E197: Petra Ford - "The Making of a National Obedience Champion"

Petra joins me to chat about her recent first place at the National Obedience Championship and what it takes to get to the top.


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 Petra Ford.

Petra graduated from Rutgers School of Health Related Professions over 20 years ago with a degree in physical therapy. She attended the Canine Rehabilitation Institute in 2007 and is a certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. She has written several articles on canine conditioning, canine injury prevention, competing with your dog and more. She has been published a number of times in a number of magazines including Clean Run, Front and Finish, and Whole Dog Journal.

Petra trains and trials her Labrador Retrievers in obedience, agility, and field. Her black lab, Tyler, had the distinction of being the 2008 and 2009 National Obedience Champion and First Runner Up in 2010. In 2012, Petra and Tyler became the first American team to win the Obedience World Cup.

This year, Petra returned to the National Obedience Championship with Zeal — and she's back today to about that experience!

Hi Petra, welcome back and congrats!

Petra Ford: Hi, thank you so much for having me.

Melissa Breau: To start us out before we get into the fun stuff, can you just quickly remind listeners who your current crew is and what you're working on with everybody?

Petra Ford: My current crew is Zaiden; he's my retired agility dog. Then there's Zeal. He's my 8-year-old competition obedience dog. Zaina just finished her OTCH a month or two ago. And then I have Zesty, my 7-month-old puppy.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. This is your third time, am I right? Third time winning the National Obedience Championship?

Petra Ford: Third time, yes.

Melissa Breau: But your first time with Zeal. Can you share a little bit about your journey with him and maybe how it was different than the one you took with Tyler?

Petra Ford: They're completely and utterly different dogs, even though they're father and son. Zeal genetically was just a super-gifted, once-in-a-lifetime animal. He was very talented, so I just had to do my job and hang on for the ride. It wasn't really hard for him to compete at a high level. He loved it. He thrived with that.

Zeal is a completely different dog — super, super, super sensitive. He was incredibly environmentally sensitive as a puppy. I couldn't use a clicker, because if I clicked, he would flinch. He was motion sensitive, sound sensitive, afraid of inanimate objects. There was no rhyme or reason.

So things have been super challenging with him, just figuring out what works for him and figuring out what I could do to make him more confident and to make him comfortable and to help him be able to deal with all the pressure and stress that's inherent in any competition.

Melissa Breau: What do you know about training now that you wish you'd known when you first started? What lessons has Zeal taught you along the way?

Petra Ford: I wish I'd known everything then that I learned probably in the past almost year. I was just talking to some friends that were like, "How come this year was so different for him?" I guess it just took me that long to put all the pieces together.

I knew that pressure was a problem for him, environmental pressure. When he felt pressure, he would just shut down. He couldn't dig and push through. I knew that. I just didn't know how to help him overcome that. One of the things I figured out was a whole bunch of games that I do now that teach him to actually push into pressure as a game. I do it in a way that he has a completely different emotional relationship with it, so that when I say we're going to do this game that involves pushing into pressure, it makes him super happy and he does it really happily now. That made a huge difference. That was a big game changer, really pushed him through the last round of this NOC for sure.

A couple other things I did was I changed the way I handle him. I go into the ring more relaxed with him, less formal. I can't take credit for that. My training partner came up with the idea that when we're doing these regionals and tournaments, they're going in the ring again and again and again with no reinforcement at all. And our dogs … I think most dogs, if not all dogs, but for sure I can say our dogs, when they over time don't get reinforcement, they start to get worried. They're not sure if they're correct or am I doing the right thing.

I've never done this before, but now in-between, like Sunday morning and Sunday at lunch, I took him into the practice ring, but all I did was just reinforce: feed, feed, feed, games, games, games, toy, toy, toy, heavy reinforcement, and I really think that helped him. So a bunch of things that all just came together.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned your training partner in there. I saw you wrote a huge thank-you post up on Facebook, so I wanted to give you a chance, first of all, to do your Academy Award thank-you's. But just talk a little bit about the role that your training community has played in helping you get to where you are today.

Petra Ford: For one, I train by myself I would say a fair amount in the sense that I don't go to a school, I don't have a school, I don't take classes, I don't go to classes, so a percentage of my training I do on my own.

But you can't just do it all on your own because you need a person to help be a distractor. But for me, more importantly is I need a sounding board. I need somebody to help me problem-solve. My training is all about constantly trying new things and experimenting and figuring things out, and you can't do that on your own.

