Suzanne and I talk about how she got her start in dogs, what led her to positive training and one of the mistakes she sees positive trainers making today.
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 Suzanne Clothier.
Suzanne has been working with animals professionally since 1977, with a deep, broadly varied background of experience including obedience training, agility, Search & Rescue, kennel management, and program development. She is well respected for her humane, effective Relationship Centered Training (RCT™) approach to dogs and the people that love them.
First listed in Who's Who in Dogs back in 1997, she has taught in the U.S. and around the world and served as a consultant for many different service dog organizations.
Her work has been presented at multiple international conferences, including most recently at the 2017 International Working Dog Breeder Association conference.
She has also served as a committee member for the AKC's Agility Advisory Board, and as a committee member for the American Humane Association's Task Force for the Development of Humane Standards in Dog Training.
In addition to all that, her book, Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationships With Dogs, has been included in The Wall Street Journal's list of Top 5 Dog Books.
Suzanne is also a German Shepherd breeder and lives on an upstate New York farm with her husband and their considerable animal family.
Welcome to the podcast, Suzanne!
Suzanne Clothier: Hey Melissa.
Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you just share a little bit about your current dogs and whatever you're working on with them?
Suzanne Clothier: At the moment, we are down to just seven dogs, which seems like a lot, I know, but we have dogs that live a long time, and we tend to keep them forever, so that makes for a lot of dogs. We've got everything from a 12-year-old great-grandma right down to a puppy from our last litter, and they're just 13 weeks old, that litter.
So … what are we working on with them? I'm probably unusual for anyone listening to a Fenzi Sportscast in that I long ago gave up working with my own dogs toward any specific goal. I had a long run of less-than-great luck we can talk about later in my earlier years, where I had lots of goals, and then I got into search-and-rescue, which blew away anything that had to do with ring work.
At this point my dogs are pretty much largely farm dogs, my buddies, hanging out. We're taking the puppy to puppy class and teaching her the basics. I like to teach stupid tricks to my dogs, you know, put your chin on the ground, or … I don't know. Each dog has their own idea of what constitutes a fun or stupid trick. But mostly it's a nice place to be a dog. There's not a lot of pressure on you.
Magically, when I take them out in public, people always say they're very well behaved, which makes my husband and I laugh really hard because it's not like we put tons of time into them. But they have nice foundations, they were brought up by me, obviously, and they're taught basic good manners, so it's quite deceptive. They look like they know more than they actually do, which makes me look good, but it's really because they're exceptionally nice dogs.
Melissa Breau: Hey, a little bit of foundation sometimes goes an awful long way.
Suzanne Clothier: Oh, yes. I rest on that every day.
Melissa Breau: How did you originally get "into dogs"?
Suzanne Clothier: I got "into dogs" by getting into a neighbor's yard and stealing them. That's literally the truth. My mother claimed that the only reason I learned to speak was so that I could ask for a pony, and I did so repeatedly until I got one at 24.
But yes, no joke, any animal within my reach was fair game, so my mother learned when the neighbors knocked on our door and said, "Do you have our dog?" the answer was not "No." The answer was, "Let me go and check with my daughter," and she would often find me in the closet or someplace with the dog.
She remembers me, I don't know, maybe 4 or 5 years old trying to train four or five dogs at once all to do a sit-stay. She said she felt really bad because obviously I wasn't going to be super-successful because the dogs wanted to go home, not hang out with me. But I was grimly determined to achieve that. I don't know what kind of 5-year-old sets herself that task of not one dog on a sit-stay but five. So she just left me to it, since the dogs seemed agreeable.
The first time I got paid to do something with a dog, I was 8. I was going to go play with that dog anyway, and they said, "We'll give you a quarter if you'll take him for a walk and brush him." I was like, "What?" It's not that the money impressed me, but the concept was hysterical — that something I was going to sneak out of my bedroom to do anyhow, no matter what, that I could get paid for that. So that stuck in my head.
So yes, most of my life either stealing people's dogs or figuring out where the local horses were. If there was an animal, that's where I would be. Live nativity scenes — they always knew where I would be, there with the donkey and the sheep, absolutely.
I think I was just born to this, and this is quite literally, other than one two-day stints as a temporary secretary, which was not good, other than that and animal artwork, this is all I've ever done my whole life is animals.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. As somebody who has been in the industry for a long time, have you always been a positive trainer? If not, can you talk a little bit about what got you started down that piece of your journey?
Suzanne Clothier: Oh, I don't think anyone who's my age started as a positive trainer. I just turned 61, so I will say that, coming up, the only stuff that was available pretty much was Koehler, and that was any class you went to with a dog was choke chains and corrections. That was just commonplace. It was taken for granted.
What I found were two things that I think are worth thinking about. One is that because I came from a background that had a lot of physical abuse and violence, it was familiar. I was uncomfortably and acutely aware of just how fast a fist could pop out and give me a nice, big fat lip for sassing off. Not that I stopped sassing off, because I was one of those kids that if I had a dog probably been euthanized because I just wouldn't stop poking the bear.
So that was a common part of life and it was all around me. It wasn't like I was some anomaly in the neighborhood and had the only stepdad who smacked her around. Not true. That was quite common back then and even within the church teachings, "Spare the rod, spoil the kid," however that justification goes. So I had that societally all around me, so that did not seem odd.
