E169: Nicole Wiebusch - "Titling During a Pandemic"

Been missing the competition scene? Nicole and I talk about opportunities to title virtually in Rally — and things to consider when working on virtual titles!


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 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, that journey led Nicole to start her own dog training business, Golden Paws Dog Training LLC, where she teaches both pet owners and dog sports people dog-friendly training methods.

Nicole continues to actively compete in a variety of performance events. She has titled dogs in Rally, obedience, TEAM, agility, hunting, and dock diving.

Her Golden Retriever Toby was retired due to physical problems just 30 points shy of his OTCH. Toby won the Advanced Rally class at Golden Retriever National Specialty in both 2012 and 2015.

She discovered Fenzi Dog Sports Academy in 2013, and now, in addition to operating Golden Paws Dog Training, Nicole is an instructor for FDSA and the Pet Professionals Program. She is also a judge for the Fenzi TEAM titling program.

She has earned both the Obedience/Rally/Freestyle Trainer's Certificate and the Sports Foundation Trainer's Certificate from FDSA. She is also a Canine Good Citizen and Trick Dog evaluator, a Professional member of the APDT, and is a field dog trainer for a service dog organization.

Alright — welcome to the podcast, Nicole!

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

Melissa Breau: Can you start us out by reminding us who your current dogs are and what you're working on with them?

Nicole Wiebusch: Sure. I'll start with my old guy, Toby. He will be 15 in July, and he's doing really, really well, so I'm so happy about that. There's definitely some age changes, but overall he's doing great.

Toby was my first positively trained dog. Like you mentioned, he just about finished his OTCH, but he was diagnosed with immune mediated polyarthritis probably seven or eight years ago, and so we missed out on a lot of showing due to that. But despite all of that, he loved to train and he loved to show and we had a lot of fun together in agility, obedience, and Rally. So we're just hanging out now, doing some walks by ourselves and just spending a lot of time with him, which has been really, really nice.

Next I have Strive. She's a Golden Retriever also and she's going to be 7 in June. She's earned her UD, we're working on the UDX, and she also has started the journey to the Rally Masters, the Rally Championship, through AKC. So we've been out a few times, gotten a few triple cues, lots of high combines and high triples. She's a lot of fun. She loves Rally, she prefers Rally to obedience, and we also do a lot of agility too. She's in the Masters level for agility in AKC and we do some other organizations as well.

Next I have Excel. Excel is Strive's son and he is going to be 3 in August. Excel has taught me probably more than any other dog that I've had. He's been a wonderful dog for me. He's really stretched my abilities as a trainer. He's taught me how important life skills are, and taught me that all this fancy obedience stuff isn't nearly as important as just life skills. And so I'm really excited about everything that I've learned with Excel. He's got his Trick Dog Novice title, we just did that virtually, he has his TEAM 1 and his TEAM 1 Plus, he's earned both of those. I believe that's it. Oh, dock diving is the other one. He loves to dock dive. He thinks that's the coolest thing. So he has his Senior title for dock diving.

Our initial goal for this year was to get out in some sort of a ring, but that's proven to be difficult with the fact that there's no trials. So I don't know if that's going to actually happen, but we're having fun with some of the virtual stuff, some of the video submissions that we can do, and we'll just keep working and training. He's just so much fun, so I'm really thankful for him.

And then, finally, my husband has a black Lab named Kira, and she just turned 3, and her and Excel are best buddies. They're almost the same age. I don't do a ton with Kira, but my daughter, Lexi, trains her and is starting to work on agility and some Rally stuff with her, so that's fun. I work with Lexi and Kira together, but I try to leave the training up to Lexi.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. Next generation, right?

Nicole Wiebusch: Right, yes. Train them now.

Melissa Breau: You brought this up in your answer, but with the pandemic and the shelter-in-place, I know many of our listeners are REALLY missing the opportunity to compete, and so we're all looking at those virtual titling options. When it comes to Rally, what options are out there right now?

Nicole Wiebusch: There are two options. One of them just came out and the other they announced a while ago. In the U.S., I know there are possibly other options overseas, but within the United States, two of our common venues are AKC and WCRL.

