What's the future of positive training? We brought on Amy, Sarah, and Shade to talk about it and share their experiences with R+2.0.
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 things a bit differently. A few episodes ago I mentioned that we were going to do some stuff on R+ 2.0, and now we're finally getting around to rerecording this, because the first one didn't come out so hot.
This all came from a talk with Amy Cook, where she mentioned this concept of R+ 2.0. The idea is that positive training has come a long way from when it was first introduced — and it likely still has further to go.
We began the series a while ago with a chat from with Deb Jones, and we're continuing the discussion this week. We're talking to Shade Whitesel, Amy Cook, and Sarah Stremming!
Welcome back to the podcast ladies!
To give everybody a sense of whose voice is whose, would you each just briefly tell us who you are and share a little bit about your focus when it comes to training? Amy, let's start with you, then Sarah, then Shade.
Amy Cook: What I'm focusing on right now is less about the training techniques part and where I think that's going, which I know we'll get into, and more about the emotional side of things.
Anyone who knows me knows I'm exploring play, but not just play because it's interesting to do, or play because it's fun for people and everyone, but play as a way to help our dogs cope with the stressors of life that we put them in or that they find themselves in. I've been working on the experience that it's an under-utilized tool, and I've been trying to find ways to develop it and see what we can do with it, more than just we play and it's fun, like, what else can it give us? There's a lot of literature on using play with children, which I got exposed to, so I'm mining that and applying it to different dogs and seeing where that takes me. So that's my focus these days.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Sarah?
Sarah Stremming: My focus is largely about consent, so consent-based training, so making sure we develop a language between the trainer and the dog, in which the dog can always consent to the next repetition or continue to say, "Yes, I'm ready for this next piece," because, I think, for too long, especially in my sport, the thought has been, if you're using toys and food, then what you're doing is all good. The more I work in the field, and the more I work with my own dogs, the more I see that that's not always enough.
So my focus has been in providing the trainer and the dog with a kind of vernacular where the trainer can say, "Are you OK? Do you want to continue?" and the dog can say yes or no. We avoid all kinds of problem behaviors that way, so that's where I got there was trying to avoid those problem behaviors. That's my basis right now.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Shade?
Shade Whitesel: Sarah stole my answer! More, I guess, consent, but also communication. And it all rolls into the same thing; making sure you've got buy-in from your learner dog, and when you don't have buy-in, then don't ask for behavior. So a lot about clear communication, how to figure out how your dog is telling you yes or no, so the same stuff Sarah was saying. I'm not stealing hers. But I think we came about it two different ways, maybe. Also, as far as communication, how to get your reinforcement, the different location marker cues, that kind of thing, has really been my emphasis for the last five or so years, for sure.
Melissa Breau: I have to say I'm pretty impressed that you all managed to explain what I consider to be fairly complex topics fairly concisely. So I have some rough questions here, but totally get that this conversation may take on maybe a little bit of a life of its own. But let's start with the phrase itself. Amy, when you originally mentioned this idea, this Positive Training 2.0, what did you mean?
Amy Cook: I was sitting in a car with Sarah, and we were getting to know each other and going over the ways we were thinking about the training community and the training world. It was a thing I said to encapsulate what I have been experiencing as being part of the Fenzi Academy.
I was there in the beginning of positive training, or when it was taking hold. I was a trainer at the time, and it was revolutionary to me to put away corrections and to use food and clickers and reinforcement for everything, rather than telling them what not to do, let's teach them what to do, and all that was mind-blowing and training-blowing.
Fast-forward to today, what I got exposed to by being exposed to trainers at the Academy looked very different to me. It felt more like we were doing actually what I thought I had been doing all along but kind of wasn't, which is really considering the viewpoint of the dog, really getting buy-in.
The clicker training I was doing, or training I was doing before, looked more like, or feels more like, It's still going to go my way, I still want you to do these things, but I will make it worth your while. Dog empowerment was not talked of, but sure, yeah, the dog has a choice. He can do the things and get the cookies, and nothing else. He's not going to not do the things, because we've made the environment more sterile, or we've changed the training environment to have nothing else in it but me.
That felt a whole lot like consent, but now that I'm getting exposed so much to these great trainers — Sarah and Shade have influenced me a lot — I started to see that actually asking the questions and respecting the answers you get, of "Do you want to train? Can you train?" — which Sarah can go into so much more — and now what I'm asking is, "Do you feel safe through the play?"
I feel like where we're moving as an industry — at least some of us, and some of us in the Academy and in other places — are saying, I really need the dog to be able to make a choice here and say, 'Yes, I want to do this, and not because you are holding up all of the reinforcers that I desperately need. I also want to do this because I enjoy it.' And we're asking dogs, I think, now to tell us the information that we need: Can you do this? Do you want to do this? Do you feel safe doing this?
So I think what 2.0 — at least in my mind, I'm like, We're in another phase. I'm going to call it 2.0 — it's a way of considering the dog, for me, and being willing to examine our own systems and habits and reconsider if they are empowering enough. That is not to say that dogs therefore always get exactly the choice they want at all times. It's not being more permissive. It's about actually asking a question, respecting the answer, and working with what we have.
There's techniques that follow from that that a lot of people are working on, but I'm seeing it more as a way of saying, Can I shift my philosophy a bit and get even further from the traditional mindset that says you have to. Because I think positive training in the beginning was saying, "I still want you to do it, but I'll make it worth your while," and now I think I want to say, "Do you want to do it?" in the first place. Not just because I have huge magnets and huge lottery winnings for you to have, but what else can I be asking you about this?
I know, Sarah, you have a lot more ways of doing that, and Shade, both of you do, and you both influence me a lot. So that's where it started, and I'm excited about where it might go.
