

CREDITS:

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.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

Nov 16 2018

34mins

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Rank #18: E132: Sarah Brueske- "Getting Started: Marker Cues & Foundation Skills"

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Description: Today I'm joined by Sara Brueske to talk about the recent crazy in using multiple marker cues (and why they've become so popular!) plus her approach to using them as foundation for her training.

Sep 20 2019

24mins

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Rank #19: E127: Julie Symons - "Having Fun With Obedience"

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Description:A lot of people think of competition obedience as 'boring' — not Julie Symons! Julie and I chat about keeping obedience skills fun through the use of games... and she gives us a peek into her Obedience Games Starter and Obedience Games classes! 

Aug 16 2019

26mins

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Rank #20: E87: Jessica Hekman, DVM, PhD., - Choosing A Dog Based on Genetics

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Summary:

I got an email a few weeks ago from a listener, asking if I’d consider doing a podcast on doing sports with rescue dogs and/or dogs who join the family as adults. She suggested a number of excellent questions … so this will be the second of two podcasts where we’ll look specifically at rescues and training for adult dogs.

Next Episode:

To be released 11/09/2018, we'll be talking to Linda P. Case, well known for her work in nutrition and focus on the science of dog training, about those two topics!

TRANSCRIPTION:

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 doing something a little differently. I got an email a few weeks ago from a listener, asking if I’d consider doing a podcast on doing sports with rescue dogs and/or dogs who join the family as adults. She suggested a number of excellent questions … so this will be the second of two podcasts where we’ll look specifically at rescues and training for adult dogs.

The previous one was with Sara Brueske, and for this episode of the podcast, I’m here with Dr. Jessica Hekman.

Dr. Hekman is a postdoctoral associate at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where she researches how genetics affect behavior in pet and working dogs. Jessica received her Ph.D. in Animal Sciences in 2017 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studied canid behavioral genetics, so very on-topic for us.

Previously, she graduated from the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2012 with a dual DVM/MS degree. Her Master's work was on behavior and the cortisol responses of healthy dogs to being hospitalized overnight. She also completed a shelter medicine veterinary internship at the University of Florida Maddie's Shelter Medicine Program.

Hi Jessica! Welcome to the podcast.

Jessica Hekman: Hey Melissa. Thanks so much for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, do you mind just reminding everyone a little bit about who your current pups are, and maybe share where they came from and at what point in their lives?

Jessica Hekman: Absolutely. We almost heard from them while you were in the middle of your intro. I think somebody went by outside and they both ran to the door and started squeaking a little bit, and I was like, “Shh, shh, dogs. I’m on a podcast. Be really quiet!” This is their downtime.

So I have two. My older one is Jenny, that’s short for Guinevere, and she is a mixy-mix. I had her tested with Wisdom Panel, turns out she’s probably Labrador/Samoyed. She came from a shelter, and we know from the shelter that she is at least part Lab, so that much is true. She’s a very, very cute little blonde, 35 pounder. She looks like a little Border Collie who’s Golden Retriever colored, so she’s super-cute.

And Dash, which is short for Dashell, is an English Shepherd and he is a little bit over 2 years old. I got Jenny when she was 13 months old, and Dash was my first puppy ever, so I got him at 9 weeks.

Melissa Breau: There are, I think, lots of good reasons to have you on, but before we get into some of the professional stuff, I was hoping, as somebody who has one dog that was a rescue and one that you got from a breeder, if you’d talk a little about that piece. With Jenny, my understanding is you adopted a dog, you knew there was some serious stuff going on there, you’d have to work on it from a training perspective. Can you talk a little bit about where she was when you brought her home, where she is now, and what kind of work you put in to get her there?

Jessica Hekman: Yeah, sure. Jenny definitely has a long and interesting story. I had just finished up my Master’s and was going back to finish up veterinary school. I was a third-year vet student and I had a lovely, behaviorally very healthy Golden Retriever named Jack, who I adored, and I wanted to get a second dog.

So I was looking around at shelters, and a really close friend of mine was doing her shelter medicine internship and came across this dog. I later found out she was actually joking when she emailed me to say, “There’s this dog, maybe you want her,” because she was like, “This dog’s crazy. Clearly you wouldn’t want this dog, ha ha ha.” I got the email and I was like, “Oh, that sounds great,” and afterwards she was like, “I don’t know what you were thinking.”

I like to say she comes from an “oops” litter, except it was the “dogs do that sometimes” litter. She was from a farm that was in rural upstate New York outside of Ithaca. I think they had some number of dogs they just knew were going to have litters sometimes — not so much of an “oops” litter as “oh yeah, that happens.”

