E201: Nicole Wiebusch - "Beyond the Backyard"

It can be frustrating when we've worked hard on a behavior, just to have it fall apart in a new location or in the face of distractions — so this week Nicole and I talk about what it takes to teach those skills too!


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 I'll be talking to Nicole Wiebusch.

Nicole started competing in dog sports as a teenager and quickly became addicted to the sport of obedience. In 2001, she acquired a golden retriever named Tucker who taught her that traditional methods weren't the best way to a happy, confident dog. This realization started her on the journey to positive reinforcement training.

Seven years later, that journey led Nicole to start her own dog training business, Golden Paws Dog Training LLC, where she teaches both pet owners and dog sports people dog-friendly training methods.

Nicole continues to actively compete in a variety of performance events. She has titled dogs in rally, obedience, TEAM, agility, hunting, and dock diving.

Her golden retriever Toby was retired due to physical problems just 30 points shy of finishing his OTCH. Toby won the Advanced Rally class at the Golden Retriever National Specialty in both 2012 and 2015.

Nicole discovered Fenzi Dog Sports Academy in 2013, and now, in addition to operating Golden Paws Dog Training, Nicole is an instructor for FDSA and for the Pet Professionals Program. She is also a judge for the Fenzi TEAM titling program.

She has earned both the Obedience/Rally/Freestyle Trainer's Certificate and the Sports Foundation Trainer's Certificate from FDSA. She is also a Canine Good Citizen and Trick Dog evaluator, a Professional Member of the APDT, and is a field dog trainer for a service dog organization.

Hi Nicole! Welcome to the podcast!

Nicole Wiebusch: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, do you want to just remind listeners who your dogs are and what you're working on with them?

Nicole Wiebusch: Sure. My oldest dog, Toby, is almost 15-and-a-half, and I'm very, very thankful still that he is here. He's doing really, really well. He sometimes forgets his age and tries to act like he's younger, which is not usually a good thing. He doesn't do much. He just hangs out with me.

My female golden, Strive, is about 7-and-a-half, and she's my main competition dog. We do mostly obedience, rally, and agility, but obviously lately we haven't been doing too much. There haven't been many opportunities for in-person dog shows. We did go to a very small rally trial back in November and that was fun. We did well and got another leg toward our rally championship title, so that was fun.

And then I have Excel. He's about 3-and-a-half. He is Strive's son, and we're working on everything with him. He was able to earn some virtual titles this past year, which was great, but I wasn't ever able to get him in an actual ring at an in-person show. I did do an agility trial, though, so that was fun. We just did a laidback agility trial this summer. With Excel I'm just pulling everything together. He's so close to being able to go in the ring. We're just working on some generalization stuff and distraction stuff.

And then we also have Kira, who is an almost 4-year-old black lab, and she belongs more to my husband, and my kids kind of train her and work with her, too.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I wanted to chat today about your new class on the schedule for February — Beyond the Backyard: Distraction Training for Competition and Real Life. The name is from the book Denise wrote, right? Can you talk a little bit about what led you to adapt it into a class?

Nicole Wiebusch: The basic idea of the class and the first part of the name is from Denise's book. We kept the "Beyond the Backyard" part because I like that. What I wanted to do … I love the book, and it's really good for pet people, and I wanted to bring it a little bit more for competition dogs because it's so relevant to our competition dogs. So I have added some stuff for that.

The distraction training is important for every dog, whether it's a pet dog, because you want your pet dog to listen when you're out and about, or your dog sports dog, where they need to listen, maybe in an environment that's very distracting and doesn't offer a lot of reinforcement.

A while back, in the last few years, I've taught a version of this class in person and the students loved it. They were happy and amazed with what their dogs could do in just a six-week time period, and so I knew that I wanted to come up with an online version of this that was geared towards pet dog people and sports dog people. I think there's a huge need out there for a nice step-by-step bite-size training plan, and this class covers both increasing distractions and reducing reinforcement, those are both really important for all dogs.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I know you mentioned what the class covers, but can you share a little more on that?

Nicole Wiebusch: One of the big parts of the class is we teach dogs to work in the presence of distractions. We start with food distractions because they're easy to use as distractions, but then later on in the class we get into other types as well.

