E264 - Petra Ford - "Thriving Under Pressure"

Walking into the competition ring comes with pressure! Petra and I talk about how to create a positively conditioned emotional response to pressure... and how to prep for Utility with your obedience dog!  


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 Petra Ford here with me to talk about teaching our dogs how to respond to the pressure that comes with competition and what it takes to prepare for Utility obedience.

Hi Petra. Welcome back to the podcast!

Petra Ford: Hi Melissa. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, I know you've been here more than a few times, but just in case there's somebody who still doesn't know you, do you want to just introduce yourself, a little about your current crew and what you're working on with them?

Petra Ford: Sure. I compete in obedience with my dogs currently. I have one that I'm competing with, that's Zayna, she's 6. I have Zesty. He's my little … well, he's not that little… up and comer. He's not training yet, but he's tons of fun. I have two other dogs, Zeal, who is my national obedience champion, he just retired recently, and Zaidan, my oldest member of the family. It's so sad; they get old so fast.

Melissa Breau: They really do. I've got two separate but related topics I want to talk about today. I want to talk about teaching our dogs about pressure, and then I also want to talk about preparing for utilities. Let's start with the pressure conversation. What kind of exercises and scenarios lead our dogs to feel that pressure, or under pressure, when they're in the ring?

Petra Ford: I think they feel it with every exercise. I feel that they feel it as soon as they enter the ring. Just going into the ring they're going through a narrow area, there's people around, the stewards' table is usually right there, they're going into a novel space, to a judge that on that day is going to be novel. So immediately as they go through the ring gate, they're moving into pressure. I think that they're pretty much under pressure the entire time they're in the ring.

I think in the past we only looked at it as those things were distractions, which is very different from viewing them as pressure. And so no one in traditional obedience teaches, or at least taught in the past, about pressure and what that means to the dog. When I started to figure that out, I became obsessed with it, and I pretty much feel that it affects them, like I said, the entire time they're in the ring.

Melissa Breau: Can explain what you mean? What's the difference between having it be pressure versus a distraction?

Petra Ford: For me, in my planet, if my dog hears or sees something that they're curious about or interested in, then they're going to want to look over there. "What's that person doing?" Or "I smell food." Or "Look, there's a dog over there."

To me, pressure is if I sit my dog and I'm going to leave my dog and my dog has a ring gate behind it, a ring gate on the other side, and a judge standing next to it on another side, the dog is going to want to get out of there. They're not going to be comfortable there. It's very uncomfortable. All they really want to do is either escape or just what my Zeal used to do, which is freeze like a deer in the headlights in a panic.

I think they feel very different to the dog emotionally, in my opinion. I think that if there are distractions, and you teach a dog not to look at those distractions and you put it in a sit in a certain way, then the dog saying, "Oh God, I shouldn't look" will also add pressure. But the way I view it with my own dogs is if Zayna is like, "Hey, who's that?" that's just her being a nosy-pants.

Melissa Breau: So that's a distraction versus pressure would be if she felt like she's having trouble coping rather than curiosity.

Petra Ford: Correct. Just not being concerned, and she's not doing it as a displacement behavior. She's just plain old, like, "Hey, who's that over there?" And Zesty is young, so he'll do that. I'll be training him, let's say, in front of the supermarket, and all of a sudden he hears a novel sound and he doesn't look upset at all. He's just very curious. He just whips his head, "Oh, what's that? I haven't seen something like that before." So he's not in distress at that time, and he's not feeling pressure per se. He's just distracted. He's just not used to ignoring things in the environment.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. So if an error occurs in the ring, that might be because of pressure, or if an error occurs in training, even, I guess that might be because of pressure. How do you tell if it is pressure versus if there's a training problem or something else causing the mistake?

Petra Ford: First, I would either myself or have the students … this happened to … student's dog did not drop on the drop on recall. It just came running in. And so the student, in their mind, it was a failure to drop. The dog did not respond to the signal, which is true.

However, after I watched the video, I thought it might be pressure. So we just put the dog in the middle of the building, I was nowhere near the dog, there was no pressure on the dog, did the drop on recall, the dog dropped beautifully.

Then we re-did it, and I put the dog in a corner with me standing next to the dog. As she called the dog, I started walking behind the dog. I wasn't trying to scare the dog. It was just adding pressure to the exercise and the dog did not drop. That, to me, made it very clear that it was not a failure to drop per se, like if the dog didn't understand the cue. It was the dog was trying to escape the pressure.

