E210: Heather, Nicole, and Chrissi - "Living With a Dog Athlete"

Life skills are easy to overlook with a potential competition dog — but investing the time and energy to get those things right can benefit your sports training, and the rest of your life with your dog.


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 Chrissi, Nicole, and Heather!

Hi all, welcome to the podcast!

[All say hello.]

Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you each just share a bit about yourselves, your current pups, what you're working on with them, that kind of thing? Nicole, do you want to start?

Nicole: Sure, I can start. I'm Nicole. I've got four dogs currently. My oldest is 15 years and seven-and-a-half months. He's a Golden Retriever named Toby. I also have a 7-and-a-half-year-old female Golden named Strive, and a 3-and-a half-year-old male Golden named Excel. And then the husband has a black lab named Kira.

I've been doing a lot of virtual stuff with Excel because that's been our life for the last year. I do actually have him entered in his first in-person dog show in a couple of weeks. It's a rally trial. It's a level in which he's already titled, but we're just going see how it goes when we get to the actual dog show. So I'm excited to see where he's at with that.

Melissa Breau: Super-exciting. Heather?

Heather: My dog breed of choice, of course, is a German Shepherd. I've had them all my life. I'm currently down to two. One is my 15-year-old boy, Tag. He's getting up there, he doesn't move much, he's a good boy, but he's obviously out of his working life right now. He's excelling at being couch potato.

And then I have a 5-year-old. Actually, no, she's coming up on 6. She's going to be 6 this year. Time flies. Piper, female, and I do conformation with her, as well as she's my demo dog for all of my classes with Fenzi, and my demo dog for in-person classes that I teach up here in Canada in north Van. I'm just playing around with her, having fun teaching her all different kinds of things. It's not my regular practice in my training, because I haven't really focused on too much of the obedience, which is where I wanted her to go. We've been having fun in other areas and it's actually been quite interesting.

Melissa Breau: Good stuff. Chrissi?

Chrissi: I currently share my life with two dogs, Game, my Malinois and Mick, the Border Collie.

Game currently has a Gold spot in Lucy Newton's Alerts class, so that's been really fun. I haven't done a Gold spot in a while, and it's always so good to have that accountability and to really practice what I preach, which is video all your training sessions. She's also currently learning that we cannot kill chickens, because we just moved, and there's chickens everywhere in the streets, walking and roaming around which is crazy. So we're talking about that every day.

And Mick, basically, his passion is herding, but he's a little socially insecure, so he currently just gets used to being in a new space and walking around a new place, and we're taking it slow so he can adapt.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. We've got a broad topic today. I wanted to talk about life skills and our sports dogs. I'd love to have you each share what you see as some of the life skills it's super-important to teach our competition dogs and why you see those skills as important. Heather, do you want to start?

Heather: The most important thing for me as an individual is teaching my dog how to chill. Sports dog versus at-home dog, I want her to be comfortable in any environment and I want her to be able to transition between environments without this huge swing in arousal level. I want her to be calm and cool and collected when she's hanging out in the car, or if she's hanging out in the crate, or if she's just hanging at the confirmation shows, maybe lying down at my feet. I want her to be able to chill and just take it all in.

I do a lot of that in the very beginning with my dogs at home. I teach them a lot of chill, do-nothing work. People look at me like, "You teach them to do nothing?" And I say, "Oh yeah," because eventually their working life is finished, their dog sport life is finished, and I need that dog to be comfortable in regular, everyday life because it's not going to be go-go-go-go-go all the time, and I expect them to be able to handle that transition. If I can start it right from square one, then I've got an easy dog that I can take anywhere at any time.

Melissa Breau: Go ahead, Nicole

Nicole: Along with what others said, I'm not very good about teaching my dogs to chill. It took me a while to really figure it out because I just love to work with them so much. Especially as puppies, they're these great little sponges that just want to work all the time. But yeah, definitely the chill and station behavior. I have found the station behavior to be a life changer, so I focus a lot on that.

Also I like doing things with my dog, and I want my dog to just be able to hang out, whether that's in public, I want a dog that walks on a loose leash nicely, and a dog I can just take places. We go hiking a lot, I love to take the dogs hiking, we go boating a lot, I want a dog who can stay calm in the boat. So especially with my last couple of dogs, I spent a lot more time working on those types of skills and not so worried about the high-level competition skills until some of those life skills are set for the dog.

Chrissi: I guess for me it's along similar lines, as Heather and Nicole said. My dogs are first and foremost my companions, and just my particular lifestyle, I travel and I like taking them places, so I like them to be able to adapt to new places, to relax in new places.

Off-leash reliability is really important to me, especially here, because I live in Guatemala, and the cultural norm is just for dogs to roam freely and to be off leash, so you can't expect other people to have their dogs on leash. And they will run up to yours. In general, there are less conflicts when my dogs are also off leash than if they were on leash. So I put a lot of training time and effort into getting reliable recalls around all kinds of things, around other dogs, around those chickens that I just mentioned.

One other thing is I also want them to be able to stay home alone. I find it really stressful when my dogs are anxious. Since I live alone, I don't have that luxury that there's always someone home when I have to go out. I've moved so much in the last couple of years that now, anytime I go to a new place, one of the first things I will practice is just leaving them for a couple minutes, pretty much the same day we get there, because I want them to believe that wherever we are, I'm always going to come back. That's worked quite well actually, despite COVID and all the working from home.

