E193: Laura Waudby - "Reduce Reinforcement & Enhance Fluency"

Do you struggle with getting ready for competition or with reducing reinforcement in training? You're in luck! That's what Laura and I chat about in today's episode.


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 Laura Waudby.

Laura spent the last ten years as a service dog trainer, preparing dogs for different types of service dog work and teaching puppy-raiser classes. These days she's instead focused on raising her kids and offers private lessons in the Minneapolis, Minnesota, area. You can find her online at TandemDogSports.com.

In her "free time," Laura trains and competes in obedience, rally, agility, and dabbles in disc dog and trick training. She was halfway to her OTCH with her UDX Corgi, Lance, before his early retirement. She has also competed at the Master's level in agility.

Hi Laura, welcome back to the podcast!

Laura Waudby: Hi. I'm glad to be here.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you share a little bit with listeners on who your dogs are and what you're working on with them?

Laura Waudby: This might be the hardest question of the whole podcast for me right now. I currently have four dogs and that number will be changing by the time this podcast airs. We can start with the oldest and go down to the youngest. My oldest dog is Lance, the Corgi. He's 13-and-a-half years old and he is doing very well still. We're kind of limiting his stairs right now, but he's a determined, pushy little guy to outwit any plans I have of trying to block him off from stairs or trying to prevent him being crazy on his body. So he's still living it up.

Then I have Vito the Toller, and Vito just turned 12, and I will be saying goodbye to him today, actually. He is my heart dog, and he is why I am teaching at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. He is the dog that taught me about building up confidence in dogs, who inspired all of my ring confidence classes, all my prep classes. I just really owe everything to this dog.

And then I have Zumi. Zumi is my Toller who just turned 6. She is primarily my agility dog, so we have been going after our Utility Dog title in the obedience world before the world shut down. Due to COVID and having a new infant in the house, she's primarily been my hiking companion this summer and fall, but hopefully I will pick up where we left off and try to tackle that utility title again this spring or summer, hopefully sooner than that.

And then I have little Wren. Wren just turned 11 months old and I don't know if she's going to make it to see her birthday. I hope so. She is so sweet and very puppyish still, but she was just diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. So right now I'm living her up as much as I possibly can right now and playing with her as much as she's able to.

That's just how it goes sometimes with life. So that's where my crew at right now.

Melissa Breau: I'm really sorry, Laura, to hear about Wren and Vito. That said, I'm going to try to keep us both from crying and keep running with things. Thank you for doing the podcast today.

Laura Waudby: The other questions should be much easier.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Part of what made me want to chat today was the topic of reducing reinforcement came up in my recent Treibball class. We had a few students who were getting to that point where they were starting on that process, and I had it on my mind a lot lately. Since you've got both a workshop and your six-week class coming up, I thought perhaps you'd be up to chat about the topic a bit. Before we go too deep into how to reduce reinforcement, I wanted to start with when. At what point in training a behavior do you begin looking to reduce reinforcement?

Laura Waudby: I tend to find trainers fall into one of two camps. They either rush through the stuff as fast as possible and they start putting all the behaviors into gigantic chains well before their dog is ready, or I see the opposite problem, where people are terrified of doing this, and they fall into a rut of constantly rewarding every single behavior when all along the dog has been doing that exact same version of it.

Dogs train us very, very well, and we can find ourselves always rewarding the exact same stuff. Like in heeling, I see trainers tend to reward every single halt in heeling or every single finish after the exercise is over. In agility I see trainers reward every single dog walk behavior or every single weave pole exit, and that becomes a really big problem because it's not only predictable to the dog of regardless of how well the dog actually did on that behavior, they expect that treat there, and that becomes a huge red flag in a trial when you can no longer do that. It tells the dog right away that something is different. That's not only when the behavior you're trying to train starts to deteriorate, but you have a lot of stress with that as well.

On the flip side, we do see reinforcement as one piece of that trial puzzle. Generally when I'm training something, I think of it as being in one of two categories. I have my skill building sessions and I have my ring and prep sessions.

For the skill building session, I tend to look at solidifying my dog's understanding of the behavior. I'm often rewarding every single successful repetition. I try to challenge the dog's understanding of that, so I'm doing a lot of proofing and things like that, but I tend to reward a lot. But very early on in the process I'm also looking to do the ring prep stuff, and that is where the focus of that session is preparing my dog actively for a trial setting.

