We're back with the second half of my interview with Denise and Shade about the state of positive training in the sports world today, the skills they feel dogs are missing that they need most in seminars and competition, and what people tend to overlook when training a sports dog.
(Picking up from the end of Part 1)
Denise Fenzi: I used to teach a three-hour-long class once a week. Oh my God, it was a lot of work. It was ring prep. We would go to a new location. As a group we would bring the table, we would bring the chairs, we would bring all the ring gates, we set up, we would bring a canopy. We literally set up a miniature match each week. It was a pain in the ass. We also brought food and alcohol, so that kind of took the sting off so we actually could have a good time. It ended up being just a party, but you had to set it up.
And in addition, I would spend a lot of time during the work thinking about what kind of additional proofing and generalization activities would we add to that. Like, we would bring costumes, we would do things to progress the dogs. And the reason I was willing to do that is because I was actively competing, and as a result of actively competing, I needed it for myself. I was working into the group and we all benefited enormously.
Nowadays I would have to go to a lot more effort, but I guarantee you, I would go to the effort. I would find people and create a group and make it happen because I recognize how important it is, and if we don't do it, we lose a lot.
And as Shade had said, it's not always the first show that it shows up. A lot of dogs think you have the food and toys, so that will map everything. They'll go in the ring and do it because they're waiting for you to come up with something. It's on the third show that a dog with even a tiny brain goes, "You know, it's not like it is in training."
I like to say some dogs are just exceptionally … let's just say optimistic rather than not the brightest bulbs. So those optimistic dogs, they'll stick it out. Maybe you'll even get ten shows out of them. But you know what? You're not going to get twenty. You're just not. The dog is going to figure it out. And unless the dog is stable as a rock, like nothing rocks that dog and that dog wants to stick it out, the dog is going to start to look around and say, "It's not like in training. This isn't fun. This is a high-stress environment." And then it goes to hell.
So the more you do this stuff … most dogs will always lose something in a trial. I personally have never owned a dog that could give me in a trial what they could give me in training, but then they've been able to give me enough. It's been close enough that I can get ring performances that are pretty, and that other people say, 'Wow, that's fantastic." I'm thinking to myself, "It's pretty good. It's not what it could be, but it's good enough for me. I'm happy."
And those things are tied together, so if you don't put in the time, you're just not going to get that.
Shade Whitesel: Yeah.
Melissa Breau: Go ahead, Shade. If you have more you want to add, go for it.
Shade Whitesel: I just wanted to say that I learned that lesson about the optimistic dogs, because Reiki was such a nice, stable dog and he did all his Schutzhund, and about that time I started training for utility and he blew up in the utility ring.
It was news to me because I was going through a very similar thing with his son that even the dog that I considered was bomb-proof in all that distraction told me at some point in his career that he knew very well he wasn't going to get rewarded and that he was absolutely confused about it.
And so it eventually happens. The dog can be the best dog ever and eventually they're like, "Hey, I don't understand something about this setup," or this day or something. So they still blow up eventually, if you work them long enough.
Denise Fenzi: They do. I know with Cisu she competed Novice, Open, Utility, and nine UDX legs and never failed trial, and that is quite an accomplishment with 25 OTCH points. And then she failed the next ten trials straight. So something happened, and if I had been paying a little attention, I would have seen it and I would've seen it getting a little worse and a little worse. And then it was just a disaster. That's when I had to get really serious about recognizing that I had taken advantage of a good dog for too long and eventually she couldn't do it for me anymore.
We did come back and we did get back in the ring and we did finish the title. But it really alerted me to the fact that even a good dog, a really good dog, you can only take advantage for so long before they say, "This is just not working."
Shade Whitsel: Yes, I entirely agree.
Melissa Breau: I want to circle back to something you were talking about a little bit earlier in the conversation. We were talking about this idea of teaching a dog to settle in position when not working and this idea of "not work, work soon, work." I just want to paint the picture a little bit more for people and what we're talking about, what that can look like and some of the different ways that that can … some of the different options. We mentioned a down-stay. I know personally I've started using a "go to mat" with Levi, my 2-year-old puppy. I know that Denise you've taught squish in the past. Maybe you could start by explaining what squish is so that I don't have to. Do you want to start just painting that picture a little more?
Denise Fenzi: When I teach a seminar, I always tell people at the beginning of the day how the day will be structured. The first thing we talk about, I say, "When it's your turn, here's what's going to happen. I want you to stay sitting in your seat. There's no reason for you to leap up. You're just going to get yourself all nervous. So sit down. Tell me what you want to work on. Now I'm going to ask you some questions. You're going to answer the questions. I'm going to let other people in the audience ask questions about your problem and about things I've said."
And your dog, by the way, is crated this entire time and you're sitting. Now I'm going to give you a plan. I'm going to tell you what I want you to do from the moment you stand up. And I will tell you. You're going to get your dog out of the crate. You're going to face your dog. You're going to do this, you're going to do this, you're going to do this. You're going to walk to the entrance to the ring. You're going to do this, that, and the other. You're going to come into the ring and I will have given you the first step. I should not even be there.
