E177: Heather Lawson - "Life Skills for Performance Dogs"

The amount of time we spend in the competition ring pales to the time we spend living life with our dogs — so don't forget to work those important life skills with your performance 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 Heather Lawson.

Heather is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA-CTP), a CGN Evaluator and a Free-style judge. She has been training dogs and their humans for more than 20 years, after deciding that the corporate world just wasn't cutting it anymore.

She is the owner of dogWISE Training & Behaviour Center Inc., where she teaches group classes for companion pets, competitive obedience, and rally, in addition to providing behaviour consults and private lessons.

Hi Heather, welcome back to the podcast!

Heather Lawson: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me. It's always good to be here and talking to you. I miss talking to people so much in person because of the current situation, so it's nice to make contact this way.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, absolutely. To start us out, can you just refresh our folks' memories and tell us a little bit about your dogs and what you're working on with them?

Heather Lawson: OK. My breed of choice, which has been my breed of choice pretty much all my life, is the German Shepherd.

I'm currently down to two dogs: Tag, who is 14 years old, and at the ripe old age of 14, he's perfecting his skills as a couch potato, and that's perfectly OK because he's done his stuff. He's been my partner for 14 years, and whatever goes. Whatever is in his wheelhouse at the moment, that's what he gets, and I'm fine with that. I'm just glad that I've got him around still.

Piper is the second dog that I have. She's 5 years old, and we're working on perfecting her precision skills in regards to obedience, rally, and just having fun doing games and things like that. Because of the current situation, obviously, with the pandemic going on, all competitive stuff has pretty much come to a halt, so I'm taking that time to give her a break, as well as me, and just work on the little things and have fun with developing the precision.

Melissa Breau: I know you've got a couple of things coming up at FDSA, so I'm hoping we can talk about a couple of pieces today. I want to start with the life skills class you have on the schedule. I think a lot of people think sports dog handlers teach their dogs all kinds of fancy things, so they just assume those handlers also know how to teach life skills. But I think often that's not the case. What led you to develop the life skills class?

Heather Lawson: That's definitely not the case, because most people concentrate, when they get that sport puppy, they want to start out and do all their sports and everything, and they forget about the fact that they still have to live with the dog. They still have to have a regular everyday life. Even though you're going to be doing sports and so forth, you still have to consider what's the dog going to be like once the sports are finished, when they're retired. So my focus is on those life skills.

When I get a new puppy, I'm not really focusing too much on the sport that I'm going to do with them. I do obviously the basics and so forth, but I need to get that puppy up and running so that they learn to be quiet, they learn to chill out, they learn to basically do nothing.

I think that's the biggest problem sometimes is we forget to teach our puppies to do nothing and to behave well. They're kind of like kids, seen but not heard, and I think a lot of dog sport people put up with a lot of stuff because they're so busy. They're like the overscheduling parent — they're running from class to class to class, sport to sport to sport.

They deal with it in the moment, and when things calm down they go, "Oh my God, I'm getting dragged here and there. I can't do anything, I can't go anywhere, I can't leave the dog alone, they're tearing things apart. I can't sit down and watch a movie, the dog's in my face wanting to do things." That's where life skills happen.

Also, too, I hope to get some other people in there who hadn't maybe considered dog sports, but were pet people, and maybe we could drag them into the sport arena. By providing the life skills, it also helps those people who have reactive dogs that still need to get out and work and be among the community, but need some help doing those kind of things.

Also, too, for me, the life skills thing came to light years and years and years ago. This will probably come into something we'll discuss a little bit later. I was at a trial, and luckily I'd done all my pre-work with my dog. Also I had this elevator that we had to go in, and I realized she'd never been in an elevator before. Uh-oh. We took a lot of stairs that weekend because I couldn't have her freaked out over that.

That put that in the back of my mind and got me started on things. Now I delve deeply into doing all the life skills, all the things I might encounter if I was out doing sports and doing things and traveling, doing all that kind of stuff, so that my dog doesn't have to stress about the unknown or the new when she's in that sport mode.

Melissa Breau: I love that look at it, because I think a lot of people underestimate the importance of making sure that the dog is comfortable with all the aspects of travel, and the other things that happen when you travel to a competition, like the elevator thing that you shared. What they don't realize is that it will all affect their performance, because even if the dog is well trained for the ring, if you have all of this stressful stuff that happens before you go in the ring, the dog is just not going to be their best self in that ring.

