E161: Julie Symons - "The Multi-Sport Dog"

Julie Symons joins me to talk about nosework, obedience, and the pros and cons of training for multiple sports!


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 I have Julie Symons here with me to talk about training a well-rounded, multi-sports dog.

Hi Julie, welcome back to the podcast!

Julie Symons: Hi Melissa. Thank you, I'm glad to be back.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you just refresh everybody's memory a little about you, your current pets, what you're working on with them?

Julie Symons: Definitely at times I feel a little maxed out, but I wouldn't change anything. I always seem to be juggling a lot of things at once.

I do have three active dogs, and my son turned 18 this year and he's going to be graduating high school in June. Because most of my dog training years have been juggling that balance with family and work and my hobby, I'll be moving into a new chapter of not having some of that extra things to juggle. To think about it, I'm like, "Oh, wow, he's graduating." And he's going to be going to college this fall, but luckily he'll be near nearby.

My three dogs, I cannot probably have any more than three. My older dog, Savvy, is 14 and she's retired. She's just healthy and hungry all the time, and she's just a rock solid dog. I sometimes feel like she's going to outlive us all. She's really easy right now to have around.

Drac is my Halloween baby, my Malinois, and he's now 6, and I definitely have that boy bond going with him. I've always been kind of a girl-dog owner, but he is my buddy. He's my buddy, and he wants to be with me all the time, and that's what I hear when people say about their boy dogs. I think that's such a difference. He's become very focused and a very bonded partner to me. When I would say earlier, when he was intact and into boy-dog stuff, I had a little bit of struggles with that. But he's really increased his drive and his love for agility and a little bit too much arousal in herding. But he is my very steady nosework partner. He also earned his TD tracking title this last fall and that was such a thrill.

I try to hang on to all those sports I've done in the past, and again it's hard to fit them all in with multiple sports and multiple dogs, but that was just such a glad thing I stuck with that. I had a little bit of delay. I had him certified a couple of years ago and had to get him recertified, and it was just smooth as can be. He did a great job.

And then my young dog Moxie I can't believe is 3 already.

Melissa Breau: She was a little puppy at camp.

Julie Symons: Oh yeah. She was a naughty little puppy. But just something about her, she has a very soft expression, a very flowing movement, and she's racking up the performance titles as well. She's super-fast in agility. She's building some strength and pushiness in herding, which I think is boding well for her overall personality. Give her a little bit of push in things that she needs to do, and she's proving to be a nosework star. She's my third dog I've trained in nosework now, and we always train a little better and improve our skills. And as a result of that, I'm seeing some really good outcomes.

And just quickly, one of my biggest accomplishments this last year is earning my first herding trial titles. I've had a herding trial HT in the past, my first herd, but both of my dogs earned their starter title ducks, and Moxie has two legs in her starter sheep title and she'll finish that this year, that title. But it's so fun to focus on another sport, because I do think we can get a little stale, or just having something new to different, but it's the hardest thing I've done.

I travel a little bit more for training, and you have to be so focused and such a good handler to process the stock and your dogs. And my two dogs, Moxie and Drac, are at the total end of the spectrum with their responses and arousal. They enjoy it so much and they have such natural talent, and that's why I do it. If they didn't have natural talent for it, it would be too much. It would be too much. It really would. So that's it.

Melissa Breau: Let's see if I can recap this. We've got tracking, agility, nosework, herding — did I leave anything out?

Julie Symons: Agility.

Melissa Breau: Agility, okay.

Julie Symons: And I do conformation, limited. I think that's it.

Melissa Breau: Obviously you a lot of different sports and you've done a lot of different sports with your dogs. Are there benefits to that cross-training, to doing a little bit of everything?

Julie Symons: I really think there is. I think dogs like versatility, and I find that each one benefits the others, like, where one sport, may require more speed and accuracy, another one requires more thoughtfulness, or another one requires more handler cueing, or another one requires more independence.

If you sit back and just look at what you have trained your dog to do, and they understand the context, and you have them on stimulus control … I don't know. It started with my first dog, Rival, where I never knew you could do all this stuff. And especially once you get to mostly a maintenance level with your dogs, it's there. It's all there.

If you've done a good job with your foundations, and you're a good handler, and you trial well at something, I find that I do well. I can pull it together as a competitor in the moment. I'm definitely nervous, and with herding, for example, I'm still like, "I hope I know all the rules and what I'm supposed to do," but I can somehow bring it together in the moment that I need to. Most of the time. I'm not perfect. But when your dogs are so used to working with you in different capacities, you just have this communication system, and nothing I can think of compares to that feeling.