As far as you know, all of that, you're still sitting in your seat. The reason I do that, one, I find that people can hear me better because they're more relaxed. As soon as they stand up, they get very self-conscious. But the second thing is I want you to act with authority. I want you to go to your dog like you know what you're doing. And I don't think your dog needs to participate in this conversation, honestly. I mean, what is your dog going to add? "Oh Mom, you forgot to tell her about the time ..." That's not going to happen.
So by the time you get in the ring, and in addition, I say, now if you get muddled or if you have completed my instructions, then you need to have a plan. And so we have a conversation about that. Here are some of your choices. You can put your dog on a down-stay, a sit-there-stand, you can send your dog to mat.
You can have a leash holder. That means somebody else has already been selected from the audience who's already ready in the ring. So when you get muddled or confused, you walk over, you hand the leash-holder your dog, you walk away a few steps so the dog understands. You can bring your crate to the edge of the ring, and then you're going to crate your dog every time we have a conversation.
You can squish your dog. Some dogs have been trained that going between your legs, or being squished against your body, or being picked up if they're small, means that you're not going to work right yet, but you're going to work in a moment. It's a ready position, it's an almost-ready, and then we're going to go back to work. These are so important to me. I don't care which one you have.
What I have noticed is that 10 years ago, let's say, in the old days of mostly teaching obedience, I would say 80 percent of people had a down-stay, unless it was a puppy. And so that was the option that most of them took. They would come out, we would do their thing, they would have a question, they would stop, they would down their dogs, they would turn to me and we would have a conversation, and then we would go back to work.
What I have discovered in the new days is that at this point I would say less than 20 percent of the dogs I have in a seminar have a down-stay, which is shocking, actually. And as a result of not having a down-stay, we can't have a conversation. We can't have spaces in-between. So then they crate their dog and they come back and their dog starts to bark because their dogs have not been crate-trained. OK, fine. So we try a leash-holder. Nobody has ever done that. They don't have that. They haven't taught squishing yet. And so we end up spending more of our energy trying to figure out what to do about the dog. What I usually do — because it's a seminar, I only have so much time — I say, "Don't worry about it. Just hold on to your dog's collar and we'll talk about this later." And we ignore it because that's just the way it has to be. Sometimes I have to continue, even though it's not the way it should be.
I actually find it disturbing that people have stopped teaching their dog a basic stay. And when I say stay, if you have to drop another cookie between your dogs paws every five seconds, then you haven't trained the behavior. So teach your dog to stay. And you say, "But what do I do if it gets up?" Well put him back. That's not so horrible, is it?
Your dog does have to learn it. Teach it any way, however you feel most comfortable. You can extend the time between reinforcers, whatever works for you. But at the end of the day, you really do need a stay. And if you cannot or will not teach one, then you should get in the habit of bringing a crate and putting the dog in the crate, because if you don't, I think you're going to have a terrible time, not just at seminars, but at any training situation where you need to interact, or anytime you need to change and move equipment or talk to a fellow student.
It just seems so difficult to get through, if you don't have a really basic short waiting stay. I don't mean an active stay. An active stay is I'm putting you on the start line in agility and both of us are on our game. That's like a runner on the start line. That's not exactly relaxed. It's ready to explode. I want the other kind. I need a stay that's just chill. Just hang out. Call it what you want. But it's critical. It's so important. It doesn't have to be a down-stay; I just find it the easiest. Pick something that works for you and use it.
Melissa Breau: Shade?
Shade Whitesel: I don't have much to add because I would have said the very exact thing that Denise just said. I see the exact thing and I see that they used to have a down-stay and they don't anymore. And then it becomes exactly like Denise said: it becomes about trying to handle that situation. And then in a seminar situation, we as instructors tend to go, "OK, we need to move on here. We need to ignore that part." And again, just exactly what Denise said: the handler can't give you a hundred percent attention because the dog is barking in the crate, or they're barking on their station, or they're doing all this attention-seeking.
So I want to point out that we want to have some clarity, that we want to teach that piece as handlers for our dogs, and we want to eventually make that piece — down-stay, station, crate, whatever it is — not being reinforced, because I don't want the dog thinking that that is part of work. I don't want the dog trying to shuffle and get more treats or put its head down and get more treats.
I think, Denise, you wrote a blog about this recently, just about the seeking reinforcement, where if we do teach that, "Hey, wait your turn," or "Go over there while I talk to the instructor," if we teach that and we don't get the reinforcement out of it, then we've got a dog who is still working. That kind of dog who's shuffling, barking, doing all this stuff to get what eventually becomes random treats, they're still working, and they can't give their utmost attention to what I want to teach them as an instructor or handler.
Am I making sense here? I feel like I'm stumbling over my words, but that's really what I see that I want to add to what Denise said is make that down-stay such an easy, fluent behavior that you don't have to reinforce it. So then the dog can go, "OK, I know how to do this. Now I put my actual brain towards what new thing we're trying to learn."