I'm pretty selective about my training partners in the sense that I want them to feel comfortable to tell me their thoughts and opinions, to give me their feedback, and I want people that enjoy problem solving. We love figuring things out, we love experimenting, we love trying different things. I also think things have changed tremendously for me and for my two training partners because we have so much access now to so much information. I'm afraid to look and see how many webinars and workshops and things I have in my fancy library, and listening to podcasts and classes, and they do that as well. That's why I love to train, really, is the problem solving. There's never just one way. People that, "How do you train that?" I have no idea, because it changes every dog, every time I play around. So you can't do it without a training partner, my training partner.

The other thing about training partners is moral support. The truth of the matter is there were many times where I said, "I just don't think Zeal can do it." Not in a mean way or in a bad way. He's just not a confident, tough dog. And they never stopped believing that we could figure it out. Even when I was like, "I just don't think he can do it," a week or two later they're like, "All right, come on. We're going to figure this out." So yeah, can't really do it without your training partners. And you need training partners that are positive people and just love positive problem solving, looking for answers.

Melissa Breau: Zaina says yes.

Petra Ford: Yes. Zaina, you have a lot to say today. She's not happy that her mother was away without her.

Melissa Breau: Do you have any words of advice for listeners who have big dreams for themselves and their dogs, but they aren't sure how to find or build that right circle around themselves?

Petra Ford: I'm a freak about mental management, positive thinking. I listen to mountains of things. I meditate. I was listening to a book on the way home, and again the guy said you just have to be selective. If a person is being negative and doesn't have solutions and is always in a negative state of mind, then that's not good for you. It's not a healthy relationship. You need to distance yourself from that. So I've learned over time to do that.

And eventually the universe does take care of things and it just draws people into your circle that are like-minded, and then that's who I stick with. I stick with those people that are like-minded and that think positive. My circle is much smaller and I think that's fine, because it's small but effective, and it's small but happy, and it's small and supportive.

I think a lot of times people are just afraid to step away. Maybe they're afraid if they step away they'll have no one, or they feel bad for the other person. But ultimately if it's not good for you, it's not going to be good for your dog. So if someone walks in cranky or negative, then I'm going to feel it and then my dog's going to feel it. I don't know if that was helpful or not.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. You mentioned mental management in there. Can you talk about that a little bit more? What that looks like for you, how that impacted things?

Petra Ford: It's huge. It's a major, major factor. When I first went to the NOC with Tyler, actually a year to the day before the NOC, someone was giving a seminar at the dog school and it was Jane Savoie. She's a dressage writer. She wrote a book. I went out and got the book because I had to be prepared, I read the book, and every chapter was like, "You shouldn't do this, you should do this instead." Everything in the book you're not supposed to do, I did. So I was like, oh boy, I'm in trouble.

I made a vow that I would work on it every single day, and it took ten months before I could do all those things in there, like not have self-doubt, think positive thoughts, set goals, visualize, because my mental mindset was very bad. I was very much negative mindset, always self-sabotaging, no self-confidence, very insecure.

My goal for that first NOC was that I would follow my path, that I would think positive, do all the things I had been practicing for those ten months. That was my goal. I achieved that goal, and winning was actually the by-product of my following through with my mental management plan, if that makes sense.

With Zeal, I'm human and there have been some life things going on in the past few years. I again lost my self-confidence and whatever. He struggled. I lost confidence in myself, like maybe I'm not a good enough trainer, maybe I can't really do this, maybe I can't figure it out.

Believe it or not, the pandemic for me had a lot of positives, and one of them was my spiritual mentor was like, "You have to get back to the basics, get back to your roots." I started heavily meditating again and working on my mental game … not just my mental game, just mentally bringing myself into a better place, and I got there maybe four to six weeks ago, just in time, I guess, so that when I got there I really was in a good place. I wasn't there saying, "I have to win, I have to win." I wanted to see could I keep him happy, could I keep him in a good mental place, could I carry him through. I just wanted to see how far I could get him through the weekend. And then, as a by-product, good things happened.

Melissa Breau: Do you feel like you accomplished those goals for yourself over the weekend?

Petra Ford: I did. Yeah, I did. I'm super happy with that. He was really, really happy. I went back today and looked at the final round videos where by then the dogs are really exhausted. They've gone in the ring so many times, there's so many distractions, there's so much pressure on the rings just in terms of things going on in multiple rings. You can't see it in the videos. The announcer's booth was right up on the left side. It was crazy. It's just so hard for them. He looked pretty bouncy and happy and relaxed, so I was super thrilled with that. So yeah, I think we did it.

