Helene has led a number of discussions lately around the idea of foundationland... this place many trainers get stuck in when training their dogs - so I invited her on to talk about the concept and what to do to escape if you find yourself stuck there.
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 Helene Lawler.
Hélène has been working with animals her whole life — she started by training her cat to use the toilet when she was 12! Since then, she's spent years heavily invested in both training and the rescue world. She's dabbled in nosework, tracking, and Search and Rescue, and then began training agility in 2004, followed by herding in 2005. It didn't take long before she was hooked.
She won the Ontario novice herding championship in 2008, after just two years of training with her dog Hannah, and together they went on to become an Open level team while simultaneously competing in agility to the Masters level and qualifying for the AAC Canadian Nationals. Today, she runs a working mixed livestock farm, with sheep, goats, horses, and poultry, and works full-time as a dog sports coach, specializing in R+ herding, troubleshooting sport problems, and handler mindset coaching.
Hi Helene, welcome to the podcast!
Helene Lawler: Hi Melissa.
Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you just remind listeners who the dogs are that you share your life with?
Helene Lawler: Absolutely. I currently have eleven dogs, so they keep me busy. I have my two polar bears, Mikey and Juno, who are my livestock guardian dogs, and they keep us all safe, mostly the sheep and goats. The patrol the farm and the house, and I love having them around. They're really amazing dogs.
I still have Hannah. She turns 14 in January. She's a Border Collie. She's been my superstar and she's going strong these days. I'm so happy about that because, you know, as they get older, we always worry, but she's got nothing going on with her. We're working on mental and physical fitness just to stay healthy and strong going forward. I have a lot of hope that she'll be around for some time yet.
I have an Australian Working Kelpie, Holly. Holly is 9 now and retired from most things because she's had some health issues this last year, which I think stemmed from food allergies, so hopefully we have that under control now.
And then I have seven other Border Collies ranging from almost 2 years of age to 9. We are in various stages of training, from foundations up through my latest dog, he's almost 9, and he's a fully trained open trial dog that we'll be competing with starting this spring, I hope.
So that's my crew.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. You've been talking a bit on the alumni list lately about this idea of "foundationland," so I wanted to have you on to get into that a bit more. To start us out, what is foundationland?
Helene Lawler: I have this idea of what foundationland is, and I think there's a difference between what I think it should be and what it often ends up being.
What I think it should be is a place that we visit with our new puppy or dog, or when we start training a new sport. It's a place that we take our dogs, and we work on the key pieces that we need for the end goals that we want to achieve with that dog, whatever that might be. It could be a sport, it could be a family pet, it could be a working dog. There are many different reasons we have dogs, and depending on the reason we have them, they're going to need some different basics in place to get us there.
And so I see foundationland as the place that we take that dog to get those pieces. We may need to pop back and forth into foundationland as we progress toward those end goals, so it's a place that we visit, that we maybe see fairly regularly at the start and less frequently as we go along.
Foundationland is going to look different for every team, every handler, and every handler-dog team, so it can vary quite a bit. For example, I have my herding dogs. Let's take Raven. My end goal with Raven is she is going to be my number one working dog on the farm. She almost didn't spend any time in foundationland, because she basically needed to have a lie down, and then I put her to work. She's been working since she was 7 months old, and she's just been a very naturally easy dog to work with.
Her littermate brother, Griffin, his whole experience in foundationland has been very different. He's almost 4, they're both almost 4, and he's still working on some foundations. So it really depends on the dog and what they need, and what we're going to do with them.
So that's what I see foundationland as being optimally.
Now what it looks like for many people is a place that they get stuck in, and that's where I've been wanting to dig more deeply into what it's all about for people.
Melissa Breau: What got you thinking about that concept?
Helene Lawler: It came up after my Sensitive Dogs webinar. I got into conversations with quite a few people who were really struggling with their dogs, particularly their sensitive dogs. What kept coming up was this issue of this need to work on foundations.
One conversation I had in particular with someone, she was expressing her dismay at being stuck in … and I think she actually used the word foundationland. I don't think it's my original thought. I just took it and ran with it because I had this huge a-ha moment when she said, "I'm stuck in foundations or foundationland," and I thought, "Wow, I totally get that," because so many people I see are stuck there as well. And I've been there too, so I totally understand how this is becoming a thing. That's what really got me thinking about this idea.
