E269: Amy Cook, PhD - "A Deeper Look at The Play Way"

Ever wondered how The Play Way differs from other methods for treating reactivity? Amy and I talk about how she developed the ideas from her work on her PhD in Psychology.


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 Amy Cook here with me to chat.

Hi Amy, welcome back to the podcast!

Amy Cook: Hello. Thanks for having me back. This is always my favorite thing to do with you, and I'm really glad to do another installment.

Melissa Breau: I'm super-excited to catch up and chat about stuff. To start us out, for those who maybe haven't listened to some of your previous episodes, can you just remind everybody a little bit about who you are, your current pets, what you're working on with them?

Amy Cook: Who am I? That's always an existential question, is it not? I think for listeners it would be that I am a dog trainer, I am an applied animal behaviorist, and I am the developer of the Play Way, which people tend to more know me for. But really, at its core, I just consider myself a dog trainer. I've been doing dog training for all of my adult life and it's the best job I think anybody could have.

Who do I have currently? I've got Marzipan. She's my older girl now, if you can believe it. She's going to be turning 11 this year.

Melissa Breau: No way.

Amy Cook: I know, I know. Denise and I had puppies together. She's my retired agility dog. And I have Caper, who's my little 5- almost 6-year-old little Terrier/Chihuahua thing, who's an amazing little dog. I think that more people should go for the dogs in the Chihuahua set, because I think people underestimate just what those dogs can do. She's quite an amazing thing. Our main sport is agility, although I've also done barn hunt and nosework and a few other things there. But I love, love, love, agility, so that's what we spend most of our time on.

Melissa Breau: Super. I alluded that this is not your first rodeo. While we were prepping for this, while I was trying to figure out what we should talk about today and stuff, I went back through some of our past stuff, and it looks like the first time I had you on the podcast was Episode 11 in 2017.

Amy Cook: Wow. I'm not even sure how many episodes we've done together.

Melissa Breau: I'm not sure either. I would have to look. I didn't look at that. I have to look it up after we get off the call. But during that first episode, we talked a little bit about how the Play Way came to be, and you mentioned that it's always evolving, you're always tweaking, updating a little bit. So I thought maybe today we could start there, and you can recap a little bit about what the Play Way is, if somebody hasn't heard of it before, and then share a little on how it's continued to evolve.

Amy Cook: Sure. When we first started the class, Denise actually named it Dealing with the Boogeyman, because it was a class in reactivity — dogs who are stressed or scared or reactive to things in the environment: the boogeyman, if you will.

At that point, I was taking my regular material online — the way I was handling reactivity, aggression, fear cases. I had moved it online because the school was new and online training was new, and it was really only after working with it a bit online that the Play Way started to develop.

So I used the class as an incubator, if you will, to insert play more into my reactivity work and figure out what worked best, what I think was the most effective, and what I thought I could teach people to do in an online format, because you think, gosh, how do you get people to be to be playful? I'm not exactly sure where it was in 2017, when first talking about it, although I know it was fully developed, fully fleshed, for me to be talking about it. I like to make sure things work really well before I bring them out and talk to the public about it.

But the things since then that I focus a lot on are just how much play do I want? Just how much activity in the play is the right amount, doing "right" in quotes, but is the most helpful amount? And then how do I teach it to people?

For people who don't really know what this is, the Play Way is the use of social play. That means your social interaction, your silliness, your interactivity with each other, with you and your dog, without toys, for the most part, and without food, for the most part. And using that interaction as a way to support them in behavior change, as a way to support them to be less fearful, to be less stressed in their environments, to reduce their reactivity, things like that.

That was something I hadn't seen anywhere. That was something I wasn't taught in school. That was something that I was trying to develop just by teaching it to people and watching what happened, and teaching it to more people and taking the feedback from how their dogs changed, and develop it into the Play Way that it is today.

So for right now, what I'm really focusing on is how to curate the play relationship, the social interactive relationship, between a person and their dog, such that we can help the dog have a lot of agency and take a lot of initiative in the play, so that there's this expectation-free space that we're creating together in that interactive moment where the dog isn't being trained, the dog isn't working with their teacher, the dog isn't working with the manager, the mom, the one who leads the rest of the day, but is actually on relatively equal footing and can suggest a game, and can be listened to, and can put their person on pause for a second while they get distracted or think of something. Teaching people how to create that space through play, how to create that conversation, and teaching dogs then that that's what's happening, that they have space in this conversation and that we will be listening to what they need, listening through interactivity in play.

