E229: Barbara Currier - "School of Fish: Raising a Performance Puppy"

Wondering where to start with your performance puppy? Barbara Currier shares her take after 25 years of raising performance puppies! 


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 Barbara Currier here with me. Hi Barbara, welcome back to the podcast!

Barbara Currier: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me back.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Excited to chat today. To start us out, do you want to just remind everybody a little bit about who you are, who your dogs are, maybe a little on your background?

Barbara Currier: Sure. As you said, I'm Barbara Currier. I have been doing agility for twenty-five years, and I'm a multiple national finalist. I've done World Team, and I've done all of the different venues, so AKC, USDAA, UKI, CPE, I've done them all. My main ones now at this point are AKC and UKI.

I currently have four dogs. My oldest one is Piper. She's a Parson Russell Terrier and she will be 13 in November. She is a retired dock diver, and now she is my best kayaking dog. That's what she does for fun now. She's my little kayaking partner and she just loves it. She's so adorable. She likes to perch at the end of the kayak. You know the mascots on the front of boats that are always mermaids and stuff? That's what she looks like, perched at the front of the kayak. So that's pretty much her job now.

Then there is Miso, who is my Miniature Poodle, and she is 7. She is my retired international-level agility dog. Unfortunately her career was cut short at 5, due to a genetic disease called IVDD, so now she's my hiking buddy, my "do anything I want" buddy. I'm actually going to start barn hunt with her and see what she thinks about that. I had done a little bit of rally with her after we retired from agility, but that started bothering her back also, so I had to stop that. So we're going to try barn hunt and see what she thinks about that, and fun to try something new with her, so that'll be fun.

And then I have Eggo. Eggo is my 3-year-old English Cocker that I imported from England, and he's my current agility dog. Unfortunately he is recovering from an injury right now. He about a month ago had a bad t-bone accident with a weave pole at a trial and ended up tearing his psoas and his shoulder, so we are in rehab for that now. So right now I'm not doing any agility.

I have Fish, and he's my youngest. He is a year-and-a-half now, and he is a French Spaniel. I don't know what the future is going to hold for him. Of course I always hope that they're going to do agility. He is really fun, and we might try some other things with him also.

I named him Fish. He likes the water a lot, so we're probably going to do some dock diving with him. He also has decided that he loves kayaking, so that's been really fun. I've started into the dog power sports with him, like canicross, and I want to try some skijoring with him this winter. My husband wants to do nosework with him and may be interested in looking into some SAR work with him. So I don't really know what the future is going to hold for me and Fish, but we're really enjoying him.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I definitely want to talk a little bit more about him because he's the inspiration behind your upcoming class. You mentioned you don't know what your long-term goals are with him, but do you want to talk a little bit about what you've worked on with him so far, how you approach things when you first bring a new puppy home?

Barbara Currier: Sure. The French Spaniel is a pretty rare breed here in the U.S. They are a very old breed from France, and you do see them up in Canada also, but they're pretty rare here. There's only one breeder over here, as far as I know. They are a pointing breed, even though they're called a spaniel, so much like a Brittany. They're called a spaniel, but they're actually a pointer breed. They can be trained to flush, but that's not what they do naturally. He is very, very, very bird-y. He's just a typical hunting dog, and so he is easily distracted by his environment.

He also has an amazing amount of energy and stamina, so getting him into the canicross has been great. He absolutely loves that and he is all business. It's really funny because we'll be running … if you don't know what canicross is, it's when they are in a harness in front of you, like a sled dog harness, and they're attached to you on a harness you wear. We use verbals, like "line out" means no tension in the line, and you've got gee and haw and all that stuff. So he can be starting to fixate on a bird or something, and if I say, "line out," he is like, "Yes," and he is back out straight, pulling. It's quite amazing how he's really taken to that.

Originally my goals were just strict agility with him because that's always my goal. But with him I'm seeing a lot of interest in a lot of different things, so I might go down a bunch of different roads with him in addition to agility. I've gone slower with him with the agility because he's such a big breed. Not only physically do they mature very slowly, but also mentally.

He's a 1-and-a-half-year-old intact male hunting dog. So as you probably know, all those things are working against me at this age. I haven't pushed him a lot because he's also very soft. I really like to set him up for success as much as possible, so I haven't done a ton of hardcore agility with him. I've just been letting him grow up and be comfortable in his own skin.

