E126: Ann Smorado - "Are You Ready for the Ring?"

If you're prepping a dog for competition, there's a lot more to think about than just the skills of your chosen sport. Ann and I talk about what those 'things' are and her current class on preparing for the competition ring.


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 Ann Smorado.

Ann was a horse-crazy teenager who started training dogs in 2006, when she got her first Labrador Retriever, Miles. What started out as taking a puppy class to make sure she would have a well-mannered dog, or at least a dog that didn't destroy the house, quickly grew into a passion. She has competed in obedience, agility, dock diving, rally and the Fenzi TEAM program. Ann has been teaching obedience foundations at Canine Affair Center in Ohio since 2014, and is teaching her first class for FDSA this term: Are You Ready? Trial Preparation for Competition. Ann is also a judge for the Fenzi TEAM Program.

Welcome to the podcast Ann!

Ann Smorado: Thanks, Melissa. I'm thrilled to be here. I'm excited.

Melissa Breau: I'm excited to talk to you. Do you want to start us out by sharing a little bit about your own dogs and what you're working on with them now?

Ann Smorado: Well, I'm going to sound like a real lightweight compared to most of your guests. I have one dog. One. A 7-year-old Labrador, Hartley, and we are in — as Julie Symons pointed out to me once — in that sweet spot, where the heaviest lifting in the training is done, but he's still young and we're out there having a blast. We've done lots of obedience. He's a C-WAGS Obedience champion, he has his AKC Obedience Master in UDX, and he has his TEAM 6, so he's gone through all levels of TEAM. In fact, we had a blast doing TEAM demos at camp this year, so that was a lot of fun. We've also dabbled in gun dog sports, so he's got a Junior Hunter. But now we're mostly doing agility. He has his MACH 3, and we're chasing the Agility Grand Champion, so we're about three-quarters of the way there. It's supposed to be a lifetime achievement, so we've still got time to finish.

Melissa Breau: How old did you say he was?

Ann Smorado: Seven.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, you've got a little bit of time left. That's awesome.

Ann Smorado: Hartley would turn himself inside-out to go dock diving, so I make sure that I set aside some time every summer to take him dock diving, because he loves that. We are hoping to add a canine family member by the end of the year or so, so I could have — if the stars and the sun all align — I could have a Christmas puppy.

Melissa Breau: That would be exciting, that's for sure.

Ann Smorado: I know: never get a puppy for Christmas. But this is a planned puppy.

Melissa Breau: Fingers crossed. I will keep my fingers crossed and I will look forward to puppy pictures. You got Miles into a puppy class. Is that how you originally got into dog training? At what point in that process did it go from just training to wanting to compete and get into sports?

Ann Smorado: Miles was my first dog. Dogs were not in my life growing up. My mother — I don't think it was that she didn't like dogs; she just didn't know what to do with them. And back in those days, in the '60s, the way you trained a dog was with a rolled-up newspaper. My mom wasn't into that, so we just didn't have them.

But my stepdaughter got a puppy, Bailey, a month before she got her first house. So that meant puppy lived with us, and that's when I discovered that I could train a dog with rewards, not punishment, and I just fell in love with that dog. I cried when he moved out, even though he was only moving seven miles down the street and I could see him whenever I wanted.

So it was a few years later that I got Miles, my first dog. I was admittedly a little worried that maybe Bailey was just an amazing dog, and that my ability to train him to go potty outside was an anomaly. I wanted to do everything right, so I had Miles enrolled in puppy class before I even brought him home. I dutifully did all my homework: we went to class every Saturday, and I did my homework, and puppy class led to doggie teenager class, which led to basic obedience class.

By then I knew I enjoyed the training process, and I just wanted to keep going. So I enrolled him in a Rally class. We did that, and then I got promoted to the competition Rally class. And one of the first weeks, the instructor and my classmates had all been at a Rally trial the weekend before, and one of them had gotten a title. They urged her to bring in the ribbon for Show-and-Tell, and she brought in that ribbon and I was like, Ohhh, I want one of those! I was drooling, I think.