That's the part that's really exciting to me now, because each team that comes to me is a completely different team than the last time I worked with it. We have a dog with a completely different history, and their relationship to play, and what they do and don't know, what they like and what they don't like. And then each person has their own situation, whether they're struggling with their dog, or you're feeling very serious because they're very stressed, or they're serious people by nature and play is a new experience for them. Every team brings in something completely different for me to coach, and so the coaching relationship, and how do I empower the dog plus also help the person to lighten up and play. It's a new puzzle every single time, and that's what keeps it really, really exciting for me.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I want to get a little science-y, I guess, if that's okay.

Amy Cook: Yeah, let's do it.

Melissa Breau: How does the Play Way fit into that typical picture people think of when they think of rehabbing reactivity, that classical operant conditioning stuff, using the quadrants, all that.

Amy Cook: That's, of course, the mainstay of dog training. If you're a professional listening to this, you have been very well schooled in operant conditioning and the quadrants we speak of when we're talking about behavior change and dog training, and hopefully you're well versed in classical, although I know that's the one people are a little bit less comfortable with. They think of it a little more like, "It may be always happening, or I gave a good thing after a bad thing. That's the extent of what I know about it." There is that.

But if you're even just a regular pet owner coming at this, you're probably hearing about operant conditioning and quadrants, even if you're not knowing those terms, because you are very well aware that there is a reward in dog training, a reinforcement, and you're aware of punishment. You're aware that how you respond to a behavior is going to change the behavior, because that's just what we all know about behavior.

And so both pet owners and dog trainers alike sometimes think that what I'm doing is advocating that we play in the place where the food or the toys would go in either of those two systems, if you will, those approaches, models. And it's not. I understand why people think that. It's certainly tied to the fact that sometimes we think of fetch or tug as play, and we put fetch and/or tug in the place where food would go in training. So it stands to reason that you might think that I'm putting social play in that place too, but I am definitely not. And there's a few reasons.

But the first and hopefully most obvious reason is that you actually can't get social play on some kind of perfect timing. You can throw a ball on perfect timing. You can offer a tug after you've marked a behavior. You can say, "That was the behavior I want, here's your toy, let's go." You can arrange the timing of that. But social play is negotiated. Social play is a conversation that ramps up, that starts from chitchat and builds on itself. So you can't really just put it right after a behavior that you like, because it might take a full minute to come up and the timing there just wouldn't work.

That's one of the reasons is that play is not something you can just push a button and get, unlike food, although I've oversimplified that. But food — you give it, they swallow it. You can arrange the tighter timing of this just a little bit better. So that's one reason why it's not fitting in that very typical picture. I hope people can see that really immediately, so that they're not trying to get social play to happen after, say, a look-away behavior or some kind of behavior on the part of the dog.

The other thing is that also applies to classical conditioning as well, because in classical you want associations made. Let's say a trigger shows up. You want right after that to have something good happen to the dog, so that the dog can say, "Oh, these things are connected. That must mean that's a pretty good thing for me, that trigger out there."

And again, you can't get play to happen just because you want it to happen right after something shows up. In fact, sometimes when something shows up, your dog needs to warm back up into play, because they perceived a trigger and that creates a feeling. Because of that timing issue, it's not something that I want owners and trainers to attempt to put into those two models to influence behavior very, very directly. So now that I've taken it out of the two models that we use routinely, people are like, "Well, where do I put it? What am I really doing? What's going on here?" The way I want you to think of it from that perspective is twofold.

One is that what you're doing is you are contributing to the antecedent setup. In lay-speak, it's you are setting the stage, if you will. Susan Friedman likes that that phrase as well. You are making the environment into one that allows for the right learning to happen, that puts the ingredients in the soup that makes the good soup. When you are playing in your session, your dog, by design in my play system, is feeling something. I don't know exactly what they're feeling, but something positive, happy, something they enjoy. They're showing a lot of happy body language. They should be showing all sorts of other little markers that we could get into it in other places.

But we should be confirming that they're feeling really pretty good. And when you're feeling good, you're in a good learning state for whatever is to come next. So that's one thing it's doing is it's setting your dog on a good path toward being in a good learning state, and that's happening before any of the behaviors, or any trigger, any change in the environment. You're starting that to make sure that you're in a good place.

The second thing it does for you — and I'll just wrap that up there because there's many, many things — but the second really important thing is that it helps the trainer or owner, the human, in this scenario. It helps them know whether they should continue and whether things are getting too hard for the dog.

For us, that would be considered measuring threshold. What that means is, if play starts to disappear in your sessions and you're trying to help your dog, if play is disappearing, it's going away and the dog can't do it anymore, you can hopefully, from there, infer that what's going on for your dog in that moment is getting difficult to experience the trigger that's around them. It's getting difficult, and we don't want it to be difficult. So when play goes away, that's your canary saying it's time to move, it's time to change.