With this topic of starting to get to that not rewarding every single behavior, there's a few different things I focus on, from the food and toys off my body to the duration of work before reward. Let's talk about duration of work right now, because I appreciate your asking about rewards not in our pockets later on.

The total duration of work is one thing I do pretty late in the game. I don't introduce that very early on. But what I do start adding early on is that not every single behavior is going to be rewarded. We're not going to have a really long chain, but I do want to introduce that very little baby concept early on.

Some behaviors are pretty straightforward, as you might have a chain of behaviors you link together… In obedience, that might be your basic recall. You have your sit behavior at the start, a stay, the front behavior, the finish, and while I don't want to reward that finish every single time at the end of that chain, because it again goes back to the dog expecting it right there, but every single cue you have is giving the dog a green light that they're on the right path to the reward.

Agility is one big chain. You're constantly giving cues to the dog, whether verbally or physically, that if your timing is right, there shouldn't be any down time where the dog doesn't know what that next path is to the reinforcement.

What I like to do for obedience when the training has become more formal is to mix things up a lot. My goal is flow in training, and if I aim for that flow, I can get a whole lot of cues accomplished in a very short amount of time.

My first goal I'm looking at reducing that reinforcement is the number of cues I'm giving versus the actual length of work. For example, I can probably train for 30 seconds and probably give my dog at least ten cues in that time, if I'm doing a lot of flow. So the dog might heel for three steps, go around the cone, come through my legs, do a broad jump, a hand touch, a go-out, maybe heel some more, and all that in a very, very short amount of time. So the total duration of the work is not long, but the dog is used to immediately finishing one cue and doing another cue.

That tends to be a lot easier for dogs, I think, when they're doing that in the motion and not doing a lot of pauses and start working without the reward. As the dog gets more advanced, I'll purposely add more formality and pauses to it, but the total duration of work is pretty low on my ring prep list, even when we narrow it down to talk about getting rid of the rewards and stuff like that.

Melissa Breau: You look at it as total duration of work, and sometimes that starts out as simply how many pieces you can fit into the same, we'll call it, unit of work. You said 30 seconds or so. Is that a short summary? You did a good job explaining it. I'm just trying to pull it all back together.

Laura Waudby: Yeah. In the beginning I don't focus a lot on total duration of work early on as much as number of cues given in a short time. Those cues work best when it's very flow and out of motion versus stationary position changes are a little bit harder because you have pauses built in there. You need the dog moving, moving without stopping. I just find it a lot easier to get a number of cues in that short amount of time.

Melissa Breau: What immediately comes to mind are some of the videos Denise has been doing with Dice, where she's got four or five cues that she's stacking in a row almost. Is that the picture you're looking for, where it's straight from one behavior to the next behavior for a short chunk?

Laura Waudby: I haven't been able to be on Facebook that much recently to watch the videos. I think that's what she called, at least way back when, and is the same approach that I take, which is keep the dog moving, really flowing from one behavior to another so the dog doesn't have any idea that they should have gotten the reward at that moment. I don't want the dog thinking, "This is where my mom usually gives me a treat, and now I didn't get one." I want my dog to immediately on to that next task.

Melissa Breau: Before we started talking, I was thinking about this. It seems like there is reducing reinforcement, removing reinforcement from our bodies or our person, and the proofing piece. I know some people don't like that word. The building fluency piece. Is there a specific order you work on those things?

Laura Waudby: Proofing the behavior falls under what I consider my skill building session. And that's really about building fluency and I absolutely love thinking about it that way. It's not about tricking the dog. It's about building the dog's ability to do it under different conditions.

Before you work on any type of reducing reinforcement, you absolutely need some solid cues that the dog doesn't have to think about that much before he can do much else with it. You don't need a lot of solid cues to start working on this idea, but you need a few. Usually a hand touch is a really nice cue and position changes in whatever your sport is.

At the same time that I'm working on proofing the dog's behavior and increasing their understanding, I am also working on removing the rewards from my body as my next goal. I do that very early on, even with a baby puppy before they know a lot. So even if they have very few solid cues, maybe the only one they know is my marker cue of getting food from my hand versus getting food from the ground. I do a "get it" cookie toss. I do a lot of what I call the Zen hand exercises, where I have food in my hand and the dog looks at me instead of staring at the food. Once that concept is in place, I start the exact same thing with the reward off my body. They look at me, I cue the reward, and then they can go get it.

