E111: Petra Ford - Planning for the Obedience Ring

Petra Ford joins me to talk about competition obedience — how she creates a plan for the ring and what it was like to win the obedience world cup.


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 Petra Ford.

Petra graduated from Rutgers School of Health Related Professions 17 years ago with a degree in physical therapy. She attended the Canine Rehabilitation Institute in 2007 and is a certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. Petra trains and trials her Labrador Retrievers in obedience, agility, and field. Her black Labrador Retriever, Tyler, had the distinction of being the 2008 and 2009 National Obedience Champion and First Runner Up in 2010. In 2012, Petra and Tyler became the first American team to win the Obedience World Cup. Petra has written several articles on canine conditioning, canine injury prevention, competing with your dog, and more. She has been published in a number of magazines including Clean Run, Front and Finish, and Whole Dog Journal.

Hi Petra, welcome to the podcast!

Petra Ford: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: I'm excited to chat! To start us out, can you just tell us a bit about your current dogs and what you're working on with them?

Petra Ford: Sure. Currently I have three dogs. I have Zaden. He is actually my agility dog. Originally he was going to be my next phenomenal obedience dog, but he had other ideas and I listen to my dogs, so we transitioned. He loves agility. I do not, because I'm not that good at it, but onward and upward. Then I have Zeal. He is my current competition dog. He is 6-and-a-half. He is an obedience champion, and I currently campaign him and compete with him. And then I have my young dog, Zayna, my first girl — what an experience. She's awesome. She is 3 and she just finished her CD, and yesterday she just got her first CDX leg in Open.

Melissa Breau: Congrats.

Petra Ford: Thanks. She is a pistol, so I'm excited about our future together.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. I mentioned in your bio that you were the first American to win the Obedience World Cup. I'd love to talk about that for a minute. Can you tell me about it? What does it take to compete at that level?

Petra Ford: A lot more than I anticipated at the time. I was a little naïve. I had Tyler, and he was genetically a freak. He was just genetically very, very rare, ultra-talented dog. He won the National Championship twice by the time he was 5. I was always very goal-oriented, so I said, "What do I do next?" They had the world cup in England, so I looked at some of the exercises and I thought, Oh, that won't be so hard to train. What the heck, let's go out and do it.

Unbeknownst to me, there was no clear rulebook. The exercises are a variation of our exercises, which sounds like it would be pretty simple, except when you have a dog that's seasoned and been trained very specifically to do things one way, when you put a variation on that, it's very confusing. So that was a challenge.

Their heel position is completely different than ours, so I actually had to teach him a new heel position. Again, super-challenging when you have a dog that's been trained to be very fluent in a specific heel position and then turn around and say, "Now I'm going to teach you another way, and you have to learn it that way as well."

Melissa Breau: What's the difference in the heel position?

Petra Ford: There, they literally want the dog leaning on you, so absolute pressure, so no space. Clearly if my dog did that in AKC obedience, that would be a huge fault. If there is space in the U.K., that is a huge fault.

Their turns are very sharp, like, they're in place, so it's almost like a pivot in place, a very sharp left turn and they want the dogs' back ends to move with a lot of exaggeration. For example, on the left turn, all the way in and then instantly line up straight.

Their heeling patterns are super-long. They're always different; you never know what it's going to be until that day. They have double abouts, double left abouts, 270s, all sorts of stuff we don't have here. And they're very long, like I said, and you don't know. So they'll do, for example, fast left turns, so they do turns at a fast, turns at a slow. I loved it, other than the fact that I had to retrain my poor dog from the ground up. Very different, yes.

Melissa Breau: It's awesome that you managed to go so far with it. That sounds like it would be quite the challenging goal, but it sounds like you obviously accomplished it. How long did it take you, if you don't mind?

Petra Ford: Several years. I trained him for one solid year for the first time that I went, and the first time I went, I would say … again, he was an extraordinary animal that I did not feel he knew the exercises very well. I felt like t he knew them, not to the level that I would have wanted. But in spite of that he still managed to be in a tie for first place.

