E233: Megan, Denise, and Stacy on Balancing Skills in Training

Today Megan Foster, Denise Fenzi and Stacy Barnett join me to talk about building balance into our training, how your dog's natural traits factor in, and when you might not want balance after all.


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 Denise Fenzi, Stacy Barnett, and Megan Foster here with me to talk about the idea of balancing our dogs' skills in training.

Hi all, welcome to the podcast!

[All say hello]

Melissa Breau: To start us out, I'm going to have you each share your name, a bit on who your dogs are, and what your background looks like a little bit. Denise, I think folks know who you are, but do you want to start us off anyway?

Denise Fenzi: I've got three dogs I have Frito, a little terrier mix, I have Lira, a Belgian Tervuren, and my new dog is Dice. He's the one I'm working with most intensively, so probably the one people are most familiar with at this time. He is being trained for the sport of mondioring, which is a very small biting sport that's very unique and fun and each trial is different. So it's fun for me to be doing something new.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Stacy?

Stacy Barnett: I do nosework, and I have five dogs right now. I have the two dogs that are retired or semi-retired. I have a Standard Poodle named Joey and a miniature American Shepherd named Why, and I have three young Field Labradors, which basically means that I'm crazy or should be committed.

I have a 4-year-old Labrador Retriever named Brava, I have a 2-year-old Labrador Retriever named Powder, and a 1-year-old Labrador Retriever named Prize. And yes, I do get their names mixed up all the time and call them all the wrong name.

Melissa Breau: Megan?

Megan Foster: I primarily compete in agility and have been for the last 23 years. There are six dogs in my house, but we're going to label four of them mine. Smack is a 13-year-old Border Collie, Shock is a 10-year-old Border Collie, Shrek, who I think most of our audience will know the best, is my nearly 6-year-old Parson Russell Terrier, and I have a brand-new, 15-week-old, baby Border Collie puppy, Sprint.

And yes, I would probably also say that they all respond to the one name that just comes out, because that's the life we've gotten ourselves into with all of those S names.

Stacy Barnett: I have two P's. That's the problem. I have two P's.

Megan Foster: Even my partner's two dogs, they also begin with S: Skittles and Streak. So all six dogs have S's.

Melissa Breau: Did you do that intentionally to yourself?

Megan Foster: It didn't start out intentional, but then I just couldn't break it. Melissa Breau: By the time you get to the to the fifth or sixth dog, you just have to keep the streak going.

Megan Foster: Right.

Melissa Breau: All right, ladies. I asked you all here because there's a topic that came up my Treibball class that I thought would be fun to talk about with all of you.

In class I talk about this desire to build value, both for the push and building value for going to a target, as skills that are on opposite sides of a pendulum. I tell my students that their dog will swing to one side or the other, and that we then want to take that and work to build value for the opposite end of the arc. And then, as we build value, the dogs may swing in that new direction and we'll have to add reinforcement to the other side, back and forth until we find a balance.

I think I've heard each of you talk about that concept individually in different ways related to the various sports you train, the things you work on with your dog. So starting off with that metaphor, what skills do you see in your own sports that handlers may need to try and balance out, for lack of a better phrase? Megan?

Megan Foster: In agility, I think these are the main ones that I think the most about is the dog's ability to balance their obstacle focus and their handler focus. So their ability to seek out and stay committed to the obstacles on their lines while also following the handler's instructions, both physical and verbal.

We also have this back and forth in agility of fast-paced forward, keeping an extension or keeping your motion going, balanced with some control behaviors: contact, stopping for the contact, stopping for the table, collecting for the weave pole entries. And we also have to balance which direction the dog is turning in, left and right. So I think for agility there's a whole lot of balance needing to be trained for, but those are the main three that I thought of.

Melissa Breau: Stacy?

Stacy Barnett: I feel like a couple of big things. First of all, it's just the skill of problem solving. In nosework, that's really what it is. It's like the dog has to problem-solve and capture the odor, and they have to figure out where the hide is coming from.

What you're going to find is that a dog that's really effective at doing that is able to leverage their history that the hides that they felt before or the assumptions that they've made, but not so much that it becomes ironclad. For instance, balancing the eyes versus the nose. Where we want the dog to use their nose, we also want them to assess their surroundings and to understand how to leverage contextual cues. But we don't want them to leverage contextual cues so much that they believe it has to be on the chair, or has to be on the vehicle and not near the vehicle, things like that. That's a part of it. So we're always trying to optimize that.

The other example of where balance is really needed is in sourcing, because that's where the dog has to actually get to the hide and be able to figure out exactly where, and to communicate exactly where, the hide is located. If we have too much focus on the source, we can get more of what we call an aggressive response, where the dog is digging at the hide or causing any destruction.

