Swedish duo Eva and Emelie join me to share their story, talk about TAGteach and discuss transitions in training.
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 Emelie Johnson Vegh and Eva Bertilsson of Carpe Momentum.
The Swedish duo met at the agility fields in the late '90s as dedicated positive reinforcement trainers in a fast-paced sport where millimeters and milliseconds matter. Together they developed practical approaches to training that have become useful way beyond the agility ring.
Under the name Carpe Momentum they work as trainers and educators, often with dogs in a variety of settings but also with other species — including humans, of course.
Their book, Agility Right from the Start, was published by Karen Pryor Clicker Training (KPCT) in 2010, and they are part of the Clicker Expo faculty. In addition, they are the first TAGteach faculty in Europe and introduced TAGteach to Scandinavia in 2005.
Hi ladies, and welcome to the podcast!
Emelie Johnson Vegh: Hi Melissa, and thank you for having us.
Eva Bertilsson: Hello. Good to be here.
Melissa Breau: Excited to have you both. To get us started and maybe give listeners an idea who's who, can you say who you are and share a little bit about your own dogs and what you're working on with them?
Eva Bertilsson: I'm Eva, and I live on the west coast of Sweden — since February of this year without a dog for the first time in twenty-five, maybe thirty years. That's weird.
My first dog was a Toller, then I got into Papillons. I had two Phalène, which is the drop-eared version of a Pap. Then, up until February, I had Tizla, my Border Collie, who lived to be a bit over 14. That is all the dogs that I have been living with. My dogs have reached high age, all of them. It's weird. This year is strange. I lost my dog, and then I got stuck in the U.S. for three months. I mean literally she passed just a couple of days before my flight to Mexico, so there was some kind of meaning with that, I guess.
Melissa Breau: And then you got stuck in the U.S. for three months, so you may have to share a little bit more about that.
Eva Bertilsson: That was just the weirdest. First I had two weeks in Mexico for conference, and then we were supposed to have Clicker Expo in Lexington, Kentucky, and that was cancelled last-minute. Myself and Chirag Patel were sitting and talking to Theresa McKeon and were like, "Now what? When are our flights home? What are we doing?" and feeling a bit down about Expo being cancelled, missing out on that awesome conference at the start of the year.
Theresa said, "Just come visit me. You have the time now." We were like, "Good idea. Let's do that." So we made it into a road trip, drove eight hours to Theresa's place and stayed there, supposedly staying for a week. Then we decided, "Let's rebook some flights and stay for another week." Then corona hit pretty hard in Europe and it didn't feel that appealing to go home, and flights were cancelled, so "What about we stay for a while?" That ended up being the rest of the spring. So I had the luxury of spending most of my spring at Theresa McKeon's ranch with Chirag and with Teresa's family. That was pretty awesome.
Melissa Breau: Positives and negatives, I'm sure.
Eva Bertilsson: Yes.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: I'm Emelie, and I just then lost my work wife for three months and a seven-hour time difference that we never quite figured out and we kept botching up a lot.
I live down south in Sweden, so it's about a four-hour drive between myself and Eva's house, so we do most of our things over the phone or over Zoom. We've always done it that way, so when we wrote the book in 2007 to 2010, when it came out, we ran up phone bills, because that was still during the time when phone was something you paid a lot for. But we've always been hanging out. I actually brought Eva on my honeymoon, and I kid you not. I did.
Eva Bertilsson: Let's rephrase that. Emelie brought her husband on their honeymoon to the Agility World Championships in Portugal.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: Same difference. But I live down south in Sweden with my husband, who really enjoys Eva's company as well, and our three children in very different ages. Our oldest is 18 and our youngest is 7.
We have two dogs: Scout, who's a Kelpie, she's now 12-and-a-half, and Tessa, who's a Field Golden, who is now 2-and-a-half, so I'm in the middle of getting her ready to compete, if COVID ever goes away, so I can actually do some stuff with her. We will be looking at more field training this spring, and we are hoping to get out in both rally obedience and obedience, and then agility for the fall.
Melissa Breau: That sounds awesome. It sounds like a ton of stuff on your plate.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: Yeah, never boring.
Melissa Breau: And it's probably good thing your husband likes Eva. I imagine that would be hard otherwise. That may be a requirement. I mentioned in the intro you met in the late '90s. It seems at that point you both had been in dog training and agility for at least a little while. What got you into dogs and sports and training to start with?
Emelie Johnson Vegh: My answer is really, really short: My parents would not buy me a pony, and I got sick and tired of fixing other people's ponies and not getting to keep them. So I saved up my pocket money and got myself my first dog, it was Nila, in 1990, and from there on, it rolled on.
Eva Bertilsson: For me, I had the ponies when I was a kid. I grew up close to my grandparents' place, and we had our horses in that barn, close to where we lived. But I was the one who always wanted a dog, in addition to the ponies. So when I grew up and got the opportunity to get my own dog, that's the first thing I did.
Before that, I had been reading so much. With the horses, I enjoyed riding and doing everything we did with the horses, but if clicker training had been available, I would have been the clicker training kid with the horses for sure. The little bits and pieces of trick training, or just out in the woods bareback — I loved that, and I loved just playing with the horses. I was more into that than I was into the competition part of things.
During that time, I was also reading everything I could find, every book in the library that had to do with dogs and dog training. An interesting thing about that — now we're talking the late '80s and beginning of '90s — positive reinforcement training was growing. It was part of the traditional training in Scandinavia. And when people write a book, they are typically pretty explicit about the positive reinforcement bits and they're not so explicit about the aversives, at least back then. So the writing was often better than the actual training.
