E123: Nicole Wiebusch - "From Four on the Floor to the Rally Ring"

Pet Professionals Program and FDSA instructor Nicole Wiebusch joins me to chat about her upcoming PPP Workshop and Rally classes!


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 Nicole Wiebusch. Nicole began instructing dog-training classes in 2005, and realized she had a passion for teaching dogs and their people.

In 2008, she started Golden Paws Dog Training LLC, holding classes for puppies, pet manners, Canine Good Citizen, therapy dogs, and competition obedience and agility. Nicole enjoys teaching people how to use dog-friendly training methods.

She took her first class with FDSA in 2013, and actively competes in a variety of performance events with her three Golden Retrievers. In addition to operating Golden Paws Dog Training, Nicole is a field dog trainer for a service dog organization, a Canine Good Citizen and Trick Dog evaluator, a professional member of the APDT, and has earned the Fenzi Sports Foundation certificate and the obedience/rally/freestyle trainer's certificate (FDSTC-OB) from FDSA.

Alright — welcome to the podcast, Nicole!

Nicole Wiebusch: Thanks, Melissa. I'm happy to be here.

Melissa Breau: Could you start us out by sharing a little bit about your own dogs and what you're working on with them right now?

Nicole Wiebusch: Sure. I've got four dogs right now, three of them are Goldens. Toby is my oldest Golden Retriever. He is going to be 14 on July 26, and I'm just so blessed that he's doing well and still with us. He's that kind of dog that … he basically changed the course of my life. He's the one that got me started, my first dog that was completely positive-reinforcement trained, and he's really a once-in-a-lifetime dog, so I'm so thankful for our journey.

I also have Strive, who is a 6-year-old female Golden, and we are working on our UDX right now. She's earned her UD, so we're just kind of playing in the ring, teaching her it's a really fun place to be, and working on some confidence things.

I bred Strive a couple of years ago, so I have Excel, who is Strive's son. He is going to be 2 at the end of August. He's a really great dog, super smart, and we're having a lot of fun.

And finally, we have our black Lab, Kira, who is a 2-year-old, and she is my husband's dog, and we do hope that at some point my daughter may be able to run her in agility.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome, and it was a pleasure getting to meet Excel at camp.

Nicole Wiebusch: Yes, he's a good boy.

Melissa Breau: He was a good boy. I mentioned in your intro a little bit how long you've been in dog training. But what really got you started? How did you originally get into it?

Nicole Wiebusch: When I was a kid, I constantly begged my parents for a dog, like so many do, and they finally relented, probably because they got sick of hearing me beg. And so when I was 13, I got a German Shepherd named Max. I went to some obedience classes, just basic pet manners classes, with him, and then got involved with 4-H, so that's really what started me on more the competition side of things, training for obedience. Once we started doing some 4-H training, then I moved on to some AKC stuff and we ended up getting our CD. I think I was about 14 years old, so that was my first venture into the ring.

Then I was an older teenager and I didn't do as much with him, but as soon I could, I started looking for a Golden Retriever, and I knew I wanted to do performance events with him. That ended up being Tucker. He was my first Golden; I got him when I was 19. I knew I'd do obedience with him, and then I ended up doing some agility with him too. He was just a great dog, a perfect introduction dog into those things, but obedience wasn't his most favorite thing in the world to do. He would much rather lay on the couch and cuddle and follow me around. At that point I realized I really like this stuff, and so I started searching for a dog that was a little bit more bred for performance. That started my search, which led to Toby, who is that once-in-a-lifetime dog I mentioned in the beginning.

Melissa Breau: I think you mentioned that he's part of what got you started down that R+ path. Can you tell us a little about that, what happened, or why was he the impetus for that.

Nicole Wiebusch: Definitely. Tucker, like I mentioned, obedience wasn't his favorite thing, and back then — this was in the early 2000s — I didn't have a whole lot of exposure to positive training. I used a lot of treats, and I didn't use harsh corrections by any means, but I certainly did, at that point, I used some corrections, and Tucker ended up really dealing with ring stress. We got through novice and open pretty easily, but when we got to utility, particularly the signal exercise, he really struggled, and he would just freeze up because he was afraid of making a mistake. I started to realize that it was ring stress and that I needed to help him through that. It was around that time that I started to shift into more reward-based training.

