E143: Denise Fenzi - "Engagement 2.0"

We talk about the process of self-evaluation when it comes to dog training, Denise's latest realizations around engagement, and how she's adapted what she shares.


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 have Denise Fenzi with us to talk about her upcoming webinar on the concept of Engagement 2.0 — what she's updating that she's added the 2.0 to the end and why she's made some changes.

Welcome back, Denise!

Denise Fenzi: Hey Melissa. How are you?

Melissa Breau: Good! Excited to talk about this today. To start us out, I know you're a huge proponent of constant self-evaluation and regularly reevaluate the methods that you use and how you teach them. I wanted to talk about why you feel that's important.

Denise Fenzi: I think dog training is moving into a lot of different directions. We're exploring a lot, and we're trying to answer some pretty fundamental questions, like should we shape this behavior, should we lure this behavior, what are the long-term ramifications of our choices. These aren't simple things. They're actually fairly complex.

One thing I've noticed just as a person more than as a dog trainer is that there is a tendency for extremes. Whatever direction we're heading, we tend to run to the furthest end of the pendulum, which is not necessarily bad, because if you hang out on the furthest end of the pendulum, you'll certainly get a sense of the matter.

But you have to be ready and willing to look around from your high point on that pendulum, and first, look back where you came from and make sure you didn't lose things that you should have kept, and second, identify the unexpected challenges or errors or consequences that came with your decision-making.

I think there are so many new things happening right now that if we're not constantly self-evaluating and aware, it's really easy to end up in a spot where rather than looking at whether or not we're making the best decisions, we'll find ourselves defending positions that aren't tenable and wishing that we hadn't dug ourselves in.

So, to me, the issue is don't dig in. Look at what you've got, and then be quick and light about accepting that you probably made errors on the way, and be willing to change your direction, because really there's no shame there. The challenge is when we get so dug in that we choose not to see the mistakes we made.

Melissa Breau: How do you decide when it's time to do that for a particular topic or a particular idea?

Denise Fenzi: For me, personally, I just pay attention. I'm always looking at the results of what I do. I listen a lot, so I spend a lot of time on social media and I just listen. What are people saying? That alerts me to things like, "Oh, gee, this isn't the result I expected for this type of dog, this type of handler, this sport, this circumstance."

When you pay attention like that, then you start to notice trends and threads. Whenever a trend or thread becomes, let's say, impossible to ignore, because that really is what happens. The first few, it's one-offs, and your brain catalogs them a little bit. But when you start noticing a consistent pattern, that's when I stop and look and consciously think about if I might have contributed to things I don't like, how, and obviously even more important, what can I do to be more clear or do better.

So that's what I do.

Melissa Breau: I want to talk about engagement. When you use the term "engagement," to get it out there, what do you mean?

Denise Fenzi: This is complicated, and I will say that if I did it over, I would have used a different word.

Engagement has two different meanings. One is the common usage meaning "to be engaged." You and I are hopefully mutually engaged in this conversation. That's my hope — I don't know, maybe you're over there doing something completely different. But engagement has a very well-understood common usage meaning, and most of us understand that we can be engaged with our dog.

Where I kind of went wrong is when I talk about engagement to the class, I'm actually not talking about that word. I'm talking about a process. It's the process of teaching the dog to opt in to the start of work and driving me, pushing me, demanding that I continue that process.

So really what I mean is dog-driven engagement. And it is a trained process. It's not just me and my dog playing and having a good time. It's my dog recognizing that if they do a certain set of things, which are flexible, that it will cause me to fully engage with them, and then we can go forward in hopefully a mutually enjoyable activity.

But I 100 percent acknowledge that the choice of the word did create some unnecessary complication.

Melissa Breau: How have you traditionally talked about the topic?

Denise Fenzi: It helps for me to think about where it came from. The reason I developed a process of engagement, where I go through steps, is because of what I was seeing around me. I was seeing two different things.

