Several of the FDSA Training Assistants join me to share their stories, tips for making it all the way through a class as a bronze or silver student, and more!
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 several teaching assistants who are helping with classes this term — and I should have asked you all how to pronounce your last names before I tried to read them, but I'm going to give it a shot. We've got Sara Seymour, Ana Cilursu, Linlin Cao, Ann Smorado, and Lizzie Lang. Hi all, welcome to the podcast!
[All say hello.]
Melissa Breau: To start us out, I want to give you each a chance to introduce yourselves a little bit, share a little bit about who your dogs are, what you're working on with them, and maybe which classes you've TA'd for. Sara, do you want to start?
Sara Seymour: I'm Sara Seymour. I'm based in the U.K. I've been training with FDSA … I think I start in February 2018 was my first trial. I've got two dogs. I've got Vinnie, who's a 12-year-old Springer with multiple physical issues, and his main task in life these days is to hang around in the hopes that treats happen, and they do.
I've got a 5-year-old working Cocker Spaniel, Ripley, who lots and lots of people know and have seen on various videos and things because he's my main working dog. I train all the things with him. My primary sport was initially agility, but because it's not his favorite thing, we looked into lots of other stuff. We did some rally, and worked tricks, parkour, anything and everything. He likes to train everything.
In terms of TA-ing, I've TA'd for Julie Daniels primarily since December 2018. I've done Cookie Jar Games, Advanced Cookie Jar Games, Empowerment, her weave class, Magic Mat, and last term, because TA-ing for one just isn't enough, I did two. I was also TA for Julie Flannery with the mimicry class.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Ana, do you want to go next?
Ana Cilursu: Sure. I've been a Fenzi student almost since Fenzi started, I think, for a very long time. A friend of mine told me about Fenzi. She had seen Denise at a seminar. At the time I was having some issues with Zoe, and she said, "Look into this," and the rest is history. I've been a student since forever.
I've been a TA since the program started. I was actually one of the first TA's. Alex Woodruff and I TA'd a class together for Stacy, so all the nosework is all the TA work that I've done. I've done at least thirteen sessions, probably more because we've looped around and repeated sessions.
My current dogs are Axel, who is a soon to be 4-year-old Rottweiler, and my little "Not-weiler," who is Chupi, who is about 16. We lost Zoe in February, so now we just have the boys.
My original sport, very early on, was obedience, and then transitioned into rally with Zoe. We did it all — agility, parkour, barn hunt, tricks, nosework of course, obedience, rally. Axel is obedience, rally, nosework, agility, and Chupi, I just started him on nosework. When Stacy changed the curriculum for her Intro To Nosework class, I thought what a great opportunity for me to do some hands-on work with a dog that's completely new to nosework, and so Chupi gets to do all the searches that Axel does now. So that keeps me pretty busy. Nosework is his primary sport and mine, but we are doing some of the other stuff.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Linlin?
Linlin Cao: I'm Chinese. I came to America about eight years ago for graduate school, and after graduating, I'm working in the intellectual property field. I'm also a CPDTK-certified dog trainer, so I'm working mainly with reactive, fearful, and aggressive dogs, mostly on the behavior part.
I have two dogs. First is a super-mutt, because I did DNA he has at least eight breeds in him. Super-mutt Niko. He is reactive. I got him four years ago while I was working on my dissertation, and it turned out he's really reactive to almost everything, a very anxious dog, so I focused a lot on him, working on behavior with him.
I also have a younger dog, a 2-year-old Field Lab, Sunny. With both dogs, we focus mostly on nosework and also some tricks. Niko got NW2 last year and he's also an expert trick dog. Sunny is working on Advanced trick dog and preparing to get into nosework. I learned about Fenzi and started nosework about the same time, so almost I think three years ago. I've been taking classes since then.
This is my first time being a TA. Really first time, only a couple of days. I'm helping Stacy in the NW200, preparing for a trial, so I hope to bring my experience to help other teams be more successful. It has been a great experience for me because there's a lot to learn and it's really eye-opening.
Ann Smorado: And you're doing a great job, too. Linlin and I are co-teaching assistants for that class. It's a new class, so we're getting a chance to work together, and you would think she's been doing it for a long time. She's really doing a fantastic job.
Melissa Breau: Good. Ann, do you want to go next?
Ann Smorado: sure. I've been a Fenzi student for a really long time. I'm not sure I remember what year anymore. It was a long, long time ago.
Most everyone here knows Hartley, who's 8 years old. I can't believe he's 8 years old, because when I came here he was my young dog. I wanted to teach him how to heel nicely, really heel, so we came for precision heeling with Denise. Now he's 8, and his focus right now is agility.
I also have a 1-year-old, another black Lab, Dare. He's 1, he keeps me very busy because he's got a ton of energy, he's super smart, and if I don't keep him busy, he finds his own things to entertain his mind and body with. So he keeps me really busy. We're working on all the things with him.
I've been a TA since the program started. I started TA-ing with TEAM, and when Nicole started her rally classes, I've been TA-ing most of her rally classes, and it's been a lot of fun. I really enjoy it.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome: Lizzie?