I'm fortunate enough that I live just a few hours from Nancy Little, who also teaches for FDSA, and she was using some positive methods. So I went to her with Tucker and I started implementing that, and it really, really helped him. Unfortunately, he had to be retired early because he had some health issues, but at that point I was getting Toby and working with Toby, and so from the get-go I was able to use those methods with Toby. That's kind of how I got started on the positive reinforcement journey.

Melissa Breau: That's pretty cool, because I knew that you had known and trained with Nancy, but I hadn't realized how pivotal of a role she played.

Nicole Wiebusch: Oh, big time. I owe a lot to Nancy, and I continue to train with her on a regular basis. She's my in-person trainer, and it was really, really great to be able to hook up with her.

Melissa Breau: How would you describe, for lack of better words, your training philosophy these days?

Nicole Wiebusch: I definitely would describe it as reward-based. I think that breaking things down is really important. I like to set the dogs up for success right away. I'm really excited about how positive reinforcement training has changed since I started learning about it. It has come so far, and we've realized that it's not only about click-treat; it's about conditioning positive emotions. We're learning that dogs' emotions are so important.

So I spend a lot of time with my competition dogs, teaching them that the ring is a fun place to be. I spend quite a bit of time on ring prep. Like I said, I like to break things down. When you break down behaviors, you can train each piece to criteria, and then, when you put it together, you can get precise behaviors but still have that confident, fun attitude. So I focus a lot on how my dogs feel about training and how my dogs feel about working with me, and I think that's really helped us.

Melissa Breau: I was hoping we could get into your upcoming Pet Professionals Program classes a little bit and talk about, for FDSA, the rally classes that you're teaching and that you've got coming up. But I want to start with the PPP stuff. Your first workshop is on "Four on the Floor" —strategies for reducing jumping. Your description mentions that you'll get into why dogs do it and what to do about it. So … why DO dogs jump? Why is this such a hard thing for people to teach?

Nicole Wiebusch: I think the majority of dogs jump up for attention. I think it's a natural behavior for them. If you watch dogs playing with each other, they're often jumping on each other and jumping towards each other. And so I think it's just one of those things that's very natural to them, but it doesn't work in our world. We don't typically like it, unless they're, like, two pounds. But with the bigger dogs in particular, that's not a behavior that we really enjoy.

I also think that dogs like to get closer to our faces, and so I think that's a way for them to do it. When they jump up, they're closer to us.

The other thing I see with jumping up is with anxious dogs, and that type of jumping up almost has a frantic feel to it. Those are the main reasons I see for jumping up.

I do think that people inadvertently reinforce it. Most people, their natural reaction, especially in the pet world, is to push the dog down or to knee them in the chest. These are the things that people have been taught, and dogs find that reinforcing. I tell my clients, if you watch dogs interact with each other, they are pretty rough with each other, for the most part, and so us pushing them down, they're like, "Oh, cool! You want to play? OK, let's do that again." Many people and clients tend to reinforce it accidentally. I found that dogs like attention, and of course they want positive attention, but they would rather have negative attention than no attention at all. And so, because of that reason, people accidentally reinforce it, and then the behavior gets worse.

Melissa Breau: This is one of those topics where some instructors may already feel like they have "a solution" — that's the solution that they teach. I was hoping we could get a little bit into the approach or approaches you'll cover, and how having some additional approaches might help the toolbox of even an experienced trainer.

Nicole Wiebusch: Sure. I think it's important to come at these types of problems with several solutions. I find that dogs tend to learn better when we can approach it from many different angles, and so we'll be talking about a variety of approaches in the workshop.

One thing that I focus heavily on is an alternative behavior. I think it's really important that we just don't tell our dogs, "No, you can't jump," but we tell them, "Instead of jumping, I would like you to do this." And that can be anything that's incompatible with jumping. A lot of times we'll start with "sit," and we'll heavily reinforce the sit, but it can be "down," it can be "Go to your mat," whatever works for the owner and the dog.