Melissa Breau: It's important skill for sure. I know you each have classes coming up on various bits and pieces that tie into that life skills piece, so I wanted to ask you each a little bit about that. Chrissi, do you want to talk a little bit about your approach to using less-traditional reinforcers for some life skill stuff? I know you've got your reinforcement class coming up.

Chrissi: In this class we explore all kinds of options that go beyond food or toys. Like your dogs hobbies — I say if your dog had an online dating profile, what would they list as their favorite activities. Some of those things are breed related, of course, and others are individual. For a Border Collie, I can use sheep as a reinforcer. For a Malinois, I can use biting pretty much anything as a reinforcer. But you also have individual hobbies, like digging holes in the yard, or swimming, sniffing a particular spot, chasing squirrels. And so in this class, we talk about how we can use those distractions and turn them into reinforcers.

Once we do that, and if we're able to harness those distractions that are usually annoying to us and use them to our advantage, we practice impulse control at the same time as we're using a really strong reward. We can use whatever the dog likes in a particular situation to reward any life skill or competition behavior we ask them to perform, right before we release them to the environment. Once you know how to do that, you've got a really powerful reinforcer at your hand.

We also talk about things like praise, petting, personal play. Can we use those as reinforcers? Are they actually reinforcing? Does it depend on the dog? So lots of explorations and rabbit holes to dive down into.

Melissa Breau: Sounds like good, nerdy dog-training stuff.

Chrissi: Oh, yes.

Melissa Breau: Nicole, do you want to chat just a bit about how you approach training stays and using them in real life situations and not just in competition?

Nicole: Sure. I had mentioned stations earlier. Stations are a big part of my stay class, and along with that, the relaxed down-stays. I need a dog that can just go chill out on a station or in a place and truly relax, so that I can do other things. This comes in handy within a training class if you stop to talk to the instructor, just having a dog that can chill while you do that, rather than running laps with a toy or barking at you constantly to get you to keep working. So that's a big deal to me. I want the dog to be comfortable on the station and or just a relaxed down-stay.

I train that a lot differently than I do the competition stays. There's some pretty major differences in what we do there, because I don't want a dog that's begging to work the entire time they're in a down-stay. I want them to really be able to just chill, and we do that a little bit differently than the traditional stuff. But also just having a good stay when you're out and about. Maybe you're hiking on a trail, and you need to move up the trail and have the dog stay so someone can go by, stuff like that. So I think having a dog that can wait and hang out where you leave it for a couple of minutes is a really good life skill to have.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Heather, do you want to share your approach for teaching dogs how to function in the real world? I know you mentioned earlier that that's one of the super-important pieces for you.

Heather: I live in the city. Luckily I'm not downtown. I don't know how dogs function downtown, because I don't. But many people have to live downtown.

So for me, again, part of it is the do-nothing training where the dogs can chill. When I'm approaching it, if I'm dealing with a puppy, it's always done in small little tiny increments. There's no overwhelming. It's not like, "I've got to get this dog socialized, so I'm going to take them to the farmers market." No, that's not a good idea. You've got to do it in in small increments.

I'm always looking at the dog and where they are, what they're telling me they're comfortable with. You've got to keep them under threshold, because if you overwhelm them, especially in the city, it's hard to recover from. There's lots of cars whizzing by, there's lots of things happening, there's lots of sounds happening, fireworks in the city, all that kind of stuff. You've just got to do everything in in small little increments.

Even something as simple as teaching your dog how to get used to their crate. My dogs, when they're puppies, they get a lot of riding around in the car. Again, that's do-nothing training, riding around in the car, we're — weather permitting, obviously — doing all of our errands, we even go through the carwash, everything, so they get all these different kinds of sounds. And so we give little bits and pieces of everything and then gradually increase the intensity of them as they get older and they show that they're able to handle that kind of thing. And to date I've never had a dog be fearful of fireworks or thunder or anything like that. I have my old dog, who is long gone, she used to be, but then we got through that, and as she got older she was more and more comfortable with it, but she came with a history of being afraid of sounds.

But again, a lot of it is the do-nothing training, as everybody else is saying, teaching the dog to chill. And then doing everything in small little increments and just taking it slow for the individual dog, taking a look at them and who they are as individuals, not to what everybody says you have to do with a dog by a certain time.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to … this is a little bit of a shift, but talk about how you each balance working on the specific fancy skills or the fun skills for sports stuff with the super-important life skills training, and just how you approach that with your own training to make sure you're getting in both pieces and doing what you need to do. Nicole, do you want to start this one?

Nicole: I'm always fascinated by the sexy stuff. I love training all that. I love training it and I really enjoy, especially the younger dogs, teaching them that stuff.

But what I have found — thank you Excel; he's been a great teacher — the life skills is really, really important. If you have that stuff down, if you take the time to train it when they're younger, it just makes your life so much easier.

Excel has his challenges. He has some over-arousal issues, some frustration issues, really almost hyper-social, and he's really taught me that you got to get the life skills figured out. Walking on a loose leash in the presence of other people or dogs — that was really tough for him. Doing a down-stay in any type of … oh, my goodness, like agility, he loses his brain. It took me three years to teach him a down-stay in agility. There are dogs doing agility, and he has to go do it. So he's really taught me a lot.