Melissa Breau: Sarah, do you want to pick up from there?
Sarah Stremming: Sure. A lot of what Amy said applies to me as well. I was a crossover trainer, so I had learned how to do all kinds of forceful, nasty things to dogs once upon a time. When I first started "converting" to positive training, it was all about what I left out. It was all about omission. It was all about, I'm not going to use the prong collar anymore. I'm not going to correct in XYZ instance anymore. I'm not going to use an ear pinch anymore. That was 1.0 for me. It was, What do we leave out? Now, to me, it's not about that at all. It's about what we actually do.
When I first came into positive training, a lot of what Amy said, again, applies to me. It was still very regimented and controlling. It was just doing so without those aversive tools. So again it was control the dog's access to resources all the time, and then that way you control all the assets that the dog could want, and because of that, they work for you. They're no longer working for you because they're afraid not to, but they are working for you because they have to, to get the stuff that they want. Especially in my sport, in agility, we intentionally make the resources, the reinforcers very, very important to the dog.
I'm thinking about your typical toy-obsessed Border Collie that a ball on a rope is a life-or-death situation for this dog. I strongly feel that Felix thinks that the ball on a rope is life or death for him. I didn't even do that on purpose. He just came that way. But a lot of people are doing it on purpose, and I learned how to do it on purpose. And then we restrict access. Then we say, "I control it. Now you have to this thing, or you can't have this thing that you are desperate to have."
For me, positive training 2.0 is, Let's not leverage desperation anymore. Let's not only focus on what we're leaving out. Just because you are not popping the dog on a prong collar does not mean you're being a kind, compassionate teacher to this animal. Being kind and compassionate towards them has to do with asking them the question of "Would you like to do another repetition to get the ball on the rope?"
I've learned a lot from Shade, especially, when it comes to toys about how to build that kind of language that we can ask them when they're ready to do the next thing. I do have toys all over the place, but I don't have balls on ropes all over the place. That's mostly because I think there would be bloodshed if I did! Not really anything else. But it's not about restricting access. It's not about "You're going to be in a crate for 23 hours a day, and on that 24th hour you get to come out and work." A lot of early positive training, especially in my sport, looked exactly like that. It was just don't let them have anything unless you gave it to them because they did what you said. It's just not about that for me anymore. It's about asking them, "Do you want to do this? Can you do this? Are you OK to do this?" more than anything else.
What's been fascinating and rewarding for me is that I'm not only getting the same awesome, high-power agility work that I got before, but I'm going to say it's even better because I've got this great language where I know that this dog isn't able to do what I'm about to ask him to do, and therefore I'm not going to ask him to do it, versus before it would have been, "Send them for the weave poles an eighth time, because they failed it seven times in a row." Until they get it. That's how people were training agility.
The new wave is, Let's not do that anymore. Let's say, "Are you capable of making that weave pole entry right now?" and the dog can say yes or no. And then, wow, not only is the person going to get reinforced by that beautiful weave pole entry, but the dog's going to get reinforced for doing it right. Now everybody's happier, or we're going to take a break, and then we're going to come back to it later and I'm going to ask you again. So that's what it looks like for me. Very long-winded, but you knew that would happen.
Melissa Breau: Shade, what about you? Do you have anything to add there?
Shade Whitesel: Well, again, they stole my answers. So I'm going to just not say anything… but no, I wrote some notes down.
Amy Cook: We learned from you.
Shade Whitesel: Actually, we all need to thank Ones, because Onesie has been the dog that has really taught me to listen to when the dog says no, because when I override his "no," bad things happen. So we can all thank him for my degree of learning in the last six years.
Sometimes how I describe my training evolution is "leave it look to offered look." I started as a balanced trainer, or whatever we want to call it. I taught dogs to "leave it" with some correction, and I wanted to make avoidance around something, so if I was telling them to leave a piece of food on the ground, then I would correct them and teach them "leave it" meant "or else." Then I learned that there were different ways to do it, and so I would teach the dog a "to do" behavior: look at me instead. When you see that thing, I tell you to look and then you look at me.
Now my training is, if we want to call it 2.0, it's more like you see the thing and I get default attention back, without the coerciveness either of telling them to do it or the "or else" to back it up. So I look at my training like that, and for me — this is expanding on what other people are saying, because I like the consent and the buy-in from the learner, too — for me it's all about shaping and getting that offered behavior from the dog and reinforcing that. So it's really about the reinforcer, it's really about observing my dog and seeing how they can offer the behavior and then I reinforce it, so that what happens is instead of seeing the dog and telling them to leave it or to look, they see the dog and they automatically turn their attention back to me. I just love that kind of evolution of what I'm trying to teach and what I consider myself now.
Something that Sarah said about the balls on rope — we were originally taught to restrict access, and I was just thinking, as she was talking about that, how I used to have yard toys and training toys. The training toys, my balls on a rope and my tugs, were never left around. I had my normal yard toys, which were around for the dogs to pick them up, and I had my training tools. Now there's no distinction. If it's not raining, the tugs can be out and lying around, and the dogs can grab it and play with me, and I think how I'm not getting any less focus from my dogs for allowing them access to the toys that I train with. It's more about them choosing, and more about me making myself reinforcing, and what's going on with that, rather than the actual toy that I have to deny them and create that life-or-death situation, like Sarah said.
And, because I always say this, I consider myself right now one of the most positive trainers that I've ever been, and I really want that buy-in and that choice from my learner. Like Amy said, it doesn't mean that we're permissive, and I think sometimes that needs to be said. It doesn't mean that I allow my dog to drag me around on the leash just… I'm thinking of client dogs. I can still say, "We're not going over there. We're going over here." I can still be a leader, at risk of using all these words that have all these other meanings.