Melissa Breau: To break it down a little more, when we look at it, what are we talking about? Are we talking about making criteria shifts? Are we talking about a failure to generalize behaviors or to train them to fluency? All of those things? What is it that people aren't doing when they get "stuck" in foundationland?
Helene Lawler: That's a great question. It's a little bit of all of those things. It's getting stuck in perfectionism. I think a lot of foundationland is this need to be perfect, this need to make sure we that have all the bases covered.
It's this belief that often happens that "I have to teach X. But before I can teach X, I need to teach Y. And before I can teach Y, I need to teach A, B, and C., and A, B, and C have to be totally fluent. But I can't teach A, B, and C, because I first have to teach Q," and onward down the rabbit hole.
And there's all these little pieces. I know we promote splitting, and I'm a big fan of splitting when I'm teaching a new behavior. But we split our overall end goals into so many tiny little pieces that it becomes that infinite split and we never get to the end goal. And so I think that's one of the big challenges.
Not long ago, a few years ago, people were doing the opposite. I would go to agility and I would see people running their dogs around an agility course with no foundations. The dogs had no idea how to do the obstacles. The handlers didn't have any handling skills. They were luring dogs through weave poles with a piece of cheese or having them run over contact equipment with no training and the dogs were flying off.
So we had one extreme and now we've swing to the other extreme, where people are spending so much time getting the foundations in place that that don't ever even set foot on the trial fields. So I think it's the pendulum just swinging the other way from where we've been for a long time.
Melissa Breau: There's definitely still people out there who fall into that other end of the pendulum.
Helene Lawler: Absolutely.
Melissa Breau: Especially in our community, I think we're seeing more and more people who are on this end of the extreme.
Helene Lawler: Yes, and I think part of that is the result of online training. We see all the things. There's so many classes and so much to learn, and then we get stuck with FOMO, fear of missing out, and we end up believing we need to learn all the things.
The other thing, I think, a lot of online training is … and I'm a huge proponent, obviously. It's what I do full time. I love it, and I think it's changed the world of dog training for the better in so many ways. But one of the challenges that we have to overcome is that we see all the things other people are doing and we compare ourselves, and we can get ourselves into paralysis that way. I think there's that contributing factor as well.
Melissa Breau: You have a webinar on this stuff coming up, and you mention in the description that you were trialing at an advanced level, recognized you had some holes in your foundations, and you went back to foundationland and stayed there for three years! I wanted you to share that story.
Helene Lawler: A lot of this stuff I'm talking about, I'm talking about from personal experience. I've been training dogs for … I got my first dog a little over 30 years ago now. I knew nothing about training. I took him to a couple of obedience classes way back then. I knew he was a Border Collie, a very high-energy, full working bred Border Collie, and I learned how to train him basically through complete intuition.
I had a great communication system with this dog. He and I totally clicked. I always said this dog taught me everything that I knew about dog training. I had him for 14 years. I learned everything from my dog. We never did any formal sports, but we did tons of things. I had him very well trained, we had lots of fun together, and I used to teach other people what I did, and so on and so forth.
I got another couple of dogs over the years, and I took lessons and I got into some more formal, structured training. But then I discovered the world of online training, and as I said, I started discovering all the things, and I came across science of learning. I was like, "Whoa, what is that?" ABA and all of this very technical, very scientific approach to training, and I had this complete existential crisis. I was like, "Oh my goodness, I don't know anything about dog training."
I'd been training dogs for over 20 years at this point, and teaching other people, and I just had this big crisis of conscience of, "Oh, there's so much I don't know," and how can I teach other people, and how can I train my own dogs, and how did I ever train a dog out of a paper bag all these years not knowing all these things? I know nothing. I went into complete paralysis mode and overwhelm of all the things I didn't know, and I felt like I have to learn everything before I can take even one more step.
It took me about three years of taking all the things, studying and taking courses and going to seminars. I was still training my dogs, but I was not taking them out of my living room. Everything I would train, I would realize, "Oh, wait a minute, I'm missing these four pieces. I have to go and fix those first."