At some point Animal Control came to that farm and said, “You have nine dogs and that’s too many, and you need to give some up.” So they took the two 10-month-old puppies from their most recent litter, I gather, and took them in to Tompkins County Humane Society and said, “Here, you can have these, and that will get us back down to seven dogs and everyone will be happy.”

Apparently the owner was surprised to discover that these two dogs were super-shy. They hadn’t noticed anything behaviorally wrong with the dogs, but due to the fact, I think, that the dogs had never, ever been off their farm at all, and I don’t believe any socialization had been done with them at all, then the dogs had thought that their whole world was this little farm, and when they came into the shelter discovered the world was much larger than that, they were horrified.

There was one woman working at the shelter at the time as a behavior consultant, had a Master’s in behavior, and she referred to them as “toxically cute.” They were these ridiculously, looked like identical twins, girl and boy, cream colored, so cute, 10 months old, and she said they had people lining up to adopt them, but they knew that they were going to be behaviorally really challenging.

So they gave these two dogs to a pair of guys who tried really hard with them but apparently didn’t have so much the dog skills necessary and did some stuff that we know is not the best way to convince a shy dog to like you, such as luring them close with canned cheese and then trying to pet them when they had lured them close, which then taught the dogs that cheese was terrifying, for example.

After a month or so of that, the dogs were not warming up to them at all, and so Jenny came back into the shelter, but they kept her. She was fostered by this behavior consultant, and that was when I found out about her. Shortly after I took her, her brother came back and moved in and took her spot with the behavior consultant.

They wanted to place her with me because I had this dog who was going to be a really good influence on her and teach her that people were not scary. When I first met her, I couldn’t make eye contact with her because she would tremble. She’s not aggressive at all. She just entirely shuts down, so she’ll huddle in a corner and shake. So I couldn’t make eye contact with her because she would complete decompensate when I made eye contact with her. I couldn’t touch her.

We were living in Massachusetts, and my then-boyfriend and I drove out to Ithaca to meet her and decide that we wanted her and pick her up, and her foster mom had to lift her into the car for us because she would pee whenever we touched her, and when we got home and getting her out of the car, she peed.

She lived for the first few weeks on her dog bed, and I kept a harness with a one-foot-long tab on her at all times. When it was time to go outside, I would crawl on the floor backwards, not making eye contact with her, to attach a leash to the tab so that I didn’t have to touch her, and take her outside.

After a few days of this, I was going through this ritual of crawling backwards towards her as she stood up and very clearly said, “No. I understand the situation. I can take it from here, and you don’t have to put that thing on me. It’s horrifying.” So we went down outside together, and I had this big, safely fenced yard, but it was almost half an acre, and I remember thinking, Am I ever going to get this dog back inside? I was like, Well, let’s just see what happens. So I let her out and she did her business and came back in. And that’s very Jenny, being terrified of the world but really wanting to make her way in it, and thinking outside the box to try to figure out what’s going to happen.

She did not let my husband, my then-boyfriend, touch her for about the first six months that we had her. It took a week before I could touch her. The first time I ever had a stranger in the house after I got her, she hid in a corner, pooped, and sat in it, so that was lovely. It took her weeks to stop submission-urinating.

I still remember the first night that we were sleeping in the bed and she was on her dog bed at the other end of the room, didn’t want to sleep in the bed with us but was willing to be in the room with us, and I had given her a pig’s ear. Whenever I gave her food, she’d tuck it under her chest and be like, “I’ll eat this later when no one can see me and it’s safe.” I remember around midnight, after we’d been in bed for a couple of hours and it was dark, she felt safe enough and I could hear her start to crunch on the pig ear. I remember lying there in the dark, smiling to myself and thinking, Oh, she’s doing better.

So what did I do with her? She came to me on fluoxetine, which is a behavioral medication that is effective in a lot of dogs, but it is the one behavioral medication that general practice veterinarians tend to feel comfortable with, and it was a general practice veterinarian who had prescribed it. So I took her to a veterinary behaviorist. I was a vet student at the time, so I had a friend who was doing her behavior residency. I had Jenny go meet with her. and she prescribed a different medication that she thought would be more appropriate for Jenny’s particular issues, and she has done very well on that. She has continued to improve. I’ve had her for nine years now. Our Gotcha Day anniversary is coming up on New Year’s Day this year. She’s just continued to improve.

At first, it was really, really hard. When we let her outside, she had trouble coming back in if there had been a stranger in the house over the last few hours. If I was out and my husband let her out, sometimes she wouldn’t come back in. He’d call and say, “Can’t get her in,” and I’d say, “You have to leave the door open and walk outside and get behind her so she’ll go in,” and he’d say, “But it’s January in New England, can’t you come home?” I’d say, “No, I’m on clinics in vet school, they won’t let me leave for another twelve hours.” So it was really hard.