Amy Cook: Right.
Shade Whitesel: It's like I do want to train my dog to give me his paw and consent to have his nails done. My youngest puppy doesn't like having his feet touched. He doesn't want his nails done. I can train that. But I can also say, "Hey, sweetie, right now I'm not going to listen to you that much. I am going to grab that paw and do it."
Sarah Stremming: So important.
Shade Whitesel: I don't think that the two are mutually exclusive, and I think that sometimes needs to be brought up is that I can do your nails on the porch because they need to be done. It might take three months or so … or longer … to teach you, in the garage, on the training table, to give me your foot. So I think that there's still room for both of that, and I really, really love that we're asking for consent and getting that. I love that.
Amy Cook: Shade, what you just said just now reminds me exactly of what we think about when we're thinking about raising children or dealing with children at all. There are times when it has to go my way because I'm the mom and I said so, or I'm the teacher, or I'm the adult here, and I said this is how it has to go. And there are times when I want to give you choice, so that both you are empowered and you feel like a respected member of this team, you can have a voice, have an opinion, and say no, and also to start developing that in you, so that everything is not you receive and I give, you do what I say and I tell you what to do.
What you were just saying about the nails, or about not being permissive, I was thinking, there's a great difference between having school and living a life in a general way. When I'm doing school with a dog, I'm going to teach you a thing. Here we are sitting, and I'd like to do school right now. I'd like to explain something or have you engage with me in a thing. We want the dog, we want the child, to have a choice. If they don't want to right now, for whatever reason, well, OK. I don't then have the right to say, "Well, you have to, because I want to do school right now." Which is different from the dog saying, "I'd like my face in the trash." I'm going to say, "That's not going to happen. You're not going to put your face in the trash, and I'll do what I've got to do to get you out of the trash."
Sarah Stremming: Can you come over and tell Idgee not to put her face in the trash?
Amy Cook: I know the counter-argument, which is, Everything is school. We're always learning all the time. Yes, absolutely, everyone is always learning. But if we separate these in our minds conceptually, we can say, "There are times when I override you, and there are times when I'm going to tell you …"
Shade Whitesel: You don't always get everything you want. Even though you want to go through the trash right now after the bones, you still don't get that.
Amy Cook: You don't get that. But I'm going to make a space where you do get to make a choice, and it's right here. I'm about to teach you "go to your mat," or whatever, and I say, "Would you like to the rep?" And if they say, "Kind of, not really," I have to honor that no, which is something I know, Sarah, you go into a lot, which really affected me. It's like, don't ask a yes-or-no question if you're not going to take no for an answer.
Shade Whitesel: If you don't want to know the answer.
Sarah Stremming: Right!
Amy Cook: I want to know the answer. I very much want to hear you say no to me, and go, "Wow, I didn't know you didn't want to be doing this." I can go back to the drawing board and figure out why this is unpleasant or why you don't want to. Maybe you just feel tired, and that's fine. If I can't let my partner tell me they don't feel like doing this, I don't think I have a partnership.
I think that's not a fair way to keep going when we're talking about I control everything in a dog's world, including school and whether you get in the trash. So I'm going to reserve the times of restricting your behavior for … everyone's going to have a different list about this; you're going to decide what is non-optional in your world. But when we are setting up to just do some training of some skills or manners or explaining something to a dog, and yet we're still saying, "You don't have a lot of choice as to whether you come to school, how I conduct school, whether you like it, which reinforcers I'm going to give you, I'm just going to give it to you, you're going to like it," I think we're missing the mark.
And it's not as kind as we like to think it is, because if a dog says, "I'd rather not right now," and we go, "Oh, come on. Yes, you do. Just get up here. It will be good. I'll give you a cookie. Come on, come on," and they go along, and we don't see ourselves doing that. I don't think we're super-honest about seeing it.
Sarah Stremming: That's the piece that I think is too often missed by our students, so I think we've got to reiterate again that what's important here is that you don't lie. That you are very upfront about, This is a choice situation and this is a non-choice situation. Somebody asked in the alumni group, "Do you have a cue for a non-choice situation?" I think the real answer there is that the entire antecedent arrangement needs to inform the dog that this is a non-choice situation or this is a choice situation. Because what happens is you poison your choice situations when they aren't clear about which one this is.
Too many students have made this error where they're like, "I asked him to load up in the car, and then he didn't want to load up in the car. But we really had to go, so I just grabbed him and shoved him in the car." That's the most damage. You don't do damage when you just go to them and take their collar and say, "Sweetie, we're getting in the car now," and you put them in the car.
Shade Whitesel: That's a really good point, because that load-up in the car is not a choice situation in my own dogs' lives. But a lot of clients, if the dog goes, "Oh my gosh, I don't want to get in the car, then they …"
Sarah Stremming: They get out the cookies. They try to convince the dog to get in the car. That's the most dangerous thing that we do, because it's a lie, and then they don't trust you and then you really poison the car situation.
Amy Cook: And you're luring. Your luring situation is now getting poisoned. "Oh, what are you going to try to convince me to do now?"
Sarah Stremming: How many dogs have you seen that are so suspicious of a lure. And that's why — because we lure them into the bathtub and we lure them into the car. And the vet. We go, "It's OK. Get up on the table. I'm going to give you a hot dog." You just have to be so clear about "This is a choice situation" and "This is a non-choice situation."
Felix has two options. I will say, "Hey, you want to get in the car?" And he can say no. I intentionally, when I don't need to bring him somewhere, will ask him to get in the car and then get to honor his no. Other situations, I have a very clear, different situation. I take him by the collar to the car, and I tell him to get in the car, and I put him in the car, and there's not a choice.