I wasn't in contact with the actual training. I was in contact with the writing, so I did get access to quite a pit of positive reinforcement advice in the written material. Also I know, when I look back, that I was reading selectively, so finding the bits that had to do with positive reinforcement because that appealed to me. So I reasonably got into positive reinforcement training not in terms of shaping and marker-based training, but in using more lure reward training from the beginning.
My Toller was born in 1992, and we got started with competitive obedience, because again that's what you could read about. You could read about tracking and then it says something like, "You will see on your dog's body language when he's got the track right," and I'm like, "I don't have a dog. I can't see that." Obedience you could read and you could understand what it was supposed to look like, so that was my reason for getting started with competitive obedience first. And then, when my Toller was about a year old, I almost wore her out because we were training all the time.
Then I got Misty, my dream dog, my Pap, who lived to be over 19, was the obedience star in the beginning and with whom I got started with agility, just because my dog club wanted somebody to take an agility instructor's course. I happened to be one of the younger and I had a cute, fluffy dog and apparently I liked training, so they thought I was a good candidate. So, "Off you go. Go learn how to do agility." I hadn't shown any interest in agility before, but it was like, "OK, I can do that." I took a one-weekend instructor's course and then I was hooked.
Getting started with agility, both my dogs were obedience champions at the time, and I was aiming for the Swedish championship in obedience. That all just fell to the roadside once I got hooked on agility, and then I spent ten years hanging out on the agility fields every weekend.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: And that's where we met.
Eva Bertilsson: The thing is, Emelie and I, we had young dogs at the same time. In 1998, we had already seen each other on the field maybe the year before, but that summer we had a huge agility competition in Sweden, a full week, and we were both competing with our older dogs, but we also had young dogs, so we had a lot to talk about in training camp and how to teach things to the youngsters. Pretty much nobody else could stand our level of discussion, the level of nerdiness that got started, so we spent the time with each other, discussing training and developing training plans.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. You started to get into my next question a little bit, which was, were you both always positive trainers, and if not, what got you started there? It sounds like right from the start, Eva, you were reading bits and pieces and pulling that out almost from the beginning. Any more you want to say on that, or maybe Emelie can pick up with her experience?
Emelie Johnson Vegh: I was not a positive reinforcement trainer from the beginning. I so desperately wanted to be in the vicinity of ponies and getting to ride, so I took all my hints from the people that had the horses and from the training, and that's all pressure and release.
When I got my first dog, I looked to my neighbor, who was a trainer at the local dog club. I went with her and she introduced me, and she was ever so kind about it. But that wasn't positive reinforcement training either. Looking back on it, I can say I was a good punishment-based trainer, I had good timing, but I did not realize that it was corrections that we were using.
Nila, my first dog, she was a mixed breed, a Lab, Golden, and German Shepherd, mostly Lab, and she was what people would deem soft, meaning that I never really felt that I was using corrections. But then my sister bought a Border Terrier, Flux, and she drifted and became my dog. With Flux, it was blatantly obvious that there were corrections, and I wasn't comfortable with that level, and it wasn't fun. I was constantly … not annoyed, but looking for things to tell her what was wrong, and I did not enjoy that at all.
That's where I did the Eva thing of starting to read everything I could find. Everything I could find, because I was getting into stuff I did not enjoy, I took a complete time out, I read everything, and then I started over.
Then, with the young dog that Eva was alluding to that we had young dogs at the same time, I started her off with using just positive reinforcement training, being quite naïve in certain aspects and very gung-ho. I think one of the first things that I shaped from scratch was the weave poles.
Eva Bertilsson: Yes, you shaped weave poles, and not in any traditional fashion, either, because you were shaping weave poles using a target, which just try to picture a foot target for the weave poles.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: First thing. Here we go.
Melissa Breau: You like to start small, obviously.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: I started small and with nothing that really matters. And it actually went swimmingly well, so the hubris began there, and then it just went on. Since then, I think that the discussions that Eva and I have been having, and all the reading, and all the training of other students has becomes so obvious that this is what I do. And I like the science part. I like being able to not just say, "This is what I do," but that there is science to lean on.
Eva Bertilsson: I definitely think that we have been reinforcing the breakdown into small pieces, look at things from a science-y perspective in each other. So we both had that foundation before we ever met, and then getting together that just propelled that forward in an interesting way.
It is interesting thinking back of how you got started with positive reinforcement training and all the influences that were there early on, because we're always standing on the shoulders of giants, and those giants in our Scandinavian training, when we got started, trying to trace where did that come from is quite interesting. We had quite a few Scandinavian trainers, including Anders Hallgren, back in the '70s, who got the language going about positive reinforcement training and introduced the science a bit. When clicker training came along in the mid-'90s, I remember the first lecture that I went to, that was a Swedish girl, she had had some instructor's course, somebody close to where I lived had been there, came home, gave a lecture, that was in '97. I already had two obedience champions, was competing high-level agility, and I had Misty, my little Pap, with me, and was shown shaping for the first time in the traditional sense of free shaping: sit in a chair with a clicker and your treats and just watch the dog, click, and treat.
That was the weirdest experience — the super-frustrated, barky little dog, and me with no skills whatsoever, trying to click and give cookies, but that clicked for me in a sense that I think nothing else has quite lived up to that experience of, "Wow, there is something in here that I had no idea about." The possibility to actually communicate in that way and build behavior through reinforcement, not all through antecedents but actually using reinforcement to build behavior.
