E121: Liz Laidlaw - More than Manners: Training Beyond the Basics

 This week we talk to FDSA PPP Instructor Liz Laidlaw on training options, and how to decide what approach you'll use based on the dog - or client - in front of you.


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.

For this episode I'll be chatting with Liz Laidlaw. Liz started out training dogs in 1996, competing for fun in agility with her first rescue dogs.

Shortly afterwards, she shifted into pet dog training, teaching beginner and advanced pet dog manners classes, puppy classes, and offering private training in both city and suburban and country areas. The time she spent working in rescue organizations, pet shops, in homes and quarantine kennels helped her develop a deeper understanding of dogs and other pets, and how they interact both with us and with each other.

She currently lives in rural Australia with a young daughter and three dogs, three cats, and an assortment of rats, horses, and sheep. She is now focused on online titling and training with her own dogs — an ideal alternative for country trainers! She is also an instructor for the new, online FDSA Pet Professionals Program and author of the new free ebook More than Manners: Training Beyond the Basics. For access to the free book, click here!

Alright — Welcome to the podcast, Liz!

Liz Laidlaw: Thank you. I'm excited to be here.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you share a little bit about your own dogs and what you're working on with them?

Liz Laidlaw: I live with three dogs right now. There's an 11-year-old Border Collie called Lacy, a 6-year-old Finnish Lapphund, that's Ludo, and a crazy little pound rescue, maybe terrier/spaniel cross, we don't really know, and he's called Ricky.

Lacy is basically our gorgeous pet dog, so she also does some training with my daughter, Jamie. She's teaching Jamie how to be a dog trainer when she grows up, so that's her current job.

Ricky is my wonderful crazy boy. He's totally full of bounce, living life 150 percent at all times. He's got a lot of passion, and when he first arrived, we had to focus in on behavior and impulse control stuff for a while, just to help him settle in and realize that relaxing was actually an option. This year I'm finally starting to do some sports training with him, which is exciting, so we're starting out with obedience and Team stuff with him.

And Ludo, the Lappie, he's the dog that got me back into dog sports, actually, after a break in which I moved from the city to the country and had my daughter. And I've been doing most of my training with him since I got him. He's super-fun to train, so we get on really well, and I always find myself wanting to do stuff with him. He's one of those dogs.

I have to admit, though: we've probably dabbled more than we've focused. I enjoy the training process so much, and trials are many, many hours away from where we live now. But he's always up to try anything, and we've trialed in rally, obedience, agility, tracking and herding, when he was younger. But these days we're focused on online titling opportunities like Team and Treibball and Rally Free.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. What originally got you into dog training?

Liz Laidlaw: I always loved dogs. I know we all say that, but I always loved dogs, so as soon as I had moved out and rented my own place, the very first thing I did, I'm like, "Yeah! I can get a dog!" That was back in 1996, I guess it was, but knowing nothing about it at the time.

So what I did was call around the local pounds — that's what we call the dog shelters here in Australia, the local pound — to see who had puppies, and one had a litter of German Shepherd/Border Collie puppies. So I went to have a look — that's what you do — I went to have a quick look. Anyway, long story short, I left that day with two puppies, littermates, and I'd chosen them by the simple process of opening up the gate and grabbing the first two that pushed their way out. What could possibly go wrong? But luckily, all went well.

Tyler and Jessie were great dogs, but having two really active puppies together definitely made me decide that dog school was in our future — urgently. So off we went to a local puppy school, and from there we went on to the local obedience club, and that's where it all started.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. Was it positive training from the start, or what got you started going down that R+ journey?

Liz Laidlaw: It wasn't. I didn't know about positive training at the start. I guess I didn't know about dog training at all at the start. I was probably like everyone else. I'd grown up with a pet dog, but we'd done no training at all with the dog I had as a child. My parents weren't interested in animals particularly, so I think what got me started on the positive reinforcement type journey, it's probably a combination of two things.

One is that, in my head, I was already not quite loving the way I was being taught to train, and ironically, because I guess I fundamentally didn't want to be yanking my dog around, I was really, really bad at it. My timing … I'd always be putting off doing the corrections, hoping that I just didn't have to do it and hoping it would automatically fix itself. So I was not a great traditional trainer, which is what I was being originally taught to do. So there was that part of me already that wished there was some other way.