Melissa Breau: I was watching the videos you shared, and his little tail was going pretty constantly. I know you mentioned they were very different dogs, but are there also differences in how you approach training with Tyler and with Zeal?

Petra Ford: Yeah. Tyler, the first sport I did with him when he was a puppy, I still was clicker training him for obedience, but he was also field trained, so he was collar conditioned. He was force-fetched the way they do in the field, and he was on a prong collar. I did use, especially early on, they called them motivational pops, popping a dog on the prong collar. He was a pretty spectacular dog that I didn't really, over the course of his career, need to correct him much or use much compulsion, just because he was who he was, but that's how I was training at the time. We did also use tugs and toys and stuff, but it was mixed in, there was no question.

Zeal, forget it, there's no way any of that would have ever worked for him. He would have just dropped dead and died. He just can't handle. He's just so sensitive. So he's been trained all positive, there's no other choice. Which is how I want to train now, but even if I didn't want it, I wouldn't have had a choice. The poor dog. Thank God I moved away from that, because he would have never survived.

I don't think I've trained any of my dogs, even Zaina now or Zesty, the same, because I'm constantly trying to come up with better ways and I'm constantly playing around and experimenting. I listen to a podcast, it'll give me an idea, and I'm like, oh, I wonder what I can do with that, and then I just start playing with that, and next thing you know, I'm doing it differently again. I think everybody should do that. I try to encourage my students all the time.

I don't have a method. I think in traditional obedience, competition obedience, there are different trainers under different schools and they have methods, and all those methods aren't bad, but they're every dog and "This is the method and this is how we train." I just think it's so much better if there is not a method, if the method is just figure out what works best for that particular dog. And then, even when you have that figured out, keep trying, because it can always be better. All I know is the more I train, the more I know that I really don't know.

Melissa Breau: Hopefully, as you train, you also become a better trainer, so different things become more effective even with different dogs, even if you have the same dog to do over again.

Petra Ford: That's true too.

Melissa Breau: You started to get into this a little bit and I'd love to have you elaborate. How have the things that you've learned, and some of the things that you're trying and experimenting with, impacted your plans with your younger dogs?

Petra Ford: All these pressure games that I'm doing now with an adult, a very seasoned dog, I started doing them with my puppy when I brought him home 7 weeks old. I threw him on the platform, put enormous high value on the platform, and started doing the pressure games with him as a puppy.

So I'm looking at things now where typically we'll train a dog, and then when a dog is trained, we'll teach them how to deal with distractions and pressure. I'm doing that now when they're little babies, because then it's not a thing. It's already conditioned in that it's not a big deal.

When they're young, they're so plastic and so malleable that if I just expose them to all of that, I think it will be a lot easier when they're older. I pretty much take everything I've learned that I wish I had done with the current dog when they were young, and do it with my puppies and my younger dogs right away. And then I'll get another puppy in four years and … well, even with these dogs, I'm sure in three or four years I'll be like, oh, I wish I did that when they were young.

Melissa Breau: We talked about the mental management piece, what you did leading up, but in terms of training, or in terms of other preparation, is there anything special that you did leading up to the trial to make sure you and Zeal both brought your best foot forward?

Petra Ford: At the NOC, it's a couple of things. One is that they're going again and again, and a lot of times they're going in multiple rings, rapid fire, which is very hard for a dog.

Some people say it's only three exercises compared to five, but a dog doesn't sit there and go in the ring and count. At least, I don't think they do. I think once they go into the ring, it's like they cross this barrier and now it smells different, it sounds different, they haven't been in there before. It's unique and there are unique pressures in there. And so they go in, they come out, and then immediately they go in another ring again and come out, and then within 10 or 15 minutes go in another. I think that's super hard. So I'll train that concept with them where I'll set up a ring, go in, do two or three things, come out, lay on your mat for a few minutes, go in again, come out.

I also try to proof for as many unique things. Because there are so many rings going on simultaneously, for example, something the dogs found super challenging at this NOC is the go-outs with the directed jumping. The picture was very visually challenging for them, but I think what made it even more difficult was they were running towards pressure.

For example, in the final round, you line your dog up, you show them the go-out, they look out and there's a dog heeling against that ring, the back gate. So the dogs look, they see a dog and handler, they don't want to run towards that. That's not natural. They don't want to run at that. Conversely, if you're on the other side of the ring, you stand your dog for signals, now their back is to the ring where the dogs are running towards them, towards the go-out and towards the glove, that's happening behind them.

