E131: Janice Gunn - Positive Training for the Obedience Ring

International obedience competitor Janice Gunn joins me this week to talk about using positive training to reach the highest levels of competitive obedience.


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 Janice Gunn.

Janice owns TNT Kennels and Training Center in Abbotsford, BC, in Canada, and has been an instructor and led seminars for the past 25 years. She is a devoted marker trainer, using both clicker and verbal markers.

Janice has owned, trained, and competed with Dalmatians, Labs, and Goldens — earning 7 AKC OTCH titles, 11 CKC OTCH titles, and multiple 200-score runs with five different dogs at various levels of competition. In addition to obedience, she has competed and earned top titles in field trials, hunt tests, agility, tracking, and conformation.

As an instructor, she's worked with dog-handler teams with dogs from all six breed groups and is here today to share her takeaways for training and competing successfully in obedience!

Welcome to the podcast Janice!

Janice Gunn: Thank you Melissa, and thank you FDSA for giving me this opportunity.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Could you start us off a little bit by sharing who your own dogs are right now and what you're working on with them?

Janice Gunn: I have five dogs right now, and I'll start with the oldest, working down to the youngest.

The oldest is Mighty. His name is Mighty and he's a black Labrador intact male. He's 8 years old. I have utility titles on him. I compete in both AKC and CKC, so he has his UD on both sides of the country. I also competed in hunt tests with him, so he has his Master Hunter title. He's a very high-drive dog, really, really brilliant. He was the one that got me started on all the trick training. He's an excellent problem-solver, but unfortunately he ruptured a cruciate ligament. He's had TPL surgery, and so now he is retired.

I have another black Labrador Retriever named Remi, and he's 7 years old. He's an AKC CKC OTCH dog, he was at 3 years old, and he also is a Master Hunter dog. Unfortunately last year, at 6 years old, his Achilles tendons broke down. It's nothing that he did, no action that he did in particular that caused that. It's just a genetic degenerative issue, and because of that, unfortunately, he had to be retired. So we have a little bit of a retiree ward going on.

I have Pounce, and she is a 6-year-old, spayed Golden Retriever female. I'm currently competing with her in both competition obedience and hunt test. She is also an OTCH dog.

I have Sparks, and he is a just turned 4-year-old Golden Retriever intact male. He was an OTCH dog at 3 years old and he also competes in Master hunt test.

And then I have, last but not least, his son, who is a Golden Retriever male, and he is just 14 weeks old right now.

Melissa Breau: That's a baby.

Janice Gunn: Yes, and he's ready to take on everything.

Melissa Breau: I know you've been doing this stuff for a while, but how did you originally end up in dog training? What was it that pulled you in?

Janice Gunn: When I was young, early on, I always showed interest that I wanted a dog. Unfortunately my parents were not dog people, but they got me cats. I would train the cats and put a leash on them, teach them how to walk on a leash, how to shake a paw, that kind of thing.

When we moved out of the city into a still residential but a little bit more rural area, I still didn't have a dog, but I would go around and borrow the neighbors' dogs. Any dogs that I could find, they would allow me to take them, and I would train them and take them for walks. My parents would take me to different … even back then I wanted to do competition with them, so they would take me to the different fairs, the SPCA-type competitions, and I would go into the Best Trick Dog category, that kind of thing.

When this continued on, my parents realized that this was not just a passing phase; that it really was a passion and something I really wanted to do. So, I guess it was about 12 or 13 years old, I did get my very first dog and that was a Dalmatian. I did conformation with the dog and got a championship title, and then it was, "There's got to be something more I can do."

I started to get involved in more competition training, but how I started was … and we're going back 46 years, so all they had available for training were the classes at the local school, so we would be in a gymnasium and there would be, like, 30 students. We were all required to come with a choke chain and a 6-foot leather leash, and 46 years ago that's all that was available. We were allowed to give praise, but there was no food and there were no toys. Amazingly, I guess I had a pretty good relationship with my first Dalmatian, and at 14 years old I did enter her in the Novice A ring, didn't really know what I was doing, but we managed to get a 198. I was hooked on the sport from that moment forth and I still am in it today.

Melissa Breau: Wow. That's a pretty impressive score for your first time in the ring with your first dog.

Janice Gunn: Yeah, it was amazing. I think I was really blessed with a great dog. I really was. Sometimes that's just the way it goes, and that's the dog that lets you continue on with your passion and gives you faith that you can do this.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned getting started, it was very much your traditional-style classroom and teaching method. What got you started on that R+ journey and positive training?