But you know how there's always that one trigger point. There was one night in obedience, it was really, really cold, and my dog Jessie refused to lie down. I asked her to drop and she didn't lie down. And first thing in my head, because I'm just a bit of a sook myself, was, Oh, it's just too cold. I wouldn't put my tummy on the ground, either. I was OK, but the instructor was not OK with that, and he took her off me and roared at her and forced her to go down, and she yelped and fell in a heap, and that was it, I was done.

So I asked around to see what else there was to do with dogs, because I decided that that wasn't for me, and I found a local agility club. Luckily, the head instructor there, he was really enthusiastic. He'd just found out all about this new thing called clicker training, and I was hooked. That was where it started for me.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome that you were lucky because you looked around and that just happened to be what you fell onto.

Liz Laidlaw: It was. It was really lucky. And the instructor was … I'm in Australia, and he'd found out all this information from the U.K. at that time, because I think it probably would have been relatively new still at that time. So I think I was really lucky just to fall into where there were people who already knew the things that I didn't know I wanted to know, but I did.

Melissa Breau: How would you describe how you train these days?

Liz Laidlaw: I guess I have to give a shout-out to Denise Fenzi here. She's taught me well in that space, I think, because honestly, my philosophy these days is pretty much just to train the dog that's in front of you. Do what's kind and makes sense for that dog, or if you're training someone else and their dog, do what's kind and makes sense for them as a team.

For ages I think I had so many rules and regulations in my head about training, and the shoulds and the shouldn'ts, but I think after a while you just relax into it and get more comfortable with just trying things. See how the dog feels about it, does it work, is he happy, am I happy, great. So I think those are actually my biggest rules now, and everything else I know just fits in around that.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I like that way of thinking about it. Does it work, does the dog like it, do I like it, then we're good.

Liz Laidlaw: Big picture, that's all that matters. That's what all the technical data is getting us towards in the first place. So I try and start with the big picture, and it helps me not get too bogged down in the details, I guess.

Melissa Breau: I want to change directions a little bit here, because I was hoping we could talk a bit about some of the topics you included in the book you put together for the Pet Professionals Program. The first chapter talks about the types of training — it gets into classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning. Can you talk a little bit about what each of those are, and maybe why understanding them matters?

Liz Laidlaw: Sure. Operant conditioning is probably the one that most people know about and deliberately use, I guess, in training. It's those principals that are happening when we're training and we see the ABCs in action.

If I had a puppy, I might move my hand up from his nose, which is the antecedent, then he sits his bottom down on the ground, so that's the behavior, and then as a consequence, he'll get the treat that I'm giving him. That's a nice, simple example, but basically in operant conditioning, in my mind, the important part of it is that the dog is voluntarily choosing a behavior to try and get the outcome that they want, for example, the treat. Whereas in classical conditioning, it's a bit different. It's all about associations, basically, so it's the Pavlov's Dog experiments that most people have probably heard of. It's when one thing that originally had no meaning to the dog is consistently paired up with another thing, like food, that definitely has some meaning for the dog, inherent value to the dog, and so that first thing ends up as what we call a conditioned stimulus.

That means that now when that happens, when that's presented, the dog has a similar response to that that they did to the food or the other primary reinforcer. And they don't choose that response. It just happens. It's been classically conditioned, and like Pavlov's dogs, they didn't choose to salivate when they heard that metronome sound or that bell sound. It just happened. It has been classically conditioned, and they didn't have much choice about it.

I think because of that, classical conditioning is incredibly powerful. We probably don't purposefully use it in our training as much as perhaps we could, or definitely not as much as we are aware of using other types of learning, and I guess I can't go into too much detail here, or we will be here all day, but in the book I talk briefly about a lot of people have talked about or have heard about Bob Bailey saying that Pavlov is always on our shoulders, and I think that's really important for us as trainers to really internalize and understand, because classical conditioning is always in play, no matter what we might think we're doing.

