E231: Sara Brueske - "Breaking Down the Retrieve"

When we talk about the foundations for a good retrieve most people think a take and a hold are the place to start — Sara and I talk in this episode about smaller splits that can give your dog even stronger foundations.


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 Sara Brueske here with me. Hi Sara, welcome back to the podcast!

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

Melissa Breau: I'm excited to chat. To start us out, do you want to just remind everybody a little about you, a little about your dogs, your background?

Sara Brueske: Absolutely. Most of my background has been performing with my dogs, doing Frisbee shows, we do stunt dog shows, dock diving, that sort of thing, for the public out at Purina Farms, as well as various halftime shows and other fairs and festivals. So that has been most of my dog-training career.

Before that, I did teach group classes, specifically sport-based classes, as well as working with private clients and that sort of thing. Now, currently, most of what I do is online through Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. I teach through there. I also travel and do seminars — well, I did, but we all know the Covid situation around that right now — as well as some sport-dog classes here locally in St. Louis, Missouri.

Right now I share my home with ten dogs. I have Australian Koolies, Belgian Malinois, I have a Border Staffie, a Border Collie, a Boston Terrier Shih Tzu mix, all sorts of different dogs.

The sports I do and the sports I train for are agility, dock diving, scentwork, mondioring, disc, and I do some bikejoring and some other stuff with my dogs as well. But I think the most relevant thing that is going to be to the conversation today is that mondioring and IGP where, with obedience, we do a lot of retrieve work.

Melissa Breau: Exactly that. I want to talk about retrieves. I do you think you approach them a little bit differently than most people I know when I first looked through your lectures and through your syllabus, it seems like you've identified some really smart splits that break the behavior down, I think, more than most people do. I think a lot of people start with take and hold, and I think you've added some foundation skills to that. So can you just talk for a moment about the foundation skills you teach as a prerequisite for your retrieve work?

Sara Brueske: One of the biggest things with all of my dog training, regardless of what behaviors I'm teaching or what sports I'm going to be doing with that particular dog, what I like to do is teach the concepts away from the final behaviors as much as possible.

That being said, I like to teach my dogs to work out at a distance with maybe a platform rather than a jump wing or something along those lines for agility. I might teach my dogs to pay attention to whether head targeting is for heelwork away from actual heelwork itself, and how to pivot and all that stuff away from the heelwork itself, before I even get to that final picture of heel.

The reason why I do that is because with any training, no matter how we set up our dogs to be successful as possible, they're going to have errors. Learning new things is frustrating, it can be stressful, and so as much as we possibly do try to limit those errors and those feelings and those negative emotions as much as possible, they still are likely to happen when learning a new concept. And so if I can work out all of those negative emotions and stressful points in a concept that I'm teaching away from a final trial picture as much as possible, then I'm going to preserve the happy feelings for that trial behavior in the long run.

Meaning, if my dog really is struggling with doing a behavior with their face, for example, like a hold, it's much better for me to work out that calm, still duration I'm looking for in a hold with alternative behavior like a chin rest first, because the concepts are still there. My dog is targeting with their face, and they're doing a calm, still duration behavior.

If we look at it, a hold is that: it's targeting with your face, doing a behavior with your face, for a calm, still duration. If I can teach those concepts in a different behavior first, my dog can struggle through that chin rest, I don't really care. I mean, obviously I don't want them to struggle as much as possible. But I don't care if I actually get some negative emotions attached to it, because in the long run, that chin rest is going to go away. It's a throwaway behavior in this picture. I'm going to preserve that hold for the happy emotions.

So now they understand the concept of calm duration behavior with your face, I can just go ahead and generalize it to the hold itself. And it's going to be a lot more of a smooth transition teaching that behavior after they've already learned the concept beforehand and the alternate behavior.

That's why I tend to break that down into probably more splits than a lot of people do, because I'd rather work out all that goofy stuff before we get to that final picture.