I want to teach the dog it's still rewarding to work in the presence of the distractions and show the dog that it would be good for the dog to do that. The way we teach this, it teaches the dogs to redirect back to us after a distraction, which is a wonderful skill. Imagine if something distracted your dog and their natural tendency was to look back at you. That's something that we really like. It's a good thing. So that works on that premise to teach the dogs to redirect back to us.

It also teaches the dog that where the reward is is irrelevant. It might be on our bodies, it might be across the room, it might out in the car, it might be at the kennel, it doesn't matter. I can get it whenever I want, and the dog will eventually get rewarded. That's the reducing reinforcement piece of it — that the dog doesn't need the cookie in your pocket in order to be able to do the behavior, or the cookie in your hand, or anything like that. It doesn't matter where the reward is. It's accessible, and that's all the dog needs to know.

So it does a nice job touching on those three main points, and then we go into more detail from there.

Melissa Breau: I think most of us have had to face the sobering fact that just because our dog can do something at home, that doesn't mean he's going to be able to do it out and about in the real world. Are there common misconceptions or misunderstandings that lead sports competitors to struggle more than necessary with that piece of training?

Nicole Wiebusch: I think this is a hard one for a lot of trainers because we all expect our dogs to generalize. We're all like, if we teach a sit here, it should mean sit wherever we are at. And dogs, as a general rule, they're not great at that concept of generalization. So we have to show them that sit means sit here and it means sit over there and it means sit in the backyard and it means sit at the dog park. We have to teach them that concept. Once we have, once we have done several locations with our behaviors, then the dogs do fine after that.

But it really is important that we teach our dogs how to generalize and that we teach them these behaviors in different environments. I think that's a big part of people's frustration is they're like, "I did all that stuff in training class and my dog is perfect. But then I take him to a run-through or the ring and the dog's not there anymore." So that's good.

I also think that oftentimes we're like, we taught this big, long behavior — say like scent articles or signals or something; that's a complicated behavior — and then we take it down the road and we don't break it down at all. We just expect the dog to do the whole thing. So I think the concept of splitting up things, especially in new locations, when your dog is first learning generalization, is really important.

Related to that, I think we push them too fast sometimes. We expect too much of them. We think they can do it because they showed us they can do it in our houses or in our training buildings, but then we get disappointed when we get out in the real world, with those real-life distractions, and all of a sudden they can't do it anymore.

Melissa Breau: How do you begin to introduce that idea of you can work even though there's a distraction present?

Nicole Wiebusch: We start really, really simply in class, and the distraction is always obvious. We walk into the room, the training area, and we show the dog the distraction. I say, "Here are a bunch of treats and I'm putting them right here." We're not trying to hide the distraction. We're making it obvious, and we're setting up a situation where the dog can be successful and where they can get a reward.

Once you start down that path, you can start to increase different bits of criteria and difficulty with the exercise. But once the dog understands, "Oh look, there's cookies on the counter, Mom asked me to sit, I sit, and she gives me a couple of cookies," once they get that, that they can get rewards even when there's cookies right there, it's amazing how much you can do with that at that point.

By starting really simple and setting them up for success, by the end of this class you're asking them for more complicated behaviors in different places without rewards on your body. So it gives you a nice step-by-step plan. But right away it's from the distractions. It's like, "Here you go. These are your cookies." You have them set up so the dog cannot get the cookies. They're usually up on something, plus the dog is on a leash.

If they don't listen, there's a little process we go through if they're not able to do it. We tweak some things to make it easier for them, and then we ask for that super-easy behavior again. Generally, starting off really simple, you can get it and you can build on that. Once you have something, you can build on it.

Melissa Breau: At what point do you look at a behavior and go, "This behavior is ready to hit the road," or this behavior is ready for us to start trying it or working with it in a new place?

Nicole Wiebusch: This class will take you through the entire process of what should happen before you even leave your training area. We don't even go to new locations until week five. The first four weeks is spent … first we teach them a simple behavior in the training area, and when they can do a simple behavior in the presence of distractions, we do other simple behaviors.

