E191: Julie Flanery - "How do I train that?"

How do YOU choose which technique(s) you'll use for a particular behavior? We do a deep dive into that question with Julie Flanery in this week's podcast.

Transcription

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 Julie Flanery.

Julie has been working professionally with dogs and their handlers since 1993. She focuses on the needs of the dog and helping people form a strong relationship through clear communication and positive reinforcement.

She has placed Obedience, Freestyle, Rally, Rally-FrEe, Parkour, Agility, and Trick Dog titles on her dogs. She began competing in Musical Freestyle in 1999, and has since earned two Championships, two Grand Championships, and an Elite Grand Championship in Freestyle and Heelwork to Music. In 2001 she was named Trainer of the Year by the World Canine Freestyle Organization and has been a competition freestyle judge since 2003.

In 2012, Julie developed the sport of Rally-FrEe to help freestylers increase the quality and precision of their performances. It has since become a stand-alone sport enjoyed by dog sport enthusiasts all over the world. Julie is a workshop and seminar presenter both nationally and internationally. She currently trains and competes with her Tibetan Terrier and mixed breed in both Musical Freestyle and Rally-FrEe.

Welcome back to the podcast Julie!

Julie Flanery: Thanks, Melissa.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, do you want to remind us and share a little bit of information about your dogs?

Julie Flanery: I have two dogs, as you said. Kashi is my Tibetan Terrier. She turned 10 in August, and I just recently retired her from competition, so we're having a lot of fun delving a little bit more into some of the concept training, such as mimicry. I started some work with teaching her how to repeat behaviors, so if she does a particular behavior and I give the cue "repeat," then she does that behavior again. That's cool in that I am better able to capture behaviors with that. And doing some name game things, like teaching her the names of certain objects so that she can find that particular object. That's been fun to not have the pressure of competition that you're always having to work on something towards competition and performance. We just get to play with these little things that are of interest to me.

Phee is my mixed breed. She is Australian Shepherd and Shih Tzu, with a few other things mixed in. She is really starting to come into her own now. Her name is Phoenix, but I think I'm going to change her name to Phenomenal, because she's been doing so great lately, and I'm just really pleased with how she's been working. She just earned her first skills test title for Rally-FrEe, and we're going to go ahead and start to compete with her next month, so I'm really excited about how she's doing.

Melissa Breau: How exciting! That's so fun. I'm excited for you that you're going to start entering her in stuff.

Julie Flanery: I'm excited too.

Melissa Breau: To transition here to our topic for today, let's say that you've decided to teach one of your girls a new behavior. Where do you start? What options are we talking about as being on the table?

Julie Flanery: A couple of things. I want to look at the behavior. I want to look at what are the components or parts of the behavior. I have a lot of options on how to go about training it in terms of methodology. I can shape it, I can lure it, I can use capturing or targeting, I can prompt it, I can use props or not use props, and so I do have a lot of options. But in terms of trying to figure out exactly how to get started, and how to choose how to train that particular behavior, I want to look at the behavior itself and try to break out what the actual pieces are.

I train like everybody else. I look at the behavior, I want to see what the parts and pieces are, and how am I going to convey the information to the dog that they're going to need to actually do the pieces and then put the pieces back together again.

I have to look at the dog also, because my dogs, for example, are more skilled, I would say, at certain methods than others. And myself as a handler, I'm more skilled at certain methods over others, and I have a preference for certain methods, and so obviously I tend to go to my preferred methods. But also I like to look at how other people are training them, because I think as trainers we have a tendency to stay in our own comfort zone.

For example, things that I trained with Kashi — she's 10 now, but Phee's only 2 — so things I trained with Kashi, I might have trained her a certain way then, and over the years now, as I learn more and I get to see some of the ways it's trained by other trainers, I might change that for Phee.

Phee is a different learner as well. She doesn't learn the same way that Kashi does, and so I might choose different options for her, based on her learning style.

I think all of those things go into that: what is the behavior, what are the components of the behavior, what is the dog's learning style, what are their weaknesses and strengths in terms of what are they going to actually be able to put into this process, and what are my weaknesses and strengths. How am I going to approach this, based on my experiences and what has been successful for me in the past, and what new cool way I might see and say, "I think I'm going to give that a try this time and see where that takes me."

Melissa Breau: I think most of our audience is probably familiar with shaping and capturing and luring, but can you talk a little bit about the differences between luring and prompting, and then talk a little bit about what you mean by modeling?