While we're working on that alternative behavior and teaching the dog that it's super-reinforceable when they do that, I'm instructing the owner to completely ignore the dog if he or she jumps. I'm telling them, "Turn around, back away, fold your arms if you need to, but I want you to ignore the dog." There's no yelling at the dog, there's no pushing the dog off, anything like that, because some dogs do find that reinforcing.

And then we play several other games. I teach the dog to sit in order for someone to approach, so basically, if they want to bring someone in closer, I have them sit. As soon as they sit, I will start to approach them. If they get up, I'll just back away. And they learn really, really quickly, without the owner having to do anything except hold the leash, that if they want me to come in, that they need to sit. And then once I do get up to them, I'll sometimes toss a cookie behind them or have the owner reinforce. We kind of just mix it up.

I also find that rewarding the dog before they jump is really important, trying to build up the success instead of waiting for them to jump and then dealing with the jumping. So when I walk up to a dog that I know is really excited and a jumper, I will often just put food on the floor. I'll make sure I'm rewarding them before they even have the opportunity to jump up.

I play a game where they sit and they wait for the treat to come down. I have them sit and I start to lower the treat, and if they come off the ground with their front legs, I put the treat back up. When I start this game, I tend to do it pretty rapidly because I want to get in some success right away, but then at some point I'm making it more difficult, and when the dog gets really good, I'm almost teasing him a little bit with the treat, and then I reinforce him for staying in the sit.

The last thing that I can think of right now is I try to teach the owners how to lower the arousal level with food. I explain how eating and chewing and such can calm the dog down. And so we talk about things like scatter and different ways they can use scatter, where they place several treats on the floor and the dog can forage for the treats.

I tweak things, depending on the team, but I do find that having several approaches is a good idea for something like this.

Melissa Breau: I mentioned in the intro that you've been teaching since 2005 — so that's 14 years now? Probably safe to say that you've been at this for a while, and I know one of the themes for PPP is that concept of offering multiple solutions for common problems, like jumping. Just to get at this point from a slightly different angle, has there ever been a time in your career where you've been REALLY glad that you had multiple solutions to a common problem like this? Can you maybe share a story?

Nicole Wiebusch: Sure. I think with any pet, really any behavior, it's helpful to have multiple approaches, because what works for one dog may not work for another. What one owner might be good at, maybe another owner can't grasp. And so I find that when I'm dealing with my pet dog clients, thinking on the fly is really important, and being able to notice quickly what's not working and to switch tactics is a helpful skill to have as a pet dog trainer.

Like I mentioned before, I like to approach the problem from different angles. When I'm working with dogs on jumping up, I'm doing all of these things simultaneously that I spoke about. I'm not teaching them one thing and then teaching them another thing. If we only used one solution with something like jumping up — let's say we've decided to reward an alternative behavior like "sit" — we're not really dealing with how to teach the dog to control their arousal level. We're not giving the owners creative ideas on how to handle specific situations when the dog is more likely to jump up, like maybe when they come home from work or when someone comes over. So I think that using a multi-prong approach to a lot of these problems is much more likely to be successful. Even if the owners don't necessarily use everything you gave them, they will find some things that really work for them, and they'll see what works for both them and their dog.

Melissa Breau: I love that you mentioned not only is it about what works for one dog might not work for another, but the bit in there about one owner might not be able to grasp something or accomplish something in quite the same way as another owner. I think that's so important, especially for pet dog classes or pet dog clients.

Nicole Wiebusch: Right, right. You can't stay within your little box when you're working with a lot of clients. You have to be able to think outside the box a little bit and to recognize what's working for this team and what isn't.

Melissa Breau: And where is this person struggling or where are they being successful.

Nicole Wiebusch: Right, right.

Melissa Breau: To transition a bit to what you're teaching at FDSA … I feel like I should say "FDSA Proper," I don't know, the dog sports component of the Fenzi Academy … I want to talk about rally for a few minutes. Just to start us out, why rally? If folks have, until now, mainly been working toward obedience titles or maybe in other sports, are there advantages to also competing in rally? Anything they'd need to keep in mind if they're doing that multi-sport thing?

