Many dogs lose their enthusiasm for heeling once they begin to train patterns — we talk about keeping heeling fun, and Petra's new puppy!
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today we'll be talking to Petra Ford.
Petra graduated from Rutgers School of Health Related Professions 17 years ago with a degree in physical therapy. She attended the Canine Rehabilitation Institute in 2007 and is a certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist.
She trains and trials her own Labrador Retrievers in obedience, agility, and field. Her black Labrador Retriever, Tyler, had the distinction of being the 2008 and 2009 National Obedience Champion and First Runner Up in 2010. In 2012, Petra and Tyler became the first American team to win the Obedience World Cup.
She has written several articles on canine conditioning, canine injury prevention, competing with your dog, and more. She has been published in a number of magazines including Clean Run, Front and Finish, and Whole Dog Journal.
Hi Petra, welcome back to the podcast!
Petra Ford: Hi Melissa. Thank you for having me.
Melissa Breau: To start us out, do you want to share a little bit about your own dogs and what you're working on with them?
Petra Ford: Zaiden is my retired agility dog, Zeal is my fairly seasoned obedience competition dog, and Zayna is my up-and-coming dog. We were working on our obedience trial championship until the pandemic hit and everything was put on hold, so I'm looking forward to getting her back in the ring. And then I have a little puppy that I just picked up Sunday who's the newest member of the family. So now there's four. It's crazy, but …
Melissa Breau: Does he have a name yet?
Petra Ford: He does. He finally got a name today. The kennel he comes from breeds primarily for scent detection, search and rescue, FEMA, those kind of dogs, and all those working dogs have P names. My dogs have Z names, so I came up with Pzest, and I'm going to call him Zest.
Melissa Breau: Love it. That's super-cute. I'd love to talk about the new puppy for a little bit! I know obedience is your main sport. Are you planning to train him for competition obedience?
Petra Ford: I am. Yes, I am.
Melissa Breau: At this age, where do you start? I think you told me before we got started that he's 7 weeks. What are you planning to focus on for those first few weeks home?
Petra Ford: For the first few weeks, primarily, I want to bond with him, give him as many of a variety of experiences as possible without doing anything too crazy, because I don't want to overwhelm him.
All the little training sessions I do with him, my primary focus is not … yes, I teach him little skills, but my goal, really, is just to figure him out, to learn about him. How does he learn, how does he process, what's his tolerance, just little things about his personality, and to get him familiar with my communication system, so basically establish that relationship with him.
Melissa Breau: Why this puppy? I know a lot of people stress and stress about which puppy in a litter. They try really hard to find the dog that is going to be the right fit for their goals, but obviously some things you know and some things you don't know when they're that age. As somebody who has managed to successfully compete at a high level with several dogs in a row, can you share a little bit about how you decide on a puppy?
Petra Ford: Sure. First I go by breeding, because I think father and mother are super-important. Some people like to go even further back in the pedigree. I think the parents are super-important, so this puppy has the same father as my Zayna.
As far as traits go, I'm actually pretty specific. I feel super-confident that between what they show you from ages week 5 to 7 is what you're going to get when they're adults. It's pretty amazing how much information you can get just by observing them. So I always want to take them away from their littermates one by one, just to a spot they haven't been before. I used to do all this testing and stuff like that. Now, really, it's just observation, and you'll see so many personality traits right away.
For me, the last couple of dogs, I think the most important thing I look for is confidence and resilience, because those are things that I can improve upon in a dog, but if a dog doesn't innately have it, you cannot put it in the dog. We can train dogs to do just about anything, but if they are innately nervous dogs or insecure dogs, we can't ever put that in there.
I think that because obedience is inherently not at all self-rewarding and that the dogs deal with an enormous amount of pressure — and I don't mean from the handler, just that there's so much environmental pressure, pressure in the ring from the judge — that I think it's almost not fair to get a dog that I plan to do competition with that isn't confident and somewhat resilient.