Food doesn't do that typically, and toys don't do that typically. So play will keep you honest about whether you should keep going, and play will support and help your dog to be in a good learning state. And that's all happening before. That's not part of something you do after a behavior has already been chosen. It's something you're doing before and during throughout the whole session.

So it is different, and it's sometimes tough to get people to wrap their minds around, "But wait, I do a thing and I play, right? That's all you're telling me. I know about play. I just play in place of food, right?" No, no. Give me ten minutes of your time and I'll tell you that it's not that. That's what I want to tell everybody. So that's what's going on.

Melissa Breau: You obviously come from a super-science-y background. You have this Ph.D. in psychology. How did that shape this? How did you incorporate that into the Play Way?

Amy Cook: I do have a super-science-y background, but I came about it in a roundabout way because I was a dog trainer first, and a dog trainer for a long time, before I went to graduate school to get my Ph.D. My Ph.D. is in psychology because I was in the psychology department. But at that level it's very multidisciplinary, and so it's in a lot of different things. I started in developmental psychology because I was going to be asking questions about animal cognition, and the methods we use to ask about infant cognition are very similar because you can't talk to infants. So I started there so I could learn all the methodology for asking animals their cognitive questions. So it's technically more an animal behavior than psychology, but kind of a blend of all of it.

What that was helping me learn, what it did, is it gave me a lot of access to human literature, to human psychology literature and therapy literature. I got to look at what do we do with children who are anxious or stressed? What do we do with all sorts of other stressors and fear situations that people find themselves in? How do we help them? What I was noticing was a strong lack of commonality with the things that we do with dogs. Now that doesn't in and of itself mean that that's a problem, because of course dogs are not people, and people you can talk to and dogs you can't.

But it started me thinking, is there anything in this human literature that would make sense to me as a dog trainer? I'm coming in with these filters already. Can I use that to work with dogs? Talk therapy? No. Can we use this to work with dogs? No. But a few things really stood out in how therapists often treat children.

One of those is play therapy. Play therapy is used pretty routinely, as far as I can tell, with children. In fact, you can go look at theraplay.org, I believe, to see how that intersects with helping children and their stressors. Play also in infants, or really toddlers, reveals a lot of what they're thinking. Clinicians use play to help read their clients, their patients. And I thought to myself, "Can I do that? Can I use play to reveal something about a dog, rather than to change something in a dog directly?" So that started me going.

Also I did study pretty deeply, not for my dissertation, but in the previous work, things like how stress impacts the body, how high constant cortisol is impacting the body, and what we know about it biochemically to be addressing it and to be reducing it. In the dog-training world I was hearing a lot of focus on food to reduce that — the sympathetic and parasympathetic connection. But in the literature I was reading, it was more the cortisol versus oxytocin systems. And I thought to myself, "I don't know how much we're trying to inspire any change in the oxytocin situation in a dog."

I'm not saying we necessarily are now, but it got me thinking, "What role does oxytocin play?" And if I tried to do things that were at least in the category of working with oxytocin, the category we know basically from people, would that make a difference? I'm not at all claiming that that is what I did, but it got me inspired to think along social lines, and knowing how much social support and social connection improves the stress experience for people and makes us more resilient. It made me think, "What can I do? What can I combine with my dog training knowledge to get this out?"

And so it changed the way I thought of play. I thought, play is fetch and tug. That's all well and good. That's great. But that's also training and that's also high energy and it's not particularly social. But social interactions with our dogs can stand a lot of improvement, because once I started thinking about it, I saw that mostly what we do is we pet them, we are social at them, and they wag at us and they're maybe affectionate with us, and that might have been the extent of it.

But social interaction has so much more richness to it that I just embarked on exploring it and saying, "I have just enough understanding of the human side of psychology to pull some pieces out, and I've been a dog trainer a long time. Let me see what I can combine. I put it in an incubator and I tested it for a while and then it came out as the Play Way.

So it's an amalgam of a lot of forces and it's still evolving a lot. But I really, really like what I see and I really love helping people, help them find a way to lighten up, because having a reactive dog, it's not easy, having a stressed dog, it's not easy, and it's not what people plan. You know what that's like. It's really rough.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, absolutely. Speaking of, despite all of our best efforts, when you live with and love a reactive dog, I think people tend to be really hard on themselves. Can you talk to that a bit?

Amy Cook: I really can, because I see this so much. People put their best effort out and they try to get the best dog they can get, or the dog they fell in love with, and they see they have a problem. And usually the first thing is, "All right, we're going to tackle this. We're going to go for it. We're going to figure out what to do. We'll get a trainer, we'll get a book, we'll try." And then they find that it's not really that straightforward, and sometimes it's pretty hard on them.

