E153: Nicole Wiebusch - "Reward Placement, Stays, and All Things Rally"

The details make all the difference — this week, Nicole and I chat about how tiny changes can have a big impact... from reward placement to reducing reinforcement.


Melissa Breau: Hey guys — Melissa here, stopping in before your podcast to share a little about the FDSA Pet Professionals program. The average pet dog trainer gets six hours with their clients — one hour a week for six weeks. Make that time count.

The FDSA Pet Professionals program can help. PPP believes in kind, pragmatic, and effective training, and that those three elements can set up dogs and their owners for a lifetime of success. Its weeklong workshops are just $29.95. So if you're a professional trainer, take a few minutes to check it out at FDSApetprofessionals.com. Again, that's FDSA Pet Professionals.com. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programing.

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.

Nicole Wiebusch started competing in dog sports as a teenager in the '90s and quickly became addicted to the sport of obedience.

In 2001 she acquired a Golden Retriever named Tucker, who taught her that traditional methods weren't the best way to a happy, confident dog. This realization started her on the journey to positive reinforcement training. Seven years later, Nicole started her own dog training business, Golden Paws Dog Training LLC, where she teaches both pet owners and dog-sports people dog-friendly training methods.

She started taking classes at FDSA in 2013, and actively competes in a wide variety of performance events with her three golden retrievers.

Nicole's Golden Retriever Toby earned his Utility Dog Excellent, Obedience Master 3, and Rally Advanced Excellent titles, and then was retired due to physical problems, just 30 points shy of finishing his OTCH. Her current competition dog, Strive, has earned her Utility Dog title and is working on her Utility Dog Excellent title. Toby and Strive both have multiple high-end trials in obedience and high combines in obedience and rally. Nicole's dogs also hold advanced agility and rally titles as well as hunting, dock diving, and TEAM titles.

In addition to operating Golden Paws Dog Training, Nicole is an instructor at FDSA and in the Pet Professionals Program as well as a TEAM judge. She has earned both the Obedience Rally Freestyle Trainer certificate and the Sports Foundation Trainer certificate from FDSA. She is also a Canine Good Citizen and trick dog evaluator, a professional member of APDT, and is a field dog trainer for a service dog organization. All right. Welcome to the podcast, Nicole.
Alright — welcome to the podcast, Nicole!

Nicole Wiebusch: Thanks, Melissa. I'm glad to be here.

Melissa Breau: Could you start us out by reminding us who your dogs are — I know I talked about them a little bit in the intro — and what you're working on with them?

Nicole Wiebusch: Yeah, definitely. Toby is my oldest. He is 14-and-a-half. He's going to be 15 in July and he's doing very well, despite his going deaf because he's old. He's still very happy and bouncy and he loves to eat his food. Toby was my first dog that I trained positively, and so he was the dog I made all the mistakes on, and he forgave me for every single one and he just put his heart into everything we did together. I'm so fortunate to have had him. He taught me a lot.

After he retired from normal obedience competitions, I showed him in the Preferred classes because he didn't have to jump as high, and he continued showing in them and he got nine legs of his PUDX. You need ten to get it, but that was the time they changed the rules and he went back to having to do a sit-stay, which was hard for him due to his arthritis. He was about 13 when we completely retired, so he's really accomplished a lot. He's such a great dog.

Strive is 6-and-a-half, and she's the one that I'm out with right now. We are working, as you said, on the UDX and her Rally Advanced Excellent title as well, and I actually just signed up for our first official Rally Masters show. So in a couple of weeks we're going to go down and play in Rally Masters. I haven't done that yet, so I'm really excited to get out there in that class.

Melissa Breau: Awesome.

Nicole Wiebusch: Yeah, it looks like a lot of fun. And then Excel is Strive's son. He is about 2-and-a-half and he's been in training for agility and obedience and rally. He's the demo dog in all my rally classes, which is great because that's how he's learned everything is by me making the videos for classes, so that's cool. He's a really awesome dog and he's really been growing up the last couple of months. I've noticed a difference in the last six months in his maturity level, so I'm thinking that we might actually make it to a ring sometime this year. I'd like to get him out in something. He's a great dog and he has taught me more about life skills and those sort of things. I've spent a lot of time working on life skills and reward markers and some of that foundation stuff, and I think it's made his training a lot easier and it's going to prepare him a lot better to his show career. 