Julie Flanery: Sure. When I use the term "prompting," just so you know, this is my definition of prompting. There might be dozens of other definitions out there, and there might be a definition that another trainer might use that word differently. I think, like you said, the shaping and luring and capturing, all of those types of methods, as trainers we're pretty familiar with those and we have a grasp of what that means.

I think there's some other methods that maybe we've put our own definitions on. Even I think with something like shaping, there is a scientific definition, there is the layperson's definition, there is the common definition between trainers. So I do think it's important. I think this is a really good question that you asked, because I think it's important that, as teachers and instructors, that we are conveying what we mean by these terms. I don't want to make assumptions that what I define these terms as meaning is the same thing that you might define these terms as meaning. So I think that was a really great question.

Prompting, for me, is a way to get behavior that doesn't really fit into, for example, luring. For luring, I want the dog to follow something. I'm going to lead the dog by having him follow food or a toy. Luring has to do with getting the dog moving through following something, whereas prompting is more about either using a previously trained behavior to prompt. The dog's targeting might be considered a prompt. Platforms might be considered a prompt because it prompts the dog into action to get up on the platform. Even though we may have used shaping to train the platform, or we may have shaped a target, the actual target itself acts as a prompt.

Oftentimes our props that we use, such as a pivot platform, it prompts the dog to start to move his rear end. We haven't really lured it. There is some shaping involved there, but the platform itself actually becomes a prompt for the dog or a cue for the dog.

Other types of prompts might be more organic and not previously trained. If I pat my legs, I know my dog is going to move to me, so I'm prompting my dog to move to me. If I pat my chest, I'm prompting my dog to jump up on my body. There are other types of prompts, I think. For example, maybe you put on a particular harness and that prompts the dog to start pulling, as opposed to a different type of collar that might prompt the dog to not pull.

There's a method that I use sometimes to teach a dog to do a paw lift. Actually there are a couple that might be considered prompting. For example, you could tickle the back of the dog's pad and that will prompt his paw to lift. You could also place food under their chin, and that will prompt the dog to lift his paw. It's not a lure, and I'm not shaping it, and I'm not really targeting it. And so all of those things that don't fit into one of those other categories but prompts the dog into action are what I term as prompts.

Did that help? Did that make sense?

Melissa Breau: Yeah, absolutely.

Julie Flanery: I think that they can be really useful and really valuable. Sometimes we don't think of them because we are so tied into shaping, luring, targeting, capturing, that we don't think of a prompt as an actual means of getting behavior and training the behavior, going through the process of training.

Melissa Breau: In some ways, is prompting almost a visual cue?

Julie Flanery: It can be, but it doesn't have to be. If I tickle the back of the dog's foot, that's …

Melissa Breau: Not a visual cue. That's a prompt.

Julie Flanery: Not a visual cue. It could be tactile, it could be auditory, it could be visual, but it's something that causes the dog to go into action that isn't something he's following. It's not something he's doing based off of his reward history, such as shaping. And we're not presenting an actual target for him to follow, like a lure, though targets certainly prompt behavior. So there is some overlap. All of these methods, you're going to find some overlap. Oftentimes when we want to use targets, we teach the dog to move to or touch the target through shaping. So are we using shaping to train a behavior that uses targeting, or are we using targeting to train that behavior?

And I think that's good. I think that's a really good thing. I think the more ways that we find to communicate to the dog the same criteria, the quicker they're going to learn that criteria. We don't always know what's going to make sense to the dog, and that's part of why it's really good to have all of these different options, because some are going to make more sense to the dog than others, and sometimes it takes a combination of these methods for the dog to get the full picture.

Melissa Breau: What about modeling?

Julie Flanery: Modeling is physically moving the dog into position. Let's take the paw lift example again. If I lift up the dog's paw, I have modeled a paw lift. If I pick up the dog and put them into a crate and then reward them afterward, I have modeled that behavior. So modeling is just when we are going to physically move the dog into the positions we want them to move into.

Melissa Breau: How do you decide which method you're going to use for any given behavior?

Julie Flanery: In general, modeling, for example, is going to be one of my last choices, only because not all dogs are going to be comfortable with it. It's something that you do have to condition your dog to accept and understand. Animals have a bit of a resistance reflex, an opposition reflex, and when we try to move the body, there will be some resistance there, so modeling can be a difficult method to utilize, and so I don't often use it.