So, like I said, everything I'm talking about here, I personally went through. And I feel like I've solidly come out the other side of that now, with a lot of insight into the struggle and a lot of ideas on how to get through it. So that's what I want to share with people.
Melissa Breau: You kind of got into this a little bit a little while ago, but what is it that leads people to get stuck there?
Helene Lawler: I talk about foundationland as a place to visit, and I think that that's a really useful way to look at it. But what I think foundationland effectively tends to be is a mindset for people when they get stuck. People who are stuck in foundations are stuck in a mindset of the novice, and that is a big challenge to overcome.
Getting a new puppy or starting a new sport can feel like getting dumped into Oz by a tornado. All of a sudden you're like, "We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto." You're completely overwhelmed and you don't know what to do, and then you have flying monkeys chasing you. You think the solution is to follow the yellow brick road, which is a path somebody else created that you need to follow to the guru who is going to help you.
That's the image I have in my head now, and if you want to extend that metaphor, we actually have it within us to escape foundationland anytime we want. What we need to do is recognize that.
The first step, if someone is feeling stuck in foundationland, is to work on the mindset, because our dogs … foundationland doesn't really exist for them. It only exists for us. For them, they're just being dogs and they're just behaving, and they're just doing dog things. So it's all about what's going on in our heads and how we're approaching training.
If we can compartmentalize things, like, these are some foundation pieces, but how are we going to apply them and get them into a more practical sense, and if we can always stay in the mindset of where is this going and how are we going to apply it, then that can help us from being stuck in foundationland.
I think also developing the confidence in self. For me, when I was stuck there, as I said, I had this total feeling of inadequacy that I just didn't know enough to move forward. I think that that's easy for people to feel that way, again, especially when you can compare yourself to so many people and you can see all the stuff that maybe you don't know about. But the thing is there's always going to be more learning, and there's always going to be more to learn.
The other thing I've realized with all the people that I've now studied with is that most people, they're all learning too, and it's this constant process of evolution. It's never going to end, and that's exciting and that's really great. It's not something to be intimidated by, but something we should embrace and look forward to, and then go, "We're in that right now, and this is how I can apply it," and let me put it into practice. And then, as I need to learn more, I will learn more and go forward that way, as opposed to thinking I have to learn everything before I can take that first step. And so, as a handler, focusing on that and saying, "I know this much, I can do stuff with it. Let me do stuff with it," as opposed to feeling like you have to know everything first.
As I said, it's a real mindset thing for many people, and it certainly was for me. And working on that aspect of training in general is really critical. I think that's a big and important piece for sure.
Melissa Breau: I love the Oz metaphor. I think there's another piece there, where you mentioned that you visit. I think there's something a little bit reassuring, at least for me, about this idea that you can always come back to foundationland. So if you move on and you get out of foundationland and you find that you need something else, you can always come back and visit, and then leave again.
Helene Lawler: Absolutely. We all have the ruby slippers. All we have to do is click our heels and we're right back there, and then we can pop right back out again. We just have to recognize that we have it in us to do that. Nobody else has to tell us. Nobody else has to give us permission. We don't need the Wizard behind the screen, behind the curtain. It's completely within our power to just go in and out of foundationland as we need.
So if we have worked on some foundations and then we start moving into practice with them, and then we go, "Woops, there's a hole here." I'm just going to pop in for a day or two and fix that hole, and then I'm going to come back. It's very fluid. Foundationland is not a place. It's not a physical destination in any way. It's in our heads, and so we can just make that mental shift back and forth as we need to.
Melissa Breau: If someone is listening and they're slowly realizing that they recognize themselves in a lot of what we've been talking about, what can they DO about it? What's the first step, if they have been stuck and they want to move on?
Helene Lawler: Great question. As I said, the first step is to recognize that it really is in our heads and that we have the absolute ability to make the decision to take that next step. I would say that's important. Just recognize it, just do it. I know that sounds way easier than it is. But exercising constraint over overwhelm.
