E148: Petra Ford - "Conditioned for Excellence in Obedience"

Petra and I talk about the fitness that is required of our competitive obedience dogs... and how working on conditioning exercises can benefit your obedience performance.


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 Petra Ford.

Petra graduated from Rutgers School of Health Related Professions 17 years ago with a degree in physical therapy. She attended the Canine Rehabilitation Institute in 2007, and is a certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist.

Petra trains and trials her Labrador Retrievers in obedience, agility, and field. Her black Lab, Tyler, had the distinction of being the 2008 and 2009 National Obedience Champion and First Runner-Up in 2010. In 2012, Petra and Tyler became the first American team to win the Obedience World Cup.

Petra has written several articles on canine conditioning, canine injury prevention, competing with your dog, and more. She has been published in a number of magazines including Clean Run, Front and Finish, and Whole Dog Journal.

Hi Petra, welcome back to the podcast!

Petra Ford: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Congrats on winning the Novice Class at the Classic!

Petra Ford: Thank you. I was very excited, very proud of my little girl.

Melissa Breau: It was your youngest dog, right? Your baby dog.

Petra Ford: It is. It's my little girl. She's 3. She's very sassy and very independent. But she was a very good girl and tried very hard for me. It was very tough there, so I was very proud of her.

Melissa Breau: That's Zayna, right?

Petra Ford: Yes, Zayna, my naughty girl.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, we talked a little bit about Zayna, but can you remind listeners who the rest of your current dogs are and what you're working on with them?

Petra Ford: Zeal is a little older than Zayna. He's my current dog that I'm competing with in obedience, AKC obedience. He does regionals and tournaments. He's my OTCH dog, so he's pretty seasoned.

Zaidan is a little bit older. He was my agility dog. The poor thing just recently underwent surgery for an ACL tear, but he's recovering nicely.

Those are my three, and sooner probably rather than later, I'm going to have to look for a puppy.

Melissa Breau: Well, that's exciting!

Petra Ford: Yes, I love training puppies.

Melissa Breau: The next one started.

Petra Ford: Yes.

Melissa Breau: Over the next few months you're offering a workshop series on conditioning for obedience through FDSA, and I was hoping we could talk about that a little bit. To dive in, what kinds of issues do people see that they might not realize have an underlying physical cause in obedience?

Petra Ford: A lot of times the dogs appear to be not responding to a cue. For example, if you're doing directed jumping and you tell your dog to jump, and the dog goes around the jump, it would at first appear that the dog just didn't follow your cue to jump the jump.

But a lot of times there is a physical component going on, and a lot of times people aren't aware that that could even be an option. I teach all of my rehab clients that the minute your dog does something that they don't ordinarily do, to check them out physically first.

Typically, if your dog has always reliably jumped on your signal, and suddenly your dog does not want to jump the jump to your right, there's likely an underlying physical issue going on.

There's a whole host of mistakes the dog could be making that have an underlying physical component. It could be anything from not jumping, avoiding a jump, sitting slowly, sitting with a rocked back, with a hind leg sticking out. Let's say if you do a flip finish where your dog jumps, dog not wanting to jump to the finish. Slow to sit on a flip finish. There's an exhaustive list. I don't want to bore everybody.

But I think the primary thing is a change. Other than a change, typically the only other issue I see that can start in puppyhood actually is issues with sits. A sit that's not nice and tucked-up and strong is typically caused by, it could be either tightness or an injury, but also by structure.

For example, my Zeal is very straight in the front and more angulated in the rear, so when he sits, left to his own devices, his body would cause him to rock back. But because I have worked on that since he was a little puppy, he has a very nice sit.

I've had clients that their dogs will be 4 years old, 5 years old, and they'll say, "Well, he always sat like this." That's likely true, but we can still fix it.

Melissa Breau: To go back to your jumping example, what kinds of physical issues lead to those types of problems or any of the examples you mentioned? And once you think there might be a physical problem, how do you work on identifying what it is that's weak, so you can fix it?

Petra Ford: One of the most common injuries or issues I see are iliopsoas muscle strains. That's a muscle that will be considered part of the dog's core. And just like in humans, regardless of what sport you participate in, you need a strong core. Typically, if the dog's core is weak, that will lead potentially to a muscle strain and/or an injury.

Dogs are super-tough. They have a very, very high pain tolerance. Also our dogs want to work for us. They get highly rewarded for working with us. So if your dog is refusing something, then they're pretty darn sore. It's unlike us, they're not, "Oh, I feel a little tight. I better take a day off." No, they're going to keep jumping anyway, and by the time they refuse, they're very, very sore.

That's very common. Weak core.