He's really the first dog with whom I have focused on life skills as a puppy. We did a lot of foundation stuff, like toy play and reinforcement strategies and such, but I didn't do a ton of actual behaviors with him until he was a little bit older, because we just had to deal with this other stuff first. And in hindsight, I love it. He's so easy now. I shouldn't say he's easy, because he still has his challenges. But it is so much easier to take him places and have those foundations in place. And it makes training the sexy stuff so much easier when you've got that great foundation. So I would definitely be much more inclined to do it more that way with my next dog. With Excel it was more of a necessity, because I could not take the monster into public for a while until I taught him these things. So it was definitely a necessity with him. But it was very advantageous for us to be able to get that stuff down so that everything else is just more enjoyable and easier to teach.

Melissa Breau: Heather?

Heather: Life skills is twenty-four/seven in our house, because when my dogs are classified as finished working, they're seniors and stuff, my husband gets them, so they become like his shadow, versus … not to say that I'm not important. I'm still, as soon as I walk through the door, all focus goes to me, and he's kind of left in the shadows. But he will then take them for running errands, if I'm out doing something else, and so forth.

So the life skills, definitely, just as Nicole said and Chrissi says, for me, they're twenty-four/seven. When it comes to dog sports, that is a time-specific schedule. There's a certain amount of time you log off for doing your dog sports, but everything else, your life skills and what you require as a dog at home, is twenty-four/seven.

But what I do in that, I guess I don't really segregate life skills and dog sports skills so much as what I do is I try to find skills that have dual purposes. For instance, when I'm teaching a life skill of "Stand still, I need to brush you," or "The vet needs to take a look," that is trained to the level that I would need to Stand For Exam, or that I would need in the conformation ring. So when I'm teaching this stuff, it's still life skill, but I'm teaching it to the next level. I find that way, when I have to fine-tune might come to do my dog sport stuff, it's just a little bit of tweaking. There's not a whole lot of work that has to be done.

And then, when you turn it back down when the dogs are retired, they've got those life skills, so they've always got something to draw upon, that they have a reference point on. That gives them that ease of transition in going from being a couch potato that, "Okay, Mom's taking me taking me now in the van," or "We're going to go and do something," to "Okay, I've got to have that dog sport come back." "Okay, now I'm the couch potato again." It allows them to make those transitions because all of those skills that I taught as life skills, they're nothing brand new to them.

Melissa Breau: Chrissi, do you want to give your take?

Chrissi: For me, the sexy stuff is the life skills. I think that's mostly because my personality, I'm just not a competitive person. I enjoy training the sports skills because it's a challenge for me to become a better trainer. I really enjoy that journey of figuring out how do I teach that perfect heel position? How do I get that great alert that I'm looking for? I like being that person who takes her dogs everywhere. I like it when people are looking at me and complimenting me on my dogs in public. That's my biggest reinforcer.

Heather: Yeah, exactly. I can see that. It's the same thing for me. "Oh, your dogs are so well behaved." You don't know the work that went into it.

Chrissi: Right. And I also like challenging myself. For a while I didn't have a car. I used Game to bikejoring as I was carrying a backpack of groceries up the mountain I used to live on. Or sometimes I had her carry my groceries in her dog backpack.

But I can't take her in the grocery store, so I have a friend who has a hair salon, she let me park my dogs while I went to get the groceries. Teaching her to be able to relax in a corner while my friends' clients came and went — that was really cool. And then having that and dropping her off there, and my friend being happy to see her, and certain clients recognizing her and knowing her, and it's this well-behaved dog who just hangs out in the corner and observes the world. I love doing that.

Heather: That's gold, that's gold.

Chrissi: Of course, you have to have a dog also who does bring the baseline personality to the table. For example, Mick. I got him as an adult and he grew up on a farm. He probably didn't leave the farm that much and didn't see that many people. He's struggling with that now. I got him specifically for herding when I lived on my little mountain, which was very similar to the farm. But now we're basically in the center of another small town, and it's really hard for him because he didn't learn these things ever. From the time I had him, I would take him into town once a week, just taking it slow, getting him used to things. But now, being immersed in that on a daily basis, he is really struggling, and I am struggling watching him struggle.

So that is a good reminder for me how important it is, because we don't know if our life circumstances are going to change. It's really good to have dogs know how to how to be around people and how to adapt to different places. Even if you don't plan … I wasn't planning on leaving my socially distant, pretty perfect mountain, but my rental contract didn't get extended, so I had to.

Heather: It makes you appreciate where the dogs are and how we need to support them in the different environments, and do take it slowly for them so that they can feel comfortable and grow and then be that flexible later on.

Chrissi: Yeah. I was smiling when you talked about really focusing on the individual dog in your class and taking it at their speed, because that's what I'm doing. It's always nice to have that confirmed, because sometimes I feel like, "Well, that's really slow progress." But that's just what he needs.

Heather: Sometimes the Internet is good, sometimes it's not so good, and it fills people's heads with a lot of things, like if your puppy's shy, get them out more. No, you've got to wait a little bit, let your puppy come around, and just gradually give them a little bit more, and sure enough.

My students that I have in my in-person, the puppy comes in really shy and reticent to do anything the first week. Maybe the second week, depending on the puppy, but generally by the third week they're out there and they're like, "Okay, I've got this. I'm confident I can do this." And it's because we're taking it slow. We're not overwhelming them. We're not asking them to do a whole bunch of things. In some instances I've even had the puppies just sit in the owner's lap and watch the class, and that's all it takes for the puppies just to figure out what's going on in the world.