In the other situation I ask him, "Do you want to go in your crate? You want to go in your crate in the car?" I get to honor his choice, so I set it up on purpose to where it's very clear to him. That has made him so much better about loading up in the car in general, because he knows that in this situation, he gets to stay home if he wants to, and in this situation he doesn't. Which is funny, because I never take him anywhere bad, but he's …
Shade Whitesel: But he just doesn't want to go.
Amy Cook: That clarity thing is something that Shade has, I think, asked us to really raise the bar on.
Sarah Stremming: Really elevate, absolutely.
Shade Whitesel: Thanks, guys. I'm lost in my thoughts here, going, Maybe I should ask my dogs if they want to go. I can ask them later on.
Amy Cook: Shade, what you contributed to me, as far as the clarity, the different marker signals, you're the one who explained it more to me. I don't know origins or anything. And Sarah, too, the thing that I get from both of you is that aside from this philosophy of, "Yes, we should respect dogs and give them choice, and there should be consent" — those are all ideas and guiding principles, but it doesn't get us down to, How do I do that?
What you both do is say, I can come up with ways of how to do that. I can make a threshold test and say tell me where you are in this. Both of you have that. And Shade I'll just be super-clear so that I can read what your answer is to it. It's not an ambiguous answer of, "I don't know what you've asked, so I'm just going to go along." And we don't want that. We wouldn't want that with people. And Sarah.
And so I think one of the jobs — maybe this is a later question, but one of the jobs of all of us going forward in a philosophy as we think about this philosophy is what kind of techniques help us achieve this. How do I ask if the dog feels safe while I'm using play? How do I ask if you want to go in the car? Maybe we'll come up with different cues. Maybe it will be, The front door says you can veto; the back door says you've got to go.
It's up to us to find ways to make real these philosophies so that other people don't sit there with "That sounds like a great philosophy, but I don't know how to do it." That's how I felt when positive training took over. Don't correct dogs anymore. OK, what do I do? Here's a clicker, here's some cookies, let's work on it. I didn't have clarity. And I think that's our job now is to say, If we're thinking of this in new ways, we still have to quantify this with exact things we can do, which I think you're both really great at.
Shade Whitesel: I feel the same in positive training there's such a recipe. You told your dog to sit. If they didn't sit, you either draw up on the leash or push their butt down and you knew what to do. If you had good timing, then you could train it. Sit, collar pop up, dog sat or didn't, and then you knew what to do.
I remember ten years ago, or fifteen maybe, asking clients to get their dogs to sit before they came in the gate or whatever, and of course we didn't have that collar pop anymore, and the dog was like, "I can't sit. I need to sniff over here, I need to do this," and I remember thinking I had nothing to give them, because to me it was very obvious that the dog was not in the right mindset to sit or to hear you. But because we didn't have that correction, we were like paralyzed and not knowing what to do, because the "or else" was taken away. Now that threshold test of mine is entirely because it's clear criteria. Your dog either does this or they don't, and then the student knows what to do.
Amy Cook: I think we got better in positive training, if we can call it 1.0, with, "Well, what do I do if I can't correct?" We got better. We filled in techniques better. We thought about management better. We have come up with more guidelines, better stuff than I had in the '90s when I was trying to figure out how to do this. It has developed a whole lot.
But what I'd like to see now is if we're shifting a little bit in the way we think about it, that you have choice. I can't just leave that there and say, "Give dogs choices." People will go, "I'll never get anything done." So quantifying that with "This is how you give a choice" I think will serve everybody really well.
Watching you guys — you two in particular, certainly there were other people, but since you're both here, you're in my mind — do that showed me that's how you respect a dog's choice. That's how you ask a dog to give you their opinion, which is something I was thinking I was doing, but I really wasn't, or I've been wanting to do or talking about, but not really doing it. I appreciate that you say, "Here's how I ask for a choice. I teach this and present this, and I respond this way to the answers."
The more we can quantify that, the more — like Sarah Owings is saying, "Let's reconsider impulse control." That's all well and good in theory, and we should. We should always reconsider everything in theory. But then put some technique to it and see what comes of that. See where we go, so that we don't leave people who are listening to this with a sense of, "That's great, but I can't because I don't know how to do it."
Shade Whitesel: We need to be practical about it and say, "This is what you do." Sarah?
Amy Cook: We lost Sarah.
Sarah Stremming: I think we've all led Melissa right to the next question.
Melissa Breau: I was going to say exactly that. I think that we've arrived rather nicely at our next question, which is, I'd really like to get a sense of where you see the industry today, both generally, where is it behind the curve, where is it ahead of the curve? What do you think, looking at the bigger picture, where we are in that range of 1.0 to 2.0?
Shade Whitesel: Sarah can answer.
Amy Cook: I have an answer, but Sarah hasn't spoken in a while.
Sarah Stremming: I agree with what everybody just said, which is that the positive reinforcement based dog training industry as a whole is still too focused on omission. Still too focused on "Don't do this, this, this." Which is funny and ironic because we're telling you to quit teaching dogs like that, quit teaching dogs like, "Don't do this, this, this." Instead, tell them what to do.
And then, what I find — and this is just me, talking to dog trainers, looking at what people are saying on the Internet, looking at dog trainers' websites — what I see is them proclaiming loudly what they do not do and not saying what they're actually going to do. And when I observe dog trainers' classes, that's also what I see. They're not actually teaching people what to actively do.