Modeling is probably one of the easiest ways, however, to train a paw lift, unless you have a dog that is sensitive to his feet being picked up or held. I want to look to how difficult is this going to be for me, the handler, to apply, how difficult is it going to be for the dog to accept, and what is his experience at that. So modeling is low down on my list of how I'm going to train behaviors. It's not my first go-to by any stretch of the imagination.

The types of methods that I personally prefer, and that I'm going to go to, are the ones where the dog has a vested interest, where the dog is initiating behavior. Shaping is going to be one of my go-to methods in training behavior. I think that when a dog is shaped, he is an active participant. It's not like he's simply following food. He is actively initiating the behavior that then earns reinforcement. I think that internalizes in the dog more quickly. I think that makes a behavior much more robust. Shaping is also going to, for me, have a much higher rate of reward, and so that's another component of shaping that's going to make the behavior a little more solid.

I compare shaping and luring to being a passenger or driver, that if you're in a car and you're a passenger, then you're not really paying a lot of attention to the route. To me, that's a little bit like what luring is. We can get the behavior, but the dog doesn't fully understand how he got there.

Whereas with shaping, the dog is the driver. He's the one making decisions on which turn to take, how to speed up, how to slow down. And so the next time you get in the car and drive that route, if you're the driver, you're going to be much better at finding your way. If you're the passenger, you may have a much more difficult time at driving that exact same route. So those things are going to play a part in that.

It's not to say that I don't use luring. I think luring is a really, really effective and valuable tool to have. But I want to make sure that I understand the process and that I understand its purpose, because I think far too often we use luring as a means to get behavior, which it's very good at. You have early success with luring. But we aren't always really good at following through on the process to fully train that behavior. And so I want to be really careful, if I choose to use luring, that I'm truly following through on the process and I'm not getting stuck at any one place, specifically having food in my hand too long, maintaining a hand signal for too long, and that I'm actually moving through the process fairly quickly.

The other methods, for a lot of behaviors, targeting might be my go-to. Targeting, to me, is a bit of a foundation skill. All my dogs learn how to target. Whether I use it very much or not, it is a skill that allows me to teach my dogs other methods.

For example, if I teach my dog how to get on a platform, how to target a platform, or how to target a target stick, or a target on the floor, or a target on a vertical surface, I'm also teaching my dog how to shape, because I teach targeting through shaping. So then my dog has two skills now that I've been able to double up on a little bit. He understands the shaping process, he understands that targets are good things, and that gives me a little bit more full application of both of those methods.

What did I miss? I did targeting, shaping, prompting. Did I miss any?

Melissa Breau: Capturing. We didn't talk about capturing much.

Julie Flanery: Capturing is not one. Modeling is pretty low down on the list. Capturing is pretty low down on the list as well, partly because when you're capturing something, as opposed to shaping something, you're getting the full behavior. You're waiting until you see the whole behavior before you're marking and rewarding. That can be really difficult. With most of the things that we are training, we're not going to be able to capture those things. Some might argue that within shaping, we're capturing little bits. But I think of capturing as my dog does a full behavior, I mark it, reward it, and if he does it again, I mark and reward it again.

An example might be if you want to teach the dog how to bow, and you know they're going to stretch every time they come out of the crate, then they would come out of the crate, you would be ready with your clicker and food, and you would mark that. The problem with capturing is that the dog doesn't always know what they just did outside of the training context. So they aren't really focusing on their own behavior.

And oftentimes these things that we're capturing are unconscious in the mind of a dog. They're doing it reflexively. They're coming out of the crate and they're stretching. They aren't really thinking about stretching, and then all of a sudden, "click," and "What was that for? What did we do?" And now you've lost that. You can't get the amount of repetition that we normally need in order for the dog to fully understand the behavior enough to be able to repeat the behavior. And so repetition is an issue with capturing.

There are some things that can be jumpstarted, certainly, for capturing. So I might get that bow initially out of the crate and click that, and then maybe I can shape it a little bit from there. I can watch for a head drop or a lean back in their posture, a drop of the elbows.

But in general, modeling is at the bottom, capturing comes next up on top of that. I would say luring and targeting are next up from the bottom, though I do use a lot of luring if I want to control the head specifically. I will use luring because that piece of food close to the dog's nose gives me control.

Primarily I'm going to use some combination of shaping and targeting with some luring that can be used to jumpstart behaviors to help the dog see where we're going with this. I think that's a really valuable component of luring is that it shows the dog where are we going with this.

In shaping, the dog has no idea. We're the only one that knows what the behavior is that we're training. The dog doesn't start to shape and go, "Oh, I know where we're going. We'll just follow this path down to the end result." They don't know that. So each little click is a behavior in and of itself to the dog. They are completing that behavior, and it's up to us to continue to move that process forward.

