E211: Sara Brueske - "Disc Dog Life"

You've seen the flashy performances disc dogs put on — this week Sara and I talk about the training behind the show, and what the options are for getting your own dog started!


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 Sara Brueske.

Sara has been training dogs for over 15 years. She became a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner in 2011 and jumped into the world of professional dog training.

Sara and her dogs work demonstrating the sports of disc, agility, and dock diving for the public at Purina Farms as well as for other venues, and Sara travels worldwide giving seminars.

She and her dogs also compete nationwide. Currently, she is active in the sports of disc dog, agility, mondioring, and dock diving -- plus, she's a trick dog enthusiast.

Sara believes in positive reinforcement not only for dogs, but for their handlers as well. Her biggest joy in training is watching a handler and dog become partners and grow as a team.

Hi Sara. Welcome back to the podcast!

Sara Brueske: Hi Melissa. Thank you so much for having me again.

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

Sara Brueske: I heard Erin on here just a few episodes ago and she went through and listed all her dogs. Do you want me to do that, or just sum them up as a whole?

Melissa Breau: Let's hear it.

Sara Brueske: Sounds good. I have Zuma, she's a Border Collie mix, she is 10 going to be 11 years old this year, so she's my old lady. Then I have Zinga, she's an Australian Koolie, she's turning 9 or 10 this month. When you have so many dogs, remembering their ages is a hard thing, so I apologize to Zinga on that one. I have Ziptie, another Australian Koolie, Taboo, a Border Collie/Staffordshire Terrier/Bull Terrier mix, who was a rescue, I have Kickstart, she is a Border Collie, Wild, she's an Australian Koolie, Edgar, a Boston Terrier/Shih-Tzu mix, who I adopted from a shelter. This is really hard remembering everybody and I hope I don't forget. Famous, a Belgian Malinois who does everything, she just got her first leg of her Mondioring 1 title, so that was cool, and then Kreature, another Belgian Malinois who I compete in mondioring with, and I have two Australian Koolie puppies that I kept back from my litter, so I have Vivid and Vibrant, and Frizzle, their mom, who's another Australian Koolie. She's 3.

Melissa Breau: I was going to say I'm surprised you didn't go by breed, because you have all the Koolies and then the Belgians and then the others.

Sara Brueske: I started by age, but then I realized I left Taboo out, who is younger than Zuma, and then I started going by order of how I acquired them, and that just was a disaster.

Melissa Breau: It's all good. I think we got them all in there, though.

Sara Brueske: I think so too.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to talk about disc today. To start us out, how did you originally get into disc?

Sara Brueske: Disc is one of those things. I had a Border Collie when I was younger. I watched The Incredible Dog Challenge on TV, and that's how I started my love for dog sports as a whole. I convinced my parents to let me buy this Border Collie, so I saved all my money to buy him from the newspaper, of course, from not so great breeders, but I didn't know back then, I was 11 years old.

I wanted him to be a disc dog. He never jumped like the disc dogs I saw on TV and that really demotivated me. He wouldn't catch the Frisbee. He chased it, but it just wasn't the way the dogs on TV were. Me being 11 years old, I didn't realize there was training that went into that and it wasn't just sheer luck that the dogs worked that way.

I switched gears and went to agility, and a lot of my love is agility and that was a lot of my foundation as a trainer. But then I got Zuma, who is a Border Collie mix that I adopted. While she was training for agility and I was working in an agility facility, there was this whole summer where I'd rather be playing outside. Of course in Minnesota most of the agility training is indoors, because what do you do in the wintertime when there's two feet of snow on the ground. During the summertime I went, "I just want to be outside with my dogs. I want to go hiking, I want to swim with them, I want to do sports I can do outside."

At one point I found somebody on Craigslist that was selling a box of used dog Frisbees, and I was like, "Why don't I try Frisbee with her again." I bought these Frisbees and I started throwing for Zuma and she was amazing. Naturally she leapt for the Frisbee, she caught them, she brought them back. I started watching YouTube videos and trying to replicate the tricks I saw on there.

I posted on Facebook a picture of her with a Frisbee, and somebody from the Minnesota Disc Dog Club contacted me and was like, "That's one of our discs. You should come join us at this competition." I was like, "Okay," so I went to this competition and entered Zuma in Toss and Catch in Novice Freestyle, even though we had no idea what we were doing. We got first place in both, and from there I was absolutely hooked because here's this sport that we went and didn't know what we were doing. I didn't even have music for my freestyle round, so they made me play to "Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy." It was the worst freestyle song ever.