Melissa Breau: Trying to stack the deck in your favor a little bit.
Petra Ford: Yeah, but also just because the more years, the more dogs I go through, sometimes I feel like it's not fair.
Like Zeal, at a high, high level, there are a number of times when he struggles, he digs deep, and he does it for me, but I feel a little bit bad. Maybe I'm getting soft, but yeah, I feel bad.
Zayna doesn't get bothered by things, so I don't usually feel bad if she makes a mistake. It's because it's a legit mistake, or sometimes because she's being naughty, but never because she feels pressure.
And so I just think that's more fair for the dog.
Melissa Breau: With this guy, did you get to pick a puppy from the litter, or did you have the breeder pick one for you? I'm just curious.
Petra Ford: Both. I'm super-lucky. The breeders I've gone through are super, super supportive, so I go there, I do look at the puppies, I get a snapshot, so I tell them what I've seen. I tell them exactly what I want and then they confirm.
With him, I really wanted a girl. I wanted another girl. There was one girl in the litter and I was like, "She's going to be the girl," after I saw her. And then the breeder did some testing with her and the boy I have now, she basically was like, "You don't want the girl. You want the boy." So there you go. I have you!
Melissa Breau: He's awful cute. Everybody who's listening can't see him, but I can, rolling around in your lap occasionally and whatnot.
Petra Ford: I'm posting videos and pictures and stuff of him on Facebook.
Melissa Breau: On your personal Facebook, or on the business …?
Petra Ford: On my personal page, because that's where most of the people are. I did a Facebook Live, and I would have done more Lives, but my schedule was so crazy. When I have time to tape — I did it on Monday — I was like, "OK, we're doing it," and he was exhausted. Today, when he was perky, I just did it and put it to YouTube and posted the YouTube link. I think that might be the easier way to do it, at least until he's a little bit older.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned you use these first couple of weeks to get to know a new puppy. I'm just curious what that looks like for you. How do you try to get to know him? What are you looking for? What are you doing to figure him out a little bit?
Petra Ford: When I train them, I look to see do they prefer to be lured, so do they want me to show them exactly what to do, or do they like to problem-solve.
Zeal cannot abide being wrong, so he wants me to just show him exactly what to do. Zayna hated that. She was like, "I can figure it out on my own." She liked to problem-solve.
Sometimes dogs have different frustration levels, like how long can they focus before they get tired. I don't like to overdo it.
Also with life, for instance, he's a mad crazy tugger, which I love, but if he tugs for too long, or if he's over-tired, and I go to take the tug, he gets super-fresh and growls at me and tells me off. So I already decided that I'm going to keep tugging with him, but I'm definitely going to be careful about pushing him over his threshold, because I don't want to get there with him.
Just general personality traits, like, wherever he goes, I watch his body. Is he nervous, is he unsure, is he confident, is he curious. If something startles him, does he then struggle for a while or does he recover immediately. If he gets startled by something, within seconds he recovers and it's like nothing ever happened.
My one dog was teaching him how to use the dog door. When you're outside coming in through the one dog door, it's super-high. I was inside, I see him trying to come in, and I know his back feet aren't even touching the ground, but he was coming in no matter what. Somehow he followed himself in through the dog door, and I never showed him how to do it. So he's super-determined. When he puts his mind to something, look out. And the breeder said that about him.
Those are all important pieces of information that I need to have when I train him, because when I train, I train all my dogs differently. I'm always experimenting, and I feel like I have to adapt my training to the dog. I have to pick the method that's best for him.
The traits that I like, I'm going to really foster them and build those up, and traits that could potentially be problematic, like him getting way too aroused with tugging, I'm going to manage those right from the get-go and so then shape him into the best little dog he could be.
Melissa Breau: In these early training sessions, what are you working on as foundation skills or as the essential skills early on? At what point do you begin to introduce those more formal obedience skills?
