E234: Sara Brueske, Sarah Stremming & Petra Ford - "Pressure in Training"

Pressure in dog training can have a lot of different meanings and factors in a variety of ways — in this episode we talk about both unintentional pressure and the kind you need to train for if you want to compete.


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, Sarah Stremming, and Petra Ford here with me to talk about an important topic in training a sports dog — the idea of pressure.

Hi all, welcome to the podcast!

[All say hello]

Melissa Breau: Excited to talk about this, I'm actually really excited. This is one that's been on my list for a while. To start us out, I'm going to have you share your name, that way folks can match a voice to a name, and a bit on who your dogs are and what your background looks like. And just to give listeners a heads up, because we have Sarah and Sarah, I'm going to try really hard to use last names. So Sara Brueske, would you like to go first?

Sara Brueske: Absolutely. I'm Sarah Brueske, for now going to be called Brueske for the rest of this podcast. I remember I have a lot of dogs. My history is I started pet dog training, I went to the Karen Pryor Academy, and then I was doing agility training and sport dog training, and eventually Purina hired me to do shows in front of the public every single day.

And so my pressure … not only do I compete in a variety of sports -- I'm trialing this weekend in mondioring for our Level Two; crossing fingers that that goes okay -- but I also have the pressure of having to perform in front of sometimes thousands of people. And so it's coming from a little bit of a different place. My dogs are under a little bit more pressure as far as having to work and perform than a lot of typical sport dogs are. And so hopefully I have a nice unique viewpoint for you guys on that one.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Petra, do you want to go next?

Petra Ford: Hi. My background is just training, competing for fun, it's my hobby. My background is originally in more traditional obedience training before I made the jump over to positive training. In traditional training, they do not discuss pressure at all. It's never been mentioned, it's never been addressed. They don't know what it is. So when I switched over and started to learn more about it, it was amazing, it was totally eye-opening, it completely changed the way I'm training. And so I'm trying to get the word out there, little by little, slowly by slowly. It's pretty fascinating. It's a tough concept for them to wrap their heads around. The positive community has a much easier time with that.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. And Sarah Stremming.

Sarah Stremming: Hi, I'm Stremming from here on out. I have a bunch of dogs, but the three that I claim are two Border Collies and an Icelandic Sheepdog. I've been doing agility and obedience competitively for just over twenty years. My background has a lot to do with sport dog training, but also with just coaching owners through tough behavior problems in their pet dogs. I taught a lot of pet dog training group classes as well, once upon a time, and now I really focus most of my attention on behavior concerns in performance dogs.

When it comes to pressure, which I'm sure we're going to dive into at length next, it's certainly the many different forms that it can take, and the many different definitions of it have always been present in my mind. But, like Petra, I also started in competitive obedience, and it was not something that we talked about a whole lot. So it's an interesting thing for us to dive in on.

Melissa Breau: Speaking of that, I think the idea of pressure in training can maybe have some different meanings and factors in a lot of different ways, especially when we're talking about competitive sports. So I think it makes sense to start with the most obvious form of pressure: just the pressure to perform in a ring. What are some of the ways pressure is part of that competition picture? And I know, Stremming, you are going to start with how you view pressure and what it is, so go for it.

Sarah Stremming: First of all, I think getting on the same page as far as what we're talking about -- and we may not all be on the same page, which is why panels are fun.

I think of pressure as competing motivation, so anything that is a competing motivator to competing against the motivator that you would like to be at the forefront of your dog's mind, to me, would count as pressure.

I think most of the time when we talk about it, what we mean is, if we understand that a motivator is always the dog is trying to get something or trying to get away from something, so they're either trying to avoid or acquire, then, when we talk about pressure, I think usually we like them to still be thinking about acquisition. We'd like them to still be thinking about getting the reward, getting the payout. But we get seeking avoidance as that competing motivator coming in, so we start to see them care more about getting away from something than getting to something. I think we call that pressure a lot of the time.

When it comes to the ring, those things that they might want to avoid, or other things that they want to acquire, like maybe there are dogs on the outside of the ring that they want to go say hi to, or maybe there is a sandwich on the steward's table that they are interested in. So maybe it is still in that acquisition state of mind, but it's not the state of mind that you want, because you'd like them to still be thinking about your payout and your agenda and your activity, and you get these competing motivators that come in.

What's so hard about the ring is that we have to leave all of our big guns outside of the ring, so then we don't have anything on us to compete with those things. And so it doesn't matter if it's, "I want to avoid the judge and that feels yucky to me," or "I would rather go eat the sandwich off the steward's table because that seems like a better idea than what your idea is." Those are both things that we have to deal with as part of the competition picture.

Melissa Breau: I think that lays it out well, but let's see if everybody agrees. Petra?

Petra Ford: Oh, boy. I think when a dog has a problem in the ring, I want to break it down and say, "What is the root cause of the problem?" I've started to actually break it down even more as, "Is it a distraction?" which I handle one way, which I think is now that I heard Sarah say it, it probably is more of the same, but in my mind I treat a distraction one way, because to me, when my dogs are distracted, I feel like it's more like they're curious. They're like, "Oh, what's over there? Ooh, that's pretty interesting." And when my dogs feel pressure, I don't get the same response. They internalize. They want to either get away from it or they freeze.

For example, my girl Zayna, if she finds something interesting, she'll look at it, but she's not going to be concerned. She's just like, "Ooh, check that out." But if she's standing there and there's something behind her and a judge next to her and she feels pressure from that, she looks very different.

So I split those out a little bit.

Melissa Breau: To see if I can bring them a little bit into alignment, it sounds like almost you put distractions as that desire to acquire bucket that Sarah was talking about. Does that sound right? I don't want to put words in your mouth.

Petra Ford: Probably, yeah.

Melissa Breau: Okay. But definitely I see how you're thinking about it a little bit differently. It should make for a good conversation. All right, Brueske, do you want to weigh in?

Sara Brueske: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I really like the way Stremming put it as competing desires, competing things that the dog might want.

When I think about pressure, I think about anything that might be impacting my dogs, or dividing my dog's attention from the task at hand. It could be a sandwich outside the ring, it could be the judge standing near them, it could be me being completely different from the way I am in training, it could be my nerves, it could be whatever is going on.

