E187: Melissa Breau - "A Little Bit of Background..."

Today we flip the script — Sara Seymour comes on the podcast to interview Melissa. We talk treibball, marketing, and more!


Sara Seymour: This is Sara Seymour 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.

Before you start to panic, there is a very good reason for this slight change to your expected broadcast! Today's very special guest is our one and only Melissa Breau.

Melissa is FDSA's resident marketing geek. She teaches several marketing classes here at FDSA, including Marketing for Pet Professionals and Building a Wordpress Website. In addition to her marketing classes, Melissa teaches FDSA's treibball classes and workshops.

She also hosts the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast, normally. She coordinates webinars and workshops, handles much of FDSA's email marketing, runs the Ripple Effect group for dog trainers using Fenzi principles, and completes other random odds and ends as needed. She does sleep, apparently, as well. She is currently owned by Levi, who is an English Cocker Spaniel, and a small tuxedo kitty, and also lives with her boyfriend's GSD, Alibi.

Melissa's GSD, Riley, who had a championship in treibball, passed away in March of 2020. Sorry to hear that.

You can learn more about Melissa on her website, which is www.clickandrepeat.com.

Hi Melissa! Welcome to the podcast.

Melissa Breau: Hi Sara. It's weird to be on this side of the mic, but thank you for doing this.

Sara Seymour: No problem at all. We're excited to hear a little bit about you for a change. So, to start with, tell us about your dogs and what you're working on with them at the moment.

Melissa Breau: Of course. I've got Levi, he's my little one. He's the one that most people probably have heard me talk about. He is about 3-and-a-half now. He's an English Cocker Spaniel, bench bred, actually bred by my grandmother. We'll talk about that more in a little bit.

Right now we're working on our TEAM 1 title and learning how to work even when we're distracted. He's an intact boy and it's taken him quite some time to grow up a little bit. So he's still learning that I can be as interesting or rewarding as the rest of the world around us. I'm hoping to finish him in conformation when the world eventually opens back up and that's a thing again.

Other than Levi, I live with, as you mentioned in the intro, my boyfriend's dog, Alibi, right now. I have her here while he is deployed overseas. She is a 5-year-old German Shepherd. Since she's a German Shepherd, not surprisingly we are working on a bit of light reactivity. Other than that, mostly we just play around, working on whatever strikes my fancy during a given training session. Yesterday we did a little bit of fun with a tunnel, and we practiced some jumps, and we practiced getting on and off of things just for fun. So we shape random things and play around and do whatever is convenient.

In addition to my dogs, I live with a little tuxedo kitty who has been with me for forever and ever. I got her when I was still living in New York City, and she has really trained me instead of the other way around. She is super-clear when her food bowl is empty or when it is my job to go refill it, and she definitely lets me know when she thinks there's a door I've shut that I shouldn't have.

So that's my crew.

Sara Seymour: Cats definitely are the ones training us rather than us training them. How did you originally get into dog sports?

Melissa Breau: I grew up in the dog world, as I like to put it. My parents met doing junior handler conformation classes when they were teenagers in high school. Both my grandmothers bred. My dad's mom bred Poodles, Standards and Toys, and my mom's mom bred English Cocker Spaniels.

My parents met that way, and so I grew up in that world and around that world. I have a very distinct memory when I was somewhere around 10, give or take a few years, going with my grandmother to teach an obedience club class. So I've been around that for a long time.

After college, I was living in New York City and I wanted a dog. I couldn't really have one, living in the city. I was at work for eight hours, plus an hour of transit time each direction, so it wasn't feasible. But I found Denise's blog and read literally the entire thing, from her very first post all the way through to her most recent post at the time, and I felt that I knew that I really wanted to do competitive obedience.

So when I adopted Riley a little over ten years ago, I was pretty sure that I wanted to compete in obedience with her. We never really got there, but we took lots of training classes locally and eventually wound up in treibball, which is the sport that I actually have done and have real experience in.