Melissa Breau: Do you want to talk about just generally how you approach training when you first bring a puppy home?

Barbara Currier: Sure. I'm very type A, like OCD, in the way I train. I like everything to be in a certain order, so I'm very step-by-step. All of my behaviors that I train from when they first come home, everything builds on everything else. I tend to do the same order all the time because, like I said, everything builds, and so I need behavior A to go with behavior B to get the behavior C that I want down the road, and so I'm very methodical in the way I train everything. And it also makes my OCD, everything having to be perfectly in its spot, happy that way too.

I'm very slow in the way I teach things. I like to teach one new behavior a week for my dogs, and then I take those behaviors on the road. For instance, if this week we're learning sit, then I teach sit in a variety of different environments, a variety of different ways: motion, no motion, at my side, in front of me. I encompass the whole behavior, and I focus on that for a week or so before I add on new behaviors. For a lot of people it would be way too slow for them, but for me, it just works in my head, so I focus on that one thing. I continue to add as we go along in weeks, but I tend to like to do one thing at a time, if that makes sense.

Melissa Breau: Yes. You mentioned "sit" in there. Do you want to talk a little bit about more what skills do you focus on with a puppy? Do you modify things based on what the puppy is showing you? How do you approach that piece of things?

Barbara Currier: I have my basic outline of what I train and in what order, and from there I modify for the dog. For example, when I'm working on leash skills, I may have a dog that I can see early on we might need to be introducing a head halter for this dog. And so I'm going to modify, and other than just loose-leash walking, I may put into … we're going to start with desensitizing to the head halter and getting them comfortable with that and working through that.

Or I may have a dog that doesn't … like Miso, for instance, I really didn't have to do much loose-leash walking with her, other than just get her used to wearing a leash. She naturally always wanted to walk at my side. So it was like, "You're comfortable with the leash, check, we got that behavior, move on to something else." Where Fish is the great giant puller. Picture somebody on the end of a fishing line, trying to deep-sea fish and bring in a whale — that's what walking Fish on a leash is like. So Fish has had a lot more focus on appropriate leash manners in a variety of environments and that type of thing.

So I really will look at the individual dog and evaluate how deep I need to delve into a certain behavior, like self-control issues. If I have a dog, again, Miso and Eggo have always been very, very focused on me, so they weren't easily aroused by the environment, where Fish is very, very aroused by his environment, so things like self-control issues have been different with him that I didn't necessarily have to really work those things with some of the other ones.

Jump grids is another example of something. I do puppy jump grids when they're about 6 months old. That's all just with bumps, and then I will do foundation grids when they're a little bit older that start showing them really low, like, 4-inch bars, but it just starts teaching them striding and things like that.

When I start doing obstacle work with them, if their jumping form looks fine, I may not go back and do a lot more advanced jump grids and master level jump grids with them, if I like what I see in their jumping form. If their jumping form is not where I want it, then I may go into more advanced grids and so forth. So I do look at the individual dog and adjust where I need it.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned you have a list of skills and you like to go through them. How did you come to that list? How did you develop the program that you're using?

Barbara Currier: I really like to take notes and I like to make lists because I like to check things off. I would go to seminars, I am a seminar junkie, I love to learn from everybody. I think I think you can learn something from everyone. I would choose going to seminars over going to competitions any day of the week. I just love to learn.

Going to seminars, I would learn things from other people, or see a skill that they had taught, and thought, "Oh, yeah, I haven't taught that. I really like that." I'll then come home and look at my basic outline, and what foundation behaviors do they need for this skill? Where would I slide this in? And so I add things in.

Over the years I've taken things away, or not put a ton of focus in, like, early on in my career when I taught two-on/two-off, I did and still now I use a nose touch to a plexi target in my beginning foundation training. When they would start competing, I would still have this nose touch behavior and I expected that nose touch behavior to stay. It became part of their full-on, overall behavior picture into their competition career.

At this point, I don't use that anymore. I use the nose touch in the beginning so that they understand, but then I fade out the nose target really, really quickly. So there was a lot of nose-targeting behaviors that I would have taught before that have been since deleted from my list because I just found that I didn't need them. It wasn't something I needed to spend a lot of time on because I faded it out so quickly. So it has evolved over the years on things that I drill, or things that I added in because I learned from somebody else, or as the sport evolves.