She gradually started being able to make friends. I needed to have someone who could come let her out to pee when I was working these fifteen-hour days, so I had to pay this dog walker to come five or six times while I was there and pay her to come get to know Jenny, and then she was able to start coming and Jenny was able to warm up to her, so that was really nice.

When I finished vet school a year-and-a-half later, and I moved down to Florida for my internship, had to drive the dogs down there, Jenny hadn’t ever taken a long car trip before or really been off the property all that much. We’d been to the vet a couple of times, but I was minimizing it because it was so traumatic for her. So we drove down to Florida, a five-day drive because we took it slow, and she didn’t pee for the first 48 hours, so that was terrifying, but she eventually did. She has continued to improve and to change, and so while we were in Florida, we got to the point where instead of huddling in a corner and shaking when people came over, she would roo, which is not the behavior I was aiming for in the end, but showed that she was feeling more confident.

When we then moved to Illinois for my Ph.D., I still remember the very first day that she was willing to go to sleep in the middle of the floor, just stretched out laterally in the middle of the floor. She’d always slept on couches before. I had never seen her sleep in the middle of a floor. When I first got her, she wouldn’t go into the kitchen. She’d run from the kitchen really fast. Now she’s comfortable in any room of the house.

While we were in Urbana, there was a lovely, really big dog park, really nice dog park, and I was able to go at off hours when there weren’t many other dogs there. She was able to do that and be off-leash, and make dog friends, and eventually even make human friends. She even had some human friends that she really liked there.

Now we’re back in Massachusetts. She’s able to hike off-leash with us in the forest, she is able to go to her chiropractor — she has chiropractic problems, probably from being so tense all the time — and she’s able to handle that and not completely decompensate, and when people come over she now understands that while she thinks that all people are axe murderers, some of them do come with cheese, of which she is no longer scared, and so when people come over, she’s nervous at first, they toss her some cheese, and now she’s at the point where she’ll sit and make cute faces at people to get cheese, which is really nice.

The huge thing recently was I have a dog walker come now for her and Dash, and I tell the dog walker, “Let them both out to pee, that will be fine, but only take Dash for a walk. Jenny won’t go for a walk with you.” I got this text message from the dog walker saying, “I asked Dash if he wanted to go for a walk, and Jenny was really excited about it too. Can I take her?” I was like, “Sure, just be prepared to go home if she freaks out.” But she didn’t, and I got these great photographs of her on the walk really happy. So she’s made massive progress. She’s a really different dog than she used to be.

So a lot of behavior modification, a lot of management, a lot of time, and a lot of her trying as well. She really likes people, and she really likes being near people. She’s just scared of them, and I think she’s really made an effort because of that. If she wasn’t so people-social, I don’t think she would have overcome everything as well as she has. But she continues to improve. I thought she’d plateau after a couple of years, but she has not. Nine years and she continues, she’s better this year than she was last year. It’s amazing. She’s a fabulous little dog.

Melissa Breau: Now on the flip side of that, with Dash you did all your homework, and I know you originally had some hopes to do agility with him, but now you’re not sure that that’s the path he’ll take you down. Are you willing to talk about that a little bit?

Jessica Hekman: When I got Jenny, I was interested in fearful dogs and I got sort of a sad project. When I got Dash, I was like, “I want a dog that will be fun, and I want to learn about what it’s like to raise a puppy.”

I was interested in socialization as part of my job and my research, but I also really wanted to do dog sports, and agility in particular. So I went to a breeder who did agility and nosework and some other stuff with her dogs and got Dash. She said, “He’s a very confident puppy and he’s going to be ideal for agility,” and he did start out that way. He then started around 6 months of age to have some fearfulness and to have off and on lameness. I’m a veterinarian and I am not afraid to take him to specialists. I took him to a bunch of specialists trying to figure out what was up with the lameness, and it took a year to find somebody who could diagnose him. It was a complex problem, and so when he was a year-and-a-half old, we finally figured out that he had a tiny little chipped bone in his right elbow, and because he’d been on it for so long now, that that elbow was really painful and his shoulder was showing changes as well because he’d been compensating.

I’d been doing agility foundations and early levels of agility, not jumping full height, and I’d been doing this and hiking him, he’d been running in the woods, and we were doing parkour, so he was doing all this stuff with his broken bone basically. The vet said it probably was similar to walking with rocks in your shoes, clearly more and less painful at different times. He had also pretty clearly learned that when other dogs approached him, if they bumped into him, it was going to hurt, so he had learned to warn other dogs off proactively.