I went home from that and I spent four hours that night, I didn't go to bed until 3 in the morning, with my dog, on the kitchen floor, shaping her to put her head under a chair. It's like I could have that on video. I can watch it in my head still, almost 25 years later.
So it's like there's both the positive reinforcement trainer, avoiding aversives, using rewards, and then there is the bits and pieces of how consequences drives behavior. Those are two different pieces that come together in a critical way. So for me that's a bit like a birth into science-y understanding of how behavior works.
Melissa Breau: I love that. I love those stories. They're fantastic. You've talked a little bit about where you came from and how you got into positive training, but is there a way that you would describe your current training philosophy, your current approach to things?
Eva Bertilsson: You gave us a little bit of head start for that question, which I'm thankful for, because that got us talking about could we even phrase a training philosophy.
Emelie Johnson Verg: Then we started thinking about when we wrote the agility book, Agility Right From The Start. That's often referred to as the book that took longer to write than the Bible — which is not true, people. It took a long time.
Eva Bertilsson: It's a close call.
Emelie Johnson Verg: When we teach, and when we wrote that book, we tend to think in a structure of "what why" and "how why." I think that frames up our training philosophy because a lot of things are derived from that.
Eva Bertilsson: The philosophy being principle over method, and the philosophy being start with "what," and before you decide what your training goals are, you have to ask yourself why. Who are the goals for? Why do we want to accomplish this? Is this the best goal to have, or should we have a different goal? Depending on what the goal is, then you can define your strategy, how to work with that behavior, how to teach it or how to modify it, and then again ask the question of why choose that strategy. Because there are always many different possible goals, so there is decision-making in, like, what goal should we go with. And then for every given goal there are always many possible strategies to get there and again we have to choose. So the awareness of those levels, I think, is the philosophy that we work from and that we try to live from in our training.
Melissa Breau: I like that. So it's "what why" and then "how why."
Eva Bertilsson: Yes.
Melissa Breau: To bring things back — we came forward and then we're going back a little bit — I mentioned in your bio that you were the first TAGteach faculty in Europe. I wanted to talk about that a little bit because I don't think we've talked about TAGteach ever on the podcast before. Can you give us the lowdown? What is TAGteach? How does it work?
Emelie Johnson Vegh: TAGteach stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. Theresa McKeon, that stole Eva from me for three months last year, she is one of the developers behind it. It's often referred to as clicker training for people, wouldn't you say, Eva?
Eva Bertilsson: Yes. It's good enough to say it's clicker training for people, in the sense that you are looking at breaking down skills, working with one thing at a time, building behavior through positive reinforcement, using behavior science as your background in your teaching.
But TAGteach is developed specifically for working with people. That means that we use different tools with people when we're working with people that have a functioning language. There are strategies that we use in communicating with people that we can't use when we work with our animals, just due to the differences in language and the fact that we have such an elaborate language.
In TAGteach we make for use of that, so that means that the learner can always be involved in making the training plan, or coming with suggestions, or asking the teacher to help them with their training using TAG points, for example.
This is difficult for me to describe, because I was about to say it's not just about the teacher teaching their students. It's not all about the teacher deciding. But then I didn't want to say that, because we try to live by that in our animal training as well, that it's not just one-directional from teacher to student. You want there to be communication and working for the benefit of the learner always, and for the learner to always have an input.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: But, Eva, I think that the reason you wanted to say that is that if you're working with a human learner with a functioning language, you can have discussions beforehand. If I'm training Tessa, I still want that communication, but that will be derived from the training process. I can't have a discussion with her beforehand saying, "So what do you think about this and this? What would you like?" I can ask her things in a different manner. I could check for what reinforcers she would like to work for that day, for example, but I can't talk to her about it. We have to show her and let her choose in different fashions.
So I think that's why you were drifting towards those words. It's still different, and also the debriefing afterwards can also be variable if the human learner is verbal in that way. I can't do that with Tessa, other than looking at the data from the session and having that process with myself afterwards. And I can look at what Tessa looks like next time I go into a session and have that.
Eva Bertilsson: I came directly to this podcast recording from an afternoon of online TAGteach workshop in Swedish, so my head is spinning with TAGteach enthusiasm at the moment.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: Can I just interject? I just wanted to say, before you go into that rabbit hole, the reason that we brought TAGteach to Sweden in 2005 was that we had been talking about the fact that for our animal learners, we were, as Eva said, breaking it down, looking at the goals, etcetera, and we were looking for somebody who had standardized or perhaps taken a deeper dive into what does this look like for humans. Because I think most people have been in a dog training class where the instructor is just firing off information and you go, "My head is about to explode and I don't know what to do with all this information. What of these things am I supposed to do and in what order?" We just wanted a way to structure teaching better.
Eva Bertilsson: We were pretty happy about ourselves as dog trainers at the time, and we were less happy with ourselves as people trainers, because there was such a discrepancy between the level of uncertainty and frustration in our human learners and in our animal learners. We tried to do the best we could with our human learners, but we still felt that there's got to be better ways to do this, and TAGteach, for us, really showed to be that.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: The instructor's dilemma is always that you sit on all this information and you want to give everything, but if you give everything, your student is going to be messed up because it's too much. Too many words, too many examples, too many everything, and you need to know when to talk and know when to not talk. Know what information to divulge when, and know when it's student processing time, student doing time, and when to hold back.
For me, TAGteach gave me a first instep into thinking more about that. I was actually taking my education to become a high school teacher in English and Swedish during this time, and I wrote my … what do you call that, Eva? It's not a thesis on that level. It's a what? Is it a thesis?
Eva Bertilsson: Paper?
