E186: Lori Stevens - "Fitness Foundations"

Lori Stevens joined me this week to talk about how to get started in fitness and the benefits of fitness — not just for our dogs, but also in terms of improving their handlers' skills.


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 Lori Stevens.

Lori is an animal behavior consultant, a professional dog trainer, a canine fitness trainer, an animal massage practitioner, and a senior Tellington TTouch® Training practitioner. She continually studies how animal behavior, movement, learning, fitness, and health interact.

She uses intimidation-free, scientific, and innovative methods, in an educational environment, to improve the health, behavior, performance, and fitness of animals. Lori gives workshops, webinars, and online classes, as well as presenting worldwide. She is also the creator of the Balance Harness.

Lori's most recent of three DVDs by Tawzer Dog Videos is co-presented with Kathy Sdao and called "The Gift of a Gray Muzzle: Active Care for Senior Dogs." It focuses on improving the life of senior dogs. She teaches several classes here at FDSA, and today we'll be chatting about her new class on fitness foundations, available in the October session!

Hi Lori, welcome back to the podcast!

Lori Stevens: Hello Melissa. Thank you.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, do you want remind listeners who the critters are that you share your life with?

Lori Stevens: Sure. Only one critter, I guess, unless you count … is my husband a critter? It's Cassie. Cassie is a 15-year-old Aussie and her sport is fitness.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I mentioned in the intro you've got that new class on the schedule this session, Strong Foundations: Fitness Fundamentals. To get us started, why is fitness important for our sport dogs, and why are foundations for fitness important in particular?

Lori Stevens: Fitness is important for all dogs, and especially for sports dogs, but really all dogs in my view. It's important for our dogs to be physically and mentally prepared for what we ask them to do.

The physical part, of course, of fitness includes strengthening, balance, flexibility, proprioception, but there's a mental part to that, and the mental part is confidence, focus, trust, strong communication.

I don't know; for some reason, to me, fitness brings it all together in such a beautiful way, and foundations are just important no matter what we're doing, whether we're doing a sport, whether we're doing fitness.

I can tell you that doing fitness and getting those foundations really solid translates to your dog always having that in their body. My 15-year-old has muscle memory for all these fitness moves. She's had three strokes and her balance is off, but she nails these tuck sits, rock back sits, sphinx down to stand. All the things that are better fitness foundations, she just nails. She has them so in her body. So it's a great thing, I think.

Melissa Breau: I can imagine that that would be a huge benefit, especially now at her age, trying to help keep her in good shape and keep her around as long as you can.

The first line in the class description says the class is about "connection, training, observation, behavior, and the joy of fitness!" I wanted to talk about that. First part first: How does connection fit into fitness?

Lori Stevens: In my view, training and teaching our dogs is about connection. It's about them doing the things that we teach them, but it's also about their connection to us, so it's the joy of living in our lives with our animals.

When we develop strong communication via teaching, we are building a connection, we are building a trust relationship. This assumes, of course, that we're using positive reinforcement in our teaching more than anything else. But there's something about fitness that I love, and maybe I intended to bring this up later in the podcast, but I'm going to say it now, and that's that there's a certain amount of pressure on us as handlers when we're preparing for a trial, or we're preparing for something where we're going to be on and we really need this behavior, a certain behavior, to go well.

In fitness, I think we can be a little bit more relaxed and we can enjoy the whole process of training those fitness behaviors and seeing our dog enjoy them. And that, to me, really helps build that connection.

Melissa Breau: I can see that. What about the observation piece of that? Why are observation skills important for fitness, and can working on fitness actually improve our observation skills?

Lori Stevens: I hope so. That's my big goal. One of my big ones. I think we're taught, when we first learn how to train our dogs, we're taught to look for some body language behaviors in our dogs, and we don't necessarily focus so much on their right hind leg, or how they're going through the process of learning, or did we mark that behavior at the right time, or did we deliver that reinforcement in the most efficient way.

And so, in this course, I hope to really stress observation for people to improve their observation around things that they aren't already spending most of their time observing when they're teaching.

Every week we'll talk about observation. And alignment. Alignment is important because we want the right muscles to be used when the dog is doing a certain exercise.

