It's fun to start new behaviors - but often we get distracted (or frustrated!) and never take those behaviors through to completion. Julie and I talk about how to avoid that problem and how to actually reach those long-held training goals.
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 Julie Flanery.
Julie has been working professionally with dogs and their handlers since 1993. She focuses on the needs of the dog and helping people form a strong relationship through clear communication and positive reinforcement.
She has placed Obedience, Freestyle, Rally-Obedience, Rally-FrEe, Parkour, Agility, and Trick Dog titles on her dogs. She began competing in Musical Freestyle in 1999, and was the first to both title and earn a Heelwork to Music Championship on the West Coast. In 2001 she was named "Trainer of the Year" by the World Canine Freestyle Organization and has been a competition freestyle judge since 2003.
Five years ago, Julie developed the sport of Rally-FrEe to help freestylers increase the quality and precision of their performances. It has since become a stand-alone sport enjoyed by dog sport enthusiasts all over the world. Julie has been a workshop and seminar presenter both nationally and internationally. She currently trains and competes with her Tibetan Terrier in both Musical Freestyle and Rally-FrEe.
So welcome back to the podcast Julie!
Julie Flanery: Thanks, Melissa.
Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you just share a little bit of information about the dogs you share your life with and what you're working on with them?
Julie Flanery: Kashi is my 9-year-old Tibetan Terrier, and she has competed for the last seven years in Musical Freestyle and Rally-FrEe, along with getting her Trick Dog titles and some Parkour titles in there as well. We have finished up our Elite Grand Champion Rally-FrEe title and have also completed our Musical Freestyle Championship, working on our Veteran Grand Championship, and then also working on our In Sync or Heelwork to Music Champion class also. So she is a very skilled dog.
However, she is 9 years old now, and I'm having to really look a little bit about what is in her best interest as we get up into these higher levels. I'm asking her to do more things in a routine and more difficult things in a routine. And so I'm seeing where I need to adjust my expectations a little bit with her and maybe choreograph a little bit differently for her.
She's had some health issues throughout her life, and specifically having to do with food and food sensitivities. And so trying to find reinforcement that is of value enough for her to really work through some of these difficult things I'm asking of her at this point in her career has been a real challenge for both her and I. And I think we're just now starting to get a handle on it and look at some appropriate expectations for her and looking towards retirement for her and just enjoying some of the fun things we like to do.
She still enjoys to train, she still enjoys the work, but I think performance in live competitions is starting to subside now that we're at those … we've met a lot of those accomplishments that we've wanted to meet, and she's getting on in her years, but still very active in the mind and body and still wants to train. So we're working through some transitions with her.
Which brings me to Phee, who is my newest puppy, and Phee is 18 months old now. I've had her since she was about 5 months old, and I think she's really starting to become a really fun dog to work with and quite the personality. She is an Australian Shepherd/Shih-Tzu cross, and people like to tease me that she's an au-shiht dog. She's a fabulous little dog and very, very fun to work with, and I think she has a great future ahead of her, whether it's in Freestyle or Agility or Disc or whatever it is we choose to embark on. I think she's going to be a really fun little dog to have.
So those are my two dogs that I'm working with currently. And like everybody in the world, I'm sure, who does dog sports, you're always thinking about that next puppy you might get. And I'm like everybody else that in a few years I'll start looking again for my next dog. But that's my current dogs.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Like most dog sports, Rally FrEe and Freestyle require a lot of different behaviors, a wide variety of behaviors, and you have to have them pretty fluent. So I want to walk through that. If you have an end goal like that in mind, like those types of sports or really almost any dog sport, where do you start? Do you literally just list out all the behaviors and break them down one by one?
Julie Flanery: Freestyle is a little bit different than other sports in that you are creating the performance from scratch. Nobody is telling you what to put into a routine. Which is why, actually, Rally-FrEe was developed — because what often happens in freestyle is because nobody is telling you what to put into your routines, as a newcomer or beginner you have a tendency to want to train a lot of the really cool stuff, the fun stuff, the more difficult tricks, and that obviously can mean that you're missing out on some of the foundation to get there. And so Rally-FrEe was a way that people could structure their Freestyle training in a way that developed and built strength in their foundation skills.
When you start putting together a routine … I'm going to take Phee for an example right now because she's my new dog. She hasn't done any freestyle yet. We're still working on some foundation skills, but I have a vision of my first routine that I would like to perform with her. And so, yes, one of the things I need to know is what are the skills that are fluent, or at least on its way to fluency, that I want to build strength in that I can actually use in that freestyle routine, because freestyle routines are not just about individual behaviors. You can train a lot of individual behaviors to fluency and still not be able to perform a really nice freestyle routine. So there's a lot more involved in freestyle than just training the individual behaviors. Sequencing has a lot of moving parts to it.
But you're right: First, I need to know what she can perform fluently, individual behaviors, and yeah, basically I have a list of the things that are important for her to learn before I can start to build a routine. And those behaviors are foundations, what I consider foundation skills, for freestyle. And then, along with those behaviors, I list any other fun tricks that I might want to train — anything that will add to the interpretation of the music that I've chosen, anything that's going to put a little "wow" factor into that routine, of course being level appropriate and skill appropriate for where she is at in her training. I don't want to train anything too complex or too difficult because she's just not ready for those kinds of skills yet.