We went on and we did a lot of Rally. I did a lot of Rally with Miles, but he also won a Utility dog title and a MACH, so I had a lot of fun with him.

And of course I wanted to do it again, so that's when I went looking for Hartley.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. It sounds like you started off pretty much in the positive training camp. Were you always a positive trainer?

Ann Smorado: Yeah, pretty much. When I got Miles, obviously I didn't know enough about dog training to know about training positively. I just thought you go and you did what the instructors told you to do.

I will tell you a funny story, though. I always was hesitant to get a dog, because I'd see dogs, I'd like them, but I always thought there was this icky training period you had to go through that wasn't much fun until you could get a good dog you could enjoy. When I took Miles to that first puppy class, I remember the instructor standing there, telling us, "If your dog does …" — and I don't even remember what the thing was she was talking about; just for the sake of example, if your dog chews up your shoe — she says, "You take a newspaper and you roll it up real tight and you hold it up like this" — and everybody can see, because I'm holding my hand up in the air — and I'm thinking to myself, my heart's going, Oh my god, oh no, here it comes, and then she says, "And you take that newspaper and you whack yourself on the head!" And I said, "Oh, I can do that!" You know, "That poor thing. You left your shoes laying around where the puppy could get them, so it's your fault your shoes get chewed up."

So yeah, I was very lucky that the places that I went were generally reward-based. If you could categorize them, they were probably balanced, but definitely the emphasis was on using rewards for training.

I will say that when I got into the competition Rally class, the instructor there was really ahead of the curve at that time, which was probably 2007. She was one of the few people around then who thought about the dog's emotional state in training and thought about how what you're doing impacts the relationship between the dog and handler.

She quickly went from instructor to mentor, because she referred me to a different instructor when she decided she didn't have anything else she could teach me, which she was wrong. But she became my mentor, and we've since become very good friends and we still train dogs together. But over the years, she always quietly and gently guided me in the right direction. So that's been really good.

Melissa Breau: My next question for you is I would love to have you describe your training philosophy these days. And on the heels of that awesome story, I'm curious to see how else you can flesh that out for us.

Ann Smorado: "Describe your training philosophy" — isn't that a funny conversation people have a lot? How do you, like, what do you name it? Nothing really fits. Certainly it would be reward based. I guess my philosophy in dog training, or when I'm training my dogs, or my students in their classes, especially for dog sports, this, for me, is recreation. I train dogs because I enjoy it and it's fun.

And the only way it's fun for me is if my teammate, which in this case is my dog, is also enjoying himself. That's what it's got to be, or I don't want to do it. I always keep that in mind when I'm teaching my students in class. We want the dogs to be enjoying themselves and enjoying the training process.

If you are getting ready for competition, you think about the amount of time you're competing compared to the amount of time that you're training your dog or the amount of time that you're living with your dog — what is that? One-one-hundredth of a … I can't even imagine what percentage that time is. It's so small. So if it's not an enjoyable process for everybody involved, then why do it?

Melissa Breau: Does that approach impact when you start looking at preparing your dog for the ring? How does that fit into what you're teaching for FDSA this term: prepping for the ring and getting things ready to actually compete your dog?

Ann Smorado: It does have a big impact. If both halves of the team aren't feeling good about what's going on and aren't enjoying themselves, then I don't think either half is having a good time. I have found in my dog — and I think this is true for most dogs — most dogs want to know what to expect. They are happy and they're confident if they understand what's going on, they know what to expect, and then everybody is happier.

It doesn't mean they won't make any mistakes. There's a difference between happy and confident and being perfect. That's not what I'm talking about. I just mean happy and confident. That's where all this thorough trial preparation comes into play. If there's gaps in that preparation, then the dog's faced with things, or the handler's faced with things, the team's faced with things they aren't prepared for that creates anxiety and worry and it's just not fun.