Melissa Breau: That makes a lot of sense, and I think it's really interesting to tease things apart that way, so that you can figure out what piece of the puzzle is it that you really need to work on.

Petra Ford: I just think that's super important, because if you were to, for example, deal with it as a failure to drop and then put pressure on the dog to drop, now you're adding pressure to pressure, and that can be. really unfair and bad for the dogs. So I always, whenever a dog makes a mistake, first thing I want to figure out is why. What's the underlying cause of the mistake? Because depending on the underlying cause, I would have very different strategies to address the error.

Melissa Breau: Right. In a situation like that, what can we do? How do we better prepare them to deal with that kind of pressure, especially if it's inevitable in the ring?

Petra Ford: The way we used to teach them was basically, "Just suck it up and stay there and pay attention to me," because we really didn't identify pressure.

Zeal is/was a super, super, super sensitive dog in general, extremely pressure-sensitive, so I didn't want to teach him to just stay there and handle it. I wanted to change his emotional response. I wanted to change his C.E.R. from panic to happy. I wanted pressure to actually cue a positive emotional state instead of pressure cueing a negative emotional state.

I puzzled that out and I said, I have to make everything a game, and I have to teach him that when pressure comes, you're going to get released off the pressure, and I have to set it up in a way so that my dog is correct, correct, correct, and is constantly winning. And I have to pair it with something that the dog finds very, very motivating and something like … I use a mat or a platform and then transfer to a mat because my dog has massively good feelings about that piece of equipment, and so if I put it in the situation and use it correctly, it contributes towards him feeling really good.

And then I didn't only want my dog to stand there in the pressure. I wanted my dog to move into the pressure, again not in a way that would stress the dog or put more pressure on the dog or overwhelm the dog, but in a way that put the dog in control and ended up making it a super-fun game.

I had some techniques already in place for a dog moving forward into pressure. When you're heeling a dog towards a wall or towards a corner, a dog's naturally going to drop their head and hold back. They don't want to run into the wall. So I would play games like "touch it" — run up, heel to the wall, and then have my dog touch the wall and hit the wall, and the dog thought that was great fun.

And then, when I heeled towards the wall and halted, or towards the wall and turned, my dog was like, "This is super-fun every time I go to the wall," instead of my dog saying, "Oh gosh, what is this thing? I'm supposed to avoid it," which is always they would see the wall and they'd be like, "Oh, I'm not supposed to look at it, I'm not supposed to look at it."

But that was a stressy way to deal with it. So then I had to invent games for them to back into the pressure and handle pressure, and it's super-hard for them to handle pressure when we leave them. Command discrimination, signals, recall, drop on recall — we're leaving the dog alone without us, and then they're in this pressure. So I wanted to teach them to be okay with being there, to be happy with being there, and to feel comfortable backing into that pressure as a game.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. Your class, Thriving Under Pressure, is running in the April term, and it's currently open for registration. Are there skills dogs need before taking it, or things they need to know before they can start working on this? Do they need to be a certain age?

Petra Ford: No. I started this … once I figured this all out and spent enormous amounts of time thinking through and coming up with all these games, when I got my puppy, Zesty, I said, "They're just games, so I may as well start doing them with him immediately." That's the perfect time to do it, actually. Not that it doesn't work later. I taught these things to Zeal when he was a fully trained dog of … I think he was 8, 8-and-a-half, and it totally changed him.

But starting with my puppy, it's just a breeze for him, because to him, it's just a whole bunch of games. Sometimes people are around, and sometimes gates are around, and I take them to all kinds of places and do the games in Tractor Supply and Home Depot, and matches even, when he was young. They're just games to him, but he's already learning to have a positive association with pressure, to back into pressure, to move forward into pressure, and that pressure cues something positive instead of something negative.

Melissa Breau: I know you specialize in obedience, but obviously obedience isn't the only sport where pressure comes into play. Would you expect the games to have some carryover for other sports? Is it worth it for folks who maybe aren't looking at obedience to consider the class?

