E102: Hannah Branigan - "Awesome Obedience"

 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!!


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 have author, fellow podcaster, and dog trainer Hannah Branigan on to talk about, well, that book she just came out with!

For those not familiar with Hannah, she has titled dogs in obedience, agility, conformation, schutzhund, and rally, is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, a KPA faculty member, a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. A self-proclaimed training nerd, Hannah also hosts the popular podcast Drinking from the Toilet, and — the reason for our chat today — she just published what I believe is her first book, Awesome Obedience: a positive training plan for competition success.

Welcome back, Hannah!

Hannah Branigan: Nice to be here.

Melissa Breau: I'm excited to talk about this new thing you just put out in the world. Congratulations.

Hannah Branigan: Thank you.

Melissa Breau: Maybe this is obvious, but I'd like to start with a basic question: Why did you write it?

Hannah Branigan: Well, truthfully, I avoided writing it for a long time until I was eventually badgered into it by a number of different people who wanted me to write the things down. So I was a very reluctant author. In fact I'm still weirded out by that word, but you went ahead and said it in the intro, so I'm going to try and I'm going to own that.

Melissa Breau: You should. Who is the book really for? Are we talking positive trainers new to obedience, obedience people new to positive training, people new to training altogether, experienced trainers who are looking to problem solve … who did you write it for?

Hannah Branigan: I did have a specific audience in mind, because really what I was doing when I wrote the book was I was trying to write the book that I wished that I had had ten years ago when I was getting into this stuff, because at that time there weren't a lot of resources out there.

There were some clicker training resources out there, and there were some obedience training resources out there, but there weren't a whole lot in the space where I wanted to be, which was I was already sold on positive reinforcement and force-free training.

I don't know that I necessarily had words for that at the time, but I was obsessed with clicker training, and I was getting into dog sports, and I was getting into obedience, and I didn't have any idea what I needed to train or how to go about training it, so I was having to make a lot of it up and there was a lot of trial and error involved — mostly error. I feel bad for all of my dogs, but the older dogs more so because they got to suffer through that figuring out of a lot of these things. And then of course my students that I was working with at the time and since then have also been guinea pigs as I figure out why did this one thing that I do work and how can I teach that to other people.

So the audience I have in mind, the person that I have in mind, I guess, like I was talking about, already has a background in positive reinforcement, has a background in clicker training, they've read the classics, they've read Don't Shoot The Dog, and they've got pretty good clicker skills onboard, they know how to deliver reinforcement, they understand the value of building behavior, but they don't necessarily have familiarity for obedience, and they're looking to break into obedience.

I often have a lot of trainers that will come up to me at a conference, like ClickerExpo, and they'll come up, they'll introduce themselves and say something like, "Oh, there wasn't anything else we were interested in seeing in this time slot, so we decided to come to your presentation, even though we don't do obedience. But after hearing you talk about it, it sounds kind of interesting and I think I might want to get started." They'll often say something like, "I don't train obedience, but I train service dogs," or "I don't train obedience, but I do agility," or "I don't train obedience, but I do some other thing, but now that I see how much fun it could possibly be, I'm curious to try it."

And they would ask if I could recommend a book, and I of course couldn't. That's not true. There are books that I could recommend, but they were my own books to recommend and there wasn't one place that they could go to get, like, literally, if you've never competed in obedience, what do you need to know? What skills do you need to train? What behaviors do you want to train? What do you need to train to put together the exercises?

Melissa Breau: As somebody who's relatively new to the sport myself, there's a lot to learn.

Hannah Branigan: There is.

Melissa Breau: The title is obviously a big hint, but can you share a little more on what the book is about? Is it a how-to guide, is it a training methodology, how do you describe it?

Hannah Branigan: It's a handbook. I wrote it with the idea of "Let's take the exercises, let's break them down into the skills that are needed, and look at how to teach those skills."

So I think it has most in common, really, with a cookbook. I'm not real into recipes as far as training goes, because of course all dogs are different, all teams are different, and I'm much more interested in the principals and the concepts behind it, and I do believe if you really understand the principals of good training, you can use those to teach just about anything that you want. But if it's an exercise that you've never trained before, it's really helpful to have a starting point, to have a recipe to work from, and then you can modify it from there to make it yours. So that's the closest analogy.