So all of the methods are going to have some benefits and some not-so-good benefits. I've got a webinar coming up that I'm going to talk a lot about that. But I think it's important that we know what these benefits are and what the detriments are, because if we don't understand that going in, if we're not fully aware of how to effectively use that method, then it's not going to be a very effective method for us at all. We have to be able to apply it, apply it fully, and apply it to completion. And if we need to combine them, we need to be able to know how to do that as well for the most amount of benefit to get to our goal behavior.

Melissa Breau: How important is it to sit down and plan all this out and write out a formal plan before you jump in, before you grab your clicker or your cookies or whatever and do anything with your dog?

Julie Flanery: Formal? Like write it down and the steps and everything? I think it can be really beneficial. I think it depends a little bit on what type of trainer you are. I definitely think you need to have couple of things. Whether you write it down formally or not, there's information you have to have before you start to train a behavior.

Obviously you need to know what the end goal behavior looks like, what is the full end behavior. Not just the acquisition stages, what does it look like in its early stages, when you first start training it, but what does it look like in a new environment. What does it look like in the context in which you're going to be using it? What is the duration that you're going to need of this eventually?

All of those things you're going to want to have a good handle on before you start to train it, because those components of the behavior are going to affect what you do early on in the acquisition stage. So I want to know what are the components of the behavior, how am I going to use it, where am I going to use it, what am I going to use it.

Also, like I said earlier, I want to be given those components. Is it a complex behavior? Does it have multiple parts? Is it a simple behavior? Those things are going to help me determine whether I use shaping, or whether I use targeting, or luring, or a combination of things. Something like, let's say, training a bow. I'm talking about mostly trick behaviors because we all train tricks at some point or another. We have experience training tricks. Not everybody does the same sport, but I think all of us like to train tricks.

Take a bow, for example. For me, luring is going to be one of the easiest ways to train a bow. I don't particularly shape a bow. You can, and that can be really effective. I think that takes a skilled handler and a skilled shaping dog to shape a bow. It can be done, but it just depends on your skill level. For me, I can get the same result really fast through the lure reward. So that's a behavior I would probably choose to lure rather than shape. I might target it, I might use a target stick instead of a food lure, but I'm going to have the dog follow something into the bow. If it's got a lot of complex pieces, I might use a number of those methods.

For example, in Freestyle we have a behavior where the dog is standing in a front position and then he does a precise about-turn, so he's now faced away from you, and then he backs through your legs. That has multiple components to it, and all of them are trained separately before they are put together.

I might train the backup in a different method than I would train the face-away from me. In that regard it's going to depend on how many different

pieces, what are the methods that are going to be best suited to that piece of the behavior, and then, how am I going to bring all of those pieces together to put it on a single cue. So there I have several parts. Several things have to happen. The dog has to do four things, and yet I want it on a single cue. So what those four things are, and what are the best ways to train each of those four things, might be different.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha.

Julie Flanery: That sounds kind of complex. It sounds more complicated than it really is—I'm listening to myself, I'm going, "That sounds really complicated." If anybody's thinking whether or not they want to train different methods, they're going to be running and screaming right now. But I just wanted to point out that not all methods are suited to all behaviors necessarily, and even if a method is great for that behavior, now you need to take into account the dog's skills and experience and the handler's skills and experience. It is like a little bit of a puzzle piece that you have to find the pieces that fit together best.

Melissa Breau: That leads of course into my next question, which is, how do you factor in your strengths and weaknesses as a trainer?

Julie Flanery: This is hard because it's like talking about myself. I'm trying to think of it like any trainer. Let's take the method of shaping. In shaping, the skills that a trainer has to have are going to be good observation skills, because you have to see what those small approximations are towards the end behavior. Along with that observation, you have to have — and this is going to sound a little odd, but I'll explain further — you have to have good anticipation skills.

So you have to be able to see what the dog is doing, and then you have to be able to anticipate what the dog is about to do, based on what he's been doing, because the timing of your marker — if you're using a marker for shaping, and you don't always have to use a marker for shaping — markers are occurring, but if you can't anticipate what the dog is about to do, based on what he just did, then your timing of your marker is going to be off, and then we're not communicating to the dog what we want to communicate, and that will hinder your progress in shaping.