And yet there was another part of me that was deeply in tune with animals, always and forever. Again my mother remembers … maybe I was 4, and it was in the winter after breakfast. We lived in Virginia, so it was cold, but it wasn't super, super cold, but cold enough to turn a 4-year-old's lips blue. I had a peanut in each hand and I was sitting on the back stoop, motionless, waiting for the squirrel to take the food out of my hand. Again she thought, Should I interrupt the kid? She's going to get pneumonia. But then she thought, What kind of child sits motionless for that long, just so that she can have an interaction with an animal?
That was the driving force that made me think there's another way of being with animals. There's a way of being with animals that I am drawn to and instinctively do, and then there's what I'm taught is "This is how you train."
Of course I spent most of my youth, from 12 on, involved in the horse world, and if you want to see where there's anything but positive, put some poorly trained, large prey animals who run screaming, "Chicken little's not a story!" and some inexperienced kids who are in charge of them, and the punishment is every which way from Sunday because there's a great deal of fear and pain involved.
The weird thing is I became a professional because I was so damned good at delivering corrections quickly and effectively and in a timely manner that the animals, for the most part, still liked me and were happy to work with me. They understood the message of the correction. Isn't that the irony, that people are like, "Wow, you're really good at that."
When you think backwards, it's beyond ironic to me that one of the reasons I was really … I can't say "pushed," I was already going that way … that I was encouraged by many and impressed many about my professional capacity or potential was because I was really good at delivering corrections.
I'm also really good at getting animals to trust me and work with me and break things down for them.
But no, not always a positive trainer. And the bigger that gap got between that quiet place where I would lay on the ground and put birdseed in my hands, hoping the birds would eat out of my hands — which they will, if you do it long enough — walking around with animals that other people really struggled with, and I just understood them.
The bigger that got, between that and the "professional training" stuff I was supposed to know and apply, that started me pushing toward, Why is there this big difference? I don't like this. I like the way I am when I'm with my animals. I don't necessarily like the way I am when I'm training my animals. So I just started looking for ways to bridge that really big gap.
Melissa Breau: You played around with things until you started to find methods that felt better to you, or was it more than that?
Suzanne Clothier: I wanted to get rid of the resistance as communication. I love when I look at a horse, or a dog, or any other animal, and they look back at me, and there's an agreement between us and then we both try to figure out what the heck we're doing. We could spend a whole hour just discussing all the amazing moments I've had with animals where the value of that kind of relationship was so powerful and so memorable.
But there was not a whole lot to see, so what I kept looking for was, where is the resistance? Where am I getting kickback from the animal? Where does that light in their eyes go out? Or hopefully I could catch it before it went out and it was just dimmed or they moved away from me.
I remember at one point when I was working my Shepherd in Open. I'm working with a retrieve over high jump, and I'm a moron. I'm 23, I think I know what I'm doing, I'm a completely idiot, quite sure that I'm an absolute smashingly great trainer. I throw the dumbbell and he goes over the jump, and just by way the jump was positioned, I couldn't see him for a bit, because that was the old 36-inch jump for a Shepherd, and he disappeared. I'm like, "What the hell?" I go and he's laying on the porch. I can still see his face looking at me like, "Nope." I'm like, "You get back here. We are still working." He's like, "Nope. I'm not doing it. You've lost your mind, I don't know what the hell you're talking about. This is boring. I don't like being drilled, and no."
I remember being really angry with him, and then I was really angry with myself. I'm like, This dog who adores me, and who I adore beyond all words, I just sent him into a complete retreat away from me, and for probably 15 minutes he was like, "No. First she'll have to catch me. I'll be over here, still with you, but I don't want to talk to you." It reminded me of moments in human relationships where you think, I really mucked that up, and that is not what I intended to have happen, and I've got someone I really care about quite upset with me. So where's the resistance?
And in my classes, where's the resistance? Everybody's always taught in beginner classes, you're aiming at your AKC novice title. I don't know why, because most of the world doesn't need their dog holding a stand-stay. They don't at all, for any reason. Nobody is going to leave their dog and go out of sight. It was just so stupid. Most people didn't care if they heeled; they just didn't want their arms to be dislocated out of their sockets.
So I kept thinking, like a typical young trainer, I blamed my clients, like, "If you just worked on this, it wouldn't be a problem." And I thought, If everybody's having a problem, either I have the world's stupidest set of students — which I was pretty sure was not true; I had really nice students — or I'm setting these people and their dogs up to fail.
So I started taking things out of my curriculum, like the Stand For Exam. There's no need on God's green earth for a dog to learn that, unless they're going to compete. And you sure don't need to learn it in your first class. It's just stupid. It's like, "Can you stand quietly with some support on request and with some help?" And the dog said, "Yes." I'm like, "Good. I have one that actually ever needs to do, unless you're going to compete. I started to become aware of where's the sticking point and why is it sticking, and questioning why does it even have to be there.
That extended to agility. Dogs do jump over things and they jump around things and they can jump under stuff. The one thing I've never seen any animal in the wild do, ever, is weave poles. I haven't. I've never seen an animal out in the woods say, "I know what I'll do. I'll go from tree to tree to tree and bend myself in very sharp and uncomfortable ways." Why is it even in the curriculum? It can be an advanced skill, if you like fancy tricks, but it's not natural, and so dogs found it difficult, especially dogs that didn't get concepts very well or are physically challenged.
I kept peeling it down further and further. I had the blessing of working with a truly superb dressage trainer who unfortunately died very young, and he was all about finding the points of agreement. He was about really listening to the horse. He was also an exceptionally good instructor. He flew in the face of what most of my other riding instructors had taught me, and the results were just delightful. He got me where I wanted to go, so I was very sad when he died.