But yeah, I start with a list, and as I work through that list, I can start to add more things or add more complexity to those foundation skills, and then when it comes time for me to actually choreograph the routine, I can pick and choose from that list. If there's something that I really want to include in that routine but she doesn't have good strength in, then I can focus more on that particular behavior or the foundation skills that I need to build that particular behavior.
Boy, did that answer your question? I feel like I got off a little bit on a tangent there. Hopefully I answered your question.
Melissa Breau: I think you did. I think you brought Phee into it as an example, but I think that helps, that breaks it down and explains in real life how you're approaching it and how you're dealing with it. Which brings me really nicely to my next question. I think a lot of people take the approach that "OK, these are foundation skills," and they work on things like platforms and targets and luring. Then they have this other bucket of the things that they're going to work on "someday," where they mentally stick all those finished behaviors they'll actually need for competition. And for some of us, "someday" never seems to come. So can you just talk a little bit about how you approach it? Do you mentally block things out as foundations and others, or how do you look at it?
Julie Flanery: I don't actually separate them the way you're describing is, "These are foundation skills. After I do my foundation skills, then I'm going to train my next upper level skills, and then I'll train my next upper level skills." I don't think of it that way. Your foundation skills are a means to an end. They are not the end result. So while it's important to work your foundation skills, and it's really important to maintain your foundation skills, that doesn't mean that once you start training those other skills, you stop working foundation. But your foundation skills are a way to get to your other skills.
So when you start your foundation, you should be thinking of a progression. You should be thinking, "How am I going to use this? In what way am I going to use this particular skill?" The pivot platform, let's say for example, because a lot of people get stuck on the pivot platform. Why am I doing this? What is the purpose of this skill, and what are the steps I need to take or the path I need to follow in order to get to that next step?
Now, it doesn't mean necessarily that once you have strong pivots … for example, for me, pivots lead to strong heelwork, both forward and backwards and side passes. So I need those pivots in order to perform all of those behaviors.
And if I just stay on the pivot bowl and continue to work strong pivots and not progress through the process, not carry forward through that progression, I am going to get stuck on my pivots and the dog is going to think that is the behavior. There's such a strong reinforcement history there, it will be very difficult for them to, for example, eliminate whatever prop we might be using, the pivot bowl or pivot disc.
So I have to constantly be thinking about, "Where is this foundation leading me to?" That's if my goal is actually performance, or a certain level of skill or other upper level skills. It doesn't mean that you're going to stop working foundation, ever. It just means you're going to continue to add to that skill. Foundation skills aren't necessarily static in that they aren't going to maintain unless you continue to provide a certain level of maintenance and reinforcement history for them.
That's why, as we move up into some of these more difficult or complex skills, that if we see the complex skill, the upper level skill, start to deteriorate or break down, then we can go back to the foundation to build strength there, and strength and foundation creates a better understanding of the next level up of skill, the thing that we're trying to build up to.
So the foundation gives us a place to go when those upper level skills start to break down a little bit. It gives us information … the breaking down of upper level skills gives us information that we need to go back to foundation. We need to build strength there a little bit more and move up again.
But if we're not progressing through that process, if we're not going from foundation to adding the next layer of difficulty or complexity and building towards that end result, that goal behavior, then we can't really call them foundation. They are skills, they're fun skills to train. For example, in Freestyle, the 360 pivot around on a disc — that's a really fun move in and of itself. It's just a fun trick. But it's also a foundation for other skills. So you can use it as a fun trick, and there's your end behavior and that's fine. But if you don't use it to continue your progression into greater layers of difficulty or complexity, then it's not a foundation skill. So we have to look at what are we calling foundation and what are we calling upper level.
Foundation skills — whenever you're practicing your upper level skills, your more complex skills, you are practicing your foundation skills. For example, let's say you're training a crawl, the dog crawling on his belly. The foundation for a crawl, before a dog can learn how to crawl, he needs to learn how to remain in a down. If he doesn't have a strong down skill, strong down behavior, then it's going to be very, very difficult for him to learn how to crawl, because he'll keep popping up out of the down.
So before we train our crawl … let's say my dog already has a crawl, even. Maybe I've trained it through fluency. Before I work that crawl behavior, I am going to reinforce a down, and that's going to benefit the dog's understanding when I cue the crawl, because he will have had that recent reinforcement history for the down, and that will increase his ability to perform that crawl. So if I start to see my crawl deteriorate, that tells me — and by that I mean if he starts to pop up or not be as willing to stay in that down — that tells me my foundation skill has weakened a bit and I need to go back and reinforce the foundation part of that.
Melissa Breau: All right. Sorry about that. We had some technical difficulties, so we lost Julie for a second, but we're back and we're going to jump back into things. All right, Julie. For a lot of us, I think — not really me, because I've never done this, you know, the hypothetical "we" — we focus on those foundation skills for so long that we get stuck. At what point do you take a foundation behavior, decide that it's just "good enough" for your end purposes, and begin working on more advanced behaviors? And how do you bridge that gap?
Julie Flanery: Training is a process of testing. You don't need to have perfect foundation behaviors in order to move to the next step. That's what I mean by training is a process of testing.