The fact that I don't have food on me -- that's different. It could be the dog outside the ring, it could be the fact that maybe the emotional response to the behavior I'm asking them to perform isn't quite there yet.

So whatever it may be that is dividing my dog's attention, to me, that is pressure. It's something that's completely unavoidable in our training, as well as in the ring, especially in the ring, or when our dogs are performing. So definitely excited to get more into this.

Melissa Breau: To maybe not necessarily define it, but to describe what it is we're looking at, what are some of the symptoms you might see if a dog is struggling with pressure, especially in that competition environment? Petra, do you want to talk about that a little more? I know you started to touch on it in that first question.

Petra Ford: A lot of times I find people label the behaviors, like if the dog is checking out, or the dog is distracted, or the dog has a different agenda, I think those are just behaviors that result from the dog struggling with the pressure and not having the skill set to handle it. I've seen dogs internalize and freeze, dogs will do all the typical sniffing, yawning, scratching, I've seen dogs appear to wander away where I think they're just fleeing, moving away from the pressure. That's probably not an exhaustive list, but enough to get started.

Melissa Breau: I'm sure between the three of you, we'll get a pretty good list. Stremming, do you want to pick up there?

Sarah Stremming: I think the only difference between the way that Petra is looking at it and the way that I'm looking at it is I think Petra has streamlined it down to looking at essentially that competing motivator I was talking about is desire to avoid, desire to get away from, maybe desire to get out of that pressure cooker situation.

I do think of it as being all-encompassing, anything else that is dividing that dog's attention, like Brueske said. And so symptoms that are going to pop up, the first big thing we're going to notice is that the dog is maybe not doing the thing that you want them to do: looking away during heeling, maybe walking through that contact zone instead of stopping when we ask them to stop, things like that.

A situation that just popped up for my partner at a trial this weekend was that somebody had spilled their entire treat pouch right at the ring exit. Her super-young dog, as he came around that corner, got a little air scent-y, a little sniffy, which is so super not normal for him. She was like, "What's going on?" And then come to find out somebody had spilled an entire bag of treats in the ring.

So I'm going to say that moment of him to check out and sniff and look around for that food is a response to that pressure of that treat pouch. I'd like him to smell that food, see that food, keep working, and I think that if he were more seasoned, he certainly would have. Her other dogs didn't notice it. A lot of dogs didn't notice it.

So when they're struggling with pressure, they are splitting their attention. They're not fully able to focus on the task, respond the way that I believe I've trained them, essentially. If I give my dog a cue to maybe sit up from their down, and they snap back to attention, they're like, "Oh, you said something," and they try something else, they're like, "Was it a stand? Is that what you asked for?" To me, any sign that the dog is seeking either relief from something, which is I think a lot of what Petra is talking about, or seeking to get something else, rather than being very much the picture that I believe I've trained for, I could call that struggling with pressure.

Melissa Breau: Brueske?

Sara Brueske: Yeah, absolutely. I think they covered all of the bases, but just to summarize it, any degradation of criteria or degrading criteria, a lapse in criteria, latency to cues, sniffing, that sort of thing.

I have a story, since they covered those symptoms so well. Famous, my one Malinois, has a big reaction to pressure in trial situations. Even though I tried to replicate that, and we'll get into that later, but replicate it in training as much as I can, at trial she knows when it's a trial and when it's not.

Her big thing is she likes to go sniff, or go and find doughnuts on the judge's table and eat all of the doughnuts. Yes, that happened in a trial. It was fantastic. But it's okay, because it was during the defensive handler exercise, so all she had to do was come back when the decoy hit me, to bite the guy, and she did. She ate her doughnuts and then came back and bit the guy. So it worked.

Melissa Breau: It's a fantastic story. People are always so worried about what's going to go wrong. It's like, you really can't plan for it.

Sara Brueske: You can't. There were not supposed to be doughnuts on the table, and she found them.

Melissa Breau: You started to go into it there a little bit, but I'd like to talk about how we can maybe minimize some of the pressure that our dogs might feel, Stremming, I had you down to go first, so do you want to launch us off on this one?

Sarah Stremming: Sure. First of all, Idgie, my older Border Collie, officially would like to participate in mondioring after hearing that story.

Ways that we can minimize pressure … I think it's so important for us to focus on what we can control, because there are so many things in the trial environment that are just going to be there that we just have to train for. The judge in obedience is creepy and too close to you. Everything in agility is so loud. The dog in the next ring is loud, and the dog running before you is loud. And I mean loud not only in noise, but everybody's energy in there is just big, and that can be really hard on some of our dogs.

And so helping to minimize, for me, would be certainly preparing them, which I know we're going to get into, but essentially preparing them for the things that we know are going to be hard, that we know we're going to add some pressure, so that those things are not hard, in addition to the doughnuts that happened to be on the table that we didn't mean for it to be on the table.

I was at an obedience trial once with my first dog, and during our run, another ring had finished and they started to rip up the mats and rip up the duct tape. He was horribly sound sensitive, and so that was too much for him. He had a total meltdown. I maybe can't prepare him for that because I didn't know that was going to happen, but if I made sure that I had prepared him for everything I could prepare him for, which I certainly didn't know how to do at the time, then perhaps he could have been able to cope with that.

Minimizing also, to me, comes down to, "Have I met all this dog's wellness needs?" I know I'm a total broken record, and I always come back to that somehow, somewhere. But have I made sure that this dog has been appropriately exercised this week, has had his enrichment needs met this week? Have I helped him on that holistic basis to make sure that he's been able to do something that is hard for him?

I know that my dog Felix does a lot better in anything that I ask him to do if he got some off-leash exercise beforehand, or at least plenty of it during that week. For your dog, it might not be off-leash exercise. For your dog it might be that they got to do some shredding, shred your junk mail this week, and that kind of thing. So I think those are ways that we can minimize pressure.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. Brueske, do you want to take it from there?

Sara Brueske: Yeah, absolutely. One of the big things coming from the performance industry is that you can't prepare for everything that's going to happen. In the sport I do, mondioring, the whole point of the sport is you can train for ninety-nine different scenarios, you show up on trial day, and it's the hundredth one that you didn't even think was possible but is still within the rules.