Melissa Breau: It gave you a chance to think about how you could apply that concept in other ways.
Suzanne Clothier: That's always true. There's nothing I do with horses that I don't think about with dogs, or vice versa, or any other animal. There's always parallels, especially with social animals.
When we got our cockatoo … my husband is actually brilliant about moving cattle. He did not grow up with cattle. We got our first cows twenty years ago and he knew nothing about cows, or any large animals, for that matter. But he developed a really nice sense of how to move stock with just the smallest amount of pressure, just a slight lean towards them. He could recognize, before they moved a foot, that they were feeling pressure.
But when we got the cockatoo, he just blew right past everything the poor bird was saying and sent him to the back of his cage saying, "We're all going to die."
He was like, "I don't understand why this bird doesn't like me." I was like, "If he was a cow and he did what he just did, what would you say?" "Too much pressure." I said, "Great. Treat him like a two-legged, white-feathered cow." That's all he needed, and he was like, "Oh, when he leans." I'm like, "Yeah, when he leans away from you, he's saying, 'I'm already feeling the pressure.'"
One of my great pleasures is helping people draw from stuff they already know with their own eyes and their own relationships with humans, and their own experiences as humans. They know most of what they need to know. Technical tricks aside, most of what they need to know is accomplishing healthy relationships. They have a lot of the answers themselves. They just don't know that they do.
Melissa Breau: They just have to think about it the right way.
Suzanne Clothier: Yes.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned when you got started there wasn't really a thing for positive training. It didn't really exist. So you got to see it as it developed and as it evolved. I'd love to hear your perspective on what some of the biggest changes have been as it's evolved, and how your own training has evolved or changed over the years too.
Suzanne Clothier: It was very interesting watching — and I can look at my bookshelves and you can see the progression of where we started and how it was Win Strickland and Konrad Most and Koehler. And probably people listening to this podcast — they may not even know who those people are. It's always educational to go back and read old stuff. But that was pretty much compulsion-based.
There was still a lot of sense in it, though. Most talks very clearly about the dog needs to understand. The same is true for Koehler. Koehler was not a "Choke them into it until they comply." That was not his gig. Use corrections to make things clear, and whether we like it or not, negative reinforcement is a very powerful quadrant. Whether we choose to use it or not is another story. But it's very successful in the hands of people that are good at what they do, and it's out there in ways we don't even think about.
So it's really interesting watching.
When Bill Campbell's book came out, that had a different flavor, so that was interesting to see. I still don't agree with a lot of what he said, the big jolly routine, if somebody ever came up to me when I was really upset and said, "It's OK, don't worry Suzanne. It's all fun. I've got cookies and I brought cheesecake, which is your favorite," I'd be like, "You know what? That still doesn't change the fact that I'm standing on the edge of the cliff and that really scares me, so take the coffee and the cheesecake and the cookies and step back." So there's some good stuff in there.
And then Karen Pryor came along, and that was also very interesting. I thought, even from the get-go, that it had some limits. But I also knew that, in my experience, people really, really desperately want recipes, because real life and real training is chock-full of paradoxes. It is chock-full of "It doesn't actually go like that," and there are many, many complexities and nuances that trainers would often prefer to forget. That's why recipes are very popular. You do this, then you do this, then you do this. But what I found was when people did that, they sometimes forgot the animal.
So it's a useful tool. I think the emphasis on behaviorism has had some benefit in that people are a little bit more aware of learning theory and how operant conditioning works and classical conditioning. But we seem to forget that that's not the end-all be-all of life. It's simply a model for understanding behavior, and I don't find it particularly fulfilling. It's a tool. That's all it is to me. It is not a lifestyle or a philosophy,
One of the things I saw as a kickback was what's called a "model shift," the typical "I'm going to take on this new shower, so I'm throwing out baby and bathwater." It's not uncommon, so it's kind of like remodeling the bathroom of your brain, I guess. Out with the baby, out with the bathwater. But people threw away a lot of stuff that still has great value. They took it to an extreme, and it's become a very divisive world in dog training.
People often ask where I stand. It's like, "My own two feet." I don't think a dog will melt if you say no to him no more than I think the person at the drive-through at McDonald's is going to storm out and quit or pass away if I say, "No fries, thank you." It's just information.
I've not liked this part where people have gotten so dogmatic, pun intended, that somehow again they're forgetting the dog. Or they're forgetting the relationship. You can't build a relationship with clicker training. Clicker training is simply a tool. What happens in the training process can build a relationship, but not necessarily.
I know tons of dogs that know tons of stuff, and their relationship with their people is still badly skewed and uncomfortable for both parties. That's the kind of dogs that get brought to me a lot. They have immense skills under their belt, but both handler and dog are looking at each other kind of annoyed, kind of irritated, kind of frustrated, and kind of disconnected, because stuff is not what relationships are made of.
So I would like to see the world calm down a little bit, and I think I would like to see behaviorism not be as fervently espoused as it is in human psychology. It is not as popular as it is in the world of dog training. We're about fifteen or twenty years behind human psychology.
I would suggest people go back to thinking about individual temperament, and if they want to read about this, then go way back to Thomas and Chess or Jerome Kagan, who did really great work in temperament in children. They got run over by the behaviorists, who, their unpinning is, "Give me a kid of any age, tell me what you want him to be, and I'll train him to be it."