Perfection is an illusion. If you get to the point of perfection, you are likely going to have so much reinforcement history that the dog will find it difficult to move up to the next step. Yes, we want the dog to be confident in their presentation of the skill or the criteria that we're asking for. We want there to be very low latency in the time of the cue or the context and their performing that criteria, but we don't need massive quantities of repetitions of the exact same thing before we move on to the next step in that behavior.
I think if you're waiting for perfection in your foundation skill, then you've probably waited too long to ask the dog the question "Can you do it if?" "Can you do it if I add a little more difficulty?" "Can you do it if I add a little more criteria?"
As I said, training is a process of testing, and sometimes the dog is going to say, "No, I can't do that." And I think one of the problems occurs is that, as trainers, we have a tendency to drop back down to where they performed perfectly again — that illusion of perfection, I guess — and we aren't able to often split the difference and say, "Well, OK, you answered no, you can't do this level of difficulty. But what if I asked you just for a little bit more and not quite so much more? Can you do this?"
We have to remember, too, that when we add layers of difficulty, or distractions, or duration, or a new piece of complexity to the skill, anytime we add that, we are going to see a lesser quality of behavior than we saw previously, where the dog had all that reinforcement history and all of those reps and all of that practice. And I think people worry about that. I think they get scared by their dog's inability to take that next step and make it be perfect. Your next step is not going to be perfect. Your next step is going to look rough. It's going to look maybe sloppy. It's going to make you uncomfortable that it's not the perfect piece of foundation I just had. Of course not, because you've been working on it forever.
But we need to take those steps. We need to ask the question. We need to test our dog's ability to move ahead, and the longer we stay at a particular step in our skill building, the harder it will be for the dog to move forward to the next step. I think maybe if people start thinking about that in terms of "If I can get a confident dog at this particular step, and I can get a low latency and even just a few reps … for me, if I see four to six reps in a session that looked really nice, I want to move ahead. I don't want to end that session and then start the next session the same place.
When you're working on specific skills or criteria, the goal is moving ahead. The goal is not perfection at where you are at. The goal is, does my dog have enough understanding of that skill that I can build a little bit onto that while still maintaining his understanding of the previous skill? And so there's an ebb and flow to maintaining foundation and asking the question, "Can you do it if?" "Can you do it if I add this little bit of difficulty?" "Can you do it if I add this bit of duration?" In general, I think if people actually try that, the answer will be "Yes, I can" more often than not, even though it's a tentative yes. We can build confidence and strength in that tentative yes by continuing to reinforce that next step.
But if all we do is continue to reinforce what the dog already knows, he's not going to be able to easily move past that and move into those behaviors that you're trying to build out of the foundation. Remember I said earlier: it's not foundation if you're not building on it.
I said something a long time ago, and I think you made a meme out of it once, that if you're not progressing, it's not training. It's not that you're not training. I mean, obviously, if you're working with your dog and you're reinforcing, you're training, but what is your goal in working this particular skill? Why are you doing this? What is the purpose of this particular skill? If it's something like a pivot on a disc, well, as I said earlier, that could be a neat trick. That's a fun thing to train in and of itself. But is that why you're training it? Or are you training it because you want better heelwork, because you want nice side passes, because you want good backup in heel or all of the other skills that we need that nice rear-end awareness and that tuck into the handler for? Think about the purpose of the foundation. I think if you can keep that in the forefront of your mind, it will be much easier to move to the next step.
I also think that sometimes people don't know what they're going to do with that skill. They just know they're supposed to train it. I think sometimes as instructors we could do a better job of laying out the path, of laying out the progression, so that our students and handlers have a better understanding of what the next steps are and where they're going and why they're actually doing this particular skill. That's a question I have to ask myself. Why am I training this? Why am I teaching my dog this particular thing rather than this particular thing? If we know the answer to that question, it makes it much easier for us to follow that progression into those upper level skills.
But if we're waiting for perfection, and then once we get perfection, I think the other piece of that is that we are heavily reinforced by our dog doing well. And the more they do well, the better that feels to us. And when we start to ask the question "Can you do it if?," then our dog doesn't do as well. That's to be expected, right? We're adding difficulty, so of course they're not going to do as well, but that doesn't feel good to us.
And we want to try and avoid frustration in the dog, or the dog feeling icky, or the dog being reinforced. As reinforcement trainers, we are really good at providing reinforcement. We're not very good at asking the question, "What is the next step? Can you do it if?" and accepting that the dog is going to give you something less than what we were just reinforcing. And that's OK. That's a necessary part of the process.
I think that's another big reason why we don't tend to move ahead is because we are heavily reinforced by our dog's success. And once we start to move forward in that progress, once we have the criteria we need, then it often means that we get a lesser performance from the dog because it's very difficult. We need to be better at either splitting the steps so that it's not quite as difficult, and we also need to be better at understanding that perfection isn't a criteria for moving ahead. Confidence for me, confidence in my dog that, oh, I get this, I can do this, that he's in the game, that he wants to keep working — that's a criteria for me to move ahead.
And again, all I need is a few really good reps showing me the dog has understanding before I ask for something a little more difficult. I don't need several sessions or several weeks of perfection before I move ahead. Because if you wait that long, it's going to be very, very difficult, and you're actually going to increase the frustration level of your dog if you don't think about your progression and think of training as a progression and not just "I will work my foundation skills, and when my foundation skills are perfect, then I'll be able to work this next skill." Well, there's a lot of mush and muck and ick in-between there that we have to slodge through a little bit.