Ry and I started out in ATA, the American Tribball Association, and we were one of the first dogs in ATA to get a championship title. I want to say we were the seventh of all time, but I'm not positive on that number. I could be off by a few.

Sara Seymour: Either way, it's an amazing achievement. It definitely sounds that dogs sports and dogs were in your blood, and you probably didn't have much choice in getting into that, from the sounds of it.

Melissa Breau: Pretty much.

Sara Seymour: So linked into that then, since obviously you mentioned before you got Riley that you'd read Denise's blogs. What got you started on the R+ journey, and at what point did you get introduced to clicker training?

Melissa Breau: Growing up, we definitely had dogs in the house, but I wouldn't say that there was necessarily a training method that the family followed. We always just had easy dogs growing up.

My parents, while they did competitive stuff when they were in high school, once they grew up and got married, dogs took on more of a family dog role and less of a doing things role. Even though my dad had done quite a bit of competitive obedience stuff with his Standard Poodle growing up, and I grew up hearing those stories, we didn't really do any of that with any of the dogs we had in my childhood. So I don't remember anything specific around training with them.

When I adopted Riley, she came to me from her foster with a prong collar, and even though I'd spent a while following Denise at that point, that's where we started out. I was told if I wanted to have nice loose-leash walking with her, by her foster mother, that I should just practice figure-eights with her for fifteen minutes a night with her in her prong collar and I would never have a problem. That might have worked, who knows; I wasn't very good about doing it.

As I mentioned, I'd read Denise's blog at that point, I'd found a local training class that I enrolled in, and between those two things, pretty quickly I was pretty deep in the positive training community. My local trainer definitely was a positive trainer and we worked a ton with her, and eventually I started teaching for her. That got me using other methods pretty quickly, and I, through Denise, found FDSA and was taking Bronze classes and reading everything I could get my hands on. I'm one of those people who likes to research things quite in-depth before doing them, so I did quite a bit of reading and learning as much as I could before applying. It took time, but eventually positive training won me over.

Sara Seymour: I agree with you about I like to read all the things and then go and try them. You found FDSA and started taking classes. How did you come to be involved with FDSA in the capacity that you are now?

Melissa Breau: That's a fun story. It started off with camp. I went to camp, and I went as a volunteer so that I could go without having to pay for camp. Although as a volunteer I was still footing the bill for my hotel, at least it got me into camp itself.

So I volunteered to work it, and after camp, which was an amazing weekend, I reached out to Denise and she pointed me at Teri, and basically I approached them and was like, "I would love to be more involved in making this happen in the future." Since I reached out when there was a need, when they had something that they were looking for someone to do, they said, "Would you be interested in doing this?"

They started me out running the scholarship fund. My very first FDSA job was looking at the FDSA scholarships that come in and approving them. Eventually I decided that I wanted to do a dog training podcast, and I happened to mention it to Denise. I wanted to run it by her mostly because I knew that I'd want to invite a lot of the FDSA instructors on the show. Once we got talking about it, she was like, "Why don't we make it an FDSA podcast instead? It seems like it will benefit the school."

From there, it's history. I started doing the podcast, I was talking to Denise more often, I was talking to Teri more often, I was gradually becoming more involved in stuff going on at the school.

After the podcast launch, we ended up coming up with the webinar program. Once that had been around for a while, we came up with the workshops, and now we're working on all sorts of fun projects behind the scenes. I usually spend roughly ten hours of work a week for FDSA, including hosting webinars, so that's sort of my part-time job, in addition to running my own business.

Sara Seymour: You get a surprising amount done in those ten hours.

Melissa Breau: I get that a lot. It's funny because it really is only ten hours. I time it, and everything is time blocked, so it really is about ten hours a week.

But what folks may not actually realize, like I mentioned a couple of the projects. I mentioned the podcast and the webinar and the workshop, but I don't know that people realize quite how many ideas Denise tends to have, and how many things she tends to have floating around in the back of her head at any given time. She never really stops thinking of new ideas ever, so we've probably got three to four projects in the works behind the scenes at any given time. She likes to tease stuff, but a lot of the time there's even more going on than folks know about.