Melissa Breau: Like I said, I think most people start with the take. Can you just talk a little more about what some of those pre-skills are, how you work on them?

Sara Brueske: I already mentioned the chin rest. That's the main one. My dog needs to know how to perform a calm, still duration behavior with their face before I work on that take and that hold. The other ones I like to incorporate are sitting on the platform, because if I look at a retrieve altogether, that end picture is a nice tuck-sit. I have to make sure that my dog has the mechanics of moving their body in that way for that front position that's needed for the retrieve ultimately.

The other thing is I really like having my dogs sit on a small perch or platform. It takes some of their focus and their concentration, so you end up with a calm, still behavior with that by itself, and it makes it much easier to teach that hold later on because they're concentrating on staying still on that platform, and then that helps transfer those emotions to the hold itself.

The other one I really like is reverse luring, which is a communication tool, so we have to teach our dogs how to communicate this way. I use it as a kind of red light/green light and a way to add duration to a behavior my dog is offering. For the chin rest, what would happen is if my dog is performing that chin rest behavior, my hand with treats in it would be open, telling them they're doing the correct behavior, and if they lifted their head out of that chin rest, my hand would simply close. They're learning that a closed hand means try something different, offer a behavior, and then when they offer the correct behavior, that will cause my hand to open.

Because we've taught them this communication tool, they realize that, "Oh, the hand is open. I should stay in this behavior until I either get a mark or I'm released out." And so having that really clear communication tool is so important when adding duration to more finessed behaviors like that hold, for sure.

Melissa Breau: Which totally goes into what I was going to ask next, which obviously reverse luring could be its own podcast. We could talk about it probably for the full hour. Obviously, you're not going to start with a hold when you're teaching it. You mentioned you're going to introduce the concept first. Can you share a bit more on what that looks like in the early phases and how it works?

Sara Brueske: The reverse luring or the hold itself?

Melissa Breau: The reverse luring.

Sara Brueske: Reverse luring is … I like to go a little bit into the background of it, just so that people know where it came from, why it was developed, and how we get to that point. Reverse luring is a fancy term for that "keep going" signal, which is that open hand/closed hand.

That was actually developed from Susan Garrett's "It's Yer Choice," her impulse control game where you put treats in your hand, your dog learns to move away from it in order for them to get the thing that they want. Super-important impulse control skill: move away from the thing that you want. Great lesson to teach our dogs. All we do is take it a little bit further.

Fanny Gott was the one who really, really popularized this. The way she likes to use it is actually as a reverse lure, so move away from my hand to get the thing that you want, as well as using it as a duration tool. For me, because I've always struggled adding duration onto behaviors like holds or anything like that, I specifically like it for that calm, still duration.

My favorite kind of dog is that super-twitchy, fast-moving dog who wants to do the thing as fast as they possibly can to move on to the next thing —maybe because that's my personality too, I don't know. It's always been a struggle for me to teach that, and so having that communication tool has been such a huge benefit for me. While I don't actually use it for the reverse luring part of it, where I want my dog to move away, I do use it for that calm, still duration.

With that, we do have to teach it. I normally teach it starting with Susan Garrett's "It's Yer Choice," so that they learn that they can't just mug my hand and get the treats out of it. You have to move away. And then I quickly attach some criteria to it. Most of us in FDSA, we have some operant dogs who like to offer behaviors for us to get the treat. Most of the time they start offering behaviors right away. They're like, "How do I get this treat? Do I give you eye contact? Do I sit? Do I down?" What behaviors do they know? And then I go ahead and start showing them that yes, that's the behavior I'm looking at.

I don't really care at the beginning, I'm just trying to teach them that they can control that hand opening and closing. If my dog offers a down, for example, sure, that'll prompt my hand open for that session. I'll reward them there, showing them that they can control my hand opening and closing, and therefore control the reinforcement. And then, very quickly, I generalize it to other behaviors, because it can easily become a hand signal for that specific behavior. So I might do eye contact next, I might do sit next, I might do front paws on this target.