Petra Ford: Everything I do, I guess technically is a foundation skill. I teach them certain tricks that I use a lot. One of the first tricks is hand touches, because I use hand touches for finishes, I use hand touches for different exercises. Twist and spin, I teach them to turn on a bucket, because I like to teach them hind-end awareness right away. I do a little puppy heeling, which is basically just luring, just getting him used to walking with his little head up for a little bit.
A couple of things I like to do early on is I like to send them to a target and I like to send them to a platform, because obedience dogs get heavily reinforced around us, really close to us, and some of the exercises they tend to struggle with, especially down the road, are the exercises that are away from us. So I like to start sending them away from me as soon as possible.
I'm going to try a few different things with this puppy. I think I'm going to send him to a platform maybe in a corner, because those things put pressure on the dog. I feel like I want to start exposing my dog very mindfully and very carefully and slowly to some of that early on, so that it's just a game for them and a non-issue. I do a bunch of … I don't know sometimes. I just wing it and make it up as I go along.
Melissa Breau: What about socialization? Obviously that's a big topic right now with everybody, with the pandemic puppies and the realities of the world right now.
Petra Ford: I'm super-fortunate because I have the rehab business, so people are coming in for doggie rehab and they're all dog people. Personally, I don't feel like my dogs need to be exposed to tons of people, in the sense that as long as people are relatively neutral, or some people are nice … I spend a lot of their career teaching them to ignore people, because when they're working, they're supposed to be ignoring people.
My dogs, his temperament sounds … he's already met two little kids, which if he can survive that, he can probably survive anything. He's meeting people at the rehab, which is fine. I took him to the Cherrybrook pet store the other day. I'm not going to do it now, but I can take him to the Home Depot and Tractor Supply, so I'm not that worried about it. Maybe if I had a different breed I would be, but I don't really think it's going to be a problem.
I can do things like take them … I train my dogs outside in front of the supermarket, anyway, and people walk by, so if I want them to meet people, all I have to do is stand there and I'm sure people will be like, "Oh, can I pet your puppy?" But yeah, I'm not worried about it.
Melissa Breau: Alright, I guess enough about the new puppy. We should talk about some other stuff too. The other reason, in addition to the puppy, that I invited you on is because you have a workshop coming up, starting July 19, on keeping heeling exciting, fresh, and fun. Can you share a little bit about the workshop?
Petra Ford: I think that we spend a lot of time teaching our dogs to heel, and then our dogs learn how to heel, and then we start doing heeling patterns, and then we keep doing heeling patterns.
I think it's super-important. I think heeling is the hardest obedience exercises, in my mind. It's super-complex. The dogs have to do multiple things at once. They have to maintain position, a focal point, and engagement.
I think the dogs can get flat really quickly, so I think it's important to always throw in games and tricks and just keep things exciting and fun for them, because otherwise they're going to get stale.
I'll take Zeal. He loves to heel, but even him, if I just do heeling pattern after heeling pattern, he's not as bouncy. He gets a little flat. So I think it's important to keep it fun. And then it's fun for us too, for us and the dogs. I think people a lot of times in obedience they get too serious.
Melissa Breau: As you mentioned, a lot of people struggle, after they teach heeling, to keep things fun, and they end up with a flat dog or a dog that's getting a little demotivated. What are some of the mistakes there? What are the things that people are doing that lead to that outcome?
Petra Ford: A couple of things. One, for sure, is clarity. I'm super, super clear on my criteria and on my communication system, so that helps my dog really understand heeling. Also I do pieces of heeling all the time, little pieces, little pieces, to keep each of the pieces animated, not just accurate.
The problem with obedience is there's so much emphasis on accuracy. Obviously, accuracy is important, but for me, having attitude and animation is just as important. So I have to constantly mix it up and put games in there and tricks in there so that the dog thinks it's fun as well.