Sara Seymour: I think definitely you get that impression if you follow Denise's social media and things that are going on. She's got an incredible amount of energy and is just on the go, and yes, lots going through her mind at any one time. Well done for trying to keep up with her.

Melissa Breau: It's definitely an attempt to keep up with her, sometimes more successfully than others. Let's put it that way.

Sara Seymour: Yeah, interesting times. This term you've got your foundation treibball class, which is something I know nothing about. So talk us through treibball, what is it, and who the class is for.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Treibball is … a lot of people think of it as ball herding. It's a combination between something like soccer and something like billiards, so pool, for those of you that know it better by that name. The ultimate game is eight balls on the field in the same shape as you would when you're going to play pool. So you've got them in a triangle shape on the field, and the dog brings them to a goal roughly the size of a soccer goal, one at a time. Depending on what level you're at, that may look slightly different, but that's the basic concept of the game.

Sara Seymour: They're not small balls. We're talking big balls there, exercise-type balls.

Melissa Breau: Yes. We use exercise balls, the same ones you might use if you were in a gym Pilates class or cardio class, where they have the balls that you can lay back on and do sit-ups on, or something like that. Exact same ones. You can get them usually for about five bucks at a discount store somewhere here in the U.S.

The class itself takes you from the absolute beginning through a novice level or pre-novice level title in either ATA or NATE. It's a little different than most classes because the sport is a little bit newer than a lot of the sports that we teach at FDSA. The class only runs once a year, so what I've done is I release all the lectures the first day of class.

The class is for both people who are brand new to the sport, and for those people who maybe have been introduced to the sport somewhere else or taken some stuff with me before and want to jump in and work from where they're currently at. So I release all the lectures on day one; they're all currently available if you were to go sign up today.

The Gold students start off by showing a baseline video, and we identify where in the lectures they should jump in. For Silver students it's a similar process. You figure out roughly where you want to start. If you're a Bronze student you can either choose to work directly from the beginning and go all the way through the lectures from One through to Week Six, or you can choose to start based on what your dog knows. A lot of dogs have a basic targeting behavior, and that's in our Week One lectures. So if your dog has that, you can probably skip that lecture, for example. So it's a little bit different from most of the FDSA classes, but really anybody can take it, regardless of your experience with the sport.

It's particularly good, I personally think, for dogs who maybe are retired agility dogs or retired from another sport, especially for physical reasons. It's much lower impact than a lot of your other dog sports out there. There's no jumping, there's no obstacles to worry about, so it can be a little bit easier on the body for those dogs who may be still really active and want to do things, but their bodies can't quite handle as much anymore.

It can also be a really good sport if you have a dog who is reactive or struggles a little bit being around strange people or strange dogs. Both in-person and virtual competition options exist. In-person competitions are rare. You have to find a group in your area in order to do them. But even at in-person competitions, the competition field is usually set up to be reactive-dog friendly.

There's no other dogs near the field, it's in the rules that other dogs are not allowed to sit field-side, and usually the only people who are … there's never anybody inside the ring with you. The judges are always just outside the ring. So long as you don't have a dog that is so upset by people that they can't stand somebody standing on the other side of a barrier from them, it's actually a pretty friendly sport for dogs that have a little bit of reactivity or fear.

Other than that, it's good for dogs who want to work on stimulus control. It is a sport where that's pretty important. We need some impulse control to not push any which ball any which way. You need to learn to push the ball when I tell you to push the ball, and push which ball I tell you to push. And then it's really great for dogs who struggle a little bit with distance. We really build quite a few distance skills into the game.

Sara Seymour: So lots of different things going on there. As we recall, this just started, so what teams have you got at Gold this time? What dogs have you got, so that people might like to follow?

Melissa Breau: Let me open up my classroom and then I'll be able to answer that question just a little bit better. I've got a pretty good mix this term, though, between Gold students who have some experience and Gold students who are brand new. So depending on where you are, there'll be somebody there for you to follow no matter what.