Back in the day when I first started, we didn't really need verbals. And now, especially for the international level courses, there's a slew of verbals that you want to train. Three dogs back, my Border Collie had almost no verbals, where Eggo — I started having to make a list of the verbals that he has because there's so many. The sport evolves and you evolve as a trainer and things get added in, and so that's how I continue to evolve what I train and in what order.

Melissa Breau: Do you want to elaborate at all on the order piece, like why there are some skills that come first or some skills that come later?

Barbara Currier: Sure. I start off with life skills, and then I move on to… there's my list of life skills. It's just basically life relationship skills, everything that puppies need to know: how to be a good member of society, how to be a good family member, walk on a leash, sit, down, stay, go to a place, just the common things that we teach puppies.

And then I move up to body awareness, because puppies have no concept that they have a hind end. They just don't. Especially the bigger the breed, the more disconnected their hind end is from their front end. For those of us that are really interested in the performance sports, whether it be agility or obedience or rally or schutzhund, or dock diving, anything like that, our dogs need to be fairly aware of what their bodies are doing and where they're putting their feet, and so I will start to work body awareness. Usually around 4 months I start to do some body awareness stuff with my puppies.

From there I work on the individual obstacle training, like introducing them to the tire, introducing them to the tunnel, to the table, just individually them learning those obstacles. From there I move into more of the sequencing and handling, teaching actual handling moves and putting things together.

Melissa Breau: What about the super-young puppies? Any tips on working with those babies who come home at that 8- or 9-week phase?

Barbara Currier: Yes. Short sessions, really, really short, like two minutes short. Their minds are … they just can't last. They get so tired so quickly, and when you have a puppy that's tired, they're not retaining anything. You're usually just getting bit and attacked because they're over threshold, or they just go find a corner and they lay down, if you have a lower-drive puppy. So really short sessions.

And a lot of play. There needs to be a lot of play and just learning to play with your puppy in the beginning, learning what types of play they like. Some dogs are very toy motivated right from the beginning, some personal play, some like to chase your hand, some like to crawl all over you. Just building that relationship with your puppy, laying on the ground and just playing with them, is super, super fun.

One of the things that I see in agility specifically that always makes me go "eek" is, for some reason, a lot of people like to get these really young puppies and bring them home, and they just start doing things with them. They have them home a week and they come to me and they're like, "Oh yeah, he can wrap a cone twenty-seven times," and I'm thinking, "Okay, does he know how to wear a collar yet?" Because there's that.

I think that sometimes even though we get them for a particular sport, we bring them home immediately and they're in the boot camp, like, "You're going to be on World Team by the time you're a year, so we've got work to do." It's like, maybe just enjoy your puppy for a little bit. All that stuff's easy to train. You got all the time in the world. Just get to know your puppy and just let them grow up. Let their brains grow a little bit and let them be puppies, because it's a very short amount of time.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, it really is. They're not little for very long, especially not that little.

Barbara Currier: I look back now at Fish, and Fish was not an easy puppy. He was a big puppy to start with, so everything was just huge. I always laughed at the videos that Denise would put up with teaching a velociraptor to cuddle and things like that, because that was exactly what it was like trying to cuddle or have quiet time with Fish. He's sitting on my head, or he's eating my ponytail, and I'm like, "Oh, this is fun and relaxing. I'm enjoying this so much." That's puppies.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Is there anything you'd adjust or do differently if you had a puppy that came home a little bit later?

Barbara Currier: I really don't. I tend to stick with my … whether I get an 8-week-old puppy or a 10-month-old rescue or a 10-month-old puppy that came later, was returned to a breeder or whatever, I tend to start exactly the same way. If I get a 10-month-old in, or an 8-week-old puppy, like, for housebreaking, for instance, if I don't know what their history is, even if I get a rescue and someone tells me they're housebroken, I'm still going to start with taking you out every hour and I'm going to set a timer.

I take it as a clean slate, like, "I don't know anything about you, so we're just going to pretend you know nothing, and we're going to start right from square one." Again I know that because everything builds, as I'm going, I'm a huge stickler for foundation. I feel like if you look at the four areas that I teach, I look at them as a pyramid. Foundation and life skills are the bottom of the pyramid, and if you don't have that and you start going to all of the sexy fun things that everybody likes to train, it's all going to fall apart because you don't have the basis, you don't have the base, the foundation, to hold it all together. So really it doesn't matter what age they come to me. I start the same way with all of them.