It's got a lot of breakdown, a lot of "These are the important skills for drop and recall, your dog needs to know this, this, and this, and here's how we're going to teach it," and trying to go through as systematically as possible from the ground up, from basic foundation movement skills to putting them together to form clean position changes, and adding distance, and putting together heeling, and learning some basic handling, and knowing what to expect in the ring.

That was also something that I was missing when I was first starting to compete was I walked into a dog show and I didn't know where anything was, I didn't know what to expect, and long-term competitors don't remember what that's like, so having some idea of "This is how the flow of the exercises is going to go, these are the things you can expect, and here again are some of the things that you can train for," and just lay them out as step-by-step as possible.

Melissa Breau: In the description on the Karen Pryor store website, Clickertraining.com — for those who want to go buy it — it mentions that the book covers, "where to put your efforts," which is followed by, in parenthesis, "Hints — not in fronts and finishes." If trainers interested in obedience shouldn't focus on fronts or finishes, what should they be focusing on?

Hannah Branigan: Yeah, I know. This is a little bit weird of a hill to die on that I've chosen, but it's something I really feel strongly about. I think it's a misconception that a lot of people have, that I definitely had when I got started, was obedience has the reputation of being a sport that is based on precision, and so a lot of folks will hear that and their brains turn off: "Oh, it's precision, precision is boring, therefore I'm not interested in it." And it does the sport a disservice.

There's so much more to obedience than the fronts and finishes, which is what people think of when they think precision. They think, "Oh, my dog has to have a perfectly straight front." I have had people tell me they're never going to compete with their dog because he'll never have a perfectly straight front, or he doesn't have perfectly straight fronts. And I'm thinking, Good Lord, perfectly straight fronts — when you have sixty OTCH points, then you care about perfectly straight fronts. Then that's all you care about. But through novice, through open, utility, through the titles, through your UDX, you can have a medium-to-mediocre front and do quite well. You can win a lot of classes, particularly in novice, which is where people who are new to obedience are starting. There is exactly — exactly — one front in your whole novice performance, it is worth three points, and if your dog gets within arm's reach of you and sits, you're going to get most of those points. So you may as well put your time somewhere else, like teaching really motivated, focused heeling. Where you're going to spend the rest of that time in the novice ring will be on heeling.

So it's a rabbit hole. It's really easy to get bogged down picking on fronts and finishes, which don't make or break any exercise. A precision error on front, a precision error on finish, will never stop you from achieving a title. It is scored, yes, but until you're looking at placements, until you're looking at competitive awards, it's such a low priority.

For folks who are breaking into the sport, I want them to focus on the principal features of all the exercises. That's what you need to do to qualify, to get the title. You have to accomplish the main point of all the exercises. The dog has to go out and pick up the dumbbell and bring it back to you, since it's a functional retrieve, and even if he doesn't sit at all, he just stands there and holds the dumbbell but you can get it, you're still accomplishing a retrieve, you're still going to qualify.

When you get real stuck on perfecting the fronts, very quickly it becomes this conflicted space where the dog does a perfectly good retrieve, and especially if you're working with a nontraditional breed where you've worked pretty hard to get the retrieve in the first place, and then they come in, they've got the dumbbell, but they sit crooked, it's easy to think, Oh well, that whole thing's a bust because he sat crooked.

And so you pick on the dog, and you don't reinforce, and you create frustration, and you decrease motivation by picking on this small precision aspect that is worth half a point. By finishing a perfectly good retrieve with this opportunity for failure instead of an opportunity for success, the dog's interest in retrieving tends to decrease, and so we suck the life out of the funner parts of the whole sport through this obsession with something that doesn't matter early on and still shouldn't be the highest priority.

Melissa Breau: It sounds like a classic case of majoring in the minors.

Hannah Branigan: Yes, exactly right.

Melissa Breau: You get into the importance of mechanics and look at things like motivation and arousal levels. If someone wanted to improve their training, where would you recommend they put the most emphasis — on the improving mechanics piece or on the building of the dog's positive feelings about work and obedience in general?