One thing I was seeing was from the more traditional dog-training community: a lot of dogs coming out of the crate, "Go, go, go, go, go. "Don't look around, let's get to work, and a high-pressure approach that did work for some dogs, but created a whole lot of unnecessary stress and quite literally shut other dogs down. Especially when you added in the pressure of the environments at trials, the dogs would melt down. So that is where I first started.

The second thing I saw was within the more positive-reinforcement community. I saw the handlers causing engagement by being, as my friend Deb Jones says, "They start to look like a clown on crack." It's not engaging for the dog, and it's not fun, and it's so intense. I hear expressions like, "Be more exciting than the squirrel," or "Be more exciting than dirt." Honestly, it's hard to be more exciting than dirt. Dogs love dirt. It smells amazing. So asking a person to be more exciting starts to miss the point. The point is to get your dog to opt in because you're going to do something together, which is really fun. That is where I was focusing for that community.

Because of my background, because I do come from a more traditionally based training background, I tend to be aware of how different communities address the start of work, or the maintenance of work, and I felt that I could create a very workable program that's very systematic and step-by-step that would address both ends, and then the end I emphasized would depend on the students in front of me.

Melissa Breau: What made you think it was time to reevaluate how you present that?

Denise Fenzi: First I started noticing comments on social media, where people would say, "It starts great. My dog is doing a great job and then is opting out in the middle of work." And then they would make some very specific comments, like, "So we would restart the process." And I'm like, "Wait a second. What do you mean, restart the process?" So my first recognition was that something was happening after work started that shouldn't have been happening, and the way the students were interpreting what I was saying didn't sound quite right.

Then I talked to a group of FDSA instructors that I respect very much. I said, "This is something I'm hearing. What are you guys seeing?" because some of these people travel quite a lot. "When you travel to seminars, are these concerns that I think exist valid? Am I making this up? Am I creating a mountain out of a molehill?" There was a universal response: "No."

There is a change taking place in the seminar world, which is at least partially attributable to a misunderstanding about how to handle disengagement once engagement starts.

And elements of acclimation, the way they were being done, were not what I had in mind. It almost became choice on steroids, and choice needs to take place within the mention of structure.

The final straw was when I taught a seminar earlier this year and I observed first-hand a number of students doing some stuff that was hugely problematic on its face. I could just look at what I saw when I walked in the door and know, "This is going to be a problem. This is not going to go well." I found myself saying to student after student, "I need you to not do this thing. I need you to do this other thing." They would be a little quizzical, and when I would ask them where it was coming from, they would tell me, "I thought I was doing engagement." And so that certainly gave me pause for thought.

But even more so, I gave them very specific things to do instead, and even within the course of the seminar there were some really obvious changes in their skills and their ability as a result of adding the structure that the dogs and humans needed.

When several people say to you, at the end of an eight-hour day, "Wow, this is a huge improvement," that's when you need to start saying, "If the issue is this consistent and they're all referring back to my name, what have I done that has created this misapplication?" Is it a misunderstanding? I did go back and look at my materials. Did I say things wrong, or was I misunderstood, or what? That's really what got me thinking.

I think the thing I came back to, as I reviewed what I've written in my current classes, I have no problem with anything I said there, so anybody who has those materials, you're fine. What has changed is where I'm emphasizing the materials, because when I read what I wrote about handling dogs that disengage, or handling acclimation, I haven't changed anything. But I just didn't spend enough energy emphasizing the right things.

The fact is, words and language are complicated. It's not what you say, it's not your body language, it's not your tone, it's not your choice of emphasis. It's all of that. All of that together is what gives people the picture in their head of what they're supposed to do.

That's why I'll write a blog and somebody will come back and say something like … you know, my blog will be about Christmas, and they'll come back to something about, "See? December is cold." And you're like, "What?" Well, it's true, I did mention that. There was a sentence in there where I said that December is cold, but this is not about December at all." And so these things all matter.

So when I looked at it and thought about it and considered how I ran the class, I recognized that I had emphasized things in the wrong way. And as a result of seeing how things were interpreted, I recognized I needed to change that.