So good observation skills, good anticipation skills, those two things lead to good timing skills and then good reward delivery skills. If you are weak in those areas, then shaping may not be the best tool for you to use, or you may want to increase your skill in those areas before you use a lot of shaping in your training.

This is going to sound really weird, but I'm just trying to think of things … what might make a method not such a good choice for a trainer. I taught pet classes for many, many years, and in pet classes we often taught using lure and reward because it's fairly simple to apply. But if you have a 14-week-old puppy with really sharp teeth, and you are a handler with sensitive or aging skin, then maybe luring isn't the best option right now. Those types of things, while it has nothing to do with the weakness or strength of the trainer, they're things you want to take into account. If you have strong mechanical skills, you might choose luring over shaping. If you have a tendency to talk to your dog a lot, move around a lot, you might use prompting.

What I have found, though, is that most all the people I've worked with, trainers can learn all the skills they need to apply all of these methods. Just because you don't have the skills or you're weak in one area doesn't mean that you can't be strong in that area. In the long run, taking the time and making the effort to increase your skills in that area are going to benefit the learning process for both you and your dog.

I don't know if it's a matter of what strengths and weaknesses as a trainer that make a difference, because really, truly, we know as trainers that behavior can be learned, and if we're weak in an area, and we want to be able to learn and apply a particular method, then we build that skill for ourselves. Is some of it harder than others? Yeah. If you have a long history of clicking and reaching for the bait bag at the exact same time, then that's going to be a much harder skill to develop, separating those two out — click and then reach for the bait bag — because that has become patterned and has such a strong history. It will be hard. But just because something is hard doesn't mean that we can't do it, that we can't learn new habits, to the benefit of our future training.

Melissa Breau: What about the dog's strengths and weaknesses? For example, I know that Levi learns better with luring than with shaping, even though I previously had dogs who were the opposite. How do you take that type of thing into consideration?

Julie Flanery: You know that because you've seen Levi's history. You have a history with Levi and you've noted that, "Wow, he gets that pretty quick when I use a lure. When I go through the process, he can do that. Shaping is more difficult for him." So you look at the dog, and generally the dog will tell you.

I think too, though, that you have a lot of experience as a trainer, and your skills are probably pretty good at both of those, at whatever method you're going to apply. We have to assume that if we say the dog is better at this than he is at this, we're assuming that the handler skills are excellent at both. Does that make sense?

So sometimes it can appear like the dog is a better learner this way, because that is what we are good at applying. And so yes, they're going to learn better at any method we use that we are good at applying. When we start into some newer methods, or aren't as practiced at it, or we need to increase our skill at it, our dogs are not going to be as good at learning that particular method.

There's nothing wrong with sticking with a method that you are more comfortable with, and your dog therefore learns faster with. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. But I also don't want to make the assumption that because the dog is showing a "preference" for this particular method that it's because that's how he is a better learner. It may be that the other methods aren't being as applied as proficiently as the one that you're using. Does that make sense?

Melissa Breau: Absolutely.

Julie Flanery: I see that quite a bit. Shaping, for example. When I see handlers that are struggling with shaping and their dog is not learning as "quickly," often what I look at is a handler that is not applying it as effectively as they could be. The rate of reward is too low. The timing of the marker is not correct. They're not seeing the smaller bits of behavior that could lead the dog along the path much more quickly or more efficiently. So I think that the wording of that, both of the wording of those, the strengths or weaknesses of the handler or the strengths or weaknesses of the dog.

Now, having said that, I totally agree that different dogs have different learning styles. Both of my dogs are totally different in their learning styles. For Phee, certain methods take a little bit longer for her. For Kashi, certain methods are a little faster for her. But who am I to say that it's because of my application? I have two dogs that have different learning styles. Now I can say I think I'm applying both of these methods the same for both of these dogs, and yet I'm seeing a difference in how long it might take them to learn behaviors.

They both learn the behaviors, but Phee, I could be working it, working it, working it, I could be using a combination of methods, which I normally do with all my dogs; I combine a lot of these methods, so it's not any single method. But I can work the skill, work the skill, and I think, She's just not getting this. What am I doing wrong? She's just not getting this. And all of a sudden, boom, it's there. It's like, "Sure, Mom, of course I know how to do this." I'm like, "Where did this come from? I haven't practiced this in a month because I was so frustrated with what was happening, and now you have it."

