E174: Helene Lawler - "Training Sensitive Dogs"

Have a dog that shuts down or checks out during training? Helene shares why this is overarousal, not low arousal as many handlers think — plus her 5 part approach to training sensitive dogs!


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 Helene Lawler.

Hélène has been working with animals her whole life — she started by training her cat to use the toilet when she was 12! Since then she's spent years heavily invested in both training and the rescue world. She's dabbled in nose work, tracking, and Search and Rescue, and then began training agility in 2004, followed by herding in 2005. It didn't take long before she was hooked. She won the Ontario novice herding championship in 2008, after just two years of training with her dog Hannah, and together they went on to become an Open level team while simultaneously competing in agility to the Masters level and qualifying for the AAC Canadian Nationals. Today she runs a working mixed livestock farm, with sheep, goats, horses, and poultry, and works full-time as a dog sport coach, specializing in R+ herding, troubleshooting sport problems, and handler mindset coaching.

Hi Helene, welcome back to the podcast!

Helene Lawler: Hi Melissa. Thank you for having me here. I'm really excited to be back.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, do you want to share a little about your own dogs and what you're working on with them?

Helene Lawler: Sure. Right now I have a handful of dogs. I have eight Border Collies, ranging from the youngest would be 2 through 14-and-a-half. I have a 10-year-old Kelpie and two Maremmano livestock guardian dogs. And I also currently have seven puppies who are all Border Collies. I have two that are 4 months old and five that are 3 weeks old.

So I've been working a lot, been really focusing a lot on upping my game with herding for this season. That's been a big focus for me. I've been doing a lot of work with that. But we've hit this major heat wave in the last few weeks. It was 40 degrees at 8 o'clock in the morning, which is 100 Fahrenheit. It makes it pretty much impossible to do any herding training, and this has been going on for a week. So I switched gears and welcomed the opportunity to focus on patching up holes in my foundation training, which is a lifelong project, as anyone who's tried to do that knows, and learning a lot about fitness now, which is super-fun.

And then also just having fun with my dogs, putting two or three in the car and driving to the swimming hole and swimming with them, things like that, that I haven't done in a very long time. So getting back to the joy of having dogs, rather than it being all about training and competing and stuff like that. So that's actually been some very good times despite the heat.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. I invited you on today because I want to talk about sensitive dogs. To start us out, what IS a sensitive dog? What are we talking about here?

Helene Lawler: That's a great question. In my humble opinion, all dogs are sensitive dogs. They're all born very sensitive, and they learn how to function in the world, and they learn how to predict how their behavior is going to impact them as they go through life. When they have affirmative confidence that their own behavior is going to result in good things, a lot of that sensitivity starts to fade in the sense of how we perceive them as being sensitive.

When I say a sensitive dog in terms of the teams that I work with, I'm talking about a dog who has big feelings about what's going on around them. They'll have what we consider exaggerated responses. So basically, in a nutshell, we can say that a sensitive dog is a dog who makes what we would consider a big deal out of something that we think shouldn't be a big deal. Of course, from the dog's perspective it's very different.

I work with people who have dogs who can't accomplish things they want to do with their dogs, be that getting titles, or training sports, or even just going about their daily life and enjoying their life with their dog as a companion, because of the dog's inability to cope with the environment or the training or the learning.

What we end up seeing are dogs who typically … I would consider a dog who stresses up and shows big arousal, what we typically in the sports world see as high arousal issues, I would say those dogs are sensitive as well. But when I talk about a sensitive dog, most people take that as being a dog who will shut down, who will freeze, who will quit, who will melt like butter on a hot day when you're trying to train or bring them into a new environment or do things with them.

When I say sensitive dog, I differentiate a little bit between sensitive dogs and worked-up dogs in that sense. Worked-up dogs are the ones that have what we would call high stress: barking, lunging, reactivity in an outward burst. What we would put in the sensitive dog bucket would be the dog that does the opposite: shuts down, quits, freezes, or runs away.

Melissa Breau: If we're working with one of those dogs, what can we do to help them bring out their best side?

Helene Lawler: That's a great question. I love working with sensitive dogs because they give us this fantastic opportunity to hone our own skills in training and become more aware of ourselves and of our dogs and of the environment. You have to up your game across the board and it's a wonderful opportunity to do that.