Or we could actually get to where the dog is so focused on the sourcing that they forget the hunting part of it. If it's so much on their alert behavior, then you can lose some of the hunt. If you have too little focus on source, maybe the dog has lack of clarity in terms of what they're trying to do, or maybe they get a little frustrated or loss of confidence, and you can end up leaving some hides behind.

So those are the two big things I would do with nosework.

Melissa Breau: Denise?

Denise Fenzi: I love those answers. There's so much similarity when I think about sports. The big one in the protection sports is drives and control. So getting a dog to respond to the handler, to respond quickly and accurately, and at the same time maintaining the dogs love that forward drive to go towards what they are doing. That's the one that covers everything in the protection sports and is always on the top of my mind every time I train.

On the more obedient side of it, if I use the terminology Stacy just used, I talk about patterns versus unpredictable. Patterns give my dogs comfort, do lots and lots with patterns. Unpredictable makes them pay attention. There's a lot of tension there between those two and keeping them in balance so that the dog is enough patterns to be comfortable, but enough unpredictable to be in the game. In obedience it's also drives versus accuracy, so desire and flash and happy, and at the same time doing it correctly.

I think those are the big ones in my sport, including the obedience portion.

Melissa Breau: I'd love to have you talk us through a little bit of how you approach your training, specifically with balance in mind or to work towards that concept of balance. Stacy, want to start us off?

Stacy Barnett: I love the phrase that patterning versus the unpredictability. I use that a lot in the problem solving, or I sometimes call it assumption busting. Dogs that get very focused on objects are going to have a really hard time actually getting to source because they're going to be thinking more that has to be on an object.

If I find a dog that's very object-focused, what I'm going to do is I'm going to put a hide in the environment near the object, so that the dog starts to realize, yes, they can trust their eyes to some extent, but they really need to think about the odor and what the odor is doing to actually get to source. This way, you can keep the dog a little bit on their toes, but there's still the context of there are still objects in the search area that can help them to gravitate toward maybe more potentially productive search areas. So you start to use some of that.

Denise Fenzi: I love that, Stacy. There's so much in there because it's confidence building. What a great way to build confidence while still using unpredictable expectation.

Stacy Barnett: Exactly. You can actually have exercises where you start to build that confidence, where you do similar hides, and then you throw a little bit a curveball, but you do it in such a way that you know the dog is going to be successful. Then the dog goes, "Oh, wait." It rocks them back a little bit so they start to be a little bit more careful with what they're doing. That's a huge part of how I train.

I've also used patterning. For instance, if I'm going to teach threshold hides. If there's a hide near the start line of the search area, what I'll do is I'll pattern on one side. I'll pattern on the left, for instance. I'll do several searches with just the hide on the left, because the dog gets a little bit more focused on more of a directional pattern versus just doing hides at the start line. But then I'll throw in a hide on the right, just to help them to break free of that dead-set pattern, to try to help them be a little bit more fluent.

Those are just big examples.

Melissa Breau: Megan, do you want to talk a little bit about your piece?

Megan Foster: Of course. I think it's going to look pretty similar to what Stacy's talking about. When I'm trying to swing the pendulum in one direction, I'm more likely to use patterns and predictability, boost the dog's confidence, like, "Yes, I know the answer. Yes, I know the answer. Yes, I know the answer." And then as I observe that oh, right, we are swinging in that direction, maybe we're swinging a little bit higher towards obstacle focus, I am going to start to sprinkle in the opposite as needed.

So if I'm trying to build obstacle focus, it might be that I'm using the predictable focus on the obstacle two out of three times, and sprinkling in the handler-focus skill one of the three times, just to make sure that we don't swing too far. It's way on my mind right now as I observe Sprint, and who she is as a puppy, and as she's growing, that I look at the dog in life and what they're gravitating towards in life.

If I've got a dog that is very good at staying put, then I'm not going to spend as much energy into reinforcing staying put. I'm going to put more energy into building the forward focus and the drive of that dog. And as I start to see a change, I'll sprinkle in the opposite.

So simply put, I'm always including both, but I'm influenced by the dog's personality as to how much of each.

Melissa Breau: Denise, do you have thoughts to add?

Denise Fenzi: The answers I just listened to, I could have given those answers. So if we just substituted some of the details in the sport, but to me, confidence is number one, always. So the first thing I need is the dog sure they're always right. Megan's word is to sprinkle. And then I look at it and I try to sprinkle in a little bit more control, if that's showing an issue. But I want the dog believing they're right. I never want my dog to think that we're changing direction, so those changes are small and gradual.

And every single session … actually, frankly, every minute of every session is constantly adjusting, according to how's that dog doing. The less confident the dog is, the more I'm going to spend on their strengths, their patterns, and the slower I will be about pulling in some of my other interests. The more confident the dog is, the more quickly I will say, "Hey, I gotcha. You didn't think about this possibility." But it's a game, and it's fun. It's not meant to be, "I got you; now you're going to suffer." I want the dog to always win. But the more confident the dog is, the more I want them to remember that they might actually need me for details. And that's the same route I think the other two ladies just gave.

