Dr. Amy Cook and I go deep in this episode on management vs. training, her approach to treating reactivity, and what to do while you work on it.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau, and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast, brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports, using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today I have Amy Cook here with me to chat about living and loving a reactive dog.
Hi, Amy. Welcome back to the podcast.
Amy Cook: Hello, Melissa. Always good to be back. This is my favorite thing that we do together. I'm super looking forward to talking with you. Melissa Breau: Maybe we just need to do more things together.
Amy Cook: We need to, but this will still be my favorite because I love it. I love it talking with you.
Melissa Breau: To add to start us out, can you just remind everybody who you are, who your dogs are, share a little on your background?
Amy Cook: I am Amy Cook. I have a Ph.D. in dog cognition and the co-evolutionary story of dogs and humans and what that brought to dogs and their problem-solving abilities. That's what I did in school. But I've also been a dog trainer now … it's got to be 30 years. I keep losing track and then saying 30 and blanching. I've been teaching here at Fenzi for eight years now, is it? We should probably do an official count when that was. I think eight years.
Up until the world shut down, I was doing seminars monthly, trying to bring the system I developed, called The Play Way, out to the world, out to different dog trainers. I like to do dog trainer education, as well as regular problem solving for average dog owners and all that.
I have two dogs, Marzipan and Caper, a Whippet/Chihuahua thing who's a little too big to be a Chihuahua, but don't tell her that. She thinks she's a Chihuahua, including being on my lap. Not currently, because I closed the door, but she's a lap-seeking missile. And they are lovely. They do agility, although Marzipan is pretty retired now.
Were those my questions? I have already forgotten. Is that my background? That's my background, those are my dogs, we're good to go.
Melissa Breau: We are good to go. You mentioned The Play Way, and I want to talk quite a bit more about that and about reactivity. I think anybody who's even vaguely acquainted with the dog world probably is aware there are an awful lot of different approaches to dealing with reactivity, and I want to talk about yours and the misconceptions that are out there, but let's define our terms. What are we talking about when we talk about reactivity?
Amy Cook: There are so many ways to to deal with the problem, and in a lot of ways I see nothing but commonalities, because we're all trying to help a dog get over a very emotional time and them doing behaviors that we can't allow to continue. In that, it has a lot of commonality, but the mechanics of each, and what each trainer thinks is the most effective or the most useful, is going to vary, and so I love that there's a lot of diversity out there.
When we're talking about reactivity, the way I look at it, it's good that you ask people to define it, because it's a moving target. No one person is able to say, "That's reactivity and that is not." It's best to just define your terms so that people who are listening can say, "That's the place that that person is starting with defining the problem, and now we can judge whether I like that solution, because I don't think I agree with the framing of the problem." And that's fair. If you don't agree with the way I framed the problem, you should question whether the way I solved the problem is right for you as well.
When I think about reactivity, I think about it as separate from aggression, but aggression is also very hard to define as well. All of these things are hard to define. So I put a pin in it by saying a dog is reacting to a stimulus in a way that is not matched to what you know the stimulus is meaning to be.
So it's an overreaction of sorts. It can be, "I'm too afraid of that, and I want to get away," or "I'm too afraid of that, and I make a big old display about it." But what you know about the stimulus in front of them is that it's not actually threatening in reality.
Why I use that kind of term, why I use that way to pin it down, is because I don't think dogs can be reactive to squirrels. I don't think that's reactivity. A lot of people do lump squirrels in, because their definition of reactivity is that there's a lot of barking and lunging going on, and dogs bark and lunge at squirrels. I don't think that's an overreaction. I think that's a reasonable reaction to prey.
If you're walking down the street and another dog in the environment starts yelling at yours, and lunging and barking and yelling at your dog, or seemingly at your dog, and your dog returns fire, I don't think that's particularly irrational or out of order. I may not want my dog to do that. I'd like them to be able to take that kind of thing in stride, because I'm going to move them forward or whatever. But I don't think it's all that mismatched. Someone's yelling at you. You might put up a strong boundary and say, "Hey, knock it off. I don't want to be yelled at."
To me, it's when I think that while the dog thinks it's warranted here to act this way, I don't think they're right. I think they're yelling at things that are not actually threatening, and I want to help them not have to do that, not feel the feelings that make them do that, and to assess the reality they're in a little more accurately, at least according to me.
I leave a lot of wiggle room in that, because it's not that I say I'm the only one that's right here. Obviously, if a dog is reacting, they have a reality they're coming from, but to react to strange humans who aren't interacting with them and don't mean them any harm and all of this, I think, is a mismatch. So they're coming at the environment they're in with behavior that doesn't match the situation that they're in, and I like to adjust that. So that's where I start from for reactivity.
Melissa Breau: You started to go into it a little bit in there, just like that there are some times when dogs bark and lunge where maybe it is more appropriate …
Amy Cook: Reasonable.
Melissa Breau: What about for those folks who are like, "I'm pretty sure my dog is coming from a place of over-excitement or they're just frustrated." They want to go say hi to something and they aren't being allowed to do that. In other words, more of a place of "I love it, I want it," than "I hate it," or "I'm scared of it."
Amy Cook: This drills down to a slightly different place, which is, "I have a dog who's barking and lunging. I think, based on what we have around me, this is a behavior that doesn't make any sense." I mean that the dog's reality is different from the reality I'm perceiving, and I want to help us get on the same page. From there you want to say, "Does my dog want this thing, or does my dog want this thing to go away?"
The thing is, though, that's on some level a coffee table conversation. That is, on some level, immaterial to me. Not entirely, not 100 percent immaterial. It's not that I don't care at all. I do want to know what's going on with my dog. But it's not as if finding out that my dog wants that thing they're barking at would change what I'm doing, because I'm not going to give them the thing they want from that behavior. I'm not going to say," Oh, you want that dog? Oh, well, bark and lunge away, because I'll just take you right up to it."
No matter no matter the why, no matter which one of those whys it is, or a third one I'm not considering right now, I still want a different behavior from the dog. And I lump these together helpfully for myself, not factually; not that I think I'm saying a fact, but to order things in my head. I will lump it all together and say, "You're feeling an amount of an emotion that is too big for you to make really good decisions."
It might be out of order with what's going on in the world. Either you're feeling a lot of threat from something that I know to be benign, or you are bringing in an overabundance of excitement to go see a dog who is just standing there. That's again a mismatch. It's out of order with what's going on. Plus, I don't want any of that behavior anyway. So it's coming out of you from a place of extreme or strong or big emotion, and I can help you by toning that down a lot.
But either way, I don't want barking and lunging toward anything, regardless of what your motivations are. I don't want a lot of big spikes of huge behaviors, because it doesn't lead to anything good. And if a dog really wants to go say hi to something, and they are coming at that hello with that extreme amount of up-ness and arousal and spark and all of that, that hello is not going to go very well. That hello is not going to happen.
I'm totally afraid that's what's going to happen to me, once we're completely released from our isolation. I might just run up to everyone and hug them out of the desperation of being kept behind. But as an analogy, that doesn't go well. You can't just run up to stuff and insert yourself all over it.
Dogs tend to make poor greeting decisions when they rush up in an abundance of enthusiasm. Other dogs don't like that, and very reasonably so. So regardless of the reasoning, I like to think of this as, "We don't need to be this excited or this worried," and I want to relieve each of those things and help you navigate this emotional situation, one to feel safe and the other to feel a little less connected to getting that need met right now.
We might get that need met for you to go see that dog or whatever, but it's not going to be from this behavior and it's not going to be right this minute. I'm going to need to settle you first. If it's about fear, then don't worry, we're not going to make you go over and deal with that. I'm going to help you through this situation.
So even though these things are very different, in a lot of ways, as a technician, they're not any different. I have big emotion and I have behaviors I don't want to be happening, and I want each of those things to reduce. And the same technique will work for both. It's not as if for fear, I leave, and for enthusiasm, I go forward. I'm still not going forward, no matter what. So it can be simplified and we don't have to split. That's why it's a coffee table conversation. It's interesting to try to figure out and it's interesting to discuss, but it's not going to change fundamentally what I'm doing to help them.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned this in passing in there. A big piece usually of working to change reactive behaviors is avoiding letting the dog practice them. Obviously the unexpected happens, and despite our best laid plans, sometimes reactive dogs get put in a situation where they lose their cool, and I think a lot of handlers immediately feel super-guilty about when it happens. How much do those occasional unexpected reactions actually set us back? Can you talk a little bit about how to handle them when they when they pop up?