Melissa Breau: That's exciting. It's so fun to be able to have a young dog that you're playing with all that stuff with. You've got a lot going on these days! So we're going to try and get to all of it — at least a little bit. To start us out … reward placement. Your workshop on that is open for registration right now. It's actually happening, I think, this week, the week that we're recording this. I think it's a really important topic that often gets the short straw. It's one of those factors that can really make a huge difference in a training plan, and it often sets apart those good trainers from those mediocre trainers, so I want to talk about it. What kind of problems can poor choice of reward placement lead to?

Nicole Wiebusch: Yes. There's all kinds of issues. Because the dogs want to gravitate to where the treats are and where the treats are coming from, if you're not thoughtful in your reward placement, it can really create some problems.

I think some of the more common things that we see are issues with the heeling. Some people, if they reward across their body, they're going to cause their dog to come forward and start forging, and maybe their rear will be out and it will cause crooked sits. That's probably one of the most common ones that I see is they're rewarding too far in front of their body, so they're causing the dog to come around the front and then the rear end goes out, which is not something that we want.

I see a lot of novice trainers spitting food in the heeling exercise, and I think for the majority of the dogs that's going to cause those same problems where the dog is going to forge, their rear end is going to go wide, they're going to tend to be crooked, do some crabbing. So that's pretty common. I'm not a huge fan of spitting food in the heeling because it does often cause those problems.

Poor reward placement and choices when you're deciding how and when to reward your dog can definitely contribute to the dog's creeping on stays or waits, particularly with waits. If we're doing a drop on recall, for instance, and we have our dog wait, and then we reward the dog when the whole thing is over, we're putting so much value into coming to us, and that tends to be an issue. Everything is about coming to us, the handler, and that's where all the value is.

And so, if you're not careful, your dog is going to want to come to you more. So you're going to start to get creeping, maybe you're going to get broken stays, maybe you're going to get a slower drop. Because if the reward always comes from the handler in those types of exercises, they just want to go where the reward is, so that's going to make it harder for them to stay out there.

It's really important that we put value into the stays, that we reward our dogs when they're staying, and show them that "You're doing a good job staying where you are." It's not always about being released and coming to me. 

Melissa Breau: I think part of the reason that this topic is more complex than most people give it credit for is that the "right" answer to reward placement, even for the same behavior, can be different, based on what you're working on. How does your choice of reward placement change, depending on whether you're working on a "new" behavior or a known behavior? Can you walk us through some examples? 

Nicole Wiebusch: Sure. I guess I don't look so much at whether it's a new behavior or a known behavior because it just varies so much. I'll talk about a little bit later, but there's so many times where a particular reward placement or a particular decision on how we're going to reward our dog works great right now, but maybe in a month it's not going to. So I don't so much look at whether the behavior is new or known. I just look at what the dog needs in that moment and in that training session.

There's a little bit of confusion, I think, between setting up your dog for a clean loop versus thinking about reward placement. I think a lot of people think it's incompatible, and I do tend to combine them. I don't really keep them separately. So I'll explain how I do that.

Clean loops is where you would mark the behavior and then you reward the dog in such a way that they are set up to do the behavior again. In other words, say you're working on sit. The dog would sit, you would mark it, and then you reward the dog in a stand, so the dog could go ahead and sit and it's easier for them to offer it.

Whereas reward placement tends to affect the next repetition, based on where the dog earned a treat. For instance, if you reward on the ground for a down-stay, the dog is going to be more likely to stay down because that's where the treat came from.

So when I'm teaching a new behavior, I want to put value into the behavior. I definitely want to mark and reward the actual behavior, but I also want to get the dog set up for the next rep as quickly as possible. What I often do is use two treats, so I will be able to reward the dog in position for the behavior, and then I'll use a second treat either thrown or I'll lure them into a position that will set them up to do the behavior again. I like to combine them a little bit.

For instance, let's say I'm working on sit and it's a new behavior to my dog, so I definitely want to put some value into the actual behavior. I could mark the sit reward in the sit and then give a second treat so they stand up, and then I could either cue the sit or wait for it to be offered, wherever I'm at with that training.

So I do like to use two treats and combine those two. I think that helps get the rate of reinforcement up, and I think it's particularly helpful when you're teaching a new position.

Melissa Breau: I like that — thinking about those two pieces that so often all of us are trying to shove into our training sessions, and getting the both of best worlds just for the cost of an extra cookie.

