E213: Sarah Stremming - "Shaping Demystified"

Shaping is all about the ABCs... and Sarah and I go into what that means in today's episode all about shaping!


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 Sarah Stremming.

Sarah has specialized in performance dog training and canine behavior solutions for over a decade. She currently operates online through her business, The Cognitive Canine.

Reactivity, anxiety, aggression, and problems with arousal are all major concerns for many competitors, and there is nothing Sarah loves more than helping her clients overcome these issues so they can succeed in their chosen arena. She has competed in agility and obedience for the past twenty years with her Border Collies. Sarah also has her own podcast, Cog Dog Radio, where you can hear more from her on training, sports, and behavior. But today she's here to demystify shaping, and the role it can play in training your sports dog.

Hi Sarah, welcome back to the podcast!

Sarah Stremming: Hi Melissa, thanks so much for having me back.

Melissa Breau: I'm excited to chat. It's been a while. To start us out, do you want to just remind listeners who your dogs are and what you're working on with them? I'm sure they're going to come up as we chat and folks know who we're talking about.

Sarah Stremming: For sure. I share my life with eight dogs total, but I'll tell you about three because those three are technically mine. The other five belong to my partner. The oldest is Idgie. She's a 12-year-old Border Collie. She had a really amazing, fantastic agility career. She retired two years ago and now she's doing obedience, just got her first leg towards her CDX.

Melissa Breau: Congrats.

Sarah Stremming: Thank you. Felix is 5, going on 6, going on 6 months. He's competing in agility. He's also learning obedience and he thinks obedience is amazing, which is really exciting for me. I haven't had a dog in a long time that thought obedience was absolutely the best, because he will tell you there are toys and jumps. It doesn't get better than that. My new puppy is 5 months old. Her name is Raya, and she's an Icelandic sheepdog, so she's my first non-Border-Collie in twenty years. We're going to talk about the class Shaping Demystified, and I've decided to run her in a Gold slot alongside the students, so that's really fun.

Melissa Breau: Lots of adorable puppy-ness.

Sarah Stremming: Yes, yes, enjoying the cuteness, if nothing else.

Melissa Breau: There's a ton in here that I want to cover, looking over your syllabus and stuff. But I guess we should start with the basics, the definition. So what is shaping?

Sarah Stremming: Such a good question. I think that dog trainers in particular hear that word and all have a story in their head about what it is. That's not really our fault, because the teaching and learning is actually all over the place when it comes to this concept.

Shaping is short for shaping by successive approximation, and what that means is that we are selecting for tiny slices of our final behavior, or, to borrow my friend Hannah Branigan's phrase, our agenda behavior. I love that. So we've got this agenda. If we utilize shaping to get there, that just means that we are selecting pieces of that agenda along the way. When we define it like that, all good training really is shaping.

If I could sing one thing from the rooftops, it's about shaping isn't this weird thing that you do. Or it is, but it's not only this weird thing that you do with a chicken on a table and a clicker. It's also not sitting on the floor with a box in front of you and your dog is standing there and you're waiting for them to offer behavior. I think that's a common misconception too. It's not defined as those things. It's defined by that process of selecting those approximations.

Melissa Breau: That both seems simple and complicated, but I think you mentioned trainers have their own story in there, and I wanted to get into that a little bit more. Why is it that shaping often feels so complicated and has so much weight?

Sarah Stremming: I think it's because we all have shaping trauma. If we've been in dogs or training for any length of time, we have a history of learning about this thing, or maybe learning about what we'll call clicker training, and trying it and diving in. If you're a crossover trainer like myself, your history is very complicated.

A lot of us have been made to play this game where another trainer shapes us with a clicker in a seminar or workshop format. If that game is not extremely well run, and if your trainer is not really good at what they're doing, it's a stressful game. When I teach about shaping in seminars, I have had people think I was going to make them play that game, and they start to get up and leave. They've all got this drama associated with being shaped, and yet we talk about it as the kind way to train dogs. That's a big problem. That's an intersection of some things that are really interesting.

