E253: Leslie McDevitt - "Have Some Latte..."

You may have heard of Look At That (LAT) but have you heard of LATTE? Leslie joins me to talk about her latest game for working with dogs who need a little extra structure to be successful. 


Melissa Breau: We all know the saying: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." Well, we'd like to invite you to do exactly that by joining us for the third annual Lemonade Conference on February 11, 12, and 13. Enjoy all of the awesomeness of a dog training conference from the comfort of your living room with leading experts from the worlds of dog sports and behavior. Head over to TheLemonadeConference.com to check out the schedule and buy your tickets today.

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 Leslie McDevitt back to talk about LATTE, which she'll be presenting for us at this year's Lemonade Conference.

Hi Leslie, and welcome back to the podcast!

Leslie McDevitt: Hey Melissa, it's good to see you.

Melissa Breau: Good to see you and chat with you too. I'm looking forward to diving into some of this stuff. To start us out, do you want to just share a little bit about you and your current household of furry critters?

Leslie McDevitt: My current household. Let's see. About me, I'm the author of a series of three books called Control Unleashed. I wrote them for Clean Run. I started out writing magazine articles for their magazine, and that turned into books and now videos and other stuff.

I started out working with performance dogs that were anxious or reactive or in some way were difficult to have in class or trials, but were still appropriate for the sport. It's not about making inappropriate dogs appropriate. It's about taking appropriate dogs that need support and figuring out what the sports are and giving it to them. I did that and it turned into a whole thing that most of you are probably aware of at this point.

Current pets, my two main current pets are two kids …

Melissa Breau: I like that they get grouped in with …

Leslie McDevitt: I have three dogs, a Terv and two Border Collies. My one Border Collie, Easy, is going to be 16 in February, knock wood, I think he's going to make it to that. I just can't believe it. I have two kitty cats, I have a horsie, and a bunny. That's life at the McDevitts right now.

Melissa Breau: Lots of fun.

Leslie McDevitt: We had a bunch of chickens, but they all died and I don't want to talk about it.

Melissa Breau: Oh no! We don't have to talk about it. I did, however, want to talk a little bit about the Lemonade Conference talk. I think, like you mentioned, most of the folks listening and in training or behavior have probably at least heard of Control Unleashed. But just in case they haven't, or they've heard of it but they're not really familiar with it, can you share a bit about the approach, what it is?

Leslie McDevitt: In geek speak, the approach is counterconditioning with an operant base, meaning if your dog has yucky feelings about whatever, then my goal is to help them change their feelings about that thing using operant conditioning that gives the dog control over what's happening.

The concept of start-button behavior and making things voluntary — I'm very big on that so that the dog can control their counterconditioning procedure, whether that means they have a behavior that says, "Take me closer to that thing," "Take me farther away from that thing," "Yes, I want to do this right now," "No, I don't."

Those are the goals of it, mostly, and then there's a lot of supplementary things like relaxation on a mat and other things that help you regulate yourself if you're feeling worried about something.

Melissa Breau: That structure is a bunch of games, right? You approach them that way.

Leslie McDevitt: Right.

Melissa Breau: Who is the program targeted at? I know you breezed over it initially when you were talking about yourself. Who will benefit from working through these games? What's the range of dogs we're talking about here?

Leslie McDevitt: When I started writing for Clean Run, I was very sports-minded in terms of who I was talking to, but the general behavior community started using all the stuff right away.

At this point I'm focused on anybody that wants more support for their dog, whether the dog is needing help calming down because they get so high, or needing confidence because they are shy. Across the spectrum there's stuff in there.

I'm a certified behavior consultant, and no matter what you're doing with your dog, it's all behavior. Whatever you're doing with your dog, I'm going to have to look at that environment. I've worked with working dogs training for canine patrol, SAR, detection, agility dogs, pet dogs. Whatever triggers are in that dog's environment that they have to function in, that's where the differences will come in, because it's going to be customized for every dog. But any dog that lives or works in any environment can use these games. They're easily customizable. You can figure out how to make it work for you.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to have you talk a little more specifically about Look At That. I know that those familiar with your program will probably know it — LAT, they've probably seen the abbreviation all over, they probably know what it is. But for those who haven't, or who maybe aren't as familiar with the program, can you talk us through what it is and what it looks like in practice when it's done well?

Leslie McDevitt: It's definitely connected to this whole LATTE thing that I'm working on. Look At That, when I first learned about behavior mod type stuff and was a baby professional trainer, we were teaching a lot of "Don't look at something; make eye contact instead."