Janice Gunn: Actually how it started was my Dalmatian breeder gave me a video of these dogs that were working on the video. It was by a trainer, her name was AnneMarie Silverton, and these dogs were doing attention heeling like I've never seen before. They looked so happy, they looked quite joyous in their work, it was just totally different than anything, how any of the dogs worked in my area, and so, "I want to learn how to do that."

At the end of the video I tracked down who the school was. She was in California, and I got on the phone and I phoned her up — I live in British Columbia, so it's not an easy commute — and I asked if I could come for some lessons. She said yes, and so I ended up on her doorstep with my Dalmatian and my choke chain and my 6-foot leather leash.

She did use food in training, she did use toys, she did use motivation, and I mentored with her for a number of years, got a lot of great skills, but it was still compulsion-based training, just in a light way, but it was still there. When she retired, I had enough base that I'm on my own and starting to get more involved with … when I got Mighty, going back eight years ago, he was so brilliant, and I started getting involved with tricks.

The tricks are what taught me how to use the clicker and really got me into using shaping and positive reinforcement. I really liked that journey that I was on, and so I no longer was a balanced trainer. I was definitely loving my R+ journey and staying with it.

Melissa Breau: If you think about your training philosophy these days and your approach to dog training, how would you describe that?

Janice Gunn: How I feel today, of course positive reinforcement training combined with the drive building. That keeps my dog actively engaged with me, rather than the environment and surrounding distractions. So I find drive building in my training is very important.

Melissa Breau: Can you just describe what you mean by that a little more?

Janice Gunn: This will go into part of how I build the relationship with my dog.

I like for my dog to see me as his squirrel. Most dogs find squirrels very interesting, and it's something that catches their attention, so I want to be that squirrel to my dog. So I build a strong relationship with my dog to become his squirrel.

How I do that, number one, is through using positive reinforcement so that my dog trusts me and wants to train with me. I tend to play a lot of active games with them, such as I might tag their butt and run away and they chase me, and when they catch me, we have a party. I like to teach them tricks through shaping, which allows the dog to express his personality and how he learns and catches on.

And I like to give my dogs lots of tactile attention. So many handlers forget to actually physically interact with their dogs, which I find really helps to build the bond with them. I tend to drive-build through the use of food-chase games, and also with playing tug with my dog using the flirt pole. Also a lot of "It's your choice" games, letting the dog make the choice rather than me controlling them. I find this really, really helps with impulse control. When you start to do that type of training, the impulse control just falls right into place. Those are just some of the examples that I use in my training today.

Another thing that's really important is I also ensure that it's very clear to my dog when they are on task and when they are not. That's really important if you want an attentive dog in training and in the ring. I find quite often too many handlers are letting their dog hang at the end of the leash and the dog isn't paying attention to them, and then, when they go in the ring, they can't understand why the dog just doesn't behave the same. If you want them to pay attention to you, you have to pay attention to them as well, so if they're not busy doing something, I will put them on an off switch.

Melissa Breau: You said that it gets a little bit into the word "relationship" and how you use that. I know that's a big thing for you. Is there more to it, or is it closely tied to what you were just talking about in terms of the drive building?

Janice Gunn: It's all those things that I talked about that my dog needs. If I'm going to build a relationship with my dog, he needs to enjoy the training. I want my dog to have as much fun as I'm having, so it's my job to make the training interesting.

This is a saying, I don't know whoever said it, I can't quote them, but that drive comes from the handler. So the more engaged you are in your training, and the more sincere you are, the more your dog is going to believe and want to do the tasks that you're asking him to do.

Melissa Breau: I'd love to talk through how you approach that journey from the very beginning. When you're looking for a performance dog — you mentioned you have a puppy at home right now — what are you looking for? How do you choose a puppy?

Janice Gunn: First off, it's going to depend on what I want to do with my puppy. What are the skills I'm going to need from my future dog?

For me, initially it was Dalmatians because at the time I was also into horses, and Dalmatians and horses kind of go hand-in-hand. Back in the day, in England, the Dalmatians used to guard the coaches as they would travel down the road, and keep predators away and thieves away. So when I was with horses, when I would go out and take my horse for a ride, a trail ride, my Dals would be literally right behind my horse, right at their tail. They didn't have any instinct that they wanted to herd my horse or anything like that. It was just a really natural combination, and that's actually how I started with Dalmatians.