AKC announced their virtual titling program probably a month or two ago and they're doing it through December 31. It's just a trial thing, so it's not anything permanent and they're only doing the novice levels. So if you already have your RN through AKC, it doesn't do you any good, unless if you don't have any advanced legs yet, you're still eligible for novice, so you could certainly do it if you wanted to, but you're not going to earn any other title or anything. So that is going to go through December 31. What they did, really, is took five courses — it tells you where to put the camera and how to set it up — and then you video that course and then you send it in. So that's AKC, and you can earn a virtual RN, which is the same title as an in-person. It's not an RNV. It's just an RN.

WCRL recently announced their virtual titling, and the nice thing about WCRL is you can go as high as you want, all the way up to the Championship level. What they do, it's a little bit different than AKC. They release new courses every two weeks and there are two versions to each course. There's a full-sized one, which is 25 feet by 80 feet, and then there's a smaller one, which is 25 feet by 50 feet. If you do the smaller one, you have to do two courses in order to equal a leg to qualify. Because it's a smaller course, you have to do two different ones rather than just doing the one big one. That's cool. You've got your small spaces, and that's going to fit into most people's back yard, which is nice, and then you can go ahead and earn all the titles all the way up through the championship.

So for those people who already had an AKC title, the Rally Novice, they can do the WCRL, which is pretty similar, and earn some higher titles through that. I think that's a great opportunity. I haven't seen anything about how long this is going to last, but I assume it's going to be around for a while.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. While, as you mentioned, the virtual titles are both relatively new, you've judged Fenzi's TEAM program for a while, which is all virtual, and I know you've competed with your own dogs in-person for a good long while now. What are some of the differences between competing virtually and competing in-person — the obvious and the not so obvious?

Nicole Wiebusch: That's a really good question, and I was thinking about this for a while. I think one of the not-so-obvious things is that virtual titling is much harder than people think. They think, Oh, look, I get to video in my own backyard. This should be easy. But when you actually go to do it, it's not so easy, and I know a lot of people find that in TEAM.

The thing with TEAM is that you've got these ten exercises in Level 1 and they all have to basically be perfect. We're looking for precision, we're looking for rule following, there's things we're specifically looking for. I remember the first time I did a TEAM run-through with my dog, who's earned her UD and several high-in-trials and high combines, it took me six times to get through the trials and do TEAM 1 correctly, where everything came together. I figured it would be, like, five minutes and we'd be done, and it wasn't that way at all.

So definitely virtual, there are tricks to it. It's really hard to get it right on the first time. What people do is they didn't get it right the first time, so they're like, "I'm just going to video it again," and they do it a second time, and something goes wrong, and "I'm just going to video it again." And then they end up just working their dog way too long, and they get frustrated, and the dog is frustrated, and everything just falls apart. I think that's one of the dangers of doing this virtual stuff is like, "Oh, we'll just video it again." We need to be careful that we're not making it too difficult for our dogs and going too long.

Another difficulty with virtual titles are camera issues. There's a lot that you have to think about when you're videoing something, and we'll go into that a little bit later.

There's no dog show atmosphere, which is really good for a lot of dogs. A lot of dogs get a little nervous about the atmosphere, they struggle around other dogs, they get worn out mentally because they're in a crate all day and then being taken out to be warmed up and showed. And so I think that can be great. If you have a reactive dog, the virtual titles are awesome because it's going to allow you to get a title that maybe you wouldn't have been able to otherwise by going to a regular dog show.

We talked about a couple of disadvantages, but one thing is, with the virtual stuff, I think we're like, "Let's go set up a course and run it." We don't really think about proper warm-up and any structure for our dogs, whereas a dog show forces us into structure. We have this pattern that we go through. We drive to the show, we set up our crate, the dog goes in the crate, we bring it out to potty and warm up, and we have all these things that we do. And so the lack of structure with the virtual stuff I think could be a challenge for some of the people. But other than that, I think both of them offer really good benefits to people, and I like the virtual thing that will allow some dogs that would never be able to attend an in-person show to get some of these performance titles.

Melissa Breau: You teased it in there, but what tips do you have for filming a virtual run?

Nicole Wiebusch: After being a TEAM judge for a while, and then being an instructor, I was seeing a lot of video that wasn't great, so I put together this little infographic for the videoing, and I put it on the FDSA list and the TEAM players list as well. But I just pulled together some tips.

When you print out the courses for both WCRL and AKC, it's going to tell you where to put your camera. They choose that for you because they want the best angles on the important steps. But there's a lot of other things we can do to help get good videos, and this could apply for classes, virtual titles, TEAM, it doesn't matter. It applies for everything.