I tug a lot … it depends on the dog again, that too. So what I did is I put a bunch of options in this workshop because every dog is not … I have a dog that's motivated by food primarily and I have another dog that's way more motivated by a toy, so I don't do the same thing for each dog. So I put in a huge variety of things so that people can pick and choose what will work best for their individual dog and can experiment a little bit and play around with that.
Melissa Breau: If the dog has gotten to the point where they are starting to think that heeling is hard and maybe they're losing some of that motivation, is it possible to change their mind and convince them it's fun again? Or is it basically a poisoned cue at that point?
Petra Ford: No, I think that you can definitely improve it. I think the biggest issue I see when I get students is lack of clarity. So you make things more clear and you'll see a huge change in the dog, because then they're more confident. They know their job and they're right a lot. And then again, like I said, if you break it into small pieces … and what I've been doing lately a lot of, which is working phenomenal and super-fun, is I've been back-chaining in sections of the heeling.
Melissa Breau: I think you're doing something for us a little bit about that at some point, right?
Petra Ford: I know, because I'm so excited. When Denise first asked me to do a webinar for her, I'm like, "You guys are so scientific." I am not like that at all. I fly by the seat of my pants, I do things on instinct, I read my dogs, I'm trying to analyze, I make things up. But, with so much access to so many awesome webinars and workshops and Hannah Branigan's podcast, I would say maybe a year or so ago I was like, "Come on, just listen. Maybe you'll learn something."
Now I'm addicted, because honestly, in competitive obedience land, it is not scientific at all. Trainers have a method, and that's their method that they use. They may tweak it a little bit here and there, but it is just based on experience. It's not based on science. And that's not all bad, but I think the perfect world is right in the middle. So I'm still going to use my instincts. I'm still going to lead my dog and figure out exactly what's happening.
But there's so much stuff in the science that I haven't been using because I've never been exposed to it.
Like in competitive obedience … and I'm not saying there isn't a person out there, but I've never been exposed to a person that back-chained. It was a foreign concept to me. Talk about a mindbender — it was so hard. If I explained it to my students now, they'd have that same look I had, like, "Wait. We don't think backwards. We forward-chain predominantly." Anyway, so now I'm having tons of fun with this back-chaining, using it on fronts, using it in heeling, and some of the other scientific concepts that I'm learning. So it's fun. It's super-fun.
Melissa Breau: More things to play with, right?
Petra Ford: Yeah. I just rambled. I don't even know what the question was anymore, sorry.
Melissa Breau: You're fine. I had asked about changing if a dog's gotten to a point where they're no longer thinking about things as well.
Petra Ford: Oh yeah. You can completely change it up. For example, Zayna was totally forward-chained on her heeling, and I started back-chaining with her, which totally changed it up for her. Back-chaining makes a lot of sense to her, so heeling got way more animated. She got perkier and she got more confident.
I think if that was the case with a dog that wasn't, I would try a bunch of different things, and I guarantee that to be one or two things that resonate because I think there are so many choices.
So if you just break it down into pieces, motivate the pieces, and make sure you're super-clear with your information, then I absolutely think the dog can learn to be animated and enjoy it and have fun with it.
Melissa Breau: To dive in just a little bit deeper, do you want to share a little bit of a peek into some of the games or some of the options that you use to keep things fun after the dog has those basics down?
Petra Ford: I use tricks a fair amount because my dogs really like them. And then I put them on a verbal cue, and then eventually I put them on no cue. My dog's default in the absence of information, for Zeal, is to offer a behavior when heeling. He'll offer a bounce. So if I'm heeling slow, he should be bouncing in training. And then in the ring, when there's environmental pressure on him, he doesn't actually bounce, but he comes up to me, so that's pretty cool.
So I use tricks, I use toys, I use food, back-chaining now. And who knows, I might learn something else from another podcast or a workshop.
Melissa Breau: If the theory or the idea behind this is that once a dog is trained, you start to do patterns and you're drilling a little bit, are there things that trainers can do to avoid that problem in the first place? Maybe even before they have heeling strongly trained or well trained, or before they're in the ring, are there things that they can do early on as they teach heeling to keep it from ever feeling dull or boring, getting to that place?