Further still, people maybe went to a chicken camp where they were made to cry by a person who told them how worthless they are, or there is so much baggage here. Or they were told, "Just wait. The dog supposed to offer stuff. What's wrong with your dog that they're not offering stuff?" They have a dog that quits and gives up in training when the dog was perfectly fine with the food lure. They're again made to feel inadequate because their dog gave up. There are so many stories like that.

My goal with my students is always to start now. All of the ideas in your head about what this is that make you hate it, or make you afraid of it, or make you think it's too hard, are just the trauma talking. We can let go, we can move on from that, because it should actually be a simple process. That doesn't mean easy, necessarily, but it should be a simple process. It's that quote — I'm not even sure who said it, I think Ken Ramirez — that great training is the basics done really, really well. That's what I think about when I think about shaping.

Melissa Breau: When we're talking shaping, are we talking location-specific marker cues, reward-specific marker cues, a clicker? Can you talk about that piece of it a bit?

Sarah Stremming: Totally. This is one that's coming up a ton in class already. We've only been in class a week and a lot of people are asking, and the reason they're asking is because these complex marker systems are getting really popular and really common.

People are always going, "Wait, am I supposed to click, then say the thing that tells them where to eat the food? What am I supposed to do here?" The answer is you want to select one marker and you want to select the one that is the best one for the job, and I don't care which one that is. But knowing which one is the best one for the job means that you need to think about it a little bit.

If I am using a clicker, it is because I need precision. Precision is the most precise tool that we have. It's the most precise marker that we have. I like to say that a clicker is like a scalpel. A scalpel is not always what you need. If I'm stirring a pot of spaghetti, I don't need a scalpel for that. The best tool for that is something else.

Melissa Breau: You don't want to end up with lots of little spaghetti pieces.

Sarah Stremming: You don't. So if you have this complex communication system with your dog, totally fine. If you use it, you want to be sure that you're using it with intention, and that you're using it as an actual marker. Where I see a lot of confusion would be click, then say "toss," or whatever means that I'm throwing the cookie or something like that.

Just using one marker, and trying to select the best marker for the job, is where I like to begin. Most of my students start out just using the clicker, because again, we're working on handler mechanics, we're working on being clean and precise. And a mechanical thing, a button that you push, is helpful when it comes to trying to keep yourself precise, rather than trying to say "toss," and then say "good," and then say "x" or whatever it is, because based on where the dog is and where you're going to throw the cookie, as we go, I might change where I'm delivering the food.

Does that mean now that I'm changing my marker within one session? That doesn't feel super-clean to me. The complicated answer is that absolutely you can use your reward-specific or location-specific markers. But you want to be thoughtful and you want to pick the best thing for the job. And sometimes the best thing for the job is the clicker. For me, when I'm acquiring new behaviors, I'm almost always going to be using a clicker.

Melissa Breau: You talked about it a little bit in there, but I just want to clarify. For people who may not be super-familiar with all of this stuff, it's the clicker or the word "toss," right? This is what you're getting at there. You don't need both.

Sarah Stremming: If you use both, that's just noise. One of them is just noise, if you're using both. If you are using a clicker, which maybe doesn't tell the dog where the food is, and you've set up a deal, a contract with your dog, that you're going to tell them where the food is, you want to get very clean about showing them with your delivery where the food is.

We go over that in the beginning of class, just clean food delivery, because I do get a lot of students who are using their location-specific marker, but the dog is still confused and frantic because their delivery is poor. So yes, it's one thing, not several things. We like to talk, we like to click and then say the thing, and then say some more things, and a lot of it winds up just being noise.

Melissa Breau: I had the fun this past weekend of doing a toy seminar with a friend of mine. There was somebody there who wasn't familiar with any of this stuff, and we got to talking about it. So fun when you actually get into it and play with it.

Sarah Stremming: It is really fun and it's very interesting. I remember when I was first learning it, especially with toys, it really upped my game and my communication with toys, for sure.