Chrissi: Yeah, and the relationship improves as they're doing this, as they're learning. "Oh, that lap? That's a safe space for me."

Heather: Exactly.

Melissa Breau: This next one, Heather, I think you started to actually get into this a little bit with your answer on the last question, which is I'd like to talk a little bit how having good life skills, and spending the time and investing in those skills, can really complement the training that we then go on to do for our chosen dog sports. You were talking before about how when you train for some of your cooperative care stuff, you train it to the level of Stand For Exam or for conformation. Do you want to take this one first and talk a little bit more about how some of your life skills complement your sports training?

Heather: Sure. Like I said, and all of us have reiterated this, I want a dog that can move through the different environments and not think anything of it. I don't want a dog that you go to the agility field and — sorry, Nicole — the dog loses his marbles.

Nicole: He's better now.

Heather: You know what I mean. You've worked through it, Nicole. You know what it's like. I don't want that. It's hard on the dog. It's hard for people around you or the other dogs around you. I travel with my dogs, so my dogs go on airplanes and they go into hotels and they go all over the place, seminars. I might be at our Fenzi camp or Clicker Expo and the dogs are there. I need them to be able to chill, and to accept all the people and all the excitement, and not just see it and go, "I'm in Disneyland. I can do anything I want." No, there are rules. The rules apply no matter where you are.

By being able to move through the different environments and move through the different levels of excitement and work … I guess workability is what I'm saying … if we're out on the trails and hiking, yeah, you can go like a bat out of hell and have some fun and go sniffing in the bush, do all that kind of stuff. When we're on the streets and we're running errands, I need you to stick with me and not pulling me to all over the place to sniff on the street and knocking people over. When I need you to behave, I need you to behave. When I need you to have some fun, go at it and have some fun. So that's what I'm looking at for the compliments. I just want a well-balanced dog.

Nicole: Don't we all?

Heather: Yeah, but I've seen the dogs. One day I went into a flyball barn. I walked in, I heard the noise, and I walked right back out again. I couldn't take it. There was no way. I couldn't do that sport. I admire you if your eardrums will take that kind of stuff, but mine won't. It was like, "No way. I can't do that." And I don't want to have my dog add a function where I can't leave them in their crate, or they yap and yap and yap and yap and yap and yap and stressing and so forth.

Even at the conformation shows — the noise at the confirmation shows sometimes can be really bad, and that stresses the dogs up. They don't show well, they don't perform well, they don't pay attention, and so then they're not being their best. I want the dogs comfortable and feeling that, "Oh, yeah, that idiot over there is being a jerk in his crate, but it doesn't affect me. It doesn't bother me." That's my transitioning stuff.

Melissa Breau: Chrissi, do you want to talk a little bit about that?

Chrissi: Oh, yeah. I guess for me it's like the reliability I get around distractions. That's gold, such as, for example, the chicken challenge that we are currently working on. Mick doesn't care about chickens. His herding instinct only kicks in around sheep, so that's great. But Game, she would like to take a bite there.

And those chickens — they're walking right under your feet sometimes. It's a really small town. There are hardly any cars, only tuk-tuks and very narrow streets. Everyone has their own chickens. They're everywhere. I want her to be off leash around these chickens without having to worry that she's going to eat one or bring one home for dinner. Not when she's with me and people are watching.

Heather: You've got to wonder if those chickens don't have a death wish.

Chrissi: I'm assuming the average lifespan of a chicken must be relatively low here because there are tuk-tuks and there are free-roaming dogs. But I don't want to lower it any further, so I'm working on impulse control. I'm working on recalls around them. I'm working on walking on a loose leash. I'm working on focusing on me. When I have that with chickens trying to step into her mouth, then she can do anything.

Melissa Breau: I love the picture of the chicken coming up to her, because I'm sure, for them, they don't know that this dog isn't the dog that they can just walk parade past and through.

Chrissi: Exactly. And most dogs that are roaming freely are good around these animals, because if they're not, they will get killed. It's a different culture, and the owner of those chickens — if they see the same dog killing one of their chickens three times in a row, there won't be a fourth time

Heather: A really good, strong "leave it" is in is in the works.

Melissa Breau: What about you, Nicole? How do you see life skills complementing your sports skills?

Nicole: First I want to say, Chrissi, I get it, because we have chickens, and the worst part is our chickens are like our pets, so my kids are really attached to these chickens. And Excel, at 3-and-a-half, is just getting to the point where I'll go train him in the backyard or on the chickens. It took that long to trust that he wasn't going to go chase down a chicken and bring it back to me. So I totally get it. It's tough. Chickens can be kind of stupid. We have guineas, too, and they're worse. I don't know if you have any guineas, but they're much worse than chickens.

So anyway, Melissa, back to the question. I spend a lot — in a normal year; obviously this last year doesn't count — but in a normal year I spend a lot of weekends on the road with my dogs. I travel by myself. I typically have generally two dogs but sometimes three. I stay in hotels. We spend the day crated at a dog show. Whether it's agility or obedience, there is a lot of walking in and out of that environment to potty dogs, exercise dogs, that sort of stuff.

So I need a dog that travels well. I need to be able to walk two to three dogs at the same time, all on a loose leash. I need a dog that can hang out in his crate and rest in there and to be comfortable in there, so that he can be his best or she can be her best when I pull them out of the crate to warm up. If they were constantly scanning their environment, and if they were freaking out in their kennel, obviously that would not be conducive to a good performance in the ring. So all of this stuff is critical. It's not just about the six minutes in the utility ring or in open ring or novice ring. It's about how they do getting in, and how well they relax, and can they stay in a hotel without losing it every time someone walks by.