Petra Ford: Yeah. Like I said, they're mostly games. I think someone already emailed me and said they do agility. I'm super-excited about that. I think any dog in any sport that competes, I feel, is going to feel some sort of pressure at some point. And so these games pretty much can be adapted to any sort of pressure that they would feel in any sport. It just might need a tiny hint of creativity, but I really don't think it'll be super-hard. I'd be thrilled to have people from different sports because that would make it super-fun and super-interesting for me.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, it's always fun to have a chance to get a little creative. I want to shift gears and talk about the utility stuff, prepping for utility obedience. To start off, what is it about utility that so many teams often tend to, I guess, think of it as super-intimidating, if that's the right word?

Petra Ford: I think first and foremost, people label utility. They call it futility. I don't think that's really right out of the gate. I'm the kind of person that when I started training and everyone called it futility, I was determined that utility was going to be my dog's best class. And to this day, it's my favorite class. To this day, my dogs are better utility dogs than open dogs because, I think, just because of that.

I also think that the class is challenging because the exercises are more complex. There's a lot of work away from the handler. I also think that people have this mindset, like, it's hard, and then as soon as things start to go awry — which they always will, no matter what you're training, no matter what sport you're in — people start to panic.

And things with utility tend to get very serious. This is a very serious class, and I feel that if people just teach it like it's a trick … I break it all down into tiny pieces, and I make every piece a fun trick. When each of the pieces are really fluent and the dog is really having a good time with each piece, I start putting the pieces together. But even once I have a fully trained dog and all the pieces are put together, I constantly break it apart and just train the pieces. I think that keeps it very fun and manageable for both the dog and the trainer.

Melissa Breau: For those less familiar with obedience, or even maybe just less familiar with the upper levels, can you talk us through what the exercises are for utility?

Petra Ford: Sure. There's this signal exercise, which is basically a standard heeling pattern. The only difference is you're not going to verbally tell your dog to heel, you're just going to use a hand signal. And it doesn't end in a halt. It ends in a stand. So you give your dog a signal, not a verbal to stand, a signal to wait. You go to the other end of the ring on the judge's hand signal, you cue your dog to down, then sit, then come to front, all with hand signals, and then go to finish.

I think that exercise is super-challenging because it's a long. A heeling pattern is challenging enough. Now you add all that and you're leaving the dog. You're leaving the dog out there by themselves, and that's really challenging.

Then there is the directed jumping exercise, where the dog has to run straight as an arrow, preferably, up the center of the ring and on the handler's cue, which ideally is given so that your dog turns super-tight and sits instantly about 5 feet before the end of the ring, before the ring gate.

That's the first part, but then the judge will tell you to take one jump or the other, so the dog has to jump a jump, come to front and then finish, and then the dog has to do the whole thing again and jump the opposite jump. I think the biggest challenge with that one is the dog is running away and leaving the handler.

And teaching a dog to run up the middle is a very abstract concept. I think a lot of people think it's easier for the dog than it really is. A lot of times I don't think they're teaching that piece clearly enough and generalizing it enough, because the problem is it looks crystal clear in your yard, and then you go somewhere else and it looks very different to the dog and they're very confused. That's a directed jumping exercise. The moving stand is you heel, and when the judge says, "Stand your dog," you give them a verbal and a signal to stand, walk 10 feet away, turn and look at your dog, the judge does a quick exam, and then you call your dog to heel. That's probably the easier one, unless your dog hates people.

Then we have scent articles, which is you put a pile of eight, so four of one kind and four another. Your options are metal or wood or leather. I use wood and leather, so they'll put out four wood, four leather. And then there's one wood and one leather that I scent. I rub it with my hand until it's warm. My dog's back is to the pile, so he can't see it. I hand it to the judge, the judge puts it somewhere, and then, on the judge's cue, I turn my dog and I send my dog, and the dog has to run out, sniff it, find it, bring it back.

So again the dog is leaving you, and then the dog is out there in the middle of nowhere with this scary judge around, and they have to pick out the correct one, come back, hold it nicely, front and finish, and you do that for two scent articles.

Let's see … oh, gloves. The order is always mixed up, but gloves, you set your dog up in the middle of the ring with your back to the ring gate, and the dog does not get to see. The steward puts down three gloves, one in each corner, one in the middle, and you know ahead of time which glove it's going to be. And then the judge gives you the cue to turn and go get the gloves, so you pivot with the dog, you put your hand down to indicate which glove it is, the dog runs, picks it up, brings it back, holds it nicely, fronts, finishes. It's not that hard.

Melissa Breau: I'm impressed. I can see you picturing it in your head. I know people listening don't know this, but we can see each other, and I can see you thinking through it in your head and running through the whole run, visualizing it all.