Denise Fenzi: There's two pieces I want to add to that, Shade. The first one is … I know this is maybe inflammatory, but in my opinion, when we keep reinforcing those behaviors — those down-stays — when we don't want to, but we're doing it because the dog is doing reinforcement seeking-behavior, like, "I'm putting my head down. Does that work for you? I'm rolling on my side. Does that work for you?" and we keep reinforcing because now we're nervous, in my opinion we are creating anxiety. And the reason we are creating anxiety is because we actually have no criteria because we really don't want to be reinforcing any of it.
But we keep doing it because we don't know what else to do, because our dogs don't know how to settle. So rather than teaching what we want, which is, "Just chill, nothing's going to happen," we're teaching the dogs to, in a scattered manner, throw things at us. "I put my head down, I put my head up, I whined, I rolled over" — the poor dog is like, "Which one of these things are you looking for? Because last time, me putting my head down and looking cute worked, but this time it's wagging my tail, because you know that I wag my tail before I stand up." We're creating problems.
Clarity: you're on a down-stay. So then people say, "What do I do if he gets up?" You put him back. It's not a big deal. You put him back. What if he gets up again? You put him in his crate. What if he starts to bark? I would put him in the car. If he's barking because he wants out again, that's not going to happen. And you know what? If you are consistent, your dog will learn so quickly. Nothing's going to happen. I get to stay here and do nothing.
And I do turn my back on my dog. I don't look at my dogs on their settle, because that is part of my cue to my dog that I'm doing something else. And then at home, I totally do this. This is totally true, but you'll never see it on a video. I talk to myself in the mirror. I have a mirror in my training area. My dog is on a down-stay behind me. I can see him because I'm looking at the mirror. And the reason I'm talking to the mirror is to practice the behavior of talking to other people.
I just stipulate … like … this is why my neighbors don't talk to me — because I do really weird things. I'm out in the yard, talking to myself, moving my hands around, pacing back and forth, and I expect my dog to hold that down-stay. Now my dogs understand because I've trained it this way. You can train what you want. When I turn, stop moving, and look at them, that means I'm about to release you. That is when you're going to get your reinforcement for that nice down-stay.
So that lovely, settled, quiet down-stay you did leads to an opportunity for work, and that leads to your opportunity for reinforcement. It's not that the settle is not reinforced, it's reinforced with the opportunity to work, and if you've done your job right and you've made training interesting, it's a perfectly fluid thing that your dog will understand.
This is not a misery — oh my God, poor dog put back. We're talking in half a minute here, your dog learns that the release from that quiet settle is what leads to work, and that is the piece I would suggest you lengthen. Not more cookies on the mat. The only cookie my dog gets for that down-stay is the one that put them in the down-stay. I will give a cookie for that, no problem. That's the last one from the beginning it's the release. And now we're going to work, and now you're going to get reinforced. That's the pattern I want to see, and that is the one I think people should strive for.
Shade Whitesel: I couldn't agree more. Exactly. And put that piece of turning your back. Start with two seconds, if you want. You turn your back and then you look at the dog, you wait a second and then you release, so that it just becomes clear: when my owner is not looking at me or talking in the mirror or talking on the phone and I do the exact same thing.
It's that you actually have to teach it. I have the client who, the dog was getting up and couldn't stay, and I couldn't talk to her because the dog was getting up and wandering around. I said, "Look, this is what we need to do." It was before I had a better idea of exactly how I would teach clients to do this, but it was like night and day. She had lessons every other week. Her dog couldn't do a down-stay in-between. She came back and the dog was so fluent on that behavior and I said, "What happened?" And she said, "I actually trained it when I'm training at home."
So you need to train it before you get to class. It doesn't have to be part of every training situation, but it needs to at least be taught enough in a training situation without other people there that doing it in a class situation, or the seminar situation, it's a scenario that your dog has already seen privately in your front yard or in a training area.
Denise Fenzi: It doesn't even take that much, does it? I mean it's fast. It dogs figure this out in a week or two, the basic pattern. It's not a big deal. And then you're going to go, 'Why didn't I do this a year ago?" This is so straightforward. Not hard.
Shade Whitesel: Totally. Yes.
Denise Fenzi: Another thought about crating. I know, again, I'm an outlier on this one. I do not reinforce my dogs in their crates. To describe my preference, I will give a dog a chew in a crate, like a marrowbone or something to entertain them. But I will not drop in cookies, and here's why. If I was laying on my bed and you wanted me to go to sleep, and every time I started to relax, you came in and handed me an M&M, that's going to make me go, "Oh, well, OK." And every time you walk by, I'm going to think, "I wonder if I'm getting an M&M." Now am I thinking about sleeping, or am I thinking about you walking by and getting M&Ms?
The bed is for sleeping. I want my dog's crate to be for sleeping, for relaxing. Chew your little bone and then you fall asleep. And again, I'm talking about a normal dog; we'll get to that in a minute. I will ignore a certain amount of screaming in the crate. Now if it gets out of control or the dog is obviously distressed, that's different. But distressed is different than "I want out because I'd rather be out." Those aren't the same thing.