All that stuff is really important because I do this with my dogs for a lot of reasons, but one of them is I love being with my dogs. I love the training that goes into it, and then being able to see how that transfers over to the show ring, the performance ring. And I do this because I enjoy it. But if I had a dog that dragged me all over the place, or that shrieked in the kennel, or barked every time somebody walked by the hotel room, that wouldn't be very enjoyable for me. So all that stuff is really important. It's definitely equally as important as all the fun stuff. The utility articles and go outs and that stuff is fun, but the other the life skill stuff is definitely really important so that I can enjoy the dog sports competition skills.

Melissa Breau: We've talked a bunch about what you guys like to train and the good stuff. I also want to know what you think is hard to train. What life skill do you think is the most difficult one to teach, and how do you approach actually teaching your dogs that skill? Chrissi, do you want to go first on this one?

Chrissi: I think that really depends on the individual dog. For Mick, for example, the most difficult thing is just being able to let down his guard and relax around strangers. That's probably partly the breed. Border Collies notice everything. They notice changes in the environment. But it's also, of course, having grown up not being exposed to these things. So for him, the individual that he is, this is the biggest challenge he's currently facing.

For a Malinois, it's just realizing that out in public we do not have to defend Chrissi. Everything's fine. I approach that as a confidence thing, and in Game I definitely see that the more confidence I build up in her, the more she feels like she can handle anything and the world is a safe space, the less she feels like she has to take socially inappropriate actions.

That is something my other Malinois, Grip, really struggled with because she saw a threat in everything. Well, not in everything. She was okay and her worldview was much more narrow. That made it harder for her to brace herself and let me take care of things. So for her, the way I approached that was just really clear leadership, letting her know that I'm the one who's handling these things, nothing bad is going to happen, you don't have to step up and take the lead and scare away the weird guy with the large sombrero. So really, depending on the dog and what they bring to the table, the approach that I take will differ. Also the challenge differs. For example, what Nicole mentioned, that's the stereotypical Golden Retriever. One of their biggest challenges is probably going to be not jumping up on everyone and not saying hi to everyone, and just containing their excitement and their happiness.

Nicole: They're not very good at containing that.

Chrissi: That's hard. I know people like that. I often think that when I see a Golden who's so excited to be here, because some of my friends, I'm like, "Yeah, you're totally that person." My dogs don't really struggle with that because they don't have that extreme sociability.

Lots of my clients are very independent dogs. They're independent breeds, or locally it's people who adopt free-roaming dogs and turn them into pets. Those dogs have a very high independent streak and very opportunistic often. So it is hard to get off-leash reliability, for example, because you really have to make it worth their while. They don't see the point, while my dogs are very biddable, they just come with this hardwired will to please me, which makes many things much easier.

For those independent dogs, I really like using those non-typical reinforcers. Anytime it's possible, I like turning the environment or the distraction that they would rather have into the reward for doing what I ask of them. It strengthens the relationship and it also is a loophole to get reliability with highly independent dogs.

Heather: You made a good point there to the independence within certain breed types. For instance your bird dogs, very independent, herding dogs, very handler focused, but also very aware of their environment. And different types of dogs. People forget sometimes that if you've got a breed that's very independent worker, then you've got to focus highly on building that bond right in the very beginning so that the dog is starting to pay attention a little bit more to you. You've got that bond that the dog starts to look to you versus, "Okay, we're out here. Oh, I see a bird. I'm gone."

That comes back to recalls and everything else, but you're still working against a breed propensity to head out. Say Huskies — they're bred to run, they're gone. So you've got to get the foundations in very quickly, and that bonding in very quickly and heavily, when they're when they're puppies. What do you think, Nicole?

Nicole: I totally agree, Heather. I recently recorded my Sporting Dog webinar. The big purpose of that webinar was to help show people what these dogs' natural instincts are, and how that can be both helpful and harmful for people, particularly with performance, and teaching people how do we make this a little bit easier. It really does come down to that early training and the early puppy stuff and what you tend to focus on.

As Chrissi mentioned, Golden Retrievers, very, very, very social, definitely one of our biggest challenges, although I've had Goldens that they're fine, they don't care. But Toby — he just wanted to work. I said he was not a Golden Retriever until he was 10 years old, because he never would notice other people. It was all me, which came with its own challenges when it came to agility, because it was still all about me, so we had to work through that.

But I agree with Chrissi that the difficult stuff really depends on the dog, and sometimes there's a lot of difficult stuff. For Excel, it was a lot of stuff because he was so environmental, and so we had to work through so much. But then once we started working and addressing the arousal thing, then everything got so much easier — the wanting to go greet other dogs, and barking and whining and frustration, and the inability to just do a down-stay when there's exciting things going on.

I remember going to the dock diving trials and I would walk in with my Treat and Train and my station, and people would look at me like, "What are you doing?" I would put the station down by the pool, and I'd put the Treat and Train on there and I would dispense treats every half a second for a period of time. People didn't get it because kind of what I thought is those people, they like the loud and crazy, and I don't. I need a dog that can think and doesn't have his brain falling out of his ears, because he tends to do that anyway. He doesn't need any more help.