Slow-motion video is the balm here. It's such a good tool because we can see where we might be messing up our dog. They may not be learning as quickly because we're facing slightly at an angle, or our cue is such that it could be tighter and cleaner and more communicative to our dog, Or we're reinforcing across the room, throwing a treat across the room, and spending most of our time waiting for our dog to find the treat and come back versus maybe reinforcing right next to the platform or book we're working on. There's just so many things that we get into a habit of doing or we take for granted, and so my hope is always that when I'm teaching a class that we're improving our observation skills

Melissa Breau: I like that, and I like that you pulled out the two pieces there. It's not just about body language. It's about actually being able to see the behaviors and making sure that our dog is doing what we want them to be doing.

Lori Stevens: Absolutely.

Melissa Breau: Can you talk a bit more about the types of things that we're specifically looking for when we're working on fitness exercises? What kind of carryover can those skills have on our part as handlers? What carryover does that have for other training?

Lori Stevens: So many of the foundation fitness behaviors are used in sports, for example, the tuck sit, the sphinx down, the stand, the rock back sit. All these things are used in sports, so the better and more practiced our dogs are at them, the more successful they'll be and we will be.

These exercises carry over to our training of anything, because we're actually practicing our teaching, we're practicing having this relationship in a fun environment, and then all of that carries over to teaching any new behaviors.

I would hope that people that take this course will feel that they have acquired more skills themselves. Their dog has acquired more skills in the learning, and they have acquired more skills in the teaching and learning from their dog and how their dog responds. It really is always two-way. We're both a teacher and a learner and our dog is both a teacher and a learner.

Melissa Breau: I like that, and I like that you're intentionally pointing out both roles that we can both improve in the course. Obviously you love fitness. I think there are probably quite a few misconceptions out there, including the idea maybe that all fitness behaviors are just lured, they don't require much training, or the idea that it's basically the gym for the dog, and none of us like the gym, so it can't be fun. Can you debunk some of those myths for me?

Lori Stevens: Sure can. I use luring, and I think that luring is an advanced skill. The way I use luring is to get as quickly to the beginning of a behavior, so I might use a lure two to three times, but then I want to get that lure out of my hand. I want to go straight to an empty hand and shape the rest of the learning process to the final behavior I'm looking for. So I think luring is a useful tool, and I think it's an advanced tool, but we want to get the food out of our hand. We'll be focusing on that.

I think it's a myth that we're always going to keep food in our hand, because just think about if you're following food around, you're not really experiencing all this movement in your body and what you're doing. You're focusing on the food. This is a very mental and physical behavior we're teaching, as most are, and we don't want the food to be the primary focus. We want "How do I get the reinforcement?" to be the primary focus, and it's not reinforcement if you're carrying it around initially. It's following the food. So that's a myth for sure.

I'm just hoping everybody will be a better teacher, really, and experience the joy of training, and maybe training in a new way for those that don't have a lot of training experience or those maybe think that fitness is mostly about luring. I hope people get better communication with their dogs, a better connection, better trust.

Let's go to your gym example. I hate going to the gym if what I'm going to do is lift weights and sit there for thirty seconds or a minute, and then do my second set, and then wait thirty seconds to a minute, whatever it is, then do my third set. I would much prefer doing circuit training, where I can keep going. I have three or four exercises in a row I'm going to do, and I do a set, I go to the next one, I go to the next one.

Ideally that's what we want to do with our dogs. We want to keep that training momentum and we want to make it fun. We don't want to go, "We're going to do thirty seconds of this, or ten reps of this. You just hang out here, dog. I'll get back to you in a minute." So we can keep that training momentum and that joy going.

Melissa Breau: The difference between maxing yourself out every time and doing stuff that's enjoyable and moving your body.

Lori Stevens: Right.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned some of the skills in there. You mentioned the tuck sit and the sphinx down and the rock back sit and isolated bits and pieces. Can you talk more about the skills that the class includes and the stuff that you're teaching?

Lori Stevens: We'll include those, but one of the things we're going to be doing is learning is how to stand strong. So many dogs are in the habit of training is all about hurrying up and doing a lot of things, but being able to stand strong is an important skill. So we'll work on standing.

And we'll work on targeting, a lot of the skills that you would use in treibball, for example, which I hear you have a class this term. We'll do spins, we'll do side stepping, we'll do backing up, we'll do a lot of basic behaviors.