I'm not saying that your dog's going to completely fail after you step out of that foundation phase. What I'm saying is that there is a progression, and progression indicates little steps forward, and if we aren't taking those little steps forward, then there's no point to the foundation, because that is the definition of foundation. It's something that you build on. So if you stay in — Helene calls it "foundation land" — if you stay in foundation land, we have to change the name of foundation land, basically. We could call it "happy land," or we could call it "success land," or we could call it something else. But unless you're progressing forward, it's not foundation for anything. It's just behaviors that you like to train and that your dog enjoys doing.
If you want to actually build your skill, if you want to actually use those skills as a means to an end, a more difficult skill or a higher level of skill, then you have to progress. And that progression has to be a planned part of your training. You have to know where you're going next, or you're going to get stuck.
Melissa Breau: Do you have any tips or tricks for keeping yourself on track for that? Like making sure that this training session is building on that last training session, or in terms of … I think you mentioned earlier in passing that you don't like to end off on a rep that "That was a perfect rep. OK, now we're all done." You like to have those criteria shifts within the training session. Can you talk a little bit more about that? How do you make sure that this session built on the last session and that the next session is going to build on this session and that we're actually progressing, keeping yourself on track?
Julie Flanery: Yeah, and it's a lot easier said than done. I'll just put that right out there — that it's easy for me to say, "Well, you do this, this, this and this." But I, like anybody else, I falter, and there are times when it seems to take me longer to get through a step in the process than it should. If I really look at it, though — and I'll get back to answer your question, but this kind of popped into my head — for example, with Phee, there are certain things that I feel like they're taking way too long, that it's like, "Oh my God, I've been working on this forever and I can't seem to push through." But if I actually look at it — and I'll explain I what I mean when I say "actually look at it" — but when I actually look at it, yes, it's been a long period of time, but within that long period of time, I actually haven't been working that particular skill.
Does that make sense? I might have started something three weeks ago, and I go back and I look at it today and I go, "Oh man, I've been working on this for three weeks. Why isn't it any better?" And then I go look at my notes or my video and I go, "Well, it's not any better because I actually have only worked it twice in three weeks."
Melissa Breau: Fair enough.
Julie Flannery: Having a means of knowing what did I work on and where was I in that process when I finished that session helps me look at it a little bit more realistically and not feel frustrated if I'm seeing, "Man, I haven't really progressed in this and it's been a while. What's going on?" When I have something tangible that I can look at, such as notes, such as video, then I can say, "Oh, well, no wonder we're not progressing. We haven't worked on it." Or, "Look, I've been staying at this same criteria for three sessions. No wonder she's having difficulty progressing."
I was struggling with some duration in stillness with her for a little bit and couldn't figure out why is it that she's having such a hard time with this. I felt in my heart and in my head that I had been working on this. And when I actually look at my notes from the sessions, I can see I really haven't been. I was probably in a mode — I know this for sure — of, "I want her to be happy, I want a high rate of reward, I want her trying things." And that — focusing more on her shaping, her being active, her actions, and not so much on duration and stillness — well, that's why we haven't progressed, because I haven't actually been working on that as I thought I had been doing in my head. By having those tangible things — I use a notebook, and of course I video a lot of my sessions — I can go back and say, "Well, this is why I'm not progressing."
What actually happens in your sessions and what we think happens in our sessions oftentimes don't mesh up. I don't know why that is. I think it's maybe because we like to remember the good, we like to remember all the successes, and then, when we're in the moment, we say, "Oh, wait a minute, we're not getting this." So going back to some notes can really help you have a realistic view of what's going on in your sessions and not just an assumptive view of what's going on in your sessions.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned Helene's term "foundation land" in there, and I know you've got your Mission Accomplished class coming up. What are some of the other reasons that people get "stuck" or don't finish behaviors?
Julie Flanery: I think, as I mentioned, they don't know what the next step is, and so in the absence of knowing what the next step is, they tend to continue to reinforce the same step over and over again. And then the dog becomes so ingrained in that piece of it that it's very difficult for them to move up to the next criteria shift. So I think that's part of it is they really don't know what to do next.
I think another reason is sometimes the process or the protocols that they might be using aren't as effective or efficient as either they … how do I put this? Sometimes they might think they're applying a protocol correctly, and they actually need to tweak it a bit in order for it to be an effective and efficient means for the dog to understand.
Cuing is a perfect example. Oftentimes people feel like they're applying the correct process to attaching a cue to a behavior or a new cue to a behavior. In actuality, the way they're applying it is hindering their success, but they can't recognize that. So that's another reason.
I think also, again, like I said with Phee, there are times where I feel like I've been working at it a long time — three weeks, four weeks, the same thing, why isn't she getting it? In actuality, when I go back and look, I might have only had two sessions in that three weeks. So that's another thing. Our perception of time worked, how long we've been working on it, differs from the actual minutes of training that we've really put into it.
And again, I think, following that progression there, they have a difficult time following the progression. Maybe they don't know the next step, or maybe they don't have a clear picture of the end goal. And so they're — for lack of a better word — procrastinating that next step because they're not really sure about what that end result should look like.