With a young dog, I don't add much more to that yet. Your reward marker cue and in the case of having rewards off my body, that will eventually be the Zen Bowl game. As I get more advanced, I'll start to add the skills the dog knows really well.

So proofing the behavior and rewards off my body I start very early on. I think reducing reinforcement was your third one, and I touched on that a little bit already—that's my last priority. I need very solid cues to work on that, many chains for a while, a lot of the flow, but mainly the biggest thing that I watch out for early on is that I'm not rewarding the same 13:58 every single time. I don't want to reward every single finish or time the dog does the same behavior — at least as much as possible. Other than that, that whole duration of work I tend to save for a lot later on in the game.

Melissa Breau: Are there foundation skills that you can teach to help make some of these concepts easier for the dog? Where do you start with the baby puppy? You were talking a little bit about location-specific markers before. Is it that? Is there more to it?

Laura Waudby: I do the location-specific marker cues quite a bit as a puppy. One of the first things I teach them is how to get that reward. Because if dogs don't know how to get the reward it's going to be really hard to teach the actual skill. So I do a lot of teaching them that "get it" means I'm going to toss a cookie, the difference between waiting there for the reward versus coming to my hand for the reward. That's my first introduction to actual verbal cues with the puppy.

Past that, especially as the dog starts to get older, I'm going to look a lot at what are my actual cues for the behavior. Not what I think the cue is, but what does the dog think it is, especially with my students. I really want them to be videotaping their sessions a lot because I find that we tend to have a lot of extra body language that we aren't aware of but that reward becomes part of the picture, meaning that the dog won't do the behavior unless he first got a cookie for doing maybe the behavior right before it. For example, maybe the handler has their hand in their pocket, and the dog only does something when they see that the trainer has their hand in their pocket or the dog is actually lured into position. So I want to get rid of that stuff as soon as possible.

As people, we tend to think of the dog as being stubborn when they won't do a behavior that we thought was really well taught. But from the dog's perspective, the entire picture has changed. He's no longer sure what you want because the cue doesn't look the same, or the concept of getting the reward isn't understood. So that's one thing that really clean behavior with your hand no where near the reward. And again it's a lot easier when you have it on the verbal-only cue, because I like to start with that marker cue training is that I find that it teaches the dog to pay more attention to what I'm saying versus actually looking at my hands.

The hand signals can certainly work for the behaviors here, but you have to be very careful that you're not teaching your dog to always be staring at your hands, especially because we have food in our hands so much in training.

I do train a lot with food in my hands when I train, I find it a lot easier. I'm not very good about reaching into my pocket to get the rewards. I just tend to have a lot of treats in my hand all the time. But that does mean that I have to work extra hard at teaching my dogs that they do not stare at the food. Staring at the cookie will not make it magically fall into their mouth. And so I teach the dog that waiting for that verbal marker cue tells them that the food is coming.

You really want that clean loop where the dog hears that marker cue and is listening to you before you move your hands to get the reward. The biggest first thing that I work on with any dog is do not stare at the reward in my hand. Ideally I take it a step further and I'm going to work on those Zen hand games, where I can move my cookie hand and the dog knows to still keep looking at me and ignoring my hand motion.

Once you have that, I find it's pretty easy to get that to the actual Zen Bowl itself. It goes the exact same. The dog ignores where the reward is located and is looking at me for the next cue. So I want the dog to know that they will get the cookie once I give that marker cue, and even if they have to move away from the reward, whether that reward is in my hand or the reward is in the dish, that they will get that reward marker cue to go collect that treat from my hand or the dish. And I want them eagerly engaging, without having to wait a long time for them to start staring up at me or staring away from the dish.

Melissa Breau: Tell me a little bit more about Zen Bowl. For those not familiar with the concept, what is it? How can the concept of Zen Bowl help with the eventual transition to getting behaviors "ring ready"?

Laura Waudby: Zen Bowl is just a name for having the reward off your body. I think most of us take it to mean that the reward is in an open container, meaning a small dog dish or putting the food on something like a Tupperware lid, and then that reward is set on the ground for the dog. It doesn't have to be an open container on the ground, but that's the definition that I work off of. The dog can run over and grab the reward at any time, but hopefully they learn to wait for that very specific cue.