Petra Ford: It's definitely challenging, but I love a challenge, and I think the dogs really like it too. I think that for sure if people just really think about breaking it down and just that it's going to take a long time.

I think if you try to rush the process, your dog will not be properly prepared and they're going to really struggle in the ring. I take a very, very long time to teach it because I want to make sure my dog is super-confident on every single piece, and has the same confidence when I start stringing the pieces together, before I would even consider going in the ring with them.

Melissa Breau: Speaking of taking a long time to prep for it, I know a lot of newer handlers maybe wait until they've earned their CDX before they start thinking about training utility. But I've heard a couple of people now, who generally I think of as a little more experienced, talk about the fact that they start working the utility exercises really early in their training with their dog. For you, where do you start putting those foundations in place?

Petra Ford: My first dog, I did what you said, novice open, then I taught utility. But every dog after that, I started teaching when … I bring my puppies home at 7 weeks old, and after they're home for a few days, I start teaching them. I start putting the foundation in for utility from literally the first day.

I have a whole bunch of puppy games. I have one where my puppy runs to a little toilet seat cover because it's thick and puffy. They run to it and then they sit on it. In my head I'm already teaching my dog to run away from me, like on directed jumping, to a target. My puppy is already shaping that they're running, and they do a nice little tight turn and sit, and it's just a little puppy game. That's not ultimately how I teach it, but I'm teaching them certain skills.

I teach my puppies to be on a platform, and then I walk away and leave them there a little bit, a little distance at a time, so they start to get used to what signals where they're standing there and I'm away from them. I do scenting games with them, not using the articles. I use these switch boxes, so they learn to find the scent, and I'll do that when they're young, different places, so they're already learning to scent a little bit away from me in different environments.

Those are just a few of the things. I do tons of things. So yeah, I basically start right away and I work on all the pieces a little bit as we go along, and then eventually, years down the road, they're solid on everything.

Melissa Breau: Where should students be in that training process if they're considering your utility class this term?

Petra Ford: They don't have to necessarily have to have taken my foundation class, but they should have some foundation utility skills, whether they took a live class or someone else's online class.

It's also good for people that are in the process of teaching utility but they feel like they could use help on some pieces, or some pieces are weak, or they just want to put some fun and motivation into some of the pieces.

Also for people that have trained dogs that maybe have some problems, some exercises that are weak, some exercises they would just like them to look better, happier, cleaner. They want their dog to have a better understanding of it.

All those people I think would benefit from the class. I think with utility, because it's harder, the exercises are more complex and challenging for the dogs, it's super-important as trainers that we're very, very clean with our information and our training. I emphasize that a lot, because I feel like if you're really clean, it's going to help the dog a lot.

Melissa Breau: I feel like that helps the dog in all types of training, but especially for utility.

Petra Ford: Yes.

Melissa Breau: Do you want to share a little more about what you do or don't cover in the class, and anything else you think students maybe would like to know, or need to know, before signing up?

Petra Ford: For utility, I assume they know the foundation for each piece. For example, if we take something like the glove exercise, that's one of the less complex exercises, they should have started a pivot. Which isn't to say that if you send me a video and your pivot isn't great, of course I would help you with the pivot, but they kind of have the pivot, the dog kind of has a hold, so they understand to hold and not mouth the glove.

Then we just start putting those pieces together. Not the whole exercise, but we might put together the pivot and then marking the glove, or the pivot and getting the glove, and then releasing the dog. So just some basic foundations. And then I start putting some pieces together, we start doing some motivational games to keep everything fun for the dog, and we do a little bit of pressure work in there as well. Not a ton, but a little bit.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. All right, one last question to round out our chat today. If we were to drill down all the bits and pieces we've been talking about from the different classes into one key piece of information you really want folks to understand or take away if they're looking at competing with their dog, what would that be?

Petra Ford: I think they shouldn't be intimidated or afraid of working their dog at the higher levels, because it's just that you don't know it and you're not familiar with it. I think it can be super-fun. Anything can be broken into pieces, and if you make each piece a trick, and it's the same with the pressure work, with the pressure work I look at making each piece a trick and a game, and then it's so much more fun for you and it's so much more fun for the dog. The dog is more successful, you're getting great positive feedback, and everybody's happy.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Petra Ford: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

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

We'll be back next week with Chris Zink to talk about evaluating puppy structure when choosing your next sports dog.

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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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