E209: Erin Lynes - "Pulling and Diving Dogs"

Today I talked with breeder and trainer Erin Lynes about dog sledding and dock diving, and what it's like to train and compete in them as sports!


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 Erin Lynes.

Erin is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, North America Diving Dogs judge, CWAGS scent judge, and breeder of performance-focused Labrador Retrievers under the "Eromit" kennel name.

Currently, Erin's primary dog sport is dock diving, and she also competes in agility, obedience, rally, and nosework. She has earned multiple national and regional championships, high in trial, and perfect scores across various sports, and set records in dog sledding and dock diving. Her dogs are most well known for their joyous and enthusiastic attitudes toward their activities.

As an instructor, she takes the most pride in teaching her students with a "fun first" philosophy for both the people and the dogs. Her training facility, Eromit AIRcademy, was voted the North America Diving Dogs 2019 Canadian Facility of the Year, and hosts North America Diving Dogs sanctioned dock diving trials throughout the summer months, as well as lessons, seminars, and year-round online training.

Hi Erin, welcome to the podcast!

Erin Lynes: Hi Melissa. Thanks so much for having me.

Melissa Breau: I'm excited to talk and get to know you a little better today. To start us out, do you want to tell us a little bit about your dogs and what you're working on with them right now?

Erin Lynes: Sure. I've got a whole pile of Labrador Retrievers. Obviously that's my breed.

Starting with my senior dogs, I've got Ruger, who's just about 13. He's retired from everything and was at one time my primary agility dog and hunting buddy and dog sledding and all that kind of stuff.

Kimber is 12. She's still doing some competing, hunting, doing dock diving and that sort of thing. Chester is 12. He's retired from all dog sports and is the shotgun-riding sidekick. Verona, at 11-and-a-half, is my primary agility dog and she's also active in hunting, but retired from dog sledding and dock diving.

My last senior is Shelby. She's 10. She's my Novice A obedience dog and we're hoping to start into utility this year. She's probably my most well-known dock diving dog because she's done really well. She came back from a serious injury and won several Canadian championships, so that's her claim to fame.

I've got several of what I call my prime time adult dogs who are in the peak of their performance careers. Buzz is my primary dock diving dog. Abby and Fergie, who my husband runs in dock diving and I run in agility and other things. Viper is my do everything dog … are you tired of this list yet? Pepper and Vanilla, who are my shed antler hunting dogs and nosework buddies. And Mezzi, who is my primary grouse-hunting dog, and I call her my lessons dog because she loves to come and be the demo dog for different types of sports.

I've got three youngsters as well: Venom, Cool Jab, and Pounce. This year they've been doing dog sledding, and they'll probably do a little more dock diving and get into some other dog sports as they get a little older, too.

Melissa Breau: From 13 down to what's the baby?

Erin Lynes: She's 1.

Melissa Breau: The full range there.

Erin Lynes: This is a bad question, Melissa. You're going to get a whole list.

Melissa Breau: That's all right. You're not the only person I've interviewed who's got quite a list. You may be the only person I've interviewed with a list that long who only has one breed, though.

Erin Lynes: Yes, I'm a collector of Labrador Retrievers.

Melissa Breau: Obviously you do all the things. How did you get into dog sports originally?

Erin Lynes: My dad used to raise Labs, and when I was young, dog sports were basically obedience and field trials. He would take his dogs into obedience classes and I would sit, as a little girl, and watch class. I wasn't allowed to participate. I can't remember what the age limit was, but I would say, "I want to be the trainer. I want to do that."

Then, at some point, he discovered dog sled racing and thought that might be a good way to exercise the Labs in the winter, and how dog sport things spiral out of control, the next thing you know the whole family is involved in dog sled racing. So I consider dog sledding my first dog sport and stuff just goes on from there.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Sitting and watching obedience and then dog sledding, did you start out in that positive trainer bubble or not? What got you started down that piece of the journey?

Erin Lynes: No. I guess everything that I was exposed to at that time was what we would call traditional training, corrections and all that kind of stuff. I didn't get into strictly positive training myself until much more recently. I did have lots of good influences and good trainers in my life before that point, but sometimes I guess you need to find your own way and that's what happened for me.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. We talked about the various bits and sports, and you listed your dogs. You were very good about telling me all the different things that they do. It seems like pulling sports and dock diving are your focus these days, although you can certainly tell me if I'm wrong. I'd love to know what is it about those sports that keeps you focused there?