The reason I like to have the reward uncovered so the dog can grab it is that I think it encourages my students and myself to break things down a little bit more and make sure that within the steps the dog is truly opting in to start and the dog is able to be successful without needing to guard it.

I know I used to do a lot more guarding of Zen bowl, either putting my foot on it or doing even little body blocks in the past. Honestly, I've gotten away from that. I rarely do that, partly because I've had a lot of sensitive dogs where if you guard the dish just one time, they no longer want to go to it, even when you give them that marker cue. But even with the pushier Labradors that I work with, or the little Spaniel puppy I had at one point, I want to give the dog as much control in the process as possible. And so if a dog is making repeated mistakes and rushing to the dish before you gave that cue, then we need to look at that as feedback that we need to change our training plan itself, because I really want the dog opting in for that.

What the Zen Bowl idea does is it gives them a very strong history of watching the reward be set down and voluntarily coming with you away from the dish in order to start their work. They're truly opting in when they know that you have absolutely no rewards in your pocket whatsoever, and that becomes absolutely huge for trial prep when it becomes obvious that there are never any cookies in the ring.

Another thing that I love about the Zen Bowl that I find that it tends to empower the dog. The distance they get to run to on cue becomes way more valuable than if I give them that exact same reward from my hand itself. For whatever reason, that magical dish becomes super, super powerful to the dog. I think part of it is that they are able to self-serve and run up to it themselves when I give them the cue, without needing my human thumbs to open the container.

A lot of sensitive dogs I find they speed up and become a lot more excited about work when they get to run to that reward themselves and dive in there. Because that reward becomes so powerful, I think it's a lot easier to start slightly longer chains for your ring prep versus those same chains with that reward in your pocket. I think it's a really nice way to get the dog excited about working out for a little bit longer later on as well.

Melissa Breau: I know you have a workshop coming up — right around the corner, actually — to walk people through the process step by step. But can you share a little bit of an overview on how you teach the dog the concept of a Zen bowl?

Laura Waudby: I alluded to it earlier when I talked about the foundation of my Zen hand game. My Step 1 is I want the dog knowing that in order to get the reward from my hand, they have to look away from it. Just a quick word about Zen hand while I'm thinking of it is that I do want it to mean more stillness and focus and not frantically offering behaviors. Sometimes I see dogs who are taught the Zen hand game backing away from my hand and throwing every behavior in the book at me. That's not what I want. I want nice stillness and focus. So if I need to, I can even grab a platform to help the dog wait on while they're learning these new rules.

Basically my goal has been proactively helping the dog to stay away from my hand and be still before they make a mistake. So I might have my hand higher up when we're first starting it, I might do some rapid-fire feeding, or I might even do some cookie tosses with my get it cue to get the dog away from my Zen hand before they're mobbing it. I no longer do the let the dog slobber over my hand for a few minutes before I finally reward them.

Once the dog gets the idea, I do the exact same stuff with the Zen bowl. I'm going to hold it in my hand, and I'm going to quickly reinforce as fast as possible for four feet on the ground and being calm with it in my hand. Once the dog is getting calm and kind of still, I use a special marker cue that releases the dog to the dish and that cue is only to the dish. My cue is "cookies," which means the dog has permission to shove their snout in that food dish.

So I use a special marker cue that tells the dog they can release directly to the food dish, and it's only for that food dish. I use the cue "cookies" that tells the dog they can get their reward there. A lot of people will use the cue "dish." It doesn't really matter what you use. I just want a specific cue for it, so that the dog eventually knows that they're going to be released to food from your hand or going to the dish. I do not want the dog staring at that Zen bowl. I want the dog learning to look at me and this process is taught also with the dish in my hand. As the dog is doing that focus piece, I'll gradually put the dish on the floor and get that eyeballs to me, waiting calmly for the cue.

One of the steps that I put a lot of emphasis on is testing the marker cue a little bit as well. I don't want the dog to anticipate that the next thing I say is always going to mean go to the dish, because if the dog starts to anticipate that, it can be really hard to get them to work for the Zen bowl release cue. So a lot of times in the beginning I'll start with testing the dog if I have a dish on the floor, can I give the dog their "Get it" cue and have the dog expect to chase the cookie away from the dish and not just dive into the dish.