That was tough, though. Getting a dog that could walk up the dock on a loose leash — that was probably the toughest thing I've ever taught. For a while it was, "Let's just play the 'get it' game," where I'm going to toss treats on the ground all the way to the dock, and then I'm going to let go of the leash and let him run up there so we don't have to fight about it. But that was important to me. I needed a dog that could focus and that could bring his arousal level down in a situation where it was almost impossible. But we really made a lot of progress.

So it really does depend on the dog. Some dogs it's the other people that are going to be tough and teaching them to be calm around other people. Some dogs it's going to be the down-stay or the relaxed stuff where they're really going to struggle. So that's my answer. A little bit of everything.

Heather: You made a good point there with losing his head around the dock and so forth, because if you've got a dog that is so out there in their arousal level, they can injure themselves quickly by being jerky like that. That's why I need you thinking about what you're doing with your body, and your brain is in check with your body, and your body is in check with your brain, so that we don't have an accident. At least you're trying to avoid it the best you can. But things happen, and if you've got a dog that is supposedly in drive, you can have a high drive dog, but that dog may not be focused. It's more frenzy than it is focus, and that's dangerous.

Nicole: I totally agree. That's why I spend so much time with Excel. I don't want that level of arousal. That's not good for anybody. I need him to be a little more thoughtful. Even with agility, they can very easily get themselves hurt in agility if they're just throwing themselves at everything and not being thoughtful.

It's really hard in obedience when they get that way because they stop thinking. You have to think when you're doing obedience. You have to think about how to do straight fronts and heeling and all that stuff. So I definitely agree, Heather. I don't think that level of arousal is good for the dog at all.

Heather: When it comes down to it, for me, the life skills, going back to life skills and the difficult thing to train, for me it's not difficult, but I think if I'm teaching it for other people to learn is loose leash walking. I don't know why, but it is so hard for people to get loose leash walking.

I know why. Part of it is it comes down to consistency. But loose leash walking is probably one of the hardest, but it's also one of the most important things to teach, aside from the recall, because if you can't walk the dog, if it's not comfortable to walk your dog in and around your environment or wherever it is that you go, and it's a pain in the butt, your dog is dragging you everywhere, jumping at that person going by, jumping at that dog going by, and just plain losing their marbles, it's hard on your human body, and as a result, it's not fun to walk the dog. Nobody wants to walk the dog, it gets passed along, passed along, passed along, and then they end up being stuck in the backyard, and that's where you can spiral down. The dogs don't have a very good life that way.

So for me, I want it to be enjoyable for the dogs to get out and for the people to take them out, and the way to do that is with good loose leash walking skills, because then, whether you're doing your regular everyday living or whether or not you're doing dog sports, it's still a pleasure having your dog with you as you're moving through all these different environments. That's my take on it.

Melissa Breau: Everybody feels that for the last question that we have to tailor to the dog. I want to flip that on its head and think about also how different rules are important for different people and talk about that a little bit. I know, for example, one of my boyfriend's big rules is that the dogs cannot be underfoot in the kitchen, so we've worked hard to create stationing behaviors in the kitchen.

For some people it's a big deal, they don't want their pets on the furniture. I don't care if my dogs are on the furniture. They are more than happy to be on the couch, so I don't put any effort or time into training them to stay off of it.

Do any of you have things that you can share that are important to you, but aren't usually important to other people, or, in the reverse, that are important to other people that you don't really care about with your own dogs? Nicole?

Nicole: The furniture thing doesn't bother me at all. My dogs are on the furniture, they're on my lap, sometimes they're on the bed, but they're respectful about it. Well, I don't know that I'd call Excel respectful because as he slithers next to my body to cuddle at night, but he does ask permission by staring at me with his cute eyes, and then I'm like, "Okay, buddy, come on up."

The furniture thing, it's funny how I too do not like my dogs in the kitchen, because every time I turn around I'm tripping over them. But with my old guy, I've been letting him come in the kitchen because he gets excited about the food, so I'm having to watch and not trip over him. But the rules are always different with the older ones, too. So definitely staying out of the kitchen.

I teach my dogs a cue that means "Leave the room." Go through a threshold, I don't care which one, I don't care where you go. Just find a threshold and go through it. I use that a lot in the kitchen. Actually in any room where I need them to go away for a moment. So dogs on the furniture don't bother me.

But I need a recall. I need loose leash walking. I need good crate behavior. That stuff is really important to me. But in terms of stuff in the house, my dogs do their own thing and they come on the furniture and they follow me around because they're Golden Retrievers, so they're always within six feet of me. Even when I'm going to the bathroom, I know they're right outside that door. So that stuff doesn't bother me like it would some people.

Heather: Same thing. Out of the kitchen because I don't want to turn around with a hot pot of whatever and it fall all over you. What I've done is created … in our house we have a bit of a natural barrier with the carpets. That's the edge of the kitchen area. Because I actually feed there, that's where they hang out and that's where they've been told to hang out during cooking time. If it's not cooking time, then they're free. They have to pass through the kitchen to get into the mudroom and to go outside and different things, so they can wander through. But as a result of stationing them there and reinforcing them for hanging out at the edge, I don't have to worry about a whole lot of stuff. They naturally just gravitate there.

I don't care about the furniture. You can come up, but you can't just launch yourself into my lap in the process. No. I don't want an 80-pound dog stepping on me. You've got to have boundaries. This is something I never really taught the dogs, but it kind of happened by osmosis, and all the dogs learned the rules I guess from each other. In our family room we happen to have two couches, so the humans sit generally at one end of the couch and the dog sits at the other, and even when we are not on the couch, the dogs still take their place. They don't stretch out further on the couch and they don't deviate from that position on the couch. So I don't have a problem with that. They're allowed up on the bed.