There's an arrogance in behaviorism that really makes my blood run cold. It's like all of us would say, "Oh, so you're going to turn me into an accountant." Like, "Yeah, I've got a clicker and a lot of money, so I shall make you an accountant, not a dog trainer." All of us would be like, "Excuse me, that's not who I am."
Sometimes revisiting the underpinnings of the philosophy are a good way to suss out what biases or unspoken assumptions are at work. And I'm not a fan of recipes. I'm a fan of really understanding the individual dog and then that individual relationship.
Melissa Breau: It seems almost like we started on one end of a pendulum and swung, really, really far to the other end, and we still haven't quite settled.
Suzanne Clothier: I talked to someone who was in public health, that was their career. When I said, I don't know how long ago, I'd been doing limited vaccines since when vets warned me that all my dogs were dying, I've been doing acupuncture since '82, when it was just quackery, and now it's of course a Board certification. So I'm often ahead of the curve, which isn't always funny, because there's lots of people who just think you're nuts until it's proven. Then it's like, "I've been doing that for two decades, but all right, catch up." So I'm willing to do that always.
But one of the things she said was … I said, "How long until it becomes standard practice that we're not over-vaccinating?" I can't say how long I've been saying spay and neuter is a bad idea; sterilization is what we're after. She said it takes a full generation. It takes at least twenty years to make a model shift, until it becomes accepted. And it's like, yes, that's the way it always has been. But she said just understand that. That's what it takes for the average model shift. It takes about twenty years.
So I think the dog world is getting there. I think the Internet does not help us. I think there's so much divisive, oxytocin-fueled, us-versus-them, because oxytocin certainly is the "feel good" little bonding chemical, but it also promotes the "You're not one of us" behaviors as well, which is the dark side of oxytocin. We feel good when we exclude other people. That can be really scary. And some people are absolute zealots.
I wrote an article on prong collars on my website. I couldn't remember the last time I put a prong collar on a dog, but a piece of equipment, if you're going to use it, please God, know how to use it properly. And there's people like, "I saw that and I never read another thing of hers again." Like, all right. Open minds are like open parachutes. That's when they work best.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned relationship in there. I know that's a big emphasis in all the things you write and all the things you do. You went so far as to trademark the phrase "Relationship Centered Training" or RCT. Can you talk a little about what you mean by relationship and what RCT is all about and just dive into that a little deeper?
Suzanne Clothier: Sure. As I said before, the relationships I had with my animals in our daily interactions, and then there was training. The training part wasn't so much fun. I could get the job done, but it wasn't like hanging out or going for a walk with my animals.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was surrounding myself with social animals, and social animals are social animals because they have relationships. That's one of the defining features of a social animal. They live within the context of social relationships. And then I thought, Do you use this method, do you use that. People would say they use my method, which I found really funny because I don't have one. I have some techniques I've developed. But what I had was I ultimately decided that my guiding principals would be how does this affect the relationship, because if that's not healthy and strong, then I know from my own experience, and from working with tons of clients, that if the relationship is not solid, it's going to affect all performance.
I taught people like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I just need to get these points," "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I just need to finish this title," "Yeah, yeah, yeah." It's like, didn't work for me. When I shifted the other way and said, "Let's get the relationship healthy and let's get you two comfortable with each other and understanding each other and communicating well," at which point I kind of cut the throat of my private lessons business because people would only come once or twice and then they're like, "Oh, now that we've fixed that …" Like, right. Now you have an attentive, happy, thoughtful dog. Who the heck can't train him?
I would hear people say, "I've got them, they've been here for six months," I'm like, "Because why?" The relationship was the foundation and that's what I went looking for was where are the holes in this foundation. Then, on top of it, there's still behavior problems or handling issues or specific goals you want to reach, and you have to teach skills to do that.
But when I made relationship the center of everything I did, and whether it was a technique, someone's philosophical bent, different tools, different methods, all of it first had to go through the filter of how will this affect the relationship.
For example, when the head halters first came out, like, OK, interesting tool. Certainly, as a horse person, very familiar with putting things on a critter's head. So not what I saw with horses. Now I saw dogs desperately trying to claw the damned thing off their heads. I saw dogs who just shut down and gave up. I saw dogs who fought really, really hard. And then people, like, "Well, you just get them used to it."
I watched some people, extremely well-known trainers, delivering these nice, sharp corrections — although they didn't call it that — to force the dog to stop fighting them. I thought, That's crazy. Why would I put something on any animal that put them into a mode of resistance from the get-go? It would be like taking me someplace fun, but insisting I wear pantyhose and high heels while doing it and have my hair put up. Like, I'm not going. From the get-go I'm going to be fighting that and trying to get rid of the shoes and the heels and just comb my hair.
It became a very useful way for me to sort things out. And so then I began developing techniques and methods and approaches that were like, if this is present, how do I solve this? If this relationship is out of balance, then what do I do to help rebalance that? That being my goal. The foundation has to be a mutually respectful, mutually enjoyable, realistic relationship, not based on, "I need this dog to do X, Y, or Z, and I don't care if he's scared stupid. I need him to go finish this championship," or "I need him to get this title. I want him to not be afraid." Well, I'd like to not be afraid of heights, too, but I haven't worked that one out yet.
Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Which came first — RCT or your book, Bones Would Rain from the Sky?