And then, where your dog is structurally weak, you're going to have an inherent weakness. For example, Zeal is very straight in the front, so he always gets tight in his neck and shoulders. I know that, and I work on that all the time.

A lot of my clients will bring me their young dogs, we'll look at their structure, I'll be able to say to them, "This is where your dog is inherently weak, so make sure you keep that really strong. If you do that, you can prevent injuries from happening."

I have everyone work on a dog's core. The tricky thing about the dog's core is if the exercises are not done correctly, you can inadvertently predispose your dog to injury instead of helping them. So it's very important that you have someone instruct you on how to do them correctly so that you get the benefit out of it.

Your best choice in terms of information as to whether your dog is injured or has an inherent weakness is a canine rehabilitation professional, someone that's certified. In an absolute perfect world they would also have experience working on quite a number of performance dogs.

I'm in a super-unique situation in that because I compete myself, I've always had a fairly large number of clients with performance dogs, so I've had my hands on them for many, many years. I don't really want to think about how many. Fifteen years.

But, you know, in other areas, some rehab professionals don't have exposure to performance dogs. I find that they have unique needs and they get unique injuries, compared to the average pet dog, that perhaps require surgery and rehab.

Melissa Breau: I know in the workshops you broke things down into five pieces. I want to look at that a little bit. The first one, which is set up to run on January 19, is on super sits and fantastic finishes. When we're talking about sits and finishes, what skills are we looking at from a conditioning perspective that really go with those behaviors?

Petra Ford: For sits, I go very in-depth because the vast majority of dogs don't have what I will call good posture in a sit. If I'm sitting in a chair and slouching, someone can walk by and say to me, "Hey, sit up tall," and then I'll do it. You can't really say that to a dog. Well, you can, but it won't work.

If a dog is sitting with what I term poor posture, their halts and their fronts and finishes are not going to be as accurate. They're going to look like they're off.

In order to get a tight sit, I have a very specific exercise, which I call good posture in a sit. It's fairly simple in that you just use a cookie and lure the dog into that position and then get the dog to hold that position. Over time, the dog is suddenly able to sit with good posture, and then we strengthen that. And then your dog will give you really nice, straight, tight fronts, finishes, pivots, halts, because we have a lot of sits in obedience.

It's something people can do themselves, which is really nice. They just have to make sure that when they lure the dog, they're doing it correctly, which is why I have a lot of videos in the workshop, because I think it's a really visual thing you need to see.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned bad posture. Are there other signs that this might be an area where a dog needs some work?

Petra Ford: Yeah, if the dog sits slowly. If normally you stop and they sit right away, if they start sitting … not taking their time, but if their sit is slow, oftentimes that can be an indication that there is an issue.

Same with on a finish, if they come around or go into position but then sit slow, that can absolutely be a physical issue with sits.

We don't really have sit-stays anymore. I'm not complaining. But if you were to sit your dog and go get some of your equipment, and your dog wants to get out of that position, it's an indication that they're not comfortable in that position.

Melissa Breau: So despite the not so many sit-stays, I still have a question on that. I think people do think about — at least in the nerdy dog obedience part of the world, which I think a lot of our listeners are — they think about the muscles a dog needs for a good tuck sit, but maybe they don't think so much about the physical requirements of holding that sit.

And if their dog is dropping into a down when they're left in a sit-stay, they maybe think they need to work on the duration piece and explain that to the dog again and that kind of thing.

So I did want to look at the sit-stay, and are there any hints for telling if failure to hold that stay is a physical weakness versus a training issue.

Petra Ford: For one, if your dog typically holds a sit-stay and then starts to not hold it, that's a change. Usually when there's a change, I look at the physical first.

If the dog sits, and as time goes by — 5 seconds, 10, 15, 20 — the dog's back legs start to slide out, that's weakness or tightness.

If the dog shuffles its front feet or just looks like it's shifting and shuffling, that's likely that the dog's uncomfortable.

If a dog starts sitting on a hip, or is sitting and goes to sit on a hip, that's usually an indication that something is bothering the dog.

Melissa Breau: Are there different muscles involved in that duration behavior versus the more dynamic action of tucking into a sit? Are they the same muscles and they're working a little bit differently?

Petra Ford: It's the same muscles. It's just you're adding endurance. It's no different than if I tell you right now, "Sit up tall," and you're like, "Oh, OK," and you do, but in 5 minutes if I look at you, you may have slumped down again, because those muscles have to build strength and endurance.

When I teach a strong sit, first we just get the dog into position, and then we reward the dog. Then the dog has to hold the position for 5 seconds, then it gets the reward, then 10.