Melissa Breau: Looking through your class syllabus, I noticed that you have a couple of fitness-focused things on your list to work with performance puppies. I was really curious about those. Can you share a little bit about why you add those in for your baby dogs?

Barbara Currier: It's more body awareness versus fitness. I don't really start fitness stuff until they're about 6 months and older. In the beginning, the first couple things that I will teach is things that aren't unstable. The Fit Paws and things like that, anything that's inflatable with air, they tend to be more unstable. I am not a big fan of young, young puppies on unstable objects, because I feel like nothing is connected yet. I'm so paranoid about injuries because I've had a lot of them, and I worry about a lot of unstable stuff with joints that aren't connected, joints that aren't real stable themselves yet.

So it's more body awareness for me, like perch work, stable surface, learn to put your front feet on here, learn to put your back feet on here. Ladder work where the ladder is flat. I have an agility ladder, so it can be elevated or it can be flat. I just do it flat with the puppies, like, learn to put one foot in each rung as you're walking along and don't touch the ladder. So it's more just learning where their feet are going, understanding that your front feet can do one thing while your back feet are doing another.

So it's not so much fitness. I don't actually do a lot of fitness stuff. I start to introduce the Fit Paws and the balance discs and all that stuff around 6 months, and even then it's more introduction, getting them used to that things may move underneath them. But I don't actually get into any real fitness with them until they're probably more 9 to 10 months, when things are starting to get a little more stable.

And again, it depends on the breed. With Fish, because his growth plates weren't closed until about 16 months, I didn't really do anything other than "Look at this object. It's super-weird and has weird bumps and it moves a little bit under your feet. Okay, that's cool. You're good with that. We're going to go to work on something else." He's just now started doing more fitness-oriented, "Now we're going to work on building your strengths and targeting these particular muscles," because I know everything is stable at this point.

Melissa Breau: You talked a little bit about this earlier, but I wanted to go back to it a little bit. At what point do you really begin thinking about those sports-specific skills and working those into your regular training plan?

Barbara Currier: It's usually about 6 to 8 months when I start fine-tuning things. For instance, because I don't tend to do obedience, when I teach them "sit" in the beginning, if they're a little bit crooked or a little bit forging, I personally don't care. Even in my lecture, when I talk about sit, I will say, "If your plan for this dog is obedience or rally, you probably want to be a little bit more aware of them forging ahead, because that's going to be something that's going to affect your sport down the road." For me, it doesn't affect my sport, so I'm not a huge stickler about that.

As they start to get older, then I might work in more … for instance, for me, with a sit with a lineup, I'm lining them up in front of an obstacle for a lead out. If I put them in a sit at my side, I want them to stay in the position at my side that I put them in, not forge around in front of me and sit. That's the type of thing where I put you at my side, so this is where you're going to stay. You're not going to forge around and try to look at me. Or if I lead off laterally, you're not going to move your body and turn to follow me. You're going to hold that sit.

But in the beginning, when they're young and they're just learning the actual behavior of "My butt goes on the ground and that makes Mom happy," I'm not a huge stickler about everything has to be perfect, because at that point I just want them to think that this is a fun little game: "When my butt hits the ground, Mommy gets excited and gives me cookies."

Melissa Breau: I want to talk just a little more about your class. Is there anything that we maybe didn't get into, or anything else you just want to share about the class itself, for who it's for?

Barbara Currier: It's really for any puppy, doesn't matter the age. I have had a few people send me emails that they were concerned that their puppy was going to be 8 weeks old, and will they be able to do anything. It's actually geared for you bringing your puppy home.

The very first exercise that we do is my puppy comes home and I give them 24 hours just to be, like, "This is your new world." And then the first thing we do is we go out and we play the Name Game, which is the first assignment. So it's designed for the very first thing you do when your puppy comes home. It doesn't matter if your puppy is 8 weeks old, or 6 months old, or even you just got a rescue and it's a year old. It doesn't matter. This will work for any puppy.

