Today I'm joined by Sara Brueske to talk about the recent crazy in using multiple marker cues (and why they've become so popular!) plus her approach to using them as foundation for her training.
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 Sara Brueske.
Sara has been training dogs for over 15 years; she became a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner in 2011, and jumped into the world of professional dog training.
Sara and her dogs work at Purina Farms in Missouri, where they demonstrate the sports of disc, agility, and dock diving for the public in over 200 shows each year.
She and her dogs also compete nationwide. Currently, she is active in the sports of disc dog, agility, mondioring and dock diving, plus, she's a trick dog enthusiast.
Sara believes in positive reinforcement not only for dogs, but for their handlers as well. Her biggest joy in training is watching a handler and dog become partners and grow as a team.
Hi Sara! Welcome back to the podcast.
Sara Brueske: Hi Melissa. Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, I know it's a big crew, but can you just refresh listeners' memories by telling us a bit about your dogs and what you're working on with them?
Sara Brueske: I have a lot of dogs. I have thirteen dogs and they all come to work with me every single day, so they all get lots and lots of exercise and training and one-on-one time with me. They're just like everybody else's dogs, so they live at home with me, they watch TV on the couch with me, they sleep in the bed with me, that sort of thing.
I have all sorts of different dogs, a big variety. I have everything from a little Papillion who does agility, I trial him in AKC agility, he does Frisbee, and he even dock dives.
I have a couple of Malinois, little Belgian Malinois that do — they're actually not little; they're the biggest of my dogs — but they do IGP and mondioring, as well as dock diving, Frisbee, agility, and everything else that I train them in.
I also have a whole bunch of Australian Koolies from all over the world. A few of them came from Australia, one of them came from Canada, and I bred one of them — she's the keeper from one of my litters — and they mostly do dock diving, agility, and disc dog. So I have all sorts — some rescue dogs, some dogs purchased from responsible breeders, so on and so forth, all over from different places and different origins.
But yeah, those are the things I focus on are disc dog, dock diving, and agility, for the most part, and then some protection sports sprinkled in as well.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Whenever I watch your training videos, because you're awesome and you share them on Facebook a lot, I can't help but notice how quickly your dogs seem to pick up on new things and learn what you're trying to teach them. While I'm sure that part of it is that you're awesome at picking out genius dogs, what is it about how you structure your training that helps a bit?
Sara Brueske: I do have pretty amazing dogs. We all think our dogs are the best dogs, and my dogs, I'm sorry to tell everybody else, they are the best dogs. But besides that, I use a lot of concepts and conceptual training in my programs. That means I teach my dogs ideas on what they're learning before they actually get to the final behavior I'm looking for.
An example of this is if I want to teach my dog a head target in heel position, they learn head targeting and motion and duration on my hand first, and then that way it's an easy concept to transfer over to that heel position. By teaching all these different concepts, my dogs can pick up new behaviors related to those concepts relatively easy.
So the video that I post on Facebook or on Instagram — it might show that learning this new behavior right away within three or four minutes, but in reality they learned the idea for that behavior back when they were 10 or 12 weeks old, or maybe a year before that. And so it's pretty easy for them to go, "Oh, this is the idea you're looking for. I have to do it in this context instead of that context."
So I spend a lot of time teaching my dogs all sorts of different concepts to help make sure that when I get to a certain behavior down the road, they'll have an easier time on it.
Melissa Breau: Gotcha. I know that part of that whole core concept thing is that your marker system is pretty central to your training. To start us off, can you explain a little bit about what a marker system is, and then what is it about the concept that's made it the center of so much discussion in performance training circles these days?
Sara Brueske: Marker system — we all pretty much have it. If you're training any sort of clicker training, or even if you're just using the verbal marker "yes" before you reward your dog, you have a marker system.
Some marker systems are a little bit more complex than others, so if we get really into it, there are some marker systems that are incredibly detailed, meaning my marker is going to tell my dog what they're going to get rewarded with, how they're going to get that reward, where they're going to get that reward, and that way I can manipulate how they're feeling about that reward, and then eventually how they're feeling about that behavior itself that I'm reinforcing.
There's a whole bunch of really cool things that marker systems do for us. They help us, like I said, get that arousal level, that emotional aspect of the behavior that we're going for, but also it helps us teach the behavior itself. If I'm teaching my dog to heel, for example, again, and I always say "yes" and then reward my dog — doesn't matter where I reward my dog — when I say "yes," and my dog has a response to that marker, they generally pop forward a little bit. That popping forward ends up becoming like a forging in heeling, and so with just that one generic "yes" marker, what ends up happening is our dogs end up forging in heel position because they're popping forward to see where we're going to be rewarding them.
If I have a way of telling my dogs, "Hey, you're going to get this reward, but it's going to be behind you," that pop forward gets eliminated. They're immediately going to spin around to get that reward behind them, and therefore I'm not inserting any bad habits into my heeling position.