People can blame themselves. People can get really hard on themselves. People can be embarrassed by their dog. People can be angry at their dog. People can be angry at themselves for picking this dog, angry at themselves for not doing a better job, blame themselves. It's really sometimes very difficult emotional space to have a fearful or reactive or aggressive behaving animal.

I have a lot of sympathy for that, because we're taking people who just wanted a pet and we're throwing them in the deep end into the behavior pool, and they have to learn so much and it's emotionally hard. And so I find that a lot of the work I put out, both in play and in my other material, in the management class, is aimed at not just behavior change in the dog, but in support of the human who's doing a whole lot of the heavy lifting and is getting a whole lot of emotional strain in return and not necessarily a lot of understanding from people around them. And I think our people really need both to know that it's going to be okay, to have effective techniques that are going to work so they know it's going to be okay, they're going to improve, but also something for them so that they can keep going with this.

And play — when I get people to lighten up and play with their dogs and laugh and be silly and roll around and have a good time, they are buffered themselves. They remember why their dog is so awesome, because everybody's dog is awesome. We can get caught up in all the problems that dogs give us, but helping someone see their dog through a happier lens just for a little while can keep them going.

And then also giving them a way to get through daily life, to get through the difficult parts of owning a dog, empowers them. Someone feeling empowered to get through, someone knowing they have a plan, someone enjoying their dog, that's often enough to get them through the whole behavior plan, because people didn't sign up for this most of the time, and it can be really, really hard. I'm very sympathetic to that, and I think dog trainers would really do well to understand, if they don't, that the human is really our student. The human is really who we have to keep going. That's the important …

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I couldn't agree with you more on that part.

Amy Cook: It's the human we have to support, because we're not there for the dog. The trainer is not training the dog. I have to get to the person. That's a real passion of mine to really talk to people and make them feel that they can do this, and feel emotionally okay to be doing this, through the stress that they're going through.

Melissa Breau: We talked a little bit about the Play Way. To shift gears a little bit, your management class is partially about giving people the tools to handle those types of situations, and giving them some options while they work on the Play Way or some other rehab. It's what to do now so you can buy yourself some time to work on the bigger stuff. Is that accurate?

Amy Cook: Yeah, I would say so. It's all well and good to say to people that they should be playing, or that playing in your house is a great thing for your relationship. But I'll often get back, "Yeah, but I've got to potty my dog and he's yelling on leash," or "I've got to get from A to B," "I've got to get to the car," or "I live in a city and I have to walk on the sidewalk and I don't see how these things go together."

And of course they don't exactly go together. You have to have life skills to get through life, and those are different from your therapeutic skills to help to start changing your emotions and changing your reactions. It's more of a longer-term plan to change how you respond to things. But it's not going to happen tomorrow, and tomorrow you still need to potty your dog. Tomorrow you still need to get to your car. Tomorrow you still need to set your dog out in the yard. And you don't want these behaviors to rehearse.

Any trainer would be remiss if they didn't suggest a management program in addition to what they're going to do to help your dog change their behavior long-term. And so I teach a class in what I call an active management system, where it's not just about … people often think management is we put up film on the windows, or we put up a baby gate, or we teach a dog to crate. And those are management. That's what people think. And then it stops there sometimes. Or maybe, if they think of it outside, they think, "We're just crossing the street to avoid our problem." And that does manage the dog. But there's so much more potential in that. There's so much more exploring to do in that that makes it even more successful.

What I think that people don't emphasize enough is that we need to keep the dog from rehearsing the things we don't want them doing. Your management system needs to be as tight as possible so that it reduces all rehearsal of whatever your behavior problem is. From there, we break it down into what is your dog reacting to, what are their reactions like, and what can we have them do instead? But not by teaching them to do it, but by having the person make that all really possible.

Management is a person job. Management is the human being getting their dog positively and proactively from A to B without their dog rehearsing the behavior they don't want — say, without lunging or barking at something. It is a very active process and it takes rehearsal on the part of the person. Because I'll tell you, most people, they think, "Oh, yeah, I manage. I manage every time something comes up and we get out of the way."

And I honor that. You have to do that. But I'm telling you, it won't be anywhere near as effective as it will be if you practice all those moves you've got to do when nothing else is going on. When I ask people if they do that, I usually get a blank stare: "What do you mean, practice management? Management is something I do when I have a problem." How do you practice having a problem? You do it when you have a problem.

Well, like all dog training, if you don't rehearse, if you don't develop fluidity, if you don't have a way to practice it over and over again, the chances of it really being there for you in the clinch is really, really reduced. You have to spend a lot of time thinking about exactly what you're going to do, familiarizing your dog with it, and then making sure that you can flip into it quickly. You know what you're going to do and it's well rehearsed. When you can do that, you have a really good chance of getting through a tight spot outside.