I tell people students in my in-person classes that your dog can on the furniture, if that's what you want, your dog can be on the bed, if that's what you want. If you've got problems, though, if your dog growls at you, or your dog won't let your husband in the room, then there's another problem happening and you've got to deal with it. So do what works for your household and how that works.

And again, like Nicole said, loose leash walking is a must. I've had a number of car accidents, I have a bad back, I have my old dogs that I am currently lifting. I'm lifting 70 pounds daily, three, four, five, six times a day, and so my shoulder and everything is getting shot. I don't need to be split in two because I'm going one way and the dog is going another way. I need you here with me, so loose leash walking is it.

And as well a recall, because that's one of the first things I try to teach because that's a lifesaving behavior, and that's one that is always rewarded no matter what. Even if you got caught digging in my garden and I call you and you come, you get a cookie for coming. It's just dirt, and I can put that plant back in there later, but I'm going to pay out for that recall because I might need it next time, and it's going to be really, really important, and I don't want you to think twice about coming.

I don't think there isn't anything I don't really bother about. I suppose if there was one thing, maybe it would be not to alert bark on the neighbor's truck every time you see it there. It's there all the time.

Melissa Breau: Do you have German Shepherds, Heather?

Heather: I know. It's like, "It's Eric's truck. It's always there." "But last time, Mom, it wasn't there. Now it's there." So we're going to have to do some work on this truck, because the neighbors … she's fine with everything, but it's that black truck. I guess it looks like some kind of an animal or something through the fence, I don't know. But that's the only thing and I haven't bothered with that yet, so I think I might have to.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Chrissi?

Chrissi: I guess off-leash reliability is something I take to a greater extent than most people, and I have my dogs off leash in places where other people probably wouldn't do that.

The furniture thing, yes, I'm with you all there. They're all welcome on the furniture. I guess I also, when I have social dogs, when someone comes over, for example, Game thinks everyone comes because they're visiting her, and Phoebe used to think that too, and I really don't mind.

If I know the person coming over is someone who is into dogs and likes excited greetings, then I let them greet that person. They get to jump up on that person, if I know both my dogs like that and the person likes that. If it's not a dog person who's visiting, then I'll just put my dogs in a different room, or leave them in the yard, or crate them for a little bit. But when dog people come over, they can be the wild, crazy children. I don't mind that at all.

Also things like leaving things on the kitchen counter — I feel that's my responsibility. When we're out in public, my dogs are expected to not eat that kid's ice cream cone, for example, but when we're at home, it's their house too. They get to move around freely, and if I make the mistake of leaving roast beef on the kitchen counter, well, serves me right if it's gone when I come back.

For things like that, if I have a phone ready, I will take a picture of my dog being naughty and laugh about it. Those are things that are really important to many of my clients, so I know how to train them, but I personally don't really mind.

Melissa Breau: It's easier to manage.

Chrissi: Yeah. But also if I had a partner who felt strongly about that, like you said with your boyfriend, sure, why not. We can have rules that make everyone happy.

Melissa Breau: All right, I have one question left here for you. It's the one I usually round out the podcast with, which is can you share something that you've each learned recently or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training — and bonus points if it's tied into life skills! Heather, do you want to start us out?

Heather: Oh gosh. What have I learned lately? Squirrels are a pain in the butt.

Melissa Breau: That's a good thing to learn.

Heather: Actually I'm having to now work on it and be more consistent. But the squirrels aside, I think for me, being reminded of it is being consistent, and that comes back to again what I was saying about loose leash walking and rewarding recalls and so forth is that you can't keep changing the rules on the dog.

Using the loose leash walking example is that sometimes the dog gets to pull to mom or to dad or to the kids or whatever, and sometimes the dog is told, "No, you can't pull" to the kids or the dogs. Sometimes you don't want to be dragged to the trailhead before you head out, and then you let the dog drag you the next day. That's inconsistency. I think that's not good for the dog, it's not good for you, and it's not good for the overall training. So for me, it's being clear and consistent. Don't change the rules.

It's the same thing when you're working stays. Some people will say, "Go, stay," and then they'll sit down for dinner and the dog will get up and start wandering away. If you're going to ask the dog to do something, then pay attention and be consistent and help them be successful, and like I said, work at the level of the dog. Don't give them their learner's license, take them down the alley, and say, "Now let's go on the freeway" No good things are going to happen at that point.

So do everything in small little increments and graduate and only move forward when your dog is consistently successful, because if you start with the ABC's and then you want that dog to write that thesis, but you haven't taught them how to make a sentence or make a word, even, then it's the same analogy. It's still not going to work. You're going to burn and crash because you're putting the dog over their capabilities. So work to the level of the dog, be consistent, and move forward on your successes.

Melissa Breau: Excellent.

Heather: There, you got it.

Melissa Breau: Nicole?

Nicole: Yesterday I went down for a private lesson. I am lucky enough to get to train with Nancy Little in person every month. I'm about three hours and forty-five minutes from her, so monthly I go down there and I train with her for a couple of hours.