Nicole Wiebusch: You know, I come from a traditional obedience background, and I was doing this before rally was a thing, at least with AKC, and I remember hearing about it and thinking, Oh, that sounds really easy; that's basically what we call doodling. We used to do little front games and finish games and all that stuff. And so in the beginning, when I first started competing in rally, I didn't really train for rally specifically because I had the obedience pieces down.

But what I realized is rally is how you can break down those obedience exercises, and it's a way to get in the ring and to be in that ring situation, and to practice the behaviors and have a positive experience without having to put together super-long chains, like you do in obedience. I think rally is the perfect introduction to obedience. It tends to be way more laidback than obedience because there's less emphasis on precision. Now that doesn't mean you can't be a precise team. I definitely consider myself a team that likes emphasis on precision. But you can do rally very successfully without super-straight fronts or super-straight finishes.

I think the qualifying rate is typically pretty high in rally, so there's a lot less pressure for the handler to be perfect. Whereas in obedience, it's like, "Oh, your dog didn't come on the first command? Well, you just end-cued." Whereas with rally, you can talk to them, you can give them multiple commands. You can interact with and talk with your dog throughout the run, which I think is really important both for dogs and handlers. To go from training to where most of us are interacting with and talking with our dogs into a sterile obedience situation is a really big leap, and so rally is a way that you can break that piece of it down.

I talked earlier about how I love breaking down behaviors, and I think rally is a great way to do that, because you pull out all the little pieces with your different signs, and you're also breaking down the fact you can talk to your dog a little bit, and as you become more experienced, you can control how much you talk to your dog.

There's a judge in rally, but they're not following you around like they do in obedience, and I think that's another thing you can break down. A lot of dogs get a little nervous about the judge following them around. They're like, "Hey, what is that? That's a little weird." So if they're pressure-sensitive, that can be tough. Whereas with rally, you walk into the ring, the judge says, "Hi, how are you? Are you ready?" You say, "Yes, we're ready," and the judge says, "Forward." And so at the beginning of your run, they're right there, but then you leave the judge, and I think that can be a way for a dog to get used to that presence of someone being there without that person being overwhelming.

I feel like if you do a good job teaching the rally behaviors, it's really easy to transition into obedience, and I think it's a little bit easier to teach your dog good emotions about the ring. When we go into the obedience ring, many handlers are nervous. Their dogs are like, "Who is this crazy person? I don't know where my mom or dad went." The dog then feels a little bit unsure, the mom isn't acting or the dad isn't acting normally, the judge is following them around, so that can be kind of scary for dogs. Because of that, some of that ring stress comes in. Whereas with rally, your dog probably already has some good emotions about being in the ring. Once you get in and you can praise them and you can have fun, they're going to feel much better about going in the ring with you.

And then going from rally to beginner novice in AKC isn't a huge leap at all because there are signs for the heeling pattern, so they're used to that picture, and then with beginner novice, during certain exercises you can talk to your dog once. So it's not like you go from being able to talk as much as you want to not being able to talk at all. I think that also makes the transition to novice much easier, because you're stepping forward, you can talk all you want, and then you can only talk a couple of times, and now you can't talk. But at that point, by the time you get to novice, the dog is like, "OK, rings are fun. Rings are cool. I'm good with all this."

And I think that can really help people make that leap into obedience, if that is what they want to do.

Melissa Breau: I like that you broke down the difference between not only is it good practice for the dog, but good practice for the person, if they are the type who is going to get nervous during a competition performance.

Nicole Wiebusch: And who doesn't get nervous, right?

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. What about the other side of the coin? If folks have tried traditional obedience and they've kind of been "turned off" by it, or they decided that it's definitely not for them, can you get a little more into how rally is different? They might decide that they want to give it a try, even if obedience wasn't for them.