I have a five-pronged approach that I take to working with sensitive dogs that I have honed because I have a house full of them. I sat down and broke down what are my different strategies. I have basically five strategies.

The first one is working on myself and my own mindset and how I perceive the situation and understand the situation. That's really, really important.

I then look at arousal issues with the dog and try and figure out what is triggering their arousal. I look for poisoned cues, which play a huge role in the reactions that sensitive dogs have, specifically to training but also to the environment. I then want to build in consent and choice. And then finally, if there are situations where I can't use any of the above strategies to manage the situation, I work on management. Sometimes you just have to put your head down and through. So I have management strategies as well.

To recap, it's mindset, arousal, poisoned cues, consent and choice, and management strategies.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I've got a couple of questions here on each of those. I want to start with arousal, because that's the popular buzzword these days. What role does arousal play when we're talking about training or living with one of these dogs?

Helene Lawler: Arousal is really, really important to understand how it works when working with a sensitive dog, because a lot of people misunderstand what they're seeing in their dog's reactions.

So, very briefly, there's a relationship between arousal and performance. As arousal goes up, you're going to see performance improve to a certain point. And then, as arousal continues to go up, you're going to see performance decrease. That decrease in performance is a cue to us that we've gone too high into arousal.

It's very obvious when that happens when you have a worked-up dog, because the dog will start to get bark-y, lunge-y, spin-y, crash through jumps, go off course, lose what they're doing and get over…. We see these big responses.

But with a sensitive dog, what we see are dogs who start to shut down and quit or freeze. What ends up happening is this is often misinterpreted as being in low arousal. A lot of people will then think that the answer to a dog that is shutting down is to try and jack them up some more. I see that all the time. I've done it myself before I understood this. You start trying to get them jacked up more and more and more, and the dog just shuts down and quits and then will leave.

What's important to understand is when arousal goes up, you have the fight or flight response. That's what we see in the worked-up dogs. You have the fight response, the bark-y, lunge-y, reactivity. We might see the flight response, where they're getting the zoomies or they might run out of the ring. But we also have the freeze response. That is the highest end of arousal is when the dog freezes, and that is often misinterpreted for low arousal, and then we handle it wrong.

So that's why it's really important to understand the difference, that what we're looking at in a sensitive dog who's shutting down and quitting is they are in a freeze response of high arousal, not a low arousal situation. So to handle that is going to be a very different approach than if the dog was in a low arousal situation, which would be they're sleeping or chilling out or just not that interested. That's the difference, and in a dog like that, you would want to increase their arousal level. But in a sensitive dog who's frozen, we absolutely want to reduce arousal, not increase it.

Melissa Breau: Interesting. I'm trying to picture the chart. You're describing a typical bell curve, right? It starts low, then it goes up, and then it goes back down.

Helene Lawler: Yes, exactly. The Yerkes-Dodson Law. If anyone's familiar with that, that's what I'm talking about.

Melissa Breau: And then arousal is along the bottom axis, right?

Helene Lawler: Correct.

Melissa Breau: What's on the other one?

Helene Lawler: Performance.

Melissa Breau: It's performance and arousal, and as arousal goes up, we go slowly up, and then we peak, and then we go back down in terms of performance.

Helene Lawler: There's an optimal level of arousal that we want for performance, and that optimal arousal is way lower than most people think, which is a whole other discussion. I have a six-week course where that's all I talk about, because there's a lot to dig into there.

But yeah, we have this window of optimal arousal that is actually relatively close to neutral. Most of us think we need to be operating at high arousal, and we don't, and that's where we end up with a lot of problems, both with the worked-up dogs and with the sensitive dogs.

Melissa Breau: One of the other factors that you mentioned in your five-step approach was poisoned cues, so I want to talk about that too. I'd imagine that it's probably much easier to accidentally poison a cue with a dog who is a little more sensitive — and that's probably true both for what people typically think of as a cue, like a verbal sit or down, as it is for an environmental cue, where the dog becomes anxious about places or spaces. Can you talk about that a bit? Maybe start with how do you define a poisoned cue.