Amy Cook: I think that it's definitely a source of worry for people on a number of fronts. One, it can be the people are new to this. They haven't rehabbed anything, they're seeing their dog do this, and it's embarrassing. And it's worrisome. And it causes negative reactions from people around you: "Control your dog, lady." "Why is your dog barking like that?" or whatever, and you feel overmatched and you feel quite stressed.
The other half of being stressed there is that you might have some experience. You've gotten some help, you are doing things to reduce it, you've got a trainer or whatever, and you read a lot of books, all this stuff. And then your dog has a reaction and you think, "Oh no, I've undone all the good work I've put in. I'm supposed to stay under threshold, and now we've gone over threshold and 'bark, bark, bark.' Oh my God, I've ruined all of my … I've had a huge setback."
I can relate to this because the exact same thing happened to me when I was starting out. I had a dog who would bark at men, and I had successfully, for a long time, kept any of that from happening through a lot of effort. I went to apprentice with a different trainer and she wasn't as concerned about that sort of bluster. She had a way of dealing with it.
But the first time we worked together, my dog blustered and I nearly burst into tears, because I had thought, "Oh my god, all this work I had put in, it's all blown." That's how I felt. She was kind of shocked that I thought that would be the case. She said, "It's really okay." I had a long journey with her, coming to understand that it's not nearly as impactful for the most part, for most dogs, as we fear it might be.
So a lot of people out there who are feeling the pressure of staying under threshold — yes, it's best to do. But life does happen, and dogs do bark at stuff, and lunging does happen. And for the overwhelming majority of times that happens, you're not going to see a lot of setback. You might see a temporary sensitization, a little bit more triggering the next day than before, but not a massive "You've lost all your work, you've blown it, she's barked at a dog and now she hates dogs again, and you had built up all this goodwill," because there's a thing called savings and learning. Things you have learned, you have learned, and you don't just get rid of all the things you have learned because of one experience.
Now I will reserve out of that argument things like severe trauma, of course, and severe vulnerability to where one over-threshold incident can set an individual given dog back. That's always possible. But generally speaking, dogs bark at stuff, dogs get over threshold, and we deal with it, we move on. And mostly we can just pick up roughly where we were, or with only a slight change from where we were, and go on. So I want to reassure people about that. And in doing so I think I might have lost that there was a second part to this question, because I really got involved in that part of the answer. Is there somewhere else I was going?
Melissa Breau: Just when it does happen, how should somebody respond to that? Your dog goes off. What then?
Amy Cook: Thank you. That is exactly where I was going. What I suggest is that we prepare for that to be the possibility. We don't want to set ourselves up, of course, to have that happen. We don't just cavalierly walk into stuff and say, "My dog reacts, she might, she might not. I'm not going to pay attention." Of course not. You're going to do your best. But your best is not you controlling the world. You will not. You cannot. Your dog is going to bark at some point.
What I suggest people do is do their best at what I call "predict and prevent." I know that there's a blind corner coming up. I can predict that if there is a dog there, it's probably not going to go well to run into them right around that blind corner. So I'm going to predict that and I'm going to prevent it. You start there. And then you proactively prevent reactions by rehearsing what it is you would do if indeed your prediction failed and something were to happen.
What I mean by that is that many people either have no strategy for what to do when something comes up, or they have a strategy; they know what they're going to do when something comes up. But they only ever do it once something comes up. That's the only time they ever do it. What happens with that is that dogs are no dummies, and they see that Mom or Dad acts this way when dogs are in the vicinity, but never like this any other time, so this must be something that we that we do only at these times, and only when I'm under pressure, and only when I'm already a little scared or a little too emotional because I've been triggered by this situation into my reactivity loop.
If you only do it then, the chance that you'll succeed at really getting your dog under management is really diminished, because your dog never gets a chance to practice this without the load of the trigger being there. So part of predicting and preventing is to sharpen your tools and have a really good dance, I like to call it, that you can drop into to help manage your dog and avoid the reactions.
Now what does it mean to avoid reactions? Your dog needs to come along with you, abort what they were either about to do, or what they just did, because you missed it and that's fine, that's human. They're either about to have a reaction, or they did just and they need to abort that, stop that procedure, and come along with you on this new thing that you're suggesting they do. Usually that's a direction change, and face in some food, we go a different direction, and it might be a food-on-the-ground redirection. I want their nose and their mind and their eyes and their ears, as best as I can get them, on to a completely different incompatible behavior.
Now that's a tall ask. People go, "Well, I try. I put cookies out there and he doesn't want them." So return back to point one: you aren't practicing very much when the dog isn't there, and you have to do that in order to get these tools to work when the dog is there or when the trigger is there. It's often dogs, so I'm saying dogs. Just assume that's a stand-in for whatever your dog is yelling at. You have to prevent it from either starting or prevent it from continuing.
And I say that what's more important is that you stop that and get out of there. Then wait for your dog to discover it's not working, or wait for your dog to find his sense of self-control, or wait for your dog to give up or remember his or her training and connect to you. You're not looking for a thing to reward in these moments. You're not waiting for the quiet so you can click and give a cookie. You're not asking for eye contact over and over and over again from a dog who is not in any way going to give that to you because, "Oh my God, don't you see that there's a dog right there? Why would I look at you? What are you talking about, person?" You have to think of this as an entirely different mode. You are going to stop this behavior by getting out of there, and you're going to do it whether you have to make it happen or just keep walking or not.
It could get into management mode, which I know we're going to get into later, but how you stop it is you prepare your tools ahead of time to be really, really sharp. You get in really early when you see the sequence building and you focus on distance and getting their face, their noses, their eyes, on something else in another direction as you're getting your distance. You just get this whole thing to stop. You don't sit there and belabor, "Oh no, there's barking, what do I do now?" Because people will freeze up in their fear, in their shame, in their lack of confidence that this is the right act to do. I want to get people moving. Just keep moving, get out of there, go run happily some other direction, and we'll regroup when we get thirty feet away.
People worry so much in there, and I think when they have permission to just get out of there and solve it twenty feet away from here, rather than solving it right in the moment, so much of what the problem really was is already starting to dissipate and we can get back under control. So that's what I think people should do when reactions happen. Just get out of Dodge. Just think you're a cowboy. Remember the old cowboy warning: Get on your horse and get out of Dodge.
I need more cowboy analogies. What's the other thing about Dodge? I don't know. I'm going to look up the O.K. Corral. It's not a shootout. There's no shootouts going on here. Or maybe they started the shootout. I don't know. Someone in the comments section somewhere, once you hear this, someone start giving me better cowboy analogies than Dodge, because I don't know any other ones than that.
Melissa Breau: You're going to start getting random emails that are going to have "Cowboy" in the subject line. You're going to be like, "What is this about?"
Amy Cook: I know. And it's probably from some old movie that doesn't even hold up anymore. Maybe Dodge is some terrible reference I'm making and I need to really look into this. If that's true, please, someone make me aware. It's not "Get out of Dodge." It's get out of the situation as quickly as possible. There you go. No more metaphors.
Melissa Breau: Now that said, we do actually want to do what we can to avoid triggers to the best of our ability, right?
Amy Cook: We want to avoid them because they are going to have your dog rehearsing the very things you don't want to have happen. Almost every time you encounter them in the wild, in your regular daily travels, you're going to encounter these things that your dog doesn't handle well over threshold, and anytime you're in an over-threshold situation, you need to take over and help your dog not have the responses they're going to have. It's not something you rely on training for. It's something you rely on management for. It's a different system. Training and management are different systems.
So you want, when you're out there, to be having the walks be as under threshold as you possibly can, given the constraints that you have in your real life and where you're able to walk and what your dog is struggling with. One way to avoid triggers is to craft your walk such that you don't encounter them or don't encounter them closely enough that your dog is triggered. Because sometimes across the street is plenty, so you just don't encounter somebody on the same side of the street that you're on, and you cross the street. That's one way to prevent it. The other way to prevent exposure to triggers is to use strong management so your dog is not fixated on things, is not looking for those triggers, is not stuck in the tractor beam of those triggers.
So your two avoidances are change the way you're walking and what your dog sees, and then direct what your dog sees off of any of those problematic things and onto what you have to offer, so that you can skate on by the tough spots and then go back to your regular under-threshold walking. You do that as much as you can, allowing for mistakes, allowing for nobody's perfect, allowing for "We had a big O.T. moment today. Oh well, chalk it up. We'll do it again tomorrow and it's going to be okay."
Over time, because you're exerting so much control over these over-threshold moments, they can lose power. You can get a lot more room in your dog's emotional spiking, you can be avoiding some of those spikes or a lot of those spikes or all of those spikes, if you can, and in there insert a habit of not spiking, a habit of remaining at a more even keel. And therein lies a longer-term solution to your problem. You've got to control the problem before you can try to change the problem. If you try to change the problem, but you can't control the worst expression of it at all, it's going to be very hard for you to get to a resolution to this reactivity problem that you have. It's going to be very difficult.