Melissa Breau: Do you guys think that all skills, everything we teach our dogs, have this sort of opposite behavior or another piece that we have to balance things with? Megan?

Megan Foster: I do. I do think that all of these skills have their equal and opposite reaction. And we see it a lot of times, or I see it, in agility. I can tell where people are at in their foundation training because that's the skill that the dog wants to gravitate towards. That's the skill that's the current strength. And if you maybe get stuck, if you enjoy teaching one particular skill, so you default to that particular skill, you might be causing its opposite to grow weaker and weaker and weaker to the point of being a problem later on. So "yes" is the short answer. I do think every behavior has its opposite function as well that we're smart to pay attention to.

Denise Fenzi: I agree I had to think about this one a lot, because you told us that you were going to ask this question, and the thing I came to is that different sports have different parameters, so there's always an opposite behavior.

But some sports, for example in mondioring, the obedience is much looser than it is in AKC, so the weight I place on that balancing act is much greater. In mondio, the balance is actually between the dog independently problem-solving, because there's a lot of generalization. You don't know what the scenario will be, just that the dog has to be able to do, let's say, position changes, but for all you know the dog will be on top of the deck and you'll be underneath it. So the thinking is less about the dichotomy of precision elements and more about really understanding the skill. So I do think, by sport, you're going to have more or less worry within a behavior. I don't have to be as precise in mondio. Now, out of habit I still am precise, and who knows what I might do later.

I think some sports especially, you look at agility, where competitions are won or lost by truly fractions of seconds, whenever contests are super-close, scores are super-high. That's I think when that balancing act gets tight and you really notice it, because tiny differences and erring one way or the other mean you do or don't succeed. Whereas in sports that have less of that — maybe they're less competitive, maybe the rules are a little lax — you're probably less aware of it, even though it's always there, but it might not be quite so on the top of your brain.

Stacy Barnett: I love the way Megan and Denise were talking about this, and I have to completely agree. I think as you go up the levels in nosework, it becomes more and more clear that you that you need to have that balance. You start to see that, for instance, like Megan was talking about, you can tell how people are training based off of seeing their dogs.

You see that with nosework, too, because how you set your hides or how you handle your dog is really going to determine … it creates all that history. All that history is really a predictor of how the dog is going to search in the future. For instance, if you get really excited about high hides, and you keep putting all your hides up high, your dog is going to forget to search low.

So as you start to move up the levels and the problems start to get really complex, it's so important that the dog has the concepts that they could rely upon, and those concepts are based off a balance, because they're going to need that balance to be able to solve the higher-level problems.

But I think all the skills that you see that layer into a lot of problem solving, they all have that two sides of it. It's almost like you're trying to optimize it. You're trying to optimize the dog's ability to … yes, it could be high, but it could also be low, or there could be converging odor or there could just be one hide and let's move on. So you're really trying to weigh a lot of that stuff as you go. But there absolutely seems to be a balance, I think, on all the skills in nosework.

I think as the dogs start to get more fluent in their behaviors, I actually see the dog start to self-regulate a little bit, which is really interesting. If they have that variety of experience to fall back on, you start to see that balance come through, and I think it enhances the problem solving.

Melissa Breau: I've always interpreted the phrase "Train the dog in front of you" to be basically we're talking about. So since that's, Denise, your phrase, I'll let you go first. But I'd love to hear from each of you if you feel like the two concepts are one and the same, or we're talking about two different things — that idea of training for balance versus training the dog in front of you

Denise Fenzi: This is another one I really had to think about. And I've decided — and I'm perfectly happy to be steered in a new direction with more thought — I think they're two separate things. But they are so tightly linked, because the personality of the dog … a dog who comes in with a lot of confidence versus low confidence. A dog who's very forward and excited, high in drive, versus a dog who's more reserved or what we may call internal sometimes.

Those qualities are separate from whether or not the dog is sitting, coming in too fast on a recall, so it's crooked, or too slow on a recall, so it's too far away. But they're related, because the kind of dog that's inclined to come in really fast happens to have certain personality types.

So I think you're … without even maybe recognizing it, you know that when you get a certain dog, you'll be looking at it, and you'll be saying, "This dog is insanely interested in playing tug. The food drive is a little bit low. The kinds of skills I'm probably going to want to spend more time are maybe a little less time on that tug and a little bit more time on the food play, food games."

So I don't think I could ever tease them apart, the two ideas, the personality of the dog and what you're doing to balance the personality, because I want my dogs to be very confident, very forward, but not so forward that they forget they need me. So that balancing is always there, and it does influence which skills I think are most likely to err in one direction or the other direction. And I do think a lot of those things show up kind of early. So by 8 to 12 weeks you're already seeing certain things, and your brain is saying, "Yeah, this is probably where we're going to put our energy."