Also I feel that a human being, the human half of this team, does a lot better when they know what they're going to do. If I say to you, "There's a dog showing up across the street, what are you going to do?" and they can say, "I'm going to do this, this, this, and this," I'm like, "You got this. You can go." If they're not sure, it's like, "The dog is across the street, I guess I'm going to go over here," that feeling of guessing, that feeling of having to improvise, is stressful for the person.

Giving them a plan and making sure that it works really well, and make sure it's very robust and strong and is effective for the dog, does wonders for the team because then they know what they're going to do, and the rehearsals are down, and then we've got room for therapy. So I think management and all of the pieces of it that make it much more nuanced is essential for getting the behavior change that we're really looking for when we have stressed dogs, for sure.

Melissa Breau: I was going to ask why it's so important to have those types of tools in our dog-training toolbox. It sounds like a lot of it is about both the handler having an option to find themselves in that "Oh, crap!" situation and the dog understanding the human's reaction and what to do in response to it.

Amy Cook: It's a dance, and if you're improvising and your dog is under a decent amount of stress, you're not really at your best. You're trying to come up with something and your dog might be saying, "That's not that familiar to me. I'm not entirely sure what you're doing. I think I get it, but I can't really pay attention because I'm split-focus right now. I'm concerned about that thing down the block," or whatever.

But when you have a well-rehearsed dance move, your dog can just fall right into that rut and say, "I know what you're doing. I'm going to go into that channel. You're doing the same thing we've practiced now hundreds of times." A dog is much more likely to be able to follow with you, with your plan, if it's an incredibly rehearsed plan, it's incredibly familiar, because you're trying to manage a dog who's not really able to manage themselves. If they could just follow a cue, you could say, "Let's go," and they could just trot along next to you a different direction without worry. You wouldn't be managing. You would be giving a cue, your dog would be following your cue, you would be doing well.

We're managing because our dogs are not able to follow cues in that moment. We're managing because our dog is focused on something else and can't give us much back when we are giving cues. So management to me is a mindset on the part of the human. It says, "I need to get this done." I need to move my dog against my dog really giving me a lot of cooperation. But I've also got to do this in a way that does not add stress to the situation, that doesn't upset my dog further. I don't need to pull out something that's really unfamiliar and try to get it done while my dog is unable to pay much attention.

If your dog is going to have a lot of trouble focusing and listening and responding to you, then you need to have very familiar things that you are aware you can get done, and you need to smoothly go so that everything is minimized. Even if your dog isn't able to be cooperative, and you need to move them anyway with a collar, and you're moving and your dog is struggling, even that has to be done kindly enough and effectively enough that you're not worsening the situation.

These are things that people need a lot of rehearsal in. They're not the basics of dog training. And we all know that people need rehearsal in the basics of dog training, too. People need a lot of rehearsal. They're not dog trainers. And so getting people to think that there's two mindsets. One, you're the teacher, and you're cueing things and rewarding things and you're learning that skill, dog owner. The other is that your student really can't bring out their best. They can't respond to you well. They can't do what you're asking. And you still need to move. You still need to go. And I still need you to do that without upsetting your dog, without making the things worse.

That's often just a vague picture for people, so I break that down and say, "This is how we're going to do that, and we're going to practice it for weeks before you have to worry about figuring it out in real time." I think empowering people is one of the most important things you can do in dog training, because you can focus on the skills, you can focus on the marking, you can focus on the reward. But if you don't have a confident human who knows what they're trying to do and can roll with a change that might come up, you are not really giving the dog the clarity that they need to get better.

So I really focus on the humans getting good training skills, but also feeling like they can do this and knowing immediately they can pull out right from their thought process, "I know what goes here. I'm going to do this next," because the confidence is what gets things done. People tend to freeze when they don't know what to do, and freezing with a reactive dog is going to get more reactivity. So I really focus on the people and expanding their toolbox from training, which is fantastic, to also active management, which is not just making stuff up and getting out of Dodge. It is a whole system that people can learn.

I've honed it down to things that focus on human effectiveness and human confidence, so that it gets done and so that people aren't unsure. A human being unsure is some of the hardest thing to experience, both for that person and that dog. I don't want my students to feel that way. I want them to feel empowered and confident.

Melissa Breau: Okay, but I think probably the most common objection is ultimately it does still come down to a lot of the dog eating food, what we do with them. And a lot of people who have dogs that are reactive go, "But my dog won't eat in that situation. Does that mean class isn't for me?" Can you talk a little bit about what's actually going on there and why this still works?

Amy Cook: I can. I'm only laughing because yes, that is exactly what people very reasonably think and say to me all the time. Sometimes they think that that they're the only person who's facing that, that their dog doesn't eat outside, so therefore "I can't manage him," or "I can't do these things I've seen you do on social media."