That's where it's behind the curve is that we have to quit preaching about how all these tools are mean. Just shut up and tell them exactly what to do, in real time, with your clients, and then we can help people to see real behavior change in real time with positive reinforcement. Because you're not doing that if you're just standing on a soapbox, talking about how prong collars hurt. Of course they do, but who cares? That's so not important.
Amy Cook: If you're not using them, then stop talking about it.
Sarah Stremming: Exactly. If you hung the prong collar up ten years ago, why are you still talking about it? Talk about what you actually do right now. In our industry, it's starting to happen more and more that people are putting real videos out of themselves training dogs, talking about what they're doing. Or with your clients, the biggest place, I think, because we are in a teaching role, I think we've figured out a lot of things with our dogs as far as, What do I do when they don't sit? That's like a no-brainer at this point, because you probably didn't even ask them to sit in the first place if they couldn't.
Amy Cook: You changed your environment.
Sarah Stremming: Right. That's like way back up the chain. "What do I do if they don't sit?" is an irrelevant question at this point for us, but for a normal person, it's not. That's where Shade's Ready To Work, my Worked Up protocol, they were born of trying to teach people very step-by-step processes so that we could say, "Do this, do this, do this, do this."
Shade Whitesel: And now, if they do all that, now you can ask them to sit and they will.
Sarah Stremming: And they will, and more than sit. Now you can ask them to run that masters level course and they will.
Amy Cook: I've been doing it with pet clients. I've been saying things like, if I say sit and the dog doesn't sit, I know what they're feeling, like, "Oh God, my dog didn't do it," or whatever. What is the trainer going to do?" I frame it as, I'm glad she told me she couldn't do that. I'm really OK if she's not following any cues, because I'm not even considering them cues. I'm considering them all tests. I said sit, she didn't do it, great. Now I know I need to shift what I'm doing. I want her not to sit, if she was in a place where she couldn't do it.
We got away from command, "I told you to do it and now you're obedient," and we went to cue, "I cued you to do it, but you still have a response that you have to do to that cue."
Sarah Stremming: Right!
Amy Cook: I'll train it and I'll motivate you, but it's still a cue and you respond to it. If we ask things, I'm not saying solely and only and every time, but if we can think of them as tests, in a way, I've said "Sit," and I got not what I expected out of that, I can be grateful. I can say, "Oh, interesting. That's fascinating. Let me see what's going on here," rather than, "Oh God, you're not trained enough. Let me drill it more," or "Oh God, you didn't do what I want. Now you've found out that doing what I want is optional."
These are old thinking. I just tell clients, "This is just me testing what's going on with her, and I said sit, she couldn't I'm going to shift some stuff up, to stop thinking of it as I told you what to do, and now you have a response and you have to do it. I think it's very hard to get rid of that mindset because we're like that as people anyway, regardless of dog training, and so pushing against that. I'm not sure that answers the question but it's just want I thought of while you guys were talking.
Sarah Stremming: Everything in our environment shapes us to think that way, Amy. Like, I told the effing Apple TV last night to turn the volume down, and it wouldn't, and I'm like, You're so smart, Apple. Why can't you figure this out?
Amy Cook: And you get frustrated monkeys banging stuff, like "Ahh!"
Sarah Stremming: Everything in our environment shapes us to be like that, so then we have to unlearn it, put it aside, and for Shade and I, working with sport clientele, the people paid their money, they showed up at the trial, they don't want the dog to say no in that moment. That's a big deal to people.
Amy Cook: If my dog finds out he doesn't have to do the work… it's like your dog doesn't.
Sarah Stremming: The question I always get … I teach Worked Up and I also teach Hidden Potential, which is like the total other end of the spectrum, like dogs that get sniffy.
The Worked Up people's question is always this, they're always like, "My dog is never going to say no." And my answer to them is, "But your dog can now say 'I can't.'" There's a big difference between "no" and "I can't," and you have to accept both of those answers.
And it's the same with the Hidden Potential-type dogs. Those dogs also might just tell you "I can't." Or they might say no and the biggest question from the Hidden Potential crowd is, "If the dog learns they get to say no, they're never going to say yes again."
Amy Cook: And it's like, yeah well let's talk about that...
Sarah Stremming: And my response to that is, "And isn't that interesting." And doesn't that tell you a whole lot? And I think that's where we're trying to get to is helping people to understand that it's safe and OK to give them this language. It actually will elevate your training and their performance. Because in the case of the Worked Up dog that says no on the agility line, you just saved yourself from knocking nineteen bars out of twenty. Ok, that's what you saved yourself from.
Shade Whitesel: Or running off course.
Sarah Stremming: Right!
Amy Cook: You're just digging a deeper hole. Stop digging. The shovel just came out.
Sarah Stremming: Or killing themselves on the equipment. If these dogs are not OK, they're going to get hurt. And then the Hidden Potential dogs, you just saved yourself from your dog sniffing for the entire standard course time and then the buzzer went off and you had to go collect the thing. Like, do you really want that?
Amy Cook: And now they do it the next time, too, and in class a little bit, because now they feel pressured because you didn't listen to them.
Sarah Stremming: Yeah and it's helping people… To date, a hundred percent of my students who have embraced this concept and ran with it, and understood it, have loved it and reaped amazing benefits. But getting people over that initial fear of giving the dog that kind of control is not easy.
Amy Cook: Right. We don't see them as partners. We really don't. And in a lot of ways they're not, in the sense that we do control everything. But we also control everything for children, and we don't intend them to just become automatons that do everything we say always. Usually. Most of us.
Sarah Stremming: I was going to say, I don't know, Amy.