So I think those are some of the reasons that people struggle with moving forward.
I think, too, a lot of us are drawn to the next new shiny thing, and so we have a tendency to get to a certain level of a behavior where things are looking really good, and then, because that next shift upward is a little more difficult, rather than go through that little difficult icky phase, where we know our dog might have some failures and we were not feeling confident in our ability as being a trainer to get them through that, that instead, we start something new, because in most cases, dogs and handlers are really, really good at starting new things. There's an excitement about it, there's a high rate of reward, there's an overall feeling, a happy feeling, that we get, and that we believe and observe in our dogs that they get, when we start something new. So we're constantly starting these new things because of the emotional high it gives us. Whereas trying to get through the difficult parts of behaviors we've already started don't give us that same emotional feeling, and so I think we have a tendency to avoid that somewhat.
Melissa Breau: As I mentioned, Mission Accomplished is coming around again. It's on the calendar for December. Can you share a little more about how you approach things in that class and really what the class is all about?
Julie Flanery: Oh, OK. I feel like I need to get my syllabus up here, because I looked at my lectures last week briefly and I thought, "Wow, there's a lot of really great stuff in this," and so hopefully I'll get it all. If I miss some of these things, please do go look at the description and look at the syllabus because there's a lot more involved, I think, in accomplishing a goal behavior than just going out and training.
Certainly, having that vision, that picture in your mind of what your goal behavior looks like, is a really, really important part, because in a very real sense, accomplishing your vision is what drives us. It is why we want to continue on the path. So having that vision is an important part — knowing exactly what the end goal is going to be. It doesn't mean you're not going to at some point change that, tweak it along the way, but you do need to know where you're going in order to get there. It's like, if you open up a map before you start your route, you need to know where you're going in order to know which path to take. So that's the first thing.
Being able to identify, "What is the foundation skill I need? What does my dog need to know?" It's kind of like taking steps backward. You look at your goal behavior and you say, "Well, before they can do this, they need to do this. And before they can do that, they need to do this. And before they can do that, they need to know how to do this," until you take it all the way back down to your base foundation skill. That is the one that's going to start the ball rolling.
And then having benchmarks for yourself. Where do I need to be before I go to the next level? As I said earlier, for me, that is that I see confidence in the dog, that I see low latency when he starts to offer the behavior or has provided the cue — either a cue I give or the context cue. Once I have those things, then I know that I can progress and move ahead to the next step. But I need to know what that next step is.
I think it's really important to, in order to keep our motivation going a little bit, is to provide reinforcement for us. When we have a really good skill and we're ready to move to the next step, boy oh boy oh boy, we know there's going to be difficulty and we tend to avoid that difficulty. We all try to avoid layers of difficulty. And so being able to say, not necessarily, "Ooh, when I reach this benchmark, I'm going to celebrate," because, in actuality, reaching that benchmark — that feels good. That's why we stay there, because it feels really good.
But I think it's more beneficial to say, "When I push myself to move to the next step, now I'm going to celebrate, now I'm going to provide some reinforcement for myself." And that reinforcement can come in a variety of means. It depends on what motivates you. It depends on what's reinforcing to you. For me, scheduling a massage would be a huge level of motivation or reinforcement for me to say, "I know my dog's doing this piece really, really well. Can I break through and ask my dog to do a little bit harder piece? Oh, I know she's going to fail at it, but if I can do that, I will do XYZ for me and for her," or whatever.
So I think looking at where you're providing reinforcement for yourself — you're already being reinforced by the dog's success level. That makes us feel good as trainers. Where we need to reinforce ourselves is when we're willing to take that next step and ask the dog the question, push a little bit harder, add a layer of difficulty, and saying and understanding that you're not going to get the same level of success as you did on the previous step, because that's just part of the process. Does that make sense? Did I say that right?
Melissa Breau: Yeah.
Julie Flanery: OK.
Melissa Breau: Certainly hope you said it right. I mean, you're the expert.
Julie Flanery: You know, I have these things in my head. Whether they come out my mouth correctly, that's a whole 'nother story. But I do think that we have a tendency to look at motivational reinforcement for us as in keeping with our dog's successes. But sometimes we just need a little bit of reinforcement and motivation for when we choose to make it a little bit harder, because that's the hard piece. I think that's what people procrastinate against. I think that's what they aren't really sure of how to do.
Melissa Breau: Right. That accountability piece almost.
Julie Flanery: Yeah, absolutely. I think that added … prize, I guess, that you'll give yourself for pushing to the next step does kind of hold you accountable as well to move through the process.
Melissa Breau: I noticed in the description for the class you mentioned that you're going to use shaping and targeting and clicker/marker, lure/reward, props such as platforms, and/or your training gates to help students achieve those target behaviors. That's a lot of different things, obviously. How do you go about deciding which technique to use for which students, or which behaviors?
Julie Flanery: That's a huge question. How much time do we have? The reason I use such a variety of props is because for that very reason: you don't always know which prop will make the most sense for either the dog or for the handlers. And so I personally try to use, and I try to encourage my students to use, as many different props as possible to get the criteria that they want in order to pattern that particular criteria in the dog and create a very high rate of reward.