Emelie Johnson Vegh: It's a paper. It's a big paper, a big exam paper that's for all the years you study, and I wrote that on TAGteach, which was interesting because that did not go down that well, because the process sometimes becomes … it's too simple for a human. You're looking at just behavior and reinforcement. But it was very, very interesting to do those two educations at the same time.
Eva Bertilsson: It's also fascinating to see how both clicker training for our animals and TAGteach for our humans fit into the larger umbrella of
behavior analysis. For us, our learning about clicker training came way before our learning about the science of behavior. You had bits and pieces of the science of behavior, but not that much.
The same with TAGteach. Our knowledge in TAGteach predates our understanding and knowledge about behavior analysis being available as a scientific field. I ended up doing my masters thesis in behavior analysis starting in 2012, and compared to the other dates that we're juggling here, of doing TAGteach back in 2004 and starting clicker training in the late '90s, that's an interesting order that I think that we share with a lot of people, that we had detailed understanding of how to build behavior before knowing that there even was such a thing as a broader science of behavior. So I don't know how that learning would look if we had done it the other way around.
I thought for a while, when I started learning about behavior analysis, I thought for a little bit that here is that big underlying field where all of this is already there. All of this is already known, and somebody just took bits and pieces out, and I just learned the bits and pieces. I just learned clicker training and I just learned TAGteach, and now I'm learning the full thing. What I'm seeing, the more I learn about the entire field of behavior analysis, is that there is novelty in the clicker training approach that animal trainers are doing. There is novelty in the TAGteach approach that was developed outside of the scientific field and that adds to the awesome mass of science that is there. So that's pretty neat.
Melissa Breau: I think we've been a little conceptual, and I'd love to bring it down with an example, if either of you has one to mind that you could share of how a TAGteach example might work, so people can picture what the difference is between that and … I think most people have a pretty good picture in their head of what a typical clicker training session looks like, so how that's different in practice and what it looks like when you're working TAGteach with a person.
Eva Bertilsson: If I work with TAGteach with a person … Emelie, say you were here and we were going to go out. You want to work with chickens perhaps?
Emelie Johnson Vegh: I want to work on my front cross. What's wrong with you?
Eva Bertilsson: You want to work on your front cross? I was going to teach you something about how to deal with my chickens, because I know you're not always that comfortable around the chickens.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: That is very true.
Eva Bertilsson: So, in order to let the chickens out, and you not having to have them around your feet, there is a gate outside, and in order to close that gate so that it actually stays closed, you need to wiggle the gate lock a little bit. I know that you might be a bit nervous once we get out to the chickens. Do you have something you can use as a pretend lock?
Emelie Johnson Vegh: I do have a pen in my hand right now.
Eva Bertilsson: Would it be OK for you if I just have you practice this for a couple of times?
Emelie Johnson Vegh: Yes.
Eva Bertilsson: The exercise you will do is close the latch and wiggle it. The TAG point is wiggle.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: So Eva is making a motion with her pen right now. She holds it lateral, up and down, and then she turns it to lie down, she makes a wiggle motion. The TAG point is the wiggle motion, just to be sure that I understood you correctly.
Eva Bertilsson: Looking at Emelie, TAG. As I see her doing the wiggle motion that will keep the door locked, I say, "TAG." Or I click. TAG. TAG.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: Good.
Eva Bertilsson: With that, I have seen Emelie practice three times the motion of closing a pretend latch and wiggling it, and I know that will keep it closed. She has now practiced that three times. Emelie, I'm guessing that if I let you out now to go close the door behind you before I let the chickens out …
Emelie Johnson Vegh: I would wiggle the latch.
Eva Bertilsson: Yes.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: If we want to bring this into dog sports, this could be you practicing a left about-turn in obedience with how are you going to move your feet. Never mind the actual motion now, but say for example that your left turn is that you turn your left foot 90 degrees to the left, and then you follow with your right. We can talk about that and decide that is the pattern that the handler wants, and then we make a TAG point and I mark that. We practice that without the dog until fluent, and then we put the dog in there. The dog is going to be a distraction to the behavior of moving the feet correctly.
So what we're looking for is all the little details that we know make a big difference, like the latch gate that I need to wiggle for it to stay closed so that we don't have chickens everywhere, or the left foot pattern that we know that we need because it's going to be a cue to the dog, and that we need to not botch up. We can pick them out, pull them into little pieces if needed, practice them until fluency, and then use them in the actual situation, instead of just hoping for it to be correct.
Eva Bertilsson: Bring small pieces out and practice until fluency is the key part here. The free thing and the marking helps put that learning unit together. When I tell Emelie the TAG point is "wiggle," or she tells me the TAG point is "left foot on target," then I know that I just have to focus on one thing, and I will get feedback as I do it. That helps the teacher break things down and it helps the learner relax. You know that, "OK, I just have this one thing to focus on, and it's something that I will manage to accomplish."
Emelie Johnson Vegh: It's also a really neat thing to use in a group setting, because you can have a group working together on small things and have everybody involved. Being the one that marks, for example, will also train your knowledge of the situation. You will learn things from that as well. So I really think it's a very beneficial tool for any instructor or anything that you want to work on.
Eva Bertilsson: And as I have been saying fifty times to my poor students this afternoon — I spent four hours with them, and I think I repeated this every five minutes or so — learning the fundamental structure of TAGteach and working with TAG points is something that, once you have those skills and once you can do it fluently, then it gives you a framework to be creative from. It's not that often that I do actual TAG points, but I use the thinking all the time, constantly.