So we add endurance to the position, because otherwise the dog can only hold it for a couple of seconds, and that's very common when I start working with people. Their dog can only hold the position for a second or two, if that. So we work that over time they build endurance.

It's the same muscles. It's just building strength and endurance in the muscles so they can sustain the position for an extended amount of time.

Melissa Breau: We talked quite a bit about the idea of a nice, collected sit, but I know in the workshop you're also going to talk about finishes. What is there beyond the sit piece at the end of the finish that goes into physical conditioning for that behavior?

Petra Ford: The other part of physical conditioning is I teach dogs hind end awareness. Dogs do not innately have hind end awareness, and they don't just get it. I used to think they did, and then I found out differently.

Knowing where their hind end is in space is purely a taught behavior, and you can teach it. Most dogs have a concept of finished position, roughly, but they typically are not in touch with their back end, so their back end can be a little in, a little out. But the dog isn't really even aware of it.

I use a lot of hind end awareness exercises so that the dog understands, "Oh, I have a back end, and this back end is part of this behavior that my mom or dad is asking me to do."

Once I go through the progression and teach them that, it really increases their accuracy and their understanding, and it's a lot more fair, because when the dog is crooked and I say to my dog, break my dog out, like, "That's not correct, you don't get a cookie," the dog might be confused. In its mind, "My front feet were where they're supposed to be."

So if they really understand that their hind end is an important part of the exercise, and they are consciously connected to their back end, then it's more fair and they're way more accurate.

Melissa Breau: I mentioned earlier that we're doing a series of workshops here. After the January workshop on sits and finishes, February has jumps and drops, March has command discrimination and stand stays, April has heeling and pivots, and May has endurance in heeling.

I want to go over those one by one and just talk about how folks can tell if that's an area that they should maybe look at, or a workshop that they should maybe look at for their dog, because their dog's performance is being impacted by physical issues or weaknesses.

Starting with the jumps and drops topic, what are some clues that someone might see that that's a workshop they should definitely sign up for?

Petra Ford: Jumps is refusing to jump, stutter jumping, avoiding a jump. If your dog, for example, with directed jumping, kind of flies off to the side, takes a jump on an angle and then has to work really hard to get back to you, the dog is not wrapping the jump, the dog, for a retrieve over the hide, jumping and having trouble hitting their front from that, so we address that.

Drops are going down slowly, again avoiding going into a drop. I've had dogs that were in signals, didn't want to drop, which seems pretty simple, but they were sore in their shoulders, so they were avoiding the signal drop. So avoiding a drop, a slow down.

For example, I teach my dogs to do a fold-back down. If suddenly every time I down my dog, the dog wanted to move forward, then the first thing I would do is check them out physically.

So that's jumps and drops. The next one is …

Melissa Breau: Command discrimination and stand stays. I think those are two exercises people probably don't think of as requiring much in the way of conditioning.

Petra Ford: Correct. But if your dog is uncomfortable physically at all, then there's a higher likelihood that they're going to either move out of position or avoid transitioning from that position. So if the dog is not comfortable in a stand, or if the dog is sore, then any position you ask them to do out of the stand, they'll be reluctant to do. They'll be reluctant to sit from a stand, they'll be reluctant to down from a stand.

A lot of times they're not comfortable standing, so their feet will move. For example, if you do a utility stand for exam, you want your dog to really lock up. If the dog's physically not comfortable, then they're going to move a little bit because it's uncomfortable for them to lock up.

And again, with any of the exercises, if there's a change, if your dog suddenly starts doing it differently than the way they've been doing it all along, then that can indicate a physical issue.

Melissa Breau: What signs would we see that dogs might benefit from the heeling and pivots workshop? I imagine that one, you might even see some benefits if it's not so much a weakness problem and you just need some work on your heeling and your pivots.

Petra Ford: With any of these things, if the dog is feeling strong, they're going to perform better.

Think about yourself. If you are not per se injured, but if you're sore, a lot of people will have a sore back. If you're sitting in a chair at work and your back is really bothering you, it's harder for you to concentrate on your job.

I apply the same thing with dogs. I constantly am conditioning my dogs because I want them physically to feel comfortable and be able to concentrate.

I think heeling is the exercise that requires by far the most concentration for a dog because there are so many elements to it, so the last thing that I want is for my dog to have to think about one more thing.

With heeling, I don't over-exaggerate how my dogs heel, but I do ask for heads-up heeling, which requires them to shift their weight to their back end a little bit so they can push up. If the dog is at all sore, especially in their core and hind end, they're not going to want to do that.

I've had clients with dogs that pace, which can be an indication that something's wrong.