Melissa Breau: So they're two different concepts, but in order to actually apply any of it, you need to intermingle them. Is that my understanding you? Denise Fenzi: Yeah, I think that's fair. I think the personality sets the base, and then the skills go on top of that. Every dog, if it's in the same sport, is going to need the same skills and the range. But I think the way you end up getting there is going to vary dramatically according to what the dog brought to the table in terms of their innate temperament.

Melissa Breau: I like that. Megan?

Megan Foster: I'm glad I didn't have to go first on that one. It was difficult to piece out which is which, but I think having my own thoughts and having listened to Denise, I want to say that "Train the dog in front of you" might influence how you go about training for balance.

How I'm going to set up the training session might be, I might always be training for balance with that plan of "I'm going to do this two-thirds/one-third ratio going forward, or a fifty-fifty ratio if the dog is more experienced, but how I set up that training session, how I reinforce, how I react to unexpected responses, how I react to changes in the environment — that's going to be more deeply influenced by "Train the dog in front of me."

But I'm always training for balance. Anytime I think up a training session, the balance is the big picture of what I want it to all look like. "Train the dog in front of me is how I get there."

Stacy Barnett: That makes sense.

Megan Foster: Good. That's a relief.

Denise Fenzi: These questions are very good, and they've certainly actually stopped me and made me think about not just the topic, but how I communicate this topic to other people. Because I'm sure we all look at dog training, we all look at dog trainers, and we all sometimes have that little discomfort in us that says, "I want to help this person. There's a piece missing here, and I can't quite put my finger on it."

I think sometimes the conversation we're having right now might actually get to the heart of where I'm feeling something inside of me that is making me watch the session and might relate to this. That's a sense of, "Yeah, you've done such a great job," but then there's that part in the back of my head that's thinking, "But I see that this could cause a problem for us in a few months, if we don't start doing these other things and trying to help people."

Sometimes I'm not even sure what I'm looking at or why I'm feeling discomfort. But something in me is saying, "Something needs to get changed a little bit here," because I'm afraid that with this dog, with this dog's temperament … like forging, great example in heeling. Some dogs, I can look at them at 8 weeks of age, and I can say, "That dog, we're going to spend the rest of our life battling forging," and other dogs you can tell really early on, "This dog is going to struggle with lagging." And those are not about the sport. Those are about qualities I see in the dog, or the dog interaction with reinforcers.

And so from the very beginning, everything I would do with a dog who's going to likely lag in heeling would in my mind be set up to offset what I think is going to be a future problem, which is quite different than everything I would be doing with that dog that forges. This is a very hard concept to communicate to some handlers because they're like, "But shouldn't I just train for perfect?" Kind of … yeah.

Melissa Breau: That's why we can't have a recipe book, why there's not an instruction manual.

Stacy Barnett: Yeah, this is the art to training. It's the art. It's a constant evaluation, constant rebalancing. So where my head went with this question really got into an assessment for dogs and understanding. A lot of times people ask questions on Facebook. You see this a lot. They ask a question and, for instance, they have a problem. Let's say, "Why does my dog false alert?" And you start seeing people provide solutions.

I think when we start thinking about training the dog in front of us, it is that that missing piece between the problem and the solution. A lot of that has to do with how do you assess it, and how do you do some root cause analysis, and how do you assess the dog's emotions, and how do you assess the dog's understanding? How do you assess the dog's performance, and then how do you then weigh that against that whole perspective of how do I balance out all these skills and capabilities and ability to work the problem, and how do I optimize that into what I'm looking for? It's a little bit like you're sculpting the dog. That's really the art of all this. It's like, take a little off of here and a little off of there kind of thing.

I think that for me, a lot of that root cause analysis, and a lot of that "Train the dog in front of you," is all about how do I get from what does my dog look like here, or what problem or what am I seeing here, and what do I with that. And a lot of that has to do with that assessment. That's where my head went. But it's just such a big question. A huge question. It's just large. You could have a whole podcast on it.

Melissa Breau: Just that piece.

Stacy Barnett: Yeah, totally.

Denise Fenzi: Stacy, your point about when somebody on the Internet says, "This is what my dog is doing, what should I do?" and how quickly less-experienced trainers jump in with a solution, and how slowly experienced trainers jump in with a solution, because the experienced trainer looks at that and says, "To answer this question, I would need you to write something close to a novel on all of this stuff, your dog's history," So we tend to step back and say, "Well, I don't know. There's so much here." And then the less-experienced trainers are so quick because they trained a dog or two or three, and they tend to think in terms of what they've seen. And that's such a vital part of it that it makes me queasy.

Stacy Barnett: It does, because people don't know what advice to take. A lot of times they're like, "Oh, well, I could do whatever," and it could actually make things worse. That's the hard part.