It was positive, they were getting clicked and treated for looking at us, but at some point I wanted to take the dogs looking at something and take it from a conflict, where the person is, "No, don't look at that; look at me instead," and turn it into a behavior chain, so that seeing the other thing becomes the key to turn and look at you, and you don't have to ask the dog not to look, so if the dog does want to look, there's no conflict there anymore, and it's also connected to turning back.

So I named the behavior of seeing something versus telling them not to do that thing. I named it. When you name something and reward that something, then you're reframing that experience and what it means in the first place to see it. Rather than being, "No, leave it; watch me," or whatever, it's, "Where is that, dog? Oh, good, you found it." It changes the conversation.

It was one of many games I wrote about in my first book, but interest in it exploded, because people in the beginning were like, "What? That's the opposite of what we've been doing," and then they're like, "Oh, my God," because it works really well and it's been like a godsend, really. And it's been fine. It calms you down to be able to be like, "I see that thing. Good job." I like to say now, "Be a reporter, not a reactor." The dogs don't have to react to the environment. They can tattle on the environment to you.

The other thing I wanted to say, because it's called Look At That, that was a long time ago. If I was writing it now and making it up now, I probably wouldn't have called it that, because people got very fixated on the dog has to look at something or see something.

If you saw me work in person, you'd see how flexible and in the moment I am and how it depends on the dog. But if you just see it in words on a page, it might seem like I want the dog to be looking at something. I don't care. With a dog, if the dog wants to look at it, then I want to name that and make it a rewardable behavior.

But after a while, if I keep asking the question where something is, the dog loses interest in it and is just communicating with you, so they might flick an ear without turning their head and really looking at it, or they might stare at you instead of moving at all, and all of it is rewardable. Anything that's not reactive is rewardable. So it's not like traditional training. The cue means whatever the dog wants to do in that moment. It's all rewardable. It's not like you say "sit," the dog sits, it's really specific, and gets a treat for that. It's not specific like that. I don't care whether they're looking at anything. That's something that I like people to understand.

Melissa Breau: You know a bunch of people here locally, Deb Norman and Julie Duncan. You've done a couple of seminars down here and I've had a chance to see you do some of this in person, so I think it was really interesting to watch that and see what you were looking for. It's almost more of a "Yeah, I know that thing is there. Let's get on with our game." Am I phrasing that okay?

Leslie McDevitt: Yeah.

Melissa Breau: Knowing that, how is LATTE different? What does it stand for? We skipped that part.

Leslie McDevitt: I wanted to make a new game that gave dogs more time to decompress in-between reps. It's called LATTE because my instructors group, I have a group where I certify people to teach CU classes, I think one of them came up with it. It stands for Look At That, Then Enrichment, so we call it LATTE.

Basically, when you're playing Look At That, it puts the dog into a focused, ready to work state because the opposite happens: they're not looking at that. They're watching you. I was thinking if I'm taking my dogs for a walk, because we go hiking a lot, and we do, "I see that dog too," and we keep walking, that was one rep and it's over because the environment changed. So Look At That is fine for that.

But I was looking at things like if your dog is in a park and you just want the dog to be able to sniff, but things are happening in the park and they can't do that, rather than being like, "Where's that thing? I see it," and then you have to keep working at that level and the dog doesn't stop to just sniff and pee on things, because they're working with you in that mode. I thought, what if I can take that initial piece of Look At That, which is the environment cues the dog to turn back to you rather than react, and from there, the dog sniffs the grass and does whatever, and doesn't have to stay focused.

So I played with changing the feeding strategy and changing things up a bit, and that's where LATTE evolved from. Rather than giving the dog one treat, I started putting … we held a Control Unleashed conference, a virtual one, and LickiMat sponsored us. They sent all of us fifty LickiMats. All of us had boxes and boxes of LickiMats. I always liked them, but they became a lifestyle because I had so many.

I made a course of LickiMats. I did it in a circle because I've always been very influenced by Tellington TTouch Training, and they always had structured movement things like slow, guide movement, and a circle or figure-eight, and that's always made a big impression. I put a bunch of LickiMats, snuffle mats, Kongs, any kind of enrichment toy, put it in a circle, it takes a lot longer for the dog to have to interact with the environment and get the treat, rather than "I gave you a treat from my hand," and now you're offering the Look At That chain again.