It's happening there in the background anyway in multiple ways, and I think unless we're aware of that, things can catch us by surprise, and a lot of the things that, especially if you happen to be new to training, or new to positive reinforcement training, there's things that catch us by surprise and seem to have come out of the blue, but they really don't. If you think back through it, once you understand a bit more about how dogs learn, a lot of things are a lot less surprising, and I think that's helpful, as a trainer, to know that. Observational learning — I only covered that very briefly in the book, since the book was designed mainly for pet dog trainers, and that way of learning is a lot less common there, I guess. But FDSA has whole classes on things like mimicry. Julie Flannery is incredible with some of the stuff that she has been able to teach people to teach their dogs to do just through observational learning. It's incredibly cool, I think, and also, I guess, it's going on again all the time in the dogs' lives. They're observing what's going on around them, they might be learning from other dogs, they're most certainly learning from what they observe of us as we go around through the day.

So I think that overall, as trainers, it's just helpful to know and be aware of the different types of learning and how they work, simply because they are in play, whether we realize it or not. Dogs are always learning in one way or another. So if we know what's going on, I figure we just have a chance of stacking the odds in our favor, pretty much.

Melissa Breau: I like that. The odds always in your favor.

Liz Laidlaw: That's right, and that way we don't have to be too bossy about it. If we're stacking the odds in our favor, chances are it's going to come out the way we were thinking anyway.

Melissa Breau: Right, right. Chapter 2 gets into different ways to get the behaviors that we're looking for. You talk a little bit about luring, a little bit about shaping, you talk about capturing, and you talk about prompting. I think most of our listeners probably have a basic understanding of some of the differences here, but can you talk us through how do you decide which option to use when you're training your own dogs?

Liz Laidlaw: Good question. With my own dogs, I think I actually make different choices with each dog, as well as making different choices depending on what I'm trying to teach them.

Ludo is a really calm, laid back, thinking kind of guy. He really enjoys the process of training and learning, same as I do, so for him I use more shaping, as well as various prompts like platforms and other tools like that, because he knows and loves those games, and we can get places pretty quickly doing that and have fun.

Whereas Lacy is more of a "think with your feet" kind of dog. She doesn't enjoy the cognitive process quite so much as Ludo does, and she's also got a trickier background. Since I didn't have her as a puppy, she can be unconfident at times, lacking in self-confidence, so she feels safer and a lot more comfortable when things are very straightforward. So with her I tend more towards luring and lots of strategic reward placement to kick-start behaviors, without her even really truly realizing what is going on, and from then on the process is easier for her, so that's why I make different choices for her. Prompts are good for her too, because having prompts like physical objects in the environment are easier for her because that's really clear on how she can interact with that thing.

Ricky is the opposite of my other two in terms of energy and speed. He's fast, and he tends to stress up quickly at times. He can get frustrated and bitey, so for him, I'm happy to include some luring as well as basically all the rest for him. I find when I'm training him I need to keep the flow, keep things going, and definitely I need to avoid putting him in the position where he has to guess too much. Ludo will get away with that if I've poorly planned or set up a session, but not Ricky.

So I guess the short answer there is that it depends on the dog and the behavior what I choose to use, but it really is a combination of all of them. I think you can set yourself up more for success when you're thoughtful about how you're going to approach teaching and keep the learner in mind.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. It's like what you were talking about earlier with training the dog in front of you. Because you know your own dogs, you can make smart choices.

Liz Laidlaw: Yeah, and that did take me a while, especially for Lacy. I've not had a dog that thinks the way she thinks, and it really has taken me a while. In a way, there's a reason why my daughter trains her too, because it's not my preferred way of training. I don't have quite as much fun doing the stuff her way as I do doing it Ludo's way. That's just my personal preference as a trainer. But at least she's taught me what she does need. She's taught me how she can learn and how she struggles to learn, and that's been really good information to broaden down what I do.

Melissa Breau: How do you take that, then, if you're teaching someone else to train their own dog? Are there different things that you consider when choosing which technique you want to use with them? If so, can you talk us through that a little bit?

Liz Laidlaw: For sure. When I'm training someone else how to train their dog, it's no longer just about the dog. When I'm making decisions for me and my own dogs, I guess I internally know what I can do, so I'm just focused on the dog and how they need me to express that to them. But that's different.

I need to take into account the person on the other end of the lead when I'm working with other people and their dogs. I've got to look at their needs and experience, and what they want and what they're comfortable with. I guess while a lot of people end up loving training and getting a bit addicted and wanting to learn more, but in the first instance I won't necessarily even mention all those things, let alone try and teach them. We just get started with what matters most, whatever they've come to me for right there and then.