Erin Lynes: Right now, definitely with the pandemic, dock diving is something we've been able to continue doing, obviously in the summer months. We had a full season of dock diving last year. Dog sledding is a go no matter what, so we're really busy with that this winter. So I definitely had more of a focus on those things.

I'd say in normal times I'm not quite as focused on any one sport and I train rotationally, depending on what competitions are coming up and what I'm interested in at that given time. But dock diving and dog sledding are a place where I've been able to find a good niche.

Part of what I like about training is figuring things out on my own. Obviously I like to take lessons and learn stuff that way, but also I'm intrigued about what will work for my dogs and what won't, and those are places where there hasn't been all that much positive training, or in some cases any regimented training at all. So I've been able to tinker at that a little bit and brainstorm and come up with things, and that's what I love about those sports for sure.

Melissa Breau: It's nice that one is more of a winter sport and one's more of a summer sport.

Erin Lynes: Yeah, both Canadian seasons.

Melissa Breau: I'd love to dive into those two things a little bit more. I've seen some of the videos — which are awesome, by the way — of your Labs pulling the sled. Can you talk a little about the training process there? What's involved in that?

Erin Lynes: Dog sledding is a unique sport in that there's lots of social learning. Once you have dogs that know how to do it, it's easy to train new dogs. They learn from each other, they learn a lot from watching, they learn a lot from just diving in and getting started. My current dogs are all recipients of this social learning, this going back probably to about 2010, when I first started training my current group of Labs and had to start them from scratch.

The training is, I guess, like other sports: small doses and focusing on success. For most of the dogs, you spend their whole lives teaching them "Don't pull on the leash," and "Walk nicely," and stuff, so there's a little bit of unlearning that and that it's okay to pull. Once they figure that out, it's very rewarding for them.

We break it down into small bits when we're starting a new dog: "It's okay to pull," "You've got to focus forward," "You're not beside me," and giving them that forward focus is really key. There's different ways to do that, depending on what resources you have available. Sometimes just having another person call the dogs while they're learning to pull, sometimes chasing someone on a bike or on a snowmobile or something like that is incentive, just depending on what you have to work with.

But it's fun because there's usually a very clear light bulb moment where the dog is going, "I'm not sure … oh, I get to do this. This is so fun and awesome." And then the enthusiasm really takes off.

Melissa Breau: I love what you mentioned about social learning. I think that's definitely a unique aspect. I can't think of any other sport where that plays such a big role or would play such a big role.

Erin Lynes: It's definitely something that you can see happening. I've started my young fellow Cool Jam this year. I skipped all the groundwork and I thought, "I'll just stick him in the team and see how he does. He's been watching the other dogs do it."

He bounced around a little bit that first run and was looking like, "She's pulling, she's pulling, what are we doing?" And then you could see … I think I posted that video — maybe you saw that one, Melissa — where he all of a sudden was like, "Oh, wheels ahead. Forward focus. I got it."

It felt like a little bit of whiplash. It's a very rewarding feeling for the human end of the team when that happens, because you can feel it happen. The little joyful faces at the end of the run — it's awesome. It's really addicting, actually.

Melissa Breau: I'd imagine it makes them very happy to use their bodies. I have to ask, though, what about the stop? How do you make sure the dogs actually STOP, especially when you've got … how many do you normally put on the sled at once?

Erin Lynes: I often run four, but there's people and conditions where you would run many more dogs than that.

Melissa Breau: Even with just four Labs, how do you get them all to not run you into a tree?

Erin Lynes: That's a super question. That's actually a common question, and the answer is that stopping is not the dog's responsibility. For the most part that's on the musher.

The dog sled itself has a braking system on it, and it has an anchor that we call a snow hook, so if you have to stop and keep the dog team stopped, you put this anchor into the snow and it holds everybody from being able to move forward. But they do start to pair cue words with stopping, eventually. I don't think that it's super-realistic for dogs who are trained to run full speed and pull really hard to stop on their own.

There's probably a couple of teams out there in the world that can do it and will be listening and saying, "You've just got to train your dogs better." But to be honest, it's not really something I consider a priority in my training, because I can stop them. I tell them, "Whoa," I apply the brake, they feel that, and they decrease their pulling power until we're stopped.

They'd rather be running and they'd rather keep going, so it's not easy to reinforce stopping, but I consider that part of my job, so they don't get to be in charge of stopping.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Probably pretty smart, because as you mentioned, I'm sure they would rather keep going. Now that things are starting to warm up again, I imagine you're working on that transition — or I don't know; you're in Canada, maybe it's not warming up enough there yet — to dock diving stuff. I'd love to know what your dock diving training looks like, especially this time of year.