Dogs that won't bring their head up, they hold their head down, can be an indication that something's physically wrong.

They can heel well for a very short amount of time, but then they struggle. That could be a physical issue.

Again, with heeling, for conditioning I also incorporate hind end awareness, so knowing where their back end is in space so that they can move their body more easily for, let's say, figure eights, and left turns, right turns, pivots, because the back end is a big part of that and for heeling with endurance.

Anytime that I'm heeling my dogs, and they may be in position, but I feel like they're not pushing, I usually stop and check them out, because a lot of times that means that when they're asked to heel for an extended period of time, their body is not up to the task.

Melissa Breau: I know you're doing both the heeling and pivots and the endurance in heeling one. Can you talk a little bit about what signs there might be that the dog needs work, specifically on endurance, but also what you're covering that's different between those two?

Petra Ford: The endurance in heeling is not as much physical per se as the dog mentally being able to heel for an extended period of time.

For me, a big part of that is concentration. I teach my dogs mental endurance, which means the ability to mentally concentrate for an extended period of time. It's one thing for the dog to focus on me for 15 seconds, but another for the dog to focus on me for an entire heeling pattern and ignore the environment and follow all my cues.

And to keep it fun. How do you keep it from getting boring? Because let's be real: if you're just heeling along for a while, it's kind of boring. So I do things to make it fun for the dog, so it does become inherently self-rewarding and the dog likes to heel.

That's all part of the mental endurance. Yes, the dog physically has to be in shape, but most dogs struggle heeling for an extended period of time because of mental endurance.

And their ability to ignore distractions in the environment. That's another big piece also.

Melissa Breau: The nice thing about the workshop format is that they'll be able to watch the examples and the samples in the lecture itself, and then the working teams, at least, get your feedback on those exercises, so they also get your eyes on them.

Petra Ford: Yes. The one issue I've always struggled with, and I've been working on this for 15 years and I still don't have a solution, is getting people to understand the benefits of conditioning their dog proactively before there's a problem.

Most people, it just doesn't have any meaning for them until their dog is injured and until their dog is on rest for a period of time, because that's always a shock when we can't train our dogs for a while. Then they want to know, "What can I do to prevent this?" and they become very proactive.

I always thought it would be great if people could understand that if you do something now, it's not a huge investment in time and money. Then you can actually prevent that from happening, and then your dog doesn't have to be off for anywhere from three to six months. And rehab can cost a lot of money as well.

Melissa Breau: Right. The human psychology isn't great at doing preventative things. Otherwise we'd all have awesome retirement accounts.

Petra Ford: I know, I know, but I still try to tell people it's important.

Melissa Breau: Well, hopefully some folks out there are getting that message, because I do think you do a beautiful job in doing these, but above and beyond that, I think that just the idea of working on some of these things is a great way to mix up your regular training and still be working on your obedience skills, but maybe from a slightly different angle.

Petra Ford: And the dogs absolutely love it, because to them it's all just a bunch of tricks. A lot of these things you can incorporate easily into your warm-up, so it's not like it's a lot of extra work that you have to carve into your day.

We all warm our dogs up a little bit before we start training them, so if you just add some sit postures and stand postures and some of the exercises in there, it's not a great effort. It's not like you have to add another thing to your already busy schedule.

The hind end awareness stuff, it's just a game, and it really, really makes for much, much better fronts. I just went back and revisited some of those games for fronts with Zayna. After I did that for a couple of weeks, her fronts in training dramatically improved.

So they like doing it, and it does not just prevent injury, but it improves your obedience.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. One last question that I'm asking all of my guests lately: What's something you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Petra Ford: Oh my goodness. I always learn so much. The dog is never wrong. I am still not a good dog trainer. I have so much more to learn. I think I'm constantly learning, so I approach my training as a student. I approach it that I need to learn more to be a better communicator, and so that's what I'm always striving for.

Anytime my dog makes … I won't even call it a mistake, but anytime something goes awry in training, I always say to myself, "What am I missing? What did I not do? How can I communicate what I want better?" That's something I do all the time.

Did I answer your question or did I go on a tangent?

Melissa Breau: I think that's good, though, because I think that a lot of people struggle with that, continuing to stay in a learning mindset. It's easy to trick ourselves into knowing that we know the answers and the dogs don't.

Petra Ford: If you have a girl like my Zayna, she'll tell you very clearly. She'll say, "You did not explain it right." She tells me off all the time, and I'm like, "OK, I'm sorry."

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Petra! This has been great.

Petra Ford: No problem. Thank you so much, Melissa. I really appreciate it.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week, this time with a few previous camp attendees to talk about Fenzi Training Camp, since registration is right around the corner.

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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