But little do people know that that is what everybody is telling me. That is what most people tell me is that, "I really can't get him to eat outside, so I don't think I can do your class." I'm like, "No, please come." That's taken well into account. Pretty much everybody, or the vast majority of people, are telling me that, and I do know that that is what you're facing, and I absolutely have counter for that.

So really what we do is we help dogs become able to take food. We start right from the beginning. I'm not assuming that your dog wants your food when you're outside at all. I'm assuming they don't. And if your dog happens to, then bonus for you. I'm assuming that your dog is too stressed. A lot of people think it's that their dog is picky, or he doesn't like what I have, or he's distracted and he doesn't want the food. Usually what's happening is that your dog is stressed out there, and so therefore food is the last interest that they have.

But when you train management, when you train it with me, anyway, we spend a long time in the house and in the yard and on very familiar ground where your dog is already eating. Your dog is already eating at home, and I know that's true, because your dog is alive and so your dog is eating. He's eating something to stay alive, and we can work right from there.

What we do is we install all of the fun management games right there in your house — down your hallway, in your kitchen, going around a sofa, in your own space, teaching both of you how to eat and walk, or feed and walk, as the case may be, and how to build that to fluency so that is just what you do. You just flip right into that script. You just fall into that dance move and you go. When it becomes habitual like that, it does become available for you outside. It does.

That can be transformative for someone who is trying to work with their dog and thinks, "There is no way. He's not going to eat out there." It's like, give me a six-week class and we'll see if we can't get your dog eating outside. It's often because we are going places that are so stressful for the dogs and we don't have a ritual in how to feed them. We don't have anything that they recognize as a reinforcement or a food strategy that they've been rehearsing over and over again. Nothing is familiar. It's just, "Oh, you've got food. I don't know. I've got a problem, so I'll get to your food later."

If instead what you have is a well-rehearsed, well-oiled machine of moving your dog from A to B with food on their face in magnet style, which we can talk about some other time or people can read about … it's not luring; magnet hand is not luring with food. They're eating out of your fist. I find that when we rehearse that, it is available to us when we go outside.

There's nothing like actually training your dog. We can talk about dog training, we can talk about "I know how it goes," or we can talk about "Yes, I should probably work on this," but when you take six weeks out in my class and actually do work every single day, you do a little bit of this stuff every single day, at the end of class, dogs know how this goes. They're much more easy to manage because you've spent every day of six weeks doing the work.

I think that if you are afraid that your dog doesn't like food, or wouldn't eat food, please give me a chance to start changing that for you. And then if indeed your dog isn't going to eat — and I can tell you that even dogs well-trained to eat outside are going to find themselves in situations where right then they're not going to, because they're far too stressed or far too reactive in the moment — I can also tell you that you still have to do something. You still have to actually go, even if your dog isn't eating right then, because you can't stand there and let your dog react, react, react, react. You're still actually going to have to move your dog, so you need a plan for that anyway.

You need a plan for how to respond in a way that does not make this worse and is not aversive to your dog, but is still effective in getting your dog away from whatever they're yelling at, because freezing is the last thing you want to do. Standing there, wondering what to do, is the last thing you want to do. We still have to move your dog anyway. So even if your dog really doesn't come to be able to favor food out there, it doesn't mean that you don't still need a plan. You do. You have to be able to avoid the worsening of the problem. So the class is for you either way, and I work with what the dog and human team bring to me. And there's always, always a way to improve. Always. There's always something we can do.

Melissa Breau: I couldn't let you go without at least briefly talking about some of the other stuff you've got coming up. The management class, which we've talked about a little bit, is in June, which is right around the corner. But you also have your class and a webinar on sound sensitivity coming up. I know this is going to come out, I think, the day after the sound sensitivity webinar happens, but that means people can still go buy the recording, if they're listening. So I want to chat about those things, and I think it's super-easy for folks to forget that fireworks dates are right around the corner, regardless of where you are. There's Fourth of July here. We've got some other big fireworks dates happening in other places around the world. So do you want to share a little bit about the class and the webinar and what you've got going on?

Amy Cook: Yeah, absolutely. It's booming season. We have two general booming seasons: summer, which, if you're in the States, it's going to be Fourth of July. But there's all sorts of booming going on in the summer in places all around the world, plus summer storms, which we don't have here, but I hear that a lot of people have summer storms in the rest of the country. We don't have as much in California, where I am. And then, of course, December booming time.

I have my sound class timed for getting ready for summer, getting ready for those booms, and then getting ready in the December month as well, so June and December I run the sound class.