I do this very, very fast so the dog's success rate is high. I'll cue "Get it," and immediately toss the cookie. I might even toss another one right away, just do several "Get it" cookies in a row, so the dog can't even have time to make a mistake and approach that dish before I told them to. Basically I'm building up the idea that I'm going to give a cue to the dog and it may not mean diving instantly into that food bowl that they're so excited about.

What that also does is it works on the dog's ability to not only keep focus on me, but to choose to leave the reward even though I'm moving, which I think is another big piece that students tend to overlook, that their dog can do really well leaving it on the floor, leaving their toy until you ask them to move, and then it all falls apart.

Melissa Breau: I'm certainly familiar with how the falling apart piece works. What are some ways that having that Zen bowl behavior can be useful, either in terms of your sport or reducing reinforcement? How do you use it when you're past training the actual Zen Bowl phase but you're using it in your other training?

Laura Waudby: The Zen Bowl is transfers quickly into getting to that trial prep situation. It empowers the dog to choose to leave that reward in order to learn that leaving the reward is a huge piece for when you start to get to a trial and have to enter the ring with it far away.

But another piece that I use it for besides all the ring prep stuff is distance behaviors. One problem we tend to have in training behaviors is when the reward is in our pocket or in our hand, the dog naturally wants to creep towards us. In agility that means the dog is going to be filling in to us and not wanting to stay in their line. In obedience a dog moving forward too much is a big issue, I think, like position changes or the drop on recall or even the go-out when they're thinking about coming back to us. One common solution we have is walking in to see the dog in position. You go all the way out there at a distance and put a cookie in their mouth, but even if you're doing that, the dog still knows that you have the reward in your pocket and they're still coming closer to you where that reward is.

What I love about the Zen bowl, or even a toy on the ground behind the dog is that you can place that reward anywhere, as long as the dog sees you put it down and knows where it is. With the example of position changes or maybe the drop on recall, I place the reward behind the dog a lot. That way I can cue the dog to do a behavior, whether it's cuing a down or cuing a recall, and then I can give that marker cue to go back to their dish at any point in the process, while the dog is still focusing on me, waiting for the cue, but they're expecting to send to the reward behind them, and it tends to end up with a lot less creeping.

That's mainly the way I use the Zen bowl in my training sessions. I have the ring prep sessions with the rewards at a distance, and in my skill based sessions I tend to have the Zen bowl behind the dog when I'm working because I'm primarily using it for the distance-based behaviors.

Melissa Breau: We talked about this a little bit already, but let's say we've got that as a foundation concept, and some of the stuff you mentioned earlier around location-specific markers and things like that, and we've got a few behaviors reliably on cue when we're using a 1:1 reinforcement schedule, so one behavior, one cookie. Can you talk about what's next if our goal is to reduce that reinforcement? We talked a bit already about the 30-second piece. Do you want to walk us through that a little bit more?

Laura Waudby: I think the example will primarily be about obedience because that's what I'm the most familiar with, and because I think that's where trainers tend to get stuck the most with building up their routines.

Some people view it as doing one long behavior chain, but that's not how I personally tend to train it. It can certainly work very well, by adding slightly longer cues after another, but I tend to do it a little bit differently. Basically you have your individual behaviors and sometimes mixing up behaviors, mixing things up again, focusing on the flow, the number of behaviors before the cookies, keeping the dog moving a lot because that's less likely to trigger that moment where the dog expects that cookie.

But then you do also have your formal behavior chain for obedience, too. For the most part, I think this is where students do really well. They can put together the full recall exercises with the stay, the come, the front, the finish, and the dog can usually do that full exercise without a reward, no problem.

What I tend to see fall apart more is the chaining of multiple exercises together. I don't think this is bad as much as it's the piece where the dog expects the reward, doesn't get it, and then doesn't really know what they're doing as you go to set up for the next exercise. That piece of moving from one place to another when the exercise ends and you're setting up for the next one is the big piece.

So the place that I think is the hardest for a lot of the dogs is that they expect a reward, they don't get it, and then they don't really know what you're doing as you go to set up for the next exercise.

I focus a lot on training what we call transition of moving from one spot to another, which is kind of a gray area for the dog's perspective on whether they're in work mode or not. You can have a lot of different ways you move through that transition, whether it's more formally, where the dog is maybe they're heeling a little bit with you and you have them do a high hand touch or a spin, but they're very clearly doing a trained behavior, such as heeling with you or following you as you move backward. I do a lot of backward walking with my dogs between exercises.