Melissa Breau: You teased in there the idea of going to another neighborhood for your walks. When we're talking about trying to avoid triggers, what are some things we can actually do to make that possible for our lives — with tools or, I guess, in our toolbox — without becoming a total shut-in with our dogs?
Any Cook: You do have to get out, and I know that everybody's challenges around that are pretty individual, but I look at it as what reasonably do I have to avoid. Let's just say it's dogs, because I started there. It can very easily be strange people.
If you think about it, the area right around your house is probably the area that is the most triggering — at least, odds are. Individual listeners are going to have a different story, but most people relate to the idea that when you go outside your door, you have predictable triggers. You know that dog who lives behind that fence, on the block that I have to walk past to get to the other place I want to walk, that block over there who has the house where the owners just sometimes open the front door and the dogs spill out, that happens over there. The known encounters.
And also your dog might have feelings of territoriality, so things right around their house, or things on the walk they always go on that they're very used to, if you take the same route every day, these things can be more fraught, these things can be more difficult for your dog to encounter and take in stride.
So, if at all possible — and I realize this is a bit of a commitment; I get it, I do get it, I realize I am saying something that is going to be hard for some people to do — but I really think you should get in your car and drive to a different place that is more supportive of your dog's rehabilitation, because the area right around your house being the most convenient for you to walk becomes the most frequent place for you to walk and then becomes the most difficult place for you to walk. And you're walking, so you can't decide sometimes which blocks you're going to walk on, because you can be in situations where you're in the cul de sac, or you have to go past that corner to get to the park you're going to, or whatever.
I am a big fan of … I know you just got home, I know it's already five o'clock, you pop the dog in the car and you drive for two minutes to the neighboring neighborhood that you know has better blocks, that you know has wider streets, or that you know has less traffic, so you can walk in the actual street a little bit more and not right up against other people's fences and things like that.
Yes, it is more effort on your part. Absolutely it totally is. But it helps you to avoid so many problems that I think people who start doing that, even if they're steeling themselves to do it and they're tired at the end of the day, avoid so many problems that it becomes self-reinforcing. It's better to walk your dog in places that support their continued improved behavior than it is to walk in places that you're always vigilant about, that both of you are vigilant about, that you're worried about, that it's a minefield of skirting different things right and left to make sure it's okay. Nobody's walk is relaxing that way. Nobody is having a relaxing walk. I'd rather you just drove, even if you have to drive fifteen minutes for a really, really relaxing walk for both of you, that's going to be healthy for both.
So I would avoid triggers by a little bit of effort on all of the things: partly the way you respond to them when they do happen, partly the plan you make for your walk in the first place, partly are you willing to just add a bit of a drive to it to make sure that it's set up even better in your favor.
And then lastly, sometimes you don't go on the walk. You find another way to decompress your dogs, to exercise your dogs, to mentally stimulate your dogs. It doesn't have to be a leash walk in suburbia. It really doesn't. I mean, I don't think a leash walk in suburbia adds a whole lot of enrichment to your dog in the first place. It's not much exercise. It does give them a sniffari — whoever it is that coined that, it's such a fun phrase; it's not me — it does give them a sniffari. But you can get them that almost anywhere they go. They want to sniff where they are.
So you can think out of the box and think it doesn't have to be a walk. I get a lot of people who call me, clients who, when I say, "You don't really have to walk them," they're like, "But that's what makes you a good dog owner is you've got to make sure you're walking your dog twice a day." And I'm like, "Really?" Because my dogs don't get that very often. I drive them somewhere and we do completely different things to get exercise and to get mental enrichment and decompression. And sometimes that is a shocking piece of information to someone. So if anyone out there is listening and is thinking, "I have to walk them because that's what good dog ownership is," trust me, you can completely meet these needs in other and creative ways that support the behavioral change you want to see for the behavior problems that you're having. You don't have to do the things that are hard. You can adjust your situation for sure.
Melissa Breau: I know you just did a repeat of your "Walking With Your Active Dogs" webinar on a lot of this stuff, but I wanted to hone in on
something one of the attendees mentioned was really a shift in perspective for them watching that webinar. They brought up that they'd never really thought of management and the working on reactivity piece as separate pieces of the puzzle before.
I know you went into that quite a bit then, but I'm hoping you can go into it a little bit again now. Can you explain the two pieces — why they're both important, but also why they're separate things?
Any Cook: Why management and training are separate things? Why management and therapy are separate things?
Melissa Breau: Yes.
Amy Cook: They are separate things. They're separate things and they are the same thing. If you're an experienced trainer, anything I say to you right now about these being separate, you can proffer a counter-argument to, because if I say something is not training, you can legitimately come back to me and say, "Yeah, it is," and you are correct, and I honor that because I would cede the point, because yes, everything is training. Everything you do can reinforce stuff. Everything you do is a reaction, is a consequence, is an association, it is classical. Everything is training.
Given that as a foundation, I completely stipulate the separation I like to make is that if I describe it to you as different things, I can get different behaviors from you as a person. I can get you in a different mode, which makes performance and different behavior possible, and all just from you thinking about it differently.
If I think of it all as training, then you have to memorize a whole bunch of training techniques and try to remember what you pull out when. If I describe for you that these two things are very different mindsets, you're more likely to cluster certain things together, and then you can pull them out better. So, with that, I'll say that training is I want my dog to be able to perform things, either on my cue or on the cue from the environment. I want them to take in those cues, be able to perform their trained reinforced behaviors, however the reinforcement came to them, whether it's environmental or from me, partake of that reinforcement, and move on to the next thing in the chain. Or be done with that cue and use grass as a cue and now go sniff, or any of that. But the dog is clear-headed enough to see the cue, perform a behavior, receive the reinforcement, and move on to the next thing.
That takes a fair amount of mental clarity. That takes a fair amount of skill, it takes a fair amount of ability, it takes a fair amount of concentration, it takes a fair amount of not having your brain taken over by completely different concerns right now. When we go to school, we assume we can sit in the chair and look at the chalkboard and listen to the teacher and write with a pencil. We assume all those things are there. And if you're not in that mental space, none of what's happening in school is coming out. So training says I can give a cue and you're probably going to follow this cue to the best of your at least trained understanding of what it is.
Management is saying your dog can't do any of that. You give them a cue and they go, "Huh? What? Didn't even hear you. What is that cue? Don't even know what that is. I'm listening to something completely different right now. I have a safety concern over there on that corner or whatever it is. I'm not online right now. I can't respond to that."
In behavioral terms, it's still on cue; it's just on a different cue. There's other things going on. But for a human being trying to sort out all of these conflicting roles you play, if you think of it as management comes out when your dog cannot go along with what you've asked, just easily and voluntarily and looking for the reinforcement they are bested, they are completely busy, they are not listening are able to listen to what you're saying, and yet you still need that behavior.
If I need a dog to look at me, if I need a dog to come along with me, I can cue it and say, "Let's go," and have a dog go, "Oh, sure, I will perform, let's go," and look at you and trot along. Well that's great. That's a trained behavior and it's on cue and I will reinforce it when you do it. But if I can say, "Let's go," and you are not here because you are faced at something or barking, or faced at something and are stuck or whatever, then the behavior is not being performed on cue.
Well, I can't just sit there and continue to repeat the cue and hope you'll come to a place where you can perform it. I need to be in management mode, which says, "We're going to go anyway. I would like to 'Let's go,' but you don't seem to be in a place where that's going to be available for you to partner with me and getting this done. So we're going to get it done anyway. I'm going to kindly but efficiently move us in the 'Let's go' direction and veto whatever it is you're stuck on, but again, I'm sorry." You do it kindly, and you do it without massive physical impact, but you still get it done.
That's what a manager is doing — a manager, a parent, a director, some people like the term "leader." I don't tend to use it just because it's got too many connotations, but it's not the wrong idea. It says, "You seem bested, dog. We're going this direction because I know we need to do it. I'm going to veto what you're doing."
And the dog is not responding, because they can't because they're not in training mode. Now yes, like I said before, everything is training. Everything, everything, everything is training. You're teaching your dog something by vetoing him or her and moving them along. You're still teaching them something, but the mindset you have as a person, one of them is, "I give cues and I'm ready to reward." In management it's not "I give cues and I'm ready to reward." The mindset you're in is, "You seem unable to perform stuff, so don't worry, I'm going to take over. You seem unable to drive the car, so you know what, I'm going to grab the wheel. You seem unable to ride this horse, so I'm going to grab the reins." I don't know, whatever it is, cowboys again.
