A lot of people think of competition obedience as 'boring' — not Julie Symons! Julie and I chat about keeping obedience skills fun through the use of games... and she gives us a peek into her Obedience Games Starter and Obedience Games 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.
Today we have Julie Symons here to talk about keeping obedience fun. Julie has been involved in dog sports for over 25 years. She's competed in flyball, conformation, agility, obedience, herding, tracking, and of course nosework.
In fact, she is actually an AKC-licensed Scent Work judge for all levels of competition as well as an "expert judge," providing apprenticeship and mentoring to judges in training.
Julie also is the owner of Savvy Dog Sports, a local dog school located just outside of Rochester, New York, covering many sports including nosework, obedience, agility, and more!
Welcome back to the podcast, Julie!
Julie Symons: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me again.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, can you just remind listeners who you are and share a little about the dogs you share your life with?
Julie Symons: Thanks for that nice introduction as well. You covered most of it. I do keep pretty busy with my many dog sports. I'm now a full-time dog trainer, which seems to make it even more difficult to train my dogs. It's been a year now since I left my corporate job of thirty years, so life is very different for me these days. It's actually a lot more work, but a ton more satisfying. I do teach both nosework and obedience here at FDSA, and I just realized that my five-year anniversary is coming up for teaching for the Academy, so that's exciting.
Melissa Breau: Congratulations.
Julie Symons: Time flies when you're having fun, right?
Melissa Breau: Absolutely.
Julie Symons: The thing is I do love versatility. I don't think I could just train and compete in one sport. When I've done one sport for a couple of days in a row, I'm ready to do something else for a couple of days.
My competition focus over the last couple of years has been nosework with all of my dogs. It's mainly because I have an older retired dog and I have young dogs that weren't ready to compete in the sport yet. But on the sidelines I've continued to train for obedience, tracking, and agility, and now I'm back to doing some conformation training with my new little one.
Let me go over the dogs I have. I have Savvy, people are probably the most familiar with. She's 11-and-a-half now. I can't believe she's going to be 12 in February. She's just doing nosework. We're working on finishing our nosework championship and that's been really exciting. We've done a lot together, a lot of titles on our names, and this is going to be what bookends all that for us.
Drac is 3-and-a-half, and he is working in mainly nosework right now, but I'm finding he is pretty far along with my obedience training and I'm getting excited about when I might enter him. Agility we dabble in as well with him, but I'm finding I can't do every sport with every dog. That's been a very recent realization with me. It's just becoming a little bit too much with three dogs.
My third dog, that I just got unplanned, Moxie, who is 10 or 11 months old right now, she's great. She gets along great with the family. She's going to be my little agility star, I can tell already. She's going to be the one that I want to get back to what I had back in my heyday of agility training and trialing, and I'm very excited about that. She's also training pretty heavily in obedience and agility.
Like I said, I can't just do one thing, and I think there's so much overlap with the sports that the skills are comparable and definitely benefit the other areas.
And they're all Belgians. I should have said that. Savvy and Moxie are Belgian Tervurens and Drac is my Belgian Malinois. I kept trying to get a different breed, but it hasn't happened yet. One of these days.
Melissa Breau: Landed somewhere and it stuck.
Julie Symons: Yeah, yeah.
Melissa Breau: What is it about competition obedience that you enjoy? Why play and compete in that sport in particular?
Julie Symons: I was actually thinking about this a lot recently, because all those new sports out there, it's so easy to want to go do these new sports that are maybe a little bit more intrinsically motivating, maybe don't require as many months and years of training. But I still have this love for the type of training and competition that obedience does.
My first dog, Rival, really showed me what was possible and the love that that still brings to me, but I am so tempted by those other sports: dock diving, barn hunt, lure coursing. They're tough to not want to go try because they're very fun with the dogs.
But I like the accuracy that obedience brings. I have really good camaraderie in our area in obedience trials. I don't find that stigma that some people talk about. I like knowing what I'm going to expect when I go in the ring. You know the routine that you're going to do.
I was thinking about this the other day, how I think it's more just hanging on a little bit to what I experienced with my first dog and how much I enjoyed it. So it's still with me, just the love and the reason why I like training those skills.
Melissa Breau: I think a lot of people think of the precision that obedience requires and figure that all the precision must be pretty boring to train. Is that the case? Does it have to be boring?
Julie Symons: No, not at all. Ironically, the number one thing I train when I go into my new building that I have is obedience. I do something short and fun and sweet because I know there's a long haul in the training with that sport, and training little bits of it is real fun, and I think it makes me a better trainer. So it's ironic that that's the one thing I train in my building when I can train a lot of other things there.