Melissa Breau: I imagine, in addition to the perks, there are also some hardships that come with the whole training multiple sports thing — scheduling, if nothing else. So what do you see as the best and worst aspects of doing more than one sport with your dogs?

Julie Symons: You can add the struggles of having multiple dogs and multiple sports. Because Savvy is now 14, she finished about two years ago getting her nosework championship, so I actually had three dogs working across — up and coming ones and then one finishing up.

The best thing about that is I become a better handler, and my dogs get to do so many different kinds of things that are enrichment, and it's stimulating for them to the point where they almost crave it. They're very good off-switch dogs, but they want to go do stuff, and they're very, very willing partners. But I think the best perk is that I can read my dogs better. And a lot of times there isn't that much extra training. Of course there is for specific sports, but a lot of the things you train carry over to the other sports, so there's some overlap there and … do you have a question?

Melissa Breau: No. I was going to say, "And the worst piece?"

Julie Symons: The hardship. The scheduling, for sure. Like I said earlier, I get kind of maxed out, and then I still have to come home, and I have a family and a house and things I also have to do. I get annoyed when I have to go to an appointment or something, like, "I don't have time for that."

What I've done is I've created more flexibility in my schedule for my competition activities. That comes first now over teaching, and it's been very liberating for me. A couple of years ago I would agree to go do seminars and judge. I used to be an AKC judge, which just recently I retired from that. But I got a little resentful because I work so hard to train my dogs, and then they could get injured or they age out, and then you're like, "Gosh." I'm really goal oriented and I train to compete. It's very rewarding for me. And so I just kind of switched. I'm glad I have the ability to say I can turn down work, that I can go and do stuff. I have two young dogs in their prime and I'm really enjoying them. So I think that's been good for me, too.

The most difficult thing now is comparing to past years, when the sports in general didn't have as hard or technical requirements. Over the years, every sport changes the rules and makes things a little bit harder. So it's a little bit harder to excel at the top with multiple sports, and also with multiple dogs, because you're going to have to cut a little bit off, cut corners a little bit, or you're not going be able to train as much.

But the good thing is that I'm more focused on my dogs' experience than I am with the outcome. I love to go to my weekly agility class with the local place. I actually kept forgetting to enter our local trials because I had so much fun going to my local class, because I have this fast, fun dog and I'm learning running these really cool things, and I'm just as thrilled to run it clean in class. And so I forget, "Oh yeah, I've got to enter that trial." That's very different for me because I do like to compete, but I really enjoy when I'm a student. I'm just enjoying that so much with my dogs that enjoy the sport as well. So I thought that was kind of funny.

But I'm still doing well. I'm getting high in trials, I'm getting high in trials in herding, I'm getting high in trials in nosework, and I'm placing, and so I'm still pretty competitive, but it is hard. It is hard to go to that next level in some of the sports, but I'm okay with that. I'm okay with what I'm doing. I don't have to be the best. I don't have to be the top. And it's just harder now. I don't think you can spread yourself as thin anymore because of the technical requirements the sports are asking of competition.

Melissa Breau: Let's dig into the sports that you teach for FDSA a little bit more. At FDSA you do both nosework and obedience stuff, and you've got a workshop coming up on March 20 on going to source for nosework. Can you tell me a little about that?

Julie Symons: This is a repeat workshop. I think this may be my third time teaching it, and it focuses on setups to rehearse a high rate of reinforcement about going to source. Going to source means that a dog is going to get their nose as close to source as possible, and the source is usually a tin with some scented Q-tips inside of it. I find that we can get a little sloppy with allowing a little bit too less precision in the beginning, and if you build that criteria on the dog having to get as close to source as possible, it is going to set the strong foundation for later, when you're going to let some of that go, and especially some hides are inaccessible. But it's a fun class. It's going to deal with some pooling situations and the different between pooling and actual source, and inaccessible hides as well.

Melissa Breau: What are some of the reasons that a dog might fringe or indicate not at source?