When we finally had the surgery, got his elbow repaired — the elbow injury, by the way, pretty clearly a traumatic injury. I know the day that it happened. He was 5 months, 5-and-a-half months, running in the woods, and there was ice and snow. He came up lame that evening, and it kept coming and going ever since then. He probably had what the orthopedist called a “jump-down injury,” probably jumped off of something too high that he shouldn’t have and chipped that bone. Had the surgery, was a six-month recovery, and he is fully recovered, so technically I could go back to agility.

There’s a couple of things stopping me. One is that given that he had this issue in that leg, it means that he’s going to develop arthritis earlier than he would have otherwise. The rehab that I was working with put it to me as, “You may only have so many jumps in him, and he’s going to be doing some jumping on his own — into and out of the car, on and off the bed — so maybe you could conserve the amount of jumps you’re asking him to do, so that you put off the arthritis as long as possible,” and that sounds reasonable to me.

The other thing is that he had learned to be very slow and cautious in agility, and I think a lot of that was that it hurt, and also that I’m a green handler, and so we’re doing some stuff that he can learn to really enjoy. So we’re doing nosework right now, which he thinks is fabulous. It’s very low-pressure, there’s none of my expectations, there’s none of anything hurting, and so possibly we’ll go back to agility at a later point, certainly not anything that I would push him really hard to do a lot of jumping.

So that’s how I got redirected with him down into a slightly different road than I had originally imagined.

Melissa Breau: Personal experiences aside for a moment, you also deal heavily in all of this stuff professionally. Can you share a little bit about how your day job ties in?

Jessica Hekman: I had been a computer programmer for twelve years or something like that, and I decided I wanted to learn about what causes dogs to have different personalities and to behave differently — why some are shy, and some are aggressive, and some are really friendly, what’s different in their brains.

It turned out that the best tools that we have right now for getting at that kind of thing in pet dogs is genetics, because you can look at a dog’s genetics without having to actually cut their head open and get at their brain. It’s a better way of doing things than the other alternatives involving laboratory animals.

I am, as you said, currently working at a research institute. The institute actually focuses mostly on human health, and the group that I’m working with, we use dogs as models for humans to study how genetics interacts with behavior, and how it interacts with diseases like cancer, to try to understand more not just about dogs but also about humans. And that’s great, that’s how we get our funding, saying that this is applicable to human health. I’m obviously in it because I care about dogs, figure there’s plenty of other people looking at human health, I’m really more interested in the canine health, but that’s sort of the focus of the lab as a whole.

What we do, anyone who’s interested in learning more about that can go to DarwinsArk.org and check it out. The main project lets people come, sign up their dogs, answer a whole slew of questions about their dog’s behavior, and then get a kit to have us sample their dog’s DNA, which we do just through saliva, so it’s very easy. And then we run analyses and hopefully find fascinating things, although the project is young so far, so we have not solved all the questions of behavioral genetics quite yet.

Melissa Breau: Quite yet. What CAN we know, what do we know about a dog based on their genetics? What kind of traits does research show us come “hardwired”?

Jessica Hekman: A lot of it is still up in the air, and a lot of people are surprised to find out how much we don’t know.

We do know that things like retrieving and herding and pointing, things that you see that are definite differences between breeds, and things that we know that people selectively bred for, those definitely can come hardwired, and so you can see dogs offering retrieving behavior or herding behavior without having been trained to do it, which I think is crazy. How do you program in the DNA that a dog really likes putting things in their mouth and bringing it back to you, or that they really like collecting sheep into a little circle? I think that’s just insane, and we don’t know what it is that does that exactly. We have some initial ideas, but we don’t know what genes are that do that. So we know that that can be more or less hardwired, although, as a lot of you know already, it certainly is not the case that every single Labrador Retriever is interested in retrieving. So even though a particular breed may have many or most dogs in it be hardwired for one particular skill like that, it doesn’t mean that every dog in the breed will be that way.

When it comes to personality, there’s still a lot of differences between dogs. Every dog is really an individual, even though a breed may have some tendencies. So the kinds of stuff that we’re looking at with the Darwin’s Ark project is, what I’m personally interested in, is personality. I would say that personality are traits that change only very slowly over time, that tend to be fairly static over time. They can change, but slowly. Jenny’s example is … I’d definitely say she has a shy personality but that she has become less shy over time, but it has taken a lot of work.

One initial question that we’re looking at based just on the surveys, not even on genetics, has been, “Are there certain personalities per dog breed?” because we know we feel like most Golden Retrievers are friendlier than most, say, German Shepherds, which are more aloof, that kind of question. The initial work that was done by the last person who had my job suggested that that’s not actually the case, that he wasn’t able to see any personality differences between breeds.