Denise Fenzi: My personal favorite is when I see those, I usually say, "Here are some of the things I would be thinking about." Rather than giving them advice, I'll just say things like, "Is the environment right for the dog? How much time did you spend at such-and-such?" I'll just ask questions, and then I walk away from it. I think sometimes that's a better approach because it lets a person start to recognize the root things they should be thinking about, rather than … and often they'll come back and like, "Oh, my God, I have a plan now. I get it." And I didn't even have to do it for them.

Stacy Barnett: Yeah, you see that a lot. But people I think sometimes

want … that quick solution just sounds easier, doesn't it, rather than really doing that assessment and doing that root cause analysis. Not in the long run, of course.

Denise Fenzi: This goes back to your earlier question, Melissa, about is it the same as "Train the dog in front of you," and then what Megan said about all dogs need the same balance, but how you get there varies. The more I think about it now, it's almost obvious to me that those are two completely different spectrums.

When you're problem solving, you've really got to know all of that stuff in that background, and you cannot give that to another person if you're not seeing it, if you're not looking at what's happening with some eye to where you would go. And so you would want to encourage the person, I think, to be separating out those dimensions, like what's your dog's temperament, because if you apply that solution, you're going to wreck your dog. For some dogs, that's a really bad choice.

Megan Foster: You've got to get real curious about the problem.

Denise Fenzi: Yeah. You've got to know your dog's temperament. In addition to knowing the problem, it's just not enough to say, "My dog is flying off the teeter" — look at me taking over your territory there, Megan — you've got to know why, and who is that dog because you could have little fundamentally opposed solutions that would be perfect for different dogs.

Megan Foster: And the more experience you have with any given behavior, you can come up with so many more reasons why the behavior might be failing. If you've only had two dogs' worth of experience with training a teeter, you have a very limited amount of reasons why it could be going wrong. You have to look outside your scope of experience sometimes, so getting curious, asking questions, that's always going to be my way forward through a problem, especially if I don't know you.

Melissa Breau: You mean there are people out there you don't personally know and haven't seen their dogs?

Megan Foster: That's right, and they still ask.

Melissa Breau: To flip all of this on its head for a minute, are there times or even skills that are situations where we don't want balance, where we actually want to train a dog to tend strongly towards one end of the spectrum, or one end of that pendulum swing, versus the other? Megan, do you want to start us off?

Megan Foster: I was so disappointed when I had to go first for this one. I tried to keep my brain just in agility, because I couldn't think of a time, I couldn't think of a behavior that I trained for agility that I don't personally want the other side of that at least a little bit. It may not be that I want control behaviors all of the time, I don't want the dog running the entire course thinking about stopping. But I want to be able to access it when I want to access it.

I do think there are some situations where we can look at a handler's big picture and say, "Yes, I want to swing towards one end of the spectrum and let the other side fall to waste." That might be if I'm working with a less mobile handler, I need that obstacle focus to be higher and some of that handler focus to just fall away. I need that dog's natural ability to follow motion to kind of go away, because it's not going to be there, or it's not going to be there to the level that a dog would naturally expect.

Another situation that I thought of is if you teach the dog to automatically converge on your line, anytime there's an obstacle between you and the dog, it's going to be more difficult to teach the dog to keep distance and stay lateral from you. But if you know you don't want that, if you know you don't want lateral distance, and to be able to layer obstacles, then fine, let that balance go away. But you have to know your big picture, and you have to know a lot about the sport and your handling style and your dog, to know if that's what you want. So I'm very cautious to not keep a balance.

Denise Fenzi: I've been exploring the space of the pet dog world a lot lately and talking to a lot of pet dog trainers, and the rather radical conclusion I've come to is that pet dog owners do not want to train dogs, they just want dogs to live with them.

The conclusion I came to from there … because 95 percent of people do not train their dogs. If you put out a survey of all Americans who own a dog and you said, "Did you train your dog this week?" the actual percentage that would say yes would be minuscule, less than 1 percent. And then I think, "But these people manage to live with their dogs." So how is this possible that most people are functioning — maybe not the way I want to live, but they are living — and it comes down to habit.

And so then I was thinking the reason we are dog trainers, people like us, is we actually enjoy tweaking, maintaining, messing with behaviors. And we are aware that if we don't tweak and maintain and create balance, it's going to slide one direction or the other; that somehow it's going to slide in ways we don't want to see.

I would say in the world of sports there will always be balance to maintain in everything I could think of. But in life, the vast majority of things that I want are habit. Go to the bathroom outside; don't talk to me about that. Don't chew my couch. Do not take the food off my counters. All these things are just habits. I don't even call them training. Just don't see things you don't want to see when they're young, get it in their head that we pee outside, and let habit become the life, the way you live with your dog.