Here's a recent story. I've been working recently with Kamal on some heeling and motivation work, and boy, it's really fun. I'm having a blast trying different ways of training. I was watching one of his videos recently of a young dog that's the same age as my Moxie, and it was vibrant and up and precise as well, and fun. My first thought was, People don't realize how fun we can make obedience. The dog wanted more, Kamal was out of breath, it was just so fun to watch.
But I'm also drawn to the nerdy learning theory stuff. I could just watch trainers who shape everything, and I could watch Hannah Branigan's videos all the time about how clear her criteria is, and what her rate of reinforcement is to build those little skills, and how clear that is to the dog, and they can excel at that minutiae.
The precision can be really fun to train, so I don't ever want people to think that I don't think that is fun. It is fun. Training should be fun. It's learning how to communicate with our dogs and reach them so that they understand what we want from them. You can make it not fun, but I think you do truly have to love the sport, and we'll get into a little bit of it later when I talk about my classes coming up. But there's a joy to it. You can really, really make it fun.
Melissa Breau: So, speaking of your classes, your obedience starter games class is on the schedule this session, which we're talking before the August session, and it'll be followed by your regular obedience games class in October. Can you just talk a little bit about the concept behind those classes, what they are?
Julie Symons: The concepts behind those classes, many years ago that they were created, was to show that there was a way we could have more fun and put less pressure on ourselves with the training and showing.
When I was working toward my final OTCH points with my first dog, Rival, I let the joy go. I was so obsessed with getting those wins so I could get those points. I wasn't having fun anymore and our scores were dropping and it was showing. I was feeling disappointed, and I'm sure that my dog picked up on that.
It's a story I share in both of those classes, how I was only showing in utility because that's where you can more easily look at the points, and she was an older dog, so I didn't want to have to maintain all the skills across open and utility.
I did enter open on a whim, thinking we'd never finish in open, because open is a very, very competitive class. It wasn't, in my mind, our best class, but it was our best run ever. We actually finished our OTCH in that class, I got a 199, high in trial, and I have it on video, thankfully. I was just purely relaxed and having fun with my dog. And I wasn't like that when I was in the other ring, the utility ring, trying to get those final points.
I really reflected a lot on that day, because someday — and that day did come — I wouldn't be able to walk in the ring with her again. And so I had to step back and see what really was important. It wasn't the win. It wasn't the title. It was the relationship that we had. And that's all I needed.
I knew how to do the job. I just put too much pressure and I stressed myself out. There were other factors going on in my life. I had a young child at home and I was leaving home and I felt guilty for that. But it was such a nice experience for me to have to realize how simply you can go into the ring and enjoy it and not bring in that stress.
So I wanted to show that to use a little bit less formality, a little less predictability, we could build that motivation and speed. Dogs like to move, and if we approach things as games, it really changes our picture and our view of the sport. You can think of a conditioned emotional response, so to speak. We can view it as fun, as well as the dog.
Lastly, to answer that question, I find that teaching skills are really the easy part. There is so much material out there on how to teach skills, but it's building that motivation, that engagement, that working relationship with the dog that's hardest for most teams. So I want to focus on that part, not necessarily the precision or the skills, because if you get a motivated dog, the rest is going to fall right into place. So that was the premise and the concept behind those classes.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned in passing CER — the conditioned emotional response piece. I was thinking while I was looking over the syllabus and prepping some questions that it really does feel like that's what the class is about. It's taking all those obedience skills and breaking out some of the bits and pieces in a fun way to build that association for the dog of, "Oh, these are the fun games that we play." They just happen to lead to skills for obedience. I want to talk about the starter games class first. Can you tell me a little about the class? How is it structured, what kind of games are we talking about, and also how experienced does a dog have to be to join in?
Julie Symons: What I found was when I did the original game, which I'll talk about a little bit more later, the first week of that class I did weekly games just to get people primed and the people used to training a little bit every day. And the teams were pumped. People loved having something to do every day, and the dogs were loving it.
So what I did was I structured the obedience starter games, because they would able to do them in bite-size pieces, to daily games. I went from starting with five, and then as the class has progressed over the years, I was coming up with more games and I didn't want to remove anything. So I added … we have six daily games — I do give a day off — so we have six daily games, and again, people really like it. What I do is I roll out one game the night before, so nobody gets to look ahead. They get their homework the night before, they'll wake up in the morning and read it, and they go off and they train.
There is so much data and proof that a little bit of training every day will strengthen that bond with your dog. You'll find your dog even won't leave you alone, and they really look forward to that training as well as you do. It is probably the number one thing … think about it: if you do anything with your dog that's fun and positive, they're going to enjoy that time with you. So that's the main premise is just to … and I hear it every day with these people when they post their games, they're like, "That's so fun, that's so fun." It wasn't anything hard, but they were just doing it every day and it was so fun to see.