It’s interesting, it has occasioned a lot of debate in the lab, because I was sort of like, “That’s shocking, and I think we have to question whether we’re approaching this the right way, because I’m convinced there are personality differences between breeds.” And my boss, Eleanor Karlsson, who’s the head of the lab, said, “Remember a hundred years ago we told ourselves there were differences between humans with different skin color, and we used to honestly believe that based on someone’s skin color we could make assumptions about their IQ. We now know that that was really wrong, at least genetically it was wrong. People of different skin color tended to get different levels of education, but that there were no real genetic differences in things like IQ or personality.” Fair enough, although I would respond that we have not been selectively breeding groups of populations of humans for particular personality traits, and we have been selectively breeding dogs for different personality traits. So I am in the middle of working on trying to dig into that data right now and see what I can see.

One of the first approaches I took … Labradors are a great example for us because they’re the most popular dog in America, and so we have a lot of examples of them, and they’re also kind of behavioral freaks because they have really low risk of being fearful of things and tend very much to be friendly and outgoing. So they’re behavior outliers and there’s also a zillion of them. I look to see what questions in the questionnaire Labs scored really different from breeds of the same size on, and unsurprisingly one of the questions was, “Does your dog like bringing things to you?” Labs statistically, very significantly, were much more likely to want to bring things to you. Whether you want to call that a personality trait or not, I don’t know, but it was a good place to start.

And again, very interesting, not all Labs wanted to bring things to you, but they were much more likely to want to than other dogs. So we’re starting to try to do an analysis of if all these mixed-breed dogs we have, if they have more Labrador in their ancestry, are they more likely to enjoy retrieving. So that’s one of the things that we’re working on right now.

Melissa Breau: Digging into this stuff a little bit more, I think a lot of the time people will have their perfect puppy, and then something goes wrong. The dog becomes reactive or obsessive or … something. And then they decide, “OK, it must be genetic.” Is that true? Is that the case? Is there evidence to the contrary?

Jessica Hekman: I would say that any behavior or ongoing behavior or personality trait is genetic. They’re all genetic. So the puppy being perfect was genetic and the puppy not being perfect was genetic, because it’s all about how genetics interact with environment.

What I caution people against is imagining there’s this pre-programmed switch in the dog’s brain that’s programmed genetically that says, “Around 6 months this dog is going to become fearful, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.” I don’t think that’s true, at least not in our pet dogs.

When we talk about some laboratory populations, where we’re selectively breeding animals, there’s a study with fearful Pointers where they were really, really heavily selecting for super-fearful dogs, and those dogs were never going to be normal. There’s the tame fox study that I used to work on, where they have for many, many decades been selectively breeding some foxes to be very tame and some to be very aggressive, and those, that’s all they breed for. They don’t breed for anything else.

But in our pet dog populations, where we’re breeding for a lot of things, you just don’t see that genetics is going to force an animal to be a certain way in the sense of there being a switch that, “OK, the behavior appeared around 6 or 8 months and I don’t know what caused it and therefore it’s genetic.” I would say that genetics causes risk, and so genetically an animal may be at increased risk of developing fearfulness, for example, and that that risk is going to interact with the animal’s environment. So there may have been something … if you didn’t see the cause … if you see the cause, you sort of know what’s going on — he was just a puppy, and some dog came out of nowhere and bowled him over and bit him, and so of course he was traumatized by that and now he’s fearful of other dogs. You know what happened there.

But sometimes … I think Dash is a fabulous example of I didn’t know what was going on with him. I was very lucky to get to figure out what was going on with him, but I started seeing this reactivity to other dogs. It was never terrible, but it was a real change from how he had been when he was younger and I wasn’t able to perceive that he was in pain and that was why it was.

And it can be much more subtle than that. It can be this stuff that goes on in the environment that sets dogs up to develop in certain ways, can happen while the dog is still in the uterus, it can happen while the dog … super-important stuff happens during that first eight weeks when the dog is with the breeder, and again, stuff that we don’t necessarily have control over. It could be interactions with the other littermates. It could be this is the smallest dog in the litter, and the biggest dog in the litter bullied him and that’s how it turned out. Not the fault of the breeder, not the fault of the owner, but also not a genetic switch, but perhaps that dog was genetically at risk of becoming fearful and that experience made him or her more fearful.

I also feel like we don’t fully understand always … it’s hard for us to grasp quite how complex this concept of environment is, and so you might say to yourself, “Just because two dogs are both in the same environment …” Dash and Jenny, they’re both living in our house, so it’s the same environment, but I would point out that their perception of what environment they’re in differs from each other.