Hannah Branigan: It's so interesting that you ask that, Melissa. I believe that the best way to build up your dog's positive feelings about training with you is to have really clean mechanics. If you are consistent and clear with the way you move your body, that affects how you communicate with your dog, and we like being around people who are good at communicating.

So if you're clear with your reinforcement, you're clear with what you're reinforcing, you're setting your dog up for success, you're giving clear cues, all of those things directly affect how your dog feels about working with you and directly affects how they feel about the behaviors and the exercises that you're training.

Melissa Breau: That's interesting because I was expecting it to be one of those questions that are between a rock and a hard place but instead it really sounds like they are much more connected.

Hannah Branigan: They're completely connected, absolutely connected. When I'm working with a team, whether it's an online class or at a seminar, in person or whatever, if they're coming in with the dog has maybe sad feelings, or there's a disconnection, they're sniffing, they're leaving to scratch, one of the first things that I look at is how clean are those mechanics.

Are you delivering the toy — assuming they're training with a toy — when and where it's supposed to be, and is it really clear to the dog when he's getting reinforced, when reinforcement is available and when it's not, and when it's his turn to offer behavior in order to get access to that reinforcement. Are the cues really clear?

That's where that eighty percent of the focus is, and when we have the human doing his or her job and being really clear, the dog's behavior always follows because we are the ones who are in charge of the training sessions. We're modifying the dog's behavior, and in order to get one, you have to have the other.

Melissa Breau: There's another phrase in this description that I wanted to pull out and talk about. It says that the book covers how to train "the critical, unscored transition portion of your performance." Since it's unscored, why is that portion critical?

Hannah Branigan: The whole performance that you and your dog are doing together in the ring, from the time you walk in the ring, and really from the time you leave the crate until the time you exit to get the reinforcement, this is all one long behavior chain, and what maintains the chain is all of those behaviors.

So it's not just what happens from when the judge says, "Foreword," to when he says, "Exercise finished." It's also what happens between "Exercise finished" and "Are you ready?" That part doesn't show up on the score sheet unless something really terrible goes wrong, but your ability to maintain your connection with the dog — and those are trained and conditioned behaviors and cues — maintains the continuity of the chain.

It also determines how you set up for that next exercise. For example, we'll take novice because it's a really common one. In novice, the order is always the same. In AKC novice, the exercise that follows the stand for exam is always the heel free, and the heel free is a little bit scary for a lot of new teams because the leash is now off the dog. It's also you've been in the ring for a while. It's probably about two minutes, but it feels like a year-and-a-half, and it's the second heeling pattern.

So your dog's already done one heeling pattern on leash, which may or may not have felt good, and then you did the figure-eight, and then you did the stand for exam. Stand for exam is a stand stay, and it can be a little bit pressure-y, a little bit distracting, there's nothing exciting about a stand stay. And then you have to leave that to go into this high-energy heeling portion again.

So you go from hopefully high-energy heeling to a stay to high-energy heeling, and that dip and then back up in arousal is a challenging transition for most dogs. There are things you can specifically train leaving that stand for exam exercise and setting up for the heel free and conditioning energy into that so that you show up at the starting point for that second heeling pattern with enough dog to finish that second heeling pattern and finish it the way that you want. And that's something you can train for.

Melissa Breau: Does that mean that that transition's going to look very similar every single time you do it in the ring, so every time you go from that stand for exam to that free heel pattern, or is it a repertoire of things that you can pick from, based on what your dog needs in that moment?

Hannah Branigan: For the most part, I recommend training it in a pretty routine, ritualized manner. There's going to be some flexibility, but one of the interesting things about obedience it is a very structured sport, and the stand for exam — there's only so many spots in the ring that you're going to end up doing that. You're maybe facing this way or that way, but it's again a pretty limited range.

Your setup for the heel free — again, it's going to be one of three locations fairly close to that. You'll occasionally have an outlier where they'll have you on the other side of the ring, but that's so rare that it's almost not worth talking about until it happens.