If they weren't able to take the time to lick and chew and forage and the stuff that I want to encourage, then I would be like, "This is not the time and place for LATTE." Maybe we need to increase distance, or maybe it's not appropriate in that moment. But as long as they're like, "I saw that thing," and you're like, "Great. Now find a bunch of shredded cheese in this snuffle mat," and they spend a few minutes doing that. The way it's a game is when they're done, they look up at you like, "And?" and you take them to the next one. That's how you're moving around in a circle.

Once I started doing that just to see what would happen, I really liked it. A major difference between it and Look At That is that within the Look At That game there's no interaction between the dog and the thing. But you can take LATTE, if you wanted to use it for socializing puppies or something like that, and you can start integrating the thing into the LATTE game.

I went with one of my certified instructors to a shelter that she does a lot of work at. They had a bunch of cardboard boxes that dog food and stuff would come in. We were hiding treats in the boxes and making a field of boxes, and they were learning how to interact with new volunteers that way without pulling them and jumping on them, and meeting people.

So there's lots of different ways you can use that structure. I like offering people structures that you don't need tons of skill or background knowledge to be able to use. Like shelter volunteers — you can put the food in different boxes, and when the dog looks at you because he's finished, you take him to the next one. What happens is it starts developing a working relationship, an interaction, because the dog figures out that if he looks at the person, if he makes contact with the person, they'll take him to the next thing.

For these big dogs, hunting, hound-mix type dogs from the South, like that shelter gets primarily, they were jumping and knocking people over and pulling people. Once they figured it out, they were very nicely walking with the person. They have an expectation. They've looked at the person, they're going to walk nicely to the next thing, and then you can make more and more space in-between those little enrichment stations so the dog is walking nicely for longer periods of time. So it turns out there's all kinds of applications that you can use it for.

And also we're doing a lot with horses. We're doing a lot of horse pattern games, pattern games being a big part of Control Unleashed, so this is just another one. It's very nice for horses because it's putting a bunch of stuff around for them to snuffle and graze and all that. My horse has a horse Kong, basically. They have to roll it with their nose to make the treats fall out of the hole. It's awesome. I love the horse Kong.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. I love that you can use it with other species, and I do want to talk about that a little bit more. I'm going to jump around in my questions a little bit, if that's okay. Horses aren't the only species you've applied some of this to, right?

Leslie McDevitt: A bunch of people are doing it with cats. I've got several certified instructors that are at shelters doing it a lot with shelter cats, different pattern games. And I've had a few that have come from a zoo background, that have worked with exotic animals doing some of it. There was a sea lion that … you were talking about Look At That … I know that at the Bronx Zoo there was a sea lion that they taught Look At That to.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome.

Leslie McDevitt: They were going to let me come and see this, but it was mating season or something, it was a whole dramatic thing, and I never did end up getting to go. But I would sure like to see that.

Melissa Breau: That sounds awesome. They should at least send you some videos so you can sneak in some of your talks.

Leslie McDevitt: I do have some video of not Look At That, but of other pattern games. I have a video with a dingo, a video with a clouded leopard, and a video with a bear.

Melissa Breau: That's quite the assortment.

Leslie McDevitt: I love it. It just makes me happy. I love it so much. It's like the little kid in me that thought the only animal-related job one could have as an adult was a vet, but was not good at math or science and knew that that wasn't going to happen — I wish I could have told her, "There's all kinds of crazy stuff that you can do," because I just didn't know.

Melissa Breau: When you came up with LATTE, was it intentional? Did you sit down and say, "I want to build on Look At That," or was it more organic? How did that develop?

Leslie McDevitt: That's a really good question. Usually my stuff is organic, and it happens because I have a specific case that I'm thinking about, and I do something and then, "I'm going to name this." With LATTE, it was intentional because I wanted to work on something that let the dog have time in a certain environment to chill out but still give them structure.

There's always … not a conflict but a balance between structure, how much structure, how much information to give the dog versus just let them do their thing and be a dog.

The dogs that I work with tend to have a lot of anxiety that's driving their reactivity, and stuff like that, so my work isn't about controlling their behavior, but it is about giving them a certain amount of structure and feedback so that they can feel comfortable, because things are predictable and they feel more in control. But I wanted to look at can I use some of that structure for a dog that needs it, but still be able to encourage that more, just freedom in the field or whatever.

You wouldn't use LATTE if you were in a class and you needed to have a working relationship within class. You would do other CU stuff. But I didn't have one for you're not in class, you're not really working, your dog needs some level of structure, but you also want them to do their thing a little bit. So I sat down and thought about what that could look like. And because the dogs that already know CU stuff look at that as just what they do — if they see something that they think is strange, they just turn and report it to you — it was like, that's easy to start with as a base, but now what? I wanted to use my million LickiMats and figure out something that got them off the attention part for a while, which is different from my usual stuff. Usually I want the attention.