Suzanne Clothier: RCT came first, I think. I used to call it relationship-based training, and then, to my great annoyance, trainers all over the country were like, "Yeah, that's exactly what I do." I started seeing it everywhere, I'm like, OK, I'm going to try to hold on to some name of mine, and then RCT, I switched it to Relationship Centered Training. Bones didn't come out until 2002, but RCT stuff has been around in different formats along the way.
Melissa Breau: Can you share a little about the book? What led you to write it, and what can readers expect to learn?
Suzanne Clothier: It's not a technical book. It's not a how-to, like, put your left hand here, put the dog there, click your heels three times, and you both fly back to Kansas, deliver treats, there you go, the Wizard of Oz approach to dog training, which would be fun to write. Very easy to write a how-to, much harder to write a book that is largely philosophical and highly personal.
There was a lot of pressure in my head to get this down because I could feel the tide was turning — mind you it was '98, it was a long time ago now — I could feel the tide was turning, but I could also feel there were big chunks that people weren't getting right.
By my lights, right? The Monks of New Skete was still one of the best dog training books ever and I thought, I don't know how that can be, when one question they ask is, "How hard should you hit the dog? If he doesn't yelp, you haven't hit him hard enough." And I said, "Is anyone else noticing that? I just feel a need to say something," and so I did.
I sent a letter out to many of my supporters and students, and I said, "There's something in my head that needs to come out, and if you could just donate 25 or 50 bucks." What I needed to buy was a computer that could handle the size manuscript. I had a PC Junior at that point.
But that led one of my very dear students to tell her husband, "Oh, Bob, no, Suzanne Clothier has a brain tumor." It's like, no, no, I don't have a brain tumor. I just have a book I need to write that has to come out. But I like that she immediately assumed I was asking for a little bit of change so that I could have my brain tumor removed.
I knew I was bucking uphill because it was not a how-to. It was sold very quickly, that wasn't the issue, but they did not know what to do with it, because there was no category for that kind of stuff back then. And then we had the good misfortune of … I'm now on editor four or five, the one who actually championed the book and published the book.
You need an editor who fights for your book, fights for the marketing, gets it out there, and none of that happened with Bones. My first editor, I think she quit and went to Toronto to get married or something. It went on from there. So that it's still in print almost twenty years later makes me very happy. It surprises me. And it frequently makes Top Ten.
What people can expect, if they're expecting "Here's the problem you have and this is what you should do," the answer is no, don't pick up the book. If you are afraid of thinking of animals as sentient beings with emotions, and that we have a tremendous responsibility to treat them accordingly, and to respect that this is a very serious and very intimate relationship, if any of that bothers you, don't pick up my book. If you just want science to say, "This is what science says," then you should not pick up my book, because science has only got a really small piece of the puzzle, to say the least.
I'm much more in like with the old ethologists, with Tinbergen and Lorenz and those guys, who had no problem believing that animals had emotions, and freely spoke of them. Right back to Darwin, actually. Not that he was an ethologist, but you know what I mean.
So what people tell me that their response to Bones is, is that it changes everything once they open their brain to the possibility of what I'm trying to say, which is that relationships are quite profound and we have huge responsibility in what happens. Then it can change everything in a very good way.
Surprisingly, it's required reading by some marriage therapists and family therapists. There's a colonel in the military — it's required reading for his officers. I'm always constantly surprised that people are like, "Oh yes, we have that."
At one veterinary oncology practice, I ended up there with a couple of my dogs and they were like, "It's such an honor to have you here, because we do a reading from Bones every Tuesday at the staff meeting." I was like, "That's kind of odd, but OK." I felt like it was like some little church service or something. I thought, Well, pass around the collection plate and see if you can knock down some of my oncology bills. That would be great.
I never know. My husband was bringing a dog back from Canada, and they were taking everybody out of their car at customs, everybody get out, they were dismantling cars. They gets there, he shows them the papers, he has our girl Piper, just brought her back from being bred in Michigan. He said, "My wife's name is on the papers, but here's other evidence that this is my wife." Literally the agent said, "Oh, this is Suzanne Clothier's dog? Well, then, you'd better get her home," and sent him through. And he's like, "OK." It was funny.
So if people are interested in a meatier read, I wrote it because I thought if I read one more book that had top ten points, take-home messages, little, tiny, carefully spelled out, predigested, cosmopolitan-type approach — that's great when you're learning, but there comes a point when you've got all of those on your shelf, and you want something meatier. You want something to argue with or think about or crack you open, then Bones might be the right book for you.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. I want to shift topics for a moment here, and go from talking about training and relationship to some of the other work you've done around CARAT (Clothier Animal Response Assessment Tool). Can you start us out by explaining just a little about what it is and where it came from and why you developed it?
Suzanne Clothier: CARAT is a temperament assessment tool. I spent most of my professional career assessing puppies. My first professional job was working for Guiding Eyes For The Blind back in '77, and working at the breeding farm and puppy testing. So it's safe to say that over the years I've tested a lot of animals.
But I didn't like the way people were thinking about temperament. So I kept diving deeper and deeper into what are the different aspects of temperament. It's me, so if anything I'm accused of, as Dunbar said, you can make things so complicated people pass out. And I'm like, you can make things so simple, Ian, that people get no nutrition. So between us, we've got the whole gamut covered.
It comes from I'm on generation number ten of raising Shepherds. That's a lot of puppies over the years. And thinking in much more detail, because I like detail. They say God's in the detail. Dog's in the detail. I just get better results when I think about animals and their temperaments in a very detailed way. Mostly I kept it to myself and it was just how I thought about animals when I watched them. That assessment was different from other trainers, therefore it got different results because I just saw different things. That's all there was to it.