And so I tend to over-train. I tend to overgeneralize those ideas and make sure that my dog is well, well, well prepared. I just did the Train Everywhere Challenge for the last month, where everybody is supposed to go out to train their dog, or maybe even just go for a hike with their dog, or hang out on the patio -- somewhere where they haven't been -- every single day and putting in that legwork. Because if you do put in that legwork, when that weird, unusual thing happens during a trial, well, your dog has already seen a ton of weird, unusual things. They're not going to be as bothered by it as if they weren't exposed to as many different things as possible.

We can sit here and say … and it's much easier to sit there and complain that, "Oh, my dog has trial nerves," or "My dog has whatever," but at the end of the day, did you put in that legwork? Did you get your dog out into a million different environments and expose them to those things when they're not competing, and making sure that they're comfortable with them just being there. I think that's such a huge thing.

I also really like training in a trial environment. My puppies are there as long as it's safe -- vaccines, blah, blah, blah -- but my puppies are there, making sure that they can hang out in that trial environment, they're getting used to those noises. Before or after a show, a performance, if I can sit there on the sidelines of a halftime show with my puppy, you bet I'm going to be there, and they're going be playing tug, they're going to be do all the games that they already know and love, so that we can help transfer that emotional response to that new environment and they're not going to be as bothered about it when they're an adult.

So putting in that legwork, getting there early, staying late, training between your runs, doing whatever you have to do to make sure that you are putting in the time, because I feel like that is the biggest part as far as making sure your dog is prepared. Not just complaining when it doesn't work, which is what I tend to do 99 percent of the time.

Melissa Breau: Petra?

Petra Ford: I agree with both of them. I definitely feel that my dogs work really hard, so it's super-important during the week that they can blow off steam and just have a really well-rounded life.

I am huge on generalizing concepts. It's absolutely impossible to prepare for everything, so my dogs go a million different places. I don't allow people to have excuses that they can't do it, because you just have to get out there. I'll take a concept, like a game I play where they back into pressure, for example, to a platform. It's a game. I have them play that game in tons of different places so that they just generalize the concept, "When there's pressure behind me, I back into it, and that's a super-fun thing."

I have seen my dogs, over time, generalize those behaviors in some crazy, unexpected ways. And so I feel that if you get your dog to that point, that when they encounter that in the ring in a different form, they're able to just make that leap. I also think it's super-important.

People have a tendency when their dogs are struggling, for example, if someone heeled your dog into the ring, the dog feels pressure and the dog gets a little weird, the handler likes to go, "Up here," and lean over into the dog, and that puts even more pressure on the dog. So I think it's also really important when you're in the ring, or prepping even to go in the ring, to be really mindful of what you're doing, so that in any way you can take some pressure off instead of inadvertently adding even more pressure.

Melissa Breau: When you say "back into pressure," can you describe a little more what that looks like, that game?

Petra Ford: For years I didn't really realize it was pressure. But, for example, if you heel into a wall, of course your dog is going to want to look at the wall. So we would play games like "heel towards the wall," and I would release the dog. And so the closer the dog got, the more it would anticipate the release and push up into me. Or I would say, "Touch the wall," so as I got close to the wall -- which was a brilliant idea with my current puppy; he just like wails himself into the wall now. So I have ways to make it a game to move forward into the pressure in a fun way, always releasing them off.

Zeal had an enormous, enormous amount of trouble dealing with pressure behind him. There's a lot of pressure behind the dogs in obedience, and in the higher classes you leave them there, which was even worse for him. I said, "I don't want to teach him that he just has to stay there. I'd like him to think it was a game that as he felt pressure to back into it, just like I teach them to move forward into pressure." So I teach them to back up to a platform like it's a game. They love it. And then very carefully I add, "Let's imagine there was a person," and I put the platform not directly in front of the person, but I move it a little bit away, and then have my dog stand. And when I give him the "down" signal, my dog downs and backs up to the platform, so in essence he's backing towards the person that's giving him the pressure. But I don't want people to just run out and do that, because that's not the whole game. You backed me into a corner now.

Melissa Breau: I'm sorry! I was just trying to hopefully clarify that we're talking about spatial pressure.

Petra Ford: Oh, I meant moving back into it in a way that's fun, rather than just having to stand there and tolerate it. Does that make sense?

Melissa Breau: Yeah, absolutely. On that note, on the track of things we can do to train for it, Brueske, do you want to pick it up there?

Sara Brueske: Yeah, absolutely. I love what Petra said about using a behavior that they, love a game that they love, and then using that to introduce the concept of pressure and the fact that it's fun to move into these things and you don't have to avoid it.

I do a lot of the same things. I use a lot of different pattern games. I make sure that I have a couple games trained at home where my dog absolutely loves them. Their emotional response when we start playing the game is exactly where I want it. The energy level is exactly where I want it.

And they aren't important things. It's not my heeling, it's not my position changes, it's not my retrieve. They're things that I'm okay if the dog messes them up, because I want to use that fun game and start showing them and introducing them to the idea of pressure that could potentially happen in the ring. Those are the games I take to new environments. Those are the games I play around new people, or around distractions like other dogs or food or anything like that, that my dog might really, really want.

It can be simple, like a treat toss game -- get it, get the treat, get it and go back and forth. That way it can be a fast down. If your dog really loves slamming into their down, you can just use that. It can be toy marker cue discrimination. If you use a multiple marker system, can your dog discriminate between striking the toy and the fact you're going to throw the toy and their cues for that.

So just simple, easy games that you can incorporate into your training, and using those in a way that helps boost your dog's confidence. That way, when they see the pressure, they're playing a game they know and love, and it's not going to be something that they're unsure about. They're not going to be like, "What is my mom going to ask for me this time," or "Ooh, I'm going to have to do that really hard behavior I'm not quite sure about yet." But instead they're going, "Oh, it's the 'get it' game; I love the 'get it' game," and they stop thinking about that thing that that was causing the pressure

Melissa Breau: I know I backed you into a corner before, Petra, but do you want to talk a little more about things you can do to train for it?