From there I got completely hooked. I fell in love with disc, I fell in love with the Minnesota Disc Dog Club, I got a whole bunch of friends that we grew up in the sport together, I had some really great mentors, Paul Wandsworth was one of them, amazing people, great communities, so welcoming to me.

From there, in the wintertime, when you couldn't play disc outside, I did agility, and in the summertime I did disc dog. Anybody that knows me knows that I have five thousand interests, so that really helped me stay in the game, because I was able to jump back and forth between the two sports and not get bored, as I tend to do.

From there I started competing at qualifiers, and eventually going to the UpDog World International Finals and competing there. I was able to win that the first year that they held it, and that was really cool, and the second year as well I won freestyle.

It blossomed into this thing, and at some point Purina was like, "We're looking for another dog trainer." I interviewed for that job, auditioned for it, and we got it. It blossomed from this spur of the moment hobby that we did for funsies into an actual career, and that's been really cool.

Melissa Breau: I want to wind it back a little bit. You were talking about some of the different games that you were playing when you went to that first trial and you had no idea what they were. I think that the "no idea what they were" thing is probably common for people when they first look at disc. Can you talk us through some of the different games and what they are? There's a whole bunch of things there, right?

Sara Brueske: Yeah. That's the cool thing about disc dog is that you can show up to a competition, have no idea what you're doing, and if your dog likes to chase the Frisbee like they do in the back yard, and it's a dog that doesn't mind a bunch of distractions, like people cheering for them and loud music, you can have a lot of success your first time out, and generally the communities are so nice and welcoming to newbies. So a hundred percent if you don't know what you're doing but your dog loves Frisbee, go to a competition and have fun.

The general format, the traditional format, for disc dog competitions is toss-and-catch or toss-and-fetch, it always has a bunch of different names, as well as a freestyle component. You can generally compete in those two things separately, so you could enter just the toss-and-catch, which is your traditional game of fetch. You throw one Frisbee down the field, the dog catches it and brings it back for another. You get points for how far those catches are, those throws are, and some of the venues you get more points for the more throws, other ones just take your best five catches out of that. And then you have freestyle. Freestyle is what people think of when they think of disc dog. It's choreographed routines to music involving a whole bunch of really cool tricks. Generally, when you go to a competition, there's different levels like Novice, Open, and Pro, or depending on the organization what those are called. But generally there's different levels that you can compete at, so the newbies aren't competing with the top-level players, which is really nice. That's generally the layout. You have toss-and-catch, you have freestyle, you can compete in them separate, you can compete in them together, depending on the organization.

But then you have different games and strategy games. Skyhoundz Disc Dogathon is comprised of a bunch of different strategy games, meaning one game you might have to get two catches across the line as quickly as you can, or another one, a spot landing, you might have to get catches in certain circles in a certain order. They're more about the flatwork components that have to do with freestyle, so moving your dog around the field, and using your strategy and your teamwork to get points in those games. It's like this hybrid version of toss-and-catch versus freestyle, that happy medium.

And then you have UpDog. The UpDog Challenge is a whole other organization, and what is UpDog? I will tell you what's UpDog. It is an organization that's really cool. It was developed by some friends of mine, Kat and Jack Fahle and Jason and Andrea Rigler. They are the masterminds behind UpDog Challenge. What it is is it has a freestyle component, it has the toss-and-fetch game, but it also has a whole bunch of different strategy games and they're constantly coming up with new games, which is really exciting. They even have agility hybrid games, so you might have to do jump-tunnel-jump to get a Frisbee catch. That one again, their whole idea behind that challenge was to find a fun way for people to really work those flatwork skills for freestyle, so that new players aren't just going into freestyle like I did, with no clue of what they're doing, but at least they can move their dogs are on the field, at least they can time their throws so that their dog is safe. That's the idea behind UpDog Challenge. So you have toss-and-catch, you have freestyle, you have your strategy games.

There's one more aspect of disc dog that's really cool, and it's definitely not one that I excel at. It's the long-distance throws. You have the Quadruped, which is a tournament-style organization where you go to a competition and you do a seeding throw to figure out which division you're in, and then it's a tournament-=style from there.

Skyhoundz also has a long-distance component of their competition as well, and those are really cool. For that you typically get "x" number of throws, and the longest throw with a catch is going to be the winner in those competitions in a nutshell.

So lots of different competitions, lots of ways to have fun with your dog, and the cool part is that that variety allows a whole bunch of different teams to be successful, so you don't have to be awesome at freestyle, you don't even have to be awesome at toss-and-catch. You can excel at one of the other games for sure.