Emelie Johnson Verg: I think that since the thinking and the breakdown is there, then you set the stage so well that you might not need to break out that actual TAG point. Sometimes you do, of course. It doesn't mean that you were a bad teacher if you need to go all the way to a TAG point, but it does set the stage for easier learning for everybody around.
Eva Bertilsson: For me, it was the same thing, and it is the same thing when I teach with my clicker training that if I set the framework that has to do with set up the environment, look at your learner, click, treats, then a lot of things follow.
There are a lot of things that you cannot do. You cannot go in there and push and pull your dog around. You cannot correct if he makes a mistake. That's outside of the regulations of the game. That means that you become more creative with the bits and pieces that fit into the game, like antecedents arrangements and splitting.
And it's the same with the human learners. When I take away the tool of talking nonstop and telling people what they do wrong, then I need to develop other tools instead, and those tools make me a better teacher.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you for that. I think that was a fantastic summary of what is obviously a huge, complex topic. So I appreciate that, and I appreciate you guys doing your little demo. It was helpful. Obviously, I think it's pretty clear you've had the opportunity to do lots of super-interesting things in the training world. I'd love to give you each a second to talk about whatever you're working on now, what projects you currently have on your plate, and what's going on in your professional world these days.
Eva Bertilsson: Emelie, you started a project yesterday. I'm super-curious of that one.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: I was actually going to go with the dog training pieces first, but OK. I can do both. I like to run. I'm a long-distance runner. I use that term loosely because speed does not really matter to me. I like to adventure run, is what I call it. I'll pack my backpack and I'll grab Tessa and out we go.
I've had so many questions from people saying, "I would like to run. I've always said that I should learn to run, but it never sticks." After Eva and I gave a TAGteach webinar a couple of weeks back, I had even more questions about it. I was like, "I'm finally going to do this. I'm going to put together running groups online, and we are focusing on the running, yes, but we're also focusing on how do you build a new skill into your repertoire," what people like to call habits.
So that's on my mind right now, thinking of the different groups and what that's going to look like, etcetera. It's also very New Year's resolution-y, because a lot of those podcasts coming out right now are driving me insane. So I was like, "Let's boil this down." Let's get to my favorite questions, what does that look like, and get to nerd on about that.
So that's one of my human projects, alongside with my youngest sister has Down syndrome, and during the COVID pandemic she's been indoors more than before, and she's gained a lot of weight, which is not healthy for her, and she already has respiratory issues, and she is also not very keen on walking and moving. So I am putting together a chart and a project for her on how to get her to move, because the people that work where she lives in an assisted living facility, they have all the best intentions, but the pieces are too big. If you don't want to go out and walk at all, expecting somebody to walk home for a 45-minute walk — it's not going to happen, and I can see that.
I'm enjoying setting up a project for her with little reinforcers along the way. It may be me being the reinforcer, my presence being the reinforcer, because we can still meet outside, even if we don't meet indoors during the pandemic.
And on the dog side, as I said in the beginning of this chat, is that I'm getting Tessa ready to compete at some point. So this week is my New Year's week, which means I go outside and I take the baseline for every sport that I'm in to see where are we at. What does it look like right now, and what do I need to put my attention towards? Because, like everybody else, I like to do what's already working, and I need to find the little holes in our performance that we need to put together.
I also had an accident last fall and injured my hand severely, so I haven't been able to drive, which means that Tessa's had little training indoors with other people around. With the pandemic it's also difficult, but I'm starting to give her some of those opportunities as well.
So those are my projects, and I really like the approach of this is the obedience class we're going to enter. We've already done our foundation work. Let's go outside and see what does this look like, and then find the parts that are not working. To me, that's not aversive at all. That's just information so that I can structure my training plan.
Melissa Breau: I love the idea of an annual baseline. That's absolutely brilliant.
Eva Bertilsson: For me, where do I start? The thing that I am supposedly doing this January is doing more things online, making things available online, building for Emelie and myself platforms for all the stuff that we have in our computers, because we have so many lectures, so many weekends. There's so much stuff that we think we've been teaching it, but maybe we haven't taught it for quite some time. Or maybe we put something once at some working dog club in Sweden with twenty attendees, and then nobody else saw that material.
Emelie Johnson Vugh: Or maybe we taught an angle of it once, and we thought that we explained the full concept, and maybe perhaps that was just in our heads.
Eva Bertilsson: That happens regularly. Regularly. So taking advantage of the fact that everybody is doing things online and that you can't travel anywhere. This is travel season. I'm usually not home January, February, or March. I'm barely at home at all. This year I can't really go anywhere. So making things available and working through our material is a big thing. Other than that, I have quite a few projects that have to do with either organizations, like getting positive reinforcement started in organizations, or there's a lot of husbandry training projects also in schools or in facilities with smaller pets, facilities with a variety of farm animals kept as pets, or small city farms, places like that. And also working with fear-free and getting more of that going in Scandinavia. I was hosting the first fear-free lectures in Scandinavia in 2017, and since then, that has been a community that's building, which is really cool. We now see, as we see across the globe, huge developing interest.
Since I'm ridiculously passionate about teaching about the ins and outs of training procedures, I have a lot of learning opportunities within husbandry training, because there are a lot of procedures that I haven't been working with that much. So that's both a personal venture and teaching in our society, spreading that knowledge.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. One of the reasons that I reached out to both of you is because you're going to do a webinar for us at FDSA. This will come out … we're talking on Wednesday, it will come out the Friday after we talk, so everybody who's listening to this it will be on Friday, and you are doing your webinar the following Thursday for us. Can you give us a little bit of a peek into what you're going to talk about? I know the topic is navigating transitions in training. Maybe tell us a little bit about what you mean by transitions.