People like nosework too, but there's something about obedience games where people just really light up with these type of movement games, and they're not putting a lot of pressure on themselves, and it's just really, really fun.
Melissa Breau: Can you talk a little more about the games themselves? What are we talking about?
Julie Symons: There are a lot of skills. There are so many, many skills. They'll learn how to put some behaviors on cues, they'll find value for heel position, they'll learn how to engage with toys and food, and how to read hand signals, how to go straight ahead when you signal to go over jumps, duration for stays, recalls, doing a circle around a cone, value for handler scent — that's a new game I've added. But most importantly, like I said earlier, is they want to play with you. That is one of the biggest skills. Those are a few of the skills they're going to get. When you think about six times six — that's thirty-six games.
Melissa Breau: That's a lot. Can you give us an example of one of them, and talk us through the game and how it would help build skills for the competition ring?
Julie Symons: One of my favorite games is in Week 1. It's called Mark, Chase, and Race. It builds a bunch of skills. You put a treat on a target, you can start it a little close, 10 or 15 feet away, and eventually build it up for the length of a ring. So you ensure that your dog can see it, you can point, give a word, you start to develop a little bit of what they call a mark — you're going to mark with a verbal or with a hand for your dog to look for it and to eventually go for it.
You send your dog and they want to go. You can say any word and usually they go because they see … hopefully a helper is helping you or you can reset it and they'll know something's out there. So then they run to it and you chase them, and that's the hardest part that people forget to do because we're so formal in obedience. We want to just stay there, standing. So that removes some of the formality. You start chasing your dog to the treat, and as they pick up the treat, you call them and you race away so they chase you back, so it's building a little bit of a retrieve.
When you're running behind them, there's some pressure, and some people say, "My dog doesn't like that pressure behind them," and I said, "It's better that it's you right now versus a judge who's going to come up behind your dog when you do fronts and they're going to look at how straight your front is." So it's a great way to build some of that, moving fast, having pressure behind them, and doing a recall as you race away. And then you play with them when they get to you.
It's a really fun game and people really enjoy it, but it is funny — the hardest thing for people to remember is to chase the dog after you let them go. They stay there like they're used to for obedience for a recall or something. It's a real popular game and I like that one a lot.
Melissa Breau: How does the "regular" obedience games class differ from the "starter" games class? Do students need to have that starter class if they want to play in the regular obedience games class?
Julie Symons: They don't need to have the starter games as a prerequisite. There is some overlap. In the first week of the regular obedience games class there's the daily games, so there's definitely some repeats, but also they can be upped a notch in complexity for more advanced teams. Dogs would be a little bit further along for the more advanced games if they took the starter games class, so it's not a prerequisite at all.
I actually find the two generally draw in different audiences, like, if somebody's taking starter games right now, they're generally pretty young dogs. I get dogs anywhere between 6 months to 2 years, but I don't think they're quite ready for the obedience games because by the end of the class they get pretty challenging, so it might be another year before or after they've done some obedience formal, I guess you would call obedience training, that the games would come back into their schedule as a good opportunity at that point.
The other difference with the regular obedience games class is after the first week of the daily games, then there's pretty much only three games a week because they're a little bit more involved. So it's not as much of the intensity of daily training, because we get into more of the longer exercises and variations that you can play with those. It's still a lot of information, but people can pace themselves at that point for the rest of the class.
Melissa Breau: Who should be looking at the classes or considering the classes? I think we glossed over a little bit before if there are any prerequisite skills that folks should have for the starter games class. If you want to talk a little bit about that, and a little bit about where people fall on that scale of what class they should take or how much experience they should have, that would be great.
Julie Symons: It's interesting. The last couple of years I've taught obedience starter games twice a year, and I've noticed of recent there are a lot younger teams, younger dogs are coming in, and that works well. I have not had a problem with that. I'm not sure if I have as young as 4 months, but I do see 4 months as the minimum age because there's enough games that they probably wouldn't do all the games, but there's enough games to keep a young puppy busy.
What I have found — I'll speak more to who tends to take the class — is people who want to try something new. You look over the intros and they're all saying, "I've always been curious about obedience. I don't have any experience in it. I want to try it. This looks like a great intro to it." And that's what draws people in.
I think you were right early on when you mentioned about the precision maybe is a turnoff or intimidating to people. So I tend to get people that are looking for something different to do, and this class really spoke to them. I've also gotten people that have been too serious about their work and they've maybe … what I talked about at the beginning with my first obedience dog, and they want to loosen up a little bit. So if you want to just go back to some foundations, build a little bit of motivation in your dog, maybe you've developed some stress with the training, some of those teams will come into the class. It loosens you up, you can bring back the joy, and that's usually what I find for both of the classes, actually.