Heather Lawson: Oh, absolutely, and it makes a huge difference. So teaching younger dogs that I had would go with me to trials, they would learn to chill out in the crates, they would have different people interacting with them, they would go to the hotel.

I started really young, making sure they're potty-trained first, because it's not fun in a hotel room when you don't have a potty-trained puppy. But you travel with them all over the place and you get them comfortable with those situations so that when they're there, it's the same old same old. I don't have to worry about that, I don't have to scream my head off, I don't have to get over-excited about it. I can handle it, I can take it in stride.

Anything that a breeder does with their puppies in getting them ready to go to their new home, I carried on and kept it going and growing. That way, my dogs would never stress on the weekends if I was trialing. It was just, OK, let's go. Whereas some of my friends, their dogs would be stressing, they wouldn't eat, they'd get diarrhea, they'd get all those different things that come with stress. I didn't ever have that problem, and this is why. This is what happened.

Melissa Breau: At least as much as possible you're doing the preventative work.

Heather Lawson: Exactly. There's going to be situations such as that elevator. There's also another one I'll tell you about a little bit later, once we do the elevator. I ran into the same situation with Piper as a young puppy when we were at the beach in Victoria.

With certain things that come up, you can't prepare for everything, but if they've been exposed to a lot of different things, like sirens, what happens if the siren goes off, or the alarm goes off in the hotel? That freaks some dogs out completely. You've got to start working on all those types of different things so that your dog can handle it and it's not an additional stress.

It's kind of like preparing your dog for crating. People are a little bit sometimes hesitant, pet people, to crate. And I think, number one, when you go out, it's a safe bucket for your dog in there while you're not present. Another thing, too, is that if you have to travel, your dog has to be comfortable in that crate. If you have a natural disaster, your dog has to be comfortable in that crate. If, say, for instance, they have to go to the veterinarian and they have to stay overnight, they need to be comfortable in that crate. That's why crate training is valuable. You prepare and see how many different ways you can apply the different types of skills that you're teaching the dog.

The same thing goes with settling. If your dog can settle nicely at home while you're watching a movie, they're laying on their mat and you're doing that chuck of the popcorn to keep them there, or they've got a bully stick and they're chilling out, that chilling out can be taken to the back patio, it can be taken to a friend's place, it can be taken to the coffee shop. It can then be taken to the trial environment, and your dog is going to be easy and able to settle and therefore calm in that environment.

Melissa Breau: I don't know about you, but I know personally one of the life skills I find most difficult skills to teach sports dogs is loose leash walking. I find it even more difficult than some of their sport-specific precision skills sometimes. Can you talk a little bit about the approach that you use?

Heather Lawson: Oh yeah. Loose leash walking — everybody's nemesis. I think everybody has a particular vision in their head about what loose leash walking is. For me, there's three different types of walking.

I have the adventure walk, where it's a leisure walk. You can go anywhere you want, you can go to the end of the leash, it doesn't matter. Just don't pull me. You can sniff, you can do whatever, we're walking, we're just strolling along, you're sniffing and having a good time seeing who was here last.

The other type is loose leash walking. We're walking down the street and we're going from Point A to Point B. Don't pull me. You can stop and take a sniff, but I prefer you don't. Say you're walking down a busy street, storefronts, people are coming and going, you want a dog that's walking nicely but not on a tight lead.

And then of course there's our heeling that is our specific heads up, pretty stuff, that everybody sees in the ring.

The biggest problem with loose leash walking is that people think that there's one method, and there really isn't one method. It's always going to be a combination of methods, and they also aren't clear in their criteria and they're not consistent.

Basically it's the human end of the leash that's the problem. It's not the dog. The dog is just doing his thing. But if you don't tell him what to do when, and how you do it, they're going to continue to pull and you're going to get in that spiral circle it's out there, don't pull me, out there, don't pull me, back and forth, back and forth.

It gets hard on the back, gets hard on the shoulders, hard on the elbows, and then the dog doesn't get walked as it should. It doesn't get out in the community as it should for that social exposure, and then they have a life of back yard or dog sport, or back yard and maybe to the dog park, where you just let them off and they run. So they don't get walked and they don't get that interaction and you don't get that relationship, really.