Nicole Wiebusch: Yeah, exactly. And the dogs are great with that. They love extra cookies. 

Melissa Breau: Yeah. We were talking about the problems that reward placement can fix, and you mentioned heeling in there. So I want to talk about that just a little bit more, using heeling as an example. How might you work on some of those common heeling problems — things like lagging or crowding or forging — using reward placement? 

Nicole Wiebusch: When I'm thinking through that, what I would like to do is counter what the dog does naturally.

If the dog tends to be a lagger, I want to reward in a way that helps them get out front a little bit. Maybe I'll throw treats forward, or maybe I'll reward high in front of me with maybe a high hand touch or something.

If they tend to be forging, then I want the rewards coming from behind. There's a couple of different ways … actually there's more than a couple. There's several different ways that you can reward a forging dog. You can just simply give them a treat from behind, or you could do a bounce-type thing where they target your armpit area and come up for the treat, or you can toss the treats behind you. You can teach a dog to spin around and come up on your right side. So there's really a lot of ways that we can do it.

But what I look for is countering what the dog naturally does, because I want to change that tendency over time. And if the treats are, for a good length of time, if the treats are coming from a particular area, I know that the dog's going to go there where the treat is, and so I will start to see those tendencies shift a little bit.

And it's really quite cool because all you do is you just change how you reward the dog and you can fix some things, like forging, for instance. So it's a neat thing to see how where you treat the dog and how you treat the dog can really affect what their tendencies are. 

Melissa Breau: To get at the heart of it, why does it work? What is it about reward placement that can let it have that kind of an impact?

Nicole Wiebusch: Because dogs are smart and efficient, so they don't want to waste extra energy. And they want that cookie or that toy or whatever it happens to be, so they're going to go where that is. Where they're pretty sure that treat's going to come from, that's where they're going go and that's what they're going to anticipate.

That can be really good for us, if we're smart about it, and it can also be really bad for us, if we're not thinking about, if we're rewarding across our body and you're looking at your dog and you're like, "Why is their butt out? I don't understand," and you keep doing it that way, well then you're going to create a problem pretty quickly. So it's important that we really think through this.

And this is for any sport. The workshop that I'm working that's going live this week is mostly focused on obedience and rally and those sorts of behaviors, but it's applicable to other things too, like agility and hunting. There's a lot that this is really important for. So it's important for any trainer that is doing something with their dog to really think through this and think about, "What can I change in my reward placement so that it can be more effective for my dog." 

Melissa Breau: I just want to walk through one more example of this and to pull on something that you were talking about earlier with stays. How do you think through that reward placement piece when we're talking about stays? 

Nicole Wiebusch: With the stays, I want to make sure that I'm putting value in the stay. One thing that I see that a lot of people do is they do a stay, they release their dog, and they give the dog a treat. When that happens over and over and over, you're not putting any value into the stay behavior. You're putting all the value into the release behavior. So of course dogs are going to be more likely to release, more likely to make mistakes.

And so when you're first teaching the stays, you want to make sure that you are rewarding the dog in the stay, whether that's a sit or down or even a stand, it doesn't matter. But if you keep rewarding the dog for getting up, for the release, then they're going to really struggle with the stay part. So the important thing is making sure you're putting value into the stay.

Melissa Breau: As it happens, you also have a workshop on the schedule specifically on stays — not until next month, but it's right there at the start of March. So I want to talk about that a bit too. A lot of people really struggle with teaching a solid stay. They struggle with the duration, or maybe their dog stays, but they do that melty thing where they're in a sit and then they melt into a down, or where they decide, "OK, we're in a down, we're going to go up and do a sit," or maybe their dogs just fall apart when they start to add distance. There's a lot of pieces there. So where is it that people tend to go wrong when they're trying to teach their dog a competition-level stay?

Nicole Wiebusch: I think the short answer for that is they lump things together. Just like with anything else, splitting out things is really important. I mentioned a moment ago how people don't often reward in the stay. They just reward the release. So that's really important. But you need to realize that … we talk about the three D's — distractions, duration, and distance — and each one of those are a challenge for the dog, and we need to be very systematic and thoughtful about how we increase each challenge, so that the dogs can be successful.