So, in my dogs crates, they can have chews, they can have toys, but they don't get random reinforcement in the form of cookies from me because I think you're having exactly the opposite effect. And one thing I would say that kind of reinforces my belief about this: there's an incredible amount of crate problems lately that I have not seen in the past. It just seems like dogs cannot relax in their crates unless their owners are sitting there or using their Treat-and-Train.
Now that's the typical dog. Typical dog is most dogs. I totally understand there are atypical dog. Atypical dogs have weird behaviors and weird tweaks. If your dog is atypical, you train it like an atypical dog. Then I have no problem with your Treat-and-Train and dropping in cookies, because your behavior situation is not normal. But don't assume abnormal behavior if your dog has not given reason to indicate it's abnormal. Treat it like a normal dog.
I've never done any of that crate reinforcement stuff. Never. And I have never had a dog with crate problems. They're very happy in their crates. They're very relaxed. They don't spend a lot of time in their crates. That probably helps. I'm not a heavy crate-er, so they don't get anxious about, "Oh God, she's going to lock me up for another 12 hours." I don't do that. But please, be rethinking your strategies, because I do think we are inadvertently creating the same anxiety in crates, where the dog is trying to figure out how to get food out of you, that I see people creating en masse with the subtle behaviors.
Shade Whitesel: Denise isn't an outlier because I feel the same way.
Melissa Breau: I wanted to stick in a testimonial for the mat or down-stay thing, because you were talking about it, and I just want to say that I just started actually doing this with Levi, and I frequently say I adore him, he's a fantastic pet dog, but he is not the smartest, brightest bulb in the pack, so it sometimes takes him a little bit longer to learn things than it does other dogs. And having a "go to mat" behavior that happens multiple times during a session anytime I need a minute to think or he starts to get frantic, and before we work every single time that starts the process, has incredibly improved our training. Our training is more productive, more efficient, and very definitely it makes it easier for him to work. And it's taken two weeks.
Denise Fenzi: That's excellent. That makes me happy.
Shade Whitesel: It's really good to hear that.
Melissa Breau: Part of it came from I've talked to you guys about some of this stuff, and part of it came from I'm doing Sarah's All The Sports class, and it's made a huge difference.
Shade Whitesel: Good. It's good that we're all thinking the same way. I have a couple dogs that get downright aggressive in certain situations, and teaching them a really solid "go wait your turn" on a station without reinforcement has been incredibly helpful to put structure into those particular dogs and get rid of the dangerous behavior that really was probably a form of attention-seeking behavior. Once we took the reinforcement out of it and they knew what to expect, they could put their attention into the work rather than attention into aggressive seeking-attention behavior on the mat.
Denise Fenzi: Also, since you mentioned that, I had a dog who, when she got frustrated, would come up at me, and I don't mean with aggression; it was not aggression, it was anxiety. But if you were an outsider watching, what you saw was a dog who lost control of her emotions and she would start snapping in my face and just getting anxious, but truly, it's not aggressive.
However, the solution was simple: "Down." I would say "down," and she'd literally collapse into a down. By stopping movement, by stopping her physical movement, it allowed her to get control of her body, control of her brain, and then I would just hold her there, say, "Good, quiet," no food. It's not that the food would have hurt; it just wouldn't have helped. Everything calmed down, everything stopped moving, and for that dog, stopping movement is what allowed her to get a hold of her body and her brain, and then we could go back to work in a productive way.
I don't know what I would have done if I didn't have a way to stop her physical movement. I don't know what I would've done. I think I physically would have had to hold her by her collar or her neck. I would have had to hold her down, and then that creates the potential for panic, because externally applied control is different than internally applied.
So if you have a dog that has behavioral issues, it doesn't even matter if it's shy, aggressive over-aroused. The ability to stop the dog's movement instantly could be just a game-changer for many people.
Shade Whitesel: Yeah. And to know that, or to do that and use that, your dog had to know "down" and know a little bit of down-stay. So you had to train it a little bit before, which is exactly what we're seeing. It's just not trained. And if we have that onboard in our younger dogs, then we can use those skills to deal with some of the stuff that inevitably comes up with any dog. So just an important piece that I want people to train more.
Melissa Breau: I want to take a step back and look at are there other pieces that handlers often overlook? Are there other things that are part of this conversation but maybe we haven't touched on, or haven't gone into in as much detail, that are just as important for a successful ring performance as those ring behaviors that of course everybody actually does want to train. Shade, do you want to start this one off?
Shade Whitesel: I am starting to feel a little more strongly about … I'm just going to call it: loose leash walking, getting from the car somehow, and I might call it loose leash walking. I'm not sure that it has to be loose leash walking, but I think it has to be the piece of how do you get some movement in there? Because there's getting from the car to the facility, getting to your crate, and then the coming out of the crate piece, and how do you get to the ring.
For me, I want a predictable start of "get into the ring," but that looks different if I have to crate far away, because somehow I have to get the dog from the crate to the place where I'm waiting my turn. Does that make sense? That's often a thing where I see people are really tight-leashing their dogs, or if they aren't tight-leashing their dogs, the dogs are running up on other dogs.