Julie Symons: Early on, when AKC scentwork came out on the scene, one of the things I noticed is AKC uses two drops of odor, which is a lot, and ACSW is probably, I don't know, a fourth of that amount. So what I found is when you put out a stronger amount of odor, when it disperses, the dogs pick up a threshold of odor that they're used to about two to three feet away, and they will sometimes false that far away because they pick up the amount that they're used to. All that really means is that you need to train with low amounts and high amounts of odor because there is a difference between actual source and odor that's dispersing in the lower gradient into the air.

But I think some of it is also lack of confidence on the dog, handlers not having a consistent criteria. I think a lot of handlers will encourage a dog to get closer by saying, "Show me," and that gets chained in to the final behavior. I also think some dogs, again, if it's a confidence level or they lack a little bit of understanding, they get in odor, they're actually in odor, and they just anticipate getting rewarded.

Especially for dogs that like to paw, or handlers that encourage or wait for a dog to paw at source, that's a tricky line because you can get faulted, and you don't want dogs to scratch at vehicles and things like that. But I see that with some trained behaviors that are not nose focused, when it's a pawing or a sit behavior, dogs trip that trigger a little early and say, "Oh, I'm in odor, I'm going to get paid," and so they sit or they paw before they actually get to source, and then the handler could call that, read that, incorrectly. So those are some of the reasons.

And it's just being a little bit sloppy, I think, with our criteria and maybe where we even reinforce our dog. I actually don't see this issue as much anymore as I did years ago. I really do think the FDSA program has done a good job in valuing the skill of not only going to source but also building duration at source. We're only talking one to three seconds at source. You can't immediately tell your dog they're right when you know where the hide is, because when you don't know where the hide is, you need to see a little bit more from your dog at source.

So we spend quite a bit of focus on building some small amounts of duration at source. And then once you get that, the dog tends not to trip the trigger a little earlier, they get a little bit more confidence of their criteria. It's a little bit of "Sometimes I'm going to let you know sooner, sometimes you have to stay a little bit longer." And for the way that I teach, I use again some stimulus control. I want the dog to listen to my marker versus watching me. I use a marker — "yes" or "yep" or whatever — when they're at source and training that they learn to continue working until they hear that. They'll continue to work until they hear me mark being at source.

Melissa Breau: Is the source always where the odor is strongest? How can a dog the tell what actual source is?

Julie Symons: Not necessarily. Sometimes odor will be a little stronger, a pooling over by something if it's channeling or through a tube. So we never put hides in a tube or on a location where you're going to create a channel of odor that's going to be more stronger at the other end.

One thing that I've learned recently of a good way to describe this is that pooled odor does not keep emitting more scent. It becomes a static amount. Whereas actual source is constantly dispersing more odor out, and then the dog learns to work closer to that. I describe it as a bunny rabbit under the bush. A dog doesn't stop two feet short of a bunny under the bush. They know the difference between the scent of the bunny fur running under the bush and the actual bunny under the bush. Dogs naturally know how to get that bunny.

I relate a lot of this to dogs' prey drive, and that's how we want dogs to treat odor or source is that you get to source, you get to that prey, and get as close as you can to it. And dogs naturally … I don't know how they do it per se, but dogs do understand the difference from being two feet away from something and being right at that actual source, just from their survival or primal instinct of nature. But I think what happens is, as handlers, we can inadvertently reward a dog off source and then the dog's like, "That's all I have to do," because of course it's not a bunny rabbit, it's not a primary reinforcer, but it's cool to look at it that way.

So much of training sometimes is just us conceptually understanding how it works. You go, "I know how it works, then I can train for that." It's almost like when you do tracking or something. You're like, "How does the dog do this?" But if you learn a little bit more about the science on how their nose works, their olfactory system works, if you can understand their ability to do it, then you can open up your understanding of, "I can not even push them, but I can ask them to do this because it's doable." It's within their tool house.

Melissa Breau: I like the bunny analogy. I think that works well. I think it explains the concept well. You also have your nosework competition class, Developing Sensational Skills for Competition, on the schedule for April, which is right around the corner now. Can't believe how fast this year is flying by. Do you want to share a little bit about the class?

Julie Symons: I love this class. I can't remember when I created it. It might have been about two years ago when I was finishing up a 120 class. I had this group of people for four months, working with them, and I'm in another great series of finishing up with a group from 120 and we're on a great momentum. We're on a great roll. People are excited. They're working well, the dogs are working well, and I don't want them to not have something next term with me.