Eventually we add different types of distractions, higher value treats. We start moving the treats around the room so the distractions are in different areas. Then we start moving our dogs around the room, so we're asking for the same behaviors, but we're in a different part of the room.

And we just keep going through the steps. There's higher value distractions, we start to add in duration behaviors, we eventually start doing behavior chain stuff where we're asking for multiple behaviors before there's a reward. The distractions get closer, so that's going to be a lot more difficult. We put them down at the dog's nose level.

Eventually, toward the end of week four, we're getting into uncontrolled distractions, like cookies on a chair that aren't covered or aren't in a container, or something along those lines, or somebody else holding the cookies. And then eventually we get to the uncontrolled dog. The dog is off leash and the cookies are not covered, and so they have this choice. They could go to it if they want, but they don't, because they know what's expected. We do all that stuff before we hit the road, and we do it with several different behaviors.

One thing I should mention is basically the only prereq for this class is that you need to have maybe three or four solid behaviors where you could stand in your living room with cookies in your hand and cue your dog and they'll do it. They don't need to be able to do it without treats or anything, but they need to know if you say "sit" with a cookie in your hand, they need to know that sit means "I put my butt on the ground."

It's going to be important to have those, and as you work through this process, you can be teaching other behaviors as well. I have everybody make a list of "These are the behaviors you're going to use for this class," and you can add that in. But as you get through some of the obedience stuff, the more complicated stuff, you can start using those longer behavior chains and stuff, too, as your behaviors. So that's nice. But we go through that whole process before we get out and about in new locations.

Melissa Breau: What should we think about when it does become time to get out and about? What kind of factors or what should we be considering when it comes to choosing locations, especially because these behaviors may still be a little bit fragile, even though we've done all this work at home. How do we choose an environment that sets our dog up for success?

Nicole Wiebusch: I think we can be thoughtful in how we go about increasing the difficulty of the location in which we're training. Say your living room is your training area, and that's where you teach most of your behaviors, and the dog is used to it. I want to be able to go in the kitchen, maybe a little more going on, maybe there's food cooking, or maybe someone is in the kitchen, but I want to be able to go there and get the behaviors. And then I want to be able to go in the basement or in the rec room or elsewhere in the house.

Once I can see that my dog can do it pretty well in a few different places in the house, then I'm going to take him outside. But I'm not going to start at the park down the road. I'm going to start in the backyard. I'm going to start in the quietest outside place I have and I'm going to see where the dog is at. If they're doing well, then maybe I'll go to the front yard, where there's people walking by, or there's cars, or stuff like that.

I'm very systematic in how I change locations and introduce new locations. Going to a busy park or a dog park or a dog show, that's going to be the very end of my training. The dog will already have been exposed to these behaviors in so many different scenarios that it won't be a big deal at that point. So you want to be careful that you're thoughtful in how you raise the criteria of your locations. Don't go from super-quiet to super-busy.

The other thing is to build on success. If your dog can't do it in the front yard with your neighbors out in their front yards, then obviously he's not going to be able to do it at a dog show or a busy park. So go back to the least difficult distraction. Go back a step to your backyard, for instance, and work at that a little bit more before … it's like you want to check all the boxes before you continue. You can't expect your dog to struggle in your front yard and then go do it successfully in a more distracting location.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned earlier this idea that when we are in a new location, we should break things down a little bit or make things a little bit easier for our dogs. Do you have any tips on how to adjust that criteria when we're working on generalization?

Nicole Wiebusch: What I want to see from the dog, I want to see confidence, and I don't necessarily want to lose a lot of criteria. That's asking a lot, right?

What I do is I break down things. Let's say, for an example, I'm working on my fronts. My fronts are getting really good, no platforms or anything, but then I go out somewhere else. Say I'm going to do a run-through for the first time. I will probably bring my platform or some sort of a prop, something that my dog is familiar with. I might reward earlier. I might break it down and reward the stay, and then do some really short fronts. I'm going to break down things because I still want to train to the level of precision that I've decided that I want. With a pet dog, your precision is the dog putting his butt on the ground and sitting in front of you. But I don't want to see a huge drop in criteria.