So with the same set of Lego blocks — I love that analogy — you can put together three or four slight variations, slight versions of how that transition is going to look, but it's still going to look pretty darn similar every time. There's just not that many different variables there to account for.

So the more practiced you are, the more powerfully conditioned you have that sequence, you and the dog can both do it automatically, you're tapping into all of the conditioned emotional responses you want associated with those behaviors in that picture, the more effective it's going to be.

Melissa Breau: What does training for those transitions look like? What are we really talking about here?

Hannah Branigan: It looks just like training for the exercises; it just happens to be an exercise that isn't written in the rulebook. You think about what's the starting point, what's the ending point, what do I want to happen there, and there's certainly some flexibility.

I have with one of my dogs — most of his transitions were really bouncy. He was unlikely to bark, he was less likely to bite my clothes, he was more likely to go flat in the ring, so moving him from one point and space to another usually had a lot of high-moving hand touches, so he would bounce, bounce, bounce, call to heel, set up, ready to go.

My two, the next child and now my younger dog, we do a hand touch, we do a quick pet, and then call to heel and move to the next starting point, and that's what I've trained them for and both of those work really well.

But, again, it's the breaking it down and training each piece, pairing them like a little behavior chain, putting them together, generalizing as appropriate, adding some distractions, but practicing and reinforcing those sections just like you would any other exercise.

Melissa Breau: I certainly hope that everybody goes out and we've gotten their interest in the book, but there was something else I wanted to talk about. Originally, we were going to talk about this before registration for February closed, and it didn't happen. But I'd still like to talk a little about the new series of classes you've put together on heeling at FDSA. I believe it's three parts. Can you share a little about the approach you take with that class?

Hannah Branigan: Again, my approach to training, all the things I love, when we can take this really complex, fascinating, sometimes almost mythologized exercise or behavior like heeling.

People go on and on about heeling, and I totally get it because I love watching beautiful heeling. I love when I find it with my dogs, and I know when I was getting started in training I didn't really understand what heeling meant. It's like pornography. You can recognize it when you see it, you know? But I couldn't necessarily break it down and articulate why this team looked better, or looked like a stronger, more beautiful heeling team, and this one didn't, and I didn't really understand how the point values broke out, or how I could take my dog and teach … what were the skills that my dog was missing to bring him closer to the ideal performance once I identified it.

So what this series of classes — that's pretty much exactly what we're doing. We're taking the big-picture heeling, with the animation, and the focus, and the energy, and the precision, and the responsiveness, and that beautiful, almost magical sensation that you get when you're really in sync with your partner and your heeling and it feels like it's one organism moving together, so we're taking that big, organic picture and we're deconstructing it.

We're pulling out what's actually happening here that we're perceiving as beautiful heeling. What is the dog doing, what is the handler doing, what of those things are skills that we can teach? Because it turns out most if not all of those components are skills that can be taught. It's going to come more easily to some individuals than others, but there's still quite a lot that we can do for any team to fill in the gaps and improve their skill set that can bring them closer to that ideal.

And we can do a lot of that out of context, so we're not drilling the same heeling. You're not doing the old-school forced march around and around and around. No. We can pull out a lot of those little behaviors and really teach them as tricks — teach the dog to back up and teach them to move side to side, teach them to line up correctly, teach them to find heel position from anywhere. All those little components we can teach them separately, teach them out of context, which also makes it easier to teach in your living room or on your front porch, if you don't have a training facility, which I don't.

And then, when you have all those little components, all those Lego blocks are fluid, we can put them together. We can combine them, and then we can use those tools to fine-tune those positions to build back up to that beautiful, organic big picture of your preference, what beautiful heeling looks like for you.

Melissa Breau: You're talking about things like head up is one piece and butt in is another piece, right?

Hannah Branigan: Mm-hmm.

Melissa Breau: OK.

Hannah Branigan: Yeah, yeah. We can isolate the rotational elements, so lining up with straight, precise heel position sounds like that could be one unit in and of itself, but oh, we can go so much deeper. We can pull out the different planes there, so can you line up front to back, can you find the focal point, can you control your body and space on a rotational situation, so, like, that counter-clockwise pivot comes in here.