Petra Ford: I totally agree with what Sarah said. I've done treat tosses, I do a lot of tricks. My dogs love tricks. Anything that gives them a positive emotional response and that they think is super-fun, because that activity then overrides the pressure.

Actually, for Zeal, giving him an offering cue, for some reason, really changes his state of mind, so if he feels pressure and I just ask him to offer behaviors, that makes him super-happy and then all the pressure magically disappears. So offering tricks, games, and I agree with Sara, too: I don't use formal exercises. I wouldn't do it with heeling until my dog already understood the concept, then I would bring it into heeling. So I do easy, fun games and just teach them how to deal with the pressure that way, and then it translates really nicely to the exercises later.

Melissa Breau: Stremming, do you want to add to that?

Sarah Stremming: I think obviously we should be training to a high level of fluency under a variety of different situations and scenarios. And I love both Petra and Brueske talked about getting the dog in a lot of situations that are arguably harder than the ring and making sure that they're fluent in all of those situations. I think that's really important.

The one thing that I will add is that sometimes what makes these competing motivators, that pressure, such a problem for us in the ring is that we don't have our reinforcers present, and so the competing motivators become the most salient thing for the dog. So actively training reinforcement strategies that the dog understands, as far as I try to teach my obedience dogs, "When we pass through the ring gates, there is no more food in here. But your food is over there, and I could send you to it at any given time." And we have a ritual about how to get it and those sorts of things.

I think when we train deliberately for the fact that the reinforcers will not be present, we do a lot to help ourselves with this, because so much of the time, all it is, is that we maybe weren't aware of the fact that something was going to be hard for our dog, because we've always got the cookies flowing or the toy. If I'm holding a ball and rope, the building could collapse and Felix probably wouldn't notice because he's staring at the ball and rope.

But if I ask him to heel when the ball and rope is over there, and I've asked him to leave it and come with me and do his work -- first of all, that's pressure in and of itself because the ball and rope is life or death when you're Felix -- but I'm opening the door to see what my dog's true feelings about the situation are, because I'm not able to mask it with reinforcement. So I think training actively for the fact that the reinforcers will not be on your body is an important piece that I can add.

Melissa Breau: We talked a little bit about training it intentionally, but I think a lot of times we can add pressure unintentionally or accidentally in training. So I wanted to see if that matches your experience and then hopefully, assuming it does, you can maybe talk about some of the ways that can come into play. Petra, do you want to start us off?

Petra Ford: In my experiences, the way to accidentally add it is if I'm not super-mindful, because if I'm very mindful, then I'm really paying attention. I'm looking at my dog and I am actively, every second, reading, "How is my dog responding? What is my dog thinking?" And then hopefully I can be a really good trainer. But I'm human, so if I am not in that space, then that's where I think things can accidentally go awry.

I think a lot of people add pressure when they're not reading the dog. Within the training session they have a specific goal: "I want to achieve this." They're focused on that and not seeing what's happening in the dog's plan as they're going through that. I also think that when people set goals, for example, they train one way and all of a sudden they signed up for a trial, and now they're more worried about pushing through when they're doing an exercise instead of reading that, "Uh-oh, my dog is in a little bit of trouble here, I need to work this out first." So I think some of those situations can happen.

Melissa Breau: Stremming?

Sara Stremming: I think that we certainly add pressure accidentally all the time, and especially if the dog is really sensitive, you're not going to be able to plan for everything.

I'm looking at Felix again on that one. When I fell down doing agility the other day and the dog had to take a break in the car. He was very upset. I fell down when he was in the weave poles, grass was wet, planted to do a turn, down I went. It was not the first time, not the last. But he happened to be in the weave poles, which happened to be a calculus problem for him. And when we went to try again, he was walking through the weave poles, which I can't have, so he had to have a little break.

He came out strong, and I think that's actually an important part of the experience is that I noticed, "Oh, wow, that really affected you. I didn't think it would affect you that badly. Let's go ahead and give you a break and try again later." And knowing him, he's 6 years old, I know that the smartest thing to do is always just to take a break, rather than try to get through it in that moment.

But just like Petra said, we add pressure when we're not paying attention. If you're not being mindful, then what you're doing is thinking too much about your agenda and not enough about what you're seeing happening. How many of us have gone into a training session, we have an agenda, we have a bullet list, we know what we want to get done today. This is literally my sickness: I know what I want to get done today; we're going to get it done.

But if you go in there like that and you allow that agenda to cloud your eyesight and not allow you to see what is actually happening with the dog, then you're really going to add a lot of yuckiness that you don't want to be adding. So I think paying attention, being mindful, having your plan, but knowing that the dog dictates what the plan is actually going to be, always, is how we can avoid accidentally adding it. Or just noticing when we have, and then taking that break or stepping back or breaking it down.

Melissa Breau: Sort of like that saying that a plan never survives. First contact the enemy. We need to rewrite that somehow for training.

Sarah Stremming: Pretty much.

Sara Brueske: I completely agree with everything Petra and Stremming said, and that it is definitely a byproduct of just not paying attention and not be mindful in your training in that moment. So instead of hashing on that again, I think I was going to talk a little bit about some ways to avoid it and some things that work for me.

One thing I really like to do is I'll go into a training session and I tend to work my dogs for their meals. I just worked Vibrant for her dinner. I've got a cup of kibble that I have to get into the dog, and I can do handfuls at a time. She doesn't have to work for every single piece of kibble. But instead of going into it thinking, "I'm going to work on shaping her sit-pretty," because that was the big task today, I think of two or three other behaviors that we can work on. They could be behaviors she already knows. And as soon as I get to a stopping point on that sit-pretty, I immediately move into those other behaviors.

So now I'm not like, "I have to keep training because I haven't gotten all my kibble in her," or "I bet I can push this to the next level, if I get to a level." She lifted up both paws? Great, we're going to stop there. I can let latent learning do its thing, and when I come back tomorrow, it's going to be even stronger. Now let's go work on your foot targeting and your hand touch and these other simple behaviors, so that I'm not feeling pressured myself to keep working on that one behavior which ultimately adds pressure to that behavior itself.