I think it's part etiquette for me. We need to be training good etiquette of how to walk your dog past tight situations and not run them up against other dogs. But we also again need to teach the dog how to control themselves in those situations so you're not getting dragged through that situation or your dog isn't running up on other dogs. I think that right now, currently, I want it for safety, etiquette reasons. With my own dogs, it's a good gauge of how my dog is feeling, and how much I have their head, if they can or cannot walk with some control to the "wait your turn" spot.
Hopefully I'm being clear about what I'm talking about. It's more apparent when you have a crate far away and get to the ring, because you normally don't want to heel the whole way. So that piece, I think, needs to be taught and I think gets overlooked with a lot of people. I'm not talking about loose leash walking out about. I'm talking about how do you transport your dog from crate to where they wait their turn.
Melissa Breau: And you're almost using that as a … not a ready to work sequence, but like a meter of whether your dog is actually ready to walk in that ring and have a clear head, right?
Shade Whitesel: Yeah, because if I'm thinking protection-wise, and my Shutzhund dog has to, you know, they know other dogs are doing protection, they're hearing it in their cars, and then they get out and I'm trying to get … I know I'm, like, two dogs from being up there, but I've got to get to the field and my dog is a hot mess, which for my dogs means vocalizing, pulling, can mean — if I didn't train it — on their hind legs, pulling me or something. They're not going to out, put it that way. I'm going to have more of a problem outing or coming. For Ones, I'm going to have an issue coming into the blind clean. So it became really important to me to train that piece, because I had in the past not trained that piece.
Denise Fenzi: I'm so glad you brought that up. Shade. One, I didn't know you had that opinion, but the second thing is the two dogs I have now are the first dogs I've had loose leash walking on, and that's kind of appalling, but it's true. The reason is I didn't need it because I could always say "heel," and then my dog would work their little butt off and stand in position. But it put all the responsibility on me, because then I literally had to structure every second once they were out of the crate, because the dog had not learned how to take responsibility for acting well without being under control.
So the thing you said that stuck me — the two I have now, what I've discovered with loose leash walking is it's a fantastic way to teach the dog how to keep me on the radar without me telling them what to do. I only need to be enough on the radar that you keep the leash loose. I don't know exactly how much that is, but what I do know is that it had a wonderful effect on my current dog's behavior.
So my reactive dog — he's not anymore, but anyway — a huge part of dealing with his reactivity was teaching him to walk on a loose leash. It's critical. And for me, the first step is you have to have loose leash walking, because if you don't, as soon as that leash tightens, all your bad behaviors come up because you get opposition reflex, all kinds of stuff comes with that.
But it also is a matter of tossing me off the radar. When you keep your leash loose, it means you're watching the world with some percentage of your brain and you are aware of me with another percentage of your brain. And I could just watch the dog and see how hard that is. And once I know how you're walking on a leash, it's the same as playing tug. When I play tug with the dog, I know how much dog I have. I can tell by how they play. It's how standard is it.
But walking on a leash does exactly the same thing for me. And now I can't believe I didn't teach all my dogs to walk on a loose leash, because I just think it creates a degree of comfort and it's calm. It's like if you're walking with another person and they stick out their hand and they're pulling on your shirt, I mean, how irritating is that? You can walk together without tension. And that loose leash has become super-important to me. I will never discount that again because it's had benefits that I would say go way beyond getting rid of the annoyance of being dragged.
And again, it is something I teach with a little bit of food initially, but really, I'm not reinforcing loose leash walking. I expect loose leash walking. Your reinforcer is an opportunity to be out and we are going places. So the reinforcement might be direct. I let you sniff and wander. I got no problem with that. Or it might be we're going to the training area and then we're going to work.
But I think the days of having a dog pull hard on the leash are well and truly over from me, especially if I look at … because I'm working on … I'm redoing my engagement webinar, and so I'm looking at one of my acclimation videos where Brito is exploring an area and he's pulling hard on the leash, and I'm realizing that shouldn't be in there. That should not be happening anymore. There's no reason for that, and it's taking me off the radar too much. I should be more a part of that picture. So I'm really glad you brought that up.
The second one I would say that I think people should be training and that they're not is how to handle it when things go badly. It doesn't matter if it's in the ring or whatever, but if your dog fails an exercise and it's a failure that the dog can't not be aware of, so for example, you did your signal exercise in utility. You gave your recall cue. The dog did not come in. Well, the dog is now sitting out there abandoned. You need to have a plan.
So I would like people to have a plan. My advice would be just signal again. What, you think if you wait four seconds, the dog's going to come? It's not going to happen. It never does. I don't know why the judge waits, I do, you do, we all sit there looking at each other. All you're doing is building stress in your dog.
Have a plan. If things go wrong, what are you going to do? My advice would be that your plan be a cheerful one, because now you're in the ring and there's nothing you can do anyway. So feeling sad and expressing disappointment, you're just ruining the ring experience. I just cheerfully say, "What happened?" and we move on to the next exercise.
But regardless of what you choose, I'd really like to encourage you to have a plan for handling it, if it doesn't go the way you thought it was going to go. And then consider the long-term ramifications of your choices.