Melissa Breau: Back to the topic at hand. Often when we're talking about shaping, you hear the ABCs thrown around — and for anybody not familiar, antecedent behavior consequence, ABC. We often hear that we should manipulate our antecedents, manipulate that first piece, but what does that actually mean?

Sarah Stremming: It's a good question. What we're talking about is that, generally speaking, when we are observing a behavior, a B, there's something that comes before it and there's something that comes after it. These things all work together to produce whatever our next behavior might


The antecedent is the scene upon which the behavior is going to occur. It can be a simple concept, it can be a really complex concept, because whether or not my dog has eaten today is involved in the antecedent, what my dog has eaten today, what food I am using, what time of day it is, all of that is part of the antecedent surrounding this behavior. And so setting up your antecedent is just basically setting your environment so that the behavior you're after, your agenda behavior, is the most likely thing that's going to occur.

So Melissa, if I'm shaping you, if we're playing that game, we're in a seminar and I don't want to traumatize you, let's say that my agenda behavior, because it's always something silly, is you're going to put a red Solo cup on top of your head. That's my agenda. You don't know that. You're outside of the room and I'm setting up my antecedents. Is it wise of me to have a whole bunch of stuff sitting out? No, it's not. So at our basic, basic level, we've got to clean up.

I talk about something in the class that I just use the acronym C.A.T., which is imperfect because it also refers to something else in behavior training. But let's just put that aside. The C in C.A.T. is "clean." You just need to clear out your space, make sure that there aren't other cues happening. And so I'm going to make sure it's clean. I might just have a table with the red Solo cup sitting on it. We can definitely start there. But we can also be so much smarter than even that. Because if I want you to put it on your head, and there's a rack on the wall full of hats, couldn't I just put it on that rack? So now I'm actually saying, "What cues exist in this environment that I'm going to use to my advantage?" It's not just reading the environment of other cues, but asking yourself, "What cues exist in this environment that I can use to make this as obvious as possible?"

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that and I was like, "Oh, have everybody else in the room have a Solo cup on their head when you walk in."

Sarah Stremming: You would instantly do it. Using social cues, you would instantly do it. And so we should be thinking like that. Somewhere in the trauma, we all decided that the best, the superior, way to shape is to have no cues available.

We colloquially refer to it as free shaping, which the phrase kind of makes my skin crawl, and makes a lot of people's skin crawl who are really well versed in this process, I think, because it means to us that thing, that idea, that it is superior to select these behaviors from thin air, when in reality I need a trainer that I know, and I know trainers who are doing really fascinating, interesting, cool things.

One of my best friends trains marine mammals to do really complicated things. When I'm talking to trainers like that, oh God, they're not leaving anything to chance. You don't select behaviors out of thin air with a sea lion, for God's sake. Because, by the way, nobody's created a basket muzzle that a sea lion can wear yet. If you are free in an area with an animal like that, you want to set it up as best as possible.

But for some reason, dog trainers decided somewhere that the superior way to do this is to not have any other cues that exist. And arranging the antecedents, and really talking about that and diving into that, is a huge part of the way that I try to teach shaping, so that we can help ourselves as best as possible and know that thinking it's superior to not have those other cues is the trauma talking and nothing else.

Melissa Breau: And if we have an agenda behavior, maybe if we don't have an agenda behavior, if you just want to see what your dog can come up with on their own it's a different story. But if you've got an agenda of course you want to help the dog see your agenda.

Sarah Stremming: You do. I also stopped doing that thing where I just see what they come up with a long time ago. I think a lot of people learn to shape like that as well, where it was just you've got an object or whatever and you're just picking whatever it is out of thin air. I think that a lot of dogs learn to become frantic and not actually build upon their behavior that way, because you just were clicking something different every time, clicking something new. That's also something that if I start out that way, I'm very quickly getting myself on an agenda path for the learner. It's for the learner, Melissa. It's not for my control enthusiasm.

Melissa Breau: Not even a little bit?

Sarah Stremming: Right.

Melissa Breau: All right, so that's the antecedents. On the other end of the ABCs, the consequence, I think most people think, "We're positive trainers, so C should basically stand for cookie. What's so complicated about that?" Sarah, what is so complicated about that?