Whereas with Kashi, I can work it a few sessions and she's ready to add the cue right away. She has an understanding of the process. I think that's a really interesting point, too, that we don't always think about. Maybe this does fall into dogs' weaknesses and strengths, that if a dog has a lot of experience with a certain method, that's a strength. Experience is a strength. Kashi has a lot of experience with shaping and she has a lot of experience with getting behaviors on cue, whereas Phee doesn't have as much experience. So she's still learning how to learn. She's still learning what is going to be the most effective and efficient method for me to apply for her.

In general, I think it's a good idea to use a combination of methods. Like I said, we just don't know what will make sense to the dog. As long as the one constant, the one thing that is consistent through all the methods, is the criteria in which we are reinforcing, then the dog will get it. The dog will get it. We just aren't always sure which one is the one that made it go click for the dog.

Melissa Breau: What if you start training something, you've got a behavior, you're working on it, and things are just not going quite the way you planned? At what point do you decide, This isn't working. I need to reevaluate my plan. I need to change how I'm teaching this. I need to do something differently. Can you talk a little bit about how you evaluate that and how you handle things from there?

Julie Flanery: Yes. For me, I want to see some measure of improvement in the skill fairly quickly, some change in the skill. If I'm shaping it, then by the end of the first session, I need to be farther along than I was at the beginning of the session. If I'm at the exact same place at the end of a session that I was at the beginning of a session, even if it's just minuscule improvement, maybe it's I got six out of ten reps were better, then I can move forward with the method I'm using.

If I'm not seeing any improvement, I have to look at how I'm applying it. I always look at that first, because I think the method is only as good as the person applying it. If I'm not applying it correctly, then that's going to show in my dog's lack of understanding.

All these methods, they're methods, they're available to us because they work, because we have seen our dogs progress using these methods. So within a fairly short period of time — maybe not the very first session, but within your first three sessions, you want to see some decent improvement.

How you measure improvement — that depends on the behavior, depends on the dog. But if I'm not seeing some type of forward momentum within my first few sessions of ten to twelve reps each session, then I need to assess something. Either I have to assess my criteria, I have to assess my rate of reward, which is the virtually same thing there, or I have to assess the value of my reinforcement. I think that's a biggie. I think sometimes we have a tendency to reward by rote. We reward the same thing the same way, give them a cookie.

So a lot of times I have to assess my reinforcement based on the difficulty of the past. Maybe there's something in the environment. It's not always the method. So when I do assess, there's a variety of things that I have to look at, not just the method I'm using.

Melissa Breau: Once we have the behavior, the behavior is happening and is happening fairly consistently, what next? How do we get from the behavior that is in training to a finished behavior that is on cue?

Julie Flanery: The steps?

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Let's say we're working on a spin, any behavior thing.

Julie Flanery: How about moving to heel, because I've got a heeling class right now and a positions class, so we're doing a lot of moving-to-heel positions behavior.

I think of training as being in phases or steps. We have the acquisition phase, that's the very beginning. That's how do I get the behavior to occur so that I can reinforce and reward this behavior so the dog wants to do it again. I need to get repetition in order for understanding to start to take place, and so that acquisition phase is how do I get some repetition, how do I show the dog what has to happen, how do I get reward into this dog.

Once I have the essential and primary parts of the behavior, for me, moving into heel position would be the dog moving. I generally use a prop or platform to train this. The dog is moving up onto the platform, and he understands through shaping to the platform, and my marking and rewarding correct responses, that this is the behavior we want. The actual behavior doesn't include the platform, but I'm getting the primary and essential piece, which is, "Stand next to me in this exact location."

Once I have that, I need to look at what other components am I going to need here, other than "Stand next to me in this exact location." I need my dog to look up at me and I need to have duration here, so I'm going to add those little components as well, before I do anything else.

My next step, after I have acquisition of behavior, is, if I'm using props, I have to make my plan of how to remove the prop. The prop is a cue. If I just remove the cue, I won't have the behavior. Generally, for that particular behavior, I'm going to put it on cue. So once I've acquired the behavior, I'm going to add the cue. Once I add the cue, I can continue with removing other context cues like the platform or like my hand signal, those types of things.

So acquisition, add the cue, then I'm going to start looking at generalization and fluency, taking it to new locations, lowering the rate of reward so I can get the behavior without having to give a cookie each and every single time, those types of things.

I think of behavior in those terms: acquisition, add the cue, generalization, and then fluency. I'm going to add in there with adding the cue the piece is cue discrimination. That's part of adding a cue to me, so acquisition, cue, cue discrimination, generalization, and fluency. Did that make sense? Did that answer your question?