Usually a person will come to you specifically wanting help with a particular thing or a few things. So we start there, and I guess I test what will work for that person and that dog with their inclination and their ability to get good timing, and then I let it evolve from there, just be led by their progress and their enthusiasm for more, and I just add extras in as we go.

Melissa Breau: One area that I think that a lot of people, especially positive trainers, struggle when it comes to dog training and teaching other people especially is dealing with unwanted behaviors. I know you went into that a little bit in the book. What are some of the options there?

Liz Laidlaw: Luckily, there are still quite a few options for positive trainers. I think that's especially true when we're thinking about day-to-day living with dogs, as opposed to the more specific training that we might do for sports and that kind of thing.

Some good examples that I use all the time include management, where you're simply managing either the environment or the dog, so that the unwanted behavior simply can't occur, and incompatible behaviors, so you're teaching a behavior that's incompatible with the unwanted behavior, so they can't physically be doing both at the same time. They're both really useful, especially for around-the-house, everyday-type things.

And I guess in my mind I also am quite strongly believing that just because we're trainers doesn't mean we have to train everything, all the things. Sometimes I find with people, when I first start working with them, they want to train everything. They want to train this and train that, and I feel like there are certain things that it just makes more sense to manage instead of training them in some cases, like put up a fence rather than trying to teach your dog to stay in the unfenced yard even when you go to work. That makes sense to me to do that.

Or you could just be putting management up as an extra thing while you're putting your training into place, like when we crate-train puppies to help with their toilet training. I think management is a huge part of what we do as trainers. To me, it isn't training, but boy, it really plays into our training in the sense that it helps avoid so many things that you're going to have to fix later, if you don't put it into place.

The book also talks about some options outside of daily living for handling errors in training. That can be another area where I think, as positive trainers, we can feel a bit stuck. In the book, I borrowed a quote from Denise, because it always strikes me as being so spot-on. I've heard her say multiple times, I think, now, "Don't just stand there. Do something." I think that's really important. Often what we do is probably less important. We could do a bunch of things. We could cheerfully race at the dog, throw a treat and have another go, or we could help them out, dial the difficulty back a bit until they've shown that they do understand what we want, or we could take a moment to reconnect. Often the error has come because we've lost the connection or the engagement that we thought we had.

Because I think our dogs, and especially our more sensitive dogs, they've definitely taught me that they feel it more than we realize. If we handle errors by suddenly freezing up or going all quiet and still, that can feel like … I mean, I don't know the science of this, but to me, they perceive it as a kind of social punishment to them, like you've suddenly frozen them out, like if a friend would do that to you. And obviously that's not what we were going for at all. We probably just froze because we go, "Oh, what do I do?"

I know that's definitely been and probably still is an area of learning for me, personally. I do have sensitive dogs, and I also have a tendency to freeze up a bit when I'm unsure what to do in the moment and I've got too much going on in my head. I'm trying to remember what the instructor said, and remind my body to move in this new way, and keep my connection with the dog, all at the same time. Some people seem to find that really easy, but it's something that I have to work at, so my dogs are great at letting me know how it is for them, which definitely helps.

But I always try and keep Denise's saying in mind: "Don't just stand there. Do something." Just move. Do something to get your confidence back, and then you can get back on track from there.

Melissa Breau: A big part of the Pet Professionals Program is this idea that dog training can be positive, kind, efficient, and still effective. I know you included a chapter in the book on balancing keeping people, dogs, and the community at large all happy. I wanted to ask you why it's really important to think through all three of those elements.

Liz Laidlaw: I think it's important just because we all have to share this big old world of ours. Often, our expectations of what's appropriate and not appropriate might be different to another person's. Actually, I can pretty much guarantee that they'll be different to another person's. The same as each dog is different. Some will cope fine doing certain things, while another dog would be an anxious mess in the exact same scenario.

Once you add into all of that the third element of the rest of our community, who have to share the same spaces with us, I think it's important that we've thought about that. If we don't take the time to think about it, I think our natural tendency is just to be human. We just tend to do what we do, whatever works for us and our dogs, and we maybe don't realize that we're also impacting on other people in what we do. So I think that's why it matters to me to put that thought into it.

Melissa Breau: Can you share some examples of what respecting all three of those elements looks like?