However, I caution people this is not a beginner class. It can be taken by beginners, that's fine, but it can also be taken by advanced trainers and intermediate trainers, wherever you feel you are on that spectrum, because I think it's always useful to have another set of eyes on us. We can always improve. What is Ken Ramirez's line? Advanced training is just the basics done really well. So this will hopefully give us a chance to work on the basics and do them really well.

Melissa Breau: We talked a little bit about luring and we talked a little bit about the gym. Are there other misconceptions that people tend to have about fitness that you want to debunk or talk through?

Lori Stevens: I sure do. I don't think you need a lot of fancy equipment, so this class we're going to need very minimal equipment. You don't have to buy anything, really, except for anti-slip material.

Years ago, when fitness first started, any concept of fitness for dogs, everybody bought a Peanut and everybody assumed you needed to put your dog on a Peanut. I like working lower to the ground. I like staying safe. I use more equipment in my Fitness In Five course, which is in April, which I think this class is a good prep for.

But I want to be able to do fitness out and about on my walks. I can use a log, I can use rocks, I can use stairs, I can use a park bench, I can use so many things. And in my house … I don't have bricks in the house, but I have bricks in the back yard. I can use a plank, a long piece of wood with anti-slip material on it. I can use all sorts of things that are just household items. So I think it's a myth that we need to buy a bunch of fancy equipment and that's the only way we're going to be able to keep our dogs fit. And I think it's a turn-off for some people. That's one thing.

The second thing is I think a lot of people buy the equipment before they've experienced any fitness, and they want to hurry up and use the most advanced equipment. I think, again, we really need to build those foundations before we start adding more and more equipment, there are kind of two sides to that.

Melissa Breau: It's like the Cirque du Soleil folks, how they do those fancy gymnastics up in the air. It's like, oh yeah, let's throw you on that equipment on your first day at the gym. See how that goes.

Lori Stevens: Yeah, exactly.

Melissa Breau: In the syllabus you specifically call out the environment a couple of times. I was really curious how that fits into fitness and in the class.

Lori Stevens: Anytime we're teaching a behavior, the environment is important, and when we're teaching fitness, it's no different. So when we're learning these foundations, we want to make sure we're working on a nonslip surface.

This is funny to me because … well, not funny, but it's just something I've observed a lot over the years of teaching this, and that is that people will swear to me, "It is not slippery. This platform is not slippery." I'll say, "OK, can you just humor me and put anti-slip material on it and let's look at the difference?" And it's a huge difference. So even if we don't see our dog's paws slip, sometimes they're slipping.

That's part of the environment, the flooring, being able to work on a yoga mat versus being able to work on the linoleum or hardwood. You don't want to start on anything a slippery floor. You want to start on a yoga mat or a type of carpeting or rubber flooring that isn't slippery.

Having our treats ready is part of the environment, having them in a pouch or a pocket. Knowing what we're going to do and stepping up to do those and setting up.

Let's just say we're going to work on a platform. If we put on the floor a platform and a Fitbone and a Peanut and a chew toy for later, we've got an environment that's crowded with choices, so how can we make the environment conducive so that the shortest path to learning occurs. We don't have to deal with all the distractions of other dogs running around or barking, or which piece of equipment do I get on, "I want to get on this one and this one and this one. I'm just going to go chew on this toy."

So the environment matters, and we are part of that environment. If all of a sudden we show up to train out of the blue on stilts and in a clown outfit, we've just set our environment up for possible failure.

Melissa Breau: It would be quite the bombproof dog who could handle stilts without any prior training.

Lori Stevens: Yeah, it would be pretty amazing if we could do that, if we could walk on them.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, right. Can you talk us through an example of the type of workout students will wind up working through in this class with their dog?

Lori Stevens: We're going to go through focusing on two behaviors a week. Once we have three or four behaviors, we can work on those three and four behaviors and we can do a circuit through those three or four behaviors. I'm not going to really talk about workouts as much as I do later in Fitness In Five. I'm going to talk about workouts in terms of choosing three or four exercises and cycling through them, doing a circuit with those three or four exercises.

But first I really want people to focus on all the other things around these behaviors. I'm not even going to introduce circuit training early on, even though it is a sample lecture. I'm going to introduce it a little bit later in the course, because now what we're doing is learning about observation, we're learning about the environment, we're learning about our dog's alignment, we're building that connection, we're having fun, all of those things. To try and do that plus a workout every week would be a lot.