Nicole Wiebusch: I think the atmosphere at a rally trial is much more laidback than an obedience trial. You walk into a room where they're doing obedience and everything's super-quiet. Everyone's being careful about how they move and trying not to distract the dogs. With rally, it's a lot different because the people in the ring are talking to their dogs and they're cheering on their dogs, so it's not nearly as silent and sterile as an obedience atmosphere, and that alone makes it a lot easier for people.

And as I mentioned earlier, it's easier to qualify in rally typically. Even if your dog can't do a specific sign, as long as you attempt a sign, you only lose points. You don't lose the cue. And so as long as you are prepared for the signs and you've done a good job with training your dog, and you pay attention to the course and you don't skip the signs, then it's pretty likely that you'll qualify. The average qualifying rates are much higher for rally than they are for obedience, and so that again takes some of the pressure off the handlers.

Another thing that's nice about rally is you get to walk through the course before you take your dog in the ring, and you can ask the judge questions. I think that really helps the handlers. They can get in the ring, they can calm their nerves a bit, they're in that scary place, and they also have the opportunity to talk to the judge. And their dog is put away in a crate, or someone's holding him or whatever, and that gives the handlers a moment to acclimate and to get some of those nerves out.

I like to start my dogs in rally because I like to see how they're going to react to being in the ring at a place where I can help them out if I need to. If I see that my dog is struggling a little bit, I can praise them. I typically am not a chatterbox with my dogs in the rally ring because my eventual goal is obedience. But you can be as chatty or non-chatty as you want, and if you need to give your dog a bit of extra help, you can do that.

If people enjoy training the behaviors, if they like training the fronts and the finishes and the heeling and all that, but they haven't had the best experiences at obedience trials, or they're just not sure if they want to do obedience at all, I think rally is that great stepping stone or even just that great place to be. There's plenty of teams out there that just do rally. You can go really far in rally now. They've got rally nationals. So there's all kinds of things you can do and stay in the sport without ever going into obedience.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. I know you just finished up your first rally class at FDSA and you've already got another one on the schedule for August. I'd love to have you share just a little bit about what the upcoming class covers. Can people take it even if they didn't take the class this past session?

Nicole Wiebusch: Absolutely they can. When I was working on the series, I wanted to make sure that people could jump in wherever they needed to. The first rally class that we just finished up focused on teaching the skills. There's a lot of skills you need to compete in rally — short heeling segments, fronts, finishes, positions, that kind of stuff — and this class is focusing on the signs.

What I'm going to do is cover all of the novice or Level 1 signs from what I found to be the four most popular organizations: that's AKC, WCRL, UKC, and ASKA. For every sign, there's a lecture, and there's pictures of the sign and a description of how to complete the sign, and then at least one video example, and in some cases several video examples, of how that sign should look.

We're also going to include helpful tips for each sign, and I'm going to discuss how to move into and out of the sign, because that's important. In addition, I'm going to teach how to teach the dog to ignore the signs on the ground, because that's a distraction, and the cones and all that stuff, and then how to stay connected to your dog as you navigate the course. It's definitely a skill to be able to be there for your dog and be connected and pay attention to what's going on with the signs.

So anyone can take this course, but it will be assumed that the dogs have the skills needed to complete the novice-level signs. They don't need to be perfected, but the dog should at least know the basics. If your dog doesn't know how to front to finish, then this probably isn't the right class for you. But like I said, they don't need to be perfected, but they need to have a baseline.

For those that took the first class, or for those that already have those skills in place, we're going to continue working on strengthening and adding precision to the skills. So if you just need some help with refining — say your dog knows all the skills, but you're struggling with maybe some of the precision aspects — then I can certainly help you with that. Like I mentioned earlier, l like to train my own dogs to fairly high precision, and I love doing it. It's a passion of mine to be able to get precision and good attitude at the same time. So if there's someone coming in and they're thinking, I don't need the signs; I need some help with precision, then we can absolutely focus on that. That won't be a problem at all.