One of the things to think about is your lighting. You want to make sure that the sun isn't directly behind you, because then what happens is you and your dog become a silhouette with kind of a halo, and it's really hard to see the details. So when you're setting up your course, if it's sunny out, make sure that the sun is behind the camera. That's what we want to see. It's going to help pick up on the details and see the dog better.

Another thing that people do is they wear clothing that's really close to their dog. If they have a black dog, they'll wear black pants. That's been a thing in obedience for a long time. I think people think, Oh, if I wear black pants, the judge can't really see if my dog is crooked or not. It doesn't work. The judge can totally see. But it makes it really hard, especially in video, to see if your dog is truly straight or exactly what position your dog is in. So wearing contrasting clothing to your dog is definitely a lot better.

Another thing to think about is sound. You do need to record these videos with sound. They want to make sure that you're not yelling at your dog or pleading with your dog. So think about the environment. If you're set up next to a park where there's a bunch of kids in the playground, that might not be the best idea. Or if your dog is in the background, crated in the yard or the van or something, barking, that's generally not a good idea either. So do your best to find an environment where the sound is fairly low.

When you video, you want to make sure that you put your camera or your iPad or whatever you're using in landscape mode, which is the horizontal mode. It gets a little hard, especially in those times when we have to leave our dogs, if you have it in portrait mode, which is up and down. It can get a little hard to see what's going on. You want to make sure you can see the handler and the dog the entire time.

And a big one is know your space. When you set up this course, you want to make sure that you know exactly where the camera goes. I've seen several videos posted on different Facebook groups where they had this beautiful novice training run, but two of the signs were completely off the camera, and that is super, super common. You can use cones if you want, or if you're outside you can use pieces of caution tape and just secure that to the ground. But just make sure you know that everything is in the view, and make sure you're going to be in the camera view the entire time.

The last one is kind of funny, but it's turn on the camera, which is something that all of us forget to do. So really make sure that that camera is running before you go run your gorgeous 100-point course. That would my final bit of advice.

Melissa Breau: That's a good reminder. You want to make sure all the things are working.

Nicole Wiebusch: Definitely.

Melissa Breau: One of the major advantages, I think, of virtual titling over in-person titles is, as you mentioned, it can be maybe a blessing and a curse, you can film it a few times and submit the one you think will get the best score. But that's only really possible if you know HOW to get that high score in the first place. If you film it fifteen times and you're making the same mistakes, it's not really going to help. So what are some of the common places people tend to lose points when it comes Rally?

Nicole Wiebusch: By far, it's handler error, and I find that a little frustrating, because if the handlers would learn the signs, and of course there's a whole piece about remembering the signs in the moment. It's hard. I've made mistakes too. But definitely the number one reason for losing points in Rally is because you did a sign wrong. So really knowing those signs is really important. A lot of people overlook that step a little bit. They're like, "I'll figure it out when I get in the ring." I certainly review the signs if there's ones I have questions about, but knowing the signs will definitely save you some points. So doing the signs wrong is a big thing.

The other things I see are little one-pointers, for the most part. The dog's out of position, meaning they're heeling two or three feet behind you, or they get out of position on their heel. Or they have a crooked front. That's a common one, crooked front, crooked finishes, or crooked sits at the halt. Little things like that can definitely add up, so if you can increase the precision of your fronts and your finishes and your heeling, that's going to help a lot. And things like positions. Make sure you dog can do the position changes. But mostly those are the two big categories.

Tight leash is a big one in the novice, and that's the same as out of position, basically. So when you're on leash, you want to make sure that your leash is nice and loose. But all of this stuff can be cleaned up pretty easily for any team. It doesn't mean that it has to be perfect, but if you can even clean it up a little bit, then that can definitely save you some points over the long run.

Melissa Breau: Are there any additional things that might be considered that might pop up in a virtual run?

Nicole Wiebusch: I think we covered that pretty thoroughly. The biggest thing is make sure your video is working the way you want it to and you've done all those tips, and then just don't push your dog. Like I said earlier, it's so easy, and I've done it too, like with Team, "We got that one wrong. Let's try it again." It's so easy to do, and you just have to be careful that you don't end up drilling your dog. If you go set up your course and things didn't go well, take a little break before you try again, or do it the next day. There's nothing that says … we're not in a huge time crunch here. We have until December 31 for AKC. So if it doesn't go so well, evaluate what happened and make plans to do it another time.