Then I went to talk to a guide school about doing cooperative breeding. We had done some fifteen years before, and I wanted to see who their current stud dogs were and if they'd be willing to do a cooperative breeding with me. For whatever reason, they turned it into, like, a celebrity visit, so they asked if I would sit in and help score a puppy test. The form they had was kind of wonky and the test they had was poorly run, but I said sure.
I kept asking them, "Do you want me to rate the first thing the dog does, the last thing, the thing that happens the most, do you want me to put them in the order, do you want me to cross out stuff the puppy didn't do?" By the third time I'm asking questions like that, they're desperately wishing they hadn't asked me.
I thought, I'm looking at your form here, and where are you scoring patience, because patience is a really important quality in a guide dog, but I don't see that you're scoring it, even though the puppy has shown us four times how patient he is. They're like, "What are you talking about?" So I told them, and they backed up the video and sure enough there's the puppy. That's when the breeding director said, "What else would you be looking for?" I'm like, "Oh blah blah blah blah," just stupid, I opened my mouth and like, "Can you write that down?" Like, "Yeah. It's going to take a lot of paper."
That's how CARAT was born, because once people saw what I put on paper they're like, "That's a completely different way of looking at dogs and temperament." I'm like, "Well, yeah." I'm not sure if it's a noose around my neck professionally or it's a legacy. It could be both.
It's easy to grasp the basics. We look at nineteen different traits. We look at the core traits in a dog, and this again comes from a lifetime of raising dogs and watching what I see in little puppies become what I see in adult dogs, and a lifetime of selecting dogs for people who do turn out the way I say they will as a rule.
We look at arousal and resilience, and all of these, I think, are ones that have a pretty strong genetic and early developmental qualities to them. You're not going to change these through training. We look at physical energy, like how does the dog move. Some dogs move pretty lethargically, and some dogs, if you're just going to go three feet, why walk when you can gallop. I don't see that that changes until old age. Their brain still tries to gallop, but their body says, "We're going to have to walk this."
We look at sensory input. How does the dog handle visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and olfactory input. On top of that, he can have deficits. A dog with deficits visually might have some impairments or even be blind, but you can also have a dog who's so sensitive to visual input that it causes him to be dysfunctional and interferes with normal function. It's more common, for example, for auditory to be that, but it can really distress a dog deeply.
Then we look at persistence. Once that sense is engaged, what does it take to interrupt the dog. For some dogs, just the handler coughing and the dog is off path. For other dogs, once they're engaged in something, wow, getting them off it can be really hard.
Nothing is good or bad. It's just a matter of whether it's adaptable behavior or it's more specialized behavior. Do we have to adapt to the dog's needs and preferences? Is this a specialized niche animal that will do fine on a desert island with a little old lady who never gets any visitors, or is this a dog that we could put in almost any setting and he'll do fine, or do we need a really specialized dog?
A lot of the listeners here who are engaged with Fenzi Sports Dog Academy, what they're often looking for is they want the temperament that will allow this dog to be successful competitively at a pretty high level. That's a very different set of qualities and temperament traits than a dog who's going to be a really good first-time family dog.
Identifying those traits is one of the things that CARAT does well. We come up with a nicely nuanced profile for each dog. We won't discuss why it hasn't been published or why there's not scientific papers, but we're working on it again. I remain first and foremost a practical dog trainer, not an academic by any means.
But those who have learned it, it changes everything because it's very easy to see Mister Fluffy, one of the reasons he's struggling on that recall is he's really olfactorily aware and he's olfactorily persistent. He might shine in nosework, but in the obedience ring, different training is required to say to him, "This is not the time and place to use your nose." I might have to use a whole lot more reinforcement. I might have to really keep that behavior topped up and really tightly maintained. Whereas another dog says, "I don't really care what the smell is. I love being with you, and I'm perfectly willing to do whatever you want."
So sometimes people think they're great trainers when in fact they have a dog that's well suited to the task. Always be careful that you take credit which really belongs hanging off the dog's collar.
Melissa Breau: That leads naturally into what I was going to ask you next, which was how better understanding the dog we're working with can help us when we're working with and training that dog. It sounds like there's a component that a lot of people seem to overlook about looking at the dog and who they are and adapting to their natural strengths. Is that what you were getting at?
Suzanne Clothier: Yes. So we have a couple of options. One is if we have a specific goal in mind, one of the things that I do CARAT and I have tests that I've developed to be scored with CARAT. But I also have the relationship assessment tool, which looks at the dynamics of the dog/handler interaction. That's a really fast tool. It's done within five minutes, but it gives you a strong idea of what the issue is.
For example, someone shows up and the presentation is that the dog is pulling and he's disconnected, but when I watch them I realize that the handler is the one who keeps the death grip, that the dog was actually sitting quietly next to his owner, and even then, there was still tension on the leash. Then I know I've got to work on the handler, not the dog.
I'm always interested in identifying what's going on and understanding who that dog is, first and foremost. I get this so much as a case history. The dog gets into the agility ring and he gets pissed off because he's not getting good, timely information until the arousal cranks up, because sometimes that's how people think they're supposed to train is by stepping on the gas pedal until the dog is spinning out of control, and then they wonder why he does spin out of control and then leaps up and bites them.