We had a runoff, and I thought it would be like an American runoff, where it would be a heeling runoff, and I felt like that, of all the exercises, was the most solid. And then they told us we were going to do the entire class again, and then I was a super, super, super, super-bad handler/mother. I did not have confidence. I got nervous. I never got nervous with him; if I did, I hid it very well. I got nervous, I got flustered, and because of that, he made a mistake.

But I was still pretty happy with second place. I was over the moon, to be honest with you. I realized I had underestimated the amount of work that I would need to put into it, so I was happy to come home and put it away, and I did.

The following year, Bridget Carlson started pushing me to go with her, and I was like, "Oh, no, no. I am not doing that again." It was too much work. It was just crazy. She kept at it. One day I took him out and I'm like, Let me see if he even remembers any of this stuff, and this was an awesome, awesome, awesome training moment. It had a huge impact on my training in general because it was the most profound example of latent learning. He knew everything. I hadn't touched it in over a year. I went out and did all the exercises — he knew them better than when I went in 2010.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome.

Petra Ford: Yeah. So I got sucked in and I went back and we won that year.

Melissa Breau: It's a good ending for the story, right?

Petra Ford: It was a good ending. You know, there's no rulebook there, so you had to figure everything out from YouTube videos. Things changed and we didn't know they would change.

Like, the first few years their go-outs were … they set it up like a triangle of objects, and I say "objects" because it was different every year and you never knew what it was going to be. So I trained him to run between two objects to the third object, and it's at a huge distance. The ring is gigantic. It's the size of three or four American rings together. So I went all over and trained him, and he was rock-solid at a hundred yards. I went to parks all over the place.

We get there and I look, and it's not three objects. It's four objects, and they're supposed to go into the middle of the four, like as if it was in the middle of a square. We never even knew that could potentially be an option. That was the challenge with going over there — we never knew exactly what was going to happen. But, like I said, he was awesome. I showed it to him, he looked out, I knew he didn't know where he was going. I just talked him into it and he went.

But that's it. They don't have it anymore, which is kind of sad but kind of a relief!

Melissa Breau: No more pressure to do it again. So I guess we could say that you're not only the first but you're the only American to win the Obedience World Cup.

Petra Ford: First and only, yes.

Melissa Breau: Looking at the things you've done for FDSA, it seems like you've broken down some of the pieces of trialing and obedience. I know you did something on precues and we have something coming up on ring entrances. It really feels like you have a plan in your head when you trial, so I wanted to ask you a little bit about that. Is that intentional? If so, can you walk us through it?

Petra Ford: It is intentional and it's evolved over time, just in an effort to always be of more assistance to my dog and make things more clear for my dog, and to always bridge that gap between getting what I have in training and getting the same thing in the ring, which is my personal Holy Grail, just because it's difficult and it's kind of elusive.

Tyler was very talented, so my precues, for example, at the time where everything looked the same, so for example when I set him up for signals and I set him up for a moving stand and I set him up for heel free, I looked the same physically, and I just gave him a verbal cue and assumed that he would pick up off of that.

Fast-forward when I started training Zeal and I set him up for some of the exercises, he started to do something very similar to what Tyler did, like he would roll his eyes and act a little odd. I was like, That's fascinating. That absolutely means I'm doing something in my training that's causing that. I figured out that it was confusion. Zeal wasn't sure until we got partway into the exercise, in spite of my verbal cue, what exercise we were doing. So then I started to add physical cues to go with the verbal cues so that he would know ahead of time which exercise we were doing, and that helped him tremendously, because he's a very nervous, insecure dog, and that really helped him a lot.

So I teach my dog very specific precues for every single exercise. I do them in training every single time I do the exercise and then I do them in the ring, and that really helps my dog because then he knows exactly what's coming next. So that's for the precues.