So there are a lot of different scenarios. I try to pull the pieces and just show them to the dog so that they're comfortable with that. I've had scenarios where you're in one ring, your dog's running towards the go-out, then the other ring the dog is running, so they're basically in essence running towards one another, things like that. Anything I've experienced at past NOC's that I can think of, I set those scenarios up and I set them up in a way that I don't just do it. I break it down so the dog can be successful. So we do that.

Honestly, a week before, I gave him a week and a half off where he did nothing. And then a week or so before, I do very little, just make him right, make him right, make him right. I think mostly that's it. And a lot of pressure work. Again, positive as a game, but a lot of pressure work because that's a huge component of what they deal with, I think, in the ring in general, but for sure at the NOC.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that one of the things that you tried this time that was different specifically for Zeal was in-between going to the practice ring to do those food rewards. Do you think that that's something that you'll carry on and do with other dogs, or do you think that's really a Zeal-specific strategy?

Petra Ford: No, I think that's something I'm going to start doing with all dogs, because it's really just rate of reinforcement. It doesn't matter which dog you have, they're going in the ring.

For instance, take a regional. This is where my friend came up with the idea. It's three days in a row, they do utility and open each day, and then usually there are some runoffs. That's a lot. Each run is eight to nine minutes. That's a long time for two days in a row where the dogs are performing an enormous chain of exercises with a lot of precision and they're getting no reinforcement.

So I think for sure I'm going to start doing that, because I think just throwing and then going in and reinforcing those things, I think people have this misconception like, oh, my dog only works for the food or not for the food. I don't think it has anything to do with that if you have a well-trained dog. I think it's that the dogs get worried. They get insecure. They're not sure. "I'm going, I'm going, I'm going, I'm not getting anything. Am I right? Am I OK? Am I doing the right thing?" So I think adding that in builds up their confidence. So absolutely I'm going to do that with all of my dogs.

Melissa Breau: We talked about leading up what you did, but I'd love to give listeners the bigger picture, a little insight into what really goes into it when, like Zeal, you mentioned he's 8. What does a training routine typically look like? How long have you and Zeal really been prepping for this?

Petra Ford: In my mind, my goal for my dogs is to compete at regionals and the NOC. That's my goal when I get a dog. In my mind, from day one, that's what I'm prepping for.

My training sessions vary a lot because I feel that you really have to have a lot of balance in your training. For example, I'll have one training session where it's all motivation. For example, throw the dumbbell, the dog picks it up, yes, on their way back I throw their toy or I throw a cookie, no pressure, just fun, fun, fun, everything run, get rewarded. That will be what I would call a motivational session.

If I have a fully trained dog, another day I might work on chaining, where the dog is learning that just because you didn't get a reinforcer, just keep going, it's coming. They understand to do two or three things in a row, then they get a big jackpot.

Another day I might work on distractions. On my way to work I'll stop at a Lowe's or a Home Depot or a parking lot, depending on their level, and just work on distraction work. Another day I might work on skills, so something my dog's weak on or I'd like to improve, or something I'm teaching them, we just work on those pieces. If I have a different day where I'm training with someone, then I'm going to use that person as a judge or as a distractor or as pretending they're a steward, that kind of thing. So my sessions just vary all the time. Because I think there's so many different pieces, in order to hit them all you just have to keep mixing it up and mixing it up.

I don't typically train long sessions, hours and hours. I feel like it's quality over quantity. I feel I'm better off with shorter sessions where I know exactly what I want to do, and if my dog does it right, I move on. I don't beat a dead horse. If my dog does something right three times in a row, we're done. That's it. I will never do four. If my dog struggles with something, we make some progress on it, done. I'm out. We move on. I don't believe in doing really long sessions.

Zeal I only need to train three, four days a week. Zaina I probably train five, maybe sometimes six. That's not as many times as I would want to train a dog. She is a super high-drive dog, so she demands that much work. I think four to five days is enough.

Melissa Breau: Are there any training tips or pieces of advice that jump out at you as something that's really helped throughout your training journey?

Petra Ford: To this day I will say … and I always go back to this because in essence, the foundation of my training, there are a lot of concepts. One I just mentioned, where I'll never do more than three correct. A lot of these concepts I got from my first field trainer, who is actually the guy that bred his dog for me and gave me Tyler as a gift. He was my mentor in my first real dog sport, which was field training. He was very different from most field trainers in that he was very scientific and he thought about things all the time. He taught me a lot of concepts that to this day carry through to my training. So he would be the first one. Are you asking … you want specific things or …

Melissa Breau: Up to you. You can interpret that how you want to. I think it's all useful info.