Another thing that I have recently learned myself is that overwhelm is a choice. It's not an actual state. We can choose to be overwhelmed or we can choose not to be. If we just say, I'm not going to be overwhelmed by this. I'm going to just take this one step at a time, and it's fine. That's the very first step.
There are a couple of other very practical things that we can do to help move out of foundationland, and one of the things is that we can always picture the end goal. Where are we going to go with this behavior? Know where that is, and try and build it into the picture right from the start as much as possible.
Let me give you an example of husbandry behavior. This comes from a student I worked with recently who did a fantastic job with her dog. She wanted to teach the dog to hold a chin rest on a prop so that she could do husbandry work, and she was struggling with having duration. The dog would go over and put his chin on the prop, but she wanted to build the duration.
She was like, "How long do we need the duration for to be able to start doing the husbandry work?" I said, "Just start doing the husbandry work now, because the dog will then have the bigger picture." The dog will understand, "I'm not just randomly putting my chin on something. There's a purpose for this."
If we see the end goal and we build it into our training right from the start, at whatever capacity we can … so with this dog, for example, immediately what she would do is have the dog put his chin on the prop, and then touch an ear and then release him. Or touch the dog somewhere else, or hold a brush near him, or something like that, so the dog could see there's a purpose to this, there's an end goal.
I do this in herding as well. For example, my Raven, who I mentioned earlier, who's going to run my farm, as soon as I had a stop on her, which I don't remember teaching her, apparently I did at some point … I feel like she came with it built in. She's one of these natural, easy dogs, which I'm so grateful for. But as soon as she had a stop, I started using her for work, immediately. She was 7 months old and she was helping me move sheep around the farm.
As we developed, I'd be like, her flanks are not very good. So I took her out of the work and I would work on her flanks a little bit. But we kept working. I didn't stop working with her, because she was still able to do the work, simple jobs, while I was putting in her foundation pieces. So in that context, this is a dog who was able to learn most of her foundation work while actually doing things practically.
Training with working dogs has really taught me a lot about just how important it is for the dog to see the big picture and understand the purpose of what we're doing, so that the foundation pieces make sense to them. It will click for them a lot faster, and when we see them clicking, we'll be encouraged to move forward, so there's this nice feedback thing that happens.
Melissa Breau: I want to ask too about this idea of keeping ourselves accountable. This is all fantastic, and I'm sure that a lot of people who are listening are nodding along, and they're like, "Yes, I'm going to do this." But how do we make sure that we're keeping ourselves accountable and not just repeating the same things over and over again, and that we're really continuing to make that progress?
Helene Lawler: That's a great question, because it's so easy to just repeat over and over again the same behaviors. One of the reasons — I'm going to digress briefly — one of the reasons people stay in foundationland, which was brought to my attention through some of the chat on the alumni list, is that it's a place of high reinforcement for the handler because we have success. You know what you're doing and you can do it well.
I love starting new puppies. I am so good at starting puppies, let me tell you. I can start puppies in my sleep. I have raised so many puppies. I breed, so I've started several litters of puppies, and then all the puppies I've purchased over the years. I can do that stuff so well, it's highly reinforcing. So what do I do? I breed and buy puppies. I realized that, and I'm like, I need to train my dogs all the way to the end, not just keep buying new puppies, because now I have a house full of half-trained dogs because I can get them all to a certain level really easily and it's so reinforcing for me.
Now what happens when we drop the rate of reinforcement on a behavior that previously earned reinforcement? We get extinction. We can slide into extinction. So what happens with extinction, often we have extinction bursts. What is an extinction burst? It's doing that behavior over and over and over again that used to get us the reinforcement.
I would say that we could take an ABA perspective on this and say that when we get stuck in foundationland, it could actually be an extinction burst, because we stepped out of it and we're not getting the rate of reinforcement that we want, and so we go right back in.
What we need to do to help ourselves through that is to record-keep. I video and write down what we're doing, and focus on the successes. Just keep writing down the things that are going well, and we can go back and look. Not just record-keep, but periodically check what you've done. If you look back and you're like, "I actually have made all this progress," or, "Oh look, I've been training Exercise B for three months now," that's a problem.