The different methods that I use, let's go through that. I've got the human food store, the 1-2-3 cookie, the 300 steps, penalty yards, circling, and I do all those separate and in combos. It depends.

People ask you a question: "How do you teach loose leash walking?" It depends. It depends on the dog, it depends on the situation, and it depends on what the individual can comfortably do and accomplish. Some methods work better for some people and some dogs, and some methods just don't work at all. It's all dog-dependent and human-dependent.

I thought you were going to ask me about the human food store one.

Melissa Breau: Go for it! I haven't gotten there yet. Go for it. I haven't heard that before.

Heather Lawson: The human food store — this one is an off leash/loose leash walking exercise. I start that one with my baby puppies, because puppies, when they come, they want to be with you. They want to be around and following. Wherever you go, they want to go.

The first thing that I do is I stuff my pockets with food, so I am literally a human food store, and I walk around. Every time that puppy chooses to follow or to come up onto, in my case, the left side — I walk my dogs on the left — they get paid.

It doesn't have to be anything formal. You're not encouraging the dog to come with you, it's just if you move and that puppy follows, and you stop and that puppy's in that position, then they get a cookie, and they get another cookie, and they get a little bit of contact and communication. And then you just move off. If they continue to walk with you and they stay in that spot, "Look at you doing so good," and they get another cookie.

If they choose to wander off, which they will do … and I do a lot of this in and around the house. Once I move into the back yard, of course, now we're changing criteria. It's a different distraction, a different environment, and so forth. I just walk around the yard, doing my chores, and again, if they choose to come up, they get paid. If they choose to go off and run around, that's fine. Nothing happens. You get that and then you come back. Even now with Piper, at 5 years, as soon as I get up to go outside or to do anything, she's right there following and beside my left side.

It really transfers nicely later. When you add the leash and you need the dog to be attentive to you, they already have that little bit of foundation when you start to be more formalized.

Melissa Breau: I like that. And I like the name, too. That's cute. I was going to tease you and ask you to say "off leash, loose leash walking."

Heather Lawson: Off leash, loose leash walking, off leash, loose leash walking." I can't. Forget it. It's a tongue twister. That's why in my pet dog classes I just say, "Loose leash walking is called LLW. When I'm talking about that, that's what it is. Otherwise I'm going to trip over my tongue."

Melissa Breau: I hear you. We talked a little bit about the elevator training earlier. I know that's something you include in the class. I get why that's an important skill, especially for a sports dog. It seems like it's a really hard thing to train. How do you "split" that, or how do you break that down to help your dog be comfortable and well behaved?

Heather Lawson: Well … it depends. Where I start depends on the individual dog. If I've got a dog that doesn't like things moving under their feet, which quite often is what is the scary part of the elevator for the dogs, generally I'll put some kind of a board or something on top of, say, a cushion and let it move, so that they get used to wobbles and moves and balancing themselves, and "Oh yeah, something moves, no big deal." That's for those dogs that are concerned with movement under their paws.

If the dog isn't concerned, then we first start at the elevator door. It pings and it goes open and shut, open and shut, it pings, it goes open and shut, open and shut, and we just sit there and watch it, so that the ping of the door opening doesn't mean you rush through. It's just there.

Then we go in, and if you're lucky enough to find an elevator that isn't being used quite as often — I borrowed my husband's office building one afternoon on the weekend — you can go in. Or parkades, office parkades, and things like that . Shopping malls are sometimes good on slow days.

So we watch the elevator doors open and close, open and close, and then you go in, you take a step in, and you take a step out. You go in and out. The door doesn't close. It doesn't do anything. The next process would be you go in and the door would close but you don't go anywhere, and then you come back out again. It pings and you go back out again.

Once the dog is comfortable going in and going out, and setting up in the elevator — because there's specific ways I personally like to set up in the elevator so that I don't put my dog in a position of getting stepped on, or should another dog or something come on the elevator, then they're not going head to head — once you've gotten that all worked out, then I do the movement of the elevator.

I never go down first. I always go up. Because when you go down, that's the feeling to the dogs that "The floor is falling out from underneath me."

If they can get used to the movement going up, and the sounds and everything there, then coming down doesn't seem to be as much catastrophe for them than they normally would. Because if they got on it and all of a sudden the thing went down, that's that funny feeling, especially if you've got those elevators that are really fast. They go down and even we feel it, so you can imagine what they're feeling under all four of their paws and everything. So that gives them a better idea of what happens inside that elevator.