Erin Lynes: We are starting to convert over. It's a little too slushy and mushy and icy now, with the melting happening, to keep on with the dog sledding. The winds of change are in the air, so what we're doing this time of year is lots of groundwork for dock diving, dry land stuff, indoors mostly.

If there's a really good day when the snow conditions and there's not mud around and stuff, we can do a little bit outside.

But I like to work on grippy surfaces, so we're usually inside and working on specific skills and breaking things down, so that when we do get to the pool and finally have pool season roll around by early June, we've got the skill part mostly covered and we can start putting it together at the pool. So this time of year we're really working on that.

Melissa Breau: Dry land skills — can you get into that a little more? I think a lot of people think of dock diving as either something the dog is good at or they're not good at it. How much of that is skills that you train versus the dog's innate ability or talent?

Erin Lynes: That's a super question. There are definitely dogs that just show up at the pool and will jump in and are amazing without any training, and they might continue to be amazing forever. But I think a lot more dogs get to enjoy this sport and do well at it when they have training. I guess that probably is like any other sport. There are some dogs that are gifted and natural.

I think the culture in dock diving has been very, very welcoming to newcomers, and oftentimes that means they can even show up right at events and try it for the first time during a competition, which isn't like many other dog sports. In that way it's nice because people get a chance to try it and feel the excitement of the event.

But on the other hand it also means a lot of dogs who don't immediately take to dock diving probably don't get a second chance, because they're seeing dogs who are more experienced and more trained and comparing that to their dog, who is like, "What do you mean, jump in the pool?"

For the average dog, they do better at dock diving and have a better chance of liking it if they have some training. Perhaps what they eventually can do as far as potential in the sport, reaching personal best, and how good those are going to be, there's certainly a genetic influence on that natural ability, how they're built, their natural level of intensity and that sort of thing.

But there's a whole pile of things that we can influence with training. For my young dogs, and the longer that I'm in the sport, the more I'm trying to stack the bank on the training end of things before I test out the natural abilities, if that makes sense.

Melissa Breau: That totally makes sense. Can you talk a little more about those pieces that training can help with? What is it that the training pulls out and improves?

Erin Lynes: I can definitely talk about that. Confidence and body awareness are big things, like general concept things. When we're asking our dogs to eventually run forty feet down a dock and jump, we want them to jump fairly close to the edge so they're not wasting space and they're doing these big, powerful jumps and hoping for all that.

We really want them to know where their bodies are, how to control those rear feet, get those big push-offs and feel good about it, and do that again and again and again without having any bad experiences, so slipping and falling off the edge of the dock because they miscalculated, all that stuff we want to avoid.

So the dry land training that we do focuses quite a bit on breaking down what happens at the end of the dock, teaching them where to put their feet, how to know where their feet are, so that when they get to the dock and they jump off, it's not like, "Oh, my feet, I thought they were somewhere else, I'm so surprised," that kind of thing.

We work on their ability to track and catch a bumper or whatever toy they're being tossed, so that they have that ability, they've got that coordination with their body as well, and they've got the interest in doing that, building up that.

One of the things I started focusing on lately are toy play skills and how I can teach my dogs to … it probably sounds really basic, because obviously dogs who do dock diving generally love toys and love retrieving, but if they can spit out toys, switch toys, retrieve a specific one and come back and tug with a different one, all those kinds of things are really helpful for dock diving, not only just because of the skill element and how it allows us to reward them out of the water, but it also helps keep their arousal levels in check.

If you can practice those sorts of things on dry land and they're not angry when you take their toy away, or upset by it, or trying to avoid that part of it, you're going to have a lot less wasted energy on the dock chasing your dog around, fighting to get the toy back, and that's energy they can put into their next jump. So I like to focus on that sort of thing.

Some of the specific games we play in dock diving involve having the dog catch a toy that's dangling out over the water or that's already suspended at the end of the dock. Those games specifically have a lot of skills that can be enhanced with dry land training.

We can teach them to look for the toy on cue. Do you know if it's at the end of the dock? Do you know if it's hanging up? Yes, you're going to retrieve that one, and no, not the one in my pocket, that sort of thing.

There's all kinds of cool stuff, and the more I do it, the more I think of, "I could split that out and train that separately." Right now I'm obsessing about how I can train the dogs to turn more tightly in the water when they grab their toy, get them to swim back to the dock faster for the speed games, and that sort of thing too.

Melissa Breau: Fun. Sounds like good stuff.

Erin Lynes: Yeah.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned the sport is pretty welcoming to newcomers. Do you have any tips for beginners, folks that maybe haven't even tried it yet, they're looking to get started?