Petra Ford: Correct, yes. I think it's a mindset. I love heeling. I think it's fun. And I like precision. However, I think I'm super-empathetic to my dogs. When I first teach a young dog how to heel, if I'm really doing it right, I get a headache because I have to be so focused to give them the right information. And if I'm getting a headache, how must they feel? And so I'm really empathetic to them and I am in no rush.
So it will take me four years to get a dog to heel the way I want them to heel, because I just do pieces and pieces and pieces and little pieces. It takes me a really long time before I put it all together.
And even when I put together a heeling pattern, I typically don't do a full heeling pattern more than once a week, even with a fully trained dog. The rest of the time I'm doing it in pieces, and I'm rewarding them and playing games and I'm doing tricks and just keeping it fun.
So if you just have that mindset from the beginning, there is no rush to put the heeling pattern together. It will come in time. And even then, I don't just one day put the whole thing together. I put two or three pieces together, and then when my dog can do those, maybe I'll put a few more pieces together. But never multiple days a week, because I feel like if my dog is doing it and my dog is doing it well, then why beat a dead horse. I'll just work on the pieces and keep them fun.
Melissa Breau: For the workshop specifically, are there skills that working teams need to have in place before they sign up? Are there things folks need to know to help decide if they're a good candidate for a working spot or to take the workshop?
Petra Ford: For this one, it's for dogs that already know how to heel. I have one coming up, I don't know when, where it's for dogs learning how to heel. This one, theoretically, your dog knows how to heel, which isn't to say you couldn't use some of it if your dog's learning it.
But the basis for this one should be that your dog knows how to heel, and now you want to just keep it fun and exciting over the long haul. Because over time, like I said, once a dog knows how to heel, people tend to just do patterns and practice heeling and emphasize precision, precision, and then the dog gets blah about it over time.
Melissa Breau: Alright, last question. What's something that you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Petra Ford: What I've learned recently about dog training is that I still don't know anything. I did this … it was … I don't know how many weeks ago … I don't know if it was a Facebook Live or a recording. I said, "Today is the first day I'm introducing my two dogs to a mask, so here's my prediction. Zeal, who is really insecure and really relies on my face, is going to really struggle when I have the mask on, and Zayna, who's really confident, is not going to care at all."
I put the mask on and I took Zeal out, and Zeal could have cared less. Acted like as if I didn't even have a mask on. And I was like, "Isn't that interesting." Then I took Zayna out, and she didn't really like that I had the mask on. It annoyed her. So I pretty much was like, "There you go. I know nothing." Because all along I thought that Zeal was relying on my face, and clearly he's not relying on my face.
I've always said this: The longer I train, the more I realize how much more I have to learn. And I'm having so much fun right now, like I mentioned all the podcasts and learning all the scientific stuff. I'm like, "Oh my God, there's so much that I'm learning that I don't know."
So I think we could be learning forever and ever and ever, and I think that's really important. I think that everybody should always go to different trainers, go to different resources, just learn as much as you can, because we can think we've learned everything, and our dogs will still tell us that we don't. We still have a ways to go. I don't know how my dogs understand me, in hindsight, sometimes.
Melissa Breau: I think we've all felt that way. I think that's a great lesson to end on, too, the idea that we all can be a little surprised by our dogs, even when we've trained them for a while and they're high-level competition dogs already.
Petra Ford: Theoretically you know what you're doing and the you're like, "No, I didn't know what I was doing." That's what I like about it, because if it was easy, I'd be bored. I look at it as challenging and that every dog is different, and that no matter how much I learn, I realize that there's still so much more to learn. That's what I love about it.
Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I know this was a little last-minute of us throwing everything together to get it to happen tonight, but I appreciate your flexibility and jumping on.
Petra Ford: Thank you as always.
Melissa Breau: And thank you to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week. Don't miss it!
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Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!