Whatever behaviors my dog already knows, I try to generalize it to three or four different behaviors before I start using it to teach duration on a new behavior, because again, if my dog doesn't know what open hand/closed hand means, I'm just adding frustration. And so making sure that my dog knows that reverse luring, and then I can go ahead and now my dog is taking that dowel. Now I can use that reverse lure hand to start adding duration to that and turn that take into a hold. So that's the long process of it.

Melissa Breau: It certainly seems like a convenient concept to teach. Are there non-retrieve-related skills that you use it for? How else do you use reverse luring in your training?

Sara Brueske: Oh, I use it for everything now. Once you start using it, you start to see all these different applications on how it can be so useful. Anything that requires duration, it is such a convenient way to communicate with your dog once they understand it.

Two on/two off for agility is huge, those stopped contacts. I can be running an agility course, and if my dog knows what open hand/closed hand means, I'm running, as I'm leading out from that contact, I can have my hand open, telling them, "Yeah, you got that right, just wait," and then release them out. I can use it for position changes. In obedience, if my dog is questioning whether or not they're getting that verbal cue right, I can cue my sit, open my hand, and then I can always go back and reward my dog wherever I need to, cue the next behavior, close my hand until they get that behavior correct. It's a good way to present that picture of the position change exercise, and still being able to communicate to my dog that they're doing the correct behavior. They're not guessing, "Am I supposed to be doing to sit or down here?" and they get that little added confidence to it. I use it for sit pretties, I use it for all sorts of different behaviors, pretty much anything.

Melissa Breau: I love the position change application, just because I think that so often people then use a verbal marker, which then muddies your cues versus your marker versus now your dog's got a lot going on. And so it separates it out.

Sara Brueske: Not only that, but how many times people do position changes. I feel like that's just the exercise that always needs the most maintenance, no matter what, like one of the transition breaks, or maybe the duration between the cues, now we've got to change that up, or the order, or whatever it may be.

Just being able to clarify to your dog the moment they make that choice whether that choice is correct or not correct, now they're not like, "Is she waiting for me to offer something else?" That question goes away. They're like, "I get the right behavior. I just have to hold this until she tells me otherwise," which is absolutely fantastic.

Melissa Breau: Going back to retrieves, I know you also teach this idea of "thing in a thing" as part of your retrieve work. Do you want to share a little about that, why you do it?

Sara Breuske: "Thing in a thing" is exactly what it sounds like: you put this one thing into another thing. Normally, I use that to help teach my dogs a delivered hand for toy play. I start with "Put this dowel into this bucket," something super simple, has no feelings attached to it. The concept that they're learning is, "I can control where I put this object, and if I put it in the right place, I get reinforcement for that."

That translates eventually down the line, as I generalize it to different objects in different targets, to "If I put this toy in my mom's hand and she takes it, that means I can get another throw or tug," or whatever that reinforcement may be. It's a really good way to teach that concept away from toy play, which can be really, really highly arousing for our dogs, and they're probably not thinking the best at that point. So it's teaching it with food, and then transfer that concept as toy play itself.

However, I found that for some dogs, the hold can be very difficult because they're just not aware of what their face is doing. So just like we have to teach our dogs rear-end targeting and rear-end awareness, we sometimes have to teach our dogs facial awareness. And so just like I mentioned before, the more concepts that we teach our dogs away from final behaviors, the more they solidly understand how to perform that concept in a behavior we actually care about.

If my dog is really struggling with the idea of picking up something and holding it, I might teach them a related behavior, so pick up this object and put it in this bucket. Now I can teach them pick up this object, carry it a few feet, then put it in this bucket. They really learn how to control where they're placing that and what their mouth is doing. And they're actually getting a lot of reinforcement for holding on to that object for longer and longer durations of time, even though it's not a hold, but they're getting used to that in their mouth. So dogs that have a hard time wanting to touch things with their mouth or pick them up and hold them, this is a really great alternative starting point for those dogs in particular.