Amy Cook: Well, okay. You don't become a whole functioning adult at any point if we decide that, and so just because we have a whole bunch of control doesn't mean we can't give over a whole lot of it where it's possible. And certainly sports — right, sports?!? — should be one of those places where we can say, "Your vote matters here. You get to say."
Sarah Stremming: And your performances from your dog will actually be better if you tell them that. Because that's the fear is that, If I give my dog a choice on toenails, they might have really long toenails, and that sucks. But it doesn't look like that in sports. It looks like a dog who performs better because you were able to ask them if they are capable of doing what you said.
It's like what Shade said about Onesie: when she overrides his no, bad things happen. And it's the same with Felix. When I override his no, bad things also happen, they're just different things because my sport doesn't involve biting people! But it's true — when I override his no, it does not go well.
Amy Cook: It doesn't. And we need to train people in what not going well looks like, because it's often very subtle at first. Somewhere they had a video of a dog just doing a bunch of reps, and I think just get on the platform and get a cookie, and at one point the dog was asked to get on and there was a small hesitation, and the woman cued it again and the dog did it. And the time right after that, the dog just sat.
I saw that and I went, Oh, man, I've asked the second time before a lot of times. I'm not saying never ask a second time, but it's not about always and nevers. It's about there's a subtly to no sometimes, and we're going to miss that subtlety, if we're not telling people how to see it and how to ask for behaviors. Yeah, the dog did say no and I would have missed that.
Shade Whitesel: It's really interesting, because I just taught three seminars in a row, so you salvage the game skills and then you add agility equipment, or you add a sleeve on the ground for the protection dogs. They're so subtle. Say you've got a chase game, where the dog brings back the ball, drops it at your feet, and chases the next one. You add an agility jump in there, and the very next rep the dog drops the ball ten feet away. It's just like right there. You had a good chase game, you added an agility jump, and the dog goes, "That wasn't as reinforcing." Or if there's a sleeve in the way, then the dog arcs away from the sleeve or something. Those little subtle things — maybe it's not a no, maybe it's a maybe — but it's so cool when I have it in my brain of just dog after dog in the seminar saying, "That was hard." That's what I call it: that was hard.
Amy Cook: That's more the frame of I can't. It's not fully failed I can't. It's not like I don't want to anymore. I do want to but...
Sarah Stremming: Then that's just information about what you ask for next. It's not necessarily you don't want to train anymore. That was the biggest think I learned from you, Shade, working with Felix is that he's never just going to quit agility, but with his toy stuff I can watch, and if he holds on to that ball a second longer than he normally does, or he drops it a couple of feet away as opposed to right at my feet, I have to observe that he just told me that what I just asked him for was really hard.
Shade Whitesel: Yes, and that's what I want people to learn. Because it's not that you don't do it. It's that you take that as information and you adjust your training session. You go, "Oh, I thought that was easy, just jumping one jump, but you told me that was hard. So I need to think about how to go forward from this."
Amy Cook: It's not been a two way street. That's a two-way street, and I don't think we're very good at that. We're good at the one-way street, you respond to what I did. But you're saying, "I'm going to see how you just did that, and make my next adjustment based on exactly what you said." We don't listen near as much as we like to think we do.
Shade Whitesel: Especially in my sport. It's not about giving dogs a lot of choice.
Amy Cook: That's true. Even in places where we think we are in general positive training, I think in a lot of ways we're not, and this is one of the ways. Not really listening to what you just said to me. It's like dealing with a person who heard your argument but they're still in the mode of "But I have to convince you. I heard your argument, but I have to convince you." That's different from "I heard your argument. I heard what you just said. Oh, OK, let me take that in. Let me shift something." We all know those conversational styles and mistakes we can all make. Training is not about persuasion exactly, and I think we get into persuasion mode of, "Come on, it's going to be great. Come on, you're going to love it. Come on, here, do it," and that feels like a monologue. It feels like I'm not really listening at all, and after a while it becomes one of those "I cannot unsee" kind of things. Once you let your dog talk to you about it, then you see them talking. You're like, "Oh, no."
Melissa Breau: I think that brings us nicely to our next question, point of conversation, whatever we want to call it at this point. I think we've talked about a lot of different pieces now, and I want to summarize and maybe pull them together, collect them into some ideas here. So if you look at the things we've been talking about, what are the big themes here? What do we think the big topics are when we look into the future of positive training? I think we've talked a lot about consent and communication, but how do we add to that? If we had to title those things or group those things up together, how would we do that?
Sarah Stremming: Oh, big question.
Amy Cook: Big answers.
Sarah Stremming: The big themes as we look into the future, I think, again, quit training by omission. Think about what you're actually doing would be, to me, hopefully a big theme. And then everything we talked about, like accept the answers that the dog is giving to your questions, and then roll with those answers. It doesn't mean, if the dog drops the ball three feet away instead of right at your feet, that doesn't mean never send them to that weave pole entry again. It means, Oh, that weave pole entry that I thought was easy was actually hard. That just means I need to split a little finer, help him a little better to understand that, and then I can just be a better trainer in that light.
As far as the industry and looking into the future of positive training, again I think it's about teaching actual techniques and actual steps, as opposed to preaching about "We don't believe in dominance and we don't use a prong collar." It's actually tired. Let's just stop. It's over. Move on. Talk about what you're actually doing, because if the positive-reinforcement-based trainer just preaches to their client for an hour about the equipment choices that they've made that are poor and what quadrant they've been working in, but nothing gets done, and the balanced or aversive-based or whatever you want to call the other trainer comes in and actually shows the person real behavior change in the hour that they paid for, because they successfully suppressed whatever that behavior was with their aversive tools, you just lost another person to that kind of training because you preached at them instead of saying, "Here's what we're going to do."