That's why it's taken off in performance circles these days is because people are starting to realize that they can use these location-specific markers to get rid of some bad habits within the behaviors, and that's, I think, where most people get the enjoyment from it.
But why I really like it is because I can help manipulate arousal levels, meaning I can use the fact that my dog gets very excited for me throwing a toy versus me handing them a toy. I can use that to help transfer their emotional level to the behavior itself. I also like it because they teach a little bit of verbal discrimination right off the bat. So there's a whole bunch of different reasons on why people are so excited about multiple marker systems.
Melissa Breau: Do you want to explain the verbal discrimination thing just a little more?
Sara Brueske: That's one of my favorite things. Verbal discrimination has always been one of my most difficult parts when I train dogs. I couldn't get my dogs to understand the difference between sit-down-stand, for example, without giving them a little bit of a hand signal or a lure, or a little bit of body language help. And so it's always been a weak part in my training until I started introducing multiple marker systems.
That's something you can do with your dog as soon as you get him — teach him the difference between the marker "get it," for me, which is, "I throw the food" reward or "yes," take the food from my hand. Right off the bat, your dog is learning to discriminate between those two words without risking or adding stress or negative emotions to a finished behavior like your position changes.
I find that the dogs that start off with having to distinguish between markers and where they're going to get the reward and how they're going to get it — those dogs are so much easier to teach verbal discrimination to because they're learning the concept of it right from the beginning.
Melissa Breau: Do you have the same marker cue system for all of your dogs? Can you talk a little bit about what that system is, and maybe share your cues?
Sara Brueske: No, I don't have the same for all of my dogs, and the reason for that is they do different sports and they have different needs. I always tell people that when you're building your multiple marker system, do what works for you. Just because I use a marker doesn't mean you need it in your training, and the more you overcomplicate things, the more difficult it is for you to remember and the more difficult for your dog to remember. So it really makes sense to cater a system to the dog itself and the sport that you're learning.
For example, my dogs that mostly do Frisbee — they have maybe four markers, tops, and when we narrow it down, they only have two that are relevant to disc dog training. They have "mark," which means come bite the Frisbee in my hand for a tug reward, or "get it," which means I'm going to throw that Frisbee and chase it down. You can kind of figure out why I would have those two discriminated — because I don't want to say "get it" and have my dog jump at me to take a tug reward. I can control how they react to that.
But, that being said, Kreacher, my mondioring prospect — he's going to start trialing in October — he has, last I counted, sixteen different markers, and all of those markers tell him what reward he's going to get, how I give him that reward. Some of them are termination markers, meaning they end the behavior. Some of them are continuation markers, meaning he has to maintain the behavior until he gets a reward or as he's getting the reward. Some of them are designed to get him really, really excited.
My "chase" means "I'm going to throw the toy for you" — he get super-pumped for that — versus "face" means "I'm going to deliver this toy to your face as a continuation marker." For instance, if he's doing a down-stay and I say "face," that means I'm going to go ahead and deliver that toy to his face, and so that's a little bit of a lower arousal marker.
Melissa Breau: The biggest reason I see that people don't want to implement a marker system is that they say they can't remember all the different cues. Any advice on that front?
Sara Brueske: Yeah, that was me. I thought it for the longest time because I have a hard time remembering the words I need to say when I need to say them.
I have found that when we teach markers to our dogs, we tend to teach one new one and pair that with an old one. This is for the dog's benefit, obviously, so they're not learning multiple things at the same time, but it's also for our benefit as well, because if we're only teaching one new marker at a time, that means that we're only having to learn one new marker at a time. So I encourage people to not jump in and do seven different markers all at the same time — not just for the dog, but for their sake as well, because that's just going to lead to frustration and then "I can't do it." So definitely one at a time is the way to go.
The other thing that I like to tell people, and really the benefit of multiple markers is that reaction you get from the marker itself. So I tell them to envision that reaction and watch for it in their dog before delivering that reward. What ends up happening is you start to see that reaction, and that reaction starts getting paired to that word in your mind.
For instance, when I say "chase" to Kreacher, which means, "I'm going to throw the toy, you're going to chase it," I want to see him lean back in anticipation. I want his ears to go slightly back and I want him to dance on his front feet because he has no idea where I'm going to be throwing it. If I say "chase" and I see that reaction, now I'm pairing those two things in my mind, and it's going to be easier for me to remember that, "Oh, this is the reaction I want. I want him to get excited, so I need to say the word 'chase' without even thinking about it." If you start thinking about it in reactions versus how you're actually going to deliver the reward, it tends to be a little bit easier, at least for me, to remember which marker goes where.
Melissa Breau: Before we shift subjects just a little bit, what other benefits do you attribute to having and using multiple marker cues?