Melissa Breau: And that may be different choices, depending on whether you're talking training or competition, right, Denise?
Denise Fenzi: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. Well, you know I've got this big thing about that. To the audience: Shade, Melissa, and I chatted quite a bit about this before we started the podcast. It's amazing we get anything done because we spend so much time running off in random directions. But we do.
The whole issue of inadvertently creating behavior chains by how we handle errors in training. So if your dog looks away and you quietly wait for your dog to look back and you continue, things like that, those are behavior chains, and don't be surprised when they show up in the ring. But that, I think is a different topic and I'm afraid if we run off in that direction, we'll be here for three more hours, so I won't.
Shade Whitesel: I'll rein us back in by saying yes, have a plan for what goes wrong in competition and how you're going to handle that. Because when you sit there and you're paralyzed, most of the time ring trials can be one event learning for your dog. So if you allow the chain to continue that chain may not show up in training because the dog's going to put that to the trial situation. Next time you trial you think you fixed it, but it comes up because it's one of event learning because it's so hard to reproduce that trial situation.
So it's really important to … you don't have to have a plan for everything, but if you think your dog might mess up or something. or just have a set thing you do that doesn't have ramifications for the next trial. I think that's really important.
I've built with Ones, because of the type of dog he is, I've built several behaviors that can be my Plan B behaviors if something's going wrong, and I go on to a setup or a trial field knowing exactly how I'm going to handle that. It makes me feel better as well. It makes me very confident with how I'm going to trial this particular dog. And I think it just makes you feel better. So having a plan as well as a competitor.
Denise Fenzi: I've also noticed in a seminar situation, when things are going to hell, sometimes what I'll tell the student is, "Can you put your dog back in the crate?" and they'll crate their dog again. I'll say, "Let's start over, and this time I'm going to give you two sets of directions for coming into this ring. The first one is if it goes right and the second one is if it goes wrong. This is how I want you to handle it."
And the most amazing thing happens. Almost always, when they get the dog out, the dog nails it, and I think the reason is they changed their demeanor. They lose that "Oh my God, I hope this goes right" because they calm them themselves down and I can literally watch them walk over to the crate, smile a little bit, and bring their dog out like, "Go ahead, try doing it that way."
It's not like I'm going to do anything mean. I don't do mean things. But that's not the point. The point is we have a plan and the dog looks at them like, "You know, I think I'll just do it the right way," because somehow I just know, because when people have a plan, they project a level of confidence and sureness that dogs read. I call this leadership. The dog reads it and they know it's going … you have a structure and therefore it's OK.
So that's a huge reason to have a plan for things going wrong, because it avoids the deer in the headlights bunny thing that so many handlers do when things go … and I have, believe me, I've been caught up in it. I see my dog do things and I just didn't see it coming, and so for two seconds I stand there going, "Uh, uh, uh …" But you want to learn from those experiences and have a pattern that you put in place so that you do have a plan if it happens. We're all going to get caught flat-footed sometimes, so try and minimize it is the ticket here.
Shade Whitesel: Well, and that's why we notice it — because we've all done it. So learn from our mistakes, because it happens. We're like paralyzed, we don't know what to do, and we go, "Next time I might have a plan for if that goes south."
Denise Fenzi: Exactly.
Melissa Breau: So are there other things we talked about — for example, constantly reinforcing when the dog's in a down-stay or in the crate — things that handlers maybe are doing that are counterproductive when you step back and look at that bigger picture. Denise, do you want to kick this one off?
Denise Fenzi: I would say the number one thing I see that handlers could do, that they do that causes them grief, is that they don't pay attention. We have high expectations of attention and focus from our dog and yet we don't actually hold ourselves to the same standards. I say, "I'd like you to change something," and they stop looking at their dog, look right at me, completely disregard their dog, and then proceed to have a conversation with me.
The number of handlers that do this in a seminar is pushing 90 percent. And I would say that is in spite of the fact that I am harping on it: Stay with your dog, stay with your dog, stay with your dog. I cannot tell you how many times I say that in a seminar. A lot. And I warn you up front: I need you to stay with your dog, institute your plan — down-stay, crate, whatever — and then have a conversation with me.
The inability for humans to stay connected to their dog is in direct proportion to the inability of the dog to stay connected to their handler. And people say, "Oh no, I don't do that." Yes you do. Look out a videotape and look where you're looking. Where are you engaging? How can you possibly do a class for an hour with your dog out? Honest to God, is there a person on the planet who can actually pay attention to their dog for one hour? We expect that of our dog. I don't know anybody who can do it. We would go crazy with the amount of attention that we're requiring.
So all those lovely breaks we're building in, those don't just benefit the the dog. That's your break too. But in the meantime, go ahead and watch the video of your training and then count how many times you disengaged from your dog when you shouldn't have. You were setting up stuff, so you turned your back on your dog and walked away.
I actually have a video that was again sent to me from my disengagement webinar and it was sent as an example of the dog disengaging. What happened was she was walking forward, setting something up, turned her back, walked three more steps, and her dog ran off. She sent it to me as an example of her dog disengaging, and my response to her … I was kind about it, but my response was, "Actually, that's an example of you disengaging from your dog. The dog responded to your disengagement." And she said, "Oh, you're right."