And then of course when you're in the elevator, you're sitting, you're staying put, you're getting rewards for every time that door opens. You get cookies, you get treats.

Quite often people say, "My dog just charges out of the elevator." That's because as soon as the door pings and opens, you move. So you have to teach the dog that just because the door pinged and opened doesn't mean that it's time for you to get off. I can just see it: the dog charges out, the person can't get out, there's the dog on the other side of the elevator and the person's on the inside, and boom, you go up. We've all seen or heard of those situations where the dog was in the elevator and catastrophe type of thing. So it's all about keeping your dog nice and close and tight to you, and making sure they don't have that room to move.

That's basically, in a nutshell, how I go through that process. That's what I had to do, getting back to the example of Luca, when she was alive. Going up on that elevator, she literally put the brakes on, like, "No, I'm not going in there." Finally, by the end of the weekend, we'd worked through it and she was, like, trotting right in and it's no big deal, and she was fine ever since.

But it was something that hadn't occurred to me because I hadn't been in elevators with her in the hotels and stuff that I had been traveling in. They were all those motel things, either walk up or ranch-style type of things, where you pull up to your door and you're in. So it hadn't occurred to me.

The other situation that I ran into that is important is open stairs. Everybody thinks stairs are stairs, dogs can go up and down them. No, not so much. I had that situation as well. I went into a hotel and the only way, the stairs up, happened to be all that open look-through, so I'm thinking, "Oh, I'm screwed," to put it bluntly. She looked at it and she did not want to go up. Same dog, Luca. It took us a little while, lots of cookies, and after that weekend, of course she was running up and down, no problem.

I ran into the same problem with the open stairs with Piper a few years ago when she was about a year. Tag took off down the stairs to the beach and she just followed. I called them back up and they came, they turned around and started to come back up. Tag came back up, no problem, because he just doesn't pay attention to all that stuff.

She started coming up and she looked at it, and she went, "No." I didn't realize it, but these were open stairs. She goes up and she jumped off the side of the stairs and it's like a cliff type of shrubbery and all that stuff. She starts trying to come up that, so I had to run down the stairs, grab her on to the thing, and we did the click and treat, click and treat, all the way up. Then we went down and all the way back up again, and now the open stairs aren't a problem. But that could have been quite a disaster, and again, she was the type of dog that was taking everything in stride, no big deal, except for the open stairs.

It's those little things like that that slip by me, even when I've had that experience with another dog and just didn't think of it because I didn't know those stairs were open like that, either. So I'll let myself off the hook on that one.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. I think that's interesting and I love the tip about going up before you go down, because I think that makes total sense, and I don't know that I would have thought of that.

Heather Lawson: I've seen people … one dog that I had did that the first time he went in, and the first time we lowered the elevator — and he was a big boy, so he wasn't scared of anything — he flattened on the floor. It was like, "It's OK, bud. No big deal." And he's looking at me, turning his head and looking, and it was like, uh-oh. That was fine. Once he felt it and he realized what was happening, it was no big deal, he was fine. I didn't have to do any work with him. But that was the first time that we'd gone down with him. And some dogs will flatten.

The other type of elevator is the all-glass elevator. Those are fun. Those are really fun to work a dog in, because they look and then they freeze and back up, some of them will. Some dogs never get over that, so that's a hard one because they're not really that common, so you can't do a whole lot of practicing with them. But the open and glass elevators I've run into quite a few times.

Luckily my dogs haven't had concerns, because I've done all that pre-work with all the other enclosed elevators, so it was like, "Oh, OK, I can see things," rather than being in an enclosed box.

Melissa Breau: Naturally, thinking about other things that fall in that life skills box, recalls are obviously in that "need to have, need to know" category. Looking at the syllabus, you teach both a verbal and a whistle. I'm curious why both.

Heather Lawson: Poisoned cues is one of the reasons. The other reason, of course, goes back to Piper. She was the first puppy that I've ever had in my whole lifetime that I would call and you'd bend down and go, "Here, pup-pup-pup," like every breeder calls their puppy, and she would come to a certain point and then it was like, "No, not coming," or she would turn around and look at you, "No, not coming."