Helene Lawler: Absolutely. First of all, I love that you highlighted that cues are not just verbal, because we often think of a cue as a word that comes out of our mouth, but cues can be all sorts of things. Cues can be a specific environment, it can be a person, it can be the clothing we wear, it could be the way we stand, it could be a piece of training equipment, it could be the time of day, it's so multi-faceted. So we have to be aware of all these different things. They're basically signals to our dogs that help them predict what's going to come next.

We also need to differentiate between a cue in the positive dog-training world is something that predicts a positive reinforcement coming, and so it predicts a good thing. A command, if we're giving commands, which that would be the more traditional term, a command is something that predicts that you're going to get in trouble if you don't do something. So it's about the language differentiation here.

If you give your dog a cue, for example, I would say "sit" as a cue, that means you have an opportunity to earn a cookie. That's your positive reinforcement. So in that term the word sit is a cue. If I'm using sit as a command, that would be you better sit or you're going to be in trouble. So the dog is sitting to avoid being in trouble, as opposed to earning a cookie. That's the difference between a cue and a command. Cue is earn the cookie, command is avoid getting in trouble for not doing the thing.

A poisoned cue is a discriminative stimulus — a cue — a signal to the dog that is both a command and a cue. For example, if you say "sit" to your dog, and if the dog sits, it gets a cookie, but if it doesn't sit, you're going to push its bum down, which the dog doesn't enjoy — some dogs don't care, but let's say you've got a sensitive dog who doesn't like that — then the word sit starts to give them some anxiety, especially if they don't have clarity over what the word means when you're first teaching it.

The dog is like, "Oh, sit. What did that mean again?" and all of a sudden your hand goes on the back and pushes their bum down, which we don't think is a big deal. I don't know about you, but I trained that. That was the way you taught dogs when I started out. Then that word starts to get scary and then the dog starts to freeze. So that's how we physically end up creating poisoned cues.

A very simple example that I think many of us can relate to is the phone ringing. I know this was more of an issue before we had call displays, but let's say your phone rings, your phone buzzes, it's an unknown number, and there's a call block. The discriminative signal, the cue, is the phone is ringing. You look at that phone and you're like, "If I answer that phone, is it going to be someone I want to talk to, or is it a bill collector?" If you don't worry about bill collectors, if you don't have any, or you don't worry about telemarketers or whatever, and it doesn't bother you, then you answer the phone.

But if you're somebody who worries that maybe it's a person you don't want to hear from or whatever, if you don't know, if you think it's possible that there's going to be bad news on that phone, then you start to feel this sort of angst, and you're going to sit there and look at your phone and you're not going to do anything. So the ringing of the phone has become a poisoned cue. And that can generalize — maybe some people can relate to this — that can generalize to the phone becoming a poisoned cue and you don't even want to look at your phone anytime it rings.

So it's really easy to generalize and spread throughout training. There are lots and lots of examples in our dog training. I can offer a few, if you'd like me to, to give more clarity on poisoned cues.

Melissa Breau: I'd love another example, but before you jump into that, I think the phone example is so illustrative because I think most people can empathize with that. I think there are a lot of people out there who hear their phone ringing, especially in today's world, where so many people text or message or something else, it's very easy for an actual ringing phone call to become a telemarketer or spam or a bill collector, and for that association to form, and then suddenly you don't want to answer phone calls.

Again, that's not something where something super-bad is happening. It's not like somebody shocking you every time you answer the phone. It's not like you're experiencing physical pain every time somebody answers the phone. It's just a bad feeling.

And so I like that. It's a good reminder that sometimes it's not that pushing your dog's bum down is the worst thing in the world. It's that for that dog it's not a pleasant experience.

Helene Lawler: Exactly, and then you start to associate that. I don't know how many people I know who say, "I hate talking on the phone. Don't call me. Text me or message me. Don't call me. I hate the phone." So that's an example I think that many of us can relate to.

Melissa Breau: Did you want to give us just one more dog example? Just because I think it's really helpful?

Helene Lawler: Yeah. There's lots of examples in the dog world. I see it all the time. I think one that many of us who do agility can relate to is teaching start line stays.