So in that sense I want no balance at all, because I think it's how most people want to live with their dog. Rather than telling their dog what to do and having their dog rely on them and maintaining behaviors, they just want to live and they want to exist. But in the dog sports world, which is why I'm a dog trainer — because I'm passionate about dog training. I love training my dog. I don't want to just live with my dog; then we would just look at each other. Where would that leave us? So I want to be exceptionally involved. In training, I'm going to say balanced in everything. In life, I'm going to say as little as I can get away with.

Megan Foster: I agree with that.

Stacy Barnett: This is a hard question, because I started thinking about this, and I would say 99 percent of what I'm going to train for it's got to have a balance. But I also want to think about balance doesn't mean 50/50. I think sometimes we start thinking it has to be 50 percent this way and 50 percent that way.

I start thinking about the skills and maybe it's 90/10 in some cases, like, if I want my dog to find a hide, I have to have 90 percent focus on hunting. The dog's got to have the desire to go out and hunt, but there still has to be that 10 percent of when they get to the hide, they have to stay at the hide and not continue to hunt. So I think the balance isn't necessarily 50/50, so sometimes I might shift the balance. I might want the balance a little bit stronger on one side than the other, and maybe very heavily weighted on one side or the other.

But then there's also the aspect of … and it goes back to your comments about habit, Denise, really triggered a thought for me, because a lot of what we do with helping the dog to understand that they're searching is all about routine. Because when we're searching with nosework, every single time the dog comes to the start line, the search is different. There's never a single search that's going to be identical to a previous search. Even within dogs, like a whole run order worth of dogs, the search is going to vary dog to dog, based on air current.

If my dog comes to a new area, we go to a trial, the dog most of the time, especially if you're doing things like NACSW, the dog has never seen the search area before, so there's certain habits that I need to have that help to inform my dog that they're going to search. So starting, releasing on that start line and getting the dog engaged in the search immediately — that's a habit. There's really no balance there. We want the dog to come to the start line and just have that habit of becoming engaged in the search. So I think to some extent there are some habits that we definitely want to make sure that there's not necessarily a balance on, that is, "Yes, this is how we start and this is how we search."

The other thing is, for instance, I don't want my dog peeing in the search area. That's also habit, the habit to hold their bladder, because that's going to get you disqualified. So you might have to build that habit or build that routine into getting your dog prepared before you go to the start line. So I think there are some things there that we don't necessarily want that balance, but it goes along with the lines of habit or routine versus the nuances of performance, which tend to be more of a balance which may not necessarily be 50/50.

Denise Fenzi: Now you're making me think about emotional reactions. I want my dog to love working. There's no balance there, just love working. And so you're right, you're hitting on the emotional side as opposed to the skills and behavior side, which is pretty darn critical.

Stacy Barnett: Right, because that's also the key to engagement. Well, a big part of it. You want your dog engaged, and part of that, I think at least in nosework, it becomes a habit. The dog coming to the line engaged does become a habit.

Denise Fenzi: Yeah. When you talk about conditioned emotional response, that's really all it is. It's an emotional habit.

Melissa Breau: Speaking of emotions, that segues us very nicely to our next question, ladies. It's almost like you did that on purpose. I want to talk about arousal through this lens. How does that factor into all this stuff that we've been talking about? Stacy, since I know you have stuff you specifically talk about in terms of arousal for nosework, do you want to go first?

Stacy Barnett: Sure. There's definitely a balance there. I was just talking about start lines. If you come to the start line with too high of arousal, and I want to think of … people actually don't see arousal. That's the other thing. People see energy, people see focus, people can interpret the dog's engagement in search, so that's what they're looking for.

But if that energy is too high, you're going to start to see some behaviors that you don't necessarily want to see in a search. Maybe it's a little bit more frenetic, which might mean maybe you miss your threshold hide. Maybe you have personally worked hides in the dog as well — "Wait, there's another hide over there" — and they leave the hide.

When you have a little too much arousal there, that really impacts the dog's performance. But if there's too little arousal, that's not so great either, because you might see the dog get way too interested in the environment, maybe some distractions, maybe the dog starts a fringe alert, which means basically they're alerting not close enough to source. They're alerting away from source. Lack of connectivity between the hides. They find one hide and then they lose their focus. A lot of that is arousal based before they start to search again. Missed hides, that kind of thing.

A lot of that, when I start to think about balance, I'm trying to balance the dog's arousal, which is basically the Yerkes-Dodson Curve. You're trying to balance that arousal, trying to find that optimal point, so that the dog isn't giving you crazy behaviors that result in reduced performance or lackluster behavior that also reduces performance.

Melissa Breau: For those who aren't familiar with the Yerkes-Dodson Curve, do you want to give us the explanation?

Stacy Barnett: Sure. It looks like a bell curve, and what you're going to find is that as arousal increases, performance increases and it gets to a point where it's at an optimal point. But if arousal continues to increase, performance decreases. That's almost like a visual pictorial of what we're trying to achieve by trying to get that right balance. For nosework, the biggest part of that is making sure you have that on the start line, because that's the biggest predictor of your performance in the search is your arousal on the start line.