I did all of the normal things that you do when teaching a recall, and this puppy was not having anything to do with it. So I said, "I'm going to do the opposite of what I normally do. I'm going to use a whistle." I did the typical pairing — whistle, treat, whistle, treat, whistle, treat — and in three days of working her solid, over and over and over again, I had a recall that I couldn't really believe.

I've got pictures of it, a video that I remembered to take while I tried it. She was out playing in the back yard with Tag, and she had a little stuffy toy. This was the first time I'd done it when there's been that much of a distraction. I whistled, and granted I gave her more whistles, I called her multiple times with the whistle. What happened was as soon as she heard the whistle, you can see her little head pops up, and she turns and runs toward me, and then she turns around and goes away, and I'm going, "Maybe she doesn't know where I am." She went back, picked up her stuffy — because she had forgotten her stuffy — and came running in, dropped it halfway, had to run back and get it, came back, and went right in the door and right into her pen with her stuffy. It was hilarious, and it was like, "Yes, this works."

Everybody that I've taught this whistle to in this particular way — and it's simple; it's just pairing it and then working from there — within a week, they say, "That really works." Especially in my pet dog classes it was like, "I need you to do this whistle." "But I don't want to do a whistle." "I need you to do this whistle." "Why can't I just call her?" "Just do me a favor and do the whistle." And they go, "That whistle really works." No kidding!

Because we had one dog that was not coming. She decided all of a sudden that she was not going to come when she was called verbally. It just was not there for whatever reason. I don't know how they had maybe poisoned the cue a little bit, they're calling too much or whatever, but she ran out and she went down the road. So that was their stimulus to call her, to get started with the whistle. She did it again, only this time when they whistled, she turned right around and came back. So that couple is a firm believer in this whistle.

I've had a couple of other, even behavior problems, just calling the dog verbally sometimes just isn't enough. We give them so much verbal diarrhea in their life. We humans have this necessity to chat, chat, chat, chat, chat. So a lot of their cues and their signals and everything get lost in all of that verbiage. So having that whistle, it's sharp, it's different, and it means the same thing no matter who's doing it, just like the clicker does.

And it travels a great distance, so if you're hiking with your dog, or you like to go different places, and your dog happens to go running after something, or into the bush exploring, and you're continuing on, that whistle carries a long way, whereas your voice doesn't carry as much. I live in the North Shore in British Columbia, in North Vancouver, and so going up in the trails, if the dogs go off in the bushes, I can whistle and they can hear me from way off.

Once you've got the whistle and they've got that recall, it's very easy to then add a verbal recall and to install a good, solid recall cue. The way I explain it to people is that one of the reasons why your dog doesn't come when you call is because you're calling him as he's running away. You're saying, "Fluffy, come, Fluffy, come," as they're running away, so you're basically telling the dog that what they're doing by running away is called "come." It's not really "come," because the dog should be coming towards you if you call "come." People get it that way. But most often recalls are nonexistent because people don't start with a little bit of foundation in their recall, name game and making it rewarding and paying out.

I consider something like the recall, whether it be a whistle or a verbal, as a lifesaver behavior. I have different categories for different things. That's a lifesaver behavior, and that kind of behavior gets paid out every single time. Even Tag, at 14, if he happens to hear me — and now we're relegated to a clap because it seems to catch his ears a little bit more — he gets paid when he comes, because I want them not to not come.

I have had clients where they've gone and they've said, "I don't want to pay anymore, I don't want to be paying for the dog coming when I call them anymore," and within a week, their recall on that puppy is gone. And then they come into class and say, "Puppy doesn't come anymore," and I say, "I know exactly what happened. You stopped reinforcing that recall, didn't you?" "Well, yeah. I don't want to pay for it all the time." "Well, would you go to work and work and not get paid?" Then they think, "No." So I say, "Well, you've got to pay for that." It's one that's really important, so you're always going to pay for it.

Melissa Breau: Right. It's worth the investment.

Heather Lawson: Yeah, exactly. I find the whistle, if the environment is really distracting, the whistle does a little knock, knock, knock on the head, and it is so different that they go, "Oh yeah, I gotta go."

Melissa Breau: It's harder to tune out.

