E125: Julie Flanery - "Precise Positions & Clean Communication"

Julie Flanery joins me to talk about her positions class, clean communication, the importance of good mechanics in getting trained behaviors more quickly, and more.


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 Julie Flanery.

Julie has been working professionally with dogs and their handlers since 1993. She focuses on the needs of the dogs and helping people form a strong relationship through clear communication and positive reinforcement.

She has placed Obedience, Freestyle, Rally-Obedience, Rally-FrEe, Parkour, Agility, and Trick Dog titles on her dogs. She began competing in Musical Freestyle in 1999, and was the first to both title and earn a Heelwork to Music Championship on the West Coast. In 2001 she was named "Trainer of the Year" by the World Canine Freestyle Organization and has been a competition freestyle judge since 2003. Five years ago Julie developed the sport of Rally-FrEe to help freestylers increase the quality and precision of their performances. It has since become a stand-alone sport enjoyed by dog sports enthusiasts all over the world. Julie has been a workshop and seminar presenter both nationally and internationally. She currently trains and competes with her Tibetan Terrier in both Musical Freestyle and Rally-FrEe. So welcome back to the podcast Julie!

Julie Flanery: Hi Melissa.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you remind listeners who your dogs are and what you do with them?

Julie Flanery: Yeah. Matter of fact, I've had an addition since we last talked. I have Kashi, she's a Tibetan Terrier, she'll be 9 years old in August, and she just finished up one of the highest titles we can earn in Rally-FrEe, which is our Elite Grand Championship title. So she is retiring from Rally-FrEe now, and we have a few more legs left for our Grand Championship in Freestyle, and we'll be working towards our Championship In Sync then. So she's got maybe a year or two left of competing in Freestyle, and then I'm going to go ahead and retire her. We'll still keep training because she loves to train. It's just as she gets a little bit older, there's a little bit more pressure involved with competition, and it's a little bit harder for her to maintain that really high level of skill and concentration.

Recently, I acquired a new puppy. Actually, she was about 5 months old when I got her. I got her through Sara Brueske, who was fostering her through her Herding Dog Rescue of Illinois. At the time I was looking for a Border Collie mix, and I saw Sara training this little pup, this little foster of hers, online, and I thought, Oh, I might need that puppy. It looks very much like Kashi, the black-and-white and kind of scruffy-looking. Sara said that she was a Border Collie/Poodle mix, and I thought, OK, that sounds kind of cool. And of course Sara's a fabulous trainer, so what better start could I have than having Sara get her started on some of her training and foundation skills.

I had to make a decision pretty quickly. I was going to do a workshop in South Carolina, and I could meet up with a friend of Sara's that could get the puppy to the airport for me, and I could get her home. So I bit the bullet and said, "OK, let's do this," even though I was not sure if I was ready to get another dog or not. I was thinking about it, but … anyway, I brought her home and her name is Phee. She and Kashi are great buddies; they get along great. I was a little bit surprised when the DNA results came back and there's no Border Collie in her. That took a little bit of adjustment for me because I was seeing some Border Collie traits, and Sara was also, so my head was wrapped around a Border Collie mix. And I don't know … can I swear on this program? No, this is a PG-rated …

Melissa Breau: If you want to.

Julie Flanery: Oh, really? It's not PG-rated?

Melissa Breau: No …

Julie Flanery: Well, it ends up she's an Australian Shepherd/Shih Tzu cross, which is quite interesting. If you put those two together, you end up with an AuShihT. But she's a great little dog, and I really, really enjoy learning from her and working with her, and I think she'll do some really cool, fun things.

Melissa Breau: I've seen some of your stuff and some of Sara's stuff with her and she certainly seems like a neat little dog.

Julie Flanery: Yeah, yeah. She's kind of funny. Her structure is a little bit odd. She's about 4 inches longer than Kashi, but the same height. So she's got these short little legs and a long body. She kind of looks like a short little miniature Bearded Collie or something. But she's a cutie. She'll do fun stuff.

Melissa Breau: You've got a lot going on right now, lady. Registration just opened for August, and for August you're teaching Joy of Heeling, which I've had you on to talk about before, and a Positions, Laterals, and Backing class. Then you've got a workshop also open for registration on Fronts, and you're also teaching for FDSA's new Pet Professionals Program. You just finished up your first class for that. I'm only partly joking with this one, but how are you doing all that?

Julie Flanery: OK, you're scaring me now, because that actually sounds like a lot, doesn't it?

Melissa Breau: It does.

Julie Flanery: It does, and it is, because on top of that, as you mentioned, I also run the Rally-FrEe organization and teach live classes and some private lessons, both online and live as well. So, yeah, I am pretty busy. I really enjoy doing each and every one of these things, and so it makes it really hard to say no to things. For example, when you contacted me and said, "Hey, let's do another podcast," and I was like, "Oh, sure, Melissa. When will I fit that in?" But here I am, because I enjoy it. It's like, it's true what they say: "If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life," and so I have a tendency to put more activities into my life than the time I actually have. Miraculously, everything seems to get done, I don't seem too stressed or worried about it, and I think that just boils down to I really enjoy what I'm doing.

And yeah, sometimes you have to, "This week I'm going to spend more time on this, and next week I'll spend more time on this," and no, I don't have a life outside of this. That's not actually true. I have good friends, and if you follow me on Facebook at all, you'd see that I actually do have a life outside of this, but it usually includes good friends and food and dogs and all the things that I enjoy doing. So that's what life is right now, and I'm really enjoying the opportunities that I have, because who knows, next year I might not have these opportunities, and so I'm going to take advantage of them while I have them.

Melissa Breau: I was thinking I didn't even mention that you're still presenting all over.

Julie Flanery: Yeah, I do travel about once a month. As a matter of fact, I just got back from Florida, a fun workshop in Gainesville, a great group of learners there, and had a really good time. And looking forward to … this is August … I'm going up to B.C., Canada, next month, and then the following month I'll be in New Hampshire with Julie Daniels' Team Weekend, so that will be really fun.