Lizzie Lang: I've got three dogs. Freddie is my oldest. He's 16 now. He was a rescue from where I used to work. He did a bit of agility when he felt like it, but most of the time he kinda just left the ring. Yogi is 5, and he's a Romanian rescue. He prefers heelwork and obedience-type things. We do musical freestyle and he likes music. Rudi, my youngest, is 2-and-a-half. He's a Flat-Coat Retriever, and he does a bit of everything. He likes music, rally, obedience, and we're hoping to do some agility now that he's old enough to jump.
Last term was my first time being a TA for Sara Brueske in her all the sports class, which was my first class and the one that got me hooked.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. I want to talk a little bit about how everybody got into dog sports to start with. If you could each talk a little bit about what got you started. This time we'll do it in flip order, so Lizzie, do you want to start us on this one?
Lizzie Lang: I grew up watching agility on tellie, watching Crufts, and was desperate for my own dog, so when I finally convinced my parents to let me have one, it was the first thing that I looked into doing.
Melissa Breau: Ann?
Ann Smorado: Well, I got a dog. He was my yellow Lab, Myles. I wanted to do everything right with him, so I went to dog class. I went to puppy class, and then we went to puppy teenager class, and then we went to normal household obedience class. After those three classes I knew I really enjoyed the process of working with him and training, but I knew I wouldn't know what to do if I didn't have a class to tell me what to do. So I joined a rally class and that was the start. It went from there.
Melissa Breau: It just kept sucking you in.
Ann Smorado: It just kept going... I have a student that thinks that driving 30 minutes to go to a lesson or a class or a dog event is really far, and I laugh because I remember thinking that. I'm, "Why would you drive any more than 10 or 15 minutes to do a dog thing?" Or 20 minutes. We won't talk about the distances I drive now. The whole perspective changes the more you go. Anyway …
Melissa Breau: Linlin, what about you?
Linlin Cao: With Niko, I think after about a year of behavior modification, and then a point getting better, but I'm still desperately looking for something to do with him. Before you get a dog, you have all these plans you want to do with your dog, and then he turned out to be a reactive dog, and then the choices were very limited.
But after a lot of tears and frustration on the reactive journey, I just want to do something fun. Pretty random, I came across nosework. Pretty soon I found out about Fenzi, and that's how I got started. It wasn't easy. In the beginning I thought for a long time we'd probably never be able to trial because Niko cannot even leave the neighborhood. He would have panic attacks if he would just leave the house or the neighborhood.
But I think I chose the right sport. Doing nosework at the same time helped his reactivity and confidence, so actually now he's doing really well and I'm really proud of him. So never look back, like Ann said.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. That's fantastic. I'm glad that it's helping him and pulling you into our world at the same time. Ana?
Ana Cilursu: I got my first dog in 1994, a red Doberman, a beautiful dog with a fantastic temperament, and I was completely clueless. I had absolutely no idea. I had no idea what I was doing, I had no idea what she was doing, but she was such a wonderful dog, and a sweet, loving, and forgiving dog, despite all my mistakes.
Finally we decided we need help. The dog's getting big, I can't handle her, so we actually had a private trainer come to the house that was recommended to me. This woman was like the Doberman whisperer. She just had such a presence. She was so calm, she was so able to communicate with the dog. I was in awe. I was just absolutely blown away by how can you do this, teach me how to do this, how can I do this.
So we just opened up this whole new world, and then we kept adding dogs. At one point we had seven, and they were all shelter dogs except for my Dobe.
Ann Smorado: When you got that first dog, you would have thought that anyone having more than three was crazy.
Ana Cilursu: My God. And then you add the second one, and then we found the third one, and the fourth and the fifth and the sixth and the seventh all came from the shelter. So there's a house full of dogs, and I got involved in dog training more and more, and got more and more involved with the local shelter, and it just never stopped. It was just beautiful. It kept going and going and going.
But it was that one person that really inspired me to be able to do better, and she really changed my whole world. It made a huge difference. I'll never forget her. That was a long time ago.
Melissa Breau: What about you, Sara?
Sara Seymour: I saw agility on Crufts — Crufts being one of the biggest dog shows in the world, it's huge — and I wanted to do it. My parents wouldn't let me have a dog, so I moved out, got a dog, and moved back in again. That was 25 years ago.
At that time you had to go through an obedience class to be able to go on to the agility classes, so I served my time through the various classes and got into agility, and the rest, as they say, is history. It led me to everybody that I know and met, and the circle grew and so on.
It took a slightly different tangent when I switched breeds. In 2008 I decided to get a Springer, because I wanted to work him in what he was bred to do, I got into the gun dog side of things, and that led me down another path altogether. It was fantastic really.
Melissa Breau: You do gun dogs with Ripley?
Sara Seymour: Yes. He had his very first training lesson was at 11 weeks old with a gun dog trainer, because I was absolutely determined I wasn't going to mess things up with him. I took her guidance from the start, and he wouldn't be as good as he is without her foundations in place. I did the work, but she gave me the full support.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. What about the transition to positive training? I'd love to know if you've always been in this … quadrant is the wrong word … but if you were always a positive trainer or if that was a journey and you had to get there. And if you had to get there, how did you get there? What was it that got you interested in positive training? Ana, do you want to start this time?