Excel has a pretty good station behavior, but we haven't done much training lately. I no longer have my dog training building, and last month I wasn't able to go down to see Nancy, so we've had a lot going on and they haven't had as much training as they'd like. So Excel was pretty pushy yesterday. I kept putting him on the station and he would stare at me and then take one foot and put it off and look at me, and then he'd take two feet and put them off. I was getting a little frustrated because normally he's really good, but he was just being a stinker.

What Nancy did, I thought this was awesome, she has these stackable stations, so she stacked these things up. They're cots for kids at daycare and I'm going to Google them and see if I can find some. She stacked them up, so they were probably, I don't know, two-and-a-half feet off the ground, something like that. By just changing that, by making it more difficult for Excel, much more effort for Excel to take off his front feet, he would stand at the edge and then he would lean over and he would almost fall off, but he was like, "Dang it, I can't get my foot down there," so he would stop trying. It was great.

Sometimes you can tweak something, and sometimes you can bring in a little extra management where you're not having to spend six months on a training plan. That simple change, by making it more difficult for his front feet to come off, made a world of difference. I didn't think of it because I was in the situation, I was a little bit frustrated, I was like, "Why aren't you staying? I don't understand." And Nancy puts these little stackable things up and it was great because he did wonderfully. He did not once try to come off that.

So that really struck me that sometimes the answer isn't necessarily more training. The dog has had tons of training on stations. She's very well trained. Sometimes the answer is just tweaking the environment to help set the dog up for success and help the dog be successful. That was a really good reminder for me yesterday, and I thought it would be a good example to share with you guys.

Melissa Breau: I like that.

Heather: I do too, and actually you just reminded me as well that I was being a pill with my dog the other day. I've got this one class where it's kind of a free for all. Not in that way, but we're working on different TEAM exercises.

Anyway, long story short is that she has to station while I show somebody else what to do. Normally she's really good. She just lies there, and she chills and she watches. But lately she stands up and she starts to bark, and I'm going, "Holy cow, what's this? I don't want this." So I would just tell her to lie down, quiet, and it was getting to be a back-and-forth tug of war. I'm just thinking now I should have been going back and rewarding her for staying there when she was quiet and helping her be quiet. You just reminded me of that, Nicole.

That's normally what I do, but I'd skipped that for a bit, and I was frustrating her and I was frustrating myself and that's bad on me. I should have just tweaked the environment and set her up and been rewarding her for doing the right thing, rather than turning around and saying, "Lie down, shut up. I need you to be quiet and it will be your turn in a second."

But part of it too is she's on some medication, which is making her super-hungry, so she's saying, "Forget it. Don't give those dogs that cookie. I want it. I want to work because I know I can get cookies from you." So there's a whole bunch of things going around.

But you're right. It means paying attention and just tweaking something within the environment, because she had the training. It was just something was off and I didn't see it. So thanks for reminding me on that one.

Melissa Breau: All right, Chrissi, do you want to give it a try?

Chrissi: I feel I've learned so much lately. I'm writing a novel, and it wasn't going to be a dog-training novel at all, but that's what it's turning into. It's about human connections and all the things that get in the way of them, and it's being set in the dog training world. I have these different focus characters and the reader sees the world through their eyes. They're all very different people and have come from different places and have different philosophies. I want it to be a book where, as a reader, you like all the characters, so I have to do some research. I have a character who's a balanced trainer and that's not my niche. My niche is mostly positive reinforcement, life skills, and pet dog solutions.

I guess over the last decade I've learned from so many great positive reinforcement trainers, but the also excellent balanced trainers out there haven't been on my radar at all. Now that I'm immersing myself into their philosophies and their training solutions, because I want to learn so I can write this character, I'm learning so many new things that I would never have thought of, and I'm really enjoying it.

I just really wish — and it's been such a great reminder — I wish there was less tribalism and less camp-ism in the dog training world, because we can all learn so much from each other, if we just talked to each other more and left our prejudices at the table. I can talk to you and learn how you would solve a certain problem, and I don't have to then embrace that solution. I can still learn about it and take what works for me and leave what doesn't. I feel like we tend to forget about that and we tend to be so …

Melissa Breau: Focused on our own solutions.

Heather: That brings up the point of individual dog owners, guardians, if you want to call them that. Everybody has different needs and wants for whatever it is that they're doing with their dog. If you've got clients that are in condos, their needs and wants are going to be way different than somebody who's got a house and a back yard. What's going to work for somebody is not going to work for somebody else.

Sure, there's the tried and true methods of doing everything, but you always have to think outside the box because you're dealing with individual dogs, individual people, and so you have to make those adjustments. Just like what you're saying, Chrissi, it's different points of view, different results, and you take what you can and use it and turn it around.

But also, too, if somebody doesn't mind their dog jumping up on them, then that's fine. But if they don't want their dog to jump up on other people, then they have to understand and they have to realize they still have to teach the dog not to jump up, and then just give the dog a cue to jump up on them to make it work. If they still want that interaction with their dog, you still have to teach the dog not to jump, but then teach them a jump cue. So you've got to give people what works for them and will make their relationship better.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. All right, thanks to all of you for participating today, for chatting about this stuff. I think it was great, so thank you for coming on the podcast.

Heather: You're welcome. This was fun. I get to see you guys and get to talk to you.

Chrissi: Yeah, it was fun. Thank you so much Melissa.

Heather: And you know what, we're all in different countries too, which makes it really cool.

Nicole: That's true.

Melissa Breau: Well, thank you, and thank you to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Sara Brueske to talk about disc dog training.

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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