Sara Brueske: I think the other benefit that I haven't mentioned already is it creates a thoughtful dog. That, and it allows me to see where my dog's mindset is. So I use it a lot around decoys and protection training.
One of the games I play with my dogs is a multiple marker game where I say a marker, I want to see the reaction that is paired with that. So again, if it's "chase," I want to see the dancing feet and the anticipation of me throwing it. If I don't see the reaction I typically would see, that tells me that my dog isn't really in the mindset to pay attention or to train or to maybe learn a new thing, or to do those trial behaviors in that environment or around that distraction.
For instance, when Kreacher and I go work with a new decoy, or we walk on the field with decoys on the field, the very first thing I do with him is that multiple marker game, because if he can't remember what "chase" means, versus "mark," which means bite the toy from my hand, then there's no way he's going to remember what "down" or "heel" or any of those complex behaviors mean around that decoy.
That's a huge benefit, just being able to read your dog, understand where they're at in that moment, and always be able to fall back on those multiple markers and make sure that you're seeing the reaction you're supposed to be seeing. From there you can control arousal, there's a whole bunch of really cool things you can do with it at that point.
Melissa Breau: That leads nicely into where I wanted to go next, which is, I see posts all the time these days about frustration and over-arousal in performance dogs. You listed some of the breeds you have earlier, and they are breeds that have a tendency to some of those … to having big feelings (thanks Sarah Stremming!). Can you share a little bit about how you try to anticipate those problems?
Sara Bruekse: Big feelings is the best way to go about it. I feel like Kreacher has so many feelings all the time. I am going to keep using him as an example because he is such a great example, which I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing.
Kreacher has a lot of feelings, and one of the main things I focused on when he was a puppy was the ability to move from high-arousal things down to low-arousal things, because again, in mondioring we have to go from, even on the obedience side, one of the judges' favorite things to do nowadays is to pair the send-away, which means my dog needs to run as fast as he can in the direction I point him in, and then recall as fast as he can as soon as I blow the whistle, so it's a very high-arousal obedience behavior, definitely one of my dog's favorites.
With the little wood exercise — which I know it has a funny name, forgive me — little wood is actually a handler scent discrimination exercise. Basically there's a whole bunch of pieces of little wood out there, one of them has your scent, and your dog has to go and get it. So it's definitely putting your dog in the hunt state of mind rather than the prey, which is what the send-away is, so your dog is going from the send-away, being totally jazzed about running as fast as he can, to now, all of a sudden, "I have to think and find that right piece of wood and bring it back in a retrieve and hold it calmly as my handler takes it from me." Two very opposite behaviors.
I knew right away going into this sport that my dog is definitely going to have arousal issues because of the lines he's from, he's going to have to learn to do that. One of the things I was able to do is take those multiple markers and start figuring out, for this dog, his tug marker is the highest arousal marker he has, and the same with his chase marker, the one where he gets to chase the thrown toy. Versus a scatter, where I scatter the kibble on the ground. That is the least-arousal marker I have.
I was able to start with the middle two, so if I have sixteen different ways of reinforcing my dog, the two that are right next to each other right in the middle, bouncing back and forth between those, and they're going one higher and then one lower, and one higher and one lower, until my dog was able to go from tug all the way down to scatter without missing a beat. That was a huge opening door because I didn't have to risk any of my behaviors. I didn't have to go and throw away my poor little wood behavior in hopes that my dog was going to do it, because I was able to go, "Can he go from this marker all the way down to this bottom marker without a problem?" If he can do that, then maybe can go from his send-away to the little wood or send-away to maybe a medium-arousal behavior and then down to the little wood one. So it really helped me use the markers in a more systematic way that way and helped me learn to manage his arousal levels a bit.
Melissa Breau: Talking about arousal and frustration, what are some of the early warning signs that a dog maybe is heading in that direction, and what do you do if you do see signs of frustration and arousal crop up in a session?
Sara Brueske: We cover that so much in the class I just taught, which is not back on the schedule, so this isn't a really good plug for it or anything like that, but Bombproof Behaviors deals with this a lot, because one of the biggest distractions for our dogs is arousal level, even though people aren't really aware of it. They might think it's the trial setting, or something along those lines, but in reality, it's the dog's arousal level.
One of the biggest clues is if my dog's not responding to that marker the way he normally does. If I say "chase" to Kreacher and he jumps forward to grab the tug from my hand — which that's not what that marker means; "chase" means I'm going to throw the toy, so he should be leaning back in anticipation, dancing his front feet — if I say "chase" and he lunges forward and thinks I'm saying "mark" instead, that tells me that he is over-aroused. That is not his typical reaction to that marker, and so therefore his arousal level is too high, or his frustration is too high, or whatever. Something is out of whack and we need to back down a little bit.