Eva Bertilsson: Whenever we do a training session, things are ongoing. You are moving, your learner is moving, you're looking at behaviors, you might be giving cues, there's reinforcement happening, and we need all the bits and pieces of a training session to come together in a flow where the learner always has somewhere to go to earn the next reinforcer. We never want to leave our learners in limbo.
What we see, if we videotape the training session, is that there are a lot of what we call transitions, meaning periods of time that aren't really in the focus for the trainer, but that still need to be navigated somehow. It might be starting the session. It might be ending the session. It might be going from the place where you happen to be to the point in space where the next exercise is going to start.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: It might be from one reward ending to being able to begin again. It's so easy as a trainer to be focusing on your goal behavior and thinking that's it, but you have to get into the session, you have to get out of the session, you have to manage all those little things that aren't actually the goal behavior. What we have found is they are going to happen whether you like it or not, because the dog is a living organism and it's moving around and you're moving around. So they are going to happen whether you like it or not. What we've found is that if you have a plan for those transitions, it will help your training immensely.
As Eva said about videotaping, if you can videotape, and you can stop and freeze-frame at any point, and what you see in that frame is taking your training forward or at least not making it worse, then it's happy days. But a lot of times you will see that what's going on in those little transition periods is not beneficial for the training or for the trainer. You can also look at it from the perspective of the trainer and the trainer skills you want to have developed in yourself.
Eva Bertilsson: There is something about things happening in real time that is different from the scripts or the narrative that we have in our heads when it comes to training. You might be thinking, "I'm going to reinforce this behavior." All right, how did you get to the starting point and how did you move? If you're going to toss a treat, where was the treat to begin with? How did you get the treat to your hand, where it needed to be to be tossed? If we look at the transition times, they are both moments where we need to make sure that our learner has somewhere to go so that he's not lost or we start developing behaviors that don't fit into our training sessions.
But transition times are also opportunities for you as a trainer. If you control your transition time or have a preplanned strategy for your transition time, you can use that to do the things you need to do before the next repetition starts, like refilling your treats or moving the dumbbell from one hand to the other. If we can get those things done in a structured way so that we get to control a little bit what happens, there is not so much haphazard behavior in learning happening, and we can be better teachers because we have a setup that's easier for our learner to follow.
Melissa Breau: Based on that, I would think the major benefit is that training would move forward more successfully. The dog is more successful, and things are clearer, and training maybe happens faster. Is that the benefits of having those pieces in place?
Emelie Johnson Vegh: Most certainly.
Eva Bertilsson: Training going smoother, reaching your training goals faster, but also a huge component is your learner being occupied with something that leads to reinforcement throughout the session. Because there's so many times in training sessions where extinction conditions might happen, even though you hadn't planned to work with an extinction in your training, but there were chunks of time when reinforcement was not available and when your learner didn't have a clear path for what to do to get to the next reinforcer.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: If we look specifically at dog sports, and you look at yourself as a trainer, everything you do is going to be in a handling system. We talk of handling systems only in agility, but there's a handling system for obedience and in rally obedience and whatever other sport that you're doing.
If you make sure to think about your transitions so that your movements and the way that you handle things in those aren't contradictory to what you're supposed to be doing as soon as you're actually working, then your own learning will be more smooth sailings towards success if you're not doing the opposite to what you're supposed to be doing. So we're being mindful about our time, and mindful about not doing repetitions of stuff that we don't want, both for the dog and for the handler.
Eva Bertilsson: Would you say, Emelie, that — this just came to mind — it makes you feel less clumsy?
Emelie Johnson Vegh: It definitely makes you feel less clumsy. You know the feeling sometimes when you train your dog, people will say, "It feels like I have two heads and eight arms, and I don't know what the feet are doing." By developing and taking care of the transitions, you are going to feel more put together, more like the trainer you want to be kind of thing going.
Eva Bertilsson: Because you have something to do all the time as well. Your movements come together. It's not, "Now I should be somewhere with my hands and my feet, and how do I get there?" You are on some kind of path all the time, so it really helps the trainer stay on track as well.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: Looking at it from a system standpoint, I think that creating this so that the dog knows the structure and knows all the different things that you do, it helps to go from venue to venue, from situation to situation, because it's like, "In this situation, these reinforcers are available for these behaviors." It becomes very, very clear.
For a young dog, for example, for Tessa, when I bring her into 49:34 where she's never been before, she's like, "All right, in this situation, this is what she's going to do and what I'm going to do." It's just clear.
Melissa Breau: Is there anything else you want to share to give people a sneak peek into what you'll be talking about during the webinar? Anything else that you want to mention?
Eva Bertilsson: During the webinar we will be pretty practical in our focus and look at strategies that we use a lot for transitions in structured training sessions. We will take a look at what we call transports. They might be long-lasting rewards or they might be other trained strategies that almost physically move your dog from one point to the next, and both what that might look like and how that can be beneficial in different training scenarios.
Melissa Breau: I love that. I'm excited to see it. I'm super-excited that you are presenting for us. And then you're coming back. You're doing Lemonade Conference stuff for us, too. I know we have you on the schedule for two presentations during TLC, talking about dealing with mistakes. Do you have it prepped? Can you share a sneak peek about what you think you'll cover there?
Emelie Johnson Vegh: We just love you, because when you asked us to be at the conference, we were like, "We'd like to talk about mistakes," and you were like, "Sure." We were like, "We want two slots," and you were like, "OK." The thing with mistakes ties in well with the whole transitions piece also, I think.