So just be careful about that, because in a real show, we don't have the opportunity to redo a run, which is sometimes unfortunate when we have one little mistake. But in this situation, we do. We can redo it, if we need to, to get a better score or get a qualifying run, but we just have to think about we probably shouldn't redo it right away. Let's figure out what happened and give our dog a little bit of time to recover before we go back and try that again.

Melissa Breau: You're offering one of your Rally classes in June — From Good to GREAT! Increasing Your Rally Scores. Can you talk a little bit about who might be a good fit for that class and what it covers?

Nicole Wiebusch: This is a new class that I came up with. Everybody wants better scores, so I figured it would really be good to concentrate on the most common reasons that people lose points. What I did is I polled a whole bunch of judges and experienced competitors and asked them, "Where do you see the most points lost?" I compiled this huge list, and that's what this class covers.

This class is not a foundation Rally class. However, if you have a decent Novice, if you can do Novice, the class is going to cover things from Novice all the way up to Masters. It really is applicable to a wide variety of people and dogs, so it's nice. But you do need to have some foundation. You can't come brand new into Rally and expect to get a ton out of this class. You need to at least know your Novice signs. You're going to learn some of the Master and Excellent and Advanced signs as you take the class, which will be good, but we talk a lot about some Novice signs.

And then something that we focus a lot on is just cleaning up a little precision, getting a little more precision, cleaning up a few of those minor errors. We tighten up your heeling, your fronts and finishes.

So I think the class would be really good for anybody that wants better scores. Or, if you're doing pretty well, or maybe you're relatively new to Rally, and you want to learn how to prevent errors, this would be a really good class for that. You could go and learn about the most common errors, and just learn the signs correctly, and work on the fronts and finishes from the get-go. So it could really help you from the prevention side of things, too, just as you're training, to be able to get a little bit higher scores right away out of the get-go.

Melissa Breau: In addition to the Rally class, you have your new stay class on the schedule: Rock Solid Stays for Competition and Real Life. I wanted to ask a little bit about that too. How are you defining the difference between a "competition" stay and a "real life" stay for the purpose of this class?

Nicole Wiebusch: What I consider a competition stay is more of an active stay, whereas the real life stay is more of a relaxed stay. The way I look at it, during an active stay, I need to be paying attention to my dog and my dog needs to be focused on me. That's important. They need to be ready to respond to a cue. Whereas the relaxed stay would be something like a relaxed down-stay or a station. In that case, I don't want my dog paying attention to me. I want him just to chill and hang out for a little while. Those are the big differences.

But as we go through the training process for these two different types of stays, we start out similar, but then it's very different towards the end in how we train each stay. I really do feel, when we have puppies, and we're thinking about we're going to do obedience and we're going to do Rally and we're going to do agility, and we're thinking about how to train active stays and we get stuck on that, and I do feel that relaxed stays are super, super important.

Any performance dog needs to have that ability to just lay down and hang out for a little bit, whether maybe we're talking to an instructor about a run that we just did, or maybe we're watching a handler run a course and the dog needs to hang out while we do that. So I think definitely for any performance dog, it's really critical that they have both those skills, they can do both an active stay and they can do a relaxed stay.

Melissa Breau: I think stay is one of those behaviors that falls into everybody's must-have. It's one of those things, when you think about basic obedience cues, you get sit, down, stay, maybe a recall. But I think a lot of people still struggle to teach it. Where do you see people get "stuck"?

Nicole Wiebusch: The biggest thing that I see is they increase criteria too much. They try to increase all these challenges at the same time. And so learning how to split out everything and break it all down is really important when you're teaching a stay. If you tell your dog to stay, and you add duration and you add distance at the same time, that's really hard. Or if you have been doing stays in your house and you all of a sudden go outside, where there's all these activities going on and all these distractions, and you ask for the same level of stay that you were doing in your house, you're probably setting your dog up to fail. So one of the things we do in the stay class is we talk about, "This is how you split criteria. This is how you move up through the challenges."

The other place that I see people getting stuck down the road with the relaxed stuff is they reward the relaxation for too long. They reward the relaxed stays for too long. When we are rewarding our dog within a stay, most of our dogs are operant dogs today, are working for food. They are doing things to try to earn the treats. Maybe if you used to reward them for flipping over on a hip because that's a sign of relaxation, they're going to start offering that.