I created this class so that now that they have their dogs around odor, they're actually hunting, we touched on some introductions to some advanced skills, they're going to start thinking about trialing. They might think about trialing in a couple of months. There's an odor recognition test that NACSW requires that you just have to search twelve boxes to find one odor, and then you have to do it for each odor. You can't even enter a trial until you pass this test. It's kind of like a certification like we do in


I do think people try out too early, and I'm trying not to encourage that by having this prep class. But it's now focusing on handling. I've spent four months with these 101 and 120 students on the skills, the dog skills. We've touched on handling, but not a lot. And now I'm like, I've got to go over handling with them. I've got to go over the setups that they may encounter. I'm going to discuss what could go wrong. What are you going to do if your dog is distracted? They need to know that stuff. I can't have them wait six more months. And to make sure you're ready to trial. I'm trying to catch them to say, "Can your dog walk on slippery floor? Can your dog go to novel places and be able to function?" So it's a great continuation course for my existing students.

Melissa Breau: What nosework organizations do the materials in the class apply to or are they relevant for? Are there differences that need to be taken into account as you're preparing for trial?

Julie Symons: There's very few differences, to be honest. I think there's more commonality across the different organizations. Of course, there will be different scents that the organizations use, like Canada uses wintergreen instead of birch, and things like that. But again, teaching a new odor is the easiest part.

I do focus more on NACSW and AKC, however, I have students all over the world who benefit from the material — Australia and New Zealand and Canada — and I wouldn't say a lot, but I know some of the other countries built their rules off of NACSW. I actually consulted with … I think it was Australia I consulted with their rule creation with one of my students who was on their committee.

So it's really agnostic. I would say it's generally agnostic. If I have a particular thing, like for AKC I introduced buried, which is hides in sand and water. This is completely optional. If you're not going to do AKC, you don't have to do this step. It's fun, but it's a lot of work, and it's a lot of manual labor with water and sand. So I definitely will point out what is unique to an organization, for sure.

Melissa Breau: What are some of the things that students do need to know about their dog skills before they enter that first competition?

Julie Symons: Oh, that's such a good question. You definitely need to make sure your dog can focus and/or recover. I think dogs are going to be distracted. They're not robots. I like to give my dogs a chance to look around. They deserve that. My example, it's a funny example: If I go into a strange place, I might want to look around to make sure there's not an axe murderer around or something. You need to sometimes survey your environment to feel secure. And they need to be able to recover. They might be startled initially or hear a noise, but they need to be able to recover and get back to work.

But the key thing is they need to be able to work in novel areas. I can't stress that enough. Anybody that I work with, and some privates, the number one thing I tell them is to get some novel areas. Even in my class right now, in 120, we have a big push right now to get to novel areas for exteriors and vehicles and it's challenging. Interiors too. It's hard to find interior locations. They're rock stars at home, and this happens to every dog. There's those rare dogs that are just so stable, or they're dogs who have already done other sports and they're doing this later in life, and the dogs are already pretty stable in their environments. We like to stay in our comfort zone. If I train at home, I feel good about it. If I go out and work in novel places, we struggle and you don't feel so good about that. But they're all seeing the value and they're seeing improvement. And it's so key. That's almost the main thing is your dog has to be able to work in novel places.

Of course, you need to be able to have a readable indication and your dog needs to have a desire to hunt, like the basics of nosework, and then to work through some expected or unintentional distractors. They don't have distractors intentionally at the novice level, but there could be a dog that peed in the search area right before you, or had been there at the site prior to the trial. And there's just other dog smells. You're running last after forty dogs, and you're following all these other dogs that are drooling and walking through the search area and sometimes stepping on boxes or whatever. If you have a dog that's very distracted by other dog smells, that's challenging.

So I would say those are the things: your novel areas, a dog that can indicate and hunt, and that can process and dismiss some, I would hopefully say, mild distractions.

Melissa Breau: You've also got a few other nosework things in the works. Do you want to share a little bit about those?

Julie Symons: I'm really excited about this. I decided, I don't know if it was my New Year's resolution, but I wanted to get some newer topics out there, and I like the workshop route. I think that really focus the topic and specialize in what somebody may want to work on without having to take a six-week class.

It's about multiple hides. They're both about multiple hides. In May, I'm doing one called One Of A Kind Hides, how to teach your dog not to go back to found hides, and the one in July is Deconstructing the Challenge of Close Hides. So initially you're not going to have hides super-close, but the dog needs to be able to find one, leave it, know it's not going to pay again, and then be able to go find another one without trying to go back to get fed on the first one that they found.