Ana Cilursu: Sure. For me, it was definitely a journey and a progression into a different way of doing things, a better way of doing things. When I first started going to obedience classes, which wasn't even with my Dobe, but with subsequent dogs, when I started going to obedience classes, it was very not positive, and that was the only way. That was what people taught, and it always seemed to bother me somewhat in that this couldn't possibly be the only way. There has to be another way.
The dog that I was working with at the time in classes was a rescue Rottie who really had a horrible attitude in the beginning. She didn't take very well to these types of techniques, and so I started to look around. Now you're talking about the late '90s, so it's not like there was that much out there, and of course there was no Internet. There were no resources. You tried to talk to people and see where they were going. But little by little it really changed the way I started to feel.
And then I went to an instructor training course, which was basically five days with a bunch of other trainers and people, and it completely changed my mind about how to do things. We could do things so much better.
So in a way I'm really glad the way I got to it, because it showed me that there are different ways of doing things, and if something's not right, you should take the time to research and investigate and look into other ways so that you're comfortable with what you're doing.
It was a transition for me, but it was certainly a really eye-opening experience, and I'm glad that I got there the way I did, because my dog, with a change in her methods, she was my first obedience dog, we got our first CD, and she was not an easy dog.
One of the trainers in the classes that I worked with had that same feeling and said, "We can do things a little differently." She made a big difference for me, and someone else I'll never forget, because she took the time to support me in doing things a little differently with my dog. So I'm glad it happened, and I'm glad that most of my journey has been on the positive, R-positive side.
Melissa Breau: Ann?
Ann Smorado: Most of it has been on the positive side. I didn't even get a dog until late in life, because growing up and when I was younger, I thought dog ownership was you had to go through this icky time of training your dog and showing them who's boss before you had a good dog you could enjoy. I don't remember ever consciously saying to myself, "I don't want to go through that part," but I think that was in the background and I just didn't want to get a dog because I didn't want to go through that. I didn't want to put in the work because it wasn't going to be fun.
When I did get that first dog, I got lucky with the mentor and trainer that I came across who guided me in the right direction, because I didn't know the difference between positive reinforcement training and balanced training and all of those other things. I kind of expected that somewhere along the line there would be some need for some unpleasant thing that would have to happen, but that didn't work out that way.
When I got my second dog, when I got Hartley, I thought, "I really want to do well in obedience with him, and I did go meet with some balanced trainers," and like Ana said, I put a pinch collar on him and tweak a little bit, and I'm watching videos of myself, going, "My timing's wrong. I'm correcting things that I want to be doing." After a couple of sessions meeting with this person, I just didn't feel good about it. It wasn't right, and I said, "I'm not going to do it this way. That's all." That was the end of that.
I had people tell me that if I wanted the precision, I was going to have to use a pinch collar, or do this or that, and even though I don't believe that you can't get precision without those tools, I just chose to not even have the discussion. I went, "I'm fine with that. I don't need the precision. I'd rather do it this way and enjoy my dog and do what we do." And that was really the end of that.
Like Ana said, I'm glad I explored all those things, so that I could think about it and learn about it and go on, and so this is where I am.
In gun dog, here at least in the United States with Retrievers, there's a very strong "You can't achieve 'x' without certain tools" I don't care to use, and again I'm very comfortable saying, "Then I don't have to achieve that." Even though I fully believe I could if I wanted to, it's not important to me. It's not an argument I can make. So I guess I've been always mostly positive R. It's more fun that way, and that's what I do this for.
Melissa Breau: Sara?
Sara Seymour: In 1995 I got my Collie, and the obedience class that I attended was a mixture. We had treats, but we were also using choke chains, although I think that was literally for the class. I don't remember using it outside of the class much. I was just going with what I had been told. I didn't really know much at the time.
I can remember, it must have been late-'90s time, I stood in a car park at an agility show, and a fabulous lady by the name of Sally Jones stood there and shaped her Toller to nose-touch a notch in the gate post, using a clicker, while telling us all about this newfangled clicker training. I went off and got all the books, Don't Shoot The Dog and The Dog and the Dolphin, and did all the reading, I liked to have all the information, and so I started playing around with clicker training.
I got to go on a workshop with Mary Ray back in those early days. She's a fabulous heelwork instructor — relatively well known, she used to do demos at Crufts, so I got to learn from there. I wasn't a very long time in non-R+, as it were, and it wasn't particularly harsh compared to some of the things I hear about.
Fast-forward to 2008 and I get a gun dog and I decided I wanted to go in the gun dog training route. There's a bit of a difference there because by that time I knew a lot about clicker training, start him out at 7 weeks old when I get him, clicker training straight away, and then when you start trying to look into gun dog training, "You must do it like this, you must do it like this," and so on and so forth. But I was an advocate for my dog and very good at nodding and smiling.