If you could change that, if every handler could stay connected with their dog when they are out in a working training situation, your scores would skyrocket, your training would go through the roof in terms of your dog's ability to attend to you. So there's my one free piece of advice that will dramatically improve your training if you can do it. And it sounds easy, but it's hard.
Shade Whitesel: To build on that, I had exactly the same experience as Denise, but what I tell people is that if you need to attend your dog, cut me off. It's OK, as an instructor, if I'm trying to cut in, and I know. So I know that people get it when they actually hold up a hand. They attend to their dog without attending to me. And I like that. And then I'm like, "Yeah, good training decision!"
I don't know whether people want to be so polite to the instructor or something that they feel like they need to abandon their dog to talk to us. I don't know. But I love it when they attend to their dog more than me, unless they don't have a down-stay and it's up, down, up, down, up, down.
But one thing I want to say that I find that handlers do that's counterproductive is paying way too much reinforcement for easy behaviors and then expecting really hard behaviors and not paying enough. It goes back to that stationing or squish or down-stay or whatever we want to call it, and I think all those pieces. But once you have trained that, take the reinforcement out of it so that you're not giving them twenty cookies for staying in a down-stay and then giving them one cookie for fifty steps of heeling.
I just want people to maybe think of it as paying for effort. A good example I always bring up in seminars is when your baby puppy sits, they deserve a piece of food because it's one unit of effort for that baby puppy to sit. It's huge. Maybe they deserve five pieces of food for sitting. But when your 4-year-old dog sits, I don't think they should be getting a cookie for sitting, because that is like 100th of an effort. So maybe they do one hundred sits and maybe you give them a cookie on that hundredth one, or maybe you reinforce in another way — now we get to heel, or whatever.
I just want people to start realizing and raising their criteria for the reinforcement according to the actual effort their dog is putting in. That would be my thing that I'm starting to try to get across to people.
Denise Fenzi: You know, I love that, Shade, and what I'm seeing with that same thing, the first thing is I ask people as they hand the dog a cookie, "What was that cookie for?" I find that helpful because it makes them aware. They don't even know they're doing it.
But the other thing is we talk so much about breaking out pieces and working on them, but I think that's being misunderstood to mean reinforce each piece. It is true that if you're working on fronts, just work on fronts: call, front, reward, call, front, reward. That's not what we're talking about. It's once you're using that front within a chain, the expectation needs to be there, but the cookie is not going to happen. It's going to happen after the finish or after the finish plus heeling.
So again, this clarity thing: What are you working on? If you're working on fronts, then fine, work on fronts and feed them all. I've got no issues there. But if you're working on behavior chains, which by the way needs to be a much greater percentage of people's training than what I'm seeing, then you shouldn't be reinforcing those small pieces.
I think that might be where the misunderstanding has taken place. People think that when we say we're working on foundation pieces that they're rewarding them within the chain, but that's not correct. Once you're working chains, you should actually be working chains. Otherwise, how do you really think the dog is going to go to a trial? You're going to work for five or ten minutes and I know, "Oh, he's going get the cookies outside the ring." Yeah, no, that's not going to work.
It's only going to work if in training, as a regular part of your training, you were doing those long stretches, and fine, rewarding outside the ring if you want. But you can't work behavior chains once a week with the cookies outside the ring and then have 98 percent of your training time where you're feeding absolutely everything. All you're going to do is make your dog resentful about behavior chain time. They should be a regular part of your training, which is a separate bit from working on your foundation skills, which you should work on. But as you're getting closer to trial, I should be seeing a whole lot more behavior chains and a whole lot less foundation training.
Melissa Breau: Right.
Shade Whitesel: I totally agree. And especially that six weeks before trial, you need to put that — I call it sequencing — you need to put sequencing into your training, and it needs to become part of it, so that the dog … again, it's all about clarity and expectations. If your dog expects a treat all the time after ten steps of heeling, then how are you going to get the 3-minute heeling that's going on? So it's about training that piece and having your … it's about expectations, but also being a … it's good training. is what I'm going to say.
Denise Fenzi: Yes. Being clear with expectations is good training!
Melissa Beau: We've talked about a lot of stuff and a big range of pieces, so I want to give you each a chance to summarize some of the ideas or one of the ideas or pick something out that you thought was particularly important. If listeners were to take away one key idea or one short snippet from this conversation, what would you want them to walk away with? Shade, I'm going to have you go first.
Shade Whitesel: Break down the behaviors that you're going need to get your dog from crating to walking from Point A to Point B to having a predictable ritual that gets them into the ring or that asks them how they're doing. Know those signs and train each one of those behaviors separately and then use them.
So know that if your dog isn't good at crating or finds it difficult to sleep in the crate, then train that and break that down for what your individual plan is going to be and what your individual dog is going to need. Just put some time into those sexy life skills and know that they're important.