Later on, we need to get those hides closer so the dog can work potentially some converging odor. I'm excited about that one because … I don't even want to call them converging hides because I think most hides never perfectly converge. Again, the dog's ability — they can decipher between two different scents and separate them out better than we can realize. When I first started nosework, I was so scared of doing multiple hides. I put it off with my first dog. I would make them really far apart. And then I realized they can do this, they can do super-close hides, many of them, once you're further along.

I'm really excited about those two topics, about dealing with multiple hides and the conflict that can come about when your dog goes back to found hides or won't work for the next hide. Probably the number one question I've been getting lately is how do you have your dog to go back to found hides. That's why I developed these, because that's been the main question I've been getting.

I have a lot of students getting into. Nosework 3 now and getting into Elite, and the challenges are increased for them. This is a very important skill because you're on that time limit and your dog has to not waste time trying to get fed at a previous hide. And teasing those topics apart that the dog really can remember where hides have been. We all have proof of that, because our dogs will go back to the same hide, the same location, the next day. They will. The dogs will go check every place that the hides were earlier in the day or the day before. They have a very strong cognitive ability on their memory.

So I'm excited about those two new things.

Melissa Breau: In addition to all that nosework stuff, you're also offering your Obedience Starter Games course. Do you want to share a little about that? That's going to run April too, right?

Julie Symons: Yes, and I'm really excited about this class. It's one of my favorite ones. I get a lot of people already asking me about it. I think the layout of it is really appealing to people. I roll out daily games, mostly by size. I can't say that all of them are bite-size chunks, because some of the topics get a little bit more advanced, but hopefully bite-size chunks that you can play each day. The ultimate goal is to see a transformation in your dog who looks forward to working with you every day. You have these short, fun sessions without a lot of pressure or precision, and it just results in a stronger bond. I just saw that with my own dogs and I see it with the students that go to this class.

Melissa Breau: Any prerequisites? Age? Skills?

Julie Symons: There's no prerequisites. The class does say 4 months and older, from beginners to novice or any team looking to bring a little bit more fun back to obedience. I have had some people take this class because they felt they got a little too serious, and they want to do obedience, but they've always been intimidated by it. It's just a fun way to introduce the advanced skills, but by making games out of them, and it's received very well. So it's always fun to teach those classes.

Melissa Breau: You've talked about this a little bit already in your other answers, but I still want to ask: Why games? What is the advantage to this approach to teaching something like obedience?

Julie Symons: When we look at training as a game, I think we're more motivated, our dogs are more motivated to do the work. I don't know … is it the old adage that says, "Work is play, play is work"? And so if we're able to keep it fun, and with the high rate of reinforcement, we don't have to have a lot of precision. We're simply building a rapport with our dogs, simply building. We hear that, Melissa, even just in general with reinforcement-based training, people say, "My dog won't leave me alone. Oh my God, I can't even go to the bathroom. They won't leave me alone." And it's just along those same lines.

Melissa Breau: I want to round out our whole chat with one final question. If we were to drill all the stuff that we've been talking about down into either one takeaway or one key piece of information you really want listeners to walk away from this interview with, what would that be?

Julie Symons: That's always a hard question when we talk about multiple topics. I could probably give a couple of answers, but I would just say that it's so important to develop good communication with your dog. And I talked about stimulus control. Make sure criteria is clear and that you are always consistent. We can get very sloppy. We have a lot of evolution in dog training with reward and location-specific markers. I think those are key in that when I say a certain word, it's either always going to be paid or it doesn't mean you're going to get paid, or it's going to tell you where you can get reinforcement. People promote that as just improving their sport exponentially, but I would say it also helps with doing multiple sports.

And I would say your dog needs to enjoy what they're doing. In the past, we used to force a dog into a sport because there was only a few of them. I think we all know now that people are enjoying the sports that their dogs enjoy because there's so much more out there — dock diving and lure coursing and nosework and rally. There's so much for you to pick from now, so why not pick what you and your dog enjoy? When I thought about this a little bit more, I was like, I treat every sport with the same quality of training. I do. They have to have their arousal in check. They can't break a stay going into the herding arena. I have the same expectations of them, and I'm going to train that quality into every sport that I do.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Julie. I think this was an information-rich interview, so thank you.

Julie Symons: I really enjoyed it. It's fun to actually talk it through.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We will be back next week with Simone Mueller to talk about predation substitution training.

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!


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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