I brought my dog on shoots as well, so I'm surrounded by a bunch of traditional farmers and guns, and it's really, really hard as well sometimes because you see some of the stuff that they think is acceptable and I tend toward conflict avoidance, really. Nod and smile if they try and give you advice: "You know what you should do …" "You know what you should do …"
Through Sally, who'd introduced me to clicker training, she was working by then with a lady who had taken an interest in the gun dog side of things, Leeann Smith, who's a fabulous, amazing local trainer. I'm so lucky to have her as a gun dog trainer. She got us introduced to Helen Phillips, who wrote the book Clicker Gundog.
It feels like to me sometimes, reading from the posts, that the access to positive-reinforcement-based gun dog trainers, we've got many, many more really accessible trainers over here and a lot more people go in through those routes, rather than choosing the alternatives just because that's the way it's always done. So I was lucky to get in and work that route from the start. Ripley has been entirely force-free. All of his gun dog work was done on a reinforcement basis only, and it does work. I've got plenty of people I know that they've got dogs that are achieving amazing things, and they would never dream of putting an e-collar or a prong collar or anything like that on them, and they're working in high-drive environments.
Melissa Breau: Lizzie, what about you?
Lizzie Lang: I was quite lucky when I started out. Most of the classes around me were positive reinforcement. My first dog was a bit of a hard one if we would let him off lead out in the park, he would refuse to come back and dance around. A few people told me I was too soft with him and he needed a firmer hand. It wasn't so much prong collars and stuff. It was more ignoring him. I was told to not feed him for two days, and to completely ignore him when I came in, and not speak to him for a week, but I never succeeded in doing that. I thought about it for a minute and was like, "I can't."
I managed to find some other trainers, and we never solved all of his issues, but we did enough that he could do what I wanted to do with him and I learned a lot from training with him. I found dog-activity holidays. We went along with [Sarah Williams?] who taught me quite a lot about clicker training. That was probably my first introduction to using the clicker. I went from there and kept on learning and made most of my mistakes with him and learned with each dog that's come since then.
Melissa Breau: What about you, Linlin?
Linlin Cao: Although I started dog training, my dog training time is pretty short, less than four years, but I also went through balanced training. I think in reactive dog training, unfortunately, the aversive training or balanced training is still very popular, because after you put a prong collar on, you put an e-collar on, they suppress the behavior.
To an owner, to me, back then, when I don't know anything, it's like a magical tool because once I put a prong collar on, my dog stopped lunging, stopped barking. So I was happy for a little bit, until a couple of months later, Niko's reactivity, I feel his anxiety just cannot hold it anymore. There were several instances, luckily he didn't bite anyone, but I feel it was close, that no matter how strong stimuli applied, he just wouldn't hold, I cannot hold, because he was over threshold too much.
Even when things were going well, I didn't like it. Every time I popped the prong collar, every time I pressed the button on the e-collar, I'd feel bad. It was not a good experience for me as well, because I was told I have to be on top, I have to press the button and watch him all the time, and at the same time, I feel bad for him. I couldn't do that.
Also, I have a background in science. I always want to understand how things work, the science behind it, and I never got to understand why reactivity happens or how to change the behavior while I was using the balanced training tools.
Since his anxiety was over the roof, I could not hold it anymore, so I bought all the books on the market about positive and reactive dog training. That's the first time I started to understand what is behavior and why they're doing this and how to tend to their emotions. Suddenly everything made sense. I threw away all the tools and never used them again. I would never do that again. So that's my journey. I changed to positive and never looked back.
Melissa Breau: Then you got your certification in everything else they could teach.
Linlin Cao: Part of me, I feel bad putting Niko through that, but I think because of my experience I have used these tools and I have really… I like to research everything I do, and I read a lot of their blogs, so I understand why they don't work. So when I work with clients and sometimes they want to use more aversive methods, I can explain to them. I understand why they want to use it, and then I can explain to them why they won't work, even if it seems to work right now. So I think that's a valuable experience for me, although I wish I'd never done that to Niko.
Melissa Breau: I hear you. I'd love to talk about a little bit what you have accomplished with your dogs, and what's the dog-related accomplishment that you feel proudest of? Sara, do you want to start this one?
Sara Seymour: I struggled with this one because I haven't got any major titles I've achieved with any dogs, because Ripley is only my third dog. I've had three dogs that I've worked with.
Ripley's a working Cocker Spaniel. He comes from Field Trial champion lines. He's well bred to work and to work hard. He's a hard hunting dog, he wants to be out, he wants to be working. I'm genuinely really proud of what I've achieved with him over the last five years in terms of getting a dog I can live with and a dog that I can take anywhere.
We walk off lead anywhere and everywhere, and I can just take him and go, and I know that I can't lose him. He's going to come back when he's called, he's not going to go and bother people, he's not interested in other dogs, he'll do all and any of the things I decide I want to train.
A couple of years ago I did a big post of all his achievements at the end of one year, and he's got certificates and titles. He's got TEAM, he's got tricks, he's got scent work, he's got rally, he's got agility, he's got parkour. He has so many different things that he's achieved. So I am proud of what I've managed to achieve with a dog that potentially could have been an absolute nightmare. And he is still sometimes.
I am proud of what I've achieved, and I recognize people who input that and helped with that over the last few years to get us to a place where I can pick up a few treats and say, "Let's try this," and he's like, "What are we doing?" He will try anything and everything. So I am proud of what I've managed to achieve with him.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. Ana?