Heather Lawson: It's harder to tune out, yeah. For whatever reason, it's just harder to tune out. Whether it's the fact that it gets a ton more reinforcement during the whole process that people, because they have to blow a whistle and then give the cookie and and all that kind of stuff, whereas when you call, sometimes you forget to pay out. When you've got a whole step-by-step process, it's a consistent payout, so maybe that's why the whistle works so well. But if you can't get a recall on the dog verbally, you switch to that and then you go back to your verbal.

Melissa Breau: I like that. We've talked through recalls, we talked about elevators, we talked about loose leash walking. What other life skills do you see as vital for sports dogs? Are there any life skills that it's even more important for sports dogs to have, than for pet dogs who will never compete?

Heather Lawson: For sports dogs, it's what happens the whole process through. If you're at a venue, and you're going from the car to the venue, it should be nice and cool and calm and collected. You shouldn't be dragged in or dragged out of the venue, or dragged out of the ring, period, after your performance.

The dog should be able to settle and not worry too much about what's going on around them. They need to be able to settle in their vehicles. What happens, the spaces between working and not working — that's important. And while others are working, to be able to just sit there and chill out.

A lot of people mistake that. They think that if the dog is chill, they don't have the so-called drive to do the sport. But that just means the dog understands that they're not working right at the moment, that they're just on pause or hold. So teaching the dog how to pause and how to be on hold, still being ready to go and ready to work, I just don't need you right now, I think is super, super important for the sport dog because it gives them a chance to relax between runs.

If they're constantly tugging and they're constantly doing this and being at attention and being attended to and running from here to there and back and forth, the dog never gets a chance to recoup and refocus. I think by having that, "OK, I can chill, I'm not on," take some time, take a breather, OK, we're ready to go, they know when they're supposed to do something and when they're not supposed to do something, and then everything is calm, if that makes any sense.

It's the spaces I want everything nice and calm each step of the way, at each transition point, so whether you're going from the crate to the ring, the ring to the crate, the crate to the car, the house to the car, each place has a transition point. So if your dogs are cool, calm, and collected each step of the way, then the whole thing is you don't have an overly aroused dog all the time and they learn to settle.

Melissa Breau: That makes sense to me. Can you share a little more about the class itself? Who should consider it? Who would be a good fit? Is there anything people need to know heading in?

Heather Lawson: It's actually a good fit for anybody, for any dog at any stage. But that being said, it's not meant totally really if you've got a reactive issue. That's a totally different situation, although most of the things can be done at a distance. You don't have to have the distraction and the attraction and everything that we work towards, so you can work on a lot of the skills.

Sometimes working on just the settling skills and the transitional skills, going, like I said, from the house to the car, car to the dog park, where they're going to be let off leash and so forth, to the sports venue, or even going into the veterinarian. I had one client, the dog was so bad you couldn't even have a conversation in the vet's office, and I got called in to sort that out. Each time the dog has a transition point and is calm, it's good for dogs that are experiencing a little bit of, say, over the top behavior.

It's good for puppies because you can limit it down to where the puppy's level is. And it's good for older dogs who maybe just need some re-management of their manners and their skills because, as I said before, they don't start out in the sport. You've got to live with them first, and you've got to live with them throughout their lives. And then at the end of their working life, they're home, and if they're a pain in the butt when they're home, it's not much fun, especially if you have multiple dogs to deal with and they're all like that.

That can be a household full of stress, and I think that's where people end up having problems with inter-dog problems is that there's no level of calm within the house. There's always turmoil, and that carries into everything else and escalates all kinds of behavior problems.

Melissa Breau: Right. The other topic I was hoping we could talk about for a bit is platforms. I know a number of our FDSA students recently bought CATO platforms, and obviously we're huge fans of Klimbs. First, I'm curious: how many different kinds of platforms do you typically use in your training?

Heather Lawson: Off the top of my head, I'd say seven different platforms. When we talk about platforms, it's interchangeable. Like a foot target is basically a foot platform. It's just a smaller one. Or the pivot pot is a platform, but it's just pivot pot — that's what everybody calls it. So I probably use about seven, roughly.

And I went ahead and bought four CATO boards myself, even though I've got about at least a dozen Klimbs, because I use them in class and for all different kinds of stuff. I managed to sneak in the CATO boards. My husband doesn't even realize they're new because I've got so much junk anyways.

So I've got the pivot pot, I've got the square pivot, short rectangular sit platform, the long rectangular stand, a position change platform. I have a long square, and by long square – or large square, rather — I mean Klimbs. I would maybe put four Klimbs together, or two locked together, and I might even be able to stack two to three Klimbs high as well on that. And I have a small square, which is just a single Klimb.