Amy Cook: I can't believe we haven't learned that really yet.
Sarah Stremming: Right, I know.
Shade Whitesel: We known not to do that for so long.
Sarah Stremming: Instead of walking in and being like, "Here are all the reasons the prong collar is wrong," be like, "OK, great, leash reactivity… So we're going to use a front-connection harness for this instead. You just say, "For your problem, this is the best tool." Or whatever tool you want to use. Please don't send me e-mails about the front-connection harness. I only didn't say "Gentle Leader" because Shade knows about that.
Shade Whitesel: Wrong quadrant. Wrong quadrant.
Sarah Stremming: So you just say — or flat-buckle collar — you just say, "OK, you've got a problem. Sweet. Here's how we deal with it."
Shade Whitesel: Here's how we deal with it. Yeah.
Sarah Stremming: Here's how we deal with it. First of all, we're going to use this piece of equipment, and we're going to use this food. Here's exactly what I want you to do. Start teaching people like that. Shut up about quadrants, shut up about equipment. I hope that's the future of positive training, because the industry will take the turn...
Shade Whitesel: Start to produce results. Stop talking about what everybody else is doing and start showing it and doing it.
Sarah Stremming: Exactly.
Shade Whitesel: Exactly.
Sarah Stremming: Shut up and show off.
Melissa Breau: I like that.
Amy Cook: I promise I won't take clarity, Shade, of yours, so there won't be someone stole my answer, if you want to go, or if I go next, I don't know.
Melissa Breau: Do you want to for it Shade?
Shade Whitesel: Industry-wise? No, go ahead, Amy.
Amy Cook: Well, I was thinking… I think that we left behind… We "bath-watered and babied" relationship in training. I remember arguing the other side of it — I don't need a relationship with an animal to train it, and it's quite true. You don't need one to clicker train. I'm sure I don't have a relationship with the hyenas I tried to train on the campus, right? You don't need one to be able to have loops and to clicker train.
But I think we were so afraid of using the relationship, or even thinking about that, because that's what traditional training was really leaning on. You do what I say because I am your leader. You do what I say because I'm intimidating in a relationship kind of way. So we took that out and said no, we can just use all the principals.
I feel like at some point, at least for me and my observing people and things, I feel like it got, or can get, a little clinical and a little unconnected and a little vending machine-ish. Not always, not everybody, but there are times when it really looks like that to me. What I would like us to reconsider is — it's all running through everything we've said — asking for consent, just saying I have a relationship with you and your opinion — I think we should be exploring — of course this is my thing with play — what your relationship is with your dog outside of what you can give them to reinforce new behaviors, and what it is to be in a relationship in conversation with an animal, and not just in how you can explain something to them.
Listening to somebody is being in a relationship with them, and of course playing with somebody is being in a relationship with them, and being in a relationship says, "I will respect your boundaries. I will ask if you want me to do this." Being in a relationship says, "I will get to know all the ways your no looks. What does your no look like? Do you like it when I do this or not? Do you want to do this?"
These are all relational pieces, and it's very much a lot like being with children. You are constantly listening to them and looking at them and telling them through your actions that they're valued, not just through your words or just by providing food and shelter and clothing and school. We put that all aside because it's not the way you're supposed to train. You don't train with relationship. OK, sure, but it doesn't mean that it's not something we still can't focus on and develop or ask questions about and try to mine and see what we can get there and not to be necessarily better reinforcers as trainers but to be possibly better listeners or just better partners, because it doesn't have to be all about me. A relationship is two-way, and sometimes training is kind of one-way, and so I think that could be, if not incorporated whole cloth, at least explored in each individual team as we move forward in positive training.
Shade Whitesel: Maybe it's also thinking about reinforcement as other than just food and toys.
Amy Cook: Yeah, there's that.
Shade Whitesel: It is, because your whole relationship, at least my relationship with my dogs, is made up of me taking them on walks, and running, and the car rides. I run with my dogs, and they don't get any food or anything when I'm running with them. So thinking of reinforcement as stuff other than what we use, primary reinforcement-wise.
When I bring that specific concept up to my students, they either know it or they don't. They either know that other stuff is reinforcing to their dogs, or they have no concept. It's all about food, food, food. And so I think we could maybe do a better job of teaching that too, that reinforcement is lots of things, which I think we're all trying to do as well.
Amy Cook: And super-clarity. I really think that your stuff on how to be incredibly clear has to be …
Shade Whitesel: I think we start there. Like Sarah was saying about sometimes there's a choice point, sometimes there isn't. Making sure the antecedents are different for those. I'm all about clarity. We start there. Once we have clarity and good mechanics and good antecedent arrangements, then we start asking those questions.
Amy Cook: I think your stuff really calms the dog. If they know exactly how things are going to go, it's a form of control. I'll let you see how all of this is, so that when you make your choices, they're informed choices. Your clarity really adds to their ability to make those kinds of choices.
Shade Whitesel: Yeah, definitely.
Melissa Breau: I know that Shade needs to get out of here in just a minute, so to round things out or end things here, I want to give you each a chance to talk about your pet project or whatever you're experimenting with or working on right now, whatever you're excited about. Shade, since I know you need to go, do you want to go first?
Shade Whitesel: Oh, you're going to make me go first. My pet project right now is I just did a new class in Fenzi, Spaces In Between, so that was my new project for the last three months or more, of thinking, so my new project right now is to not do that class. I don't mean that in a bad way, but I'm just like, oh, I'm so enjoying the fact that it's nice out and I want to go for a walk and not make another lecture. That isn't necessarily what you wanted to hear.