If I have a dog who has a really strong gas pedal, so to speak, so his arousal is easy to get him intensely aroused to the point where he loses fine motor control, that might show up in obedience, where he's got a death grip on the dumbbell or he can't let go of it. Arousal blocks whether or not the dog can even release the dumbbell, which is interesting. Fine motor control starts to go, balance starts to go, so they're hitting jumps, they think they're being precise, but they're not, they're getting pissed off, they're biting their handler. I need to know why, and then I've got to find a way to keep this dog in better balance.
So if I want a dog that's going to be competitive, for example, then I've got to recognize it's not just the willingness to work, but he also has to be solid around town. He does have to be socially confident, because competitive arenas are chock-full of people, unfortunately. No one gets airlifted into their competitive ring and then airlifted out again like James Bond or something. Probably, if we could arrange that, people would pay for that. Can I just jetpack in, do my performance, and leave immediately, and the dog can go to a quiet, soundproof room.
So one of the things I'm interested in is how quickly and how well can we understand the individual dog and what his needs are, because for me it's not enough to be a positive trainer, which sometimes just equals "I've got a pocket full of chicken." I want to be a humane trainer, so that I'm never asking the dog more than he is physically, mentally, and emotionally capable of doing. It's not about pushing your best friend so he can help you get those championship points. It's about the dog's quality of life, it's about the joy, it's about the light in his eyes. The better I can understand the dog, the better I can make choices for him as a humane trainer.
Melissa Breau: I like that. I like that distinction. It takes a very complex thing and breaks it down in a way that simplifies it a little bit. It's a little easier to wrap your brain around.
At this point we've had you do a couple of different webinars for FDSA and I know that one of them, Thresholds, Transitions, & Tincture of Time: Find Any Dog's Sweet Spot for Learning, is going to be available again as part of our upcoming Webinar Week Anniversary sale, which opens for registration this Sunday. Can you share just a little bit about what you covered in that webinar and what folks can expect to learn if they pick up the recording?
Suzanne Clothier: That particular webinar is about how handlers can avoid playing Captain of the Titanic. If you remember the story of the Titanic, the information was sent out that there were icebergs in the area, and the captain of the Titanic chose to ignore that warning. There was another ship that was also fairly close. They heeded the warning and swung way south and thus survived the night and went on to be an old ship somewhere, I guess.
We do this with dogs, where the dog actually tells us that there is a threshold that has been exceeded. This could be as simple as you're walking along and the dog's in cadence. It was a piece of music, it's nice and easy and smooth and rhythmic, and as soon as that cadence shifts, I know I've hit a threshold. There's something that just shifted that dog out of "It's good" to "It's not good." It can be as subtle as a shift in cadence, at which point you need to be on notice because the dog is saying there may be icebergs here.
But we don't. We speed up, we tell them, "Let's go. Come on, come on, come on. I've got cookies." We pull out their toy. We try to get them to tug. We have all these ways that we ignore the fact that the dog told us, "Something just changed for me, and that was not OK. I either need time to think about it, I need to actually look at it, I need to move away from it."
This is where I think it seems so simple, and yet this is where we often blow dog training. I get tons of case histories every year where people, without realizing it, are describing where they have blown right past a dog's clearly stated threshold, and blown right through transitions, without giving the dog time. That's why I say tincture is time.
When in doubt, one of the things I learned from the best horse vets and dog vets I know, and the best horse trainers I've worked with, is the quality of time and the mercy of time. And we're just always in this rush. I don't know why.
I remember one group telling me, "If we let this dog off leash …" — it was in a safely fenced area, but he had many options. He could go up these stairs to this big set of runs at the top of a hill — and they said, "If you let him off leash, he'll be up there forever." I said, "Awesome. Does anybody have a stopwatch? Let's go ahead and do that. Let's time it, so when I burn in hell forever, I'll know what I'm looking forward to." It didn't take long before he came back. It was just a matter of minutes, and yet in their heads it became forever.
So sometimes time … if I called you and said, "Hey, Melissa, I've got this question about the podcast. I'm not sure about this or that," and you're like, "Can I call you back?" and like, "No, you may not. I need it right now. Right now. How dare you not answer me?" Or "I'll pay you 500 bucks if you'll give it to me now." You're like, "I can't."
That whole little webinar is a very, very intense condensation of a seminar I'll be teaching in Maryland, which is Special Transitions and Tinctures of Time. How do we recognize what our dogs are telling us about how they make the transitions and what their thresholds are.
Melissa Breau: The thing that stands out to me and that I remember most is the video you included of the dog that knew the behaviors; it just could not do the work in that situation. Its arousal level was too high to get the precision that the owner was looking for, and seeing you talk through that a little bit and what was going on and what we were seeing.
Suzanne Clothier: I think you're talking about the Frisbee dog, the disc dog.
Melissa Breau: I was actually thinking … I do remember that video too. I was thinking about the one … I think it was heel work. You heeled up to a fence post or something and asked the dog for a sit and heel. Or the handler, rather, heeled up to a fence or a railing or something and was asking for a sit and heel or a pivot or something, a fairly precise behavior.
Suzanne Clothier: Oh, yeah, yeah. The little Mali. The Malinois is a competitive obedience dog with a lot of stuff under his belt and a nice worker. It was not a lack of willingness. But the arousal was so high that the dog was struggling to process and was pulling any behavior out of his armpit that he thought might work.