Eva Bertilsson: It ties all the way back to training philosophy.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: It does.
Eva Bertilsson: Why, how, why. If we know the goals of our training, and we know why we have those goals, then dealing with mistakes has to be part of every single training plan, and our choice of how to deal with a mistake when it happens needs to be linked to the goals that we have.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: Yeah. At the conference we're going to be talking, as I said, in two sessions. In the first one, we're going to take our approach of mistakes are going to happen. What does it look like in your training structure? What does it look like? How can you deal with them on a conceptual level?
In the next session we're going to get really hands-on practical on looking at the difference between what you do in the situation where that mistake occurs and what you do for later. That's one of our main things when it comes to mistakes is that you have to divide them up into what you do in the actual second that that thing happened and what you do for later. Normally when we talk about mistakes, this is where we start singing the Cher tune "If I Could Turn Back Time," because that's what trainers want to do every time something happens. But it just happened. We need to have a good way to deal with it.
Eva Bertilsson: We have a ton of passion topics. This is like the passion topics of passion topics, however, because we have a structure that we've been developing for our agility training that is pretty much what we will share here. The training that we do in our sports, we do the training for us. Our goals are predominantly the fun aspect and the enrichment aspect and doing things together with our animals.
Working with mistakes in a dog sports context is so much fun because we can always set up the environment. It's not going to be life and death scenarios. Sports training is just perfect for developing strategies for how to deal with mistakes and working in a positive reinforcement paradigm also with our mistakes. So we're really happy to get to zoom in on that type of training session that we might do for our agility, or for our rally, or for our competitive obedience.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. I've got three questions here that I usually ask at the end of every episode when I've got a first-time guest on. We're going to go through them as we can. The first one is what's the dog-related accomplishment that you are proudest of? I don't know who wants to go first.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: I think that's a tough one. I normally just tend to think about my students and the moments they have when they go, "A-ha," and they break something down further. When they take the time to ask those two questions that I really love, which are, "What does it look like?" and "Who does what when?" and when I seem them get that process going without my part in it.
If I look from a competitive standpoint, my biggest accomplishment I think was a youth Swedish championship that I was in when I was 16 maybe, with my first dog, Nila. She could be worried in certain situations, and I had terrible ring nerves at that point. How I developed a system for myself to keep her experiences … as I said before, the goal is for us to have fun together, and terrible ring nerves and fun — they don't jam at all. How I developed a system for that specific competition and we took a Silver at that competition.
My system was — and I put TAG points to that years later — but my system was that I hummed to myself, because as long as I was humming, I was breathing, and as long as you breathe, you get oxygen to your brain, and you can make your good training decisions. She came second and we had a fabulous time, and when I watch the photos and the VHS tapes back — because that's how old I am — from that competition, her tail was up the entire time and it was just fabulous.
Eva Bertilsson: The time around this New Year's Eve got me thinking, when I got this question from you, of the many times that I have noticed fireworks and looked for my dog. That relates to I wasn't aware how proud I was about that training, but with Tizla we worked with growing noise sensitivities, both around New Year's and around other times of the year, with noises of various kinds.
Managing to turn that around, which I didn't think I would be able to do that, since this became a growing issue and it came together with her spondylosis starting to develop, I expected that I would be able to slow it down, but I didn't expect to be able to reverse it.
This year, not having her with me, and actually missing getting the opportunity to get to play with her, with the fireworks that happened outside, that made me realize how far we came, that we actually had fun playing with the gunshots or the fireworks. So that was apparently a really big thing and a big accomplishment.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: I have thoughts for you before you keep going, because Eva's best moment, when I was like, "That is my best friend, just look at her go," was when she won the Swedish championships that were held in Umea, which is in the way north of Sweden. Which year was this, Eva?
Eva Bertilsson: '98.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: It's august and it's 2 or 3 degrees outside Celsius. It's cold. And it's mud up to your thighs. Everybody's miserable and in raincoats, and the dogs are having a hard time. Eva struts into the arena with this little Pap thing that's barking and bouncing in her arms, and she's in shorts and a tank top and she's in bare feet. There's mud everywhere. She races through this course, and there's nothing in that run that could have been better. My skin prickles as I talk about it. She flew through the course and Misty was just spot-on. They won with I don't know how much, but it was amazing to watch, because that is my picture of somebody being in the zone. Literally nothing could have stopped you from doing that.
Eva Bertilsson: Thank you for bringing that back, Emelie. I still have the feels from running with Misty. And this is me being not that interested in competing, like the competitive side of things I thought, or I think, aren't really what's so appealing. But getting to enter that zone with my dog is the most amazing thing.
I guess that is also what I got with Tizla when working with the fireworks, once we got the proper training structure going. It is the connection of being on the same path, and me having to be on my best in order to navigate the challenge that's in front of us.
That's what competitions give. It's a challenge that requires of me to be at my best. With Misty, I needed the competition and everybody around me to get that high in a sense, because there's a lot of energy that goes in there, and she needed me … she required, I would say, not needed; she didn't need much. She required of me for me to get my adrenalin up and stay out of her way.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: So Melissa — we never talked about the energy. You know at agility competitions everybody goes and they bring the tents and everything. Eva would have half the tent, and I would have the other half of the tent. In my half of the tent it's all zen, and everybody take it easy, do not push Emelie's energy. In the other part of the tent is Eva playing Abba at full volume and dancing around, and I'm hating her.