The other thing I really like to do is if I have my puppy -- and this is an important thing with puppies, in my opinion, and I'm sure it might be a little controversial, but it's something I feel pretty strongly about -- if I have my puppy and they genuinely love training, I've worked hard on their enthusiasm, their engagement is really good, and I'm feeling comfortable with how they're behaving in a shaping session, I will purposely push that session longer than I should, because I want them to experience that in a way where, when I am mindful about it and I want to be able to see how they react in that situation, I want to show them that it will end, like, just keep pushing, just push them one more rep, because we all know we do one more rep. So I might as well show my puppy that it's okay to do one more rep and stick with me just a little bit longer. I promise you're going to get a giant jackpot at the end. This is something I purposely do with my puppies whenever they're mentally ready for it.

Vibrant is 10 months old, 11 months old now, and she is just finally mentally ready for this. And so I'm starting to push a little bit more in those training sessions where I can go, "Pushed it just a little bit further than I normally would, she handled it just fine, awesome. Maybe tomorrow or the session the following day, we'll push it just a little bit further." I'm starting to raise those expectations a little bit, just so that she can start experiencing that. And I think that's something that's missing a lot in training lately is that people aren't teaching their dogs to put up with that pressure for when we accidentally put it in.

Melissa Breau: Go ahead, Petra.

Petra Ford: I love that you just said that. I do that, and I think another reason I do that is because a lot of the dogs struggle when we start chaining. They're in the ring, and when they start, they're going and going and they're not getting information, and they start to struggle, and a lot of dogs don't know how to just push through. I think that's also what's happening.

So I do that with my own dog now. It's not even because I want another rep. It's because I'm like, "Just give me one more, you can do it," and then he does it. I think that over time they just learn to push through a little bit, and I think that's an enormously important skill. It's something that Zeal didn't have, and when I put that in, it was a game changer for him. Anyway, that's it. I just was so excited.

Sara Brueske: Why I was thinking about it is because I'm looking at my two OG dogs, my original dogs, are laying on the couch, napping. One of them is sleeping with her eyes open, which is really freaky, but that's what she's doing right now.

I've been reflecting a ton on their work ethic and their resiliency and training. I've had a bunch of puppies come through, and a bunch of dogs, and I've raised a bunch of dogs since them, and for whatever reason, there's things that I messed up for sure. They have really horrible impulse control, their duration is god-awful to add to any behavior, they are shaping fiends, they offer a million different behaviors before laying down the first one, their verbal cue discrimination is nonexistent. But their work ethic and their resiliency to push through pressure and training is unlike my other dogs.

And so I started thinking, "What did I do different?" I was a novice trainer. I didn't know about pressure in training. I knew about it, but I wasn't paying attention to it. I wanted my dogs to be amazing and do these amazing things, so I pushed them in training, I was satisfied with … that's the other thing, too, that I've been reflecting on. I was satisfied with more simple behaviors. But by the time we had gotten to the more advanced behaviors, they had built up that resiliency really, really nicely. And so now it's something I've started to methodically put into my puppy foundation.

Melissa Breau: To go back through something … I think we talked about this a little bit already, but the difference between having those reinforcers and not having those reinforcers. We talked about the symptoms that we tend to see in the ring when there's pressure applied. But what about when we do have a reinforcement when we're in training? What are the symptoms that may pop up that may mean we're adding pressure in a way that we didn't intend to that maybe it's working into things? Stremming?

Sarah Stremming: I love this question because I think it's really important for us to be thinking about the fact that our reinforcers themselves can layer pressure onto our dogs. Meaning if we think about … go back to that original idea that I think of pressure as anything that's a competing motivator to the motivator that I want the dog working for. Then if I'm using a super-high-stakes reinforcer for my dog, I could actually be introducing the competing motivator of relief, essentially. If they are so desperate to get to the thing, then am I still operating in a positive reinforcement contingency if their primary emotion is relief when they finally do get the thing? That can come into play.

If I am utilizing starvation … and obviously starvation is a big word that maybe is not the right word. If I fast the dog … like Brueske feeds the dogs for her meals. That doesn't mean that they don't eat if they don't work. There are people, though, who do operate that way. They don't eat if they don't work.

Or certain toys or certain activities or whatever. We can create desperation even through being kind and totally taking care of them, but that's who they are, like Felix with certain toys. He looks like an addict to me. He looks like he is desperate to have the thing, not necessarily just desiring the thing. And so when I maybe ask my dog for a tough behavior, and the payout for him is life or death, then I'm putting a whole lot of pressure on that behavior just with the potential for the payout. That is not necessarily helpful to me.

It's like if we, the person, is doing something that we believe we can do, and the stakes are high enough that we want to do our best – I always bring it back to a high-stakes agility run, maybe an Agility National final run or something like that, because that's something I understand – is that I've got a ton of pressure on me to get this thing because I want to do well, I want to win, I want to whatever.

But if you said, "If you don't get through that course clean, we're going to shoot your dog," or whatever. If you put that kind of pressure on it, now I'm not looking to acquire. I'm looking to avoid again. Now it is the wrong kind of contingency that I didn't have interest in.

A perhaps less dramatic example would be that early on in Felix's life I made the mistake of trying to train him for some husbandry procedures, like toenail trims, for a toy. I actually did it one day because I was lazy, the toy was there, the nail trimmers were there, I needed to get this done. I had used food up until this point, and I said, "Why don't I just do it for the toy?" He could not do what he could do for food.

It is a hard behavior for him, all husbandry is hard for him, and when I made the stakes that high, when I said, "Your payout is this thing that you care so deeply about," he was no longer able to do it. He showed me so many of the same behaviors that we might see if the dog was experiencing external pressure from the environment. He was vocalizing, he was taking his foot away from me, it was a mess. It became very clear to me in that moment, "How silly of me to ask him to do this thing that's very hard for him to do, and to put that much at stake for the other end for him."

So, to me, I think we can specifically make pressure a part of the whole thing that we're training by saying, "What you get in the end is this thing that you care so desperately about that you think you'll die if you don't get it." When we do that to them -- which we do all the time, honestly; in the R+ sport training world in particular I think we do this to them a lot -- because what happens is if you find that nice middle ground, you get a dog that will work really, really hard and give you everything that they have. And so I'm always trying to strike that balance and get that super-hard work, and like Brueske and Petra mentioned, get that resiliency and get that ability to push through because you want the thing bad enough that you will push through, while actively trying to avoid putting them in a situation where they feel like it's life and death and they feel like they can't do the thing that you're asking them to do. Did I go way too far down a rabbit hole?