If we record-keep what we're training, and it doesn't have to be very detailed, because record keeping, I know it's hard. I struggle with it myself. You can just make a list of the exercises and put a checkmark next to every time you train it — even something simple like that. When you do that, you can see, "Wow, these four exercises, I have trained them 27 times. I must really, really find that reinforcing," and "Oh look, there's what I've done once." I do that and I can really see my own patterning, and see where I am doing a lot of things over and over and over again.
And you know what? Dogs get bored with this, and they also end up developing glass ceilings and then it's hard to move on. So we really need to be aware of it, both for our own confidence building and to keep our dogs fully engaged in the training.
So definitely record keeping, and the other thing I think that's really critical is to create a training plan that brings you right to the end of your end goal so you can see where you're going and you can really track your progress against it, a flow chart or however you want to set this up, but having it written out. Remember, I was saying earlier that it's really important to know where you're going with this, so that you can build that in from the start. It's also good to know where you're going so that you can see where you've progressed along that route.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned two things in there that I just want to stop and have you explain real quick, in case listeners aren't familiar with them. The first is you mentioned an ABA perspective. Can you just take a second and explain what you meant by that?
Helene Lawler: Applied Behavior Analysis. That's just using a lot of the … oh boy, how can I explain that … the science of learning, in a nutshell. A lot of the techniques that we're using with positive reinforcement training and understanding how to apply them in a fairly rigorous way, of understanding how reinforcement works and putting that into practice. Does that help?
Melissa Breau: Yeah, that's a good, quick explanation. And then you breezed by this idea of a glass ceiling. Do you want to … because I know that's a custom term.
Helene Lawler: I call it a glass ceiling. I don't think that's my original term. I'm not sure where I picked it up, but it's definitely become part of my vernacular. A glass ceiling is when the dog gets stuck at a certain level of training or doing a certain behavior. Very briefly, if we practice a behavior over and over again, it becomes stronger and stronger and stronger. But then it becomes really hard to move on to the next step.
If we're at the end behavior … let's say we've trained a beautiful tuck sit and that's what we want, we want to practice that over and over again until we really get that movement precise and durable. Then it's kind of OK to have a glass ceiling, because you're not going to progress that sit beyond the tuck sit.
But if you're working on the little pieces of it, then you don't want to get stuck at any of those little pieces. So if we train it too often, if we repeat the behavior too often, the dog will get stuck on that behavior. That's where we get in trouble with the potential of extinction.
If the dog is reinforced over and over and over and over and over for that one piece, and then we want to progress to the next step and we withhold reinforcement to be able to see if we can get the dog to take that next step, the dog will be like, "Wait a minute. I was getting cookies for this for the last 27 times. Where's my cookie?" And then we can end up with some frustration and extinction behaviors, as opposed to the dog going, "I know if there's a little pause here that I'm supposed to try something else," because they're used to the progression.
So we can end up creating this glass ceiling that's hard to break through. It's not impossible, but then we have to work at breaking through. So that's something that we want to avoid in our training that's really easy to happen if we keep doing the behaviors that we find personally reinforcing and we don't practice other ones or progress them.
Melissa Breau: I happen to have a personal example, so I'm going to share real quick, just in case anybody's still wondering. With Levi, we now have some frustration behaviors when it comes to pivoting on a disc, because it was hard for me to get him with his front feet on that disc, so we stayed at that step for a really long time. And then when it was time for him to rotate his little rear end around it, well, he'd been paid for getting those front feet on that disc and standing still for so long that that movement was really hard to get jumpstarted.
Helene Lawler: That's exactly it. And oh, that pivoting, I don't know. I can train my dogs to do so many things, and that is like the bane of my existence. But that's a whole other conversation. Independent pivots on a pivot disc. Ugh!
Melissa Breau: I'm working on 'em, man. I want to talk about the webinar for a minute. For those listening, it'll be January 2, at 6pm PT. Can you share a little bit about what you plan to cover during the webinar and how it ties into all the stuff we've been talking about?
Helene Lawler: Absolutely. In the webinar I'll be talking about some of the things that we've talked about here, but going into a little bit more in-depth. In particular I'm going to tease apart some of the mindset stuff and some exercises people can do to work on that, and I'm going to give some practical examples about how to build performance in from the start as one of the ways of not getting stuck in foundationland.