This goes back to the last thing I said about listening to your dog. I want to see that the dog is confident and is like, "I get it, I can do it." Until I get that, I'm not going to do a lot with generalization. I'm not going to continue working in new places and finding harder places to work until I have that in the current situation.

It's all about breaking down the behaviors and listening to the dog, and making sure that the dog understands that "It means the same thing here that it does in the living room, and I know this and I've got it." When I see that confidence, then I'll start to push him a little bit.

Melissa Breau: We've been talking about generalization, but you also mentioned that a big piece of the class is getting cookies off your body. Can you talk to that a little more, just how you approach that or what that looks like?

Nicole Wiebusch: First we start with cookies in our pocket … well, we have them in our hands initially at the very beginning, and then they're in our pocket. The cookies will go out on a chair or on a table, and then across the room, and eventually the cookies are hidden. So you will have the reward cookies somewhere in the room and you haven't shown them to the dog yet. You come in and ask for a behavior in the presence of a distraction, and then you reward the dog from this cookie stash that they didn't know existed. So the dog starts to understand, "Even if I don't see her place cookies somewhere, she still can get them. They're still accessible. She always makes cookies appear." That's what I want them to think. Going through that process is really helpful, obviously, just to get the cookies off your body.

We also teach in this class how the distraction can be a reward, and we also teach that it's not always a reward. But we show the dog different scenarios in which the distraction can be a reward. In the beginning, when we start that process, it's the cookies that we're using as the distraction, and as we get into the last couple of weeks, we potentially use other things, like people. If the dog is really distracted by people, we can work on using saying hi to them as a reward, or being calm, or not jumping up or whatever. Right after that, we cover teaching that the distraction is not always a reward, because obviously you don't want your dog to think that every person could possibly be a reward. That's not a good thing for a performance dog in particular.

So we work through that process, and towards the end of the class, the last couple of weeks, we're talking about rewards other than cookies. That would be like if your dog loose-leash walks to the lake, the reward could be the swimming. Or if your dog sits to go outside and waits at the door nicely, the reward could be going outside.

We try to incorporate things that the dog already wants to do, and use that not to replace the cookies, but just to cut down on the cookies. Especially for the pet dogs, people don't want to have cookies on them all the time forever. For competition dogs, we're usually rewarding them throughout their careers with some sort of an intermittent schedule. But pet people aren't necessarily going to do that. So we talk about how to change over the rewards so they're more of the life rewards, the different things that the dog wants to do anyway.

Melissa Breau: Overall, if we were to zoom out a little bit, how similar or different is the class from the book, if somebody already has the book? Can you talk a little more about how you put your own spin on some of this?

Nicole Wiebusch: The class encompasses most of the ideas in the book. I think it's a really solid training plan, and I love how Denise did such a great job of breaking it down into super-simple steps. If you follow those steps and you don't move on until your dog is ready, it's a plan for success. You almost can't help but be successful with your dog.

So it kind of follows a similar plan to that. But I wanted to bring in just a little bit more about competition dogs, and so there are specific lectures where we talk more about competition stuff. We're talking about distraction training geared more towards having a judge in the ring, or having other dogs and other people in the environment, and being able to work amongst that.

We spend some time working on a strong eye-contact foundation. One of the things that I want to teach the sports dogs is you see the distraction, you respond to that by making eye contact with your handler, and eventually we teach them at that point they'll get the cue to work, they'll build the work, and they'll earn reinforcement through the work. So we do a little bit more with the eye contact and some specific distractions that the competition dogs may be a little bit more prone to. We try to break that out some more.

We talk specifically … there's a lecture on other people and how to teach the dogs to ignore the other people and work with that distraction, and there's another one on dogs, because I know those are the really hard ones. We talk a little bit about the pressures of the judge and that kind of stuff and how to ignore that.

The other thing that we do … most of this class can be done with nobody else, without a helper. But there are some lectures that are optional, but they require a helper. For your competition dog it's going to be really important to go through those, because it's stuff like the helper holding the treat and you rewarding the dog for making eye contact with you. And then we move on to the helper holding a treat distraction, and then we cue the dog to do a sit, and then we reward the dog.