Ana Cilursu: I've had dogs, as I said, for over twenty years. Each one of them teaches you something, they bring you something, they leave something when they go. This is going to be hard.
I think that the thing that I treasure the most was when Zoe and I got our NW3. It was such a ride. She was probably the smartest dog I ever had. She could read me like a book. She was willing to try anything. She would look at me if I screwed up like, "You… oh. What did you do?" She taught me so much. She had a lot of baggage when I adopted her. She was a rescue, and she came from an absolutely fantastic foster home, but she had a lot of issues.
Zoe and I grew up Fenzi together. I had focused initially on her training, and there were a lot of eye-opening experiences where I realized I really need to focus on her behavior, her mental state, her emotional state. Zoe was very reactive. If you were looking for the dog whose crate is bouncing, we would be the ones in the corner in the back of the room with the sheets and all the panels covering us. If somebody went by, Zoe would bark.
We had to go through a lot together. We did everything. There's nothing we didn't try. When we first started nosework, it was like this whole new world opened up for us. It just strengthened our relationship so much. There were a lot of ups and downs in our training, in our trialing, but when we got that NW3, everything came together. The teamwork, the relationship, everything that we had learned — if you could wrap it up into one ribbon, it wasn't the ribbon; it was what the ribbon represented, the culmination of a journey that she and I had grown up together, and that, to me, was the most important thing.
She is very missed, I can tell you. It's hard. It's hard. But oh my God, we took every class we could. I just wanted to learn and she was like a sponge, and it just made everything so much better.
To have gotten to that point, and I really have to credit Stacy for first suggesting we do nosework. When Zoe had CPLO surgery, I thought our career, our life, was over, and the dog would never be able to heel or jump or do anything again. Stacy said, "Why don't you try nosework, since she's going to be in a crate for eight weeks." Stacy was there with us every step of the way, and Stacy was there the day we got our NW3. There was a lot of ugly crying in the parking lot that day.
So to have gotten that title with that dog, and to have Stacy there on that day, is one of, if not the most memorable dog memory I have. And that one's going to be tough to beat, like I said. So that would be it.
Melissa Breau: It certain sounds that way. It sounds like it's going to be a hard experience to top.
Ana Cilursu: It is. But don't tell Axel. Don't tell him.
Melissa Breau: Nobody has to tell him. Lizzie, what about you?
Lizzie Lang: Yogi is quite a difficult dog. He took me away from agility. He just wasn't taking to it. So we discovered heelwork and obedience, and then we started to compete in rally and started off just to fill in the gaps when there was no other competition, and we really enjoyed it.
He used to get really over it, but I thought it was over-excitement, but I've since learned that he was stressed. He would go in the ring and do crazy zoomies and then leave, and I thought I would never get to compete properly with him.
Last November we went to the tryouts for the Crufts team and he was amazing. He went the best he's ever done. Everything fell into place and we got selected and he really put everything we've learned from the classes we've taken and he went to Crufts and did the best round of his life and won his individual class and helped the team come second overall.
Ana Cilursu: Fantastic!
Lizzie Lang: It was a dream come true, so I was a bit emotional that day.
Ann Smorado: Wow.
Lizzie Lang: It all fell into place, but it just all came together.
Sara Seymour: The video is fantastic. Lizzie shared it at the time, and I know it's on YouTube or wherever it is, and it's a fantastic video, Yogi giving a big bounce just before he starts.
Melissa Breau: When I post the podcast, Lizzie, you'll have to share the video again so we can all watch and be awed.
Ann Smorado: I think I watched it at the time when you posted it, but I'd like to see it again.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. What about you, Linlin?
Linlin Cao: My proudest, I think, is my relationship with Niko. He went from this super-anxious and stressed dog that every day has reactions, he had a lot of triggers, like cars, people, dogs of course, noises, noises of cars, bikes, skateboards, scooters, basically everything that was outside was a trigger. He went from that dog that cannot leave the neighborhood, and I probably had an ugly cry every night, to this confident and happy dog to go to trials, and also a very easy dog to live with.
I can take him to hike, and with friends, with other dogs that he never met before. I sometimes take him to patios to eat with us. He loves that because he loves to get food. I have a picture of him sitting next to me and trying to steal my sandwich on a chair on the patio.
I think our relationship … I feel proud that it can happen of how he is today, and also very lucky to have him to help me to be the trainer I am today.
That's why I got Sunny, the second dog. For a long time I thought that he couldn't trial. For a long time I didn't take any trial videos if I go, because it gave me a lot of stress and I don't want to watch it. It took me a year to watch our first ORT, Odor Recognition Test, video. It was a disaster. He was panting and pulling and whining the whole three minutes, so it took me a year to watch that.
But after watching, I realized how much progress he's made, so I put two videos together, the first ORT video, which is a total disaster, and ten months later when we were at NW1 container search. I think everybody who saw that video probably couldn't recognize the same dog. He was bouncy, happy, and found the odor super-fast.
I love ribbons, everybody loves ribbons, but when I think about it, I'm just glad I have him, and I'm glad day-to-day life is very easy to have him around. Since I'm working from home, it's super-easy. He's chill during the day, he just naps on my feet all day, follows me if I get up to get water. He's a really nice dog to have around.