Melissa Breau: I'll get to see you there.

Julie Flanery: Yay! I'm looking forward to it.

Melissa Breau: A slightly more serious question: Is there a core "thing" you're trying to get out into the world right now, or a focus for you as a trainer and an instructor?

Julie Flanery: That's a really hard question, because I think if you look at some of the things I'm doing, they all seem kind of different. As you said, I'm doing the Pet Professionals Program, which is geared toward not just new trainers but for new trainers or trainers working to gain more experience and knowledge and understanding so they can do a better job at what they do.

I'm competing in Freestyle and I'm working with Freestyle competitors in improving and upping their game and putting a little bit more precision into what we see out there in the Freestyle world, and of course that has to do with the Rally-FrEe and how I developed that. I love, love, love the online classes because in those classes I'm working with people in terms of building their communication skills with their dogs.

So I think if I had to say there was maybe one core thing that drives me in what I do, it would be helping handlers become better at communicating either to their clients or to their dogs. I think communication is key if you're going to be successful in either training people or training animals, and if I look at everything I've done so far, that is going to be a big focal point for me is really clear communication

Melissa Breau: I was going to say, for me, I definitely think of you as the queen of clean training, so when it comes to the topics you're teaching, can you talk a little about how you structure things to keep that training clean? I'm assuming that couples with the communication piece, right?

Julie Flanery: It totally couples with communication. Matter of fact, that's the purpose of clean training. That's the purpose of clean mechanics and having structure in your training. Training is all about … certainly it's about motivation and reinforcement and building criteria, but the thing is, we can't do any of those things. Your reinforcement doesn't work unless you've clearly communicated your criteria to the dog. If the dog has no idea how to earn reinforcement, or if he has to struggle to figure out what it is that you want from him, then he's farther away from that reinforcement piece of it. And that's really what the dogs are driving toward, that's what drives behavior, is that reinforcement.

So what clean training does, and what clean mechanics does, is it provides the dog a much more clear chunk of information on which to then act on in order to earn reinforcement. Clean training has to do with a lot of different things, I think probably more than what people think of. I think people think of mechanics: click then treat, don't overshadow your cues. But clean training really has to do with how you structure your session, how you release the dog from the crate, when you tell him it's time to work, when you tell him it's not time to work, how you set up your exercises, whether you're using props or whatever you're using, in an effort to be clear in your communication to your dog in how to earn that reinforcement, that you have a plan and some structure to it, that you're not going out and just winging it, which a lot of us do sometimes. I get that.

And then I think there's that second part of clean mechanics. Do you have enough treats? Are your treats of a size and shape and texture that makes them easy to get out of your pocket or bait bag and easy to deliver? Is your bait bag ever-present in front of you, or are your treats hidden until after you mark? Are you waiting until after you mark before you reach for your treat? You might think that those things are minor or small things within a training session. I mean, who cares if I reach for the treat at the same time I click, right? Well, the dog cares. Because if I'm reaching for the treat at the same time I click, then the communication of the click is not there. The marker becomes reaching for the bait bag, and we might as well not even click. And if the marker is reaching for the bait bag, then the dog's focus is going to be on your hand and when it reaches, and not on the task that we're wanting them to perform in order to earn that reinforcement.

So I think that clean mechanics, clean training — for me, anyway — it's a synonym for clear communication. I don't want my dog, I don't want my clients' dogs, my students' dogs to have to filter through a lot of extraneous movement, extraneous verbiage, that's spewing forth out of my mouth. It doesn't mean that we have to be silent and quiet when we're marking behavior or when we're training.

Anybody who has watched me train or seen me train — there are times when I'm quiet and there are times when I'm not quiet. There's times when I'm moving and there's times when I'm still. And each one of those is done with a specific purpose in mind. When I want my dog to concentrate, when she's shaping, and I want her to think about the task and not whether my hand is going to move to my bait bag, then I'm going to be more still. If I want her thinking about how to be enthusiastic and put some energy into something, then I might be moving and I might be using my voice more. So I think there's more to clean training and clean mechanics than what people think about, and the whole all of it has to do with communication. How can we be more clear in our communication for the dog.

And I think what's interesting is that there's so many fabulous trainers getting such great work out of their dogs with maybe less than sparkling clean training. I have the opportunity to observe literally dozens and maybe even hundreds of really excellent trainers through Fenzi Academy, and they are doing magical, wonderful things with their dogs. It's very impressive. Are their mechanics super-clean? Some of them, yeah. Some of them not so much, and that's part of my job is to teach them how to clean up those communications skills.

I think sometimes we can get into a thought process of, Well, she's doing great. Why do I have to work so hard to hold my hand still while I click? Why do I have to work so hard to not dig in my pocket for 12 seconds before I get my cookie? She's doing great. She's getting it. I always say to them, "But you don't know how much quicker the dog could learn this if we took away all of that extraneous information that they're having to filter through just to get to the meat of what you really want them to understand." I think when people look at it that way and they say, "Yeah, she's doing great, but how much better could she do if I cleaned up my act a little bit?" and I think most people are really surprised. That's the biggest takeaway I get from my students in many of my classes.

I just finished up the Level 2 in Rally-FrEe class. The shaping class was phenomenal. The differences in the dogs' ability to perform the tasks that we were trying to teach and communicate increases exponentially as the handlers' mechanics became more clean and clear. I was just thrilled to be able to teach that class and see the changes in the dogs and the handlers. That's an example of we may think that clean mechanics doesn't really matter that much, but when we actually put a little effort into making some changes in how we communicate with the dog through the way we structure our training sessions and we use our body and our mechanical skills, we see that it really does impact the dog's ability to learn much more than we might have thought previously.