Of course, you can also have it more playfully, too, where you're giving the dog scratches on the side of their muzzle while they're walking with you, or you're doing a butt rub as you're walking, or playfully tagging them and running away. Whatever it is that you'd want to do between exercises, maybe it's moving to the start line, you have to actively train those pieces, and then actively train the movement to your new setup piece.

In the beginning I reward those set ups a lot, but again I don't want to be predictable there either. 32:48 my Ring Confidence class, now that I think about it, but I do talk a little bit about this in my Bye, Bye Cookie class as well. I do some talking about what picture do you want to move with your dog in-between pieces, how you break the dog out of the position at your side, keep him engaged with you, and possibly add a little bit of play as you go to set up, because I want the dog to know that even if I'm breaking him out of position right there, we're still actively working. We're still on that green path toward that reinforcement picture.

When I work on reducing reinforcement in obedience, I focus a lot of my effort on this piece right here, so I will do some training of the formality pieces, like how we enter the ring, remove the leash, set up, etcetera. But then I will do a lot more of pausing, releasing the dog, and moving to my next set up spot, exactly like how I go in a trial, pause again, move to another setup spot, pause again, and then I might reward. Or maybe I'll do a very small part of an exercise.

But I really want to focus on that transition piece setting up and pausing, because I find that setup again is where the dog tends to lose it. If I work on the dog doing multiples of different setups in different locations in the ring, those are all the places where the dog traditionally is going to expect a reward. If I really work through that piece, I find that that expectation goes away, the dog is happily engaged with me, and the actual exercises are hopefully the easy parts. Hopefully you've taught your heeling well, your drop on recall well, whatever it is, pretty solidly, and you just need to have those links that combine them together. That's what I focus on the most when I'm talking about reducing reinforcement in obedience, and a little bit less on the actual duration of work itself again, and more on these are the links that are going to be between the chains.

Melissa Breau: We were talking earlier about the various pieces. I know you said you incorporate proofing into your skill building sessions. We're switching a little bit here from ring prep sessions to skill building, but I wanted to ask how you begin that process. When you're first starting to proof a behavior, what does that look like at those early stages?

Laura Waudby: You're exactly right that my proofing sessions are part of my skill building sessions, and again instead of proofing I like the term "fluency enhancement," but it's the exact same thing. I start with distractions that I can control pretty well. Honestly, my very first distractions I like to use are my rewards, so I use my Zen hand a lot and my Zen bowl with pretty much every single behavior out there that I work on, because I find that if the dog can do it without staring at the reward, no matter where that reward is, even if that reward is moving a little bit or at a spot where it's a little more tempting, then that behavior is usually pretty solid.

I like to take it to the step where I can purposely hold the reward in a location that doesn't support the behavior that I'm training. For example, I will practice, if I'm sending to an agility jump but I want my dog to wrap back to me, I might put my Zen bowl or my toy maybe 15 feet past the jump, so that way the dog has to take the jump, wrap back to me tightly, and ignore the reward out there until I cue it.

I'm looking at not only does the dog confidently take the jump and turn back to me, but is that done the exact way that they would if I had the reward on my body. So do they jump nice and tight versus jumping long, looking longingly at the reward out there, and then coming back to me. The same thing for obedience with my fronts. Can I hold my Zen hand with their food out to my side, and does the dog front straight and keep focus on me, or are they trying to get closer to that hand that has the cookie.

I do a lot of this stuff with every single behavior that I train. Can I put the reward in weird locations and does the dog still do the behavior to the criteria that I train him to do. That's my first proofing that I do a behavior and what I spend the most time on. Past that, it tends to vary a lot more in what I tend to do next. It's probably more typical what people tend to think of. I guess I start with weird handler stuff first. I have my back turned, my eyes closed, can I stand here or there, etcetera, using other distractions, the typical stuff.

Again, because I do a lot of obedience work, I will add a lot of people pressure in there. My dogs tend to be very sensitive, especially when working with people closely staring at them. So whenever possible I try to recruit a judge to stand near my dog. Often I'll have the judge have food in their hand too. Typically I do that more as a distraction versus the actual reward that the judge is holding, but I might do that too.