Melissa Breau: Which of those do you do with your guys? Can you share a little more about which bits and pieces you've competed in?

Sara Brueske: I competed in all of them. I try not to do Quadruped because those women with those beast arms make me feel like I've got spaghetti arms and I'm just not good at that. I'm definitely one of those people that if I compete in something, I want to be at the top of it, because I have that part in my brain and I'd rather not, so I tend to avoid the long-distance stuff for that reason alone.

But I really enjoy UpDog and I love the mission behind it. I love that everybody can have a success for it, and so I tend to give them most of my money, and I like to be part of that, because the community around it is so great and I feel like that's such a needed thing, especially in a sport where it's such a community-based sport. While I've done all the different venues — Skyhoundz, USDDN, AWI, UFO, all of those — UpDog Challenge is absolutely my favorite.

Melissa Breau: Sounds good. Some of the skills are obvious — dog has to learn to catch a Frisbee, dog has to ideally learn to bring it back. What are some of the other foundation skills we're looking at for a team interested in getting started?

Sara Brueske: The teams that have a great foundation moving into disc dog are agility teams, because a lot of the times disc is about communicating with your dog, making sure they're moving around the field okay, and timing your throw so that your dog can safely catch it. That is a huge thing, just being able to read your dog and direct your dog where you want them to go.

Of course the most important skill, which is ninety percent of the game, is that throw, making sure that the handler can throw accurately so that they can put the disc where the dog needs it in order to make that safe catch. I think people underestimate the value of just grabbing Frisbees and going out and practicing without your dog, and so I always recommend that you have to be at least a proficient thrower, meaning I should be able to throw backhand where I want it to be, to make sure that you're safe for your dog. There's a whole bunch of different factors when it comes to playing different disc types and all of that, but definitely getting out there and practicing throwing before you get serious about the disc dog competition is a good idea.

Melissa Breau: Any tips for learning to throw?

Sara Brueske: Yeah. Grab those Frisbees and go throw. Making sure you that have somebody to coach you is a huge thing, whether that's an online class like the Disc Dog Handler's Choice, the foundations class that will be coming up. That's a good one. And sending me video. Otherwise, going and finding your local disc dog club and getting tips from them in person is a huge thing, because while practice makes perfect, it makes permanent too. So if you're practicing bad throwing technique, you're going to be really good at bad throwing technique, but if you're practicing good habits, then of course that's what you're going to be more proficient at. So making sure that you're learning from somebody about how to properly throw. Other than that, grabbing those discs and going and whipping them at a fence and paying attention to what your arm is doing and tweaking little minor things to see how it impacts the throw of the disc is a huge thing.

Melissa Breau: We talked about some of the different games and things. I know you mentioned that freestyle is the thing most people think of when they see the YouTube videos and whatnot. I certainly think it's probably the flashiest piece. Can you talk us through some of the basic tricks that are involved, and some of the basic tricks people may see if they're watching some of those videos?

Sara Brueske: Absolutely. Freestyle is my absolute favorite thing. There's so much room for creativity. Just the different types of throws that you can throw to your dog, that's so encouraging, and the fact that you can put cool music to it and make it your own, that is my absolute favorite part about freestyle. Not only is it flashy, but it really shows the handler and the dog and how they want to portray their team, which is really cool to me.

The basic tricks that are generally included, you have your vaults, which is where the dog jumps off of the handler to catch a Frisbee. You can have leg vault, which is where the dog jumps off the leg to catch a Frisbee, or a back vault, where the dog jumps off the back to catch the Frisbee. Vaults are dog jumps off the handler to catch the Frisbee.

Then you have overs, where the dog jumps over the handler to catch a Frisbee, so you can have a leg over, an arm over, a body over, and that sort of thing. So vault, dog jumps off handler to catch the Frisbee, over, dog jumps over the handler to catch the Frisbee without touching them.

Then you have dog catches, where the dog catches the Frisbee and then the handler catches the dog. I could have just a normal dog catch, where I throw the disc and then I catch the dog right after they catch it. I could have a flip catch, where my dog does a flip in the air and then I catch my dog. If you want to see some cool dog catches, check out Tracy Custer. She is the queen of dog catches. She's got some creative moves. She sets the standard for dog catches for sure.

And then you have flips. Flips are where the dog turns in the air while they catch the Frisbees. You can have forward motion flips, you can have flips that move backwards, a through-in flip, and all sorts of different tricks with that as well.