With the obedience starter games I have more of the younger dogs, and the regular obedience games tends to be teams that are already actively training and probably have already even trialed in obedience and they want some variety. They want something to add to their regular routine and training. And a lot of the regular obedience games are inspired by Denise's now-retired classes — the heeling games and advanced obedience and stuff like that. So there's definitely that flavor of keeping the dogs moving, don't make them sit all the time, and that kind of stuff. It appeals to people who I think went down a more serious track, or might have gone too fast in their training, and now want to bring the joy back and get the dog more motivated.
Melissa Breau: It sounds like either folks who are going down that path or who want to avoid going down that path, that they know that's their tendency, and they want to make sure that they get the fun in from the start with their next dog or their current dog, if they have a little one.
Julie Symons: Yeah, and the classes have both been very well received. Another thing I hadn't mentioned earlier was what I do is I indicate the purpose of each game. And to be honest, some games are really a skill, some games are truly games, and some things are putting a skill on your dog.
But what I do is I indicate the purpose of the game and what that correlates to in the final skill. I'll sometimes show the final competition ring version of it, so that they can understand what they're working toward, because I've found that that's the number one thing that can help our learners understand. It's good if they know why they're doing something, and if they're just kind of blindly going through a game and they don't understand why they're doing it, they might not be able to put all the pieces together. So that worked really well when I show the reasons for the game and what it's bringing to the table. So that's actually real fun.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. To round things out, my last question for everyone these days is what's something that you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Julie Symons: How teaching your dog to problem-solve will help them cope better in situations where we may overreact or get worried about, like, a novel thing happens, or a person or dog comes into your training area when it's unexpected. Maybe you have a dog who might be a little reactive to a dog, or it's something they could be startled or something.
Because sometimes, with positive training, we help our dogs out too much. We throw a cookie too quickly and we don't let them figure stuff out. I do think dogs need to build a little bit of frustration and figure something out on their own to build some empowerment and confidence. And how you develop that problem solving is through shaping.
This is something that Kamal had recently shared. I hosted him for a seminar, and I never thought of it in that way. I never thought that if I let my dog … and in some situations he saw me wanting to go help out Drac on something, and he said, "Just let him figure it out," and he totally figured it out. He could totally do what I wanted him to. But I didn't believe in him and I wasn't giving him the chance. I didn't want him to struggle and I wanted to help him out. I wanted to keep everything happy and successful, and it ended up being just fine. He figured it out, and it gave me a renewed view of training and how we need to let the dog take some responsibility and figure stuff out.
I do that with my nosework students too. The minute my nosework students, some of them that are pretty handler-focused, they immediately try to help their dog, and I said, "Let them problem-solve. They know what they're here to do. Let them figure it out." And their dogs go right back to searching, and I said, "Your dog didn't need your help." Because the more we help them, the more they're going to take our help.
Some of the ways you can do that is shape tricks, do tricks, do some shaping stuff. Wait it out a little bit. I don't want the dog to be paralyzed and you be paralyzed if they're stuck. There's a difference with that. But just don't be so quick to help them.
I don't tend to train a lot of tricks and shape a lot of behaviors, but I'm enjoying that now because I went through a pretty lengthy retraining with Drac so that he could figure stuff out on his own. There was a real problem, and I am finding already that he's more positive in his environment because he's able to problem-solve: "Oh, that's not a threat, that's not an issue, I can handle that."
It's been very, I guess, empowering to me to be able to relax a little bit as well and think that it's not all on me to handle situations that occur around our dogs and when we're out in the world training or whatever, and that the dog can actually learn to handle situations as well too.
Melissa Breau: Sounds like it would be really nice to have that kind of confidence in your dog, just to feel like, "He'll get this."
Julie Symons: Yeah, yeah, and I think about that almost every training session because I catch myself wanting to go help, and then I stop, and now I'm not even almost thinking about it anymore. It's becoming second nature, and I'm able to pass it on to my students and say, "Let's let the dog figure this out a little bit."
Because sometimes what people do is they'll just reward for bad criteria or whatever because we tend to want to just stuff cookies in our dogs' mouths. That's why people reach in their pocket first before they mark or whatever, because we just are obsessed with feeding our dogs, and we don't want them to suffer and be frustrated. But they have to work through that a little bit. So that was a recent thing.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Julie! It's been fun to talk about this.
Julie Symons: Yeah, it went by really fast. I could have talked more.
Melissa Breau: We got a good sampling for the classes and hopefully folks will feel it's pretty helpful, so thank you. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in!
We'll be back next week, this time with Dr. Jessica Hekman and Dr. Jennifer Summerfield, to talk about anxiety in dogs.
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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!