A small rectangular foot target, which is like a yoga brick size, basically, but I don't use the full height of a yoga brick. I use a cork yoga brick, but I cut it in half because it's too tall and it tips. And dogs don't … especially for a very exuberant dog, but I find the weight of the cork is nice for those little targets.

Of course I have the four CATO boards, which are what I would call my medium rectangle. You can also, I suppose, classify a wedge in there as well, but I use my Klimbs as an angled wedge for that type of thing, for rear foot stuff. That's about it. That's all I've got.

Melissa Breau: Just seven.

Heather Lawson: Just seven or eight. Different ones that I use for different things, and they all are for different things at different times. The larger ones would be for getting a dog used to a platform. You don't need to worry about precision or anything like that. You're just getting them used to the platform, getting them used to being there, building a reinforcement history for that platform.

And then you start to narrow the platforms down. You start to change which one for the particular job that you're going to use. For instance, I might start out with a default stand on two Klimbs put together, but I'm definitely not going to be able to get precision in heel position with that because the dog has got too much room to move. That's when I would narrow it down to my 10- or 12-inch-wide long platform that I use, because then I let the platform do the work for me. I don't have to adjust the dog.

The platform, the equipment, should work for you, not against you. I think that's the biggest problem is people use the incorrect piece of equipment for what they're trying to achieve in their goal behavior.

Melissa Breau: My next question was what are some of the skills you use them for. Do you want to talk through another example or two?

Heather Lawson: I use platforms in heel position, for front positions, I use a small foot target if I want to work on signals at a distance, because it keeps the front feet anchored. If I want to do directional casting, like send the dog from one platform to the other platform. Go outs. I also use them for other non-dog-sport things. They make a great grooming table, the Klimbs, when the dogs are up on it.

I've put two platforms at the end of cavalettis and I just sit in a chair with the Manners Treat and Train on either end. I can watch my dog from the side as she's doing the cavalettis, and she goes out to her Klimbs to get her cookies. It's a fun thing to do. I sit there like a lazy trainer, it's couch training basically.

Any distance work, platforms are great for. Even any moving positional changes, such as a moving stand, you can use a platform for that. I probably would not use a small foot platform, but I'd use the long rectangular platform, or even a wider, longer platform, just so the dog comes up and they stop, because they get to the end of the platform, so they stop. That's one way, if you're having some difficulty in doing that.

So there's lots of things you can do. They make a good … getting the dogs to use their rear. That's where I use the angled Klimb. You take the feet off of one end of it and put it on this end, so if you want to work a different type of rear foot movement.

If your dog is doing backup straight on the ground, you can try the Klimb and it's a totally different thing. Piper knows her backup, but when I did a video for this webinar, she was like, "I don't quite get this foot thing, and it's making my butt go up in the air." She had a little bit of trouble with it in the very beginning, but then she caught on quite quickly, But it was funny watching her feel behind her and use her feet behind her without looking as she raised herself.

A whole variety of things. Two on, two off, for agility. All different kinds of sports.

Melissa Breau: How can using a platform help, even if it's a skill you could technically teach without the platform?

Heather Lawson: I'm lazy. That's not really the reason I use platforms. I want to let the platform work for me and show the dog where they need to be. And I don't want to have to constantly lure or readjust the dog. The platform takes all that luring and that readjustment out of the picture.

Granted, you will have to do a little bit of adjusting and luring criteria when you start to take the platforms out, but initially you can get really good, precise positioning with a platform that would take you a little bit longer, because using a platform, the criteria is very clear to the dog, and it allows you to build a really good, solid reinforcement history for the position before you even add the cue. The dog's got the position because he got reinforcement, so adding the cue onto things becomes that much easier, and when you go to remove the platforms, which is easy, I'm not really a proponent of fading down, down, down, because really, what's the point of having a flat platform? The dog doesn't feel it anyway.

You can certainly do it that way, but I prefer to on and off remove it, bring it back if I need to, spiff it up if something isn't working, and then I gradually remove it, so it's removed more than it is in. I like to, as I said, build a huge reinforcement history for the position before I remove it and before I add the cue, add the cue, then remove it, and then continue to add the reinforcement history for the correct position. It's economics, basically.