A lot of what I have witnessed, and what I have done myself, for teaching a start line stay — a little bit; I generally approach them differently, so that's a whole different discussion — but I have tried this and it didn't work. I didn't even realize it was a poisoned cue. I just found other ways that worked and so that's why I do them, but looking back, I now know.

So you have your dog out in a start line stay in front of a jump, and then you try to set the dog up to break their stay. You have a toy out, and if the dog breaks the stay, you dive forward and grab the toy so they can't get it, and so the dog loses their reinforcer because they broke the stay.

A lot of dogs don't understand the association between their movement and losing the toy, and so they don't know how to earn that cookie. And they're afraid that if they do something wrong, they're going to lose their cookie or their toy or whatever. So then we end up with dogs who starts to freeze at the start line, and then you release them and they're like, "Uh-uh, not moving," because they're like, "I don't know what to do."

And we don't understand that that's what's going on for them, and then we have to try to get them aroused, and we start doing arousal stuff to try and get them more excited, and the dog just shrinks more and more and the whole going to the start line, the dog doesn't even want to go there.

So we start off with the training creating a poisoned cue, and then the going to the start line gets poisoned, and then you end up with dogs who just don't want to run. So that can be a big problem. I think that's a very common poisoned cue that people don't recognize as a poisoned cue.

Melissa Breau: How can people actually tell? You're looking at something like that behavior, or you have a behavior where the dog's not doing what you want them to do. How can you tell if it's a poisoned cue or if there's something else going on? And if we decide that it is a poisoned cue, what can we do about it?

Helene Lawler: If it's a poisoned cue, it can be a little tricky to identify. A lot of times it's not even on our radar, so once you have it on your radar, you're going to start seeing poisoned cues all over the place. But we'll typically see a stress response to the cue.

For example, if I say "sit," and my dog is standing and doesn't move, and maybe looks away, or starts sniffing the ground, or licks their lips, or shuffles their feet, or wanders off, or goes into their crate, all of those things, any kind of avoidance or freeze or stress response, then we have to go, "Hmm. Maybe there's a poisoned cue here."

So you sometimes have to do a bit of sleuthing and you watch the dog's response. If you see a freeze response or a stress response to the cue — and the cue can be verbal, or the cue can be the environment, or the cue can be the equipment, and all the things we already mentioned — you have to break that down and figure it out.

So often you have to do a bit of triage. For example, if I'm in my training center and I ask my dog to sit and I get a stress response, do I get that stress response in my kitchen? Do I get that stress response in the yard? If the answer is no, but I get the stress response in the training hall, then the training hall context is what I need to be looking at. It's not the word sit that's causing the stress. It's "sit" in the training hall.

You have to do a little onion-layer peeling to figure out what the actual stress response is, so it can get a little bit tricky. But just being aware of the fact that when you see stress responses, it's a signal that you have a poisoned cue that you want to work with, then you have to do the triage to figure out what part of this whole complex antecedent arrangement that you're providing for the dog is the part that's poisoned.

Sometimes it can just be the word, and if it's just the word, you can retrain them using a different word, and that's the simplest thing that you can do.

If it's the context, then there's more work to be done, and we can talk more about that when we get into the consent and choice stuff.

And then sometimes we need to retrain using much cleaner training strategies and clearer communication with our dogs so they understand. Often, in that case, if you retrain using clearer communication and better mechanics and all of that, and a new word, you can work through it pretty quickly. I had a student recently who changed the word and just did one session of the same exact training with cleaner mechanics and a different word and they had the behavior, no problem. So sometimes it can be super, super easy to fix, and sometimes it can be much more complicated.

Melissa Breau: You teased the idea of consent and control in there, so I want to talk about that next. Can you share a bit about the role that those things play when you're working with a sensitive dog?

Helen Lawler: Absolutely. When things are complicated, if it's the context, I'll give the example of my wonderful Aoife, who is a beautiful, talented sheepdog who has amazing abilities to read sheep. She's incredibly sensitive, which made going through life challenging for her as a youngster. Now that she's older, she's a lot better, but as a young pup, she was sensitive to everything, and the biggest challenge I had with her, and there were many, was having her come through doorways.