We don't always know what prop is going to make the most sense to the dog, and thus we have several available to us to try. We can generally see within a couple of sessions whether or not the information that we're trying to provide to the dog, whether or not he's taking in that information in a way that is progressing the behavior. That's why I have a variety of different things available is that I don't know which one of those is going make the most sense to the dog.
The second reason I have a variety of props, or use a variety of props, even for the same criteria, is that it makes it much easier to eliminate the props, because the behavior itself, or the criterion for that behavior, is not tied to any single prop. The prop is not an integral part of the reinforcement. The criteria is the part of the reinforcement that is meaningful to the dog now, because the prop is always changing.
For example, pivots. I use a pivot platform to work pivots, but I also can use the gates to work my pivots. I can have the gates in a square with my dog and I in the middle of the square, and so the square sides of the gates provide a guide to the dog to remain straight and come in to me because he can't really go out away from me because the gate acts as a barrier. The pivot platform — I continue to use that. And even if I just have those two pieces of equipment, the criteria of shifting into me is the one that is getting reinforced, and it doesn't become unnecessarily attached to any particular prop, because the prop is changing.
So that's another reason why I like to use different props. It makes it much easier for the dog to discriminate the behavior that's being reinforced outside of the use of the barriers or the platform or whatever prop we're using to get the behavior, the criteria, that we want.
There is some dogs that don't do well with the pressure of a barrier, the pressure of a gate. And so I'm not going to want to use the gates for that particular dog, or I'm going to want to ensure that I'm using them in a way that isn't causing undue stress.
There are some dogs that are not going to want to back up onto something, and so I might not want to use a platform. I might want to use a flat mat instead. Each dog and each handler, their needs are going to be different in terms of what props we use. And again, I have to look at the handler as well. There are some props that the handler will have a difficult time using, whereas another prop might be easier. Or no prop. There are many times I might say, "We're going to go ahead and lure this instead of shape this, because I think that's going to make more sense to you and your dog at this point in your training."
So there is no one best way to train behaviors. We have many, many different ways, many options that we can use, both in props, in technologies, in methods and techniques. We're very lucky as positive reinforcement trainers to have a lot of different options available to us, and there is no one way that is the best way. We have to look at the dog, we have to look at their learning history, we have to look at the handler and their abilities, and we have to choose what's right for both of them.
I had a class several years ago, it might have even been one of the first classes that I taught for Fenzi, and it was on foundation skills for Rally-FrEe Musical Freestyle. I had a student in the class that had an older dog. The dog was over 10 years old, I'm sure, and had been taught through lure/reward his whole life. She was trying some shaping, or using a target stick, and it wasn't making sense to the dog and it was a difficult mechanical skill for the handler. So there's absolutely no reason for me to push the use of a target stick on this dog and handler team when this dog and handler had skills in lure/reward and could absolutely get to the goal behavior using methods they were comfortable with.
That's an example of whereas what I might think of as an efficient and effective means to get a behavior, especially with my young dog that grew up learning about shaping and targeting, whereas it's possible and even likely that a 10-year-old dog that is really comfortable and learns quickly through another method, I'm not going to take that away from them just because for me and my dog this has better results for me.
But I do want to keep a broad and wide variety of options available to me in terms of training, because all dog and handler teams are different, and we need to really look to both of them to determine what's going to be the best option in that particular situation and for that particular skill or behavior. And so I try to do that a lot in my Mission Accomplished class and in all my classes. We have to take the team into account. It's not about the method. It's not about getting to learn the technique correctly, although, as you know, I do teach certain methods and techniques, and I do like to put a focus on handler mechanics. But at the same time, we can't be so rigid that we're hindering the dog and handler's success as a team.
Melissa Breau: It's one thing to explore technique because you want to learn a technique. It's another thing when you have an end behavior to use an ineffective or inefficient method for that handler and team, right?
Julie Flanery: Correct. Yeah. I think that's totally true.
Melissa Breau: I have to say, the first time I heard you talk about using multiple props to get the same end behavior, I thought it was genius, because I hadn't heard it before and it was just such a smart way to think about fading props. Once the dog has learned it using different props, of course it's going to be easier then to fade the props.
Julie Flanery: Well, thanks. I appreciate that.
Melissa Breau: To get back to talking about the class for a minute, you mentioned that students need to have a notebook and a timer for this class. So I wanted to ask what that's about.
Julie Flanery: A notebook is an easy way to start some record keeping. I think that oftentimes when we are not completing or moving forward in our progression towards an end goal skill, that part of it is we don't know what we've done and where we're at and what we did last session as opposed to this session.
I'm just going to put this out there: I hate keeping records more than anything else in the world. I hate keeping records. So for those of you that are worried that you're going to have to do a lot of record keeping in this class and you hate it, don't worry.
There are a lot of different options in how you keep records, and I think it's important to really understand why we keep records. The way you keep your records is going to be totally up to you. I will share in class lots of different ways to keep records, lots of different charts or graphs or bullet journals or online digital-type programs that you can use. But in the end, if you don't use them, if you don't use the methods, then you're not going to get the information you need out of them. And so one of the things you'll do in this class is explore what is the easiest way for you to have some record of what you did and what you're doing and what the next step is.
Record keeping should not be complex. I know that there are many people that enjoy the complexity that they put into their record keeping and that is a motivation for them. And yay, I think that's perfect.