I tell my clients that stays are a behavior where the dogs have to learn on success. It's really important. If they're not successful, you're not going to get anywhere. You're going to really have trouble teaching a stay. And so when you start the stay, you want to put some value into it, and you want to get a little bit of duration, but really build that slowly, making sure the dog is getting a lot of reinforcement for staying in position.

What I typically do when I have a few seconds of duration is I'll do some really mild distraction work. I used to teach distance before distractions, but I find that teaching distractions first just makes it easier for the dog. It helps their understanding, and so I save distance for last. And whenever I add another challenge, I make sure I back down the other one. So when I'm starting to add distance, I am not in a super-distracting area and I'm not going to do a two-minute stay. I'm going to keep it short, sweet, not very distracting, and then that way I can work on that specific challenge of distance.

Some dogs really struggle with distance a lot, and you get to the point where you're trying to take one step backwards and the dog is getting up. That's one of those situations where I talk about splitting it out more. I'll actually start with just a weight shift from side to side. I'm not actually going any further from the dog. I'm just moving my weight from side to side. And then I'll take a sideways step versus a backward step and I'll reward for that. And then eventually I will shift my weight from back to front or front to back before I even take a step away from the dog. So I'm doing all kinds of things that have to do with me moving, but I'm not quite adding distance from the dog yet.

If you really think about how to break down the stays and how much you can really split these behaviors, I just think a lot of people don't necessarily think that through to the extent that it needs to be. They just try to lump it together and they're like, "Oh yeah, the dog did a 10-second stay; now we're going to do a 20-second stay at 20 feet apart," or 20 feet away or whatever. And then the dog struggles, and they get up, and then the handler has to put them back. And dogs don't like to be wrong. So that's the long and short answer, just really splitting out everything.

Melissa Breau: Do you approach it any differently for a sit-stay versus a down-stay? What about for some of the different sports you do, like agility or obedience?

Nicole Wiebusch: In the last couple of years … I show in AKC Obedience, and they used to have a long sit and a long down in Open, and they no longer do. They've changed how they do their stays, and it's kind of affected how I think about stays a little bit, in terms of I used to teach sit-stays and down-stays as more what I call active stays, so stays where the dog is paying attention to what's going on and remembering what they're doing. And now, with the obedience regulations change and with everything else, I tend to think of the sit-stay and the down-stay more as the active or … I'm sorry, excuse me … the sit-stay and the stand-stay as more the active stays.

When I put my dog in a down-stay, I want them to relax and I don't want them to pay attention to me. I just want him to hang out. So I do treat them very differently.

With the active stays, which would be like a wait, so if you're doing a drop on recall or whatever exercise you use a wait for, that would be what I consider an active stay. The dog needs to be ready to hear an additional cue that will tell them what to do. And in those types of stays I reward in the stays, and I keep doing that. I want the dog to be very attentive in the stay, and so I tend to reward them.

I'll go back and I'll either reward them in the stay or … one thing I talk about a lot in the reward placement workshop is rewarding from behind. I talked earlier about how there's all this value in coming to the handler, and so I do a lot of rewarding from behind, and I use that on the waits as well. So instead of a cue to come, I might say my reward marker for behind, which is B, and then the dog will be able to turn around and get the treat. So they're getting that reward for staying in the position, for staying there.

With the down-stays, I want my dogs relaxed, and once the dog has value for the stay … you still reward during the stay to teach it, but once the dog understands what a stay is, if you keep rewarding them, they end up just working for food.

I actually have a really good video in my workshop that shows my Lab, who is my husband's dog, and so I use her as my experimental dog. We're working on some down-stays, and I'm just sitting in a chair completely ignoring her, and she is offering every behavior in the book. She is flipping over on her back and she's whining and she's just doing all these things because she wants me to give her a treat. She is working for food and I think she's staying. And so there's a little bit of a difference there in what we think each other what she should be doing.

So once the dogs understand the stay, I stop rewarding it, because when you keep rewarding in the down-stay, they keep working for you and they're just looking for treats. And what I want the dog to do is relax.

Excel really taught me that. I used to reward Excel for relaxation behaviors. I would reward when he laid his head down or when he sighed or when he flipped on a hip, and pretty soon I was noticing that he was doing this stuff on purpose to get a treat. He would do this big huge sigh, and then he'd look at me like, "Where's my cookie?" Or he would flip from hip to hip, and I realized, "OK, I'm kind of creating a monster here." So at that point, with the help of Shade and Shade's awesome classes — a huge shout-out to Shade — I realized now I need to stop rewarding the stay and just teach the dog to relax. And the difference that I have now in his down-stay is incredible. He will actually lay down and go to sleep, whereas before he would watch every single move that I made.