Sarah Stremming: Well, consequences drive behavior, as we say, so the consequence is important. Also, I already had a student get hung up on the word "consequence" because it had negative connotations for this person. And it does for us. We don't like that word. We, in the American English-speaking language, don't say consequence to mean, "Here's a cupcake." We don't.

So all learning science jargon is stupid and bad. It's all associated with things that we already believe about the world, like the words "negative" and "positive." The word "consequence" is one of these problematic words. It just means the thing that follows the behavior. It just means the thing that's having an effect on whether this behavior continues or not.

What is interesting about that to me — I'll say "interesting" instead of "complicated" — if we are smart, we can make our C a part of our A, which makes our A, B, and C exist in a really beautiful, clean loop. What does that mean, making the C part of the A? If my A was the dog is standing opposite me in a room and there is some object that I want the dog to interact with in-between us … maybe it's a box, and my agenda is all four feet in the box, let's just go simple, and the dog is opposite the box to me and that's my A, then I can deliver my C, my consequence, or my cookie … let's just change it and call it cookie, even if it's access to a squirrel. It could be so many things, but cookie is nicer.

If I deliver my C to my dog's mouth in the box, my dog is now no longer at A at the end of my repetition. But if I throw my treats back up to where my dog was originally, and he gets out of the box and goes and eats it and turns around and faces me, we are back at A again.

It's so important for us to think about that, because what happens is you've got a green trainer, "Oh my gosh, the dog got in the box. I'm so excited. I click, I feed the dog in the box, and then I go, 'Now what?' Maybe I click and feed the dog in the box again, and now I'm just building duration in the box, which could be great. But I didn't train that agenda behavior of "get in box."

Then I think what happens is they go and they just put a cookie somewhere haphazardly that's not in the box, and so they are resetting, restarting their loop by putting the cookie somewhere. But if they do it in a haphazard manner and now the dog is not back at A, now we might get nose the box, now we might get one foot in the box. We're no longer getting four feet in the box.

And now we have confusion. Now, depending on temperament, the dog is saying, "I didn't want to do this anyway, I'm leaving," or biting the box and throwing it at your face, or barking at you. It depends on temperament what you get next, but what you don't get next is another beautiful, clean repetition through your loop.

So placement of reinforcement is what we're talking about, and it's something that we will discuss at length, because if we're doing it right, it's part of the antecedent.

Melissa Breau: You use the example of throwing cookies before or behind you, and I think people don't always recognize how many options they really have about reward placement. I know that's what your sample lecture is on. I think that's your sample lecture for the class. Do you mind giving another example or two, just so people can get some idea of the …?

Sarah Stremming: Yes, because there is nothing I love more than smart consequence arrangement so that I get the behavior that I want. In fact, I would say the majority of my household training with my dogs is just smart application of consequences. Like, there happens to be a loaded snuffle mat in the x-pen. Every time Raya, my puppy, walks into my office, there just happens to be that there. And so she walks in my office and walks in the x-pen. I produce the behavior that way.

Other examples would be … one of the easiest, fun ones for me is if your agenda is for the dog to walk backwards, placing the treat in such a way that they will walk backwards in order to put themselves back in that starting position. If we train them that, they want to be in front of us, looking up — which is part of what we also need to teach; that's a core foundation behavior — then placing that treat between our feet so that after they eat it, they're going to back up to look up and give us eye contact, we're going to then produce our next behavior that way.

Other ways that we can do it would be to use reinforcement that the dog is actually looking at, so that they're not facing us. If we are interested in a behavior, perhaps I want my dog to look ahead when they get into their two-on two-off on a dog walk. If I want my dog to be looking ahead, but I walk up and give a treat from my pocket each time, he's probably going to curl back and look at me and wait.

So utilizing pre-placed food or throwing the food at a target after I click that's out ahead of the dog is going to again help me to produce that final behavior, because also we have to recognize that the behaviors that the dog does between the click and the acquisition of the reinforcement matter and they all get woven into your behavior. So looking at what those behaviors are and knowing that they are being reinforced, we can be we can be such smarter trainers, right we can be so much smarter about that.