I don't know what it is about the cowboys. I should just find some other mental picture. I one time said "grab the reins," because when you grab the wheel, you grab the reins, and if you grab the reins of the bus, like, wait — buses don't have reins, and then I get lost in all mixed metaphors going on here, and pretty soon, if it's stupid enough, you'll remember it. So this will be memorable.
When someone can't do a thing that will help them get better, when someone can't remove themselves from a difficult situation, it really helps if someone else can help them get out of there, can remove them. I can watch or … something less about you … I can watch a toddler toddling toward a street and I can say to them, "Hey, you're not supposed to go in the street. I don't want you to go on the street. Hey, come back this way, come here." I can do all of that.
But if my toddler, either because they're busy mentally or because they're a toddler, can't respond to that directive, I'm not going to keep repeating it. I'm probably not even going to say it in the first place, because I already know ahead of time that my toddler is not able to follow instructions in that situation or maybe at all. And so what do you do instead? Do you stand there and let your toddler walk in the street? You do not. You walk over there, you redirect your toddler, "This way, let's go," and you just face them in the direction they have to go.
Granted, that's not an extremely emotional situation, but that's immaterial to me. I need something behavioral from this person I'm in charge of, and they are not going to be able to do it on a simple cue, or on a simple suggestion. They are not going to perform it, and I need to step in and help. That's what being a manager is. That's what being in management is. You are not negotiating any of these behaviors. You are making sure they happen, and you are moving somebody along, even … I hate to say "against their will." It's not like there's a battle of wills. It's that your dog is overwhelmed, or your kid, or your person, or your friend, whatever, is overwhelmed and you realize you have to step in.
Once you take on that role, once you become the person who's going to step in, you're no longer in "I give cues, I wait for you" land. You're much more direct, you're much more in charge of stuff, and that is going to help you much more quickly prevent the rehearsal of this behavior. If I know you can't bark and lunge, I'm going to prevent it as best I can.
But if I missed it and I didn't prevent it and I see it happening, I'm still going to prevent it from continuing as best I can. And it won't be via talking to you about it and talking you down out of it, I believe that the prevention of rehearsal is really important to getting rid of this behavior, and so I want to prevent every one of them that I can.
And allowing for the few times that I make mistakes, I know that that's going to be okay. I try to put on that role of "I run this show. I really need to make sure I walk on good blocks and make sure my dog is set up to succeed all the time." And in the times where I fail, and the dog either gets set up to fail because I missed it, or life changed and there you go, someone popped out of whatever, I need to then take over and say, "Let's turn this into something positive by getting out of here real quick, so that you don't keep doing this behavior, and we'll regroup."
I really want people to understand that you should not be teaching dogs when they're over threshold. I wish we understood this better. Partly as trainers I wish we understood this better, because I see a lot of advice out there about what to do training-wise for dogs, or people inserting actual training plans for dogs who are over threshold, and I disagree with it.
I wish we were having a similar conversation with trainers, but certainly with dog owners, if your dog is over threshold, if your dog is reacting, if your dog is having trouble concentrating on the school part that is between you, if your dog can't follow cues, really easily follow them the same way they do in the house, your dog is getting pressed by something else in the environment. And that's not the time for school. That's the time for ensuring that safety comes first, ensuring that your dog feels okay about where they are and can actually give you the concentration for school.
If half of their brain is on whether they feel safe, or what's going on over there, it's not the time for school, it's the time for what people would call leadership. It's the time for you to move things along and save school for a time when you are under threshold.
I really do wish that was a wider conversation we were having, because I see an awful lot of over-threshold training techniques that I want to say, "Those are great training techniques. Can we do them at a better distance? Can we do them when your dog is even more able to pay attention, instead of in that split focus of half paying attention to the world and all the problems in it and half paying attention to you?" I want a lot more attention paid to school than halfway. I don't know if that makes sense. I feel like I'm on a tangent, but that's important.
Melissa Breau: I think that conveys the management piece really well, but what about — you used the word "therapy" — the therapy piece of it? I think you said, during the webinar, something like, "When you're doing therapy, you want to make sure to schedule a planned session, rather than just letting it happen."
Amy Cook: I think I said something like, "You don't have to make every walk into a therapy session." For me, doing something therapeutic, that means that I am trying to really help the dog learn something they don't know, and to change their reactions to things.
If I'm scared of bridges, I would go to a therapist that would help me directly not be afraid any longer of bridges. In the meantime I'm not going to be driving across bridges, because I don't have the skills to not be afraid of them. So we're going to avoid that, so that I have control over the unbidden rehearsal of all my fears about bridges. I just take other routes and there you go.
It's not to say that permanently I will always be taking other routes and I will always avoid my problem. No, I want to have weighted, direct therapy on the problem I'm having with bridges, and so whatever it is my therapist tells me to do to mildly approximate the problem — I don't know what the therapy is for bridges, so I made the story up and there's going to be no conclusion, but every therapist in the room who know what you do for bridges, that's what we do.
But the thing is I'm seeing the therapist and I'm doing graduated approaches. I'm dealing with feelings in a way that is controlled so that I learn the right things from those therapy appointments and those therapeutic setups I do. Your therapist wants you to learn the right things when they're trying to get rid of your fear. They don't just trigger your fear and go, "Well, I don't know. They have a stepwise approach to stuff, and to do a stepwise approach, you need control.
When you go out in the world, you're not doing a stepwise approach to anything, because none of that is in your control. You might luck out that something presents itself to be this perfect way that you can take advantage of to learn just the thing you meant to, but mostly that's not what's happening out there. Mostly you're not that lucky.
To solve a problem, you first need to stop the leak. You stop all the rehearsal, and that's all your management and all your planning for how you conduct your life with that dog who has the problem. And then you set aside specific times when you can do whatever therapeutic intervention it is that you've picked. And there are plenty more than one. I have the one I use, but there's other ones.
You set aside time to do that, and that's what you do, and since you have control over the triggers and control over how difficult the environment is, and you can set it at the lowest possible difficulty, the chances that you are going to be having therapy at that moment are very high, because you have designed your session to be therapeutic to reduce the problem your dog is having, to give them new understanding of the meaning of the trigger, or whatever your approach is going to be, or to teach them to do a different thing. And now they have a fighting chance of being able to do that different thing, because you have set the difficulty level according to your specifications and what your dog needs.
If you try to do that all the time on all your walks, you are improving constantly on the difficulty level presented, and what exactly you want to teach your dog, and did your dog learn that, because maybe they learned something else because you're not in control of this whole thing. I don't like that kind of improvisation to be the way I help my dog change their behavior.
I find it's much more effective to manage and control stuff the best I can and not think of that as therapy, and then set aside the time for therapy, or for a therapeutic intervention, where I can say, "This is what I'd like you to learn. Let me set it up so that's exactly what you learn, and that's exactly what I teach, so that you get that piece, and we can have a different piece for the next time and actually progress your case toward resolution."
I don't think you get as cleanly to a resolution if you're doing "kind of" therapy, "sort of" improv, in the world all the time, because it's too much of a blend of both of the forces.
You're trying to be both therapeutic and also managerial, and you're having to deal with whatever life throws at you. I can't sort that kind of thing out, and I don't think your average person knows how to sort that out either. I think they go out there and they have all the things in their head that the trainer said to do, but then the find themselves on a certain street corner and they can't figure out if it's this thing they're supposed to do or that thing, because so many variables came at them, and I have a lot of sympathy for that. So I try to be really clean and say, "When you're out in the world, these are the things you will avoid, this is how you will avoid them — partly by walking and partly by the management techniques that I teach you."
Your only job is to get through these things positively. It's not to teach your dog anything. When you're going to teach your dog stuff, I'm going to help you have a setup to where you, as a teacher, can remember what you're teaching, there's room to breathe, everybody can calm down, everybody can be set up to succeed. The dog is set up to succeed and the human is set up to succeed. That, to me, is a therapeutic session, and it's not improvisation.
That's how I think of them. That's why I separate therapy and management, because I need people to be in the right mode and to be set up for success. If we're not setting up for success, we're not going to get it. There's a deep thought for you: If we're not setting up for success, we're not going to get it.
Melissa Breau: What are we setting up for?
Amy Cook: If we're not setting up for success, we can't get it. That's like, if we're not eating, we're not going to be full. Set up for success for your dog and for your people.
Melissa Breau: You alluded to this earlier, and I know I've said it a couple of times, but I wanted to go into it a little bit deeper. People say all the time, "With the management strategies that you suggest, most of them involve food, and my dog is in a situation, he's not going to eat. That's not going to work for me." I know you have a response to that, so I was hoping you would share it.