Melissa Breau: I love how much thought you've put into each of the pieces for retrieve work. How much do you worry about the generalizing bit, generalizing your retrieve to different objects and different places and all that stuff?

Sara Brueske: The sport that I do, mondioring, it's all about generalization. We have our set exercises that we have to do, so we have heeling and retrieve and our absence of handler, which is a down-stay, all these different obedience and bodywork exercises that we have to do.

But what we don't know on trial day, one, what the field is going to look like, because each trial has a theme. Our last trial was an Oregon Trail trial, and so we had covered wagons and stuff like that out on the field. So we don't know what the trial field is going to look like.

We also don't know the order of exercises. The obedience exercises are grouped together, but they can be in any order. We don't know what our dog is specifically going to have to retrieve. We don't know the heeling pattern. So all sorts of different variables are changed each day, and you don't know them until trial day.

For that sport in particular, it's all about generalization. Different things I've had to have my dogs retrieve — hula hoops, a rocket ship thing like a Nerf rocket ship, they've had to retrieve that, a fake gun, cowboy boots, all sorts of different things. I am forgetting so many cool ones. But that's all about generalization. They also have to retrieve over objects, so I might have to retrieve over an agility tunnel or straw bales or something along those lines. And so it's all about that generalization for the sport that I do.

And because I'm me, not only do they have to do the thing functionally, but I also want them to do it with flair and precision. I want them to do it intense, fast, and I want it to be precise. We get docked points for things like chewing. If they chew three times, we get a point off, or if they drop the object, we get points off.

You can still get a good score without having a pretty retrieve, but that's not how I roll, so I want to try to get the best retrieve I possibly can. I found that if I have a fast, intense retrieve, that generally means my dog really enjoys it, and so they're more likely to enjoy it in a trial as well. And so that's what I'm going: for generalization and still precision.

Melissa Breau: And hey, if you've got an exercise the dog really loves, that just makes the trial so much easier all around.

Sara Brueske: The funny thing is … this is a little bit of a tangent. I rely on my retrieves to be that reinforcing exercise. I know that Creature's favorite exercise is the retrieve. Famous's favorite exercise is the retrieve. With those, I can, in training, put that retrieve after maybe something that's not the favorite. I can do an absence, which is a down-stay out of sight with a distraction, and then follow that with the retrieve to help reinforce that absence. This is how I create a trial picture overall, putting those favorite exercises after the least favorite ones and creating chains.

However, I was all excited at our mondioring national because it was just that setup, the absence, which was the first exercise, so Creature's least favorite; he gets a little bit uncertain when I'm not there and it's a strange environment. So I'm like, okay, absence first, that's fine. The retrieve is second. If he fails in the absence or he gets uncomfortable, at least we're coming into that retrieve strong, so then he's excited to retrieve and then we'll go from there.

Absence wasn't good. He got uncomfortable, he got nervous, so he shifted and we lost all our points. It's like, fine, retrieve, got this. We go over, do the retrieve, and I forgot that he hates sand and dirt in his mouth. And because he dives on that retrieve object and picks up a mouthful of dirt, he spits it and looks at me with this disgusted look on his face.

I was like, "Buddy, it's a retrieve." He hasn't ever not done a retrieve. And then my heart just drops like, "Oh, he's not doing okay." This really shook him, this environment, and oh my goodness, the thing I was relying on to bring him back just wasn't there. So I'm spiraling and he's fine. He's like, "I'm not going to pick that up because it's gross. But it's fine. We're cool." So now I'm generalizing those retrieves to everything. Anytime I see a sand volleyball pit or a beach with sand on it, we're doing retrieves.

Melissa Breau: I'm sure in no time he'll get over his aversion to "Eww, it's dirty."