There’s been a lot of research in humans, when we look into how different siblings growing up in the same household basically perceive very different environments, certainly if they’re of different ages. One had been an only child for a while and also maybe was being raised by parents who didn’t make quite as much money early on, and then the parents started making more money and at the same time also had another child, and so the second child experiences a very different environment. They are not an only child, parents are much more affluent now because they’re older, maybe they’re being raised in a house instead of an apartment, so they have very different environments. Even twins, who you think, Well, they’re born at the same time, but they can have very different environments as well, based on just their interactions with each other where one starts being the bossy one, one starts being the more submissive one, they can have different friends in school and different interactions with that environment.

And I think it’s really the same for our dogs, that we just don’t realize what tiny little differences there are that they have this whole world that they perceive that we don’t.

So I think the answer is there isn’t a genetic switch to make a dog be one way or another. There’s only risk, and so it’s all this complex interaction that gets us there. I hope that answers that question.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, absolutely, and you started to talk a little bit in there about how early life experiences can have a big impact on adult personality, right? Can you talk a little bit about some of the research or the science? I know you shared some interesting stuff when you did the webinar, and you’re planning on including some good stuff in your class.

Jessica Hekman: I actually talk a lot about the socialization period in my class on The Biology of Building a Great Performance Dog, and that’s not yet on the schedule to come back, but I definitely will be offering it again.

I am super-lucky right now to be working in the same laboratory as Dr. Kathryn Lord, who is also a post-doc working in Karlsson Lab, and she is the expert on dog socialization. She did her Ph.D. looking at differences in timing in dog versus wolf socialization, and she has amazing insight, so one of the reasons I love my job so much is I can just go hang out with my friend Kathryn and ask her questions about socialization and she will hold forth and I will learn so much. That has been amazing to add on to, in addition to all the reading that I had done on my own, because socialization is super-super-interesting.

One of the things she really emphasizes is how important that first eight weeks is, how much is going on at that time, and how these puppies need to interact with their environment very early on and try to learn what’s normal and expected in their world. Puppies and other mammals are born without a strong fear response, just “whatever I’m interacting with for those early weeks.” Puppies start leaving the nest around 3 or 4 weeks. They don’t actually start being afraid of things until somewhere between 5 and 8 weeks, depending on the breed.

And so they have somewhere between one and four weeks in which they’re interacting with the world without any fearfulness and just being set up to make good associations with everything that they see, the idea being that they would be carefully under their mother’s care at that time, and that then by 8 weeks they’re starting to venture out farther, and then it starts being really useful for them to be afraid of things, because at that point there might actually be predators and dangers that they need to be able to run away from.

So that means that that really important time before they’re afraid of things, when they’re set up to make these good associations, is happening while they’re at the breeder’s. That’s before you get your hands on them, which is one of the reasons why, when I was looking at breeders, I looked into finding someone who had done a whole lot of work with the puppies, giving them a lot of enrichment and taking them offsite.

One of the things that happened with Jenny was she had never left her farm until she was 10 months old. So with Dash, someone who takes the puppies out for exploratory field trips, and does early scent stimulation and all that kind of stuff, that’s really important to do early on, although I think we also sometimes discount how much interesting stuff is also going on with puppies in the uterus. There’s been a lot of work on that with laboratory rodents, and it turns out that puppies start having different experiences from their littermates even in the uterus, so they’re getting, based on where they are relative to the bitch’s blood supply, they can get fewer or more of her stress hormones, or fewer or more nutrients, just based on how the blood supply goes from one end of the uterus to the other, and if there’s a bunch of puppies, it may be a bit depleted of both stress hormones and nutrients by the time it gets to the puppies at the far end.

Melissa Breau: Interesting.

Jessica Hekman: Yeah, a lot of interesting stuff there that we don’t fully understand how that sets dogs up for issues later on, but we do believe that it does.

Melissa Breau: That’s neat, and it’s very different from what some people necessarily think about.

Jessica Hekman: We think about how important it is to socialize puppies when we bring them home, and for sure it is, I’m not discounting that. It is super-important. But there’s a lot that goes on before that first eight weeks that is also really important.

Melissa Breau: I think we’ve gotten into this a little bit already, but thinking about our audience, if you have somebody who’s evaluating an adult dog and they’re not entirely sure where that dog came from, are there things about that dog’s personality when they meet them that they should consider “fixed”? How flexible is that when you’re talking about an adult dog?

Jessica Hekman: Of course, because all dogs are individuals, it’s different for every dog, so it’s really hard to know, when you start working with a dog, how far they’re going to get.

I love using Jenny as an example, as when I got her, I had no idea. I didn’t know. I had been doing rescue work before, and I had known through the rescue there have been some dogs who would come in super-shy, and they made these magical turnarounds in a month or so, when they realized they were in a new home that was safe. So she could have just turned around immediately. She didn’t.