But we also need balance, because maintaining that focal point, maintaining that precise position, is not a done thing. It's not something you do once. It's a dynamic behavior, just like standing on one leg, so they have to be able to confidently and fluently be able to control their body to maintain that balance while you're moving, while they're staying focused on you and giving your cues.

We can pull out head position, we can pull out gait, how much prance do you like, do you prefer your dog to be a little more neutral, do you like that more IPO European flashy trot. I personally like a little more animation, so I tend to train a little bit more for that.

Do you like your dog to have a more vertical head position, do you like it to be a little more flatter, do you like your dog to heel a little bit ahead of you, do you like him to be really tight on your leg. There's a lot of places where we can pull out these little elements and train them, and there's a lot of room for creative expression, which I find very exciting.

Melissa Breau: This next question, honestly, is partially to satisfy my own curiosity, but I know you teach an independent pivot as part of teaching heeling. I want to just ask why. What are the benefits to an independent pivot versus just teaching it with the handler next to the dog?

Hannah Branigan: Really, there's a lot of ways to teach this. When we're talking about a pivot, the pivot behavior that I'm talking about, the dog is basically doing a turn on the forehands, so the front feet stay planted and the rear end can move in a circle, and I think it's really important that we work both clockwise and counter-clockwise.

The way that I like to teach this is using a platform, so we train the dog to put his front feet up on an elevated surface. It could be an upside-down bucket, or a food bowl, or a step stool, or a cinder block. It doesn't really matter. Elevating the front feet does two things for us. One, it isolates them so the front feet stay in one place. We restrict their movement so we can worry about the whole rest of the dog. Also, since it's a little bit high, it induces some weight shift, which again it helps us isolate the movement we're looking for, and it gives carryover to the same kind of weight shift and actions that we're going to want and we put together in heeling.

Why do I value the dog being able to do this independently? By "independent," I mean that the human, the trainer, stands still, and although then setting up the stage, setting up the picture that effectively cues the dog for what the behavior is, which is pivoting, doesn't do anything to induce or to cause the dog to do it. So the dog can look at the picture, "OK, I'm supposed to pivot," put his front feet up there and do a full circle, and most importantly go past the trainer's leg, is what I'm really looking for. The moment when he turns to face the other direction, goes right past the trainer's leg, and then comes back the other way — that section of the ark, from say, like, four o'clock to eight o'clock, if you're looking at the face of a clock — that's the part that's most important to me. I really like the dog to be able to perform that action without the handler's body cuing it, because I find that it makes it easier to have clean cues later on down the road.

So I can train this behavior with me moving, and when I first started playing around with teaching pivot platforms, that's exactly what I did. I would move with the dog, I would side-step with the dog, I had a couple of variations of that, but what would happen then is my movement became the cue for the dog to move, so the dog would put his feet up on the platform and he would stand and look at me and I would stand and look at him, and then I would move and then he would move, and then I would move and then he would move.

That's fine as long as that's what I wanted, but to finish the behavior for the purpose of the exercise, for how it's going to be performed in the ring, I'm going to be standing still and I'm allowed to give either a hand signal or a verbal cue. I'm not allowed to use my shoulder to circle the dog back, I'm not allowed to use my hand to prompt the dog around, and what I discovered was it was a lot harder to fade handler movement as a prompt than it is to fade the inanimate object as a prompt, just strictly from a student and trainer perspective. The dog doesn't really care. There are tons of people who can do those things really, really well.

The sticking point I kept running into is we would get dogs that would get to within about thirty degrees of heel position and then stop, and whoever was training them — certainly not me — would move a shoulder, or pull a hand down, or use a target, or otherwise do something to try and get that last thirty degrees, and so the behavior that we ended up training was "Come almost to heel position and stop, and your handler will shuffle her feet or tap her hip and then you go the rest of the way in," and if that behavior pattern, that little behavior sequence, has been reinforced for months or years, it's a lot harder to change it.