I really saw that with my younger dog, Excel. He was the master at this. He would put his chin down on the ground, and then you'd see his eyebrows go up as he looked at me like, "My chin's down. Now where's my treat?" That encompasses a ton of dogs right now, that they're offering these relaxation behaviors in order to get treats, but they're not actually relaxing. That's a really common mistake is people keep rewarding the stays forever and they never stop. It's really when you stop rewarding them that the dog truly understands how to relax, because they're not working for the food.

Melissa Breau: Who should consider the class, and can you talk a little more about what you'll cover?

Nicole Wiebusch: This class is awesome for everybody. If you are just teaching your puppy to stay, this is going to be a great class to get you started and to show you all the steps in how to get a great stay. If you have a dog that's having stay problems, it's going to show you how to go back and work on your foundation and fix those problems. So it really is a class that any age dog, puppies without a lot of skills yet, or even older competition dogs that you struggle with. We'll cover active and relaxed stays in the class, and that's going to apply to obedience, Rally, agility, it will apply to many different sports anytime where you might need a stay.

Melissa Breau: Before we go, I know you have one more thing on the schedule and I wanted to at least sneak it in here. You have a webinar coming up titled Broken Connection: Why Your Dog Loses Focus. Can you just share a peek into what that's about?

Nicole Wiebusch: This is a super, super fun webinar to do. It's coming up at the beginning of June, so everything is all in there now. I recorded it, obviously. It was really enjoyable. I really liked doing it.

Disconnection is such a huge issue with our dogs, and so the first thing we do is define it a little bit. We talk about where the dog's focus is, so if the dog is focused on the handler or the task, we call that connection, and when they're not focused on the handler or the task, if they're focused on other things in the environment, we call that disconnection. We go into a bit of detail about how to talk about that and define it a little bit.

We talk about common reasons that dogs disconnect. Just a couple of examples would be handler pressure, the handler disconnecting is a big one, different things like that. Just normal distractions in the environment, upping your criteria too quickly, all of that kind of stuff is covered and so much more, and then we talk about how to either fix it or prevent it. We talk about coming up with specific training plans that will allow you to increase criteria and distractions and all that stuff in a way that the dog can handle it and can be successful.

The other thing we do is, toward the last part of the webinar, we review several different videos. We've got agility stuff in there, and then we've got some Rally and obedience stuff as well. We take a look at a dog that's having issues with disconnection, and then we talk about different ways or different things that might be going on. We don't always know exactly why the dog is disconnecting, but a lot of times you can guess one or two of the reasons, and then we talk about how we would go about and fix that. So it was really fun. I think it's going to be a great webinar.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. One last question, the one I ask everyone these days as we're heading off. What's something that you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Nicole Wiebusch: I thought about this question for a little bit because there's so much. We just finished with the Lemonade Conference, and of course I learned plenty during that. That was super fun. But what I kept coming back to is, and this isn't specifically about dog training, but I think it's still really important. With this COVID virus going on, before this all came up, I was so busy all the time. Between home-schooling my children and kids' activities and dog activities, I was always running everywhere all the time, and I didn't have time to just spend time with my individual dogs.

I have four dogs, three of them are mine, and I try really hard to spend time with each one of them individually. Since everything has been cancelled and we're not leaving our houses every day anymore, I have been able to take each dog out individually quite a bit and either go for a hike, or with my old dog we usually just walk through the yard. We have twenty acres, so we do short little walks. I don't take him out on the trails too much anymore. But it's just been really amazing.

I've always considered myself to have good relationships with my dogs, but when you really spend time with each individual dog, and not necessarily training time, of course we all train them individually, but when I go to a seminar or dog show, all of my active competition dogs come with. It's very rare that just one dog goes with me, and I really, really treasure and enjoy that time. It's been especially special with Toby, who is almost 15. It definitely has helped the relationship and it's helped our training too. Even though it's not actively training, just spending time with them individually, I think that's really important.

So that's what I kept coming back to. I've learned some good lessons over this time, and as our lives start to get crazier again at some point, I am definitely going to keep carving out that time to take one particular dog for a walk this day, and the next day the next dog gets to go, and that sort of thing.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Nicole!

Nicole Wiebusch: Thanks so much Melissa. It was a lot of fun.

Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Chrissi Schranz to talk about reinforcers and reinforcement behaviors.

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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