And then, after you’ve had the dog for a year, the question is, How far can she go? At the time, I figured, She’s never going to be a normal dog. I had pretty much given up on being able to take her for walks around the block, even. I thought, I’ll make sure to have houses with big yards, she can exercise in the yard at home, I will minimize trips to the vet and make home visits for her, and that was as far as I thought she was going to go for a long time. She has just continued to improve and that was surprising, and it was powerful to me to see how far some dogs can go.

On the other hand … so I don’t consider personality completely fixed, but it’s also about how hard you want to work on it, and Jenny, obviously, it was really a welfare issue for her. She was terrified of the world, and it was really important to me to make her feel more comfortable in her own skin. I had taken her on knowing that was going to be a project and a learning experience for me that I really wanted to work on.

In terms of sports, there’s this question of, if you get a dog who’s wrong for a particular sport, as it turns out — like I got Dash really wanting to do agility, and it turns out it may not be the best sport for him. Now could I get him to where he was competing successfully in agility and was really enjoying it? I probably could, if I put in the kind of time working just on that that I put in with Jenny. I’m sure that I could get him to where he relaxed more and figured it wasn’t going to hurt so much, and improve my own handling skills so that he’s more confident. I think I could get him much farther than I have so far. But is it worth it? It’s not a welfare issue for him. He doesn’t miss agility. He loves nosework, he loves parkour, so I’m focusing on that stuff.

So there’s this tradeoff, definitely, of how much effort do you want to put into it, and are you doing it for yourself or are you doing it for the dog?

Melissa Breau: Assuming that most of our audience is probably trying to determine whether or not a dog is suitable for sports, evaluating an adult dog most likely, from that angle, what things would you look at? What things would you consider?

Jessica Hekman: For sure, it’s going to be easiest in an adult dog to evaluate how good their structure is, whether they are the right size and shape and conformation for the sport that you’re interested in, and whether they’re medically healthy.

Assessing behavioral health is going to be another important thing. Depending on where they’re coming from, it can be harder to tell behavioral health. So if a dog has been in a shelter for months and is really shut down, it can be hard to tell if when you bring them into your house they’re going to open up. And then some dogs of course the opposite, that you have them in the shelter and they stress up, and so they become really jumpy, mouthy, crazy, and it’s hard to know if once you start working with them they’ll be able to have more self-control or not. It would be very rare to find a dog coming out of a situation where they’d been in a shelter for some period of time where they appeared behaviorally healthy, and it’s hard to know how easy it’s going to be to turn them around.

Definitely looking to see if a dog has an interest in humans is going to be super-important, and that, for me, I think was Jenny’s saving grace was that she was really, really interested in humans and wanted to be around humans. Obviously Jenny is not the kind of dog that any of you I think would go and pick up as a sports prospect. I don’t think she’s ever going to be able to compete. I mean, she’s 10 now, so I’m not looking at her being able to ever be a competition dog, although I am actually hoping to put some parkour titles on her, because we can do that at home just on video.

But for a dog who has their act a little more together than Jenny did, making sure that the dog is interested in people. If you go into the room and the dog is just not interested in you — they should want to check out the new environment first, that’s fine, but if after they’ve had a couple of minutes to sniff around, they should also want to come and check in with you. If a dog is just not interested in interacting with you, that is a major warning sign for me that that is going to be a difficult dog to work with. It’s also ideal obviously to try to assess right away whether the dog has some interest in toys and in food. But again, all of it can change when you bring the dog home.

It’s too bad that there’s no way to a hundred percent guarantee that you’re going to get a dog that is really good at the sport that you’re interested in. It’s something that upsets everybody. We’d all like to have the guarantee that before we commit and tell the dog that they’re going to be our dog for the rest of their lives and we’re going to take care of them, and we become emotionally attached to them, we’d like to know that they’re going to be a good partner for the sport that we want as well, and there’s just not a way to a hundred percent tell about that, unfortunately, either route that you go, whether it be getting an adult dog that somebody else has had, or whether it be getting a puppy from a breeder. You can minimize your risks, but there’s always going to be some risks.

Certainly when you get a dog as an adult you should try to take advantage of all the opportunities that you have to get information about how that dog was in its previous environment. So definitely if you’re getting a dog from a shelter, I would ask them, “Are there staff members who like this dog, who know this dog, who worked with this dog?” A lot of shelters will even have training classes that they do just for enrichment with their dogs, and they’ll be able to tell you some stuff about how the dog has responded to that. But even failing that, if you ask around, you’ll often find people who clean the kennels will say, “Oh, I love this dog, she really got to know me, she’s always so glad to see me.” That’s useful information. Or “She barks, and she seems really nervous of me and was unable to warm up to me, even though I tried to offer her treats.” That would be useful information too.