I like having my helpers have food and toys in their hands, because I think from my dog's perspective it turns it more to that general distraction and less about "Is this person going to approach and talk to me and pet me," and things like that that might worry my dog. I'd rather the dog be thinking about, "Oh, that's just a food distraction, and I just need to ignore that the exact same as I would if there was food on the ground." That's how I tackle the proofing stuff with my dogs.

Melissa Breau: We've talked a bit about reducing reinforcement, we talked a little bit about removing cookies from our bodies, we talked a little bit about fluency enhancement. Are there other things we need to be thinking about training in order to have a dog that's ready for the ring?

Laura Waudby: My Ring Confidence class goes over a lot of the other pieces, but one thing I've mentioned I think a few times maybe now is formality. This primarily applies to obedience, but ideally, even in the other sports that you're training for, you need to pay attention to not only what is your body doing, but what is your mouth doing.

Especially for obedience, I want my dog to know that silence is a good thing, that when I'm silent or giving the next cue, it means that they're on the track to reinforcement. I know that one of the biggest mistakes I made with my first dog, and I had to redo that concept from Step 1 because he got very stressful more and more each trial, as he wasn't sure if he was doing the right thing when I was suddenly very quiet and formal in training. Now what I tend to focus on with my young dogs right from the start is that I will have shaping sessions where I might be silent and have the dog offer a behavior.

But I will also have what I call my cued sessions. Once I give a cue, I want the dog to know that my silence means "Keep doing that. You're on the right track," because I don't want my dog to be frantic in the ring if I'm quietly waiting for the judge to give me the next command in the sequence. There are so many pauses in obedience that focusing on silence is a good thing. It's a huge part of my training early on.

It comes into my reducing reinforcement work as well is that when a dog does make an error, I tend to step in right away with a happy, cheerful encouragement, "Hey doggie, come back here," or I tell them, "So close," or whatever comes out of my mouth at that moment. But I like to verbally encourage them, and that way they know that they need to fix something, but I'm there encouraging them to make it right. They're not left with me just staring at them quietly, waiting for them to fix something.

And then, of course, there's a whole bunch of other ring prep stuff you need to do, such as how you will walk in the ring, how will you remove the leash, how will you handle delay in the ring, and stuff like that. That is primarily in my Ring Confidence class, but it's a little bit in my Bye, Bye Cookie class as well.

Melissa Breau: I mentioned earlier that you have the workshop coming up, and then we'll talk about the class a little more. But can you share a little more about what you'll cover in the workshop and what folks can expect?

Laura Waudby: The workshop covers Step 1 of starting with your Zen hand games, and I'll take you through teaching the actual Zen bowl itself, so it's those beginning steps.

It does go a little bit further as well for dogs who already have that concept down. If you already have a Zen bowl cue, then you'll be ready for the next section of that workshop, which is making sure that dogs are willingly leaving rewards from the cue without having to have them on leash or without you having to use a lot of cues, because the dog should offer more movement around the reward without going to it, so that concept of not having a dog just be in one place and listening to your cues, but can you actually do eventually real agility or heeling or whatever it is without the dog rushing the reward as soon as they are released.

And then doing send toward that reward location. So can I send the dog to a jump even if I have the reward slightly past it. An example would be can they go to a crate and still have their Zen bowl in that area. So are they really focusing on what you're telling them to do versus just assuming that you're releasing them to their dish.

Melissa Breau: Are there any prerequisite skills that students need before they join the workshop? Anything else that they need to know before they can go sign up?

Laura Waudby: There's no prerequisites needed. It will help if your dog does have some understanding already of the Zen games and focus, so that way you can advance to some more of the Zen bowl stuff. But if you don't have it, that's fine. We're going to start with where you're at. I wouldn't want anyone to expect, though, that they can get through all of this stuff in a week, because I do go a little bit into some of those advanced concepts. So be prepared that it's a little bit longer workshop than I originally intended to be, so that could be good or bad, I guess.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. The workshop is November 22, and then in December you're running your six-week class, Bye, Bye Cookie: Hello Delayed Reinforcement! How do the concepts in the class and the workshop differ? Does the class build on the workshop?

Laura Waudby: They're the same concepts. Basically it's the one-hour lecture versus six weeks of the material. For the class, the students new to it will primarily be working off the material in the workshop itself. Of course there will be more in-depth lectures and more video examples and stuff like that to help them, but the goals of the workshop will be what we'll be putting a lot of time on in the six-week class for students who are new to it.