The analogy I like to use, that I think most people can understand, is think about a time in school, like when we were in school, and … I was a pretty decent student. I wasn't the best student, I wasn't top of my class, but I was a good student. And when it came time to take exams, if I was really well prepared for that exam, when it came time for exam day, I would walk into that classroom to take the exam feeling pretty confident. If I wanted to pass, I might be a little nervous because I didn't want to forget something and I wanted to get a good grade, but I'd feel pretty good about it.

But there were definitely times when I wasn't so well prepared for those exams. And exam day would come and I would walk in the room with this pit, this lead ball in my stomach, because I was just hoping that the sun and the moon and the stars would align so that the professor only put questions on that test that I would know.

That didn't feel good, and I think showing dogs is kind of the same thing. If you're really well prepared, you'll walk in the ring going, "We've got all the skills to do this and we're going to be OK. Doesn't mean we're going to win. Doesn't even mean we're going to qualify. But we're going to feel OK." Versus when you go in and you're like, "Oh, I hope my dog does it," or "I hope there's not this … whatever sign" in Rally. Whatever it is. I think if the handler feels better, then the dog feels better.

Melissa Breau: It makes everything go better.

Ann Smorado: Yeah, yeah. And when you're not prepared, it's just not fun.

Melissa Breau: To dig into that "not prepared" piece a little more, are there common mistakes folks make that lead them to be not prepared? What can listeners do to make sure they don't end up in that position?

Ann Smorado: Take my class! All kidding aside, there's a lot of skills I think get overlooked, not because handlers don't think they're important. I think because they forget about them. Or there's so many things you need to do to prepare your dog for the ring … we just forget certain things and overlook. It's so easy to happen.

Some of the things I think that often get overlooked are things like planning your warm-up strategy, like how far in advance before you go in the ring do you need to get your dog out, and what are you going to do to warm him up so he's not overly warmed up or exhausted when you go in the ring? Or what if there's a delay in the ring? What if all of a sudden you go in and you're all set up and they aren't ready for you? May be the judge decides another sandbag needs to be added to the tunnel, or the timer's broken, or the steward that was supposed to put your articles out is nowhere to be found.

These things happen, so if you don't have a plan, you're not going to know what to do, and then your dog gets confused. It's things like that we cover in the class that are often overlooked. If you think about them and have a plan for them and you practice them, then you're going to be a lot better off.

Melissa Breau: One of the things you mentioned in the syllabus is crating. Can you talk a little bit about how much you get into that in the class? What are you talking about when it comes to crating and ring prep?

Ann Smorado: When I was thinking about this class, and I was putting the syllabus and the outline together, I asked a lot of friends that I compete with, and I even asked on the alumni page, "When you were getting ready to try out and go to your first competition, what is one thing you wish you had known?" A real common answer was, "I wish I would have known about crating, or that I needed to crate my dog." So I definitely wanted to include that in the class. I started to write about it, and it was really getting bigger than life.

So this lecture is really for … I have a handful of lectures that are identified as being for the newcomer, so they are targeted for people who have never competed before, and this is one of those lectures.

And really the lecture is just to talk about the reality that, at any dog competition, you're going to get there and there's going to be waiting. That's just unavoidable. And that whole process will be a lot easier and more comfortable if the dog that you're getting ready to compete is comfortable resting in a crate and relaxing. If they haven't been in a crate in a long time, maybe since they were a puppy, or if they've never been in a crate, now would be a good time to start doing that with them a little bit at home or wherever.

I really try … when I'm at a trial and we've got some of the novice classes coming, I can usually tell when someone's new, and I try to talk to them and help them. I've definitely come across many people that are there, walking around the trial area with their dog on a leash all day, and the dog's never been in a crate before. It's hard, because by the time they get in the ring, the dog's exhausted mentally.

So I think it's important for newbies to think about preparing their dog. But I don't get deep into the weeds on if you have a dog who doesn't like the crate, and is noisy in the crate, and working through crate issues.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. That was going to be my next question is whether or not you get into how to problem-solve some of that stuff.