The second thing I came to recognize is that because the class I taught where most people learned it is a six-week-long class, not enough students got to the point of trial readiness. So not enough students got to what's called Stage 5, where dogs are not allowed to acclimate to space, and where they work in an area where they're never going to acclimate to space and they're not going to get reinforced, I realized no one saw how to do it.

And so the kinds of problems that people were coming back with — "Yeah, but I wasn't able to look at the space before the dog trained" — that's not a problem. That's actually part of the process. But it was de-emphasized because I was spending my energy in another part of the process, and it wasn't demonstrated because so few dogs in six weeks were able to get there.

And even if a couple did, because usually one or two did in a class, those dogs who made it that far, that fast, were not representative samples, so there weren't enough problems for other students to say, "Yeah, but what if?" because those dogs worked through the what-ifs in three seconds.

You know, a talented dog is not a great model. It's a great model of what's possible, but it's not a good model of training because they just don't do enough bad stuff. What you need is the far end of the process, and I wasn't able to give enough of that.

So in Engagement 2.0, I have switched from a balance between choice and structure. I'm adding more structure. I'm adding options, and I tell people what the options are. I also clarify which dogs might benefit from different options. And I took more time to talk about, "Now let's talk about the process of moving from the free and open acclimation plan, where the dog has full access and there's no problem, to the reality of the dog show." I think that step needed to be placed in there and emphasized.

Melissa Breau: You kind of answered this already, but it sounds like the changes you've made aren't so much to the information or necessarily even how you present it. It's where you're emphasizing things and making sure that people are getting that information about the later stages. Am I interpreting that right?

Denise Fenzi: Yeah, that's right.

Melissa Breau: OK. I want to get into engagement itself just a little bit more. Why is this such an important concept to teach a performance dog?

Denise Fenzi: The thing that we need to remember is that positive reinforcement training should be quite interesting and engaging — just the general word "engaging" — to the dog.

If you are dragging your dog into Disneyland, and you could be dragging them with a cookie in front of their nose, why are you doing that? The whole point of engagement is to, one, help humans understand that if the environment is good, and if the dog is in a place where they're motivated and want to work, there should never be a situation where they are trying to talk the dog into work.

Conversely, the dog needs to understand that as well. So if the dog is relying on a cookie in front of their nose, and if the dog is allowed to drift in and out of work whenever they want, getting cookies every time they return, then the dog also has a point of understanding that has been missed.

So engagement training is about getting the dog to understand that training is indeed Disneyland, and you are going to actually have to put out a little effort to be allowed to enter Disneyland. And the owners, the humans, need to understand that they're offering … if they're doing it correctly, they're offering something that the dog should really want, and the begging needs to go away.

So engagement is that process specifically.

Melissa Breau: While obviously you can't cover a six-week class's worth of information in just a few minutes, can you share just a little bit about the process and what it is you're actually teaching here?

Denise Fenzi: Sure. It is very much a trained process. It's not just being exciting to your dog. It is teaching your dog … I go through five phases.

The first phase is just playing with your dog just to practice, because a lot of people don't recognize that they're overwhelming their dog. So first we just spend a little time playing with our dog with food, toys, personality.

Then we start teaching the dog, at the most simple level, "You need to look at me. When you look at me, the party starts." The handler has to learn how to stand still and not try to make it happen.

As you work through your phases, when you get to Stage 3, not only do you have to look at me; you have to look at me and show me physical movement in my direction. The reason I want physical movement is it is an element of energy, and if the dog is able to do that when they're moving, that means the world is moving on the sides of their head. They are choosing to focus on me and allow the world to go by without engaging with it, and I respond in kind.

By the time we get to the fourth phase, I'm like, "That's great, you're being really adorable. I love what you're showing me. I'd love to give you this cookie, but I need a little bit more. Now I need you to do some work for me." And so now the dog's first cookie comes after they have begged, basically, me to engage with them and offered me some work that I have chosen.