From there you have your flatwork. I could have a zigzag, where my dog travels in front of me, catches a Frisbee, and then travels to the other side in front of me, so two o'clock to ten o'clock and catches a Frisbee there, back and forth, and around the world, where they catch the Frisbees in a circle pattern around me, a pendulum, where they go around me in one direction and catch a Frisbee and then go around me the other direction and catch a Frisbee, and all sorts of different flatwork components that way. There's a whole bunch of other categories and tricks, but I'll just leave it there.

Melissa Breau: What's involved in teaching some of those things? Can you talk us through maybe one of them?

Sara Brueske: There's generally two different schools of thought when it comes to teaching different disc tricks. You'll see a lot of players that use the disc as essentially as a lure. They teach their dogs to be comfortable jumping off their body, and then they just put the disc in the right spot, and they're proficient and good, skilled throwers that they can do that, where the dog learns to jump off their body to catch that disc.

Then there is the more dog trainer approach, and that's more what I specialize in, where I tend to teach the tricks with food first the best I can, and then introduce the disc after that. Part of that is because I come from that dog training background, and that way makes more sense to me than putting that disc where it needs to be in order for the dog to catch it. The other part of that is when I entered the sport I wasn't a skilled thrower, so I couldn't put that disc reliably where it needed to be, and so it was easier for me to teach the skill first and add the disc second.

Melissa Breau: We're talking about a lot of very physical things, like catching the dog, and the dog jumping off your body, and all these different things. I'd imagine there's quite a bit of work that goes into building the dog's comfort with a lot of those things, getting that confident look and the ability to actually physically do them. And then there's also this whole safety component. Can you talk a little bit about how you build the dog's comfort, but also how you make sure that where you can you're also taking the safety precautions that are possible to take.

Sara Brueske: Absolutely. Part of this, if anybody ever meets my dogs, they jump all over you because I use my disc dog stuff as an excuse to not teach my dogs manners.

I want my dogs to be comfortable jumping all over me, so I can't effectively teach them not to jump on me and teach them to jump on me at the same time. Especially when they're young dogs, they don't understand that context. Later on, when they're older, they absolutely can, and once they have the skills for disc dog and they know they can jump on me, and they enjoy it in that sport, then I can start teaching them "I don't want you to jump on me in this situation." Part of that is letting them be rude a little bit and letting them build that confidence that "It's fun to trample all over my mom."

If you watch what I do with the puppies, a lot of it is really physical, I push them back, they leap at me type of play, because I want them realizing that my arms all over them is fun, and I want them pushing through that and really enjoying it, and I want them learning to launch at me, because that's my dog-catch right there. That's my vault. And so as puppies I really encourage that rough-and-tumble play, but like you said, it has to be done in a safe way.

That means that I'm making sure that my dogs aren't landing on the ground, especially my puppies. So I'll do little mini dog catches and slowly lower them to the ground. A lot of stuff I'm teaching them, like jump off the couch so I can catch you, that kind of thing is teaching them how to use their body, but I'm limiting those reps so they're not doing a whole bunch of them in a row, and I need to make sure I'm confident and capable of making sure they're not landing on the ground and getting injured. I have to be very confident in my dog-catching ability in order to make sure that I keep my puppies safe. So that's definitely something to keep in mind.

I also don't want them jumping extreme jumps, because that strain of their muscles pushing off of the surface will put that strain on their bones, and I don't want that there. So it's this happy medium of where I want my dogs to have a lot of confidence in their jumping ability, a lot of confidence in flying at me in all sorts of different ways, but not doing so much that I'm going to be hurting my puppy and their growth plates and everything that could potentially go wrong with that. So I try to tell people don't do it if you're not confident that you'll do it safely, because you can always teach that stuff later on when those growth plates have closed.

But my adult dogs … Kickstart came to me at 4 years old. She didn't know me. She had some foundations in disc, but one of the things her owner said was that she didn't like to vault because she didn't want to touch the handler. For her, I spent a lot of time on climb into my lap for cookies, jump onto my lap when I'm sitting on an agility table for cookies, that sort of thing. I taught her the rebound, where they jump onto you and then push off. I did all of that stuff for treats before I ever introduced the disc, because the second I introduce the disc, arousal goes up and she's going to be a little more reckless and she's going to be more likely to fly around and not actually hit my body.

The second thing, I think this is the third thing, is that my body has to be safe as well. I always joke that because I've done this as a profession for the past six years, I don't have any nerves left in my leg-vaulting leg. There's nothing there. That's from years of teaching dogs how to vault. Once they know how to vault, they're fine and they jump nicely. However, if the wind takes the disc, or they're just learning and they don't quite have that mechanics of front paws, back paws, push off yet, I'm definitely going to do some damage to myself. So making sure you have protective layers like a vaulting vest, putting wraps underneath your pants, that sort of thing, will definitely help protect you as a handler.