And then I did tracking, I got tracking titles on my Dalmatians, but I found that I was an outdoors person and I wanted to do more outdoor activities with my dog, and that's how I got into Retrievers. I had seen this thing called the Working Certificate, and these hunt tests, and I was thinking, I really want to do that, but of course obedience is my number one love.

So I looked for pedigrees that I would first go to the stud dog and see that they had accomplishments that bonded with what I wanted to do. They had titles in the field, or they had good OTCH titles, and that this went back a few generations. And then I would check the female side as well. I just wanted to make sure that these dogs were accomplished in the sports that I wanted to do, and that their pedigrees supported it as well. That's how I start with it is just make sure that it's got the pedigree that will do what I want to do.

And then I'm going to seek out a breeder that exposes their puppy to a lot of different objects and surfaces. Nowadays a lot of people have little agility tunnels, and they have the bottle pools, so they're seen walking on different surfaces, hearing different sounds, meeting lots of people. So the breeder, I feel as well, has a lot to do with building a confident puppy right from the start.

With my puppy, my dog was a stud dog, Sparks, but it also was important to me that the breeder was doing these things, and they did. So he comes home and he pops onto something that's wobbly and it doesn't even faze him.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. Once you bring a puppy home, or breed a new puppy that is a competition prospect, what are the first skills that you build or the first things that you work on together?

Janice Gunn: When I do get a new puppy, I like to start them right away. It's really hard for me after the first day not to do something. I get my puppies at 7 weeks old, so usually I'll start with something like hand touch. Doing the hand touch is a fun shaping exercise. Shaping as well is pivot work. I'll start them on a little disc. I like to teach a few tricks, and again with the tricks I'm using shaping.

And then I teach, because I am going to move on to competition, when I do a sit-down and a stand, I make sure that those are technically correct. I don't want to be inadvertently teaching my puppy a rock-back sit where they come in to sit, but then they go backwards, because that will fault me later on fronts, and when they do a halt and sit beside me, they'll go backwards. I want to make sure that the sit is technical; it's a nice tuck-up sit.

The same with the down. I want to make sure that when they go down, their hips are square, and when they come up into a stand, everything is just nice, up in place, no moving forward and down. I do this all right in front of me. It's very easy, but I just want to make sure that I'm doing those properly. And then I'll teach them early heeling games.

One thing that is really important, which I advocate at all my workshops because I find that as I go across country a lot of people are simply not doing that, and I start this on Day One, and that's teaching Name Game. I will say my puppy's name, and it's a great way to charge the clicker as well, so I will say the name, click, and treat. Name, click, treat. Name, click, treat. I will do it twenty times in a row, just to get it started.

When I have a puppy, I always have treats in my pockets all the time, so that every time I say his name — we'll use Sparks — I say, "Sparks," he looks at me, I say, "Yes," mark it, and I give him a treat. When he goes outside to potty and he has to come back in, I say his name, I give him a treat, and we go back in. I am really, really building that his name means, "Look at me, come to me." This transitions really nicely into their recall work, so then, when I go to say their name, they're getting a little bit further away from me, I say their name, they turn on a dime, they come running to me, and they get a treat. So Name Game is really important for all puppies to learn.

When I give seminars I find that when people are training their dogs, they rarely use their dog's name, and it's a great attention-getter. I'm trying to advocate and get people to do this so that they have a great recall. It's a great way to get your dog coming back faster to you, and you can all start this when they're 7 weeks old.

Melissa Breau: I know you have a full step-by-step training program via DVD that walks people through training from novice to utility. Can you share a little bit about the program and your approach for the bigger picture of training for obedience competition specifically?

Janice Gunn: I really like to share. That's one thing I've always wanted to do is share with others, and that's why I do give seminars. I have a lot of free YouTube videos, but I've also produced … I'm up to six DVDs now.

When I very first started, my first video that I produced was called Step-by-Step Training for Competition Obedience. That was back in 2009, so it was ten years ago, so going back a lot of years. At that time, I was still a balanced trainer. I've changed since then, but it is an excellent DVD on how to teach competition obedience exercises from start to finish for puppy novice, open, and utility.

However, there's one thing I'd like to take out if I could, and it was in the retrieve section. Back in the day, for the retrieve, I was doing an ear squeeze for the dumbbell. I of course no longer do or advocate this method. In fact, I now even have a video out on how to help people teach a clicked hold and retrieve. But that's pretty much the only thing in the video. Otherwise my methods have evolved so much in ten years, and fortunately, in my first DVD, the teaching skills are still perfect for today's training. Just that one little section I'd like to take out.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. After all, if you're not evolving, that's a problem.