Amy Cook: I have a response to that. I just solve that. That sounds way too pithy, and I don't mean to be dismissive-sounding. I solve that. The reason why your dog isn't eating in the scenarios you're trying to get them to eat in, is because they have other pressing concerns on top of the ability to take what you're offering and eat. That tells me you're training a lot over threshold. You're trying to have school at a time when they can't concentrate on school because there are other concerns.
Some dogs will eat anyway. Some people will eat anyway. But many dogs are like, "Yeah, yeah, I'll eat in a minute, but not right now," or "I don't want that. My stomach feels blah, because oh my God, did you see that over here?" And so of course you're like, "I tried food, he didn't want it, so now what. I don't have any tools."
What's going is that fundamental mismatch of trying to train when you're in the problem. If you try to train when you're having the problem, you are not in school. What you need to do is say, "I need to have some school first," and so you train all of your management stuff.
For me, management behaviors are super-simple. The basic management behavior is eating. Can you eat? That's it. You don't even have to do anything. Can you open your mouth and put food in it and chew and swallow? You don't even have to chew. Can you swallow? Can you swallow food? Can you put your nose on food items and ingest them? It is the simplest of behaviors. I know that behavior disappears, but I'm not asking for "Can you maintain eye contact?" "Can you touch my hand?" "Can you walk?" "Can you look at me?" "Can you do anything on cue?" "Can you sit?" Certainly not sit. Please, everybody out there with reactive dogs, don't ask them to sit. Did I just allude to something? Sorry. So the simplest behavior is "Can you eat?" But I need you — you, as a person — to practice this all the time.
My style is magnet feeding, where you have a fistful of food and your dog has his nose buried in that fistful for food. It's not a lure. A lure is a promise. Please don't promise your dog stuff. Please give your dogs food in this. You start in your living room, you start in your kitchen, can you magnet-walk — which is the dog eating food out of your fist, not one at a time, but continuously — can you do that down your hallway? Can you do that walking through your house? If the answer is, "Not really, because we feel a little at odds. I'm not sure how to deliver the food, and she's not sure how to walk and eat at the same time," then of course it's not going to work when your dog wants to bark at stuff.
You have to get these behaviors really fluent, and of course therein lies the training part. But management isn't training, but of course it is training. You have to get fluency in eating and fluency in walking with you when nothing is around, and you do it for weeks.
I have a class in this, as a lot of people know, but those of you who don't, it's coming up next in the term in June, and we spend weeks on this before I let anybody try to use it in their regular walks or in a time when it's necessary, like because they have to get their dog away from some reaction they're doing. Five weeks sometimes of magnet walking in all kinds of permutations, and all kinds of speeds, and all kinds of fun games, until that behavior is so fluid that of course they'll be able to do it when they're out and about and feeling like, "I don't know about this scenario."
The thing is if, after all of that, you encounter a scenario in which your dog can't right then because, boom, they blew up, well, you leave. You keep walking away, you pull them along with you, you do it nicely, but you get it done. You pull them away and you walk away, and as you're walking away, "Here's your magnet. Can you eat, dog?" At some point your dog is going to go, "Oh yeah, that. I can do that. We've been practicing for weeks and weeks, so I can do that."
The framework to the question that you offered is the same solution that we have for almost any training problem: "My dog doesn't do x under y condition." Instead of thinking of that as a failure of x, it's a failure of y. You change the condition to where you can get the behavior. You have to start from being able to get the behavior. You don't start from the environment you want to work in, and try to get behaviors in it. You start from where you can get behaviors in, and you slowly change the environment to make sure that the behavior stays.
I think that's another backward thought in a lot of training out there, because we pick the environment we want to work in, and then we work super-hard to get these behaviors, trying to best the environment, trying to be really big, or in some systems that's the time people bring in correction, because they really want to compel a dog in a hard environment to do these hard behaviors. I really think we should rethink that and think, "Where are the places I can get these behaviors very easily? Fantastic. Can I make them habitual now? Can I make them fluent? Can I make them fluid? Can I make them almost non-optional they just do them so easily? Great. Now I can sneak in all sorts of environments without making these big, huge, delineated jumps that make the behavior fail."
I think it's about a fundamental shift in our learners. Our learners are beings we should be very sympathetic toward, because learning is hard and performing for somebody else is hard. It's a kindness to make that easy and to make the environment only such that they're not set up to fail and then slowly moving forward. It's the same thing we do with our children. We don't stick them in fifth grade. We start them in kindergarten. We start them where they are.
Melissa Breau: With colors and letters and not with calculus.
Amy Cook: And numbers and games and a fun attitude towards school is great, school is not fraught, school is not pressure. School is "You can do this," and school is optimism, and school should be, "I build your confidence that this is all going to work out great. Don't worry about it. If it doesn't work out right then, we'll just fix it and go over here. It's okay." I don't want school to be, "Oh God, I have to go, and it's going to be hard and it's going to be awful." So many of us relate to that. So many of us relate to parts of school being really awful.
But I don't want that for little children, and I don't want that for anyone who can't opt in fully, which would be an adult, and I don't want that for dogs, because they are tied to us and they have to do everything we subject them to, and to me it's just not fair. And now we've moved completely away to some other thing that's in my head, and I recognize that, but that's the adventure of interviewing me. You're going to go wherever my brain goes.
Melissa Breau: We've been talking about management, and I want to flip the script. So if you're up for it, I'd like to talk about the actual approach that you developed for treating reactivity. Cool?
Amy Cook: Absolutely. Do you have another hour? Because I do.
Melissa Breau: We could easily do that.
Amy Cook: It's a podcast. We can go as long as we want.
Melissa Breau: I know you call your approach The Play Way. Let's start there. Why that name?
Amy Cook: I have a student to thank for that. The class has been an evolution for a while, though I feel like it's really codified. Now I feel like I have a handle on all the parameters I like best. It's not that it's not going to evolve, but I want my system in the hands of a bunch of other people, so that the enrichment it gets, the things that you bring to it, the way people see it differently, can enrich it now.
It started because we started a class at Fenzi. I was trying to stop behavior problems in the way I already knew how to, and I was getting influenced by all of the wonderful … the incubator that our school really is, and all the influences from the trainers around me.
I started to incorporate play into my reactivity rehab, into my aggression rehab, and it started working better the more I incorporated it. I got faster and better results, and people were like, "My dog is way better than he should be at this point in our fixing," and I'm like, "Yeah, this is awfully early for these games." So it sparked my motivation to keep exploring what the heck this was.
What it is now is the use of social interaction, social play — which I just call therapeutic play, social therapeutic play — to address behavior problems, and it is distinct from the play most people think about, which is, if you're not part of the Fenzi ecosphere, you think of it as ball and fetch and tug and those high-energy games. If you are part of the Fenzi ecosphere, you might think of it as personal play, which is stuff that Denise teaches for how to have these great, fun times without the use of a toy, so that you can reinforce in-ring behaviors, or reinforce connection when you're out in the world, and all that.
I took that as inspiration, but social play for therapy is even lower energy than that and even lower intensity than that, because what I use it for is not reinforcement. I don't use it to reinforce any looking behaviors, I don't use it to reinforce choices of the dog, I'm not trying to get feedback to the dog through play. I'm trying to get information from the dog through play. I'm using it to read where they are. I'm using it to see if I'm under threshold. Being under threshold is important to me, as I have alluded to a little bit today.
As a scientist, I hate when I'm forced to be in guessing land. We're almost always in guessing land. We have to guess, we have to put a pin in stuff, and be ready to take that pin out and put it in a new place. But I don't like just looking at something and saying, "I think that's what's going on, so I'm going to choose this behavior." If I'm forced to, then I'm forced to, but if I can ask the question and get a higher-accuracy answer, that's what I want to do.
For threshold, I think people are guessing all the time. I know trainers whose definition of threshold is, "As long as they aren't barking and lunging, we're under threshold." Well, you are, but you're only under the barking and lunging threshold. You're not under any other threshold. You're not under the stress threshold. You're not under the emotional disturbance, arousal, we have all these words around it. There's not just one threshold to be under, and I think you should concern yourself with which ones you're under and which ones you're over as a trainer, because it will determine which techniques you pick. It will determine which interventions you're going to apply to the problem.