Liz Laidlaw: Sure. I'll give you an example from my own life with dogs that will hopefully illustrate it a bit. I live on acreage out of town now, but I used to live in town, and at that time I had four dogs. The house was surrounded by neighbors, some of whom had dogs or kids or cats or you name it. It was busy, it was noisy, and it was really important to me that my dogs weren't impacting negatively on other people, so I had to think about what I could do to lessen the possible impacts of living that way with dogs in town.

I ended up with a range of management and training things to do, but just to give one example, I made the decision to only walk the dogs two at a time. I noticed when I was walking out and about that sometimes people were overwhelmed by this vision of four biggish dogs all walking along under the apparent control of one person. So I didn't want … even though I knew that yes, I had everything under control and things were fine, and it would be easy for me to justify to myself that I was fine in doing what I was doing, but I needed to be aware of the responses of other people.

And so I ended up deciding that it wasn't fair to expect everybody to work around me, because it's not just about me and my dogs and what we want to do. So I made the decision to just take them out two at a time. People are much more comfortable seeing one person with two dogs. It meant that I had to go out twice instead of once. I don't think the dogs cared either way, as long as they got to go out, although probably they didn't love being left behind, but to me that's an illustration of the balancing act that we have to think about when it's not just about what we want and what our dogs want. It's also about how that affects the community that we're a part of. I didn't want it to be that other people in my community were just forced to work around me. I wanted it to be more mutual, so a bit of give and take all around.

I think the way I see it, the essence of it is — and I think I said it in the book too — it isn't a set of rigid rules that's limiting our freedom. It doesn't feel like that at all to me. To me, freedom is what you have once you're aware of the world around you, because then you can make choices in the moment, based on what's best all around for everyone involved. I think as dog trainers we're often already pretty good at thinking about what's best for our dog and what's best for our training, and all it is is a little tiny extension of that, just bringing in that broader element as well and asking, "How is this for everyone?"

Melissa Breau: Last three questions here. This is your first time on the podcast, so these are the three questions that I used to ask all the time, but it's been a while since I've had the chance to roll them out. First up, what's the dog-related accomplishment that you're proudest of?

Liz Laidlaw: So far, it's probably actually Ludo and the things we've done and learned together. He's a Spitz type of dog, a Finnish Lapphund. He's not a high-drive working type of guy, so the things that I learned from my previous dogs didn't necessarily apply there. They let me get away with a lot of things that I didn't realize I was getting away with at the time.

And so I've learned so much in the process of training and trialing him about motivation, and about training, and about caring about the emotions that are built into the things I train, and the places we go, and the things we do. So I don't know that that's necessarily something to be proud of. I'm proud of him for teaching me all that. But yeah, I think that's the most important thing from dogs that I've had lately.

Melissa Breau: What is the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?

Liz Laidlaw: I love the importance of reward placement. It's almost ridiculous the amount of mileage you can get out of thoughtful reward placement when you're training. So that's big for me.

And also I had to put this quote from Dr. Amy Cook in the book as well, because it's meant so much to me since I first heard it a few years ago. I was in one of her classes, and she said, "Every time you teach your dog what to do, you also teach her how to feel."

I think that's so important to keep in mind, and not only even when we're training dogs. I think I take the same lesson to heart when I'm helping my daughter with her homework, or helping a pet owner with their dog. While I'm teaching them what to do, they're also learning how they feel about this activity, and I guess about me, too, and that matters a lot, I think.

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

Liz Laidlaw: Oh, man. Well, everybody at FDSA, for sure. But rather than name names, I'm probably going to say basically any person who's as conscious of being kind and openhearted to people as they are to dogs. I really admire that. I feel like it's so important if we want to be able to teach others and share the things that we've learned, because to me that's the way to not only have a better life for all of our dogs, but it will also get us to a better and kinder world overall. So they're the trainers I admire.

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

Liz Laidlaw: Thank you.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. As a reminder, the next couple of weeks we're going to be chatting with instructors of FDSA's new sister school, the Pet Professionals Program, and we're going to be talking about things like whether playtime in puppy class is a good idea and how to handle tricky training situations!

Don't miss it! It if you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. 


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! 

Recording of AMA with Denise Fenzi
The Science Cafe: Oh No! It's the Fourth Again!

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