Melissa Breau: In the webinar description, you mention that you can use platforms to add energy and fun games into your training. I think most people associate platforms with static or still behaviors like a stay — kind of the opposite of that energy you're talking about. I'd love to hear how you use them to encourage more energy.

Heather Lawson: When I do the fronts with the platform, depending on which platform I'm using, if it's long platform, then it's a default stand. I only have a sit on a small sit platform, the small little rectangular platform, just barely enough for the dog to sit on, nice, tucked, but when I'm working on the long ones, I will do a lot of fun send-outs to the platform not requiring any specific thing, and then call back and heel, come through my legs and back out to the platform. I will do from side to side, again with the Manners Minder, the Treat and Train, so you have to get on the platform, sit or down, whatever you cue is before the cookie is dispensed.

Getting back to the fronts, I do what I call around-the-clock. I'm tossing cookies, we start out going straight on, straight on. Once the dog is consistently straight, then we start moving around the clock. I can toss cookies behind me, the dogs come racing back around the front, so rather than having the dog sit, recall, sit, recall, this creates a little bit more of a game as you're working on some precision and placement of the dog.

Same thing for heel position. Once we've gotten off the pivot pot and you're going down to the platform, and then you're maybe going down to the foot target, you can do the same exercise around the clock with the find heel position. Dogs learn to find heel from all different kinds of angles, and that puts the game into it and it makes it more fun. They can race out, get the cookie, come back, find heel, and then get a ball tossed, race out, come back, get cookies tossed. It's way more energetic and energizing, and even though you're doing lots of repetitions, it allows you to get those repetitions in a very short period of time, so therefore you're using your training time a lot more productively.

Melissa Breau: The webinar is right around the corner. It's on Aug 6. Anything else folks should know to help them decide if they want to sign up?

Heather Lawson: What I did is I took it like, here's the different types of platforms, here are the different types of things you can do with them. I didn't approach it as this is how you teach the skill, because you'll see some things in there that it's like you'll know that I'm not doing a very good job. But I was playing around with some of the things and I go, "That won't work." So little things that I did with the different types of platforms, things that other people have done with their platforms and how they use them in different ways, and how to measure it and how to know which platform to use for what kind of behavior.

When I say that not one platform will work for one single behavior, and you will want to introduce different types of platforms, as I said, I go from the pivot pot, to possibly the long platform, to then the foot target, and then finally everything is gone. So you mix and match and you change out the tools so that the dog is comfortable no matter what appears to it.

Melissa Breau: That makes sense. One last question for you. What's something that you have learned recently or been reminded of when it comes to dog training?

Heather Lawson: Be clear in your criteria. I was doing something with Piper and she was looking at me like, "What are you asking?" It was because I hadn't set her up to succeed. I had this vision in my mind of what I wanted to do, but I hadn't prepared her for it, and so when I came and just did my thing, she was going, "I don't get it."

It was like stepping back and don't just jump in. "Think, do, plan, and review" is a motto I learned from Bob Bailey years and years and years ago. So I think about what I want to do and I plan it out.

The other thing that I'm always constantly reminded of, especially because I'm teaching pet dog people as well, is that practice without the dog first, because if you don't know where you're going, neither will your dog. If you have an expectation and a criteria and a plan in your head, you'll be able to not only help your dog but actually be there to support them the whole way through.

It's like would you go on a long mountain hike with a guide who had never been on that trail before or didn't know the area? No. It's a recipe for disaster. So goes being prepared and knowing your job with your dog before you start. If you're prepared and you have a picture in your head and you know what your final goal behavior is, you'll figure out all the steps in order to get you there.

And above all else, don't lump everything together. Don't try for one final thing. Every single behavior can be dropped down into multiple, multiple behaviors and split out, and it's much better to do that sometimes for some dogs because they need that. It's basically have some consideration for your learner and make sure that you're doing your part to support them.

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

Heather Lawson: It was fun. You made me really think, Melissa. I had to think about some of these things and all the different types of things that I've experienced over my years and some that you forget what it is that you've gone through, and then you go, "Oh yeah." Or you forget a type of method that you used to use that really worked, and then you go, "Oh yeah, right. I've got to go back to that because that was a solid one to use." So thank you for making me think.

Melissa Breau: Well, you're very welcome. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week. Don't miss it!

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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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