We've got one Gold student who's been playing the game for about four years, but hasn't really worked on it super-recently and so has some rusty skills, so we're going to work with them. I've got a couple of students who took my treibball workshop a few months ago, I think it was back in August, so they've been working independently for the last month or two, and now they're jumping back in.

A few folks are just about ready to test for their NATE — which is the National Association of Treibball Enthusiasts — pre-novice title, so some folks will probably do that during this class, so long as I can encourage them to do that, because I think they're just about ready. And then we've some folks who are total newbies, who have never seen a ball before and are starting right at Lecture One. Maybe they have a targeting behavior, but that's it. So full range at Gold this time.

Sara Seymour: Is there a mixture of breeds as well, or do you tend to see particular breeds that excel at it?

Melissa Breau: That's a funny question. We do have quite a mix of breeds in class. We have some Labs, we have some herding dogs, we have a Bernedoodle at Gold. You do tend to see herding people more interested in treibball. I think that's more because their dogs have herding instincts and they're looking for an output for that energy, some way that they can use it that doesn't involve having to own sheep.

But I've definitely seen dogs who are not herding dogs be super-successful at the sport. The trainer I trained under had a Jack Russell Terrier who played the sport, and it was absolutely adorable to watch him play, because he preferred to play with the big balls. Small dogs can play with smaller balls, but he preferred the big ones, and he would leap straight up in the air to see over them, to see her, and that was pretty cute.

That said, I will say, and I posted a video about this — we have an FDSA instructors group and we were chatting about this the other day — for some reason, Belgian Tervs seem to pick up the sport ridiculously quickly. Even compared to other herding dogs or whatever, they seem to be particularly skilled at the sport. I've had a few of them come through the class now, and each time it seems to really appeal to their particular herding instincts, whatever the differences there, because I'm not a super herding dog person, but their instinct seem to work real well for the game. But everybody can play. It's not limited to herding dogs.

Sara Seymour: You mentioned in there that it's all built up on distance. In starting stages, does it need a lot of space for it, because obviously in half of the world we're heading into winter and in half of the world we're having summer, so some have got more access to outside and larger spaces than others. Does it need a lot of space?

Melissa Breau: Good question. It doesn't for the early stages. Eventually you do, so a full-size field is … I think it's 40 feet by 55 feet … is a normal, standard-size field for most of the organizations. Don't quote me on that. I'm going from memory, and I do not have a great memory for numbers. But it's a larger field for an actual competition field.

But for the initial steps, like the first couple of weeks, you can do those in your living room. I did almost all the lectures up through Week Three in my house. Inside I don't have a large training room or anything. I just did them in my living room around the couch. So a lot of the foundation skills can be built up in a relatively small space. If you have a small dog, you can use an even smaller space. If you have a big dog, you need enough room for your dog to move around a little bit. You want you, the dog, and the ball to all at least fit in the space. But beyond that, you don't need a ton of extra room until you get a little bit further in the game.

Sara Seymour: Registration, once this goes out, will still be open, so people have got until the 15th of October to sign up at the usual FenziDogSportsAcademy.com. So hopefully a few more people will have their interest sparked in something new to try with their dogs.

Melissa Breau: I would love to see them.

Sara Seymour: Moving on a little bit from the triebball, because your other classes relate to building a website and marketing, do you want to tell us a little bit more about those for next time they come around?

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. The marketing and website classes will probably happen in spring of next year. I haven't decided exactly when they're going to run yet, but they'll happen sometime in early 2021.

The website class is what it sounds like. These are the two things I spend the majority of my life working on. I've been in marketing for over ten years now, going on fifteen years, I think, which is a little scary to think about. So that's what I spend most of my life on these days. So I've been in marketing a long time.

I mostly build websites for dog trainers. That is what I do with 90 percent of my time. When I'm not working on FDSA stuff, that's usually where you'll find me. During the website class, we build a website from the ground up, so I take you through literally every step of the process, from buying your domain name, setting up your hosting account, actually building the website, and by the end of six weeks, if you keep up with the lectures, you should have a finished website running along.