Melissa Breau: Ann, what about you?
Ann Smorado: That first dog, that yellow Lab, that got me down this dog sport path to begin with when I joined that rally class, my proudest accomplishment was putting a utility dog title on him. And a MACH, but the UD is the proudest accomplishment, and I think it's because … I know it's because that dog taught me that I can train a dog. If someone else can teach their dog to do these five things, then I can teach my dog to do those same five things.
Utility and AKC obedience … it's got this … I can't think of the right word, but it's got this mystique about it. It's this class that not everybody can do, and only the best trainers can get their dog in the utility ring. In the classes I went to, it was almost like we were teaching our dogs utility skills, but it almost felt like, "Don't think you're ever going to get there." Not that anybody was ever actively trying to discourage me, but that was the underlying message I got, and I just thought, "I don't see why I can't do that." And so we did.
Utility is a lot of work. You have to be very devoted to utility. You have to want to do obedience to do utility, but it isn't out of reach. And then later on I started doing agility with him, and I couldn't figure out how you could teach a dog how to weave. And I thought, if they can teach their dog how to weave, I can teach my dog how to weave.
The whole thing with utility was the big one, but the whole journey with that dog taught me that I can teach my dog things too. If other people can do it, I can do it too. I just have to break it down and take the time. I don't know. He was a special dog. He was a very special dog too.
Melissa Breau: It feels like the one takeaway from everybody's little story was that it's incredible what you can achieve if you stick with it. Everybody's got that component to their proudest moment of sometimes you have to stick with it, and where you start is not where you finish.
Ann Smorado: Absolutely.
Sara Seymour: I think generally the hardest dogs teach you the most, as well. I've often heard people say, "You don't get the dog you want. You get the dog you need." In the early days I said, "I don't know what it was I needed."
Linlin Cao: I remember every night, just drinking some wine, I think I drank the most wine when working on the reactive. I'd just tell myself, "Tomorrow is a new day. Let's start over again. I have to do it because I love this dog, and I want to try my best to make it work."
Melissa Breau: I want to talk a little bit about the TA stuff a little bit more now that we've had the chance to get to know all of you a little bit. As a TA, you help the Bronze and Silver students in the Facebook study groups and the class, answering questions, watching videos when they need help, or they need a little reassurance, or they get a little stuck basically just helping them stay on course. I know a lot of students struggle with sticking with a full six-week class. Especially if they're not a Gold, they don't feel they have that accountability. Any tips or advice for working through a class consistently or getting the most out of the study groups? Linlin, do you want to start this one?
Linlin Cao: This is a constant struggle and challenge. What helped me is to make a plan in advance. I found if, in the beginning of the week, I read through our lectures and I can write down homework exercises I need to do, I just put into each day, it's a little bit easier for me to stick with it. Today I have some time, I need to read the lecture and then do the exercise, so that's just harder to do because I spend more time. It feels like it.
So I feel prepare in the beginning of the week. And of course I will go back to review a lecture if I cannot think it through or I have questions. I think each day for the session as well, I find it's easier to stick with it if I have a set time. Dinnertime is easiest for me. I set aside part of my dog's dinner, and then if I don't work with them, then they might be hungry. So setting a time, and setting treats aside helps me stick with it.
Also because I have a weekly plan, then I can have a daily plan when I want to work on. But I still struggle, so I love to learn more from others.
Melissa Breau: Lizzie, what about you?
Lizzie Lang: When I first started taking Bronze classes, I'd get quite overwhelmed. I would get around to Week 2 and still needing to work on those exercises when everyone else was progressing, and that's when I would give up. So I've learned to not worry about where everyone else is and work at your own pace. If you're still on Week 2 when everyone else is on Week 5, that's fine. You will get there when you're ready.
Melissa Breau: I like that. That's an important piece of advice to remember, too, is that rushing helps nobody — not you, not your dog. Sara?
Sara Seymour: I would say getting into a habit of videoing everything, even if you never watch it back, just gets you used to it being there, and for the dog as well, depending on what you're doing. It does mean then if something comes up and you've either got a burning question about it or you're not progressing, not having it on video, or if something amazing happens, again not having it on video. That's been a big change for me in the last few years is nearly everything I do gets video-ed. I've got things set up so that I can easily do that as well.
And I think similar to what Lizzie was saying, there's no such thing as behind. You're exactly where you need to be, because people do panic that everybody's moved on and progressed. If I think about mimicry last term, there were certainly people that really struggled getting past or needed to keep working on the earlier parts of it. Then the other stages do click in, the more that you put the work into those early stages. There's no point rushing it. It won't get you there any faster. So just remembering that there's no such thing as behind.
And then as TA, when I'm doing feedback on videos or questions or anything like that, I try to put a task in there, or a question in there, to encourage them to follow up, to try and get more people going back and then doing another video to try and keep people on track.
I've seen it in groups that I'm in, the TA posting, "It's Week 3. How is everybody getting on with exercise X," and keeping them encouraged. I do think it makes a big difference. If I look at Cookie Jar Games last term compared to the previous ones I've TA'd for, there's much more involvement going on there. I think that will build as more people get used to that and get better at that and hopefully making the best use of it and getting the accountability.