Changing the verbal cue didn't make any difference because it wasn't the verbal cue that was the problem; it was actual doorways. And so how do I get the dog to come into the house when doorways are poisoned? Doorways got poisoned because, unbeknownst to me, I would call her in and one of my dogs would be behind me, giving her the death stare, as Border Collies do with their telepathy, and so she became very worried about coming through doorways. So what do you do when you have a dog that's afraid of a physical structure you can't change?

What I had to do with her was build in consent to give her control of the doorway, because she felt she didn't have control. I don't know what she felt. I am projecting onto her. Reading her body language and her reactions, she was afraid to come in the doorway, presumably because she felt that the other dog was controlling the door, and that if she came in, she was at risk of getting more Vulcan death stares from the other dogs. They didn't fight or beat her up or anything, but that was all it took was the pressure for her.

For me, it's no big deal. She's staring at you. Get over it. That would be a typical response. But for Aoife it's a huge deal, a huge deal, and I had to respect that. So I had to give her control over the door, which I built this whole consent protocol where I wouldn't even touch the door to close it until she came in and gave me her signal that she was comfortable in the house. Until that point, the door stayed open.

She comes and goes in and out of the house all the time with the door open, and when she feels comfortable, she comes and sits in front of me and goes into a sit, like a front position. When her bum goes on the ground, that's her telling me, "OK, you can close the door now," and then I reach over and close the door.

So I had to work through this whole protocol with her to first of all explain to her that that would be the case, that she had control, and then figure out how she could communicate to me when she was comfortable. That took a little bit of figuring out, but now we have a really nice routine and she's three and I would say 80 percent of the time comes through the door without having to go through that, and sometimes we still need it. She gets to decide. She lets me know by she pokes her head into the doorway and stands there and looks at me like, "Mama, get out the cheese. I need some help."

One of the things that I had to do while I figured this out, and to develop this and train her with this, we had this training, she and I worked it out together. And I think that's one of the things that's really exciting about consent work is that the dog really is a partner. It was very much a two-way street. I didn't really know how to even approach it. I went back and forth until we figured out a system.

But while I did that, I had to completely change the context of having her come in the house. What I ended up doing was opening a window on my ground floor and putting a big crate outside of it so she could jump up on the crate into the window, because the windows weren't poisoned, and she could come into a room where there weren't any other dogs, so that's how I got her into and out of the house while I worked through the problem.

We'll talk a little more about management strategies. Sometimes you have to just manage things, like, OK, I let the dog in through the window. As unorthodox as that is, that's what she needs for a little bit while we figure out this consent and choice protocol.

Melissa Breau: Since we're getting there anyway, let's talk about that more. Let's talk about those cases where you can't give the dogs a choice. Go for it.

Helene Lawler: I just want to quickly wrap up the reasons why consent and choice works for sensitive dogs, but for curing poisoned cues. It's because the whole reason that a cue becomes poisoned is because the dog doesn't know how her own behavior is going to affect her. She doesn't know if I do act, is something good going to happen or is something bad going to happen. They don't feel they have any control over the outcome.

If you think about it, if you were lying in bed in the morning and you got up, when we stand up and we put our feet on the ground, we know gravity is going to hold us to the ground. We don't even think about it. But if gravity wasn't predictable, if we didn't know, like, if I put my feet on the ground, am I going to get sucked upside-down and stuck to the ceiling? That's an extreme example, but there's so much about our daily life that we just know how our own behavior is going to affect us. But when we don't know the outcome, that's what creates the poisoned cue.

So when we give our dogs these consent protocols where they can take back the control, that's how we get through the poisoned cue. If it's just a matter of giving them a new word, then that's a really easy thing to teach. But if the context is the cue is poisoned, then giving the dog control over how they can behave and what the outcome is going to be, that will cure the poisoned cue so you can get the dog to involve themselves in things that originally felt scary when they didn't feel they had any control.

Husbandry is a fantastic example of that: holding out their foot to have their nails trimmed and then pulling their foot away when they want it to stop. If I had a button to tell my dentist when to stop drilling, I'd be a lot more confident about going to the dentist. So that's the whole idea about why giving them consent and choice will fix poisoned cues.