I don't like guessing being under threshold. I like getting as accurate information as I can, and play, social play, that is not high energy, that is kind of silly and flirty, and the way you make kittle kids laugh, and sharing a quick giggle at somebody. It's all taught by analogies. I'm full of analogies and metaphors for this, because it's a feeling to have this silly interaction where you're both goofing off and laughing and being ridiculous, but you're not having a goal-directed activity. It's not, "Go fetch the thing." It's "Let's play bitey-face," and my hands are a dog's mouth and your mouth is your mouth, of course, you have a mouth and I have a fake mouth that is my hand, and we're going to pretend and play bitey games and I'm going to act like a dog a little bit and we're going to roll around and be dumb.
These things tell me where I am with regard to threshold much better than almost anything else does. I'll say if there's something else that shows me better where we are in threshold. I'll do that. It's just that this I find the most effective. What it tells me is that my dog is feeling safe right now. How I know that is because the second he or she no longer does feel safe, play is gone.
That's not going to be true of food, typically. Typically, dog-wide, it's not going to be true of food. Dog-wide, it's not going to be true of fetch and tug, especially in dogs who have a love of fetch and tug. They're going to do that under a lot of stress. And dogs, for the most part, are going to eat under a decent amount of stress. If I want to reveal that that stress is there — because if I want to relieve it, I have to identify that it's there in the first place — not all stress show sup in dogs' bodies. It's not all going to show up in the tail set. It's not all going to be a hackle. It's not all going to be a bark. They can be feeling the stress and have it not yet show on their bodies. I need to be able to reveal that. Some people give food, and if the dog refuses food, they say they're now going over threshold. I find that to be an incomplete measure, because too many dogs will eat over threshold.
So I first teach people how to play, and it is a road to get human beings to play with their dogs, and to get dogs to think that that's play, and to get dogs to respond and feel safe with this interaction. It is a learning curve for both sides of that leash.
But once we have therapeutic play established, and there's laughter and goofing off and being silly and snorting and all of that, then I apply it to behavior problems by saying, "If you can play right now with me, I'm going to take that as information that you feel safe where we are. If you cannot play with me, I will take that as information that you need to pay attention to something else. You can't really indulge in this little dumb thing we're doing. You could eat, potentially. You could do that. You could make yourself swallow stuff, but you can't really get lost in our little dynamic." That tells me, as a trainer, what I can do in that session. So it reveals threshold to me.
The other thing it does is it relaxes both of us. It relaxes dogs to be able to loll about and play. If you're in that state, if you're feeling really good, if you've been laughing a whole bunch, the chance that you're going to learn the things that I want you to learn, that you feel that you are safe in this environment, that these things that are around you that you might have thought might have been a little worrisome are not actually, you're more likely to learn that if you're already in a place of relaxation.
If you came into this session with your neck held tense and your body tight and your pessimism coming on because you're in this place and you don't know what's going on and you're nervous about it, it's going to be tough to teach you that this place is actually pretty safe. It's possible, I'm sure you can do it, but you don't have as much control as I would like you to have. I would like your dogs to have their ground ready for that lesson.
A dog who is relaxed and happy and smiling and laughing and being ridiculous is much more likely to learn that they're safe with these triggers I may have placed, if we're doing therapy, than if they're already coming in tense. The play tells me that I'm under threshold. The play helps me set the ground, fertilizes the ground … oh, God, we have plant metaphors. I know nothing about plants. I know less about plants than I know about cowboys, and I know nothing about cowboys.
Melissa Breau: Just digging yourself a hole.
Amy Cook: Just digging myself … more ground metaphors, thank you so much. Thank you. Digging my holes, planting my plants. The ground becomes … I don't know the word for ground that's not fallow. Becomes enriched? I don't know. People know where we're going. The ground is prepared for the learning of the plants and the roots laying down and we torture ourselves.
Lastly what it's doing for me is … I don't even know if that's lastly, but lastly on my list right now is that it is giving me a communication system with the dog that serves me two ways. One, it hands over control to the dog. A dog, in our lives, has almost no control over what happens. They might be able to get up and change where they're laying in a room, but they don't decide when they go potty, for the most part. They don't decide what block we walk on. They don't decide whether they will or won't encounter stuff at a distance they have chosen. Many dogs will pick a distance that is correct and stays out of a zone, but we're going to walk right down that block without giving them any control. We also run all training sessions under control. We control all the food we're going to give them. We control what behavior is going to earn the food we're going to give them. We cue them. We set up a training session. We just don't give them a whole lot of say.
We all know that control is a primary reinforcer, and being able to have some input into how a dynamic goes is certainly a kindness you can extend to anyone. We give it to children. We don't give children a hundred percent control, but we all know that we have to give them some, so that they feel like they have some autonomy and that they're respected.
Borrowing from those ideas, I say, "In this play dynamic, and just in this one, we will explore that you get to control this, dog. If you don't want to play right now, you only have to look away from me. If you look away from me and you don't engage with me, I will stop. I will not call your name and I will not nag you into this and I will not try to make you play and I will not veto what your decision is.
If you look away, you can look away. If you look back toward me, I will renegotiate play with you. I will not just insert and tell you, "We're going to play." I will not just make you play or try to make you play. I will ask you if you'd like to play again, because you have looked at me and I'm going to make sure, "Would you like to resume what we were doing?" I don't want to assume that you want to resume. Maybe you want to look at me and look away again, because that happens all the time. They look and then they look away. They weren't really ready to start.
Giving them control over play in this style is designed to give them control over the interaction. It's not full control in the sense that it's not any style of play they want. They can't come t me really hard, they can't be unsafe with my body, I'm not saying that they make every decision. But they certainly make the stop-and-start decisions. If they don't want it, I won't do it, and if they do want it, I'm ready. I'm available to do this with you. I need your consent. I need you to tell me that you want to do this.
The other thing it gives me, aside from, "We have a language now, and I'm giving you control, dog," is insight into what they are learning from looking at triggers. There are a lot of approaches out there that involve looking at triggers and then looking away from them, and there's many rhythms to that, whether those things are clicked, whether those things are cued, whether they are not cued, whether they are durational or not durational, there's lot of ways trainers use looking behaviors.
What I do with it is I say, "I now that if you're concerned with something in the world" — this is true throughout the animal kingdom that I'm aware of; there's probably some exceptions, but of all the animals I have look into this for, this holds true — "if you're concerned about something, you want to look at it, because you need to figure out if you're under threat." If there's a problem, you've got to go look at stuff to know if you're safe, or to maybe chase it away, or whatever. You've got to look at it. And when you are feeling better and feeling safe, you're feeling okay with whatever that is, you don't need to look at it anymore."
Because of those forces, I want to us that and let that unfold naturally. I don't want to control it, I don't want to tell you to look at it, and I don't want to reward you for looking away from it and immediately give you something for disengaging. I'm not saying doing that is wrong. I'm saying I like that freedom space because it tells me so much. What it tells me is whether you do need to look or not look anymore, because it's not being influenced by my rewards in that sense.
Also the play, which is what I was really getting to, the play, after they look, will be changed. If a dog looks at something in the environment — something changed, a person showed up somewhere else far out there — and the dog looked away from me and looked at the person, and then had its own private thoughts which I cannot read, I understand that, and then the dog looks at me and I go, "Would you like to play again?" and they go, "Yeah, I would like to," and we start playing, if that play is very different after the look than it was before the look, I now have information about what it was like to look.
I don't get that information from food. I might get a grain of information, like maybe they're eating shockingly now compared to the way they ate before, so maybe I get a little bit of information from food, but maybe I won't even get that. But when I use play before and after looking behaviors, I can feel through the quality of play, whether looking was really stressful. What happens is the dog will look away, look at the person, and let's say now feels a bunch of stress from having looked at that person and feels a little bit of trigger from the feelings of "Gosh, it's a person." Now the dog is feeling icky about it and they look back at me and I say, "Would you like to play?" Maybe they start to play, but it's got a spoiled nature. They can't get into it, they can't really loosen up, they can't really partake. I try some of my invitations and they halfheartedly try, and they look away and lay down. From that I can say, "Looking, for you, was real tough. That was really hard for you. It brought up feelings for you, or it brought up something inside you.
And that enables me to make changes. I can say, "It's a difficulty level that I don't like to have. I'm going to change what's going on here." Without that information, I won't know that it was hard for the dog, because food would have hidden it. Food — he would have eaten it, and I would have been, "You looked and you looked away. There you go. You're feeling pretty good." Some of the time the dog does feel good, but if I don't ask the question, I won't get that information.
Other times the dog looks, looks at the person, looks back at me, I say, "Would you like to?" and they say, "I would love to." We start playing, and the play is stellar. The play is as perfect as it was before the look. I can conclude relatively safely right now that that looking experience was not very hard, because it didn't spoil the interaction we're having. It didn't change it at all. In fact, you seem just as relaxed as you did before you looked at anything, and now I feel assured as a trainer that I can keep going. I can let this looking that she's choosing to do and choosing to stop giving and choosing to initiate with me, and let all that continue because I have evidence that I'm under threshold, and I have evidence that looking, on the part of the dog, does not bing them stress, because they confirmed it via their play.