The fifth phase is where we say, "All right, now we're going to start over again and I am actually going to call you to work. I'd like to see that same level of energy and excitement and everything without me showing you food and toys to engage you in the process." Now I'm adding in more of how to apply that in a variety of environments where you're not going to explore. Again, it's very systematic. Like with all good training, you're looking at things like how much are you asking. So your criteria in the beginning needs to be easier and the dog should only have to do one new thing at a time. Your dog should only have to put out effort for a couple of seconds at first, but that starts to really ratchet up. If you want to go to a trial, your dog needs to put out … it could be ten minutes of effort, depending on the sport, without a reinforcer.

So it's a matter of systematically changing your locations, just like all good training. Changing the amount you ask. Changing the level of distractions over time and with a very specific plan, to allow as many dogs as possible to succeed in the sport chosen by the handler and to get into a competition situation.

Melissa Breau: What about acclimation? How does that fit in? What is it? How does it help?

Denise Fenzi: I've always said, and I continue to say, that it is the most important piece. The reality is there's two reasons why dogs struggle to work. Well, many. As soon as I said it, I realized motivation, but anyway, let's back up for now.

The two main things are curiosity about the environment and fear. Dogs that are fearful, if you do not let them acclimate, you will struggle forever, because the dog can stare at you and attempt to follow your cues, but the reality is when you're afraid, that's not going to happen.

If somebody took you into a dark space where you were afraid — whether logical or not is not relevant — and then asked you to do things, the fact is even if you wanted to please them, and even if you were trying, and even if you were exceptionally motivated, that fearful side of your brain, every time there's a twitch in the environment, is going to cause you to startle.

That's the kind of thing that happens routinely at dog shows, where dogs in the ring — it's not that they're not trying, but they've not learned to feel safe and work. Acclimation lets a dog feel safe, and if a dog feels safe, they can give to you.

The other side of that is curiosity. Acclimation is much less important for the curious dog. But, the thing is, curiosity becomes fear, if we're not careful, because not allowing a dog to look makes the dog start saying, "Why can't I look?"

The second thing is, if you never let a dog look when they can — like, outside the ring in a dog show, the dog is welcome to look around — you might as well do it now, because if you don't, the dog — many dogs, because curious dogs also tend to be opportunistic dogs because of the confidence that goes with curiosity and opportunist behavior — those dogs are going to do it when you get in the ring, because they get, "Yeah, I always wanted to know what was going on over there in the corner," and now they've looked and they've missed cues and you've got problems.

So if you get nothing else out of engagement training, I would really hope you get the value of acclimation.

When I taught the class, it was so interesting to watch how the dogs would divide up. It was usually 50/50 in every class. Half the dogs desperately needed acclimation more than anything. They needed to feel safe. And half the dogs desperately needed the actual stages of engagement. They needed to learn how to opt in. Some dogs need to learn to stop opting in. They're staring so hard at their owner with their ball, and they've never looked around, that they're building up all sorts of fear.

So I'm still a huge fan of acclimation. I'm just adding a little structure around it now.

Melissa Breau: I've heard a few people on the alumni group and Facebook and some other forums ask about how to apply these concepts to pet dog training. I wanted to ask you about that. Is this something that you would want to see implemented in pet dog classes and taught to pet dog trainers and owners?

Denise Fenzi: I think pet dog trainers need to be good trainers, so absolutely they should be familiar with it, because they're going to get the oddball one-off dog in class. But the thing I would say is most pet people just want to have a nice dog that can survive in their house, get along, go for a nice walk without trying to eat the neighbors. The average pet person's expectations of an adult dog are very, very reasonable.

Acclimation, the process — there's a lot to it, so I don't know that I would spend my precious few hours with a person working on this. I don't think it matters.

But, having said that, all dogs should be allowed to feel safe in a space before being asked to work, so the acclimation portion of engagement training is critical for all dogs. It's just not realistic to bring a dog into a class environment where they're lunging at all the other puppies and wants to interact, and say, "No, no, no, we're doing this other thing. Just pretend like we're not in the middle of Disneyland," because we are in the middle of Disneyland, so let's just put that out there.

It's just like if you really want to teach your kid something. If you do it in your kitchen at a table and it's quiet, the odds that they're going to be able to hear you are much better. But the reality of life is that we tend to educate in groups, so kids go to school. It's not because they learn best. They most certainly don't. They do that because it's convenient.