Erin Lynes: The very first thing is you want your dog to already be comfortable swimming, and really happy and eager about swimming, before you try dock diving. I think that is probably pretty common knowledge, but it's actually surprisingly uncommon in some ways, too, because we do get some people that come for their first lesson, and their dog has been wading, maybe they like to lay in puddles, they like the feeling of cool water, but they never actually swam. So that's part one is getting a really confident swimmer, and then working on your dog's interest in toys.

On the flip side there's the dogs that love swimming and paddling around in the water, but that can't be the primary motivation. They do need to want to retrieve a toy. So any work you do towards toy skills, retrieving skills, is a huge payoff. Those are some of the things that I would suggest working on.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. You're working on a class for this stuff for FDSA for this coming term. Do you want to share a little about the class, what you'll cover, and what kind of dog is a good fit for this specific class?

Erin Lynes: I'm super-excited about this class. There's going to be a couple of different tracks of focus, so I'm hoping that I can share the joy of dry land training with dogs of all levels, that we can get some new people — or maybe new dogs and not so much new people, it could go either way — that are able to start their dogs off right with some foundation training first.

But there's also going to be some focus on more advanced skills that advanced dogs can work on. And we're going to be looking at a few specific fitness exercises that will boost the power of the dogs so that they can get bigger and faster jumps.

Did I answer all your questions there?

Melissa Breau: Yeah. So any skill level, any experience? Is that the right thing? Are there any age limitations? Should they be a certain age or anything like that?

Erin Lynes: There's nothing in the course that is unsafe or not appropriate. There's nothing like a lower age limit that way. It will help if your puppy — if you're wanting to take the course with a puppy — if they already have a basic interest in toys and retrieving and have the gist of a marker-based training system.

But there's not a whole lot of super prerequisites, because we start everything fairly much at the foundation level. The dogs that are already more advanced will progress more quickly through it, and the dogs that are newer will get to spend more time building each of those foundation skills.

My hope is that it will be pretty universal for anybody who's interested in dock diving and hasn't done a whole pile of dry land training before, that they'll be able to get some good nuggets out of it and know where to go with their training.

Melissa Breau: Awesome, and it's the right time of year for sure, just gearing up for the season.

Erin Lynes: Right.

Melissa Breau: I have three questions I usually ask people the first time they're on at the end of the interview, so I want to go through those. The first one is what is the dog-related accomplishment that you're proudest of?

Erin Lynes: That is a super question. I knew this question was coming and I gave it a bunch of thought, and there's all kinds of things. I'm just really proud of my dogs in general, so that's a bit of a tricky one.

But I guess accomplishment-wise I am really proud of my dog Shelby, who came back from her shoulder injury and some experimental treatments and was able to win, in her first competition back, a Canadian championship dock diving event.

Because just the way the timing of the rehab and everything worked, she only got about a week of pool time before the event, so we had to be pretty strategic in how she finished her rehab exercises and easing back into it and even how we ran the competition itself.

That's a highlight for me is that she was able to do that, and that she's been able to continue on and be a sound, healthy dog. That was several years ago now and she's still doing well, so I love that one.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. What is the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?

Erin Lynes: Oh, goodness. There's so many good nuggets. Sometimes when I'm in a bit of a training rut, I just hear this one thing and it's so simple, and it really resonates with me right in that moment.

I almost had a whole list of things for you on that one. But what I settled on as my best piece of training advice is maybe more of a philosophy-type thing where they say that beginner trainers like to train intermediate stuff, and intermediate trainers like to train advanced stuff, and advanced trainers train foundation stuff.

I'm feeling that one right now as I'm diving into all the bits and pieces for my course and trying to make it a solid course for foundation skills so that it's applicable to the new dogs and to the advanced people who like to work on that stuff. That's my one for today.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I like it. And finally, who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?

Erin Lynes: I have many idols, Melissa. There's a whole pile of Fenzi instructors that I rabidly follow: Amy Cook, Sarah Stremming, Sara Brueske, Megan Foster. Obviously I observe everything that Denise puts out.

Someone that perhaps the Fenzi crowd is less familiar with is Jennifer Henion. She's my role model right now as somebody who is pioneering some cool and interesting positive reward-based retriever training stuff. I've been watching what she's doing and how she's breaking new trails in that sport and building things from the ground up. Jennifer is my gal.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Erin!

Erin Lynes: Thanks so much for having me. This was fun.

Melissa Breau: It was fun. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Heather, Chrissi, and Nicole to talk about life skills for sports dogs.

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! 


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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