I also encourage handlers to be doing some sort of stretching before they train, and making sure that you're physically able to get up and down and do all of those things that are gong to be in your tricks, because as soon as you have that disc and that dog in front of you, you're not going to be moving in slow motion. So you need to make sure you're nice and limber before you go out there, because it is a workout for the handler as well as the dog. I think a lot of people skip that. I know I do all the time. I'm like, I should have stretched before I did this. So it's something to think about is the handler side of the safety as well.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. You mentioned earlier your handler's choice class is back on the schedule. Can you talk about what kinds of things are appropriate for the class and what have previous students worked on? What's covered?

Sara Brueske: The handler's choice title is a little bit misleading. What happened is we did the foundation class, and because disc dog is not that common of a sport, we were having a hard time filling it. So I wanted to create a class where people of all levels could benefit. That way I could just have the one disc dog class, advanced players could come in there and work on what they wanted, and new players can come in and have a curriculum to follow.

While it is a handler's choice class, there is a foundation curriculum to follow, so any skill level can join. If you've never thrown a Frisbee before, you absolutely can join because I'll tell you how to throw a Frisbee. All of that is included in that curriculum. The more advanced players, or the people who have taken it before in the past, can take it again and work on the new things that they're currently working on.

I've had everything from people teaching their dogs to vault, people wanting to work on advanced tricks like foot stalls, and even people wanting to build disc dog freestyle routines and fine-tuning those, so it's all sorts of different things, but don't be afraid to join if you've never thrown a disc. If your dog likes to play fetch, they will definitely benefit.

Some toy drive would be nice, just because even though we can teach for food, it's generally not the easiest path. But if that's what you want to do, I can work on that too for you. So it's all sorts of different things, which also means it's really good for those Bronze students as well, because we get students from all different skill levels and lots and lots of information in that class.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I know you mentioned that there are lectures, and I know there's a syllabus. Do you want to elaborate any more on what's included in the lectures, what people can expect from reading those?

Sara Brueske: The lectures in all my classes are generally a written description, so you'll have your homework and a written "This is how step-by-step I want you to do this," and that will be followed by a short example video on the steps I take to get to that.

For instance, the throwing one, we talk about backhand and you get the written rundown, so if you're better about reading and learning that way, you'll have that. And then you'll have a demo video of me showing the actual steps of that throw itself.

We also talk about the flatwork components that I mentioned a little bit earlier, so being able to move your dog around on the field, making sure that they're dropping when you cue that drop, making sure that they have a bring-to-hand, which is super-important as well, and then we have a bunch of tricks in there too. The dog catch is in there, the rebound is in there, I can't quite remember all the tricks we have in there, but a lot of the basic ones, as well as vault foundations and over foundations as well.

Melissa Breau: Anything else folks should know?

Sara Brueske: I don't know if there's anything else we should know.

Melissa Breau: Okay. Last question for you, Sara, and this is the general one I've been ending with for everybody, which is, is there something you've learned recently or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Sara Brueske: Yeah. I was just in a Clubhouse chat with Claudio Piccoli. He's a dog photographer friend of mine in Italy. He said this thing, and it's going to stick in my brain for a while, I hope. There's so many parallels between photography and dog training, it's crazy, so if you're like, "Why is she talking about photography?," trust me, I'll tie it back.

His quote was something along the lines of when you look at a photo, look to see what you like about that photo, not look to see why it got so many likes. What he's talking about is when you see somebody's photo on Facebook, look at it from your perspective, and look at it from your critical eye, and why do you enjoy that photo. Don't look at it from the perspective of "Why did that photo get more likes than this other one?" or "How can I replicate so I get just as many likes as that?"

I think this ties into disc dog in particular, because a lot of times you'll be seeing all these crazy players coming up with all these different moves and we're always comparing that to ourselves and "Why can't I do those moves?" or "Why doesn't my content get as many likes and shares as that content?" I think we need to take a step back and just remember who we are as dog trainers and get joy out of our dogs and our journey and not so comparing to other people's, but still learn to look at other people's training and their journey and see what we enjoy from that as well. So less comparing, more about finding the joy in everybody's journeys.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. That's a good note to end on. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast!

Sara Brueske: Thank you so much for having me, Melissa.

Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week. Don't miss it! If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training! 


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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