That's part of why it's so important to me, because I don't want to see dogs struggle, and I don't want to see handlers struggle. I want to see dog and handler teams enjoying their training together, the time they're working together, and I think that clear communication and clean mechanics is one of the ways that we can increase that enjoyment, that we can increase that relationship and that working relationship that we have, and make it a lot more fun for both the dog and the handler.

I guess that's why clean mechanics is so important to me, because in the end, it's all about clear communication, and if I can be more clear in my communication with my dog, I'm going to do it, and if I can be more clear in my communication with my student, I'm going to do it. So it's kind of like the same thing. For most handlers, their dog is their student, and so utilizing all the tools we have available to us, including clean mechanics, including props, including reinforcement and reinforcement schedules and markers and all of these other things, clean mechanics is probably, to me, the foundation for everything else.

Boy, was I a little passionate about that, Melissa? Sorry about that!

Melissa Breau: I think maybe we hit on the topic that runs through everything you're working on right now!

Julie Flanery: Oh my god, it really is. It's everything. I think all of the instructors at Fenzi, we all have very similar philosophies, we're all really big on clear communication with our animals, and all of us, if we watch a video, I think, each one of us would have something that we would zone in on, that we would see, that we would want to help the handler with.

Denise, for example, is very big on interpersonal relationship and interpersonal play skills, and so I think that would be something she would note right away in a video as to how she can help that handler work their interpersonal play and relationship skills.

Whereas when I see a video, one of the first things I zone in on would be that handler's mechanical skills and how can I help that handler be a more clear communicator with their dog by improving their mechanical skills. So we're looking at the same video, but I think all of the instructors will see something slightly different, and I just think that, yeah, mechanics, I have an eye for that, I think.

Melissa Breau: I want to talk for a minute about your class that you have going on. We did a whole podcast about the heeling class, I want to focus in on some of the other topics, specifically your Positions, Laterals, and Backing class. The name sort of says it all, but at the same time, if you don't know what it means, you may not know at all what it's about. What positions are we talking about here, and what are you covering when you say "laterals and backing"?

Julie Flanery: A lot of people, when you say "positions," and depending on what sport you're in … for example, with Obedience, you might think, Is she talking position changes like sit-down-stand, or is she talking heel and front, or what does she actually mean, "positions"? Because I did compete in Obedience, and that was my first foray into competition was Obedience, but I come from a Freestyle world, and in Freestyle we teach positions as stationary, static positions, rather than, for example, left heel is a left heel forward.

The positions I'm referring to in class are left heel, right heel, front, and behind the handler. Those are the four primary positions for Freestyle. However, if you'll notice, we do have left heel and front in that class, and so if you're in Obedience or Rally, then you're going to benefit from this class. We also have what's called in Freestyle "alternative positions." These might be positions where, for example, a reverse heel, where the dog's head is facing behind the handler, and the handler is moving backwards. It might be a position where the dog is perpendicular across the front or behind the handler. It might be a position where the dog's nose is at the hip and his rear is pointing straight out from the handler. In this class, handlers will have the opportunity to practice one or more alternative positions, but we'll be primarily focusing on our left heel, right heel, front, and behind.

In the Positions class, we are going to be separating out any other extraneous behaviors that you might want in your positions. For example, in Obedience, for left heel and front, in general, "sit" is very closely attached to the position. We're going to be breaking that out so that the dog understands the position first, and only once we have strong understanding of the position are we going to start to add in some of these other extraneous behaviors that we need for those sports, such as the sit-in-heel and the sit-in-front.

I'm going to tie this a little bit into that Front workshop, but I think that one of the biggest reasons that we have crooked fronts is that the dog is being reinforced for a sit, and so he's in a hurry to get to that sit. What happens as he's coming into that front position is he's also trying to get into the sit quickly, and so he's sitting before he's actually in position. So breaking out the sit from the actual position training virtually eliminates that, because the position itself becomes so strong — and that's the piece that's most heavily reinforced — that adding the sit in later is easy. And again, it virtually eliminates any of the dog trying to sit early and therefore sitting off center or off to the side. We do work the positions in a standing position, and I can hear some Obedience people say, "Oh no, it's going to ruin my sit! I need my automatic sit, I need my default sit." Believe me, the sit is the easy part. The position is the most difficult part. And by separating them out, we can get them both, and we'll have a much more confident dog at what that criteria actually is.

So those are the positions, and then the laterals are part of positions. Laterals you might hear me refer to as side steps or side passing. This is where the dog moves in unison with the handler from any position, either in left heel, right heel, front, or behind. If the dog is in left heel and the handler takes a step right, the dog remains in left heel position, but is traveling to the right with the handler. Again, this is simply position work. Because I train position as a static behavior, the dog learns that when Julie says, "Heel," she means get to her left side with my shoulder along her pant seam, and my nose up and my eyes looking at her face, and stay there. No matter what direction Julie goes, it's my dog's job to just remain in that position in relation to me, no matter the direction I move in.

What that does is it builds a really, really strong understanding of what my heel cue means. So if my dog gets out of position — let's say I'm competing and my dog gets slightly distracted and gets out of position — he knows how to get back into heel quickly. He knows how to find it, he knows how to stay there, and he wants to stay there, so he works hard at that.

I think that might be one of the primary differences between the way Freestylers train heelwork and the way, in my experience, I have seen Obedience competitors that train position, and that is that the heel position is associated with a sit and heel position is associated with moving forward. The way that I like to teach it is that the position is trained in relation to the handler in the stand first, and then we add the movement forward or backward or sideways, and then we add the sit, so that the dog is getting a lot of reinforcement and a lot of information as to how to correctly perform each one of those criterion before we put them together.

So we got the positions, we got the laterals, the backing, again, really laterals and backing are simply position with added criteria of movement. In the backing, we could be backing away from the handler, we could be backing in front of the handler but remaining in that front position so the handler moves with the dog, we could be moving back in heel or right. Again, it helps the dog understand about the position and the value of staying in position. I think a lot of handlers struggle with that, having the dog understand their job of where they should be, whether moving or stationary. Did I get them all? Did I get positions, laterals, and backing?