Petra Ford: I fall back a lot on a lot of mental management things because I think obedience training can be very frustrating. I see that a lot because it's a tough sport. It's really hard.

I think it's super important to read your dog. I can't overemphasize that enough. And that's where people really struggle. They look for a technique, like, how do you teach this? First you do X, then you do Y. I'd love for people to be more excited or interested in learning how to actually read their dog. What is the dog saying to them? I think that's super important. John taught me that, and some other instructors have taught me that.

I think the mental management part for me, like never giving up. Even sometimes I throw up my hands and a week later I'm like, I'm going to figure that out if it's the last thing I do. So I think about a lot of mental management things all the time.

Melissa Breau: So congrats again on the win.

Petra Ford: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much.

Melissa Breau: Before we go, I just want to quickly mention that this will be out Friday, so technically you'll have done it the day before people listen to this, but you are doing a webinar for us this week.

Petra Ford: I am, and it's a super-fun webinar for me. I hope people are interested in it because, again, it hits on that thing of thinking outside the box, being creative, blending things. So it's saying we don't have to throw out all of the traditional training methods, because they weren't all bad and mean. There were a lot of good things there. And we don't have to be afraid of the science the way I used to be, because there's a lot of good information there too. We can blend the two. And then we can even take that and tweak it even more into our own way.

I think a lot of times people are afraid. They're insecure, they're not sure, they don't want to mess it up. Or they're like, "I don't know how to do that." I can't tell you how many times I've done things and they didn't work out, and it's OK. So it didn't work. All right, well, I won't keep doing that. I didn't completely mess my dog up; it just didn't work, so we tried something else, and then that didn't work. I've been on that path with Zeal. I can tell you how many things I've done that didn't work. No big deal. Just try again.

I think I'd rather see somebody try things that don't work, but I'll be like, "Yeah, that's it, keep trying, good." Then the person that's just frozen and only wants to be spoon-fed instruction because our dogs are fluid, they're … I don't know … to me, they're little people in furry bodies. They change.

I love when I say to my student, "Do it this way," and they're like, "But last lesson you said do it that way." I'm like, "Well, that was then, this is now." It changed. They change. Sometimes I say, "Try that," and it doesn't work. All right, so now we have to do it different. Or the dogs change. They get more confident, or maybe something confuses them. So you constantly have to be thinking and reading and experimenting and playing around. You can't just follow the recipe. Don't follow the recipe.

Melissa Breau: There isn't a recipe.

Petra Ford: There's no recipe. Throw the recipe out the window. I dare you.

Melissa Breau: I feel like if you can say that, having accomplished all you've accomplished…

Petra Ford: I think I've accomplished what I've accomplished because of that, honestly. I really and honestly do. I can give countless examples and I think that's why.

Here's one example. Most people teach a stanchion, and that's how I was taught. Teach your go-out, run to a stanchion, or run to a pole, on the West Coast. And that's great. When the stanchion is in the middle, a new dog can see the stanchion. That's how I trained Tyler, except that whenever the stanchion wasn't in the middle, or he couldn't see it, or the color was different, he was not sure. After that I said, "I am never teaching a stanchion again." At the time it was a big deal. I was going against the grain and there was a lot of resistance.

Well, let me tell you, twice now … the first NOC I went to with Zeal, he placed third, and this time he won it, and both times I think that the go-outs were a big factor. A lot of dogs struggled at the first NOC because there was no center stanchion and it was a debacle. He went straight. And in this NOC a lot of dogs did not go straight. They went way over to the side. And in this case I think again it's because I did not teach my dog at stanchion. I just taught them to go straight and I taught them to go into pressure. So I feel like that's just one example of where I think because I'm willing to throw out the recipe that I've been able to achieve what I've achieved.

Melissa Breau: For anybody who does want to pick up the webinar, it will not be out super long after this airs. So if you're listening to this, go over, scoop it up if you want it, because it will probably come down within a day or two of this going up.

Thank you so much, Petra. I really appreciate it. I know you just got back and you're presenting this week and I was still like, "Hey, can we chat?"

Petra Ford: That's OK, thank you. I'm excited to do it, always excited to talk to you, and grateful to Denise and the school for providing such a great environment. I learn from teaching and I learn from all the other instructors, so I'm super happy to do it.

Melissa Breau: Thank you again, and thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it! 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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