Melissa Breau: Ann, what about you?
Ann Smorado: My advice for the Bronze … it really follows along everyone else. I also say video all your training. Just get in the habit of doing that. I do recommend that you do watch it. Maybe you don't feel like watching it right away. I know when I have a training session that I don't feel super-good about, I probably don't watch it for a couple of days and that's OK.
At some point I'll decide to watch it, and nine times out of ten, when I watch it, I realize it's not as bad as I thought. It really looks a lot better than I thought. So I think it's just a good habit to get into. And really that's where the growth occurs — when you do the homework, video it, look at it. Boy, it really helped me grow in a big way as a trainer, and I think that's my advice to the Bronze students too.
The second piece of advice I give them … well, probably the first piece, actually, is just pretend, just tell yourself you're enrolled at Gold. You broke your piggy bank and you got in that class at Gold. You can even write that in your checkbook, that you're in Gold, and work it like you were a Gold student, and put your questions and your videos in study group. If you do that, you're going to make a ton of progress.
Like Sara said, there's no getting behind. You are where you are. But you're going to make a ton of progress if you work it. And if you don't, if it just sits in your library untouched, it's not going to do you much good.
Sara Seymour: Just coming back on the video bit, and that's come out of being a TA as well, I don't know about the other guys, but I've become much, much better at reviewing videos. I'm so used to looking at everybody else's videos and reviewing them and picking up the key points on there. That's made a huge difference in my own training. I can then go back and look at my videos more objectively than perhaps I would have done. The TA role has made a huge difference.
Ann Smorado: I also tell people to try to … and I know most people can't follow all the Gold threads. It can be a lot, overwhelming, it's a lot, especially if it's a bigger class. But if you can find one thread to follow, you can learn a ton. One or two, maybe. I think that's really helpful for Bronze students too.
Melissa Breau: Ana, do you have anything you want to add?
Ana Cilursu: First of all, I would like to thank all the Bronze students and all the Silver students that are in the study groups, because they bring such depths to the class itself. They certainly keep me on my toes. I think they've made me a better trainer and a better observer.
To Ann's point and Sara's point about being better at watching other people's videos, these are students that prior to the TA program, we were all sort of a support group, but people didn't have any way of getting objective feedback. And now that they do, I find that people are very engaged.
The students are like cheerleaders for each other. They watch each other's videos, they comment on each other's videos, and the Bronze students and the Silver students that are active in classes, at least the classes that I have been a TA for, they have driven change in the actual curriculum.
They have brought out some incredibly good points, some things that we've all taken a step back and go, "What if we did this?" Or "What if we added this lecture?" And I think they've contributed a lot to the growth of the program in general. I try to encourage them to be aware of their own journey and where they are, to participate whenever they can, but most of all to take advantage of the camaraderie and the support that they get from the group.
As a TA, I can provide feedback and I ask questions and I post on a weekly basis, "It's Week 2, this is what we're doing." Sometimes I share videos of my own dogs, or if somebody brings up a really good point, I'll turn it into a post so that everybody gets the benefit of it, because I recognize that just like you can't follow all the Golds, you also can't follow all the Bronzes.
Even in my classes, I ask the students to create their own threads. They do an intro post, and their videos and my feedback all go under that thing. It's easier to find them, and it's easier for others to find a particular video. It's very hard to keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. So they are very engaged with each other, and I think as a result, the class becomes rich in knowledge and in experience, and they feel empowered to continue.
I think that's one of the strong points of the TA program is we have given the students the empowerment to be more active and to be more accountable to themselves for their training, because they see other people posting and it's not about "Are we all on the same page?" It's really more about them staying engaged in the process, and I think that is one of the most important things that the program brings. And I think the students learn that.
For me, personally, the opportunity to learn from all these wonderful people and watch them grow — I have students that are now in the NW200 class that were students in the 101 study group, and they've come through every single class. I sit there and I watch videos, and I cheer and I clap and I cry, and I'm so excited for these people. I think that's what is of extreme value for those students to be able to share that with each other and also to have us as their cheerleaders. I think that's huge.
And it's really an honor to be able to do it and to watch these people and to be a part of their journey. I consider it to be an honor. They allow me into their world, into their training — the pajama videos, the "We didn't clean the floor" videos, the "Oh my God, my kitchen is a mess" videos that we've all posted. These people are putting themselves out there and I think it's absolutely fantastic. I really do. I really applaud all the Bronze students and all the study groups. I'm particularly fond of the ones that I've been following along, and they all know who they are.
Melissa Breau: I want to end things off with a favorite piece of training advice. I'll have you each share a piece of training advice that has stuck with you or that means a lot. Sara, can we start with you?
Sara Seymour: Thinking back over some of the stuff I've said earlier, I think it's to listen to your dog, really, and also advocate for them. Because I've done agility, that's all I've done. For 25 years I've always done agility with dogs, and then I suddenly got dogs that didn't really want to do agility, and I kept saying, "But I want to do agility."