Melissa Breau: You did.

Julie Flanery: OK.

Melissa Breau: You got all of them.

Julie Flanery: Good, good.

Melissa Breau: You're a big fan of using platforms for these things, right? So can you talk a little bit about why platforms and what advantages they offer?

Julie Flanery: What platforms do is they define the criteria; they define the space in which a position should be held. So it's important that the platform be customized to the dog. Initially you can have a platform that's a little bit wide, but as the dog starts to find value in and want to remain on the platform — get to and want to remain on the platform — we want to make sure that our platforms are customized to our dogs, because that's how we create that criteria, and that's how we are able to reinforce that criteria and build value in that criteria in a way that when we remove the platform, the dog still chooses to get into that position in relation to the handler. We want our positions always to be thought of as in relation to the handler.

When we use platforms, we can actually put that platform in the position in relation to the handler, and it tells the dog exactly where that position is, and it allows the handler to reinforce that exact position, rather than guessing a little bit, "Was he out a little bit? Was he curled behind me a little bit?" No, he's going to always be correct when he's on the platform, as long as — and here's the caveat — we have a saying: "If he's on the platform, the dog is right and you should reward him." Well, that's half true. But let's say you have the platform, and the dog is on the platform, but the handler is not square to the platform. Maybe their hip or shoulder is slightly off from the platform. It's the handler's responsibility, too, to make sure they are set up in relation to the platform, so that the dog, when he's on it, truly is in the correct position. So the dog can be on the platform and not be in heel position. True, also, if the platform is the incorrect size, there are some dogs that can stand crooked on a platform, no matter how narrow that platform is. And so you want to be really, really aware of that.

For fronts, specifically, we want to make sure that our hips and our shoulders become the reference point for the dog, once the platform is removed. I think, too, that in addition to platforms … let me go back for a minute, because I think also when I talk about platforms initially, for position, I'm referring to standing platforms, because I want the dog to learn how to work their rear end to get into position, and so I teach the dog standing first. It doesn't mean I don't also want to teach the dog a sit position as well, but I'm going to have a sit platform for that.

So if I have a platform that's long enough for the dog to stand on, I want the dog to know he should be standing on it. If I have a platform that is only big enough for the dog to sit on, then the dog knows, "This is what I sit on. In order to get all four feet on the platform, I've got to be sitting." And then I have my front foot platform, where the dog learns that, "I can only fit my front feet on here, so that's what I'm going to do is put my front feet on here." So there's different sizes of platforms that are actually the cue for the behavior that you want the dog to perform on the platform.

In addition to my standing platform, or my sit, or my pivot platform, my two foot platform, I also like to use other props. Many are probably familiar with the training gates that I use. The pivot platform, again, is another prop that I like to use for position work. I find that the more props, the more aids, that I use to convey the criteria to the dog, the more ways that I can create the criteria that is going to earn a nice, high rate of reward to create that pattern in the dog, the easier it is to start to remove those props as part of the process. We can't have the props in the ring, so we have to get the dog away from those aids, and if we're only using a single aid, it can be difficult, or more difficult, I think, to remove that aid.

It's easy for the prop to become part of the behavior. "I can't do a front because there's no platform there." Front includes the platform, right? So we want to make sure that we're not spending so much time on any single prop that the prop becomes an integral part of the behavior in the dog's mind. So by using multiple props, the only clear and consistent criteria is what the dog is doing, the behavior itself, and that makes it easier to start to withdraw and remove the props. And of course getting that behavior on cue first before starting that process is incredibly important, because the props, the platform is the cue to get into position, so before we start to remove those props, we want to be sure we add that cue.

But yeah, I think that platforms are one of the first things that I teach my dogs. There are maybe a handful of things that I like my dogs to learn pretty quickly when they first come to me, as part of their overall foundation training, and the standing platform is one of the first things that I teach and where to set up in relation to my body, and that's a good, fun place to be. That's your sweet spot, and if it's available, you want to get there.

Melissa Breau: You went ahead and answered what was going to be my next question …

Julie Flanery: Sorry!

Melissa Breau: No, that's OK. I was going to say that I think the downside for most people is that they worry about removing it from the picture and maintaining criteria. But you answered that by working with different platforms and generalizing that cue, right?

Julie Flanery: Right, exactly. The cue is incredibly important for removal of props and making sure that you're not on a single prop for so long that it becomes an integral part of the behavior itself.

I think the other thing that happens is sometimes we go into prop training or training with aids without a clear plan of how to remove them. We know we should be using them, we know they create criteria, we know they create opportunity for reinforcement and muscle memory and patterning and all those good things that we want, but we don't really fully think about what is the protocol for removing this platform. That causes an issue in and of itself because we end up staying on that platform or any prop for too long. Remember, anytime that we are wanting to raise criteria, we need to raise criteria when the dog is predictable and consistent and confident at the previous criteria. That can happen pretty quickly when we're using props, which means the next criteria is for them to do it without the prop. So if we get in that rut of not raising that up and removing that prop in a timely fashion, then, again, the prop becomes an integral part of the behavior.

What I think a lot of handlers don't realize is that there is protocol, that it is a process of removal. You don't just take it away. The first step in that process is, of course, to put the behavior onto another cue, because the prop is the cue initially, so when we remove that cue, we have to have something to replace it with.

The second thing I think that people don't fully realize or understand is that when we remove the prop, we're going to lose criteria. The dog isn't going to be as straight, the dog isn't going to be as perfect as he was with the prop, because the prop is what created that criteria for us. So we have to be willing to accept a little less criteria, lowered criteria, mark earlier in the process. That doesn't mean accept a lesser version, a sloppier version, of a criteria. It doesn't mean accept a crooked front. It means click sooner as they are moving into the front, before they get crooked. Does that make sense a little bit?