Ann Smorado: If one of the Gold students is having some issues with crating, of course I've got suggestions to try to help them with it. But if there's dogs with really difficult crating issues, it's beyond the scope of this class.

Melissa Breau: Can you talk a little more generally about what the class does cover and maybe who would be a good fit to take it?

Ann Smorado: There's three main things we're going to do in this class. We're going to work on generalization, reducing reinforcers, and proofing. Those lectures come out right at the very beginning, so hopefully, at the end of class, students will have had their dog at six different new places to train, they're well on their way on their strategy for reducing reinforcers for the trial environment, and they've done quite a bit of proofing.

In addition, each week I'm going to release a couple lectures on skills that I call "mortar skills" or "mortar lectures," because they are all those things that are the glue that holds everything else together.

We're all really good — if we've trialed before, anyway, if it's not our first competition dog — we're all really good at laying a good foundation. In fact, more than half … on the Fenzi schedule this term, the biggest category is foundations. So that message, that's out there.

And of course everyone's really good about training the skills that are going to be judged. So if you're doing obedience, you know people work real hard on heeling, and if you're doing agility, people work real hard on weaves and contact behavior, and in Rally, you're learning the signs. So I consider all those things the bricks.

So these lectures I'm going to be releasing every week are what I call the "mortar lectures," because they're what hold everything together. That's where we're going to work on things like the warm-up routines, entering the ring, exiting the ring, what do you do for delays, people talking to you while you're working with your dog and being able to answer their questions without disconnecting or losing that connection with your dog. Just all kinds of things that people kind of forget about.

To answer your question as who is it for, it is for anyone who's preparing or thinking about preparing their dog for competition and is looking for some structure and accountability in their trial prep. But it's also for the newcomer who's never trialed before, because I do have a handful of lectures that are targeted to them, which are "How do you find a trial," "How do you find a match," "How do you read the judging program." So you have a general idea of when are your classes so you don't show up at 8 o'clock in the morning for a class that doesn't start until 3 in the afternoon. Things like that that you don't know unless somebody helps you with them.

Melissa Breau: I know you mentioned before I hit "record" that you're also going to have a talk about what to do when you go to a B match, or what to do when you go to those prep-type things. Do you want to mention that briefly, because I thought that was interesting, what you shared before I hit "record."

Ann Smorado: For people who are lucky enough to be able to get to matches and run-throughs, as I already mentioned, I have some optional lectures on how to find them, because things like matches and run-throughs are really hard to find if you don't know where to look. If you're not already in the dog world, it's not something you can Google and find. I have that for the newcomers.

Then I have a separate lecture that's about at the matches or run-throughs. What I talk about there is that is your chance to get your dog in the "competition environment," similar as you can be without actually being in a competition environment to practice with your dog. The big thing I stress there is that is your time to train your dog and do the things that you feel you need to do to train your dog in there.

You don't necessarily have to do run the course in order, or if it's Rally, do the course in order, and certainly in obedience you don't have to do all the exercises in order. I encourage people to work on what they want, and number one, most important, is make sure the dog enjoys his time in that ring and feels like a superstar when he's in there. I think that's super-important at matches for people to do, and that's what I'm going to be looking for.

Melissa Breau: If there was one key lesson you could share with dog sport handlers about preparing for competition, drill it down to one piece of advice, what would it be?

Ann Smorado: When you're working at your trial preparation, believe what your dog's telling you in terms of their readiness. If you can really be objective on what you're seeing with your dog and when you go to a match, just believe them. If they tell you they're ready, believe them, and enter your trial and feel good about it. But if they're telling you they're not ready, believe them then too.

That's really hard for handlers to do, if they've got their heart set on a certain target trial, especially if they're in an area where there aren't very many trials. Like, "Oh, gosh, if my dog's not ready for this October trial, I'm going to have to wait until next October. A whole year." The piece of advice I would say is if they're telling you they're not ready yet, believe them.
Melissa Breau: I like that. I've got three more questions here that I ask folks every time when it's their first time on the podcast. I'm sure you've heard them lots. What's the dog-related accomplishment that you're proudest of?