Once I took a step back and started listening to him, it wasn't just about not wanting to do agility. It was like, "I like a toy at home, but I don't like a toy out of the house. You need to find something that I want to work with." So taking a step back and working with his reinforcers, and then working on what we wanted to train as a sport or anything like that — that's what made the biggest difference is finding a reinforcement strategy that worked, and that worked anywhere and everywhere and all the time.
We can train anything now because I know how to reinforce it. At the end of the day, it's the learner that chooses the reinforcer. And so I think that's been the biggest thing is listening to the dog, and understanding and working from that basis, rather than going thickheaded straight into "I want to do this."
Melissa Breau: Sometimes our dogs don't always agree with our plans.
Sara Seymour: No, no.
Melissa Breau: Ana?
Ana Cilursu: It's certainly not an original thought, I'm probably blatantly taking it from someone, but it's something that really meant a lot to me, which is, "Forget the mistake, but remember the lesson." Coming from someone who has made many, and who has learned a lot of lessons, I think that sometimes is really the hardest thing. We focus so much on what we did wrong that we tend to lose sight of what that taught us. Once you can change that, and you can get to a point and say, "I'm sorry that happened, but I'm glad that happened, because I learned so much from it," I think that's a really, really important point that we sometimes lose sight of.
There will be mistakes, there will be many, and your dog will forgive them all. And if you're not sure, throw food and move on. I think that is also a really great piece of advice. If I do something and I'm not really sure did I do that correctly, well, here's a cookie, let's start over. The dogs will certainly appreciate that.
But for me, the hardest part has been to look at the lesson and not the mistake. And so if I could impart a little bit of that to other people that are also on their journeys, wherever they may be, that would be my takeaway. Forget the mistake, but remember the lesson.
Sara Seymour: That reminded me of my other favorite thing, which I think I heard it both from Hannah and from Sara Stremming as well: If in doubt, throw food.
Ana Cilursu: Yes, that is totally Hannah, absolutely. The day I read it, I thought, "That's just so brilliant."
Melissa Breau: I do like to think that there's one piece that sometimes people forget, which is if you find that too often you don't know what's going on and you're throwing food, it might be time to stop and look at your lessons. If you find you have to do that more often than not, it might be time to rethink your training plan a little bit. But I think that's a great piece of advice for most people. If something goes wrong, it gives you time to think. Linlin, do you have a favorite piece of advice?
Linlin Cao: I think this one was probably said in this podcast already is, "Train the dog in front of you." My understanding of it is the behavior, emotion, sports — the science behind it is the same. How dogs learn, how we change the behavior, how we change an emotion is the same, but each dog is different, and their environment is different, and when I work with clients, the owners are different.
When I work with the dog, there's no one formula it's based off. I always have to adjust my setup, even sometimes exercise and training plan, just based on that dog. If we understand the goal, the final goal is there. How we get to that goal should be different because each dog is different.
I still remind myself very often because it's easier as a trainer to have "This is a formula that you have to follow." I had a trainer like that to work with. I worked with a trainer like that before, and I know that can be frustrating to the owner and to the dog, so I often remind myself that every time I work with a behavior, and with everything, actually.
Melissa Breau: I think Levi's job on this planet, my English Cocker, is to teach me that lesson over and over and over again. He does not work well on formulas. Lizzie, do you have a lesson for us?
Lizzie Lang: Similar to what Sara said, I always did agility, and when I got Yogi, that was my plan for him, and he had other ideas. It took my friend to point out that he was doing it because I asked him to, not because he particularly wanted to. Once we found a sport that we both enjoyed, I have this amazing dog that can do anything.
Melissa Breau: And Ann?
Ann Smorado: I love what Ana said: "Don't remember the mistake. Remember the lesson." I'm going to remember that. But a really good piece of training advice — there's been so many over the years. I don't know if someone said it, because I had to take my dog out, but Amy Cook once said, "Every time you take your dog out to train, you're teaching them how to feel," or something like that.
When I heard that, I thought, "Whoa." That's a really important lesson to me, because as we all know, every time we take our dogs out and we're training them for whatever we're training them for, if they're not feeling good about whatever's going on, and we stick with our agenda and push it through, we're just teaching the dog to have really bad feelings about whatever it is we want to do.
I've made that mistake a number of times, all with good intentions, of course, but that really changed everything for me, and it helped me. And it's hard. I still don't always … I have a hard time doing it. I'm proud to say I'm much better about it, but it's really helped me learn to recognize when a training scenario or a place or a moment is just not working for my dog today, and accepting that and just moving on.
They're still really young, but I can see the change in how I work with him and how he is, which could partly be him, but I also have seen the change in Hartley since I've woven that piece of advice into my day-to-day training.
Melissa Breau: It's an important one. I'm glad you brought it up. Thank you all so much for coming on the podcast! This was excellent and a lot of fun.
Ann Smorado: It always is. Nothing like meeting up in the afternoon to talk with five dog-training friends.
Sara Seymour: Thank you. It was a pleasure and an honor. Definitely an honor.
Ana Cilursu: Fantastic. Thank you so much.
Melissa Breau: Thank you, ladies, and thank you to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week. I'll be talking to Barbara Lloyd about trauma in dogs.
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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!