Along those lines, if I'm looking for a specific postural maneuver for my dog — maybe I want the dog to do a "sit pretty" behavior without flinging his front legs out like Spider Man, when I'd like him to actually just sit up — then I'm going to need to feed him in such a way that encourages that behavior, that postural behavior. And this again comes back to the trauma that people think this isn't okay, that they think that you're cheating if you reinforce in a specific position or reinforce in such a way that encourages that behavior in the future.

I think I do know where that stuff came from, which is a whole other conversation. But that's not important. What is important is that none of that is real. Feeding in the position that is advantageous to you is always smart. And if you're getting a behavior you don't like, but the dog is roughly right — maybe you're doing heelwork and the dog is roughly curled in front just a little bit, but is roughly right as in heelwork — fix that with your reinforcement placement, rather than trying to manipulate what the dog is doing or correct what the dog is doing. Just fix it with your reinforcement placement. So many problems can be solved that way, so we really dive in deep on that piece and dig into it.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, and at least part of that is just that it muddies the water between shaping and learning. The road you didn't want to go down.

Sarah Stremming: Even when I'm luring, Melissa, I'm shaping, because I never just lure the whole shebang. I never just lure the dog into the whole thing and then feed them. I'm still luring approximations, and I'm very quickly asking the dog to show me what I just lured.

Shade Whitesell calls that putting the behavior on offer. She'll lure the behavior, lure the behavior, lure the behavior, wait. The dog begins to prompt the behavior, she's going then mark and finish luring and feed, and that's still shaping. It still is. It's the believing that there need to be these clear black lines between all of these things I think has gotten us into trouble.

Melissa Breau: We've talked about the A and we've talked about the C, so I suppose that means there's only one thing left and that we should talk about the B at least a little bit. A big part of shaping a behavior is understanding how to shift criteria and knowing what to click, which of course if we've done our homework with the other two bits, if we've set up our antecedents and consequences correctly, hopefully that's easier. But I think splitting behaviors down and then successfully shifting criteria is really, really hard a lot of the time for the human half of the team. So where do we start there?

Sarah Stremming: I think that unfortunately this is where people start is trying to understand this part, rather than all those other processes. That's why they get confused and frustrated, and so do their dogs, because this is the part that takes you flexing a certain muscle quite a bit.

A few of the things that are required … one of the things is that you've got to be able to see all of the pieces, you have to be able to see the approximations. A really great tip again from Hannah, that I heard her say on somebody else's podcast, was if you're looking to shape a specific behavior, get a video of somebody else's dog doing the behavior, and watch it in slow motion so that you can see all of the approximations. That's a really good tip, but also just practicing. We've been in class for a week, and I've already had the students practicing identifying approximations of behaviors. I post videos of some simple behaviors, like opening a book, and I want them to just tell me what are the approximations to this behavior, like what are all the pieces involved here?

But the other thing that I'm asking them is, "And what are the prerequisite skills?" Prerequisite skills, so teaching the dog some core skills, is something that again I think not talked about enough. Because if I go to teach my dog to do something really complicated, and the dog doesn't already know what she needs to know in order to do that thing, I'm setting us both up for failure.

I look at all of my training like this. I don't teach them things until I think they're ready to learn them, which is a little bit more nuanced. For instance, I'm not even going to think about jump work until I see you cleanly clearing logs in the woods, because we're in the woods all the time, and when your silly puppy is scrambling over logs, we're not going to talk about that. You can't even do it in real life. No way can you do it in a contrived situation that you don't naturally understand.

I am seeing Raya, she's 5 months old, so we're not going to be doing any serious, full, high-jump training — nobody email me about this — for a long time. But she just did a little puppy bump, jump bump grid, because in the woods she engaged her rear and pushed off and cleared a log that two weeks ago she scrambled underneath.