And the first class also is available as a prerequisite, if people want to learn how to teach the skills, but it's not required. It's definitely not required. But say you missed out on the first class, but you realize, "Oh, I need to learn how to teach these skills," then that class is out there as a prerequisite.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome to have that option. And so the new class will open for registration on July 22. Anything else folks should know about the class if they're on the fence or trying to decide if it's the right one for them for this session?

Nicole Wiebusch: Sure. I think it may be for those teams that are working through the TEAM program through Fenzi, or if they want to work some obedience foundations, I think rally's a really good place to start. Honestly, even if you never want to compete in rally, if you train it, you learn all the stuff you need for obedience, which is great. You get some really broken-down skills and some great obedience skills that way. So I think whether or not your goals are obedience or rally, this class is a good one. And if you're working on TEAM, maybe you're working on the upper levels of TEAM and you're like, "I just need something to do with my dog," then this is a really good one for you.

Melissa Breau: Last three questions here, as my dogs make their presence known in the background. These are three questions I usually ask people the first time they come on the podcast. What is the dog-related accomplishment that you're proudest of?

Nicole Wiebusch: You know, I had to think about that one, and the one I kept coming back to was when I finished my first UD, Utility Dog Title, with Toby. With Tucker, my first Golden, I tried for a long time to get that UD, and we never got there. Like I mentioned, he had those ring stress issues. And Toby earned his UD in three weekends.

Melissa Breau: Wow.

Nicole Wiebusch: Yeah, yeah. He was amazing. I remember vividly standing there, watching him take that final jump on the directed jumping exercise, and just being so proud. And not only proud that "Hey, look, I finished a UD," but proud that I finished a UD on a dog that was completely trained with positive methods. And not only did we finish the UD, we had very high scores for all three of our legs. And so that realization that I can successfully train a dog using positive reinforcement methods was just this wonderful feeling. I remember I left the ring and I literally had tears in my eyes, I was just so proud — so proud of my dog and so proud of our team, the team that we are together. And so I think that would probably be the one I'm most proud of.

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

Nicole Wiebusch: That was another really hard question because I can think of about 10,000 of them. But I think I would probably have to choose that saying, "Be a splitter, not a lumper."

I tell my clients the key to being a good trainer is to break down the behaviors, and I really believe that. If you can break down each piece of the behavior and split it very finely, and you can teach each piece to criteria, then you can end up with a really solid behavior. And if anything ever falls apart later, then you can go back, because you've got that foundation, so you pull that tiny piece out, you fix it, you put it back in.

Obviously most people, most pet people in particular, they don't know how to split up behaviors, and so I really focus on teaching them how to do that, and it really helps their training a lot. So I think I would have to pick that as probably my best piece of training advice that I've heard.

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

Nicole Wiebusch: I thought about this one a lot too, and this may sound a little cliché, but I would have to say Denise Fenzi.

I remember the first seminar I attended with Denise, and it was back … I don't remember what year it was. It must have been maybe around 2012, and at that time there weren't a lot of people doing positive reinforcement training in my area. I worked with Nancy, but I remember sitting at the seminar with Denise and being amazed that there were these other people in the world that wanted to train like I did. I remember thinking, Yeah, I can do this. I'm not alone. It was just this great feeling.

What Denise has done with FDSA is just incredible — not only the dog-training piece of it, but the people, the culture, the community. That's the word I'm looking for. I think it's amazing. And it's been such a huge part of my life. FDSA — I started taking classes in 2013, and it really helped me to become a better trainer and really changed everything for me. Yeah, I would have to say Denise. I really look up to her and, like, "When I grow up, I want to be Denise Fenzi."

Melissa Breau: We all do.

Nicole Wiebusch: Right, right! So that's who I'm going to pick. Obviously there's quite a few, but she's the one that kept coming to the front of my mind.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Nicole!

Nicole Wiebusch: Oh, thank you, Melissa. It was tons of fun.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. As a reminder, for the next few weeks we'll be chatting with instructors of FDSA's new sister school, the Pet Professionals Program. Our last episode dove into everything puppy. Our next one will talk about how to handle tricky training situations and bad dog behaviors!

Don't miss 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! 

Management, Training and Maintenance, Part 2
Management, Training and Maintenance Part 1

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