Melissa Breau: Megan?

Megan Foster: What Stacy said.

Denise Fenzi: That's what I want to say.

Megan Foster: Because it all applies in the exact same way. When we're stepping into the agility ring, you can see it when you leave the dog on the start line. If you go to a competition, you can predict pretty well how this round is going to go, based on the dog's state of mind on the start line.

If they're looking around on the start line, they're looking behind them, we can assume the arousal level is too low. All of the context clues that told them, "You're doing agility today" didn't do it for them, didn't give them those "I want to be here feelings," and then you also see those dogs that it gave them those feelings, but they kept going, and it's not going to be a great round. They're just going to continue.

I think now it's back to knowing your dog. Each behavior we've determined has this balance factor that we're on. Your dog is going to tip one way or the other on that spectrum when they're under too high of a state of arousal or too low. Some dogs are going to what some people refer to as "stress up" or "stress down," but what does that look like in their behavior? Some dogs might zoom versus some dogs might sniff. Some dogs might go off course versus some dogs might get more refusals.

When the dog is outside of that optimal state of arousal, everything is going to be off balance. They're going to tip towards the side of the scale that their temperament draws them towards, what they're naturally inclined to be doing.

We can also talk about the handler's state of arousal and how that's going to impact things, especially in something like agility, where the dog's every move is being cued by the handler. So something is going to suffer if they're not in that perfect state.

Melissa Breau: Denise?

Denise Fenzi: I feel like I hang out with such smart people.

Megan Foster: Can we do this every week?

Denise Fenzi: Can I just sit here and just listen? You keep saying my name and I'm still thinking about that. In my opinion, the number one predictor of whether or not a dog is going to have a good run in obedience in particular is the dog's attitude and arousal level walking up to the line. If it's too high, the dog is going to struggle. It's going to go too fast, it's going to lose precision, it's going to go before it sat. If the dog is too low, it's going to require two cues, it's going to get sucked in by the environment.

I used to tell people that when I would walk into the obedience ring and look down at my dog, I usually had a pretty good idea right then how things were going to go. Which doesn't mean we always qualified. It just means that I could look at the dog and know if the dog was in the right mental space.

With a dog that's experienced, very well trained, comfortable, we're probably going to do okay. The good news is that when I look down at my dog looking good, I calm down, so that brings in Megan's point about my confidence skyrockets.

When I'm looking at a dog who's got that "Let's do this" look, all of a sudden I'm there to show off. Whereas when I look down at my dog and they're not looking back at me, now I fall apart because I know what that means. Or if the dog won't sit. That's a huge cue. The dog won't sit on the start line — that's bad. And then I start to fall apart.

Somebody's got to run the ship, so if the dog looks at me and I look like I'm freaking out and I smell funny and whatever, the whole idea that arousal is also not just balancing up and down, but are you managing your dog, especially in a sport like agility, which is so handler-driven.

I think one thing that can make a handler amazing and great is a person who can manage their dog, even when their dog's arousal level is tweaked, because they're so fast, so quick, so responsive, they can actually manage the dog when it's on the verge of out of control completely.

In sports like obedience, you have a lot less flexibility. Once you're in there, that dog does have to get through the exercises on its own. However, having looked at it, it's not that unusual if you're in the ring in utility for seven or eight minutes, of that seven or eight minutes, you're probably actually working for only about two. The rest of the time is moving between exercises, scenting your articles, setting up — there's a lot of other stuff that goes into it. Then it does matter. Your ability to connect with your dog and manage that arousal up and down is going to be critical. In the bite sports, the dogs that are too high don't let go. It's that simple.

Actually, when I think about training, I probably think more these days about arousal than anything else. I spend a whole lot of my training sessions, "Okay, you're too high for the toy, you're losing your brain. What happens if I throw cookies? Can I get you that way? If I throw cookies on the floor, will you even eat them?" I spend a lot of energy trying to figure out what is your arousal state, because sometimes it's internal, so it's not as obvious as you might think. Sometimes it's external. What can I tweak?

I find that if I can get the arousal level to the perfect place, my dog is going to rock it. They're going to rock no matter what. They're going to rock it if it's things they know. If I'm trying to teach them new things and they're in that really great mental space, they're going to do really well. So it tends to be what I talk about the most these days, and it's probably where with my own dog I spend the most energy. When I go to a new environment, is this the arousal level I want here?

I'm retraining my dog's recall. He has a kick-ass whistle recall. It's amazing. Call him off anything anytime. His informal, "Just come back to me" recall — you know what, it's not that good. What I realized is I taught his recall, it's intense, the cue is hard and fast, he comes flying back. But when I'm wandering along with him, just watching the world go by, and I say his name, he's like, "I'm sniffing." I never taught him a recall in that level of arousal.