I don't get that kind of information from food, I don't get that kind of information from toys, and so it is why I prefer to throw play at this problem, because I am now massively informed as a trainer as to the level of difficulty I have put in front of my dog. And as we all should know, the lower the level of difficulty, the more success we're going to have. And I want to get these cases resolved. I want to get dogs through the fears that they're having, and I need that under-threshold success.
Most of us are guessing: "I think I'm under threshold, so I'm going to keep going. I'm going to keep working because I think that's where we are." Coming full circle as that scientist, I'm like, "I don't want to just think I'm in that place. Can I get some info, please? Can I get some confirmation that I'm in a good place? Because I don't want to be throwing darts at this thing." So that's the roundabout longest answer to a short question that Amy could ever muster, and I swear to you, I'm on TikTok now, and this one-minute constraint is not in my wheelhouse.
Melissa Breau: It's okay, because I think you also answered the next question, which was going to be, what does "working on reactivity" look like, using your approach? But you talked quite a bit in there about it. If you had a different answer planned for that question, I want to make sure I ask it.
Amy Cook: I don't think I did. I think I was no longer remembering that you were going to ask stuff, and I was just on my explanatory framework. I am imagining the person listening to this, and wanting to say that the reason its not really big, bright, happy, super-duper play is because if I do that, it will be taking the place of food and toys and it won't reveal all this stuff.
We have this quiet play so that I, as a trainer, am held to the standard and held to the threshold line, and that's how I'm using it. The dog is relaxed and I am reassured that everything is fine about the way I've set it up.
But really what's going on for therapy for the dog, the dog is doing. I'm not doing any of that. I want people to understand that I am not making play into reward for looking. They re not rewarded for looking back to me via play, which is why we renegotiate the play instead of just popping back into it. We ramp into it very slowly after they've looked and it is not in the form of classical conditioning. Which is not to say that's not happening, because that is always happening, but it's not in the form of classical, which says, "Once triggers show up, then we play, so that you can make an association." I don't do that either. It's not in either of those pieces. It's not in the structure of operant and it's not in the structure of classical. The dog is learning information from looking at stuff, and they are gathering that information all on their own, and learning that they are safe because I have set it up to where they are safe, and I have used play to confirm that they are deducing that they are safe, because their play tells me if they feel that way.
The therapy is inside the dog, just like therapy is inside us. When we humans need therapy, the therapist isn't curing us. The therapist isn't making the change for us. The therapist is making sure that we can make those changes by setting the stage correctly and giving us the tools that help us. That's what the therapy is trying to be. The dog can do this if we set it up so that the dog does it.
I think all trainers are trying to do that. We're trying to set it up so that the dog can learn, but so often I see techniques that are so far over threshold that I really have this deep desire to say, "If I'm going to claim that those things are over threshold, I need to find a way to measure this stuff. I need to find a way to say, 'What is under threshold then? What is it?'" That led to continuing to make play smaller and more different until I felt that it was adequately telling you that information.
Melissa Breau: I want to ask you, because in your bio you mention your Ph.D. program, how did what you studied, working toward your Ph.D., your background and your research there, play into all this? What role did it play in developing all this?
Amy Cook: I think I wouldn't be there without it, and I think I wouldn't be there without having been hired by Denise and influenced by her and the people she put around all of us in that school. I can credit both of them pretty equally.
What the Ph.D. program helped me with was so many little things. One great big thing, which I'll definitely say, but so many little things, like how to think a little more scientifically and less anecdotally. Which is not to say that everything I'm doing is scientific, but it leads me to want more and better information. It leads me to not marry my ideas so strongly. It leads me not to profess that dogs are doing certain things or say, Look, he's in the seeking system." Seeking system is an idea, it's real, but you can't just look at a dog and say they're in it. You can't look at a dog and say, "Look, I've added dopamine." It allowed me to engage in scientific ideas and find a way to exist in not knowing stuff, but not have that be leading to some kind of overconfidence thinking I do know stuff. It made me humble. Grad school is really hard, so it pressed me that way.
The other thing it did was it allowed me to have access to a lot of literature I otherwise didn't have. Dog trainers' academic information usually stops somewhere around Skinner and Pavlov, maybe Panksepp if they're modern and so they're getting some emotional information. But it ranges mostly around learning theory and how to do behavioral change, and rightly so. But what I got to do in grad school was sit in the library that had a lot of other information in it and put me in classes.
My classwork in Ph.D, school, you get to make up most of your own stuff. You craft what topics you're going to learn, and your mentors are telling you whether you're doing that adequately. But you also have some course work, and there's no course work in just dogs at U.C. Berkeley, so the kinds of classwork I was moved to take was stuff in the developmental psychology department, and that means the development of the human, and how babies grown and how babies learn and how babies think, and what cognition and what emotion they have and do not have, and when these things come forward, and how we ask those questions. How do you ask a baby if they have object permanence? How do you ask a baby if they are mad?
Being in a developmental psychology program, the Ph.D is in psychology and my course work was in development, so it's all about babies, except for my own work, which was all about dogs. Being in a baby program really helped me ask the questions in a way that I thought got me good answers for dogs, exposed me to a lot more emotional literature than I never had before, so I could see how we judge and gauge emotions in people who can't talk to us, and then it also exposed me to a lot more human therapeutic approach than I had ever had before.
I am not a human therapist. It was not a clinical Ph.D. But I had course work in that, and I had a lot of influencing literature around me that I could access, and that I found to be fundamental, because when you start looking at how we deal with, let's just say, reactivity problems in children … it's not what they're called, but emotional disregulation or behavior problems of all sorts, or anxieties that kids have, and that is real, and that is rampant that kids have anxieties and kids have anxiety issues, and sometimes they go completely undiagnosed. So there's a lot of therapeutic intervention for children.
I don't know if any of you out there listening have ever wondered how it is people deal with anxiety in children, but you could look into that, because it's not going to be the talk therapy that it is for adults. If you have an anxious 3-year-old, if you have an anxious 2-year-old, you're not doing cognitive behavioral therapy and you're not discussing feelings. You have to have other measures.
And so looking into that literature, and looking into what the therapists try to help children do, how you settle children, how you support children's change — a lot of that is very similar to what I brought into The Play Way. Of course it's not exactly the same thing, but if people are interested in that, please go to a site called TheraPlay.org. It's play therapy for children. If you look up play therapy for children and all of its permutations, you'll see a lot of commonalities. It's saying we first need to set the stage that you feel safe, and play is the way to help children feel really safe with the adults that they're trying to let in.
That, in and of itself, started my wheels turning. I started saying, "We don't just use classical and make associations with children. We don't just use operant conditioning with children. We don't do that with adults either. It's not just about making an association when you're dealing with anxiety. There's a lot to it.
Being able to have that time, that space in my life to delve into how human anxiety is dealt with allowed me to think more freely and away from just "What will I reinforce?" or "What association will I try to make sure the dog gets?" — which is hard to even ensure anyway. Just because you follow two things in time doesn't mean the dog is getting from it what you intend. We're always dealing with a live animal with their own thoughts. So getting into human literature was massively helpful.
And then getting exposed to Denise and the way she thinks about play, and the way she describes play, the way she separated out all these different kinds of play elements — I was not thinking granularly about that until I saw her work, and saw the way she plays with dogs and how she thinks of it and how she used it. I thought, "There's something in the two of these things. I can think about how to use play in a way that mimics a little bit of what I've learned about human therapy and child therapy, but that also helps what I'm coming to understand what I want from dogs, which is their feelings of safety and their ability to communicate with me what's really going on with them.
Just like we ask kids what's really going on with them, we don't expect them to be able to tell us. When we're asking about anxiety in little children, we're often watching the toys they play with. Are they playing with baby dolls? Are they playing with dinosaurs? Are they playing with a lot of food items? That can really reveal the conflict they're having in their life. Children work out anxieties around mealtimes or anxieties around bedtimes. By playing with and reenacting those kinds of scenarios with toys, they work on their feelings of aggression or anger by grabbing at animals that are very toothy, dinosaurs and stuff, and playing in that way. You can watch those play actions change when kids' issues get resolved. They gravitate toward other toys, and I thought that's such a reveal without having to ask, because you can't ask a 2-year-old.