I don't know if that helps, but we will do circuit training, but we'll do it closer to the last part of the class rather than the beginning part of the class, when we don't have enough behaviors yet.

Melissa Breau: Just to clarify, when you're talking about circuit training, you are talking about one behavior a few times and then on to the next behavior, right? Not like an obstacle course, where it's one behavior, second behavior, third behavior, and back, right?

Lori Stevens: The opposite, yeah.

Melissa Breau: The opposite? OK.

Lori Stevens: What I'm talking about is let's say we're going to do six to ten sit to stands as our behavior, six to ten side steps, that sort of thing, and we're going to do a set of three of those. We would do one set of sit to stands, then we'll go to side stepping, then we'll go to whatever the next thing is, paws up on something, and then we'll come back to the second set of sit to stands, so it's basically a circuit where we're doing one set for each thing. We just keep going. So we keep the interest level up and we get a break from that one exercise. It's important that we don't choose four exercises that stress working with a particular set of muscles. We want to mix it up. We want to move the dog.

Melissa Breau: That makes sense. If folks are listening and they're interested in the class, you mentioned you don't need much in terms of equipment, you mentioned the no-slip surface. Are there skills they need before signing up? Are there things they need before signing up? Maybe you could talk about who the class is a good fit for?

Lori Stevens: They will need a yoga mat and anti-slip material, both of those things. The yoga mat is for if they don't have rubber flooring or some kind of carpet that's not slippery. They can use a book or two wrapped in anti-slip material, or they can use a platform and a book, or platforms. It just depends on what they have. They can buy an aerobic platform, for example, a human one, and put anti-slip material on it. I get kind of obsessed about the anti-slip material, but anyway …

Really, they don't have to have a lot of training skills. It's helpful if they have a little training, probably. The first week I'm going to post a lot about training, and some of it is an overlap with Fitness In Five, just things to remember about training. But for sure beginner trainers can take it, and for sure intermediate and advanced trainers can take the course, so it really is the spectrum and at Gold, which filled right away. I was super-happy about that.

The Gold students, there will be people in there that have taken Fitness In Five, and there will be people that have never taken my courses and I have no idea what kind of training. We'll just go to wherever. With each team, it's wherever they're at. That's what we'll focus on. Gold to Gold, it doesn't matter at all. The super-big bonus about this class is that Ellen Yoakum is our TA, and the Facebook group should be really fun and really active, and I'm going to pop in there a couple of times, so a little bit more than I usually do. So I think we're going to have a cool setup and it should be really fun.

Melissa Breau: That sounds awesome. Anything else that folks need to know or should know about the class?

Lori Stevens: Well, there's plenty of room in Bronze and Silver, so sign up. I hope to see you there. I think this is a really good course to take before Fitness In Five, which is a lot of stuff. Fitness In Five will be taught April 1, and so this is a really good prep course for that one.

But also it's a prep course for any conditioning course, so if you're going to take another conditioning course, this is also good prep for that. I think you'll just go in with better skills and you'll get more out of a class that covers all aspects of fitness than you would if you just go into that class and at the same time you're learning everything else about fitness.

You're learning these foundation skills, and we can only learn so much at once, really. I love Fitness In Five because people take it over and over and over again, but I think this is going to help people take that and get more out of it.

Melissa Breau: As a final question, the one that I've been asking everybody lately, what's a lesson that you've learned, or something you've been reminded of lately, when it comes to dog training?

Lori Stevens: I hope it can be that I'm learning it from a dog, because what I'm learning is about being flexible. When you have an over-15-year-old dog who has had three strokes, some days she's stronger than other days, some days she's more into training than other days.

We usually walk two to three miles a day and we always do at least one fitness session a day, but I might think we're going to do x, but reading her, I might change that to a simpler exercise just because the one I planned isn't going well.

So she's teaching me to be quite flexible and to move with her, instead of going, "You used to do this. Let's do ten of these and then ten of these." And I do circuit training with her, too, just to keep her behavior momentum up.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I think that's important. It's a slightly different take on "Train the dog in front of you," for different reasons, but it gets at that message too.

Lori Stevens: Yeah.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Lori!

Lori Stevens: Thank you, Melissa. I appreciate it. It was fun talking to you.

Melissa Breau: Always. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in!

We'll be back next week, this time for a reverse interview. Sara Seymour is going to join me and interview me for a change, and we'll talk mostly about treibball!

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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