More importantly if that behavior sequence has been practiced by the human, by the handler, for months or years, it's really hard to get that clean, especially for so many of us who train almost entirely by ourselves, because those unconscious muscle movements take a life of their own and they're hard to eliminate, so I prefer to just not introduce them in the first place. I can get the behavior that I need shaped without adding my movement to it, and now I have a dog that can happily find heel all the way into heel position, not just to almost heel, while I'm standing still, which is exactly the picture that we're going to be working with in the ring, where I can say "heel," and I want my dog to be able to line fully up and in one movement line up on heel position and be straight.

Melissa Breau: That was a really well thought out answer. I will give you that.

Hannah Branigan: Well, thank you.

Melissa Breau: When you're talking about the people in the class or should take the class, what are we looking at? Is there a skill level in terms of organization? Who is it for?

Hannah Branigan: It's not a particularly hard class from a skills standpoint. These are exercises that I do with my puppy, or any of my puppies, this is how I bring up my young dogs to give them heeling behaviors.

The first class, which is the one that's going on right now, really is very foundational, so it would be completely appropriate for a young dog or baby puppy that has a foundation with shaping and targeting. There are a few basic prerequisites like nose targeting, a chin rest, some familiarity with platforms, but I'm pretty flexible there, so there's a lot of ways we can create setups that help the dog be successful there.

We're really isolating specific behaviors. It would be a level of detail that I think would be overwhelming to someone who's very new to dog training, or new to positive reinforcement training or clicker training in general. Again, not that the behaviors are that hard, but we're going pretty far down a lot of rabbit holes here, so we're going pretty deep, we're getting a little nerdy, a little geeky, with some of the details, and for someone who is just getting started learning to teach loose-leash walking, it's going to be a lot more than they need and I think a new trainer might feel overwhelmed.

It may be a little foundational for someone who already has a finished heel position. If you have heeling that you're happy with and you like, then this is not a class that you would necessarily need to take. But I think it is a helpful process to go through if you have, say, maybe half-trained heeling that's not going the way that you want and you need to back up and find a new starting point and build it up differently.

We've got quite a few teams that are working through the exercises that I think are in that kind of a boat. Maybe they've been training for rally and they were having a really good time, and now they want a little bit more, they want to go a little bit deeper, they want to go a little bit more precise. We've got quite a few teams that are switching sports and are learning or relearning heeling for their own benefit from there.

Melissa Breau: Last question here, and this is the last one I've been asking everyone who comes on lately. What's something you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Hannah Branigan: Something that's been on my mind a lot lately, I've been thinking a lot about fluency and what that means, particularly for performance dogs but also for humans. It's something that's coming up with my own child right now, thinking about, when we're acquiring new skills, how important fluency is, and how fluency has an element of speed already included. So our definition of fluency is accuracy plus speed.

I think it's easy, especially in … well, I don't know … I seem to do it with any sport that I approach, but I'll get hung up on if the dog has done however many correct, but I won't be paying attention to how fluidly, how fluently, those correct performances are appearing, so how long is it taking him to get that correct.

After the treat, is he ready to come right back and do another repetition, or does it take him a little while to find it again. I have been guilty of looking at, "Oh, I just got a perfect tuck sit, hooray, let's move on, let's add more distractions, let's add more challenge," but not necessarily noticing that it took two minutes for that one tuck sit to happen.

Fluency requires speed, so a working definition of fluency that I like to use a lot with my own dogs, and with my students, is that as soon as the dog has swallowed the treat, he's ready to perform. He's already performed, either responding to a cue, if there's a cue involved, or he's offering the behavior again without a gap, so really, really low latency and looking for that improvement, looking for that closing of that gap.

What we're talking about is a clean loop here from when he does the behavior, eats the treat, and is immediately ready to do the behavior again, looking for that as a sign of fluency before we add any more challenges, before we progress it to the next step in whatever behavior it is that we're training.

Melissa Breau: That's an interesting thing to think about, so thanks for that. That will be my brain worm for today.

Hannah Branigan: Good.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Hannah! This has been a lot of fun.

Hannah Branigan: Thanks for having me!

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

We'll be back next week with Deb Jones to talk about HER new book, all about Cooperative Canine Care!

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 Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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