I will give people some examples and things to work on at home, some practical tips as well as overarching strategies for building this in right from the start. Because even at the very simplest levels, if you're just raising a dog to be a good family companion, an active companion and pet, there's still things that we can build in right from the start that will help make that happen a lot faster.
And then I will go into more detail about the tools that I mentioned about how to evaluate your own progress to, as a handler, keep you honest and keep you focused on making that progression. How to check in with yourself regularly to make sure that you are making these steps in and out of foundationland on an as-needed basis, so that you're really in charge and in control of when you're there and when you're not there, rather than feeling like you have to go find that wizard behind the curtain.
Melissa Breau: And if I understand it right, you've also been writing quite a bit lately. You're sending out regular articles via e-mail for subscribers. Can you share a little more about that and where folks can go to get on your list?
Helene Lawler: Absolutely. I used to blog a lot, and I've been wanting to get back into it. What I've been doing is writing newsletters instead of blog posts these days, because I feel like I have a really great connection with my e-mail community and I love having conversations with them.
I've been focusing on getting a newsletter out probably once a week. I try to send something out every Friday about training, about what I'm working on, about my thoughts on particular issues. I have a theme that I work on where I'll have several issues out on the one theme, and then we'll switch themes, and I answer people's questions. So it's really fun. I enjoy it a lot.
Melissa Breau: One last question here that I'm asking all my guests lately: What's something you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Helene Lawler: Tying in with everything we've been talking about with foundationland, that's the thing: how to get to foundationland. That's been so amazing for me.
This fall I attended Chicken Camp. If anybody here is interested in really upping their training skills, if you have the opportunity to attend a Chicken Camp, do so. Very briefly, Chicken Camp is you clicker-train chickens to do things. It was a three-day, intensive, 9 to 5, you are training a chicken, intensive experience. We went through all of the details on how to train a chicken.
I had this chicken that I trained for two days to peck the red circle amongst different types of shapes and different color objects. I spent two days training my chicken to do this, and she got really, really good at pecking the red circle.
And then I was told that my test is to train the chicken to peck the yellow circle. So I'm standing there with the instructor — anybody in the class was welcome to watch; fortunately most people were busy training their own chickens — and a stopwatch, and she's like, "Ready, set, go."
I was told that the fastest time anybody had done it in was 3 minutes and change, and some people took 30 minutes, and some people never got it. I'm a little bit competitive with myself, so I was like, "Let's see how fast I can teach this chicken to do this reversal of the object, the stimulus reversal."
I worked my butt off to explain to this chicken that I wanted her to peck the yellow object and not the red object that I'd been paying for her to peck for two days. I was very proud of myself because I did it in 4 minutes and I didn't know how many seconds.
I was really amazed. I was absolutely, honestly, honestly astounded, because going into that, I thought, this will take me two or three days to train. I'll have to set up a training plan, and I'm going to have to figure all this stuff out, it's going to take me three days and multiple sessions, blah, blah, blah, to get this behavior. I did it in 4 minutes and change.
When I watched the video back, I could see that my chicken understood in just over 3 minutes. It was amazing. I was like, wow, this is incredible This is a chicken. She understood what I was trying to tell her in under 3 minutes, despite any mistakes I made and everything.
It took me about a minute and a half to even realize that she knew what I was wanting her to do, so that's how behind I was, and how much faster my learner was figuring things out than I was even, first of all, aware that she was learning, and second, aware that she was capable of learning.
So that's what I have had this big a-ha moment ever since then. I'm like, wow, our learners can learn so much faster than we give them credit for, and they are not the ones holding us back. So we need to embrace this and really work with that, and we can accomplish so much more than we realize we can, if we just have some faith in ourselves, because our learners are right there with us. They can keep up. They can go as fast as we can and faster. That's my recent learning.
Melissa Breau: That's a neat story. I like that. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Helene! This has been great.
Helene Lawler: Thank you! It's been wonderful to be back.
Melissa Breau: And thank you to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Andrea Harrison to talk about starting the new year off right.
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