What I'm trying to do in that class is help people understand exactly how to potentiate their classical conditioning attempt. A lot of people who work with sound, they already know that they want to make the sound into a good thing. They want, when the sound happens, for it to be followed by something great for the dog. Usually people have about that much — your baseline understanding of what they're supposed to be doing with sound. But that right there is an enormously nutshelled thing that has to be broken into steps that are correct for that to be effective.

Melissa Breau: It's a big lump.

Amy Cook: It's a big lump. And if you think that it's about the bad thing happens and now a good thing happens, you're probably very likely to have it not work, because you haven't really assessed the size of the bad thing and the size of the good thing, and those matter. And you probably haven't really taken into account how does the bad thing you've picked to train with, how does it make your dog feel? Are they incredibly upset at the slightest amount of that bad thing? If so, how much of a dent is your good thing making? Also, have you checked your timing? People need a chance to practice, and need a chance to get good at what they're trying to do technologically, before they're trying to use it to be effective.

I know people start right with the sound that is the trouble for the dogs. They can start working. I know that, not only from watching people and knowing that, but also because when people come to me with unusual sounds, they'll say, "I don't know if I can do your class," or "I don't know if we can work on sound stuff, because I can't make that sound happen," like it's this rare event, or it's this non-mechanical event, or it's thunder. It's something you don't control, so how can I possibly work on it? That tells me that there was a fundamental misunderstanding about how to work with sound.

So for the class itself, I broke it down into helping people get really good at doing classical conditioning to neutral things first. I want to see that you can condition, that you can make a neutral thing — something with no meaning to your dog whatsoever — into something that jazzes up your dog and your dog thinks is the best thing ever. Can you do that on something neutral?

In fact, I had to do that in dog training school. It was an assignment I was given. I picked a Zoom groom, and I have dogs who don't need grooming, so that was not even a thing I needed. They'd never seen one, and the assignment was "Make your dog unreasonably happy to see this Zoom groom." It took a while. I had to think of the steps. I had to have clean mechanics. I had to understand the breakdown.

And so I bring that understanding to this class, and I help people make sure, even test … it's not like an official test; don't worry, everybody gets an A. But we do a little evaluation along the way on each of the four steps, so that I can see if these mechanics are working. From the dog owner's perspective, are they being effective? We take neutral objects, and I see if we can condition this dog to think those things are great. If we can, then we know we've got good training on the part of the human and movable opinions on the part of the dog, at least demonstrably.

Of course, all opinions are movable, but we want to see that we can do that, so that we can assess how it's going when we're using the real noises and troubleshoot correctly. Because if it's not working, you're not going to be sure if it's your mechanics, or if it's something you picked about the environment, or something you picked about the sound. I want to split all those apart so I can know what to troubleshoot when something doesn't work.

The class is very much focused on skills. It's not a conceptual class. I teach you how to have the right kind of party, a noise party. I teach you exactly the framework of how to get what's called a CER. It's a conditioned emotional response. That just means you can do a thing and your dog is immediately really happy about it. I test to see that we get that. And then we start taking these neutral sounds that we were using to test with, and we gradually start making them a little bit more like what the problem sound is, breaking that apart as well into all of its component parts.

We do this when we talk about operant conditioning. We do this when we talk about a recall. We do this when we talk about a stay. We gradually increase complexity. We first teach people how to click and how to feed and how they should be acting and where to stand and what they should look for. When it comes to classical, there is not that kind of breakdown, and there really should be. I believe there needs to be. So in this class, I break it down.

Now, the webinar version of that is the one-hour shorter version, either for people who do have a lot of experience with this but want to see how I break it down, or for people who, for whatever reason, the class is not accessible to them or not right for them at this moment. They don't have six weeks, or whatever it is. I shorten the ideas and put it in this one-hour format to make sure you have at least the basics so you can go forward.

In this one coming up, which I guess you can still go buy, if you're listening to me now, I'm really going to break down the progression of these neutral sounds, because I think that's what's often missing people. There are a lot of people out there who don't need my help in the play portion and in the reinforcement portion … it's not really reinforcement, but it's fine … who can do that part but still aren't breaking the sounds down well enough. And so I'm going to talk about why that's important, and which parts I think you should pick first in order to get the most change, and how not to rush through this.

That's what I'm going to break down in the webinar, or what I just broke down in the webinar, for you. But if you want the full picture of it and all of the pieces and my coaching to make sure that each of your milestones are being hit, that class starts in June and it won't be back until December 1st. So if you need to get ready for boom season, now's the time. Now's the time to do it, for sure.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I think you broke out nicely there what the differences are in the approaches between that and the Play Way and your management class, but is there anything you'd add to that?