If you go the rescue route and a dog has been in somebody’s home for a couple of weeks, that’s fabulous. That is just a goldmine of information. Hopefully you all know this already, but definitely sit down with those people and grill them for whatever they can tell you about that dog.

Melissa Breau: Right. As trainers, I think we know that behavior modification works, but what does the science say about how that and genetics interact? You mentioned you’ve done so much work with Jenny, and I’d love to hear the other side of that, the research and that piece of it.

Jessica Hekman: As I said, there’s just no guarantee and biology is really complicated. And it’s really early days yet, too, of figuring out how we’re going to be able to use genetics to predict anything.

What we’re looking at right now is working with some groups who breed dogs for guide-dog work and assistance-dog work. They manage populations of dogs, and we’re trying to get to where an initial goal for us is to try to find some markers in the DNA that will help us say, “Dogs with this marker tend to do better on this trait,” whatever trait it is they’re interested in is. They’re interested in things like not afraid of thunderstorms, and not afraid of walking on unstable surfaces, and how easily stressed-out is the dog. We’d like to be able to give them some genetic tests for stuff like that, with the understanding that these genetic tests are useful for a population of dogs, and there’s always going to be this interaction with the environment, and so even if you have genetic tests like that, that’s to help you decide which dogs to breed and to try to make some selections among the litter, and these are the ones that are going to be better guide dogs and these maybe would be more useful going off and doing some kind of tracking work or something like that.

But it’s still very much never going to be a black-and-white “Yes, he passed genetically, he’s going to be a guide dog.” We’re pretty much never, at least with the current state of the technology, not going to be able to say things like that. And it makes it even harder when you’re asking things about individuals. So those groups working with populations, what we’d really like as sports people would be to be able to say, “I don’t care about the whole population of dogs. I just want one for me that will do my favorite sport.”

Genetics is always going to be really hard, so at this point we don’t even have any sort of tests that we can do. But even when we start getting to where we’re going to be able to do them, it will only give you a hint, it will only be a small piece of information to put into the rest of the picture and try to figure out what’s going on with that dog.

Melissa Breau: To bring it back to what you said initially, it’s really about genetics may put a dog more or less at risk for particular behavioral traits, but there’s really quite a bit of flexibility within that.

Jessica Hekman: Yeah, and remembering that genetics isn’t a switch. It’s all about risk, and whether a dog is more sensitive to their environment maybe and more at risk for developing some problem.

But I think one thing I didn’t really say enough earlier in this conversation, though, is that if you are raising a dog from a puppy, and the dog does end up developing a shy personality, and you’ve done everything right, I do want to emphasize that it does not mean that it’s your fault. It doesn’t mean that the dog had some switch determining that it was going to be shy. It just means that there’s a lot going on that you may not be able to see, and it definitely means you shouldn’t give up and say, “This is just genetic, it can’t be changed.” It probably can be changed.

You aren’t going to know going in where you can end up.

I didn’t know going in with Jenny where I was going to end up, and she’s much less shy than I ever thought she’d get to be. I didn’t know with Dash going in where I was going to end up. I hoped I’d end up in agility. I ended up in nosework. In both cases I’m really happy with where I ended up. They are fabulous dogs and I love them so much. So working with your dog, I guess, and not giving up, but also being open to different paths is hopefully the answer.

Melissa Breau: Okay, for those interested, where do they go to learn more?

Jessica Hekman: I definitely mentioned DarwinsArk.org. That’s where my work project is. And I mentioned that we were working with guide dogs and assistance dogs currently, and we are hoping to start expanding into sports dogs soon.

I’m definitely going to make so much noise about that on the alumni list when it happens, and I’ll probably call you up, Melissa, and see if we can do another podcast just talking about that. But it doesn’t hurt to get signed up now and be prepared for when that happens.

I am also teaching a class pretty much about all of this stuff in December. It’s a class about the genetics of dog behavior, and with the help of some very creative people on the alumni list, I decided to call it The Melting Pot: Genes, Environment, and Personality. And so it’s very much about genetics, but it’s also about how it’s not just genetics, it’s also environment. That’s going to be in December. I think it should be on the schedule, and I’ll make sure that it definitely is by the time this podcast goes live.

Also I am very active on both Twitter and Facebook, and I tweet and message on Facebook a lot of different stories about dog science. It’s some of the stuff that I’ve written, but more often I find stuff out there and share it. So people who want to know more about this stuff, following me both on Twitter and on Facebook is a good way to do it. Twitter is @dogzombieblog and Facebook is Facebook.com/dogzombieblog, or in either case if you just search for Jessica Hekman or go to dogzombie.com, in all those cases you’ll get links to those things.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Jessica. This was great.

Jessica Hekman: It was a lot of fun. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with Linda Case to talk about dog nutrition.

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Nov 02 2018

47mins

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