Eva Bertilsson: Now take this. Fast-forward to when we got to go to Clicker Expo. We wrote the agility book. That's a proud moment that isn't exactly training, but getting an email from Karen Pryor saying, "I read an article by you. I have been looking everywhere for somebody to write an agility book, clicker training, for me. Would you be interested in doing that?" That's a proud moment.
And then we got invited to speak at Clicker Expo. By that time, Misty had been retired for a couple of years. I was out of the competition world, or on my way out of the competition world. And we are going to Clicker Expo, it's a big thing, we are going to teach.
The night before our first presentation, I woke up five times, and I was in the middle of the same dream every single time. I was standing barefoot on the start line, Misty in my arms, barking her head off, and we were just ready to go. That is the feel of presenting.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: There's a level of energy that I have to navigate every time we stand on stage.
Eva Bertilsson: Bad news for Emelie for us sharing a room is that again she wants to prepare for her presentation with some seriousness or calmness, the whole zen thing, and I'm like, "Bring out the wine and turn on the volume, please."
Emelie Johnson Vegh: Yeah.
Eva Bertilsson: This is a problem. I'm going to miss conference season so much. I'm going to be an alcoholic by the end of this, because it's just the wine and not the party.
Melissa Breau: You clearly manage to navigate it between the two of you. I don't know that I have any advice about missing the party piece.
Eva Bertilsson: Emelie is coming up here in a couple of weeks, so we have to figure that out.
Melissa Breau: My next ending question is what's the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?
Eva Bertilsson: It's all behavior. That's one. That's an early one. It's all behavior. Everything that you're looking at is behavior. I have another one that's really awesome. No idea where this came from, but it happened just the other week. Don't let your expectations get in the way of your observations.
You know who said that? It would be Emelie.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: I was on a podcast with Hannah Branigan and we were talking about our young dogs. You know with a young dog you have all the plans and the dreams and the schemes in your head, and you think that you put all this in … your expectations are everything. But you have to keep them out of the way of your observations. Otherwise you're going to mess up your training.
And that goes for everything, really. I've been thinking about it, and I can't find a situation where it's not true. That's actually my quote of 2020 for myself. I usually try to figure out something good that I said during the year, and that's it.
Eva Bertilsson: This is probably, Emelie, the first of your quotes I've been using daily. You do a lot of good quotes, but this one is for every situation. Just keep your eyes open. Keep observing.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: I think that my favorite quote would be, Susan Schneider said, "Reinforcement is the course that works backwards." For me, that helps me keep my eye on the ball. I'm talking about observations. It is what's happening in the moment, but it's also what's going to happen in the next repetition that's going to be my information about am I on the correct route. It's not all about my plan. It's about what is going on, what I put in, what's going to happen in the next repetition. I think we all need to keep an eye on that, and I think those two quotes go together in a sense. You need to observe.
Melissa Breau: I love it. Last one: Who is somebody that you each look up to?
Emelie Johnson Vegh: I look up to Eva. In all honesty, I do look up to Eva. She's always with me in a sense. I can hear her voice in my head when she goes, "What does that look like?"
But I look up to Ryan Cartlidge. I was thinking about this just the other day, how he's building the community around Animal Training Academy and how he gets people engaged online, sharing all sorts, from the most heartfelt stuff about themselves to very specific training schedules, and how the tone is maintained in the groups. I think that is a really good thing.
Eva and I have been talking a lot about how do we teach people about how to talk about training, and I think a lot of the things that are going on in those groups are nice approximations, if nothing else, and sometimes the whole way through. We all know that online communication can be difficult and can get tricky. But I really think that he manages — with the help of a lot of other people, I know that, but still I think that's great.
Eva Bertilsson: I have a name on my list and just noticed that Emelie and I have not been talking about this question before. We got the question from Melissa, so I know that we were going to get it. We didn't even talk about that we had gotten the question, and we definitely didn't mention any names whatsoever. How much of a shared brain is this? What do you think is on my piece of paper here?
Emelie Johnson Vegh: Ryan Cartlidge? Oh, you're kidding me!
Eva Bertilsson: I'm not.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: That's funny.
Eva Bertilsson: Ryan, we love you for the same reason that Emelie just said. And the shared brain in action.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: That is funny.
Eva Bertilsson: That's freaky. That's smart, it makes sense, because for exactly what Emelie was saying: navigating the communication and the community is a huge thing. And the same reason that we got going with TAGteach fifteen years ago had to do with how can we take what we love about animal training and the positive reinforcement aspects and bring it into teaching.
What we're navigating now — and I think we, all, everybody on a large scale — is building communities in a way that's both positive reinforcement, it's science based, it's good information, solid information, but it's kind and compassionate at the same time.
Ryan with Animal Training Academy is just amazing at accomplishing that. I actually had another name on my list, to be fair. I had added two names on my list. Chirag Patel would be my other name for those very same reasons.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: It's on my list too. Of course.
Eva Bertilsson: The combination of good, solid science and striving … accomplishing to really spread good information in a coherent way, focusing on behavior, focusing on the descriptive aspects, and still managing to spread kindness and compassion and just get people involved. Navigating those two isn't always so easy, and both of them are really good role models for that.
Melissa Breau: Each of you mentioned his name. Awesome. Thank you so much both of you for coming on the podcast, for doing the webinar, for joining us for TLC. We're excited to have you, so thank you.
Emelie Johnson Vegh: Thank you so much for having us and letting us chat. We haven't spoken together over the holidays, so this is great.
Melissa Breau: Awesome.
Eva Bertilsson: Awesome catching up. Thank you so much, Melissa. Good talking to you.
Melissa Breau: You too. And thank you to 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!