That was a really long answer to your question, but yes, I definitely teach the down-stays and the sit-stays differently.

As far as different types of sports, my agility wait, like my start line, I'm going to teach that pretty much the same way that I would an obedience wait, keeping in mind that moving forward in agility, doing the obstacles, that's a huge, huge reward for the dog. And so you have to remember that you need to make sure you're putting some value into that stay or you're going to lose it because there's so much incentive for them to break their stay, because then they get to run and running is really fun.

So I just keep that in mind — what's reinforcing my dog in this environment and how can I balance that a little bit to teach them that the stay is reinforcing as well. 

Melissa Breau: In addition to the workshops we've been talking about, you've got two classes on the schedule this session — like I said, you've been pretty busy! I know in Get Ready to Rally you cover a lot of the skills that go well beyond just rally skills: sits, down, stands in heel position, fronts and finishes, short heeling segments, turns. I'm sure a lot of the dogs coming into the class have some basic understanding of those behaviors, but how do you work within the class to improve that understanding and improve precision? 

Nicole Wiebusch: That's a good question. And that is the beauty of the Gold spots, because we can work with what exactly that team needs. Everybody of course has their difficulties or their weaknesses with these different skills, and so by getting a Gold spot, we can pick out what exactly you need to work on and how to best help your dog.

The class I'm running right now, which is RA270, focuses a little bit on the signs, which is so important. I think a lot of people underestimate the importance of really knowing those signs and being able to glance at the sign and know exactly what you're supposed to do. That's one of the biggest mistakes in rally, out in the trials, is the handler not knowing what the sign means — putting in an extra set or not putting in an extra set or forgetting to pause.

That's why I do a whole class on these are the signs and this is how you do the sign, this is what it looks and here's some really helpful tips when you're training the sign. The lectures in this particular class tend to … they're about the signs. And then we have extra things too, like acclimating to the signs, and staying connected to your dog, and that sort of thing as well.

One way that I really like to improve precision and understanding is to use different types of props. The reason that I like the prop so much is that it allows our body to stay quiet, and I think it's much easier to fade a prop than it is to fade these huge hand signals and all this luring stuff.

For instance, if I'm trying to make a front a little more bit more precise, if I'm working on the front, I could lure them into the front, and I could use all these big hand motions and try to get them really close to me. But if I can just put a sit platform there and they understand that, it's much easier and it allows me to be quiet, and it also allows me to keep my hands down at my sides, which is the final picture that I'm looking for.

So I do that with a lot of teams. If they're game for it, I bring in some props. A lot of them have the skills. Some of them don't and they learn it.

But then there's other things that we can do too. Reward placement is super-important. I was chatting with someone the other day and I said, "I think 40 percent of the advice that I give my students is about reward placement." Seriously, it's really a big thing. So if you're working on those fronts, you can reward between your legs, you know, whatever. There's different ways that you can help the fronts get a little bit better.

And then, just like everything else in dog training, splitting behaviors, splitting it down. People want to take a whole sign and just do the whole thing. And if you are able to really split down these behaviors and teach everything separately, then combining them is really easy.

That's kind of what I do. It's just so individual, what each team needs. But I really enjoy the problem-solving aspect of it. And even more, I enjoy when I can see how much they're progressing. We're only, what, halfway through Week Two for this session, and it's amazing how much better I've seen some of these teams get already. So it's really exciting to see that progress.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. When I think about rally, one of the things that comes to mind in terms of skills is how much it takes these different pieces and mixes them up in different ways for different signs, really forcing us to split it down and teach the dog a strong understanding of those individual pieces. I wanted to get into that a little bit. How do you approach that? 

Nicole Wiebusch: I think you hit the nail on the head when you said "splitting it down." That's the ultimate answer in dog training is split it down.

Rally consists of the same or very similar cues used over and over and over and over again. If your dog has a really good understanding of what that particular cue means, whether it's a verbal or hand signal or whatever, it's very easy to combine them and to put them together.

In fact, the advanced rally classes, you don't really learn a whole lot more skills. You basically just combine them together. They're taking different skills and they're just combining them. It's nice, though, that rally reuses behaviors, because you're not teaching 530 different behaviors. You're just learning 530 different ways to put them together.