Now there are times when we cannot do that. Aoife, for example, hates going in the car. That's something I'm working on now that it's hot and I can take her to the swimming hole, so that's going to hopefully help go a long way. But I've got a protocol to get her in and out of the car where she has total choice and consent.

But there are times when she just has to get in the car. What I do in that situation is I make sure that it looks so much different from our consent context that it's a whole different scenario for her.

I'll give you an example. To get her to get in the car, I let her out of the house off leash, I'll have cookies and a clicker, I'll go over to the car, I'll open the door, I'll sit on the ground, and we play jump in and out of the car games. She gets to choose. I'm working on a signal where she can tell me, "Yes, I'm ready," and she'll jump in and "Yes, you can close the crate door," and "Yes, you can close the car door." That's our consent protocol.

When I'm going to take her to the swimming hole, I work on it to the point where she's going to get in the car voluntarily, and then I'm going to be able to close everything and drive there.

She can either miss out on swimming or let's say I have to take her to the vet or something like that. In that case, what I do is my whole approach is completely different. We start in the house, I put a collar and leash on her, which she never wears going out of the house because I live on a farm and she's got lots of acreage. So the collar and leash immediately tell her that something different is happening. And then I pick her up and I walk straight to the car and I put her in a crate and I close the crate door. So it's completely different to her and that doesn't end up poisoning my consent protocol.

Eventually, just like having her go in and out of the window until a door protocol was really working well, I'm doing the same thing with the car protocol. So if I need her in the car, collar and leash in the house, pick her up, carry her out to the car, boom, done.

Eventually, when I can get her to load up and we can close doors and leave, then I won't do that anymore. Or I might always maintain that in my back pocket if there's an emergency situation where I think she's going to give me trouble and I don't have time for it. And we'll just keep that. Let's say I have a fire on the property and we need to get out instantly, there will be no consent protocol. We'll just scoop up the dogs and stuff them in a box.

But as long as I have time, I want to do the consent protocol. But right now it's not functional, so I will never use it if I'm going to try and put her in the car and drive away.

Melissa Breau: If she doesn't have a choice, you're not going to ask.

Helene Lawler: Exactly. Exactly.

Melissa Breau: We've been talking about consent, but I know I definitely heard the advice for dogs who are less sure about the world around them that it's important to "provide structure." I'm curious how that meets up with, or what role, if any, that plays with or instead of or whatever in terms of your approach to working with sensitive dogs.

Helene Lawler: That's a great question. I'm going to say that's one of those art of training situations. My general approach to that is that I want to use consent and choice wherever I can use consent and choice and see improvement in my dog. There have been times when just being like, "No, you're just going to do this; we're going to get this done and do it now," like when I pick her up and carry her out to the car and pop her in the crate, she's fine.

Now if I did that and she was having a total nervous breakdown, that would be a big problem, if I saw her stress responses go through the ceiling. Similarly, I can pick her up outside and carry her in the house. That's another way, when I didn't want to bring her in through the window. I would just recall her to me with a leash in hand, so she knew what was going to happen next so it wasn't a surprise — then I would poison my recall — hold up the leash, call her to me, put it on, pick her up, carry her in the house. And as soon as I picked her up, she'd just relax. She'd be like, "OK, no problem." She knew that if I was carrying her into the house, she was safe and nobody would be giving her a death stare.

In that sense, giving that "You don't have a choice in this situation, but I'm going to keep you safe," I think that's what's really important. If they feel unsafe, we're going to have fallout, so we really always have to keep them feeling safe.

So we can provide structure. Structure and routine is really, really important. My dogs have a very steady routine every day, and they have lots of exercise, and they have structure, and they have their crates. I think routine is another way of looking at structure. Maybe it's a slightly better way to frame it is to have a really good, predictable routine.

Again, what sensitive dogs need is predictability. They need to be able to predict what's happening, and what they tend to do, they're really, really, really good at predicting. That's what makes them sensitive is they are very, very good at predicting. They can predict when something good is going to happen, they can predict when something bad is going to happen.

You know how you have the dog that can tell the difference between what shoes you put on, like if you're going for a hike or if you're leaving to go to work. A sensitive dog will know first thing in the morning when you wake up what clothes you put on long before you get to the door to go out. They're really good at predicting. It's like, "Oh, dress slacks. Boring day." "Yoga pants, woo."