He was compliant. I think if we could interview him, he would have said, "Yes, I'm where I'm supposed to be." But of course obedience is about precision, and so one of the things that happens in humans as well is when the arousal goes up, then the ability to know, to accurately orient yourself in space, diminishes like a rock falling out of the sky the higher your arousal goes.
The same was true for that dog. But one of the things the handler had been told, was, "You have to get after him, you have to give him a correction, you have to do this, you've got to try to rev him up." I was like, "Could you just be quiet? How about we imagine he's in flames, and throwing more barbeque lighter fluid on the flames doesn't actually help. How about we let the flames die down until he's nice and toasty warm and he can think again." At which point he could. And it really wasn't very long. It's not like we spent twenty-two minutes cooling our heels. We're talking seconds. Less than a minute, minute-and-a-half, which seems so … well, of course anyone would give a dog a minute, and the answer is no, they don't.
So stepping it back to these foundational aspects, I think, we sometimes get so carried away. It's one of the things that Fenzi Sports Dog Academy does so brilliantly. You have got a wealth of information, of techniques, and here's ways to help this happen and here's ways to dial this up and here's how tweak this and make this great and fun for your dog.
But sometimes we just forget the actual basic bare bones of what's going on in the relationship, who is this individual dog, and how will this affect him. I don't see too many books that even talk about … we talk casually about "Be patient." In my experience, that is something trainers really struggle with, and it's not taught as, "This is what can happen when you're truly, deeply patient, and why you need to be." That's probably a good synopsis of some of what's covered in that webinar.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. To round things out here, I have three questions I usually ask at the end of every interview when I have somebody new on. I want to run through those. The first one is what is the dog-related accomplishment that you're proudest of?
Suzanne Clothier: I have to tell you there's two things. One is Bones, because that was a huge chunk of my soul at a time when no other trainers were baring their souls, so a strangely risky little proposition. But that it has continued to touch lives really pleases me because I almost was incoherent after working on that. Ask my husband.
I think the other thing, which will always remain quietly out of sight, is the work I've done for guide dog schools. Over 10,000-plus puppies have been raised in programs that were altered to incorporate my Enriched Puppy Protocol, and the difference that has made for those dogs, and then for the lives of all the people who are involved with those dogs, I think it's one of the most gratifying ever to know that the people in the kennels saw the difference with those puppies, the people who raised the puppies saw the difference, the trainers saw the difference when they came back in for training. But most deeply gratifying of all, the end user, the visually challenged person, they saw the difference. Some of them even called them the Clothier Model. So that a quiet little revolution that I set in motion starting back in 2007.
That's probably the thing I'm most proud of is the thousands and thousands and thousands of puppies who left their organizational kennels with a really strong light in their eyes and an interest in connecting, and a trust in humans, and skills to go out and be what they needed to be.
Melissa Breau: That's a big deal, yeah.
Suzanne Clothier: It's a very big deal.
Melissa Breau: My second hard question: What's the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?
Suzanne Clothier: That one's easy. That came from Linda Tellington-Jones. At the end of a ten-day training, it was the first companion animal training session that the TTouch organization did. We spent ten days outside Santa Fe with … I think there were twenty-one wolf hybrids who had hardly ever been touched, and some fearful Greyhounds, and that was a really interesting ten days. Let's just say that.
At the end of it, I approached — all my other work with her had been with horses — so I approached her at the end. She'd been watching me work, and I so wanted to be anywhere near as competent as she is with horses. It's never going to happen. I'd have to come back and live several more lifetimes, but it's a goal, right?
So I just asked her, "Do you have any advice for me?" I can still see her. She was standing there with a paper plate, eating some potato salad with a little plastic fork. She stabs a piece of potato and she looks at me, and she points the potato chunk at me, and she's like, "Yeah. Learn to train without ego." I was like, "Huh." It was one of those … I don't know if you've ever taken an arrow to the heart, emotionally speaking, but that was a really big arrow and it hit me dead-center and I've left it there.
Anytime I started to get cocky or think I was really good at it, either I would reach over and snap that arrow so that it would go back to resonating in my chest and remind me, or — God bless them — multiple horses and dogs and other critters have said, "Hey, did you forget about that part?"
Learn to train without ego. That's probably the best advice I ever got, because it's one of the things that gets in our way of learning. If we have our ego involved and we care about the outcome in a way that we stop being open to who the animal is and what they have to say, we will have made a very big mistake.
Anyone that's attended my seminars and watched me put on demos that it's like, "That is not at all what I thought would happen" knows that I'm pretty good at doing that. It's like, all right, then. That's what that animal actually did. So we're all good. Yeah, one of my all-time favorites: Learn to train without ego.
Melissa Breau: I like that. Final question: Who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?
Suzanne Clothier: That's a hard question. Paul McGreevy at University of Sydney in Australia is someone I respect immensely. He's so busy. If you Google his name, he's the co-author on about five thousand billion papers. He's such a smart and practical guy. He's a veterinarian, his first love is horses, his second love is dogs. He's just practical, realistic, and so brilliant. I think if I had someone I could just go spend a couple of days following around, it would probably be McGreevy.
I'm also a huge fan of Adam Miklosi. I think he and his group over there are asking some really interesting questions about dogs and cognition. Again, if I could follow him around for a few days, I would do that too.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Suzanne! This has been fascinating and interesting and fantastic.
Suzanne Clothier: I really appreciate it. I'm always flattered when someone as wildly successful — and deservedly so — as Denise finds my work of value, and I really appreciate the opportunity to share my little thoughts.
Melissa Breau: Thank you. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week. 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!