When I'm focusing on teaching all these things, I split everything out and I teach it until it's fluent. My dog knows what a front is. My dog understands what a finished left versus a finished right is. As they're showing me all the individual pieces and that they're starting to get that, then I will slowly start combining skills. Maybe I'll do a front and then do a finish and then reward. I'll start combining them in different ways, and I continue down that road until the dog is showing me that, "Oh yeah, I got it," and they're able to take different skills and combine them and still be very successful and precise. 

Melissa Breau: Awesome. In the advanced class, the one you're doing on Rally Advanced and Excellent, which is also running this term, I know that you talk about transitioning from on leash to off leash in the ring and about reducing reinforcers. Those are clearly skills that you need in most dog sports. How do you approach that? How do you approach transitioning to off-lead behaviors? 

Nicole Wiebusch: The simple answer is don't rely on the leash to begin with. Which sounds so basic but it's totally not, because people, I swear, sometimes they don't know what they're doing. They're guiding the dog with the leash inadvertently and they have no idea they're doing it.

For my students that are able to train in a safe environment, I tell them take off the leash, just don't even train with it. If the dog is leaving you, then there's another issue there. That's not a leash problem. That's a training problem. That's something we need to figure out. I'm fortunate that I have my own training building, so my dogs are off leash all the time, and if they would wander away, then I would be like, "Wow, what did I just do wrong?" Because I must have really messed up something for my dog to leave me while we're working.

When you don't have the leash on, it's much easier for you to see the issues. The leash will cover up those issues a little bit because the dog can't leave you. And again, people accidentally use it. They don't even know they're using it. I tell people all the time, "Look how tight your leash is," and "You're guiding the dog," and they just don't get that. They don't see it. Sometimes you're in a class situation or you're working outside and it's not a safe area and you need to have the leash on and that's totally okay, but you need to make sure that that leash is very loose, that you're not accidentally guiding your dog through things by using the leash. You don't want the leash to affect their behavior at all. You only want the leash to prevent them from leaving you.

One thing that I like to do is take their leash and loop it through their belt buckle or their belt loop on their pants, or loosely tie it to their waist or whatever, and see what happens. I remember when I used to do more classes many, many years ago, in-person classes, I would take my leash and I would put it through my belt loop just a tiny bit, and if the leash fell out, then I knew I had a problem. I knew that they were not staying in position as closely as they needed to. So I definitely have students go through and make sure that that leash can stay loose through the whole thing, through the whole whatever — their training sequence or the course that they're doing or whatever it is.

And then realizing that if the dog can't keep a loose leash, then the behaviors need to be broken down more. Maybe you have a connection problem. Maybe they have a lack of understanding of what heel position actually is. Maybe there's an engagement problem. So there's other issues that everybody thinks is because the leash is off, but it was really there the whole time. They just didn't see it.

Melissa Breau: To look at the other piece that I mentioned, reducing reinforcement, how does the class work through that piece and can you talk us through an example?

Nicole Wiebusch: Sure. This again is pretty individual. What I'm really wanting the people to do in this class is think through a plan, because obviously at some point you can't bring reinforcement into the ring. And so I want them thinking about it, because I think a lot of people, they give the dogs treats during the run-throughs and during whenever they're practicing, and then they go into the ring and they never really have a plan. They never really reduced reinforcement. They just walk in and, "Oh, let's see what happens," and that's not usually the best strategy.

When I'm teaching dogs, when I'm working with young dogs, when I'm starting to put all these behaviors together and sequencing them, I have rewards on my body. And in fact a lot of times, even with my advanced dogs, I have rewards on my body. It doesn't necessarily mean they're going to get anything from me, in particular, versus going out in the ring and getting something, but the rewards are in my pocket or wherever.

Once the dog is fluent in behaviors and they really understand, so we're not at the learning stage anymore, I will start using some sort of remote reinforcement. That could be maybe a dish. That's one of my common ways that I tend to reward is I'll put a dish either on the ground or on the chair, and then instead of marking with a yes, which means "Come to my hand to get the treat," I'll mark with a dish, which means, "Go to the dish and get the treat."

I'll put treats on the counter, or maybe a chair, and so the treats are still close to where we're working, but they're not coming from my body. What I want to do is teach the dog that treats are always available, no matter what. I always have the ability to run and get you a treat. And I want them to think that.