That really inspired me to think, "What can we do to ask dogs this? It's obviously not going to be identical, but I have been in dogs for a long time; I can come up with some way to ask them. So over the course of about eight years — it's eight years only because it's been eight years since I started; it didn't take me all eight years — I've hit upon a way I think can really get the information I want, help dogs feel safe, and then put them in a position where they can learn that they are safe, which is what we all want.
That's what classical conditioning application is trying to do when trainers are doing open bar or whatever. They're trying to say, "These things are good things. These triggers are good things. Don't worry. They mean food is coming. You are safe." Some people who do over-threshold work and flood, they're trying to say, "You are safe and I'm going to let you discover it by putting you here until you figure it out." That's what some people do. I'm saying, 'I will let you discover you're safe, but I will make sure that that is what you're discovering, because I'm going to measure the crap out of this as best I can."
Melissa Breau: I know we've talked for a while, but I had one more real question and then just a wrap-up. I know you, as a person, tend to look at things and then reevaluate, and then think about it a little bit more. Some people might even go so far as to say a little bit of a perfectionist.
Amy Cook: I'm a little bit … I like to be accurate.
Melissa Breau: I wanted to ask are there ways that you have tweaked it or changed it, either in terms of how you present the material or in terms of
the material itself that you want to talk about a little bit?
Amy Cook: It's definitely evolved, both as I tried to have the technique evolve. I kept giving it to people and saying, "Try this, and now let's see if this is better." So students were, in the early days certainly, guinea pigs in a way, because I can never promise it's going to work anyway, but I certainly was less sure. So a lot of things changed as we evolved it.
I think I changed how I thought of it by taking this on the road. Putting this in seminar form, going places and teaching for two days, trying to get the roomful of people to get the whole picture and how to do it, all the skills, how to set it up, how to conduct it, everything, in two days, plus with dogs there forced me to pare down to ways to teach it that's effective, I hope, and also helped me identify what parts people find the hardest to acquire.
What I think about now is I really endeavor to make people feel like they already have this. I think a lot of training is hard for people to acquire. I think clicker training is hard at first. When you first start, it's a lot of details. It's a lot of, "I click when and I feed how?" and the mechanics of keep still. People spend time acquiring dog training skills.
And so I try to emphasize play is something we all kind of know how to do. I'm not actually teaching you to be playful. I'm helping you find it. I'm helping you use behaviors in your body that your dog could interpret as playful, helping maybe translate between species or something. But we are primates, and we have all been children, and we have all played. We all know some form of knowing how to play. We all have a sense of humor somewhere in there.
I have evolved as such that I teach a lot by analogy, and I teach a lot by "You can do this." I'm not here to tell you "Move your hand this way, and then it will be play," and "Hip-check your dog and then go into a play bow. That's your recipe and then your dog will play." It's never going to work that way. You have to do it by feel, you have to do it by connection, you have to do it by this authentic place of enjoying each other, laughing together, and playing, and people know how to do that.
So I focus a lot now on tapping into something that's very natural in people so that they feel empowered to be able to do this. The part I try to impart to them is the structure of what you're doing with it, to make sure you don't either go too boring or too energetic.
But outside of that, I want you to find the play that works for you with your dog. Every dyad, every two people, have a different friendship. Every two romantic partners have a different relationship than each of those people's romantic partners from before. You create something new with each new person, with each new pairing. And I am thinking a lot these days about how to get people to be in that space, because once you're in that space, what comes out comes out pretty naturally. It comes out like how you are and not like how I am. People want to copy me, people say, "Show me your play," and I can do that, but it's like, "Don't play like me. You are not me. Tell your jokes. Make your dog laugh.
Going out on the road has helped me to focus on the big-picture parts, where, "You can do this, person. You don't need me to hold your hand once you get it. Once the penny drops, you can do this." I want people to see how natural my "look and dismiss" and my play-facilitated learning is, because we already do all of these procedures ourselves. Every human being, every person, every mammal, everybody looks at stuff they're worried about and doesn't need to look anymore, once they feel okay about it, and every one of us social beings plays.
These are all natural processes that I'm roping in, and they're not full of a lot of technique. You don't have to be perfect at this. It's the way we guide children, it's the way we guide our friends, it's the way we help each other, and it's a natural process. Once I can tap into that for people, I think it unfolds more naturally and doesn't have to be too unfamiliar to acquire. If I can get you to feel familiar about it, I think I can get more success. So that's the part that I focus on these days as The Play Way evolves. It's how can I get it to be more accessible so you don't need to feel like you're adopting something super-complicated, because the more natural you feel about it, the more likely you are to have success with it.
Melissa Breau: Alright, last question here to wrap things up. If you were going to take all the stuff we talked about — and man, have we covered a lot of ground …
Amy Cook: That's because you're so good at eliciting it out of me. But I can't do a short answer to save my life, so maybe this is a two-parter.
Melissa Breau: We're going to try. If we were to drill it all down into one key piece of information that you really wish all handlers understood, what would that be?
Amy Cook: I wish, if I could make sure people left with an idea, I would like people to … there's so many low-hanging fruits I would like to grab; you could have made this a Top Ten list. I want people listening to realize I'm picking one because I'm picking one. It's not because it's the only thing I want you to know.
I really, really wish people — all people; trainers, but regular dog owners — would keep strongly in their mind that when you have a problem, when a problem is presenting itself, when a dog is doing a thing you don't want, and you need this problem to go away, the time to do that change is not in the moment. You do not train during your problem, and that's true for all of dog training.
If you are having a problem with your dog, having trouble performing their trained behaviors in a ring, you don't take that moment and say, "We're flipping into school." You note it. You note that you have the problem. You prevent any worsening in that moment and you go back to your drawing board.
I picked this as my one thing because I just too often see people saying, "He's barking in his crate. How do I get him to stop? What do I do when he's barking in his crate to get him to stop?" "He is pulling on leash. How do I deal with the fact that he's pulling on leash all of the time? How do I fix this?" So much attention is paid to what you do in the moment the problem is happening. Most of school, almost all of school out of context. You take it completely out of the context, so that you have control over the school that you're putting together.
You don't teach people skills during the test they're taking. They learned all those skills before the test happened. And it's not natural for people. If it were natural for people to do this, I wouldn't be saying this. We wouldn't have this problem. It is the human normal to see the problem and want to apply a solution right then and there.
That's why we get correction, that's why we get a lot of systems, it's like, "Don't do that, don't do that." Or even just people, just us, "Don't do that. I don't want that. My dog is doing this. Stop my dog from doing this," because we don't actually fundamentally believe … we're so afraid that the problem is going to continue and reinforce in the moment that we must have a reaction in the moment, otherwise everything is going to get worse.
And you know what? I want to assure you that that's not how it goes. You can just interrupt, move along to something else right then, write down what your problem was there, and then go to your drawing board and say, "How do I attack this and get new skills into this dog?"
I don't want to deal with crate barking right in the moment when they're barking in the crate, because the only thing you have right there is suppression. There's nothing you're going to do to stop crate barking today, right now, in your car. You're going to note you have the problem and go make a plan, and start on the first step that is correct for that problem. That seems like a very basic dog training pronouncement, but we don't naturally want to do it, and we lose sight of it real fast.
Melissa Breau: If only there were fast answers.
Amy Cook: If only there were fast answers, and if only reacting in the moment could … but it was what was under your earlier question of "I take my dog out there and he won't eat, so now I can't solve the problem." It's like you're trying to solve the problem in the problem. Don't solve the problem in the problem. Solve the problem out of the problem and gradually approach the problem. Humans can do it. We can always do that, but we don't think to do it. We think about the problem and it gets us astray.
There are many things I said in this whole podcast hour that I want everyone to take away, but the thing that would be the most impactful is you don't have to solve it in the moment it's happening. You can use a drawing board, and it's more effective anyway. So I hope people can take that with them if they forgot everything else I said entirely.
Melissa Breau: Excellent. Thank you so much, Amy, for coming on the podcast. It was awesome, as usual.
Amy Cook: Why is it over? I'm going to flip the script. My question to Melissa, number one question: Why is it over? Number two question: Can I come back tomorrow? Number three question: Can we do this every episode? Number four question: Why is it over quick? I miss you and I miss everybody.
In all seriousness, thank you for having me come back again. I really appreciate it. I love to reach people this way. I love to have an hour or whatever to coalesce my thoughts, put them in one place, because it really helps me clarify, even for myself, much less for people who are listening, what I really think, and that makes me a more effective teacher. So I really appreciate this venue. I appreciate the opportunity. I really do. I'm not saying that because you're my friend.
Melissa Breau: You are very welcome. I enjoyed chatting too. Thank you, and thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in.
We will be back next week, and I will be here with Stacy Barnett to talk about the key capabilities of a successful nosework dog!
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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!