For students who have already started the Zen bowl ideas, the six-week class does go more in-depth into more ring prep behavior, such as doing some work on entering the ring and setting up with the rewards outside the ring. We'll talk a little bit about that transition piece between exercises, about an exit-the-ring routine, how to get your rewards without the dog pulling you and yanking your arm out as you're going to go get it, and some more general proofing and cues so that your dog is truly working, no matter where that reward is located.

The average student will get nowhere near the full course material in six weeks, as in most of my students are working on the first three weeks throughout the entire six weeks of class. It is a pretty in-depth class designed to handle multiple levels of students.

Melissa Breau: Is there anything that students need to know before signing up for the class? Anything either in terms of pre-reqs or in terms of information about the class itself?

Laura Waudby: There are no prerequisites for the class. The main thing to keep in mind is that you want to go at your own pace. As I mentioned, there are quite a lot of lectures. They are released weekly with summaries at the end of each lecture about the summary points from the lecture, but it's not specific homework that you have to do, because it's definitely not a class designed where you are supposed to keep up with the lectures each week. That will be pretty much impossible for most of them. Again, most of the students don't get through the entire six weeks of class. And so the biggest thing when you sign up for the class is to be aware of that and take a deep breath and let your dog tell you what pace you need to be going at.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Last question. This is the one I've been asking everyone who comes on lately. What is something that you've learned recently or been reminded of when it comes to dog training?

Laura Waudby: This is the second-hardest question for me. When we initially set up this interview, I knew this was coming, and I was going to talk about something with Wren's training, and now I don't remember at all what that was and don't really care about what it was. So I might end on a little bit of a sad note because I think I want to talk a little bit about Vito with you, and likely another rambling note because I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this.

Basically, we don't have our dogs so they can teach us a lesson and make us better trainers. We get them to go hiking with us, to snuggle on the couch, and I love how joyful dogs are in everything that we do with them.

For me, one of the best parts of owning a dog is I do love those training sessions with them. Training is such a big part of my relationship with my dogs that when I look back over their lives, no matter how short it is, I do remember the fun we had training just as much as those bedtime snuggles and all those hugs.

With Vito, training was often really hard. Especially in his first several years, I worked very hard to try to make training fun for him. In training and in trials, we struggled, and I almost gave up a lot. And honestly, giving up would have been fine. There is nothing wrong if you choose to do that, or if you choose to train for a different sport. But I didn't.

I was initially looking at it from a goals perspective, and it was really hard for me because I couldn't help but feel disappointment when we were really struggling to meet those goals. But I then started to look at it more as a "It's a puzzle" perspective. Training is so important for my relationship with my dogs to keep doing something with them, and so I looked at it from how can I continue to help him see that obedience really is fun. It was my job to make obedience fun for him, and if we weren't having that fun, then I needed to change something up.

And so I experimented a lot, and what helped the most was respecting the hundreds of times he told me that he didn't want to train that day, really respecting it, and embracing that my job was to make training fun for him when he did finally opt in. Maybe the actual lesson is that what helped things turn around for us was when I realized that it was not my job to convince him to start training, that it was turning into a lot of pressure for him, maybe with some nagging, unfortunately, but it was my job to make the session fun, once he truly opted in to work.

Once I finally got to that point in training him all those years ago was when we started to make a lot of progress. We still struggled, and he opted in probably less than he opted out. He opted out a lot, basically. But we continued to improve and he did eventually teach me a lot, even if that's not why he came here with me.

And right now I think he's just really happy that I give him butt-scratches and I know that he loves balls, and he can squish and squish and squish all those balls, and probably it's him knowing that I've got his back and I know that what he really likes is the most important thing. I guess I'll just stop there.

Melissa Breau: I think there were some valuable little nuggets in there about learning the dog that you have and not the dog you expected to have.

Laura Waudby: That's definitely pretty different. I had expectations, and things do not always work out like that.

Melissa Breau: I could pull a couple more nuggets out there too, but I think it's a valuable note to end on, so I won't muddy the waters. Thank you so much for coming on, Laura. I really appreciate it.

Laura Waudby: You're welcome.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. We will be back next week. We'll be talking to Sharon Carroll on fear and anxiety in dogs. 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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