So when you want to provide structure for your dog, you have to make sure that that structure or that routine is going to be helping them feel safe and feel like good things are coming. That's the line to walk. If you want to provide structure for them, or a really good routine, it has to be all things that are predicting positive outcomes for your dog.

If it's something that's going to end up with a negative outcome, like taking the dog to the vet and they don't like going to the vet and you don't have time to go through all the protocols, you have to break that out of your routine so you don't end up poisoning your routine. You have to make things look different enough. I think that's really important to become aware of.

Right at the start, we have to become so much more aware of what we do and our environment and all those things, because these dogs are masterful at predicting and generalizing, and they've very, very good and quick at it. So we have to become as aware as they are of how things work. And that is an incredible gift. It doesn't always feel that way, but it really is.

Melissa Breau: Talking about it doesn't always feel that way.

Helene Lawler: Right.

Melissa Breau: Working with a sensitive dog can often be hard on the handler too. It can sometimes be easy to feel frustrated or feel like giving up, those kinds of things. What role can handler mindset play in being successful with these dogs?

Helene Lawler: Great question. As I said, working with them is a gift, but it doesn't always feel that way. So working on our mindset so that we can see it as a gift is game-changing.

Seeing it as a way to improve our skills, a way to … anybody who's feeling upset or stressed or frustrated by their sensitive dog's behavior feels that way because they really care. They really care a lot, they love their dog, they love training, it really matters, it's an important thing to them.

People who don't care aren't going to be bothered by it, so that's not who we're talking about. It's for those who really care deeply.

It's very natural to have big feelings about our dogs when they're not performing the way we want. And one of the things that's really common that we tend to do is we tend to make it about us, like, "I failed my dog somehow." Even the language of "I created a poisoned cue. It's my fault."

We need to work on our mindset to be able to detach ourselves from the dog, so that we recognize that this is not our fault, we are not bad, we are not failures. Our dog is not trying to punish us, our dog doesn't hate us, our dog isn't angry or frustrated with us. It's just the dog is trying to communicate with us, and we're trying to communicate to our dogs, and there's a huge communication breakdown.

And so if we can work on our mindset to be able to get to a place where we feel neutral about our dog's behavior so that we can look at it objectively, instead of going, "Oh my god, my dog had a meltdown," or "My dog hates doing X." I'll stick with agility. Your dog melts down and doesn't want to go to the start line because you've created a poisoned cue and you don't realize it, you may think, "My dog hates agility," or "My dog hates working with me."

We do all this analysis around what our dog is thinking of us, or what it means about us. "I'm a failure as a trainer. I can't train this dog. I've got this beautiful dog. I can't train it. I must suck." None of this is true, and that's where we have to work on our mindset and just be like, "My dog is behaving, and all behavior is modifiable."

We need to work on our mindset to get into this very neutral place where we can go, This is just behavior, and all behavior is modifiable. And so what I need is just to better understand the behavior, come up with a good training protocol, and solve this problem. The result is I'm going to have a stronger relationship with my dog, I'm going to become a better trainer, this is going to come with me to wherever I go, everything that I learn, I'm going to be able to apply it in all these new scenarios, this is a gift. That's the mindset shift we need to make.

And so that's definitely a huge component of the work that I do with people who come to me with these issues. It's fundamental to make that shift, because I think if you don't have that mindset, it's very, very hard to find the motivation to do the work and to stay open enough to see all the reasons why what's going on is going on.

Melissa Breau: Your class on all this is on the schedule for August, so it's coming up. Looking ahead, who should really take the class? Are there any skills handlers or dogs need before they sign up?

Helene Lawler: Great question. Who should sign up. I think people who are struggling with dogs that fall into the description of sensitive dogs that I have described.

It's also appropriate for dogs that are worked up, but there are courses out there that are more focused straight on those, on those types of dogs, but I certainly would welcome somebody who has dogs that have stress high responses as well as stress low responses. But basically dogs who are showing signs of poisoned cues, who are showing that shutdown, that freeze, to their training scenarios.