Sara Brueske: We were at a seminar in Tulsa, and it's that red dirt, that red clay dirt, really sandy red and stuff, and he didn't miss a retrieve the whole weekend.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome.

Sara Brueske: Yes, I was very happy.

Melissa Breau: Hey, training works. The retrieve class is on the schedule right now, but you also have your freestyle disc workshop rerunning at the end of this month, and we're in August. Can you share a little bit about what that is and what you focus on in that workshop?

Sara Brueske: Freestyle disc is where we set routines to music. Your players have all sorts of different sequences involving different tricks, and they're there to showcase their dog's skills and their skills and different throws and all sorts of things.

The trouble with that is coming up with those routines that flow nicely. You have disc management in there and you have all sorts of other things to consider. But you're also checking all the boxes for the different criteria and elements that the judges are likely to look for, and so it's hard putting together sequences and routines that fit all of those different things.

It's also more difficult if you have multiple dogs. If you're like me, you've got a whole bunch of dogs, your play style tends to be the same, regardless of the dog you're playing for. A lot of times I'll get students that might have two different dogs and they're having a hard time making those dogs' routines look different. Maybe they have a new up-and-coming dog, or they just realized that their routines look the same. That's always a big thing too. So creativity, putting together sequences that flow and that are safe for the dog and the handler to do, and different elements to help take those routines to the next level.

Specifically, we're looking for students that are either ready to start putting their moves into sequences and routines, or ones that are just looking for a revamp or fresh eyes on their routines that they've been maybe doing for the last season or so.

Melissa Breau: What pieces go into a really great disc routine?

Sara Brueske: Like I mentioned, there's a whole bunch of different ones. It depends on the dog and the dog's skill set and the handler's skill set, but generally we want to see different releases of the disc, different throws.

I want to see the dog moving around on the field in conjunction with the handler, so nice teamwork and flow that way. I want to see field use, so don't just stand in the center in front of the judges, but use the field and move with your dog.

I want to see great disc management. I don't want to notice the player picking up discs. I want my eyes to be on the dog, and the player just has those discs back in their hand magically and we don't know how that actually happened. All sorts of different things.

And then of course the tricks themselves. We should be seeing vaults, if it's safe for you and your dog to do that behavior, different flips, overs, long throws, short throws, juggles, stalls, all different elements and making sure that we're doing a variety of those and not repeating tricks. And if we are repeating tricks, are we changing it in a way so that it looks different and it's visually appealing. So yeah, lots of different things.

Melissa Breau: It sounds like it. Anything else you want to share, either about the disc workshop or even about the retrieves class?

Sara Brueske: I don't think there's … I think we've pretty much covered everything. But even if you don't play disc with your dog, maybe you do freestyle dance or another sport, or maybe you're just curious about disc, it might be worth it just to audit that workshop, for sure. If you maybe have a local club or you're not quite ready to get that routine together, definitely audit it and watch, and that way you learn different things that you should be paying attention to in that sport.

Melissa Breau: If nothing else, you get to watch all of the cool routines that people have put together.

Sara Brueske: Exactly, which is always great.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. To round out our conversation, if you were to drill all the stuff we talked about today into one key piece of information you really want people to take away, what would that be?

Sara Brueske: Oh my goodness, that's a hard question. I would probably say that concepts are important, making sure that you're training the concepts before you get to that final picture. As far as the retrieves go, that's probably the most important thing.

For the disc one, I don't know. I would say that there's a lot more than meets the eye for that. And making sure that the little details are all there. I guess that works for retrieves too, because a lot of times we want to rush that. So details are important. Let's just say that.

Melissa Breau: I like it. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Sara.

Sara Brueske: Thank you so much for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We will be back next week with several experts on dog aggression to talk about the upcoming Aggression in Dogs conference.

If you haven't already, subscribe to the 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! 

E232: Aggression in Dogs
Strategy for Agility: A Course Map Analysis Case S...

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