When I start doing run-throughs, and I've worked to where the treats are outside of the ring, in the middle of a move sometimes I will cue my remote reinforcement cue and run out there and give them a cookie. I want them to know that once you're in the ring, it doesn't mean the treats are gone. You can still get them, but you're not going to get them handed to the dog from me, from my body.

I'm also watching, during this entire training of reducing the reinforcement, that the dog is performing to criteria. I want to keep an eye on that and make sure that I'm not losing that at all. And then I keep working towards going outside the ring to reward, having the treats starting fairly close, but then just systematically working so that the treats are further and further away until they're out the ring.

It's a huge topic and it is definitely something that we talk about, but I do suggest that people check out some of the other classes. There are a couple of six-week classes on reducing reinforcement, and they spend the entire six weeks on that. There is Cookie Jar and Bye-Bye Cookies, I believe, are the two that I'm thinking of, and there's probably other ones that touch on it as well. It really is a big topic. But at the very least, in my classes, I want people to verbally come up with some sort of a plan, type it out, so that they have some plan on how they can start reducing reinforcement. 

Melissa Breau: For folks who are listening who maybe want to dig into that a little bit more, you did do a blog post for us on the FDSA site. So if anybody wants to read through that, if that's something that you are problem solving or want to get a head start on, Nicole did a really nice blog post on the FDSA blog on starting to get reinforcers off your body and how you can start that really early on in the training process. So they should go check that out. One last question that I ask everyone these days: What's something that you've learned or that you've been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training? 

Nicole Wiebusch: Because of the workshop that I'm doing, the Placement of Reward workshop, that's been on my brain. As I was thinking through how I was going to organize the workshop, what I really wanted to do is to show people some before-and-after videos. So I went to my students in the last session, the December session, and there were three people that I really wanted to showcase what progress they had made simply by changing their reinforcement.

That led me to start thinking about this one particular dog named Chilly. Chilly is a super-super-awesome dog. I actually had two dogs. I had Chilly and I had Tilly, and both of these dogs had the exact same problem. They both tended to forge, they tended to wrap, they tended to be a little bit rear-end out.

My first go-to for that problem is to reward from behind the back. You keep your treats in your right hand, you pass them behind your back to your left hand, and you reward the dog in heel position, and most of the time it helps a lot with forging.

I did this with Tilly and it made all the difference in the world with Tilly. Her heeling got really nice, it got really straight, her sits were straight, it was an amazing difference. There is a before-and-after video of both of these dogs actually in that workshop.

And so I went back to Chilly and I said, "his is what we're going to do. I want you to reward it from behind." She said, "OK," and she showed me a session, and I'm like, "Wait a second, this isn't working at all for this dog." Even though we use the exact same philosophy, the exact same reward placement with these two different dogs, with Tilly it worked beautifully and with Chilly it caused all sorts of issues. His butt went way out, he got really crooked, he was coming around, it just didn't work at all. He was trying to duck behind her to get the treat, which caused him to almost move at a 90-degree angle away from her.

So it was interesting. It's like, "We're scrapping this idea. Let's go to Plan B." We came up with another reinforcement, and if you want to know what that is, you'll have to see the workshop. But it worked beautifully for him, and so it was great. It was perfect.

So one thing I've really been reminded of lately is that what works for one dog isn't necessarily going to work for another dog, even though the problem might be exactly the same. They both had the same problem, but the fix that I used on Tilly did not work on Chilly, and not only didn't work, it made things way worse. So I was really glad that she showed me how it was going so I could nix it right away and say, "Let's not do that anymore."

So just remembering that all dogs are so individual, and handlers as well. The team as a whole is so individual, and you need to be able to access many different tools to help them and not just always go back to that same one.

Melissa Breau: I feel like there's an extra lesson in there about when you're trying something new, make sure you stop and evaluate how well it's working.

Nicole Wiebusch: Absolutely. And when your FDSA instructor tells you to do something and then change it, then video that and show it to them to make sure it's working.

Melissa Breau: Right, right. Awesome.

Nicole Wiebusch: Very important.

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

Nicole Wiebusch: Thank you so much, Melissa. It was a lot of fun.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Stacy Barnett to talk about the evolution of training and how training tends to evolve as our skills do.

Don't miss it! 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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