We do a lot more of that kind of stuff. It mimics more what the dog is going to come across, like the judge following them around, or with the judge standing there with a clipboard. That's how it does differ a little bit. We go into a little more detail than the book. But overall it does encompass most of the ideas in the book, because I really like how it was laid out, and I like how it's a just a simple step-by-step plan.

Melissa Breau: For those listening who are thinking about the class and whether or not it's for them, can you talk a little on who is a good fit for the class and who the class might be a good fit for?

Nicole Wiebusch: I've actually gotten several emails, and they've all been about the exact same thing — dogs that struggle with other dogs, dogs that have big feelings about other dogs. They've asked me, "Is this appropriate for a dog like this?" And I do think it is. I responded and I explained that we're going to be teaching them this training plan, but you can apply this to any situation, any distraction. I've used a lot of this stuff with Excel, my youngest, who has very big feelings about other dogs, and it's really worked well with him.

I think if you have that problem … I want to be a little careful. I don't think it's best for dogs that are super-fearful or anxious, and I don't think it's best for dogs that are really reactive. I think a little bit of frustration — "I want to go see the dog, I'm pulling on the leash" type thing — is fine. I think this would be helpful for you. But I think if your dog completely explodes every time he sees another dog a hundred feet away, then this isn't the best fit for that particular situation. I'm not saying those types of dogs and owners won't get a lot out of the class, but not specifically to work on that reactivity issue.

I'm looking for pet or competition dogs that struggle listening outside of the household. If you have a dog that's so good in the house with treats, but you walk out the door and he just loses his mind, this class would be good for that. It would be good for teaching those dogs how to work through the distractions and be able to listen, even when they go outside.

Any of the dogs that can do anything, anywhere, with cookies in your pocket, but then the cookies disappear and the dog is like, "I don't know what sit means. I've never heard that word in my life," that is going to be another good type of dog that would do well in this class.

Like I mentioned earlier, your dog just needs to have a few behaviors that are solid in your house with cookies in your hand. It's important that you have that, because you need some behaviors to work with. You can't come in with an 8-week-old puppy that knows absolutely nothing. After the puppy is a few weeks old and has a sit and a touch and a spin, or whatever it is, it doesn't matter what behavior it is. It only matters that you can cue it and that you have some sort of criteria for it to know if the dog did it or not. That's all. Any dog like that, has a few behaviors, three or four — we're not talking a huge number, because you can add them as the dog learns new things; you can add to your list — and that just needs some help learning to listen anywhere, I think it would be good for any dog like that.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Last question for you: What's something that you've learned recently, or that you've been reminded of, related to training?

Nicole Wiebusch: I've been spending a lot of time the last month or so working on lectures for this particular class, and as I mentioned earlier, it's set up in a way that if you follow the steps and if you listen to your dog, it's almost impossible to fail. I've been going through the videos with my own dogs so I have videos for the lectures, and this is something I know, but it just really reminded me of the importance of listening to your dog and making sure that your dog is confident and happy at the level that they're at before you go on to the next step.

If you skip steps in this class, it's going to be easy to fail, and when you start to get towards the uncontrolled dog or the uncontrolled distractions, failure is not good at that point. It's going to happen, and it's not a big deal if it happens once, but obviously you don't want the dog … the treats are right there on the floor and you tell the dog to sit, and the dog is like, "Hang on a minute, let me go grab these treats first," that's not a good thing to practice. That likely is not going to happen, though, if you follow all the steps and if you make sure your dog is ready.

So, both through this class and in life in general, this is so important to listen to your dog and to make sure that they're ready to move on before you raise criteria and before you go to the next step.

I think that's what I've been thinking about the most. It's interesting going through the different dogs that I have, because Excel has such a good foundation on a lot of the stuff already that even though I haven't specifically done these exercises, he's flying through them. But Kira, the lab, she doesn't have a lot of foundation at all, so for her, it's a lot harder. Things are taking a lot longer to stick with her, so I have to be really careful to make sure she understands where we're at before we continue on to the next step.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. That's a good reminder to end on, I think. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Nicole!

Nicole Wiebusch: Thanks so much Melissa. It was a lot of fun.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Petra Ford to talk about her new FDSA class on optimal drive states for training and competition.

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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