So now I have discovered that I have to teach him a new recall, which is your informal "I'm just going to say your name." I don't want to be loud. I don't want to attract attention of the public. I just want it to be "Hey, guys," and I want you to turn and come back for a meatball, not for a toy. I don't want a dog running at you because I called you fast and a dog is now targeting you.

But it was a real lesson for me to observe how my dog's behavior changed so dramatically, even in training, just based on how I was handling that arousal level. So it's a big thing for me these days.

Stacy Barnett: You just described why I just said to somebody why I can work my dogs off leash, but if I were to just let them out the door, it is totally untested with the recall.

Denise Fenzi: Because you're not connected in the same way.

Stacy Barnett: Exactly. I just took my puppy, I just did this large area search with her off leash and she was incredible. But her recall, if she's not working, is not going to be the same. Perfect explanation.

Melissa Breau: It's really interesting. It sounds like we pulled apart three pieces — skills, habit, and arousal — and they all intermingle, and you've also got the dog's innate personality traits. Anyway, lots to take away from all that.

Denise Fenzi: There's so much, and it also explains why you can be in dog training for a really long time and stay sucked in.

Megan Foster: And still feel like you know nothing.

Stacy Barnett: I think that the more you get sucked in, the less you feel you know. You're just like, "Whoa."

Megan Foster: You definitely have to have a curious personality of, "I wonder why that happened. That was interesting. I wonder if I can make that happen on purpose. Huh. I can."

Denise Fenzi: This is totally off topic. The other thing it gets me thinking about is when I watch my dog do something and I go, "That's interesting," and I ask somebody else, "If your dog does this, do you ever see this?"

The thing that came up today, the specific thing, is my dog was having a hard morning. He was feeling anxious, and when he's feeling anxious, he bothers my other dogs. I don't mean a little. I mean it's bad. He'll walk on Lira, so it's not like she can just ignore him, so of course I have to intercede.

The reason he's doing it is because he's got this little anxious underlying thing and he has to be removed. But when I remove him, the anxiety expresses in a different way.

I mentioned this to someone and she said, "Last night, my dog was bothering the cat. My dog doesn't normally bother the cat. When I got the dog away from the cat, I noticed that even though I put him in a down-stay in his dog bed, I noticed panting, and then he wanted a toy so he could suck on his toy. I thought, "Okay, patterns." Then you starting thinking, "Do other dogs who tend to bother animals in the house show that package of characteristics, and is it actually underlying anxiety that's driving them to be like the annoying little brother."

That's how you start thinking as a dog trainer, and then you of course have to go out and ask your friends, "Does your dog ever do this?" And then you want to make correlations: "How is your dog's leash walking?" Random things that would almost seem unrelated, and suddenly they're like, "Oh my God, the days he's chasing the cat are the days he can't walk on a leash to save his life." Then you take another layer, which is what's the common factor. I just find that way of thinking gets so interesting to me.

Stacy Barnett: And the handler's contribution to that, or the owner's contribution to that. If your dog is doing that, what is your own emotional state at that point? Is that a part of it? Because they're so connected to us.

Denise Fenzi: We could explore this for hours.

Melissa Breau: I think we've covered a lot of ground here. I want to round it out with one last question, which is if you were to drill down what we talked about today into one key piece of information you really want listeners to take away from this or understood, what would that takeaway be? Denise, I'm putting you on the spot. I'm making you go first.

Denise Fenzi: I think I would encourage people to try to keep a bird's eye view of their training. That would be the thing. Always step back, up, look down. I think that's your best chance for seeing if the whole picture is staying in balance.

Stacy Barnett: I would say that balance is the artistry of training. That is why there are no real recipes in training and why the answer to a lot of questions, for instance you see these questions on Facebook, the training questions, is "It depends." And to try to think about the cause of issues, and assess your dog to see is your dog out of balance, either from an emotional perspective or a physical perspective, before you slap a solution on it.

Megan Foster: I totally agree. Sprint's registered name is Eyes Wide Open, because that's how I want to go about every training session. I had to pick her registered name before I knew what her name was, so I was like, "This is what it's going to be." So that, which is similar to what Denise said.

But being curious about what you're seeing, because if you think of everything as trying to balance it, I think you'll be able to come up with a solution and more quickly, because I always say if you can control the wrong behavior, you can also control the right one, because dogs don't think right/wrong; they just have behavior on a spectrum. So get curious, always look at the other end, think of everything as an opposite.

Melissa Breau: I love that to round out our conversation. Thank you all so much for coming on the podcast. This was a fabulous discussion.

Megan Foster: This was great.

Denise Fenzi: I love this conversation.

Stacy Barnett: This was great.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We will be back next week to talk about pressure in training — how trainers may be using it more than they think, and how to train for the inevitable pressure in the ring, and more.

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! 

E234: Sara Brueske, Sarah Stremming & Petra Ford -...
E232: Aggression in Dogs

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