So puppy classes are a reality, and as long as they are a reality, then the trainers of those classes need to say, "What can we do to maximize the odds of success?" There are two things you can do. One, allow the dogs to have five or ten minutes to see where they're at, to explore, and to feel safe before you try to work. And two, introduce Stage 2 engagement.

Stage 2 engagement is the step at which the owner learns to wait, the dog wonders why nobody is doing anything, the dog quickly glances at the owner, the owner reinforces immediately. That step I think is critical. The rest of the steps I would not do with a pet dog unless that dog's life was destined to be more than a pet, because I don't think it's a high value or a priority to most pet people.

Melissa Breau: While it's a bit of a change of topic, I also wanted to talk about the format here. Your Engagement 2.0 webinar is just that — it's a webinar. But FDSA also offers workshops, and we have six-week classes, and then there's the PPP program. I know you've done engagement as a class in the past. Why a webinar this time?

Denise Fenzi: Really, time. I would have preferred to do a class. I think six weeks would have been fantastic with the students.

Webinars and workshops, just as a really rough rule of thumb, I prefer webinars for generic concepts that cover a lot of territory and get people thinking. I prefer workshops for specific skills, where at the end of the workshop, the student listens for an hour and then I can say, "I want you to do this, followed by this, followed by this." I really like that. And then I go back and review their work. So it's kind of like the same thing we do in a class, except that in a class we do it for six week and we tend to cover more territory.

This particular topic would have been equally amenable to a webinar or a workshop. It's just I chose to cover a much greater quantity of information, which is more suited to the webinar format. If I had done the workshop format, what I probably would have done is several workshops, with each one being a full hour just on a stage, like "Stage 2: This is how you're going to do it, these are the things that might come up, here's your problem-solving, go do it, let me see what you've got." And the next week work that Stage 2. And then the next week, "This is Stage 3. This is what we do. This is your problem-solving."

So in a workshop I would give much more depth, and I decided that since so many of the students already have the class, that a webinar that builds on what they already have, clarifies points of issue, allows everybody to ask me questions about "What do I do when my dog tries to mark in the building when I'm doing engagement or doing acclimation?" That kind of thing can be very well addressed in a webinar.

So really it was a tossup. I could have done a workshop or a webinar. In this case I opted for an overview and a webinar. A workshop would have been great. Maybe I'll do that in the future. Am I allowed to do two things? I guess I am.

Melissa Breau: Of course.

Denise Fenzi: So who knows. Maybe in six months I'll go ahead and carve out some time and do a few workshops.

Melissa Breau: I mean, you own the school. I think you're allowed to do whatever you want.

Denise Fenzi: I don't know, I don't know. But I'll try.

Melissa Breau: Just to confirm, I think the original engagement class is available in self-study, right? So if people wanted to go back and see the original content, is it up there?

Denise Fenzi: Oh yeah, sure, and it's compatible. All the materials will be there. You'll get more video examples. And it's slower.

Some people really prefer to read to gather information, and some people prefer to listen. The readers will be very happy with the class format because they can easily go back and refer to various issues like, "What do I do if my dog is too rough?" or whatever. The listeners will probably be really happy with the webinar.

I do think that people who have the class will benefit by taking the webinar. I think it will help them to recalibrate and to move forward maybe with a bit more confidence. And really I did add a whole different way that a person can now start all of the stages with structure. So people who got stuck at Stage 3 before and couldn't figure out how to get their dogs moving, I found an answer. It's one of those things I went, "Why didn't I think of this before? It's so obvious." But anyway … . So basically we have added in some structure for people who have struggled.

So yeah, take both. Personally, I wouldn't buy the class. I would buy the webinar, and then, if you decide you need more help, now go buy the class to save yourself some money. But if you're only going to do one, I would at this point recommend the webinar, and then decide if you need more information.