So just saying, "What are your prerequisite skills for this behavior?" In the example of opening a book, nobody said that the learner should know what a book is, or how to open it in the first place. No one said that I've seen this learner open books. If the red Solo cup were a hat and I wanted you to put it on your head, how much easier is that? So much easier for you to do. If I'm going to use the hat rack to help me help you do this right, you need to know what a hat rack is, and you need to recognize that those are hats on it. If it's just a rack that's empty, that's not going to tell you much. Or if it's got coats on it, not helpful.

So with dogs, it comes down to what are the pieces that this dog really needs to be comfortable with and really needs to know. The last time I ran Shaping Demystified, I had a couple of students teaching the dogs a really cute behavior of getting inside a suitcase. The cue is are you packed and it's super-cute, but we had to dig in. We were getting a little bit stuck, and I said, "Let's think further about prerequisite skills." Does this dog know how … because the handler of course wants the dog to open the suitcase and get in. So the dog gets in and lays down with it closed, no problem.

There's a few ways you could go about this. You could physically have it more and more and more and more closed as the dog approaches. Or you could totally outside of the training session put something the dog really likes inside that suitcase and close it. Let them figure out that they know how to open this. Now the dog knows how to open it.

We did this with one of the student dogs. She knew how to open it. Very next session she was opening it and getting in, when they were really, really stuck on that before. Because she doesn't know what a suitcase is. She doesn't know that it flaps open and you get in and then it zips closed and then you fly to Disneyland. She doesn't know these things. Is that just me hoping soon that I can do that?

Melissa Breau: Not too much longer, hopefully.

Sarah Stremming: So what I'm saying — and obviously you know me, I'm being very tangential right now — but teaching the dogs some prerequisite skills, or just saying, "Can I make sure that you actually know how to do this and know how this works before I try to make you do it the way that I want you to do it."

If we want to shape or retrieve, but this dog literally never picks anything up, it's going to be hard for us. So just setting up situations where they do learn to pick stuff up first, then talk about retrieve. Really, really important. And if you want a really nice dumbbell hold that is still, I'm going to say the dog needs some other stillness behaviors. The dog needs to know how to be still in the first place, or you're going to get chompy, ugly, dumbbell mess that we do not want.

So when it comes to the B, it is about seeing the approximations, but it is not only that. When it's only that, we get stuck a lot of the time. Seeing the approximations, and then seeing what prerequisite or core skills will help us and teaching those first — that's going to make you fly through. As well as go easy on yourself also as a trainer, like, do not walk into Week Two of Shaping Demystified and say, "I would like the dog to sit up and hold a teddy bear to its chest with its feet," when the most complex behavior you've maybe shaped is lay on the mat. Let's walk before we run. We can get there. I think this is just because people think of shaping as teaching complex tricks. They think of it as put a quarter in a shot glass with your little dog teeth. That is hard. That's hard for them to do. It's hard for you to teach. How about we help you both out a little bit.

Melissa Breau: We've covered quite a bit, but we haven't talked a ton specifically about the class. You are teaching a class for April called Shaping Demystified. Do you want to talk a little bit about who it's for and why you developed it as a class?

Sarah Stremming: Yes. Who it's for is basically anybody who wants to get better at their shaping skills. Or I love to have people who think they don't like shaping or think that their dog doesn't like it. Because again, that's the trauma talking. Come on, let's go. It's fun, it can be fun, it should be fun, and so that's what it's for. But the reason I developed it is because I see so many deficits in this area when I'm teaching my other classes. So it was really selfishly motivated.

For instance, Worked Up is the class that I'm known for. It's the class all about the dogs that we label over-aroused or whatever in sports, so the barky, spinny, spitty, bitey, whatever dogs. The vast majority of those dogs do not have an arousal problem. They have a clarity problem, usually about the reinforcers, often about the training process. If you can clean up your training, you will see a huge reduction in those behaviors. And you will do that in Shaping Demystified.