Melissa Breau: I actually want to have you pull some of that apart a little bit. That's part of the reason I included the question, because I heard you talk about it in your podcast, and I think it's a valuable part of the conversation to include. I'd like to have you, if you don't mind, talk about … we may not see that, especially a newer trainer who doesn't know how to identify what that looks like when it's happening to them. To put it back to the idea of symptoms, what behaviors will we be seeing in the dog or in ourselves, or what does it look like when that's what's happening under the surface?

Sarah Stremming: I think it looks like a lot of trying to do hard, rather than not trying hard enough. If the dog is checking out, sniffing, leaving, this is probably not your problem. If the dog is … like I said, Felix would vocalize and he would try to do the thing really, really hard. He would slam the paw on the target and vocalize at the same time. He's just trying extra. He's giving more behaviors, and they're not helpful behaviors. The word "frantic" comes to mind, just doing a lot of extraneous movement that I didn't ask for, that certainly isn't part of the picture that I wanted.

The other diagnostic that you can always do is reduce your value of reinforcer and ask the same question: Now what does the dog look like? I put the ball and rope away, and I went and got some charlie bears – my dogs give a Charlie bear, like a B+ -- and said, "Can we do this for Charlie bears?" and he was like, "deep breath." I let him play with the toy first, too, which is another part like I let him satiate and then come back. And I ask him the exact same question for a lower-value reinforcer. I talk high stakes/low stakes, but people use the word "value a lot," so asking them, "Can you do it now for this lower value reinforcer, this thing that's not life and death for you?" Now am I getting the behavior I want? If I am, that's the right level reinforcer for the job.

I think frequently we think, "Highest value, most loved." We want the dog to associate those feelings with our sports. We want those dogs to associate ball-and-rope feelings with fetching the dumbbell. We think that that's what we want when it looks like frantic, when it looks like trying too hard to their detriment. Asking the same question for a lower-stakes reinforcer. If the dog is then able to take that deep breath and give you the thing you're asking for, now you're talking a more fair level of reinforcement.

Behaviors that I know are difficult, like husbandry behaviors, I am not going to ask for with something that … like, with bacon. My dog Idgee will pretty much do anything for a piece of bacon. I usually use bacon for her when we go to obedience trials. It's like, you know I'm going to obedience trials, I'm cooking bacon. But I wouldn't ask her to stand for a vaccine for bacon, because I don't think she would feel like she could opt out, and I would see a lot of behaviors I don't want to see, if I did that. She's a lot less complicated than Felix, so I still think I'd get away with it, but on principal I don't.

Melissa Breau: I think it's an important note to end on before I switch people here, but just the idea that it also matters to your dog, knowing your dog. Brueske, do you want to pick that up?

Sara Brueske: Going back to the symptoms, they are a lot of the same ones that we see with external pressures. It could be avoidance of the handler and avoidance of performing the behavior, it could be degradation of the quality of the behavior, it could be latency in response to the cues, it could be full-on disconnection if that's your dog. If you have a more sensitive, softer dog, they might say, "I'm out of this. I can't do this." Or the franticness, yes, if you have that type of dog that spins out, then absolutely that franticness.

When I see it in the sports that I play, the reinforcer is on the field. The top reinforcer is the dude in the bite suit. It's the guy with the sleeve. I have to push through that because my dog has to perform the same quality behaviors whether the reinforcer is on the field and they have access to it or not.

For that reason, teaching them the quality behaviors, there's a lot of ways we go about that. But what I see with that is a magnetization towards the pressure. The pressure is the guy in the suit, the distraction is the guy in the suit, my dog desperately wants that guy in the suit. That's what he's been bred for generations to bite is that guy in the suit. That's his favorite thing in the world, and so I see a magnetization.

I see him staring at that guy, I see him drooling to get to that guy, and I see a lot of frantic responses to the cues, but not the same quality of the behavior I'm looking for. Instead of a heads-up/heel, I get a heads up and look down, heads up and look down, so that he can keep an eye on the guy in the suit, and those sort of things. And so we might have falling out of a recall, the recalls aren't there, his out might fall apart. All of those things that are associated with high-level control – that's what falls apart when those reinforcement pressures are there.

Melissa Breau: Petra?

Petra Ford: Just building on that, historically, anytime the dog struggled, again, the word "pressure" was not used. The answer was always, "Tug more. Make them crazier." That was always defined as, "That's making your dog happy. The dog is in drive. That's a good thing."

People really struggle with being able to look at a dog and tell the difference between the dog being in a state of conflict, like anxiety, really stressed out. A lot of people will say, "Oh, look, the dog is being energetic and the dog is happy." They really have a difficult time telling the difference between the two, and I think that's super-important to be able to identify that.

I think people also have a problem … they'll have that reinforcer, whether it's medium value or super-high value, and the dog will perform, and because the dog performs, the person doesn't even recognize, or it's masking the pressure. The person doesn't see that the dog is under pressure. They're like, "He's doing it with the reinforcer," and when the reinforcer is not on them and the dog struggles with the pressure, they're like, "What happened? He's not doing that behavior because I don't have food on me," when it's really that the food was masking it and they didn't recognize that the dog was under pressure. Did I just go completely off topic?

Melissa Breau: No. I want to dive into that a little bit, because you said it's super-important to be able to tell when the dog is super-happy about the reinforcement versus when the dog is – to reuse that label – frantic, when the dog is super-stressed and they're using that tugging or whatever almost as a release. Do you have any simple ways – even if it's not simple – ways of figuring out which it is, what it is you're looking at? Are there clues in there?

Petra Ford: In order for the dog to think clearly and give you their best work, they really should not be that adrenalized. If my dog is adrenalized from tugging with her favorite toy not even in the context of asking her to do work, if I get her that excited and then I say, "Let's work now," she can't concentrate the way I would like her to.