Ann Smorado: I am proudest of putting that Utility Dog title on my Novice A dog, Miles. Not just because Utility's hard and he was my Novice A dog, even though that's true, but back then I just remember there was a lot of negative chitter-chatter about Utility. Not that anyone was trying to discourage me. In fact, I didn't even tell anybody I was thinking about Utility, because I was afraid they'd laugh at me. So that was my dirty little secret.

In fact, I didn't tell my instructor until after he got his CDX. I was afraid to tell her I wanted to do that. I was afraid she'd laugh at me. But she didn't. She said, "Can you get to class 15 minutes early every week and I'll help you with articles." So she didn't laugh at me, even though I was afraid she was.

Utility was like this enigma. It was for only the top handler/trainers and only for the special dogs. It wasn't for the rest of us mere mortals. So I'm just proud that I was brave enough to continue on with that, despite all that chitter-chatter that was floating around in the world around me.

Melissa Breau: I like that. And what a poignant point about "I didn't tell anybody because I didn't expect that they'd think I could do it," and you did it.

Ann Smorado: I know, I know. I was like, "What? You think I can do Utility?" Yeah.

Melissa Breau: And it's so awesome that you managed to get it with your first competition dog.

Ann Smorado: Yeah, it was. Well, we got it in seven tries, which was … I was very proud of that.

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

Ann Smorado: Oh, this one was easy, and I think someone else mentioned it on the podcast, and I heard it on one of these podcasts. It was Amy Cook: "Every time you train your dog, you're teaching him how to feel." I have kept that tucked away in the back of my mind ever since. It's there when I'm working with my dogs, it's there when I'm with my students and their dogs, it's always there in my psyche now, so thank you, Amy Cook, for that.

Melissa Breau: She'll like to hear that.

Ann Smorado: You think she'll listen to this?

Melissa Breau: She might. The last one: Who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Ann Smorado: I had to think hard on this one because there's so many, Melissa, as you know. I know everybody says that. And of course Denise is there, because if it weren't for her and this school, I wouldn't be half the dog trainer that I am today, because this has opened up such a world of so much learning opportunity. I could probably go on and on and on about that.

But I have really looked up to Petra Ford. She hit my radar early on. She has Labs, so she's got the same breed of dog that I do, and she and Tyler accomplished so much, winning the NOC and going to Crufts. I would just watch them and their videos and go "Wow." But then, and this was just as luck would have it, when I went looking for Hartley, I found a breeder and she was like, "I want to do this breeding for Petra Ford," and I was like, "What?" And so Hartley is a Tyler son, and of course she stayed on my radar.

The reason I have looked up to her is she has really modeled for me the importance of always keeping an open mind, and always looking for learning opportunities, and to just keep learning, and if something's not working, you keep searching, keep learning, always keep that mind open.

For me, I have found, and I always want to keep that beginner's mind, so that my mind is always open to continuing to learn, because I've just learned so much with both of my dogs, and I don't want to stop. The more I am able to keep my mind open and learn, the better dog trainer I will be.

I actually had the chance to apply that a few times in the last six months or so, or year, where now I've got a seasoned dog, and I've had some training opportunities available to me that were even free. I didn't have to travel or spend any money for them. I was passing them off because I was like, "I'm good, my dog is 6-and-a-half, I can spend that time … I don't know … doing something else, cleaning the house." But who wants to do that?

In all three of those cases I said, "No, no, I might be able to learn something from that person." And I did. I learned something very valuable from them. And so I never want to shut my mind to anything, and that's really what I learned from her and that she's modeled so well for me.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. I'll have to make sure that she hears that. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Ann! This has been great.

Ann Smorado: Oh, thank you. It's been a lot of fun.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We'll be back next week, this time with Julie Symons, to talk about keeping obedience fun!

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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