Melissa Breau: Yeah, absolutely. Now we've talked through the steps of getting the behavior all the way through to having it on cue. You talked a little bit about fluency. How much emphasis do you put on, or how do you think about, what you need to do once a behavior is at that point to maintain it over time? Obviously, if we train a behavior and then we ignore it for a year and a half, when we go back to it, it's not going to still be on cue. Ask me how I know! So what do we have to do to maintain a behavior? Does it matter if it's an easy behavior for the dog? Is it going to be easier to maintain than if it's a harder behavior for that dog?

Julie Flanery: Oh, easier or harder — that's a really good question. The maintenance is certainly a phase that I would include as part of that fluency, because behavior is not stagnant. Behavior changes all the time. Behavior that is not reinforced will diminish. And it will eventually extinguish if you don't reinforce it. So you do have to have maintenance as part of your training plan.

For me, maintenance also includes going back to earlier versions of the behavior. I might go back to using a prop. That makes it easier for the dog to execute that behavior and also builds a lot of confidence in the dog because he can't be wrong. So part of my maintenance is going back to an earlier, easier version of the behavior.

Much like when we shape a behavior and we're reinforcing those increments along the path toward behavior, we're building strength in each one of those little pieces, and that makes the end behavior even stronger. That's the same way with maintenance, I think, that if we're just rewarding the whole behavior again, behavior can break down in a variety of ways. The whole behavior might break down, but also there are little pieces or components of a behavior that might break down that you have to separate out again as part of your training.

Training, just because we say we're working towards and have fluency, I personally — and I may be totally wrong and off base here, but I'm just going to throw that out there — I don't know that fluency, permanent fluency, is attainable, because behavior changes, because reinforcement isn't always consistent. Fluency is what we're all working towards, and we want all of our efforts in training, no matter how we train behavior, our efforts are all pointing towards fluid behavior. That's our goal.

But fluid behavior isn't the destination, meaning you don't end your trip there. You sometimes have to go back along the path, and you sometimes have to strengthen, re-strengthen, reinforce, build more confidence in that behavior. So there's those steps that we just outlined and I just talked about — Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, Step 4. You get to fluency, that doesn't mean you're done with all of those steps. It just means that's the progression.

But we can also go backwards in that progression. There's an ebb and flow to training, I think, and I think that can be frustrating for people that don't fully understand and accept that. They want to go along a path and then have a fluent behavior that they can count on.

For the most part, when we've gone along that path, when we've done all those steps, and we've made sure that the behavior is reinforced and understood and strengthened and generalized and cue discrimination and all those things, then we can bet that we will have a really, really strong behavior that we can pretty much call fluent, meaning — there's that definition thing — for me, fluent means that I can count on it with reasonable certainty in a variety of situations and contexts under a variety of circumstances.

But these are not robots. We can't program it in and count on it being there. Unless we maintain the strength in that behavior, unless we maintain the reward history in that behavior, unless we continue to challenge that behavior a little bit to allow the dog to work hard at that behavior and receive stronger reinforcement, fluency is fragile. It's easy to lose. And so I think it's important that while fluency is our goal, that we also understand that behavior is not stagnant, even fluent behavior, and that as soon as we start to assume it is, and drop our reinforcement, or add difficulty in which the dog has not been practiced in or reinforced in, then that fluency will dwindle and we'll start to lose it.

So maintenance and training is all the same to me. We have all those phases — acquisition, cuing, cue discrimination, generalization, to fluency — but I'm going to go back and I'm going to do cue discrimination again and reward at a high rate for that. I'm going to go back and I'm going to throw my props in once in a while to build confidence in the dog and get a nice, high rate of reward for the exact behavior I want.

So it's not as linear as you might think. Yes, training is linear, but be willing, and actually I enjoy the time that I get to go back and reward the easier things. I think my dog enjoys going back and enjoying the easier things and going through those steps again a little bit sometimes.

I think that is what is going to build strength and longevity in fluency is the fact that we're willing to go back and we're willing to shape it again from nothing, maybe. How long can it take you to get heel position if I shape it as if you don't it at all? Once the dog knows something, we have a tendency to wait for it to happen, rather than to reinforce the steps along the way.

That's an example of why maintenance is nothing more than revisiting all of your foundation and the process that took you to fluency.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned earlier the webinar that you've got coming up next week. I'd like to have you share for a minute what it's about and what you're going to go into. Can you share what you'll cover and what folks can look forward to if they join us?

Julie Flanery: I'm really excited about this webinar. I think it's something that we all not only think we know; we all use these methods, but we may not fully understand them or fully use them to their greatest benefits.