Janice Gunn: Exactly, exactly. That's so true, yes.

Melissa Breau: Which leads naturally into what I was going to ask you next, which is, with seven OTCH titles from AKC, and the CKC OTCH titles too, you've been through this process a few times at this point. Can you talk a little more about the things you do differently today than you did when you first started, and how you've continued to evolve since "crossing over"?

Janice Gunn: It's actually I have eight AKC OTCH titles.

Melissa Breau: Oh, I missed one.

Janice Gunn: Got one up on you there. One thing for sure would be how I teach the dumbbell hold and retrieve, so definitely changed that. But that's how I learned it. Back in the day, that's what they did and that's what I was taught. But you can always change your training.

I know there's still a lot of people out there today I would love to get them to change, but people have a choice, and hopefully they'll see that my dogs have so much enthusiasm with the clicked hold and retrieve that that will move forward their decision someday.

But, for me, I never stop learning and trying new things. I'm not someone to say, "I know it all and I can't learn anything new," because I think once you feel that way, you're done. There's always new stuff out there to grasp or come up with your own techniques that can keep evolving.

Over the years I've focused more on relationship building, drive building, and positive reinforcement, and I'm also using more shaping techniques for certain exercises. That's how I've sort of changed my training up a little bit, as well as with the positive reinforcement.

Melissa Breau: I've got three last questions here, and they're questions I usually ask every time I have somebody new on the podcast. The first one is what's the dog-related accomplishment that you're proudest of?

Janice Gunn: There are so many that I've had a lot of success in my long career, so many that I'm very proud of. But I'm going to say the most recent is that I just got home on this past Monday from competing at a Retriever Master National, and my just turned 4-year-old Golden Retriever, Sparks, became a finalist and is now a National Master Champion.

Melissa Breau: Congrats.

Janice Gunn: Thank you. It also gave him his final leg for his Grand Master title. At his very young age, he's also got his OTCH titles, his UDX, his Obedience Master II. He's still so very young, and I'm just thrilled at what a team we are and the incredible relationship that I built with him.

Melissa Breau: That's fantastic. Congratulations. That's such a huge accomplishment.

Janice Gunn: Thank you.

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

Janice Gunn: One of my early mentors was Patty Ruzzo. Patty would always say if you had a problem with something, put a cookie on it. We're going back at least 15 years, but that still holds true today.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I like that. Put a cookie on it. Last one: Who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Janice Gunn: My very first mentor was AnneMarie Silverton. She was a brilliant dog trainer. She taught me the armband method of heeling, which was a very innovative technique. It's a positive technique, and it has allowed me to have some great heeling dogs and also to be able to share this method with so many other people and, in turn, help them with one of the hardest things, I think, to teach in obedience, which is heeling.

I also look up to Patty Ruzzo, who was well before her time when it came to positive reinforcement. Sylvia Bishop has given me many fun training ideas. There are also many other trainers who seminars or workshops I have attended, and they have all offered their own valuable insight and style, including Denise Fenzi.

I recognized what Denise had. She had so much to offer, well before she started FDSA. I invited her to come and give a workshop at my facility, and we're going back to 2012.

So there's been a lot of influence from so many wonderful people.

Melissa Breau: I can't let that one sneak by without at least asking: the armband method of heeling? Can you give us a short idea of what that is?

Janice Gunn: One thing when AnneMarie was teaching her students that she got really frustrated with was if they were holding a lure or food in their hand, they would be moving it, or if the food was placed in their mouths, the dogs were wrapping around the handler's body.

She wanted to develop a very clear focal point for the dogs, something for them to look at that was on the side of the body. If it was on the side of the body, then the dog didn't have the want to have to wrap around and look at the handler's face, which in turn creates a lot of problems.

So she created this armband method, and it's very smart because … there's many steps to teaching it, but the final ending step is looking at the armband holder, and the armband is something that you can wear in the ring. So that focal point is something that you can actually bring into the ring with you, and it really helps to clarify heel position for a lot of dogs.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. I like that. Thank you.

Janice Gunn: You bet.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Janice! This has been great. I think you shared a lot and I appreciate it.

Janice Gunn: Thank you very much Melissa. I appreciate it.

Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in!

We'll be back next week, this time with Sara Brueske to talk about marker cues and foundation skills for performance dogs.

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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