So don't think Shaping Demystified is for training cute tricks. You're going to apply it to all of your training all over the place. That's what it's actually for. And it will help you to just be more clear all the time. Because it's true in my other course, Hidden Potential, which is the other end of the spectrum. The dogs that quit, the dogs that shut down, get sniffy, those dogs have clarity problems too. And the shaping skills in the handlers that take that class, because there are shaping projects in that class I want them to do, they're just typically lacking. This isn't about your dog quits, and your dog is a quitter, or you're a bad trainer. It's about you're both lacking a core foundation.

I think FDSA tries to have a shaping course just about every term. We all teach one. If you haven't taken one yet, you've got to take one. It is a core training skill that you need to know. They're all good. They're all different, which is really cool. There's definitely intersecting concepts in all of them, but they're all different, and so you can get something from all of them. I think that if you haven't taken one yet, you've got to take one. It is a core skill that everybody needs for sure.

Melissa Breau: You said in there it's not for teaching cute tricks, but any other class you'd have to teach them teach a cute trick too right Sarah?

Sarah Stremming: The suitcase trick, that was in the class yes. It is not a trick class. I was thinking the other day, "When is the last time I trained what I would call a trick?" I don't even remember because I'm such an agenda-focused, do the competition behavior kind of person.

But you get to pick whatever it is that you want to apply the concepts to in the class. I don't tell you, "Now we're training a dog to get in a suitcase." I also don't tell you, "Now we're training the dog to back up to a mat." That doesn't happen. I make suggestions for sure. But it's not a cute trick class, but it can be a cute trick class.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Just to dig into that a teeny tiny bit more, since the concept is shaping, not actually specific behaviors, why that approach?

Sarah Stremming: One reason, Melissa, is that I don't know who I'm going to get at Gold. I could get somebody whose dog already knows a massive amount of behaviors. If I'm like, "We're going to teach 'walk backwards' to learn this concept,' and the dog is literally walking backwards 50 feet in a straight line on a single verbal cue, what am I supposed to do with that student?

Also, sometimes get other animals in class, I don't have any barnyard friends this time around, but I had a goat last time. I'm probably not going to teach the goat to … now I'm trying to think of something a goat can't do, and there's nothing.

Based on what I've got going on, I do have a dog in class that can't hear, that's deaf, and so what we teach that dog may be different from what the next dog is learning.

I also really think, again coming back to that concept of walking before you can run, for a specific human learner, get in a suitcase might be just right. But for another human learner, pick up the quarter and put it in a shot glass might be just right. So for me, it's really important that we use the right behavior for the job to teach the people how to do the thing.

They can absolutely involve competition behaviors, if they want to. Maybe their sport is agility and they're never going to train a dumbbell retrieve, if my assignment is dumbbell retrieve.

It's basically keeping everybody happy, but also making sure that I have the flexibility as a teacher to say, "I think this behavior is too complex for this team right now. Let's break it up. Let's do this part." I think it also keeps it interesting for people if they're like, "I'm working on this thing. Can we pull apart that thing?" rather than me say, "Go teach this thing that you don't care about."

Melissa Breau: Right. One last question for you. It's the one I've been rounding out the interviews with lately. What is something that you've learned or even just been reminded of recently when it comes to training?

Sarah Stremming: It's a little bit complicated. Maybe not. Maybe a little nuanced. I don't know. I was reminded recently to trust my intuition when it comes to communicating with my dogs. Specifically I was reminded in the context of agility that if something does not feel right, there's probably a reason.

This could come down to shaping as well, and that may be one of the reasons that I don't prescribe the behaviors that people need to work on, because if something feels intuitively flawed to you to teach, there's probably a reason for that. And even if you don't know what that reason is, your intuition is actually a good enough reason to trust that.

If you're in class and we're looking at a "sit pretty" behavior with a Border Collie and you get a Borzoi in class and you go, "That doesn't feel great," there's a reason that doesn't feel great, and maybe don't do it. But also I've been working with dogs a long time, and I get to say that my intuition is a good enough reason to reroute or change my idea.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. I like that. We should all listen to our intuition a little more often.

Sarah Stremming: We really should.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Sarah.

Sarah Stremming: Thanks so much for having me. It was so fun.

Melissa Breau: It was fun! And thank you to all 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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