Record keeping does not motivate me. Record keeping provides me with some information that I need to progress in this process. And so for me, record keeping is very, very simple. It's a notebook. It is specific types of notes that we'll talk about in that class. But basically what the things that I need to know are going to be, what is the exercise? What is the criteria? What is the skill? What is the activity? What am I working on? What is the exact thing that I'm working on?
The second thing I need to know is what is the purpose of this session? Why am I out here training? Is it just to get a lot of reinforcement in my dog for the exact same thing I did last time? Or is it that I want to move ahead in this process? And what exactly is that next step? So I need to know what is the purpose of this session. And then I need to know what are the results of this session? What happened? Did the dog do the exact same thing as he did in the previous session? The only way I'm going to know that is if I have a record from the previous session.
And so your record keeping is a means to keep you moving forward in the process. It's a means to help you progress because we are not good at … how do I put this? We're not good at keeping records in our head. We're very poor at keeping records in our head. This is why we get stuck. This is why we don't know why we're not progressing. But if you have something tangible, even if it's just a quick bullet journal and you have, like I said, when I keep records — and I don't keep records all the time, mind you, but when I do keep records on things that I'm starting, things I'm struggling with, or things that are important to me, those are the things that I'm going to keep records on, then they are very short, couple-word sentences that just refresh my memory of what occurred.
The information I have to have is the exercise and the location. Where am I? Because I want to make sure I'm working in different locations. What is the skill I'm working? What is the purpose of this session, and what are the results of that session? That's really all I need to know from session to session, and that doesn't take more than one or two sentences.
And so I'd like folks to, in this class, to explore some of the different ways because just because I'm comfortable writing things out and having a notebook in my training bag doesn't mean the next person is going to be comfortable with that. They might prefer to have their tablet with them and do it with a software program, with Trello or something like that. I'm not comfortable with that. There is no right way and no wrong way to keep records, as long as it's giving you the information you need to progress.
Melissa Breau: I think that answers what I was going to ask you next, unless you have something you want to add, which is just, do you have a favorite method or technique and what do you typically record? It sounds like you typically record what you're working on, how it went, and at a high level. I think quick notes.
Julie Flanery: I think the main thing that people need to know going into a session and coming out of a session is what is the purpose of this session. I think oftentimes we find ourselves, "Oh, I have a few minutes to go train. I'm just going to go work my dog for a little bit," and we don't really have a clear purpose for that particular session. And then the session's over and we don't know what we accomplished in that session, because we had no
purpose going into it, other than a vague "Oh, I think I will work on fronts today."
But what is it about fronts that you're trying to improve? Because if we're just going in to work on fronts, it's likely that we're going to be either reinforcing the exact same thing over and over again and not move us to the next step, or we're going to be reinforcing anything our dog offers just for effort, that isn't going to move us to the next step, and then the next time we go out and we say we want to work on fronts, we have no idea what the results of the last session were. So I think it's really important to know what is the purpose of this training session. That's the one question I think people need to keep in mind when they go out to train: Why am I doing this today? What is the purpose of this session?
And then score. You can score yourself: "On a scale of one to five how, how well did I meet the purpose of this session?" I've never done that before, but for those of you that are a little competitive or like contests, that might be kind of fun. "All right, here's my purpose and I'm going to score myself at the end of this session to see how much I met my goal of the purpose of that session." I think that would be fun. Maybe I'll add that to the class, Melissa. Thanks!
Melissa Breau: There you go. You came up with it all on your own, but you're welcome to thank me for it. I'll take credit. I know you got into a little bit earlier, you were talking about motivation and celebration, and how it's important to have rewards for the handler. Can you just talk for another second or so about how those fit into the class and why they're important for you to have included?
Julie Flanery: We view our dog's successes as our successes and our dog's failures as our failures, when in actuality our dog's failures are not failures. They are just information. And when I say "failures," I don't mean it like that sounds, like, "Oh my God, he's such a failure. He did horribly today." What I mean by that is that we're adding difficulty and he's not showing the same level of skill with this additional difficulty that he did when I didn't add the difficulty. And so, as I said earlier, we tend to put off adding layers of difficulty or complexity because it's not a good feeling for us. We don't want our dogs to not do well.
I think, too, that sometimes those "failures" again — which is not a great word — we feel like that reflects on us as a trainer and that can actually demotivate us. And that again is another reason why we don't progress through our training towards that angle, but we tend to get stuck along the ways, because we have this aversion to our dogs not being successful.
Hopefully we can split that criteria down to a point where we are still seeing lots of success, but that's not always realistic. It's not always feasible. It's not always what we're capable of doing. So finding a way to either get internal reinforcement or external reinforcement of little successes along the way are a way that keeps us motivated to continue.
Something I've been seeing a lot lately that I think is really quite fun and cool are people showing videos on social media of a breakthrough that they made. That breakthrough, to some, might look not look like very much, but that breakthrough was something that was a really big deal to that dog and handler team.
Showcasing your breakthroughs on something that was really difficult to get to, and getting that kudos from friends, family — though not so much family, because sometimes they don't really understand what we're doing — but other trainers going through the same thing … the alumni group is a great place to get feel-good kudos and understanding of how difficult something that might seem very minimal to one person, it's like we know how important that is to you, and so we're super-happy for you, yay for you. And that can feel really good. So showcasing a breakthrough on social media can add to our feel-good moments, even though it was hard to get there. So that's a good motivation.