When that happens, what I can do is go back to that marker game and to a game he knows with a couple of markers that are really easy for him to understand and discriminate between, stay there until I'm finally seeing the responses that I typically see, and then move back up the arousal scale with those markers, and then finally moving back into the behaviors after that. So it's really a lot of observation to how my dog normally reacts when I say markers, and then taking that information to heart before moving forward.
Melissa Breau: I love that. You mentioned the Bombproof Behavior class, which isn't back on the schedule, but you do have a workshop coming up on some of this stuff at the end of the month. I know it's supposed to start September 29. This comes out the 20th and registration opens the 22nd for it, so people can hop on in two days, when they're hopefully hearing this, to go register. Can you share a little bit about how the workshop ties into some of what we've been talking about, what you'll cover, and who might be a good fit?
Sara Brueske: Yeah, absolutely. The workshop is geared towards creating a marker system and a systematic approach to adding new markers to your program. It has a few marker games and what you can do with those, and then how to build on those and eventually take them into your training sessions themselves. So it's really designed for those people that are interested in adding multiple markers, expanding their multiple marker system that they have already, and just looking for new ways to communicate with their dog. We'll also be touching on adding duration using Zen hand, or reverse learning, whatever you want to call it, during that workshop as well.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Who should take it or consider taking it?
Sara Brueske: Anybody who is thinking about adding markers to their system. Maybe if you have a new dog and you're like, "This sounds like a really good thing, a new concept for my dog to learn." So new puppy owners would be great, and new adoptive owners would be great, or even if you have an older dog that you're happy with but you want to experiment with the multiple markers, you should absolutely take the class then or the workshop then.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned you're talking about duration a little bit, and we haven't really talked about that yet. How are you planning to approach that? Can you explain what you mean by reverse learning and Zen hand?
Sara Brueske: We have another communication tool, a "keep going" signal, and that's what the Zen hand really is, is the "keep going" signal. We're going to use this to help our dogs learn calm, still, duration behaviors, things like holds or duration nose touches or even position changes. It's just a way to tell your dog, "You're doing the right thing, keep doing it, I'll eventually give you another cue or I'll reward you."
I've found it's so helpful in keeping fidgety dogs from getting frustrated when we try to add duration. It's a nice way to communicate to them. The best part about it is it seems to be super-easy to fade, too, so really there's no downside to it that I've experienced.
Melissa Breau: Hey, you can't beat something with no downside.
Sara Brueske: Right.
Melissa Breau: Especially when it solves a problem like duration, which I feel can often be something that people struggle with.
Sara Brueske: I used to hate duration just because I have so many fidgety dogs, and as soon as I figured out the Zen hand thing, I'm like, "This is the ticket. This is it."
Melissa Breau: I can't let you go without at least briefly touching on the other thing that you have coming up on the schedule. In October, I know you're teaching your foundation class, All the Sports: Foundations for the Cross Training Canine. So I want to have you just tell me a little bit about that class. I'm super-excited because I'm hoping to take it with you.
Sara Brueske: Yes, and I'm excited to have you there. This class really focuses on … we talk about multiple marker systems, we talk about session structure cues, start cues, end cues, that sort of thing, to help with engagement no matter where you go. There's a lot in this class and I love it. We talk a lot about behaviors, so teaching your dog to pivot, rear-foot targeting, that sort of thing that is so useful for pretty much any sport that you take.
There's an application for those behaviors regardless of whether you're doing agility, obedience, anything. Those behaviors are really applicable to everything. It's for puppies, it's for adults, anybody should take this class. If you have a pretty good solid foundation with your dog already, there are a few things you can pick up on, but it might not be super-beneficial, so meaning if you already have all those behaviors, a little bit of the engagement and the marker system and stuff, it might not be worth it, but it would definitely be great to follow along at Bronze for sure for those. So new dogs, new puppies, for sure.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. I was going to ask you that, but you already explained a little about who should take the class, and I will say the syllabus is super-detailed, so if folks are curious, they should go take a look.
Alright, my last question that I've taken to asking everyone when they come on: What is a lesson that you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to training?
Sara Brueske: We're all in this for the same reason: we all love dogs. I know it's difficult for people to wonder why people train the way they do, or to find flaws in the way people train, but I think we tend to forget that we all are training dogs because we love our dogs, and that really is the root to it all. Even though we might not think that we have the connection with certain other trainers because of the way they train, the reality is we do. We all love our dogs. I've been reminded of this pretty recently, and I wish everybody just remembered that. And so I like to share that as often as I can. We all love dogs, and if you are struggling finding a connection with somebody in dog sports or in dog training, just remember that, and then just ask them about their dog and you'll see.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. I like that. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Sara!
Sara Brueske: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week, this time with Loretta Lake Mueller to talk about the beginning skills for agility and living with multiple 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!