If your puppy is a little bit older, they may know some of these behaviors already and that's okay. If they already know some of these behaviors, then you can up the ante. If they already know sit, great. Do they know sit from your side? Do they know sit in front of you? Do they know sit on both sides of you? They do? Great. Do they know sit if you are walking with them? Can they do it in motion? Can they hold the sit while you move ahead? What's their sit/stay like? So there's ways to, even if you have a dog that knows some of these behaviors, we can always up the ante and make it a little bit more challenging and push the envelope a little bit with some of these puppies.

It doesn't matter if they're not going to do agility, because, like I said, this is a part one and a part two. Part one focuses on relationship life skills and body awareness, and those two things work for any dog sport out there. It's the same thing, no matter what sport they're going to do. It's not just agility-related.

Melissa Breau: And because I'm not sure if you've said it, the class is officially called … the real name is School of Fish: Raising a Performance Puppy. I wanted to make sure. I was like, I don't know if I actually named the class earlier in the questions.

I want to round everything out with one last question, which is, if we were to drill down everything we talked about today into one piece of information you really wish new puppy owners or folks listening understood and took away from the conversation, what would that be?

Barbara Currier: I think it would be to enjoy the journey with your puppy, because puppies are hard. Puppies will take the best dog trainer in the world and humble them to a pool of crying mess on the ground. Puppies are hard, and you will probably cry because of your puppy. If I look back, I think every single puppy I've ever owned has brought me to tears of frustration at one time or another. Do you agree with that? Have you been there?

Melissa Breau: Oh goodness, I think I probably have. Levi was the only dog I brought home as a puppy, but yeah.

Barbara Currier: It's like one day you have this perfect angel, and then as they start to get older, they start to get independent. You do all this work, and then around 8 months they become little devils like, "Sit? What is sit? And this name that you keep yelling at me? I don't know it." Everything just goes away, and you're like, "Oh my God, where has the last eight months of your life gone? Did I not teach you these things?"

They can be really, really frustrating, but I think the thing that people need to remember — Denise has been a great one to help remind me of this a lot of times, and Deb Jones has been another one to help remind me of this a lot of times — they grow out of a lot of the things that drive us crazy as puppies. I know a lot of us think that we're ruining our dogs, or that this is going to turn into a major behavioral problem and oh my God, but they really do grow out of a lot of things.

Fish had this one behavior that he did that used to make me insane. When I build courses, I like to let my dogs be out there in my field while I'm building the course, but they're trained not to take any obstacles while they're out there. But Fish — you'd think he was a Border Collie. Fish wanted to herd me the entire time and attack all my equipment as it was moving. He's biting my tunnel bags and he's dragging them, and he's picking up the numbers and running around them, and he's attacking my tunnels, and I'm like, "This is not behavior I want you to have."

So he was banned from the agility yard. He lost his privileges about 4 months old. And just two nights ago I was out building with my husband, and he's a year-and-a-half now, so I'm like, "We're just going to see." I let him come in while we were building the course, he tried once when I was dragging the weave poles to attack the base of the weave poles, and I said, "No, sir." And he stopped. And then, after that, just a normal dog. He didn't attack the tunnels when we were moving them, he didn't attack the tunnel bags, he ran around with his toy, he laid down under the A-frame, and I was looking at him like, "Look at you. You grew out of this."

So they really do grow out of a lot of the things that you just want to kill them for when they're puppies. And so puppies are hard, and you have to give yourself grace and know that they do grow up.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. I think we trigger-stack, too, because little puppies tend to mean we're not sleeping much, and we're maybe not good doing all the self-care things that we usually do, because they can't be alone as long. There's a lot of bits and pieces there. There's a reason they're so dang cute, right?

Barbara Currier: There is. We're so lucky that we have our instructors page where we're moral support for each other, because I can't remember how many times I posted on there. I was like, "Guys, oh my God, this dog is going to kill me," and everyone's so supportive: "Been there, been there. You'll be fine. You'll be fine."

I remember telling Denise, "I feel like I have a chance, if you're going through this too." I consider Denise one of the best dog trainers in the world, and if she has struggled, that makes me feel like, "Okay, I'm not doing everything wrong."

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Barbara. It's been a great conversation.

Barbara Currier: Oh, thanks for having me. I always love coming on.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Sue Ailsby and Heather Lawson to talk about the Training Levels Program.

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


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

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training!


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

The Secret (reel) Life of Dogs: Free Roaming Dogs
Position Changes Out in Front: Exploring the Sit

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to https://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/