Melissa Breau: Because you mentioned something in there and I want to clarify, do they need to know Look At That before they do LATTE, or how does that piece …

Leslie McDevitt: They totally don't. You could use it like that. If they're offering Look At That, they're looking at something and back at you, you can sprinkle food on the LickiMat or whatever. But you could also use it like … the shelter dogs that I mentioned earlier didn't have any kind of background or training. I call it "Decaf" just to be silly when you're doing it like that, because you're taking the LAT out of LATTE. You can just use it to establish some kind of interaction, so they don't have to be doing that behavior at all.

Melissa Breau: I like how convenient that phrase is. You come up with multiple plays on the words. It's not the time for a LATTE; let's do decaf.

Leslie McDevitt: It's ridiculous, but I like naming things, so that's just how it is.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that it can be customized for a lot of different uses. I know you shared the shelter dog example. In your talk description you also mentioned that it can be used for remedial socialization. Do you want to share a little bit more about some of the ways that it can be customized?

Leslie McDevitt: If you had a dog that needed to learn to work with others, whether medical setting, dog sitting, whether they're a shelter dog that needs to work with different volunteers, sometimes this comes up when I work with agility people that the dog is worried about going with the teacher to demo something, I have a shadowing procedure that you could use for decaf so that you're walking and someone else is shadowing you, but you're still doing the feeding and the interacting.

You do a full loop. It's your choice how big you want this loop to be. Say there's ten stations. The second time you do the loop, the other person does the feeding. The dog can look at you or the other person, whichever, and go to the next one. The third time, you might step back. It depends on the dog. The handler could leave, they could go sit on the sidelines, they could go sit in the middle, so the dog can see them, but they're still engaged in doing the loop, and so they're handled by a new person.

Or you can make that person more and more interactive. I've had helpers become stations. My friend's puppy who was jumping all over my kids, I used this to get them calm about having the kids moving around, and I made the kids … I put them on chairs in-between the enrichment stations, so they were sniffing the kid, look up, and go to the next thing and get your cheese or whatever, and have the kids move around with that puppy. By the end, the kids were walking the puppy and feeding the puppy and petting the puppy, and the puppy is looking up and going, "Next thing."

It doesn't have to take long. It depends, of course, on the dog and if they're worried, or why we're doing it. But it's an easy and fun way where you don't need to have a lot of skill. The dog doesn't really have to know anything. It's giving it a predictable structure, which is what I like to do. Being a person with a lot of anxiety, I like things to be predictable and be in control of them, so that's what I do for dogs.

You can just figure out what's your goal. It could be your dog can't settle down once guests are in the house, so you've put enrichment stations all over the living room.

That makes me think something else, though, because someone listening to this is thinking, "What if you don't have those because you're outside or whatever?" If you don't have that and you still want to do this, if you're on grass, you just sprinkle a bunch of things in the grass and try to walk in a circle, or some predictable pattern, so it doesn't feel random to you, and after a while it won't feel random to the dog.

Melissa Breau: Make use of what you have, on other words. That makes sense. Are there times where you wouldn't recommend somebody use this, or it's not appropriate, or you'd recommend something else, or maybe it's not right for the dog for this type of thing?

Leslie McDevitt: I don't know if there's ever a situation where it's not the right type of dog, but there's definitely times where I would choose something else. First of all, if you want working attention, I wouldn't choose one that was meant to get the dog to stop paying attention to you for periods of time.

If you're just trying to pass something quickly this wouldn't be it, then I would use Look At That, and maybe my 1-2-3 pattern game is another really popular one. That's about moving a dog from a point to a point and get past the thing. I would do something like that versus a LATTE type thing. It depends on what you want. But it's fun to have as an option

Melissa Breau: And it certainly has key elements that I would imagine would be really helpful, especially for dogs that are stressing or feeling anxious about stuff, whatever the stuff may be.

Leslie McDevitt: Yeah, or dogs that are not sure about a new person, or even if they're not sure about seeing another dog, but you want to set up a situation where you want to practice having that dog there, as long as they can eat, and find their treats, explore their environment, look at you, keep going.

That's another type of thing you can use it for. You can set up situations where they can see something at a certain distance and continue with their LATTE stuff. Someone sent me a video recently. It was her dog that always barks at her ponies, and they were doing LATTE around where the ponies were. It was cute.