It's a super-fantastic deal. It's an incredibly high-value class for those who need a website. You get something that you can continue to update heading into the future, you get a website that is super-flexible in terms of making it look the way you want it to look, and the lectures are incredibly detailed. I have to redo probably 75 percent of the lectures each time the class runs because the technology updates. I include screen shots of every button you need to click, and videos of me walking through each step of the process, too, so that there is both video and written instructions for whichever way you prefer to learn.

The marketing class, by contrast, is a little higher level. So while the website class is super-step-by-step, marketing is a little more art and a little bit less science, but there's actually still more science behind it than people seem to realize.

Marketing, at least from my perspective, is getting people who have never heard of you before to buy the stuff that you sell. How do you take somebody who doesn't even know that you exist on this planet and get them to the point where they're ready to hand you their money. As you can imagine, that is a complicated process. But I think a lot of people tend to set up a business or build a website and expect stuff to happen, and it's a little more complicated than that.

Really, it's not a "Build it and they will come" scenario. A website will not do any good if no one comes to the website. So you have to think about how you're going to get people there, how you're going to reach out to find people who don't know that you exist, how you can make those connections, and do it at scale, not just on a one-to-one, because eventually you are going to run out of all the people that your mother knows and your father knows and your immediate, close personal friends know that they can recommend to you. And while recommendations are amazing, and they can be a fantastic source of business, most businesses can't survive on recommendations alone.

So that's really what we look at in the marketing class. We go through what the pieces are there, what some of the common mistakes folks make are, how to know what's working, what's not working, if you're trying things like Facebook and Instagram and YouTube, and really look at those things and be like, "Am I spending time doing things that aren't even helping me, or am I spending time in a way that's actually effective?" By the end of the class, people have a pretty solid understanding of how marketing works, and a marketing plan to help them bring in business.

Sara Seymour: And so people can just keep an eye on the FDSA website to see when those come back through on the schedule.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, or if you go to my website, I have an email list, and I usually do a semi-decent job of reminding folks, somewhere around the time that class starts, that those are happening back on the schedule, if you're interested. So if you are worried that you'll miss them when they come up on the FDSA site, you can certainly go to my website and sign up for my email list, and I'll let you know when they're up.

Sara Seymour: As a reminder, that's www.clickandrepeat.com.

Melissa Breau: Thank you, Sara.

Sara Seymour: You're welcome. So finally, the way you end every episode with a new guest, what's the dog-related accomplishment that you're proudest of?

Melissa Breau: I'm going to do what most of our guests do and cheat. I'm going to share two. The first one is definitely earning our championship title in treibball, me and Ry.

This question has come up before on the alumni list, where folks ask, "How do you explain to somebody who doesn't do dog sports why you want to do dog sports?" I posted a comment when that came up along the lines of there's not really a way to explain to somebody the way that it feels when you and your dog are truly working together as a team and accomplishing this thing that you've trained and worked so hard for, and you're totally in sync, and it's like you're talking to each other directly.

That's what it felt like to run Riley in triebball. It was just this incredible feeling. We'd step on the field and we trained all our behaviors to this fluency where she knew what I was asking her to do because of the way we communicated, not necessarily because it was a communication that somebody else would be able to watch and say, "That's what you're doing there."

It was part intuition and part we worked together to the point where things were just incredibly, incredibly fluent, and it felt so good to compete with her. We were both so excited to step on the field and have fun and play our game. And that championship run was the perfect coming together of all of that, where I could just send her out and direct her where I needed her to be at that point.

A lot of times in triebball you'll see handlers teach their dogs to go out to a ball, sit behind it, and wait. With Ry, it was kind of the equivalent of a running contact in agility, where I could send her out and I could ask her to push, based on where she was, and she would understand which ball I was referring to, just because we had practiced so much that I both knew which ball she would go to, based on where she was in motion, and she knew which ball I wanted her to go to, based on where she was in motion. So it was just a really cool feeling of teamwork. That's my first one.