Melissa Breau: Yeah.

Julie Flanery: I hope I'm saying that correctly, that when we remove that target of the prop, of the platform, if we wait for the dog to come all the way in, the first time we remove the platform, he's likely to be crooked. However, if we mark the behavior sooner, along the correct path of coming into front, now we've marked correctness. We haven't accepted a sloppier version. We created the step before a full front, and as we continue that shaping process, the dog will very quickly shape back up.

The other thing I do is I ping-pong between prop/no prop. That might be in the same set of exercises. My removal of my prop needs to be very unobtrusive. I need my dog to not notice the prop is being removed. So I usually remove props mid-session, so that the only thing that they're thinking is that the prop is still there, even though, as they approach, the prop is no longer there, and I have opportunity to mark that correct approach. And then I can use my reinforcement strategies and all those other things.

But I think that knowing that removing the prop doesn't mean you take it away and now you're left with whatever's left. There is a process, and like anything else, if we follow a process, we're much more likely to meet our end goals than if we go about it randomly. I think that's the main thing about removal.

Melissa Breau: When you start that ping-ponging process, that's when you start marking a little on the early side of their coming in, right? When there's no prop in there.

Julie Flanery: Correct. And then you do start to shape that up to where you're marking a behavior that more resembles a full front. You're not always marking early at that point, but you're shaping those increments back up towards your full front. But it goes very quickly because of the dog's experience with the platform and history of reward with the correct position in relation to the handler. It goes fairly quickly.

This is one of the reasons why I think shaping is such an important foundation skill for both dogs and handlers, because it makes the whole process of training go much more quickly. It creates a very thoughtful animal in terms of wanting to create that criteria that was being created by the props. Now the animal can start to internalize some of that criteria and create it on their own.

Melissa Breau: Anything else you want to share about the class, or anything you want to say about maybe who should take it?

Julie Flanery: A lot of my classes are set up in the Rally and Freestyle school, the school of Rally and Freestyle, and really, truly, all of the classes I teach, with the exception of maybe the classes such as Building a Freestyle Routine or Sequences and Flow, that are very specific to Freestyle, any and all of these classes are applicable to any of the ring sports — Obedience, Rally. They aren't just for the freestyler.

For example, The Joy of Heeling: Rock It Like a Freestyler, it's a heeling class. It's a way to find that joy of heeling for your dog, but also maintain some of the precision and work towards that accuracy that we all want. It's not just a class for freestylers. It is the way that I, as a freestyler, approach training heelwork. So that's why it's in those classes, because I'm approaching training maybe a little bit differently than someone that's coming from the Obedience world, and I think that's good. I think it gives people a new perspective and maybe allows you to try exercises that are a little bit outside of the box, maybe something that you haven't tried before that could be beneficial, but it's just coming from a different sport in the world of training.

Because Freestyle is such a small niche, and when I first started in Freestyle, there were no Freestyle trainers. I could not find a Freestyle trainer to save my life. I remember the very first Freestyle workshop I ever went to, I had to drive ten hours to get there, and then the second one was cancelled because of lack of interest. So most all of my early freestyle training was taught on the fly. I was trial and error: "Does this work? Does this work? Wow, this works best. How can I convey this to the dog?" When nobody had done this before. How do you teach a behind position? How do you teach a right heel? Because nobody taught right heel then. How do you teach these lateral side passes? Because that wasn't a thing in training heelwork at that time.

So a lot of these techniques that freestylers have come up with, we've taken what we know from the Obedience world, there's value in what we learn through the way folks are training in Obedience, but there's also value in looking a little outside the box and saying, "Hmm, maybe there's another way, or an additional way," or "There are other ways to communicate this so that the dog might actually understand it a little bit more clearly." I think that's the value of looking outside some of the classes that are just meant for ring obedience trainers or competition obedience trainers, that there's a lot of value in going and looking at the trainer of another sport, and the exercises and activities that they might encourage you to try, to see if it will benefit you and your dog in your training.

Same with the Positions, Lateral, and Backing class. Even though I'm teaching it with Freestyle in mind, we all use these positions, we all want to be more clear in our communication to our dogs, we all want to utilize the aids and props that are available to us in order to communicate criteria to our dogs to create a higher rate of reward. But we also need to know how to remove those from the training process. So I think that the classes that I teach in the school of Rally and Freestyle are going to benefit more people than you might think.

Melissa Breau: Right. I'd imagine there's a fair amount of crossover there in terms of approach, and maybe a little bit in terms of content, between the Fronts workshop that you have going on and the Positions class. Can you share a little bit about the Fronts workshop, what's the scope of that class, and how you're planning on covering that?

Julie Flanery: Yeah, and I do cover fronts in the Positions class as well. A lot of what I'll be talking about in the Fronts workshop, I'll try and get it all covered in the Positions class as well. But basically we're talking about, again, ways that we can clearly communicate the criteria so that the dog doesn't have to guess where front is, and the handler doesn't have to guess where front is.

I wish you could see me on camera right now so I could demonstrate, but you know how oftentimes when we teach front, and when I first learned to teach front when I was competing in Obedience, the way that I was told to teach front was to literally lure the dog in front of me and into the sit, bringing that lure upward so the dog would come in close and come in straight.

If you've ever worked with a lure, you know that just because you lead the head somewhere doesn't mean that the dog's body is going to follow in a straight line. And so oftentimes if we're using luring as a means to show the dog the criteria of front, we end up doing these little steps to the side a little bit and shift our shoulders around and pull our lure off and back to the side a little just to get the dog straight.

So a lot of the Fronts workshop is going to be talking about and teaching handlers how to communicate the criteria of straight and close and eyes on me and fast and energetic without the use of a lure, through using props, and also through using reinforcement strategies, where we reward, how we reward, and using fun games to create an energetic front position, a dog that really wants to drive into that front position, and then collect himself and pull that sit in and lift upward so that he is in that nice, tight, straight position.