What is my pet project? It's always communication and about being practical and giving students ways to figure that out. This whole class, the Spaces class, was about kind of the 'ready to work,' how are you doing, dog, the threshold test, trying to figure out and giving your dog skills and predictable rituals of how to deal with either life or how to deal with trial situations or seminar situations and make that easier.
And really all about we talked about this last forty-five minutes, just how to listen to your learner. I just think that's so important. It's been my big thing for the last couple of years, for sure, and developing ways to pass that on. I always listen to them, but developing ways to teach that to other people, because that's important to me. It's not enough that I know how to. I want to pass that on and have other people know how to listen to their dogs, listen to their learners. That's my big thing.
Melissa Breau: All right. Sarah, do you want to dive in?
Sarah Stremming: Gosh, pet projects. Like Shade said, Onesie has made her who she is right now, and Felix is really the same for me. They're kind of the same age too. So my pet project is really being a better trainer for him because he really needs me to be better than probably anybody wants to be.
I just had a Gold spot, a Gold thread of my own for him in my Fix It class because I can't give the dog a bath, and in six weeks I got him to where I can hose his back off in the tub. When the course started, he would have frantically tried to bite the hose and just been in a state of distress that I find unacceptable for one of my dogs.
A lot of my dogs take baths without any kind of consent. Like, I put Idgee in the bathtub and I give her a bath, and I'm not going to tell you that she enjoys it, because she doesn't. But she tolerates it just fine, and it's fine. Felix couldn't be that dog, so I have to carve out time in my day to go train him to stand for a bath. So we've been working really hard on that. I'm also working really hard on some of his other husbandry stuff. He has to go get a vaccine and a blood draw next week, so we've been working really hard on choice and no choice husbandry types of procedures and really defining that clean line for him because he has got to have that clean line. He cannot — and I think a lot of dogs are like him; I don't think he's special in that way — but he's got to have that clean line.
And then I would like to compete the dog in agility at some point, so we're working on a lot of stuff that I really made a mess of early, early on with him. Three years ago I wasn't paying enough attention to his subtle "That's hard for me" or "I can't" words responses, and so I made a mess of a couple of different pieces of agility. And so repairing those messes is my other project.
Amy Cook: That's everybody's ongoing project.
Shade Whitesel: And yay for being able to give him a bath. I've got to do that with Onesie.
Sarah Stremming: Oh my god, it's so much of a big deal.
Shade Whitesel: Same thing. I can make my other dogs do it, and they're like, "Oh, OK," but Onesie enters a state of … it is stress, but it's this screaming stress of I'm going...
Sarah Stremming: Right - It's not shut down. He's not shut down. He becomes a flailing monster that I can't bathe.
Shade Whitesel: Right. It's no fun.
Sarah Stremming: I even tried to do it on drugs. I tried to drug him. God people are going to send me email about that now.
Shade Whitesel: It probably didn't work.
Sarah Stremming: He couldn't even do it on a level of medication that really should have made him able to have a bath. So being able to just hose the back is huge.
Amy Cook: And you got there.
Sarah Stremming: And I think we're going to get there.
Shade Whitesel: Good.
Melissa Breau: Amy, do you want to round things out?
Amy Cook: Well, I think I wish I had not gotten any dogs until now, because then I'd know... No, we're all always undoing all the other stuff we didn't know. What I've been exploring and working on lately is more things like getting people to understand the difference between an invitation and a requirement, a request, a persuasion. An invitation waits for an answer, and persuasion doesn't. So I'm trying to explore ways of getting people to be better players.
I'm trying to mine the things that we already do pretty well as a species. Individuals aside, as a species, we do pretty well socially. We can tell when people are pressuring us too much. We can tell in intimate situations when things aren't quite as consensual anymore. We can tell in debates when someone's not listening to our viewpoint. We're pretty good at this, except we just don't bring that forward when we're dealing with dogs.
I'm trying to find ways of making the right analogies, bringing the right stuff out of us, because I don't think I'm teaching the skills of play exactly. It's not like, do a play bow this way and then tag their butt and then turn away. And play will work because it's not about that. It's not a skill. It's a way of being.
It's a way I believe we all have as a species, individuals aside, we have the ability to listen to each other, we have the ability to feel when we're not welcome, we have the ability to play back and forth in a way that's fun for both and consensual, and I'm really trying to explore the ways to get people to feel more natural with their animals, like they might at least know they should be with children, so as not to run roughshod over everything that's going on.
It's hard, because it's not a recipe I can just say, "Do this, and then this will work." It's, Let me tap into you psychologically. Let me find the part in a person that feels more natural with their animal. It's not easy, but I'm trying to find ways to get people to feel that with their dogs, aside from being the clearer trainers that they also can be.
Shade Whitesel: We want all the things.
Amy Cook: I want all the things! Yes. Do it, but feel more confident. When things aren't going well, laugh about it and just look at your animal. It's OK. This is not world peace. We can slow this all down. It's been really, really instructive for my friend Tania to have a baby — and now a second baby — because everything slows down. Everything. You don't teach them constantly. You don't run roughshod over them, ever. You slow down, you watch, you speak kindly, you look, you're careful, you have to consider their viewpoint all the time because they're growing and changing.
I know it's not identical. I'm not going to say dogs are babies. They're not. But we have a lot we can pull from proper response to children that we can be letting inform our dog interactions. Just slow it all down, be able to laugh about it, it's OK, tomorrow's another day. Tomorrow's always another day.
Melissa Breau: Right, right. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, ladies! I think this has been a super-interesting discussion, and I think everybody's going to be super-excited to listen to it. So thank you.
And thank you to our listeners for tuning in!
We'll be back next week with Lori Stevens to talk about massage for performance dogs. Don't miss it.
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