The webinar is called "Destination Known: Your GPS To Training Behaviors," and it's an overview of all of these different methods, how to apply them, what skills you and your dog are going to need to have them be effective, what are the pros and cons of each method. It outlines the map, I guess, so that you can make better choices on what route you're going to take.

As you said, I think we tend to sometimes stick with the things we're comfortable with and the things we seem to have success with. But we don't always know how much more success we might have if we tried it a little differently, if we went to a different method. We always base our future choices on what's working for us now, but I think that's a limited vision, because you may think it's working, but you don't know how much better it could be if you don't venture into some of those other options.

You don't realize what the scenery might be on this route. You love the scenery taking this route — "Wow, look, isn't this beautiful? I love this. I want to take this route every single time." And then you get a little lost and you take this other route, and you go, "Oh my God, look at that gorgeous scenery. It's so much better than that other route." But you have no way of knowing that unless you stray from that path.

So it's a nice, big overview that gives definitions, how to apply it, what are the skills you're going to need, and the pros and cons, with lots of examples of behaviors. I have a variety of behaviors, but then I also have a single behavior that I'm taking through each of the methods, so you can see how that single behavior is trained with all of the different methods.

Melissa Breau: Very cool. I've got one last question here, and it's the question I'm asking all my guests at the end lately.

Julie Flanery: I hate this question!

Melissa Breau: Well, I'm going to ask you anyway!

Julie Flanery: I always know you're going to ask it, but I never think about it in advance, and then I'm like, "Oh my God, I've got to answer that question!"

Melissa Breau: Well, I'm going to ask you anyway. What's something you've learned or something you've been reminded of recently when it comes to training?

Julie Flanery: Oh geez, Melissa! You know, you always remember it in the moment, and then when somebody asks you, "Oh, I don't know." OK, I know something. This is actually a good one.

This is a real personal experience for me. Phee, my newest dog, she's 2 years old now. I don't know if people know this story or not, but I got Phee from Sara Brueske, who did a fabulous job of fostering her for several weeks before I got her.

But when I got her, my expectation was one thing, and what actually was true was a different thing. I thought I was getting a Border Collie/Poodle cross, and so I'm looking for dogs with Border Collie traits, Poodle traits, the athleticism, the workability, the quick learning curve, all those things that we think about with those breeds.

I brought her home and a week later find out there is no Border Collie in her. There is no Poodle in her. The DNA tests came back and she is none of those things. Her primary breed, as I said, is Australian Shepherd/Shih Tzu cross, with some other …

Melissa Breau: Odds and ends.

Julie Flanery: I know. She's a mixed breed. She's a mixed breed with herding tendencies. I'll say that. But my expectation was such that I at that point thought of returning her back to Sara, even though I had only had her a few weeks. That expectation was so strong, and to find out that that was not my reality was really difficult for me.

I named her Phoenix, because once I decided to keep her, I was going to bring her out of the ashes. I was talking to someone today, as a matter of fact, that I am now going to change the name of my dog from Phee to Phenomenal, because the growth that she and I have had together, and what I see in her now, the reality of what I have, is so much greater than what my expectation was.

And so I think sometimes we look at a situation — and this might be a behavior we're training, it might be a dog that you have, it might be a relationship that you have — we look at a situation and our expectation isn't met, and now that situation has negative emotional feelings. I think if we can get beyond that, you will find that the reality of a situation in a lot of ways is probably much better than it could have been. I'm just thrilled with her at this point and how she's doing and how she's working.

And I do that sometimes with behaviors. I'll look at it and it's like, "No, this is not working at all. I don't even want to train this. I don't even want to go out and work this anymore." But if we just sit down and look at what we have, now we have something we can build on, now we have something we can grow from, and a lot of it starts with our mindset. So that's something that I have learned recently through her is that how I look at something and what my expectations were affect both my emotional response and my ability to work through that and come out on the other side, where I am in a much better place, a far better place, than where I thought I would be.

Melissa Breau: What a cool story. Thank you for sharing.

Julie Flanery: Sure. And hey, I came up with that on the fly! It's true, it's true! I always know you're going to ask that question and I'm like, "Oh, I don't know." And then it hits you. This, just the last few days, just hit me in that way. So that was kind of fun.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you for coming on the podcast Julie! It's been great.

Julie Flanery: I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I always enjoy it when you ask me to come on, so thank you very much.

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

We'll be back next week with Helene Lawler to talk about loopy listening.

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. 

Credits

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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