I think we have probably … I want to say at least a half a dozen, maybe eight different exercises and games that you'll learn in the workshop that you'll have an opportunity to practice and video and then send in for video review. I think it's a really fun workshop. I enjoy it. I like teaching Fronts.

Melissa Breau: Is it for people with no fronts? Is it for people who have a front and just need to clean it up? What's the audience?

Julie Flanery: It's for people who have no front, for people who don't like their front that they have, for people that want to … maybe they're missing one little piece, or sometimes the dog is crooked, but most of the time the dog is straight, how do we just tweak a little bit so they get more consistency, so I get more understanding in the dog of what that actual criteria is.

Oftentimes there are really simple things that we can change within the handler that affect the dog's ability to give us what we want. We have a tendency sometimes to sabotage our own criteria by reinforcing in a way, or delivering a reward in a way, that actually affects future repetitions. Remember, reinforcement strategies don't affect the current rep. Reinforcement strategies affect and benefit future reps.

For example, if we're sometimes feeding the dog off to our right thigh, then within a few reps you're probably going to notice that your dog's rear end is pointed towards your left, and that's a direct result of where you're feeding. So oftentimes we can make these minor changes in reinforcement and get what we want from the dog.

Remember, the dog only learns what we teach him. And so if you're getting crooked fronts, you're probably teaching crooked fronts. So we're going to look at all the different ways that we can be more clear in our communication about what we want when we tell the dog "front."

Melissa Breau: Right. I just want to say I think the workshops, they're kind of new to FDSA, but I think they are such an awesome opportunity, and folks haven't quite caught on to how awesome they can be yet, I don't think. As of at least last night, when I was writing up some questions for this, there were still working spots available for your Fronts workshop …

Julie Flanery: What? Really? I thought it was full!

Melissa Breau: Maybe it's full now. Maybe it filled between the time that I looked last, but the last time I looked, there were a couple slots left.

Julie Flanery: Oh! Nab those spots, people!

Melissa Breau: Maybe it's my admin's access from my website. Maybe it just always shows it's available for me. I don't know.

Julie Flanery: I think there might be. I think last time I looked there were nine or ten spots taken. I think we take twelve. Is that right, or do we take fifteen?

Melissa Breau: I think that's right. I think it's twelve for the workshops.

Julie Flanery: So there might be a couple of spots left. I think even if you don't get a working spot, honestly, you're going to get a lot out of this. And again, the nice thing is that the workshops, unlike the webinars, what I like about the workshops is that you're given exercises to practice. You are literally said, "This is your homework. Go train. And then come back and show me what you have, and we'll tweak it to make it better."

The nice thing, too, is you're seeing ten or twelve other people working these exercises. And as I said, we have several exercises, so you might be working one exercise, but you get to watch somebody else working the next exercise that maybe you're not quite ready for, but you'll get the coaching and the advice that I might give that person as well. So I think that's really valuable too. It's like when you're a Gold student or even a Bronze student and you get to learn from the Gold students' videos. So that's kind of nice.

Melissa Breau: Right, and unlike the normal classes, because these aren't forums; they're videos, both videos go in your library, both the first video and the feedback video, and that's something you can go back and reference later.

Julie Flanery: And you get a ton of information in just that one-week period, rather than trying to make it through your six weeks, which can be really difficult, depending on your schedule and your motivation. I like the workshops quite a bit.

Melissa Breau: Me too, and I was going to round it out by saying folks get your feedback, working spots only $39.95. So you really can't beat that. A seminar these days — go to a one-day seminar and you're going to spend way more than that.

Julie Flanery: Right, and you'll probably get less feedback.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. So this is one of the few opportunities that I think is truly low-cost and still manages to be a valuable way to get some top-notch instructors and their eyes on your dog and your training. I just wanted to plug workshops generally, but I also want to talk about your PPP stuff. Hopefully at this point everyone knows what that is: the Pet Professionals Program. You just finished your first one on Shaping, Capturing, and Luring, and I know you have two others scheduled for later this year. First, why the Pet Professionals Program? What got you excited about the program and how did Denise con you into joining the team?

Julie Flanery: You know, it's kind of interesting. I taught pet classes for almost twenty years, and it took me the first ten to get a handle on what I was doing and to feel competent and confident at it.

Denise and I were at a conference, and a lot of the handlers there were also instructors teaching other people. It just seemed that there was some education that was lacking, and more than education, there were some handling skills that were lacking. I think Denise started probably thinking about how can we help trainers of other people. The school, FDSA, tends to be focused on helping handlers train their own dogs, and many of these people are trainers of other people.

There are a lot of programs out there now. When I was first learning how to be a dog obedience instructor, how to teach pet people how to train their dogs, there weren't that many programs available, and I learned by taking a lot of classes with my own pet dog, and then apprenticing under another trainer/instructor that gave me that opportunity to teach others about dog training. I apprenticed under what I would consider now a balanced trainer, so while I was learning how to teach, I was also still learning myself how I wanted to train, what was my training philosophy, what did I want to include in my own training for my dogs and what did I want to teach others about. While there are now more options available, I think, for people that want to be dog obedience instructors or pet dog trainers … it's funny, because I used the term dog obedience instructor; that was the term we used when I first started, and now it's pet dog trainer. It is kind of funny how terminology changes. But I think that there are a lot of opportunities to learn about learning theory and how to apply some of the training techniques, and how to train your own dog.

I don't know that there's that many opportunities on how to teach people in the real world. I know that when I was just getting started, I was super-excited about this new world to me. I remember the first time my dog learned a behavior through clicker training. Oh my god, it was like magic to me. Truly, it was magic, and I just wanted to share this with everybody, and I wanted to learn all I could about learning theory and how to apply these techniques and motivation and reinforcement and punishment and positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement and all of this stuff. I just wanted to know about it, and I want to tell everybody about it. I wanted to teach about it and I wanted everybody to know the magic of shaping and the magic of clicker.