My second one is with my current little guy. We are really finally learning how to work as a team. It has taken us a really long time. He, as I mentioned at the beginning, is 3-and-a-half now, and partly it's that he is maturing finally. He is growing a brain. He is an intact boy, and he is very aware that he is an intact boy. The world is a very exciting place for him. And partly it's that I'm learning to train him in a way that works for him, learning how to really train the dog that I've got in front of me, instead of necessarily just following the formula or looking at how other people have trained similar things, and figuring out how to communicate with him on his level in a way that he understands.

I'm not perfect yet, we've still got a long way to go, we've got a lot of growing to do, but we're getting there. It's really cool still when we have those moments where we have tiny glimmers of excellence and brilliance, and so that feels really good. I'm pretty proud that I've stuck with it, and we've stuck with it, and that we're starting to come together as a team.

Sara Seymour: I can totally relate to the Cocker Spaniel taking a while to mature. Yeah…

Melissa Breau: It's a good thing they live a long time.

Sara Seymour: The next two, with the number of people that you've interviewed and workshops you've watched and webinars that you've been part of, you obviously have lots of exposure to lots of these. What's the best piece of training advice that you've heard?

Melissa Breau: Wow, now you've really built that up for me. I had to go back and look through some old podcast transcripts to find the one that I wanted to reference, which was something that Sue Ailsby said the very first time that I interviewed her. We were talking about training and about the way that training works, and she said, "If you don't have focus, you need to stop working on something else, and go back and get focus."

She had this awesome analogy about you don't leave the house without putting on your clothes, and you can't train your dog until your dog is focused. It's an idea that we see a lot in a lot of the materials at FDSA. Deb Jones talks about it in her focus classes, this idea that if you don't have the dog, you can't really train anything. Denise talks about it a little bit in terms of engagement. That's the core idea there — you need the dog opted in before you can get anywhere.

But something in the way that Sue phrased it in Sue's analogy struck home for me, this idea that focus is like getting dressed in the morning. You really, truly can't do anything until your dog is tuned in.

It's been a serious lesson I've had to learn with Levi. We spent the last year more learning it, how to focus, how to get that piece of the puzzle. Now, while we're not there in all environments, we've got it in some environments and in the places where we train, and the rest is coming so much more easily.

Sara Seymour: I like that analogy of you can't leave the house without putting your clothes on. Well, you can, but you shouldn't.

Melissa Breau: Right.

Sara Seymour: Finally, who is someone else in the dog world that you look up to?

Melissa Breau: This question is almost not fair for the same reason that you were alluding to with the last one. I have so much exposure to so many awesome, amazing folks at FDSA. Of course there are the obvious folks: Denise and Shade and Deb and so many of the trainers are doing leading-edge training and learning new things, and I'm blessed to be in a position where I can talk to a lot of them one-on-one, and ask them questions sometimes, and be involved in some of those conversations that they have with each other.

So I had to think hard about who I wanted to talk about here, and while they're all amazing and I adore all of them, I thought I would share somebody who maybe I don't think other people have quite realized is quite as brilliant as I happen to think she is. So that's Sara Brueske.

Every single time I watch her train, I find myself thinking, I want to train like that someday. She's a clean trainer, and she's an excellent trainer, and her training is just phenomenal to watch. She's super-generous, she tends to share lots of her videos on her Facebook page, if folks want to go stalk her. She's going to hopefully not hate me that I just sent a bunch of people to her Facebook page. She's my pick. She's somebody that when I watch, I go, "Yeah, I would like to train like that."

Sara Seymour: I absolutely agree about super-clean. She's one of the cleanest trainers, and as you say, shares so much on her Facebook page. A lot to be got from watching the stuff that she puts out there. So good pick.

Melissa Breau: Thank you.

Sara Seymour: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Melissa, and thanks to our listeners for tuning in.

Melissa Breau: Thank you Sara.

Sara Seymour: You're welcome. Melissa will be back next week hosting again. If you haven't already, subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have the 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!

Trainer Persistence and Problem Solving: Training ...
Building a Breathtaking Back Up!

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to https://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/