Melissa Breau: You talked a little bit about what you would ideally pick for each format, or why you pick a format. But kind of flipping that on its head a little bit, can you share a little about the strengths and weaknesses for students of some of the different formats? How they work, and what factors someone might consider if they're trying to choose which is best for them as a student?

Denise Fenzi: Oh yeah, we think about this all the time, because FDSA is super, super committed to finding learning opportunities that work for as many people as possible, and we've gotten tons of feedback now over the years about what does work and what doesn't work.

Six-week-long classes are, without a question, are gold-standard winner if you want the most information that you're going to get handholding around a long period of time, systematically laid out for the right prices: $65 to $260. Sixty-five if you want to watch, $260 if you want that classic coaching handholding. You cannot beat the value of a full class.

On the other hand, if, after two weeks, you're exhausted, maybe you get overwhelmed by information, maybe you need feedback from the instructor but you don't have access to that level, maybe you're a little embarrassed to put yourself out there, maybe you have a vacation for a week and then you get discouraged when you get back, all of those things — a class is only valuable if you do it.

There are way too many students coming back saying, "I bought it for my library and I've never looked at it." I personally find that appalling and upsetting. We're not offering educational material to take your money. We're offering it so you will learn.

If the six-week class — whether it's a gold standard or not, doesn't matter — if it's not working for you, if you're not working the class, if you're not able to process the information, if you're not a visual learner, if you don't like written lecture with the video examples and you really want somebody to talk to you, then it's not the right answer for you.

So your next best bet is probably workshops. Workshop format, for people who like to listen. I know people who say, "I fold the laundry and I listen to the words of the instructor, and then I just glance at the computer when it's a video or a slide I need to look at." That's fine, if you're a podcast-type learner, and when you have time, you can go back and look at the PDF and clarify the exact exercises you're supposed to do and review. It's one week of commitment and that is way more doable.

So the feedback we're getting on workshops is a whole lot of happy people. Yet also, if you don't have $260 but you really need some handholding, it's only $39.95, and you still get to submit a video. That's really a big deal for people who want a little more attention.

So I personally think workshops are the wave of the future. I think the ability to be in the class for one week, and to get feedback, and to have the price right, and then feel good about yourself because you did it is enormously valuable. And I think it actually reflects how we train dogs. So there's something to be said for good training.

Webinars, in my point of view, are the best way to get not applied material but understanding of a concept. "Oh, this is what people are talking about. This is the big picture." Or this is a deep dive into one little tiny area, which is a concept rather than something we are necessarily going to apply and practice in a feedback-oriented format. And again the price is right, so those are $19.95.

As we look at our topics, most topics clearly fall into one of those options, and people seem to be finding their way, like, I've had people say to me, "I used to do all classes. Now I do all webinars. That works for me."

More and more I'm seeing the comments about the workshops. People are getting it. They're like, "Wow, this is so awesome. I'm loving this." And "I had a chance to submit feedback, and now I understand why that's so valuable."

I think that's where we're going to start seeing people choose to sit, but there will always be a place for the six weeks of really detailed attention, and there will always be a place for a webinar. So a person can decide, "Is this how I want to spend my six weeks? Is this the right answer for me?" So there's just lots of opportunities.

Melissa Breau: I've got one last question here. It's the one I'm asking everybody who comes on lately, but it's particular apt topic-wise for what we've talked about today. What's something that you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Denise Fenzi: Be kind. Be kind. Be kind to dogs, be kind to people. Just be a decent person. And remember: The way a dog responds when you are warm, the way a dog responds when you are aggressive, the response you get will be exactly the same when you deal with people. When you come at a dog with guns blazing, it doesn't go well, and when you come at a person with guns blazing, it doesn't go well. I've seen some interactions lately, and I would give a lot to see our community come together and recognize the importance of being kind to all. You will be so much more effective in life. That is what my mind right now about dog training is how we can apply that to our people skills and really watch the quality of our lives get so much better.

Melissa Breau: Thanks so much for coming back on the podcast Denise! As always, it's been fun.

Denise Fenzi: Thank you, Melissa, for having me.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Chrissi Schranz to talk about finding time to train.

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. 


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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