Like I said, it took me ten years to get a grasp on the fact that what's important to me and where I'm at in my level of training and skill and how I want to relate to my dogs and what I want to do in performance sports — that doesn't always mesh with what our clients want. And I think that it's easy to forget that as we become more knowledgeable and skilled, and we want to share this knowledge with the world, it's easy to forget that our goals aren't our pet dog client goals. I think what this program does that might be missing in some other programs is it gets us back to some real-world training, and it looks at not only the dogs' needs but the clients' needs, and how are we going to help them feel successful so that they can have a relationship with their dogs that is good for both of them.

It's one thing that a dog can learn all these fabulous things, and we all know there are no bounds to what we can teach our dogs. And so we go that route. We teach things that are outside of the realm of most dog owners. Most dog owners don't need this stuff. Most dog owners just need to learn how to live happily with their dogs so that those dogs can stay in their homes.

I think the instructors for PPP, we all have the same philosophy: we want to be kind to our clients, we want to be kind to the dogs, and we want to teach our clients how to be kind to their dogs and still get the job done. Because, in the end, we can teach a client everything they want to know about shaping, about clicker, about learning theory, about positive reinforcement, about negative reinforcement, about what this means and that means. And I think it's important for trainers, if you're going to teach other people about how dogs learn, you need to understand that. But does your client need to know all that? Do they really need to get a degree in animal behavior in order to teach their dog to stay off the counter, in order to teach their dog to walk nicely on leash?

For me, I think it's a nice integration of using what we know about learning theory, positive reinforcement, applying these techniques to create behavior in our dogs that makes them easy to live with, so that our pet dog owners enjoy owning a dog. Most people, I think, who go to a pet dog class, or at least when I first started teaching … I think it's changing a little now, but when I first started teaching, the reason people came to a pet dog class was because they had a problem. They couldn't fix it themselves, and by now that problem had gotten to the point where it would be very difficult to fix. They just wanted that problem fixed. They didn't want to train their dog. They just wanted the problem fixed.

Now I think we're seeing more people understand what dogs are capable and they want to take a little bit farther. But before they can, they need to get simple things, household manners, under control. We don't need to shape household manners. There are a lot of ways to teach a dog household manners and make the owner feel good about that dog, so that then we can maybe guide them into those next steps.

As I said, I think the PPP program does this in a way that teaches new trainers, or even experienced trainers, what they need to know about dog training and behavior, what are the processes, what are the learning theories, and now how are you going to communicate that to a layperson that has no interest other than results. That's what they want: results. They want success with their dogs, and I think that's what the PPP program does.

Melissa Breau: You didn't come right out and say this, but you were talking through that and it struck me that it's very similar to what you were talking

about earlier in the episode about when you're training a dog, you're trying to cut out all that extraneous information that we tend to throw into the learning picture, and put them on a quicker path to reinforcement so they can get to the reinforcement fast and learn how to solve the problem.

Julie Flanery: Exactly. Melissa, you are brilliant.

Melissa Breau: I don't know, Julie. You said it. I just put the two together.

Julie Flanery: It really is about clear communication. I had a conversation with a good friend of mine this morning. She's a student also and she's also an up-and-coming trainer. She's been training for a long time with her dog, she's been successful with her dog, she wants to share this with other people. She enjoys teaching people and teaching dogs.

She's struggling a little bit right now because she wants so bad to teach them all the things. She wants to help them appreciate their dog for the learning machine their dog could be, but she's struggling with how to clearly communicate what it is they need to know and how to apply it. I think not only do we need to be able to clearly articulate to our clients, say, how to perform an exercise — "How do I teach my dog to XYZ?" "Well, first you do this, and then you do this, and now you have to do this." Not only do we have to teach them those things, but we also need them to become very aware that this is a process. Things don't happen overnight.

Most of our pet dog clients want change now, and there are things we can do to give them, oh, I don't know, a little bit of reinforcement there, a little bit of … I guess maybe we're shaping their behavior: "Look how great she did that sit. I know you want her to sit for ten minutes, but look how great she did that sit. We'll get there." I think it's hard for clients to really break things down.

And in that same regard, here is my friend and she wants to teach them all the things, and I'm trying to teach them all the things — and I tried to convey to her, I said, "We need to break it down for our dogs, we need to break it down for our clients, and as much as our clients want to teach their dog something very quickly and give them all the information at once, we know dogs can't learn that way. And as much as you want to teach your clients all the things, we know they can't learn that way." So we just need to take little slices of learning and articulate very specifically to our clients, let them see success with that little bit, and then we assess: How much more can we give this client, and do we really need to go into all of the things that we understand as animal training experts.

It's a struggle, because you want to save all the dogs and you're thinking, Oh, that poor dog, that poor dog. Denise had a really great post last week about how oftentimes traditional trainers create a relationship with a client, whereas positive reinforcement trainers tend to create a relationship with the dog, and we're in it for the dog, we're in it for the dog. But you know something? We're not going to be able to help that dog if we can't help the client first. And so even though my focus in training is going to be to benefit the dog, I can't benefit the dog until I help that client.

It was a very interesting post to me, and she's right, we need to build a team between the client and the dog and create that teamwork. But it's not just about the dog. It's about that combination of the dog and handler team.

Melissa Breau: I want to steer things back a little bit to the classes that you have coming up. For the two that have yet to happen, you have your Managing a Skills Class and your Class Formats class. Can you share a little bit about what each of those classes cover, what you're going to get into?

Julie Flanery: The Managing a Skills Class is about how to structure your classroom, how to set up your classroom, what types of things you want to plan for and be aware of.