So more and more, to make it a little more easy, they shouldn't even be that aroused or excited, regardless, because they're not going to be able to think clearly and give you their best work. So there's a higher likelihood they'll make a mistake, and the mistake really was my fault because I got my dog in that state, and so it's really not fair for me to say to my dog "well thats too much." I think it's probably a little of a different challenge, unlike with ring sports, where you can't get that person away, but we definitely have more control over that in certain sports. And I feel like if a dog is that aroused, first we should calm them down a little bit or ideally we shouldn't throw them over the cliff to begin with. That's where I've been taking it with people because I think it's easier, it's more clear that way for them.

Melissa Breau: I like that. I like the way you ended there, the idea that it also matters what your sport is, what picture you ultimately need to do well in the thing that you are choosing to compete in. I think that's an important point to touch on.

I want to shift gears a little bit here. Not to open a whole other can of worms, which it may, but it's not just our dogs that can feel pressured in training. As handlers, it's super-easy for us to feel pressured during training too — pressure from your training colleagues or training partners to try methods you don't agree with, pressure to perform or to have your dog perform at a certain level, pressure to be our best training selves, to bring our best self for our dogs every single training session, even pressure if our dog isn't achieving the same thing as a friend's dog who is the same age, or as their littermates maybe are. Now that I've given you a whole list of all the various things that we can get stressed out about, o you have any tips for handlers who are feeling those pressure points and thoughts on how they can work through some of it? Brueske, do you want to start?

Sara Brueske: Oh, yes. This is my favorite question. Like I told you before we started recording, I have answered every single question with the fact that handlers feel so much pressure and all the various ways they feel pressure. This is something I think about routinely and often.

Anyway, like you mentioned, social media is a huge part of this, watching your dog's littermates is a huge part of this, and so I've been trying to tell my friends and tell people that listen to me that it's about quality versus quantity. Train things, but don't be pressured to train the most fancy, advanced things right away. Take time to build that relationship for sure.

But the one thing I want to say is the pressure to perform at a certain level … and I want share a little bit of a story on this. When I got hired at Purina, I was relatively new to the disc dog world. The disc dog is what got me into Purina because it's mostly a Frisbee show. There's dock diving, agility, and tricks, but mostly you have to be good at Frisbee, freestyle Frisbee. I had been up in Minnesota, and in Minnesota there's a fantastic disc dog community, but most of the players up there don't travel and compete with other people in the nation. I had just started traveling, and I wasn't at a high, high level. I was at a medium-high level, let's call it that. Proficient, but not the most advanced player.

Suddenly I got this dream job that all these disc dog players want, where you play Frisbee with your dog every single day, and suddenly all this pressure was on to prove that I deserved that job. It was insane. I internalized that pressure. I stopped competing in disc. One, I was playing every day, so you get burned out, but that's merely an excuse. The fact was I didn't feel I was as good as I should have been to have that job. Obviously I was good enough to be hired for other reasons, but maybe it wasn't my disc dog skills.

I ended up working on those skills over time, and what ended up happening is there was this saying, and I think about this saying almost daily. A performer told me, "You're only as good as your last show," and that messed with me so hard, because we know, training dogs, that you're going to have off days. You have a human equation. You have another living being in that equation that's going to have an off day. You're going to have bad shows. You're going to have bad competitions. You're going to have bad trials. That's life.

You're not as good as your last show. If that's the case, my last mondioring show was nationals and we did horrible at that. If I went into this next trial thinking about "I'm only as good as my last show," that mental management part is going to degrade everything and the pressure is going to eat away at you.

For that reason, you're not as good as your last show. You're as good as the sum of your relationship with your dog. Are you out there having fun? Is your dog having fun? Is your training speaking for itself? If you miss an exercise, who cares? Work on it, but don't beat yourself up about it. Look at the whole picture. Is your dog happy? Are you happy? Are you having fun? If that's not a good answer, an answer you want to hear, then we need to work on some mental management strategies and make sure that you're feeling good about your training, you're feeling good about the thing you're devoting weekends to and days to and hours to training, because otherwise that pressure is just horrible.

Anyway, off my soapbox. Very passionate about this.

Melissa Breau: Petra?

Petra Ford: Mental management, mental management, mental management. I preach it constantly, and in spite of all my preaching, I really don't think people get it and don't practice it. I work on it every single day. I feel that people … their dog training is very emotional. It's like their dogs are an extension of themselves, and they put so much emotion into everything. If the dog fails, they've failed. It becomes all about them.

I think it's super-important that you have to completely separate that. But it's not easy at all. It's super-hard. I feel a tremendous amount of pressure always, and I have to work on it every day a little bit so that I'm always aware and I'm always paying attention and I'm always making sure that my personal head trash does not get enmeshed in my dogs, because it's not their responsibility to have to be an extension of my ego or my insecurities. I've been working on mental management stuff in general for many, many years, and I think if people did that for their dogs, they'll see it also helps in their everyday life.

When I started training Tyler, I was a horrible handler, a horrible competitor. Everything they tell you not to do, I did. I would get sick, I was a nervous wreck, I was a complete disaster. At my dog-training school they were having a seminar with a woman on mental management. Of course I had to run out and get the book, I had to prep for the seminar because I was super-crazy. I go through the book and I'm like, "Holy cow." Every chapter that said, "You shouldn't be doing this; do it this way instead," I was doing all of it wrong. All of it. All of a sudden I had this epiphany, like, "My ultimate goal with this dog is for him to be perfect, do all these crazy behaviors and to do them super, super well. How come I'm not holding myself to the same standard? I can't ask him to do it, and me go in the ring a nervous wreck. That's completely unfair."

That day I started working on all of those things in the book, and I did the activities every day. It took me a full ten months to a year until I was able to turn all those things around. At the end of that year is when I went to my first nationals with him. My whole goal at that national was that I would do my mental management strategies and not mess those up. That was my only goal was to stick to my game plan. I stuck to my game plan, and as a result – and I really believe because of that – we won, because I held my end of the bargain. I held up my end.

So people need to work on their stuff. Work on your stuff, people.

Melissa Breau: Stremming?