And again, there can be internal things, things that you enjoy doing once we finish the session. Maybe it's not an actual improvement in that session. Maybe it's the fact that all I did was I wrote down the purpose of this session today, and that's the first step. Maybe I didn't meet that. Maybe I ended up doing something totally different, but wow, I wrote down the purpose of this session. We're going to go for a sniffy walk. We're going to go get an ice cream cone together. I'm going to make my appointment for the massage or whatever it might be.
I think it also helps sometimes in your record keeping or journaling or note taking to identify what those handler reinforcement, what that motivation, what are you working towards? In what way will you reinforce yourself when you complete this particular task of just doing nothing more than writing down the purpose of this session. Having that, I guess, carrot on a stick can help you be accountable and motivate you a little bit more to give it a shot and just to really think about these things.
In the end, if all you do is think about what is the reason that I'm getting stuck here and what are some things that I can start to implement, just thinking about that has a tendency to put us in the mindset of pushing through any little bit of difficulty we might have had in that last session. So I think that's really important. I think that's really interesting, and I'm sure Andrea Harrison would have more to say about that.
Melissa Breau: I'm sure she would too. So anything else that students should know if they're debating signing up for Mission Accomplished?
Julie Flanery: Let's see. I think they should know that in most all cases, the likelihood of accomplishing your mission in the six weeks is great. Oftentimes when I've run this class, there are just a few things that the students needed to get through, and they just needed someone to help motivate them through those last few pieces in order to meet their end behavior goal.
It's important to know that this class is not set up for behavior issues that are generally going to take some behavior modification protocols or long-term modification work in order to reach benchmark goals. It's not necessarily set up for that. It is set up for skills, behaviors that you might be working towards in your chosen sport, or just in your personal goals with your dogs. Maybe you're doing Trick Training, maybe you're doing Obedience, even Agility, obviously Freestyle, Rally-FrEe, basically any type of skills that you're working to train, and maybe you're stuck, or maybe you have a tendency to grasp at those shiny things and start new things all the time but never get them to completion, and you'd really like a few that you could say, "Look what my dog can do." This is a great class for that.
I think it's a really fun class just to see what other people are doing and how they're working through their problems. There's a lot of problem solving that goes on in this class and so you might not be interested in some of the actual behaviors that people are working on in this class, but the concepts and the
lectures are going to apply to anything that you might be working as well. So you can easily transfer the information to something that you might be working on that isn't covered in this class.
What I hope to do the first week is get an idea from the Gold students of what they're working on, so that I can post that into the description, so that people will have an idea of what some of the behaviors that Gold students are working on. But also please keep in mind that that the lectures, the concepts, the coaching that I will be providing is applicable to pretty much any behavior that you want to train and work to accomplish.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Last question here that I've been asking all of my guests lately. What's something that you've learned, or you've been reminded of recently, when it comes to dog training?
Julie Flanery: I have been reminded recently that it's all about reinforcement, and that if we are not able to provide a measure of reinforcement that is of equal or greater value than the task that we are asking of the dog, that the performance will suffer.
I'm reminded by that because of my own dogs recently. I'm working at a very high level of Freestyle, and the types of behaviors I'm asking of my dog are very difficult, and the context in which I'm asking of them is very, very difficult. And the reinforcement value that I am able to provide to her is not equal to or greater to what I'm asking of her.
She has some very severe food allergies, and so any food rewards I provide are the same. There is no variation in value. There's no hierarchy of value in the food I provide for her. Certainly I can give more, but that doesn't always mean better.
The types of play and interactions and ball throwing or tug or her being able to carry toys or chase toys, any type of reinforcement that I have been working to provide to her, it's become much more difficult.
I think we need to remember as handlers that just because we are giving something to the dog does not make it reinforcing, does not mean that the behavior will increase in quality or frequency. The dog determines what is reinforcing, and reinforcement is not static.
Reinforcement is, however, observable — that if we see an increase in the quality or frequency or likelihood of the behavior, if we see that happy emotional response when we're providing what we hope to be reinforcement, then we have a good idea that that reinforcement is doing what we hope for it to do.
I think oftentimes we start to reward by rote. We expect the dog to continue based on the one or two cookies we give, and as we ask for more and more difficult and complex behaviors, that one or two cookies just isn't going to cut it. We aren't going to pay a brain surgeon minimum wage, and I think oftentimes we ask our dogs to do brain surgery and we want to pay them minimum wage.
And so recently I've been reminded of that, in that if I'm unable to provide my dog with a measure of reinforcement that is befitting of the tasks that I'm asking her to do, that those behaviors are going to deteriorate. And it's the deterioration of those behaviors that often tells me that I need to think more about my reinforcement and whether that is the bigger piece of my training I need to look at rather than criteria. I think we forget that it's about the reinforcement.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much, Julie. Thank you for coming back on the podcast.
Julie Flanery: I had fun, Melissa. Thanks for having me.
Melissa Breau: Me too. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Nancy Gagliardi Little to talk about handler behavior in obedience and how it can make or break you in competition.
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