For example, one of the things that I always did when I was teaching pet dog classes is I know where my spaces are. For example, in my pet dog classes, I could take six students, based on the space that I had and the fact that it was me instructing and I would have one assistant instructor, and that was a reasonable number for us. When dog and handler teams enter into the building, especially the first night, that can lead to a lot of chaos. People are trying to bring in all of their things at once, their dog hasn't learned anything and is seeing all these other dogs, and the leash is out to six feet, and the treats are dropping everywhere by accident because you can't hold your treats, and now you've got the bag that you're supposed to carry in all this equipment that they told you to bring, and two dogs trying to get in the door at once.

So planning for that first night: what is the structure, how are people going to enter that classroom, how are they going to get the dog out of the car, where are they going to park, where are they going to potty.

For example, I would have people come in, when they would come into the classroom, they would always take the spot farthest away from the door, and then fill in the next spot closest to the door, and the next spot, so the last dog coming into the classroom does not have to walk past any other dogs to get to their spot. The last dog coming into the classroom takes the spot closest to the door. Simple things like that can go a long way in minimizing some of the chaos that can happen on a very first night with dogs.

Things like demo dogs. How do you choose a demo dog? What do you do when a demo goes bad? Can you use that as a teachable moment? Believe me, I've had my fair share of demos gone wrong. "Sure, I'd like to show with your dog. Would that be all right? Oh my god, that did not go as planned. Now what?" Because you're the instructor, you're supposed to know what you're doing, and now you give an exercise and it didn't go that way. The dog did not do what you said was going to happen. How do you handle that in the moment and still maintain your credibility as their instructor?

What do you do when suddenly a dog erupts in barking in the classroom? Do you have a plan in place that everybody knows now what should we do when all of the dogs erupt in barking. Those are the types of things that I'll be talking about in How to Create a Successful Skills Class.

In the Class Formats class, we're going to be talking specifically about that. When I started teaching classes, it was an eight-week class, dogs came every single week, and there were easily twenty to twenty-five students in a single class with one instructor. Since then, over the last twenty years, and I think it actually started taking shape when Sue Ailsby started introducing the Levels classes, we now have many, many different formats in which we can teach our pet dog owners and their dogs the different skills that we want them to learn.

So I think the way of the eight-week class is starting to subside. We're seeing more six-week classes, short classes, we're seeing more Levels-type classes, revolving classes, we're seeing Puppy I and Puppy II, then Family I and Family II, rather than just when I started you went to an obedience class and they were all mashed together. We're seeing sport classes, we're seeing senior dog enrichment classes, we're seeing physical fitness classes, we're seeing summer shorts and two-weekend workshops. And so we're going to explore all of the different class formats, how you might choose to provide those to your clients, what are the different kinds of spaces you might need available for those class formats, and what type of curriculum would you provide in those class formats.

Melissa Breau: Sounds like super-important skills here.

Julie Flanery: Yeah. It's interesting, if I were coming into dog training now, oh my gosh, how lucky are you to be coming into dog training now, because you have so many different options and you have so many different resources — really good resources now. So I'm really excited about the program.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to ask if you could share a little on your perspective on what it takes to have a successful group class.

Julie Flanery: I think to have a successful group class as an instructor that is leading a class, you need to have two things, I think, primarily. One: structure. You have to have a plan, you have to have a Plan B, and then you have to have a backup plan for your Plan B. You need to have structure to your forty-five minutes or hour that you're with your students. You need to supply them with structure of what happens in-between those classes, what should happen in the week in-between, how are you communicating with them.

The second thing you have to have is flexibility, because every class you teach will be different. Every class you teach, those students will have different needs and those dogs will have different needs. And so you're going to want to be able to think on your feet, think on the fly. What does that dog need? He needs to be separated and have a little more distance. That dog over there, I need to give him a little higher-value reinforcement to work with, a little higher-value treat to work with on this session. What does that dog over there need? That dog needs to not have so many people hovering around him. But that's going to change with the next class. That's going to change, especially if you're doing revolving classes and you're having new dogs come in each week.

So that flexibility is what's going to help … this is going to sound weird, but your flexibility is going to help you maintain structure. So your structure happens first. Have a plan, know all the options that you can provide within your plan, and then have the flexibility to be able to change things up a little bit as needed and not get all out of sorts because of it. Anybody who has ever taught a group class knows exactly what I mean when I say rarely will things go exactly as planned. Doesn't mean you throw out the plan. It just means that you have to be flexible in how you apply that plan.

Melissa Breau: Right. You have to be adaptable.

Julie Flanery: Have to be adaptable, yeah.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To round things out, one last question for you, the question I ask of everybody when they come back on the podcast these days. What's something you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Julie Flanery: Well, as you know, I just got another dog, and it's been eight years since I've had a new puppy or now adolescent in training and come into my household. I think that what she has taught me … and you think you know this; you think, Of course that's true, and everybody's going to say, "Well, duh, of course that's true," but until you are living it, I've been reminded that no two dogs will learn exactly the same way, and that while the broader application of motivation, reinforcement, learning theory, and all of that, that it's really the nuances and the subtleties that we apply, and how we fine-tune and adjust those to the individual dog, that creates a training relationship that is unlike any other.

So my training relationship with Kashi is very different from my training relationship with Phee, and sometimes it takes reminding of that. And because I no longer teach pet dog classes, my focus is primarily on sport dog handlers, I was able to be reminded of that every time I went out to teach a class, because no dog and handler team are the same, no dog and handler are going to interact in the same way, and not every dog needs an exercise applied in the exact same way. And when I bring a new dog into my home now, that is the way that I am reminded of those things and really to pay attention to what your dog is telling you.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Julie! This has been a deep and rich conversation here, so I hope folks get a lot out of it.

Julie Flanery: Oh, it's been fun. Sorry I got … sometimes I start talking and I just can't stop.

Melissa Breau: No, I think it was great.

Julie Flanery: So we went over the hour a little bit, but hey.

Melissa Breau: I think everybody will be glad we did. So thank you, and thank you to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week, this time with Ann Smorado, to talk about getting your dog trial ready! She's a new FDSA instructor, so it will be her first time on.

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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