Sarah Stremming: Everything that's already been said so far, and I will add – and I do; this is so important – if you're going to be competing, if anybody is going to be looking at your training in any kind of way, you should do yourself the favor of, like Petra said, really digging in and doing this work. There is work to be done. It isn't just "Tomorrow you'll have a different mindset than you have today, because you've decided to." That's garbage. It doesn't work like that. It is as hard as anything else you'll do, and it is really hard.

The other thing that nobody likes to talk about is that it's never going to stop. You're never going to be finished. You're never going to show up at a trial every single time and absolutely know that you and your dog are the best and that you're going to win. Things come in. Things change.

So I think two things are really important. One is that you should be very selective with who you surround yourself with. Build a community that holds you up. If your dog sport friends are not in your cheering section, they're not your friends. That includes what you share with everybody on the Internet.

We live in a weird time. When I was first learning to train dogs, YouTube didn't exist. Social media didn't exist. That wasn't there, so I didn't know if my training looked the same as somebody else's or different. In a lot of ways, we have a lot of advantages because we can learn so much from anybody. Somebody can be in Sweden and I can learn from them, and that's amazing. But also I see what everybody else is doing, and that can sometimes cloud my judgment because I question myself a little bit more.

So surround yourself with people who hold you up. If you don't have people that you can say, "This didn't go well; can you look at it with me, and can we talk constructively about how it can go better?" then that can be a personal problem that maybe you can't take that kind of feedback from people, and that's something to think about.

But it could also be just who you're asking.

I could certainly show my mom any one of my training videos and she would be like, "That's amazing." That's not helpful. That's not who I would share a training video with to get better. But then I have a very close friend who's a fantastic trainer, and I know every single time I show her something, she will kindly and beautifully hand my ass to me on a platter. Every single time she will say, "Here's everything that went wrong," and every single time it is amazing because she always delivers it with kindness. It's not padded, it's not sugarcoated, but it's not mean. And so we have that relationship that I can grow and get better every single time I do ask her for help. I recognize that there are days that I can't ask her for help, too, and those are also the same days that I shouldn't go train the dog. So if check in with myself before I train the dog and I go, " I am not feeling great today from a mental health standpoint," maybe we go for a walk in the woods instead of training. I think we all need to give ourselves that grace a lot of the time.

When it comes to competition, if you are going to compete, you owe it to yourself and your dog to do some work on your mental management game. That's not just for people who want to win national championships. That's for anybody, because if you paid money to go to the thing, to do the thing, you are competing, whether you say you're competitive or not.

If you are going to go there and you are going to have your training and your performance judged by a third-party standard, you are competing, and you owe it to yourself and your dog to do a little bit of work on that, because I'm sure that we can all agree that a lot of our students run into problems when they show up to do their agility run or their obedience run or whatever it is, and they're a completely different person than they are in training, and their dog is like, "I don't even know who you are, so I can't do the thing you taught me to do, because I don't even know what's going on with all of this." If the dog is sensitive and is feeling a lot of pressure from the environment anyway, they have to be able to hang their hat on you. They have to be able to rely on you to be the driver of this car.

And these are skills. People are not, to my knowledge, I don't know anybody that was just born an amazing competitor. Talk to anybody you consider an amazing competitor and they're going to talk to you about their demons. They're going to talk to you about fighting all of those things, and how it takes this really … to me, it's like this surreal other-level brain place that I need to get to, to perform the way that I want to perform, and it takes so much practice. It takes understanding what it feels like, and then going out and practicing it.

I think the only way that we get there is through work, and this goes for the training as well as the competing, because maybe you just want to train, you don't want to compete. But your holding yourself up to standards, whatever they are, is you have to learn that you have to separate yourself from the outcome. You have to know that you're enough without that blue ribbon, or then you'll never be enough with the blue ribbon. So you have to make that decision and work on that every single day, so that when you get to the dog show, you can access that place, that kind of mindset.

Like Petra was talking about, there are people that can teach you this. There's a lot of resources on it because it's a thing that everybody needs to do if they're going to be competing. I encourage anybody who's going to be training to any standard they're being judged against to certainly do that work for themselves and their dog.

Petra Ford: I'm going to jump in real quick because what you said was so awesome about work, that it takes work. People say, "I read that book." You have to work on it forever.

When I think about how long I've been working on it just for performance, and very recently, literally last night, I had my first fall. I'm hitting a bump here, and I hired a coach, because you don't just get up one day and it's like, "Yay, it's all easy from here on forward." It takes constant work, but we owe it to our dogs. And we owe it to ourselves, really.

Melissa Breau: I want to round out this conversation – which has been amazing, by the way – just by having you each drill things down into one key piece of information you want people to understand or leave them with, that final thought. What would that be? Petra, do you want to start us?

Petra Ford: I think people need to really be aware of pressure and how it impacts their dogs. What I've been hyper-focused on the last couple of years is creating a scenario where when the dog feels pressure, they see it as a game, and instead of it creating negative feelings, that they have a positive conditioned emotional response to the pressure so thats what we are playing with/.

Melissa Breau: Stremming?

Sarah Stremming: It's hard to do. We talked forever about this. Let's talk for an hour-plus and then simplify it, please, in one sentence. I think the really big important thing is protecting your dog's attitude should be paramount. If the dog is still having a great time, if the dog still thinks they're right, nothing is broken.

To me, it is about making sure that your agenda does not get in the way of seeing that maybe that attitude is slipping. Hold the picture of your dog's emotional state that you want to be looking at, know exactly what that looks like to you, and then hold that as criteria. It always needs to be there for you to move on or make it harder.

Melissa Breau: Go ahead, Brueske.

Sara Brueske: I guess I will go ahead and talk about being prepared and making sure you're doing the work. Whether it's doing the work making sure that your dog sees the pictures of those pressures that you can control and that you are expecting, and generalizing enough so that when something unexpected does happen, they have the mental capacity to push through that, as well as putting in the work to make sure that your mental management game is on point as well. So making sure that you are doing the work on both sides of that leash, for the dog as well as yourself.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. That's a great place to leave things off. Thank you all for coming on the podcast. Sarah Stremming said that we covered so much ground. It was an awesome conversation, so that you all for being here.

[All say thank you]

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We will be back next week.

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


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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