I have everything planned out, from my warm-up all the way through my ring entrance, how I'm going to do the ring entrance — that chain varies between dogs — how I'm going to get from Point A to Point B, because when you watch teams in the ring, the vast majority of dogs know how to do the exercise. I can tell they know how to do the exercise, but then why do they struggle? Because they lose connection with the handler going into the ring and between exercises, and then by the time the handler sets them up for the exercise, they're struggling to regain that connection and then that bleeds into the exercise. I put huge emphasis on ring entrances, transitions, and precues because I really feel that really makes a difference in terms of getting the same performance in the ring that you have when you train.

Melissa Breau: You said you put an emphasis on precues and ring entrances. Are there other pieces to that to keeping that connection?

Petra Ford: I use tricks and offering to keep the dog engaged. My goal is that my dog is engaged with me. And so the old way was attention. The old way, I learned it's the dog's job to pay attention to me. It's the dog's job to ignore distractions. I don't believe that anymore. I want my dog to have a say in what's going on. It's kind of like a conversation. I want him to push me, or her to push me, and I respond, and so we go back and forth.

I teach engagement for every tiny little piece of every step of everything that happens in the ring, so that from outside the ring until I leave the ring, I never break that connection. We never break engagement. I do that using a lot of tricks and having my dog offer behaviors. When they offer behaviors, it changes their mindset and they feel like they're in control. When they're doing that, then the environment becomes a non-issue, and typically the judge becomes a non-issue.

That's really what has gotten Zeal to where he is today, because, like I said, he was a very, very, very nervous environmental dog, insecure dog. So I do that with all my dogs now, and all my students' dogs, and it seems to work well.

Melissa Breau: For folks who maybe didn't catch the thing you did for us on precues, can you share an example?

Petra Ford: When I'm going to do the moving stand, we stand in traditional heel position, so I take my right hand and I show my dog with two fingers, I show my right hand, I say, "Stand, moving stand, stand, moving stand," and then I will in training do the moving stand.

As a comparison, when I do the signals, for example, I take my left hand that's on my waist and I hold it out briefly and I say, "Watch, we're going to do watch," and then I do signals, and then this way my dog can see the comparison, so, Oh, when she does that with her right hand, it means we're going to do the moving stand, and when she does that other movement with her left hand, it means we're going to do signals.

I do that back and forth a number of times until you can literally see when your dog actually understands it, because you'll give the precue, they'll actually come up, and then they'll really perform the exercise with a lot of confidence and you can see in their face that they understand, Oh, this means one and this means the other.

Melissa Breau: I know you've got a workshop coming up on ring entrances. Can you share a little about what you plan to cover, maybe who should take it, who would be a good fit, if folks are listening and they're thinking about it?

Petra Ford: I think everybody really can benefit from ring entrances, because it doesn't matter if you're a novice, open, or utility, beginner novice, even rally, everyone has to go from outside the ring to inside the ring, and I think there's an enormous amount of pressure when you make that transition, because usually it's crowded around the ring gate, the ring gate is usually right next to the steward's table, so there's a lot going on there, the ring gates themselves are a narrow space, and you're walking toward a judge and into a space where your dog has not been before. Even if it's in your own training building, on that day it's going to smell different and look different and sound different.

So I work super-hard on ring entrances that are fun, that bring the dog up, so that when you move into that space you're not starting off behind the eight-ball, and you're moving in with a dog that's happy and confident and fully engaged and ready to go to the first exercise.

Melissa Breau: I don't know if it's really changing gears, but I'd love to talk a little bit more about your background. How did you originally get into competition obedience?

Petra Ford: I'm a physical therapist, and at the time, going back many years, I found out that there was a thing called a therapy dog, and in order for a dog to be a therapy dog, they had to do some basic exercises.

I had a pet dog at the time, and I thought, Oh, this would be a really cool thing to do, so I looked in the Yellow Pages and there was a local club that gave basic obedience classes in a firehouse or something. I went there, I learned the basics to get him certified to be a therapy dog, and then I decided to take my younger dog as well.

While I was there learning the basics, they introduced me to obedience and said that this was something that I might be interested in. They had classes for novice. Unfortunately, I didn't realize at the time that there was more than one way to train a dog, and they were the pop-and-jerk method. It was actually with my younger dog a pretty horrific experience so that I walked away and said, "There is no way that I'm doing this obedience stuff, because I don't want to do this to my dogs."