I said 99.9 percent people are training the ring behaviors, Denise said 90 percent, and just make that a much more even ratio where you're putting all those pre- getting into the ring behaviors that encompass the whole day of a seminar or trial into your training, and not have it be 1 percent or 10 percent of the time you put into it. That's my thing.
Melissa Breau: Denise?
Denise Fenzi: In addition to that, I'm just going to add in a different direction, constantly compare what you're working on to where you're going and make sure that you're flowing in the right direction. You need to be working on your life skills, and you should be adding those to your behavior chains, and you should be adding those to your generalization, and you should be adding those to your own behavior. And then comparing that against where it is you're trying to go. If you know where trying to go and what that looks like, without even making a ton of effort, you should be slowly flowing in that direction to getting yourself ready to trial, I think, if you put all that together.
The other thing I want to say … it's not an apology, but it's going to feel a little bit like that. I want you to think about the position of a dog trainer like me, a professional trainer, or a professional trainer like Shade, and how we come to the things we tell people and the things we recommend. That is a constant state of flux based on what we are seeing happening in the world, and so the advice we give will often be based on compensation.
For example, when I first started training 30 or 40 years ago and things were really brutal I would have been saying "More food, more food, more food." because it is what needed to be said at that time because it was the dominant problem. Now, as I'm looking at the pendulum, it swung the other direction. More and more I'm finding myself saying, "More structure, less food."
And so, in way of an apology, I would like to say that there's no doubt in my mind I have said things in the past ten years that I would not say today. I wouldn't say they're extreme, but recognize that if you're hearing things in this conversation that made you say, "I never got the feeling you meant to say that," understand it's because within each audience and within each time, we're trying to give you what we think you need to hear, based on what we see around us, and that that's in flux. And that's, to me, good dog training — the willingness to evaluate what we're seeing and saying, "You know, I think we went too far," and maybe evaluating your own training, and it's OK to have the same conversation with yourself and to say, "You know, I think I went too far with this freedom thing or choice. Maybe it's time for more structure," and recognize that that's a good thing, not a bad thing. It's a good thing to be evaluating your situation and making changes.
Shade Whitesel: I think that's such a good point. Sometimes what I say in seminar and in class, I say, "The trainer I am today would recommend this, but ask me again in a year. I may have a different answer because we're all constantly changing." I'm always changing up how I'm going to train something, teach something to my dog, how I'm going to teach it to clients or students. And I think that's a good thing because I'm constantly seeking for an easier different way to do it, and what I'm seeing in the world or my culture of sports or whatever is a reflection of that. And that's constantly changing too.
Melissa Breau: Last question here, and you ladies just segued it beautifully for me. What is something that you've recently learned or been reminded of when it comes to training. I think Denise it's your turn to start first.
Denise Fenzi: Well, I use Brito as my experimental dog because it's easy to do and he's here. And actually it's exactly what I said in the last question. What I have learned by making some conscious choices and not just making them going back and forth, so I would do one thing for a week and then I would go back to an old way for a week and come back. It has made me realize that I need to feel comfortable and free to go back to things I did, and let's say the old days minus the corrections, because I don't do that anymore. But thinking patterns I had in the old days that I gave up, I'm realizing I need to bring some of them back. I know I talked about that at camp this year. Some of those things, as I've experimented I said, "No, I'm heading back to the new way." But the willingness to do that, I think, has been really, really helpful and valuable. And the fact that I have a dog that I don't plan to compete with is hugely valuable because I don't care. I just don't care if I mess things up. You can always put them back.
But it's reminded me how important it is to stay open-minded, and as Shade said, ask me in a year. I may well have a different opinion and I'm not going to be embarrassed about it. I accept that as learning and growth, and it worries me if people hang on something I say, "But Denise said," because sometimes it gets pretty messed up. But the other thing is because maybe I'm not seeing it today and that's not bad. It's change. It's good. Be open to that.
Melissa Breau: Shade?
Shade Whitesel: I honestly, a bit like Denise, don't throw away all the old stuff I used to do, and I feel like I'm always changing my dog, depending upon what dog I have.
Ones is a dog that went to arousal very quickly, so I spent a lot of time training him, getting him to bring his arousal down, and asking him the questions and not masking his discomfort in the world with reinforcers.
The younger dog I have now, Talic, is teaching me again the value of conditioning arousal for certain parts. Like, I want my dog to be able to tell me how they feel without masking their arousal. But maybe in the ring I want lots of arousal. So because he's not a dog that goes from 0 to 60, he's a much more level, clear-headed dog, and so for him I'm bringing a lot more conscious teaching and conditioning of Schutzhund fields look like toy toy toy. That's my way of saying don't throw everything away that we learned twenty years ago or whenever. You may find a dog that you bring it back in, and it's important. So that's all really cool.
Denise Fenzi: Yes, it is.
Melissa Breau: Thank you so much, ladies. I really appreciate you doing this. I think it was a super-interesting conversation, so thank you for making the time.
Denise Fenzi: Oh, I had a great time. Thank you for having us.
Shade Whitesel: Yeah, thanks.
Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Julie Daniels to talk about When To Go: The Secret Behind Awesome Stays and Start Lines.
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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!