One of the things that I do want to make clear: A lot of dogs have noise sensitivities, but we're not going to be doing noise sensitivity protocols. Amy Cook does fantastic work around that. There are other great resources for that. A lot of sensitive dogs do have noise sensitivities because they're sensitive to everything, and that's not something we're going to be working on, so I want to make sure that that's clear.

We're going to be focused on the training side of things, so the mindset, and then looking through the arousal, the poisoned cues, consent, and then management strategies. So I'm looking to help people who have dogs that are struggling to function to do the things they want to do with them.

Again, also, I'm not going to get into medical treatments and stuff like that. I'm not qualified, and that's also not what we'll be doing. It's going to be people who are looking for training solutions to the situation that they're in with the dog, so that they can achieve their goals with their dogs.

As for skills that people need, just a basic understanding of positive-reinforcement-based training and an open mind and a desire to be in a stronger working relationship with their dog. Just openness to being coached and a desire to come at things with a little bit of a different mindset, and they'll be good to go.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. One last question, the question I usually ask people at the end. What's something that you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Helene Lawler: I'm going to answer two things. The first one is super-quick, and that's that I've been doing fitness training with my dogs, and that was triggered by my Hannah, who is 14-and-a-half now, and who's been retired since she was 8 due to injury, and so I haven't done any training with her in a very long time in any formal sense.

She threw out her back, I thought it was a stroke, she ended up with chiropractic adjustment and acupuncture, it fixed her instantly overnight, and it scared me. So I've hired a coach to work with me on fitness training, and old dogs can absolutely learn new tricks. So that's one of them. We're having so much fun together and she's learning all sorts of new things at 14-and-a-half years old and it's super-fun. So old dogs can absolutely learn new tricks. That's a big one.

The one that I think is more relevant to our discussion right now is that we don't get the dog we want; we get the dog we need. I really believe that. Maybe it sounds a little bit woo, but I really believe that.

I've been recently reminded of that because of, as I mentioned earlier, I have two 4-month-old puppies, and one of them isn't supposed to be here, Phoenix. He was supposed to be sold, and at 7 weeks — I whelped his litter — and he started showing behaviors that immediately made it clear that he wasn't a fit for where he was going to go, and it also made me worry that he might have some problems that I want to keep a close eye on before I place him anywhere.

And so I now have this puppy that I wasn't planning on, who is an intense car herder, he's got arousal issues, it takes almost nothing for him, he trips over his own feet and gets an arousal spike and turns around and jumps up and nails me in the thigh, he's got some reactive dog behavior, so he's got lots of stuff going on. I've actually decided I'm not even trying to find him a home right now. I've got to work through these behaviors with him. I feel like I need to feel super-confident about his ability to function in the world before he ever leaves my hands, which maybe he might never leave. We'll see.

So anyway, I didn't sign up for this. This is not what I signed up for, and I had to do a little mindset work on myself, because I have been very fortunate for quite a while now that I've had multiple easy dogs.

Aoife was the last one that came into my life three years ago who I was like, "You are not what I signed up for." I imported her from Ireland, and I had all these ideas about what I was going to be doing with her, and bringing her in through the window and working on door consent protocols was not in the book.

Right now, dealing with Phoenix, dealing with a 4-month-old puppy who nails my legs on a regular basis and chases cars and barks at all the things was not what I signed up for. And so my mindset shift is like, look at this fantastic opportunity for me to learn new things. This puppy is here to teach me new things. I don't even have to coach myself on it. I really strongly believe that.

As soon as I started seeing all that stuff, one of the reasons I decided to keep him was, oh, this puppy is really interesting, and apparently I have some lessons I need to learn. I'm ready. I've been focused on teaching and helping other people for a while. Now it's time for me to get some… learn some lessons. So that's how I approach when I get a dog that is not what I expect. And I want to really encourage all the wonderful listeners who have sensitive dogs, who are feeling frustrated. Again, it's a gift. It really is. And if you can see it as a gift — you get the dog you need — and let that dog teach you, then you're going to go amazing places. So I'm grateful to Phoenix for reminding me of that again, and I'm really excited about where he and I are going to go together.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, and listeners don't know this, but we scheduled at the last minute, so I appreciate that too.

Helene Lawler: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Sara Brueske to talk about mondioring.

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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