Melissa Breau: I like that, and I like the idea of ponies being behind a fence or whatever, so it's a controlled distance, to a certain extent. It's a nice, structured option.

Leslie McDevitt: Right. And if the dogs know, if you start putting stuff down, like, "We're going to do LATTE," and you add a thing at a distance and they're like, "Oh, that thing, but we're still doing LATTE," so you can get it going. I've been doing some of that.

A friend got a pandemic Border Collie, and he's an amazing working dog, but if a dog doesn't work or move like a Border Collie, he suspects it. So we've been doing a lot of that type of thing with him, and we've gotten him to take some walks with a few non-Border Collies at this point without screaming at them.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. The nice thing about all the pattern games and stuff that you've come up with is that you can teach the dog the game and then introduce other things to it. I think that's part of the magic.

Leslie McDevitt: Exactly. When I say structure, that's what I mean. There's a certain series of events that happen that you can predict, and then you can start adding little layers of other things into it so the dog feels secure when you add something. If the dog doesn't like what you've added, then you just take it away and go back to the secure part.

That also gives you … people that are worried when they do counterconditioning, "What will happen if he gets upset or he barks?" it's like, this is what happens. That thing will stop, and go back to what you know. Keep building on your successes and then keep figuring out how to break the layers into the teeniest, tiniest increments.

Melissa Breau: I think you've covered a lot of ground, but I want to round things out with one last question, which is, if you were to drill all of this down into one key takeaway or one piece that you really want people to understand after listening to this, what would that be?

Leslie McDevitt: It's interesting, because I'm thinking about how that may have changed over the years, just in my own head. The first thing that would come out of my mouth would be something about listening to your dog.

But also I really want to impress upon people this concept, these CU games about making this structure, or this set of predictable rules, that's portable, so it helps a dog that's anxious to generalize, "You haven't seen this happen before, you haven't been here before, but we have our things that we do," so that they have support.

So I would want to say something about you can see dog training, rather than telling them what to do, as a way of offering support, and if they don't need them, you don't have to offer them. It's flexible. One of my kids goes to a special-ed school for kids with learning differences, and just that concept of accommodations, that we don't have to think of training as control. We can think of it as accommodations. And you don't look at behavior as, "I don't like that my dog did this," but "My dog is communicating they needed more accommodations in that situation."

Melissa Breau: Let's figure out how we can give them what they need, s that they can do what we need.

Leslie McDevitt: Right.

Melissa Breau: I like that, and I like that phrasing and reframing, because I think a lot of people look at it the other way.

Leslie McDevitt: Right. Exactly. I think dog training came from hunting and military, and we're always moving and evolving. I think this is definitely the path forward, the idea of giving them more agency and all that. But for me, especially because my kid is in that school, just that thinking about accommodations. He has dysgraphia, which is like dyslexia but in your hands. His brain can't tell his hands to write very well, so he writes like a toddler. He was doing well in his conventional school, except it got to a point where the kids needed to write an assignment or something. He can't do that the way that other kids just sit down and write something. They didn't have the environment to give him what he needed, and they framed it as, "We can't do this."

Decades ago, it would have been, "Your kid is misbehaving," and I think we're still there with the dogs. You blame it on the learner. But changing schools to a school that's like, "We deal with this stuff all the time. We're going to teach you to type, we're going to do this, we're going to do that, we're going to have an occupational therapist sit with you in the classes where you have to write, and turn your writing classes into occupational therapy," it makes this huge difference. He's not different, his behavior isn't different, but his needs are being met in different and creative ways, and he does great in school and feels good about himself.

Melisa Breau: That's awesome.

Leslie McDevitt: Anyway, training is more … I was already on that path with the dogs, but being around this whole situation and seeing how different schools have different capabilities is just crazy. So it has made it even more obvious to me.

Melissa Breau: There's so many parallels, I think — as somebody who doesn't have kids — between child-raising and dog training.

Leslie McDevitt: Yeah.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Leslie. This was fantastic, and there's tons of great information in there, so thank you.

Leslie McDevitt: I haven't talked to you in a while, so that was cool.

Melissa Breau: I know. It's been a while. I'm glad to catch up. And thank you to everybody listening for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Jennifer Rogers, who is the founding director of PAALS, to talk about her Lemonade Conference talk, which will be on assistance animals, at this year's Lemonade Conference.

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


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

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training!


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

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

E254: Jennifer Rogers - PAALS and Assistance Dogs
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