But I did want to do something with my dogs, so I looked up agility, I found another school, and I went to do agility lessons with my young dog. While I was there, someone said to me, "We do it differently here. Perhaps maybe you should take a private lesson." I did, and that's when I was introduced to food. It still wasn't purely positive, but it was a lot more motivational. It was much kinder than where I had been prior. After that I learned more and more and just moved away from aversives completely.

Melissa Breau: Was there a turning point in there which for you was like, "I'm not going to do that stuff anymore," or "I don't want to be involved in that"? What really got you started or pushed you along that path to make you a positive trainer?

Petra Ford: Because when I was training Tyler, he always gave me 200 percent. So if he was doing something that wasn't correct, or, for instance, if he gave me a loopy turn-and-sit on the go out, or if he made a mistake, I knew it wasn't because he wasn't trying. He was trying, so what did that mean? That meant that it was my fault. I hadn't given him the right information, because if I had, he wouldn't do it. He just wouldn't.

Because of that, when I would take lessons and an instructor would say, "Well, do this," I would say, "No, I won't do that, because I know he's not being naughty. He just doesn't understand, so I have to figure out another way to explain it to him." In that process I realized that I really didn't need to use force, and I didn't need to do it. I just had to think outside the box, look to all different resources, experiment, and come up with a way to explain it to him that he understood.

When I got my next dog, I was going to do field work with that dog. I clicker-trained him right from the beginning for obedience, and at 6 months he was supposed to force-fetch. I was like, Oh well, that's what you're supposed to do, and I sat in my garage with him and I had taught him hold, I did all the steps right, I knew exactly what I was doing, and I sit down to force-fetch him and it just went horribly awry. He completely freaked out. I sat there and I'm like, That's really odd. What am I doing wrong?

While I'm sitting there on the bucket, pondering, with the dumbbell in my lap and the dog sitting across from me, and I'm trying to figure out what I'm doing wrong, he picks up the bumper, pushes it up to my face, and clear as day he was saying to me, "Just tell me what you want, and I'll do it. You want me to pick it up? I'll pick it up." And I said, "OK, that was it," and that was the last day. Never force-fetched, never prong collar, nothing, because I realized I don't really need to do it. They're plain they want to do it. I just need to be a better trainer.

And anytime to this day I hit a snag and I feel like I might be stuck, I think it's exciting because it means that I need to think outside the box, I need to explore, I need to look to other resources, and it will just make me a better trainer in the end.

Melissa Breau: There are three questions I try to ask the first time I have somebody on. The first one is what's the dog-related accomplishment that you're proudest of?

Petra Ford: The dog-related accomplishment. I would say that Tyler, because of his accomplishments, he was incredibly well known. Unfortunately, I lost him at 9 years old to hemangiosarcoma. When he passed, what my friends did as a tribute to him is we started a fundraiser to raise money for the National Canine Cancer Foundation, and we had it for several years in a row. Because he was so well known, we raised, I think, close to $30,000. I just felt like that was probably … yeah, I would say that. I felt like that was his biggest accomplishment was that he was able to do that.

Melissa Breau: That's amazing. My next one is what's the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?

Petra Ford: Don't blame the dog, and always think outside the box.

Melissa Breau: And last one: Who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Petra Ford: I look up to every single person that's training their dog — it doesn't matter, regardless of the level — that's looking to have a better relationship with their dog, to have a better understanding, that is willing to move towards positive, think outside the box, try different things, make mistakes and learn from them, and just enjoy the time they're spending with their dog. Because really, to me, that's what it's all about, and that's why I do it. It's because of the quality one-on-one time I spend with my dog and because of the amazing relationship I get with my dog's training.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Petra! This was great.

Petra Ford: Thank you for having me. I always appreciate anything the Fenzi Academy asks me to do for them.

Melissa Breau: Well, thank you again, and thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We'll be back next week, this time with Debbie Torraca to talk about dogs with long backs and keeping them healthy.

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.


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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