Amy Cook: I think that why I have these three classes as separate things is that I believe they all really need different approaches. I'm not sure that "approach" is exactly the right word, but I want to say a different set of skills that you're pulling out as a person and a different mindset that you have as a person.

In play therapy, you're not their teacher. You're their collaborator, and you are making an expectation-free space for them where you are taking their feedback on your behavior, and you are collaborating with what they like, and listening to what they say, and telling them that you're listening to what they say, and incorporating what they said right into the next move you're doing. No one's leading it. You're both making it up at the same time.

In management, the manager is the leader. The manager needs to get this situation under control and get across the street or get back behind that hedgerow or whatever you need to do, and so it's a completely different mindset. You're not really negotiating with your dog. You're making it as simple as possible. You're making it as kind and as non-upsetting and as game-based as possible, but you still do need to make decisions and go, and so it's different mindset.

In the classical conditioning, the sound work, it's much more technical. It's much more about getting each of these little pieces right so that you can change their association and change their opinion about whatever it is they're afraid of. It's much more precise, much more technical. And at least in my world, it's used for nonsocial fears: fears of sounds, fears of objects, fears of things falling, fears of things that startle you, things that are very specific and not about the complexities of sociality with people or dogs. I don't apply straight, technical, classical conditioning to that.

So regardless of which thing you're managing, or regardless of which kind of play you're using to help your dog feel better, and regardless of which startle recovery situation you find yourself in, each of these three classes is focusing on a different element of dog training, different element of trying to get behavior change, trying to manage a situation that you find yourself in. I think covering all three of those bases, if you, as an owner, know all three of those kinds of things, if you're good technically and a good manager and a good play partner, you've got most of what you need to come up with a solution.

It does not cover every single thing that can happen to dogs, but it would make you a person who's confident in the tools they have and who is compassionate toward what the dog is feeling. I think that covers a wide variety. It's why I split them into three different approaches and three completely different classes. They don't overlap in material at all, but they all support the same general idea of getting behavior change done positively and really effectively by focusing on exactly what's needed right then. So that's how I split it up.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. To round things out, the one last question. If we were to pull apart all the things we've been talking about today and drill it down into a key piece of information or one key takeaway that you wish people understood or walked away from this with, what would that be?

Amy Cook: I think that all of dog training, all of dog ownership, is improved by perspective-taking. It's improved by really trying to understand what a dog is going through, and not stopping with just your first thought about what it might be or what it would be if it were you, but really seeking to understand, talking to other people, using these methods, what it's like for the dog, because so much of us picking what we need to do to help them is reliant on us understanding the problem in the first place.

So much of the time we become tool-focused, or we become "I teach you"- focused, and we're not thinking so much of how it feels to be taught, what the problems really feel like when a dog is having them, and therefore we don't know if we can ask them to do a thing or not do a thing. How are they feeling in that moment? And to really take seriously what sounds feel like when they're fearful. When a dog is afraid of a sound, having compassion for what that's like leads you to finding really effective solutions.

I think so much of the time we are human-focused and problem-focused and are not spending as much time in thinking about what your dog is experiencing. I understand why, because how can we know? There's that. Are we sure? I can see what I'm doing, I can see what they're doing, but I can't see what they're feeling. And because we're afraid of anthropomorphism, and I understand it all, but I'm not suggesting that people say for sure that they know what their dog is feeling. I'm saying that people would do well to spend time really thinking about what the possibilities are, and to start there, from "What is this dog experiencing?" and have decent hypotheses come from that, and then let that inform what choices you need to make next. Because if we just focus on "I need the dog to stop doing this and start doing that," we are very likely to be picking the wrong solutions to the problem, because we've gotten the behavior to change, but we didn't get any of the interior experience to change.

And although we're going to be guessing always in that space, and I know it makes people sometimes uncomfortable with that, I think we're safe, as long as we're not asserting that we know that that's what they're feeling. But we are speculating, and letting that speculation lead us toward sensitive solutions and a possibility of solutions based on what could be happening, that leaves the space more enriched, and gives you more possibilities, and gets us out of thinking just mechanistically, "Get the dog to look at this. Get the dog to sit here. Get the dog to do this. Stop the dog from doing that."

I think being effective collaborators means having empathy and sympathy for what your dog is going through. Even if you're wrong, turning on the sensitivity there and letting that inform you about your possibilities, I think, is really where dog training should be going in the future as we go forward. Building your sensitivity toward your partner, who is the one you're trying to help in the first place. That's what I would say.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Amy. As usual, it was a fantastic conversation.

Amy Cook: Thank you so much. Can we do this every week? I say that every time.

Melissa Breau: Maybe one of these days.

Amy Cook: One of these days. Oh, my goodness. We'll see. Thank you for asking me to come again. I really enjoyed it.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it.

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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