E270: Dresden Graff - Training for the Sensitive Soul

National Agility Competitor Dresden Graff joins me to talk about his training journey and share some tips for training the see-saw when you have a more sensitive 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 Dresden Graff here with me to chat.

Hi Dresden, welcome to the podcast!

Dresden Graff: Hello. Thank you for having me.

Melissa Breau: I'm super-excited to chat. To start us out, can you share a little about you, your current crew, and what you're working on with them?

Dresden Graff: Sure thing. I'm Dresden, I own Instinct Fort Worth down here in Texas. I currently have a gaggle of dogs. Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, Scout and Renegade are my Papillons. Between my wife and I, we have two Shepherd mixes, old terrier thing, and then Vice, my lab.

Right now, Harley and Vice are my main focus in agility. Harley just retired from regular height, so she's down to her older lady status. She's gone down to four inches, so she's working on her 2023 Preferred Nationals qualifications. Vice is just getting started in the Excellent classes. Poison, Vice, and Hawke all play in Rally, Vice is working on her CDX, and my wife recently started joining us in agility, too, with Renegade.

Melissa Breau: Always exciting when you can pull your partner into some of this stuff.

Dresden Graff: Yeah.

Melissa Breau: How did you originally get into the dog world?

Dresden Graff: I've always been an animal lover. I desperately wanted a dog for as long as I can remember. After many years of begging, my mom did agree to let me have one, as long as it was small, beautiful, and part of that small was she wanted it to fit in a purse.

I had seen agility on TV and wanted to do that, so Papillons seemed to be the only breed that we could really agree on. I was 10 at the time, we were doing all the wrong things, contacting breeders, immediately asking how much puppies were, which is a no go, that kind of stuff, probably spelling Papillon wrong. I think we eventually ended up getting Lily out of the newspaper. But that was how I launched into dogs.

Melissa Breau: Everybody's got to start somewhere. You knew you wanted to do agility right from the start?

Dresden Graff: Yeah, I had seen, I think it was on Animal Planet. I don't really watch TV so much anymore, but back when they showed dog stuff on Animal Planet, the had one of the big agility competitions, maybe Invites or Nationals. This was late '90s, maybe early 2000s. To see a person and dog working so beautifully together, the connection and trust that that takes just seemed so magical to me. So when I did finally get that dog, Miss Lily, I talked my parents into finding an agility class, and that's where I met my mentor, Denise Lacy, who was very, very patient with me and my silly red dog. My dad dutifully took me to classes every single week, and sat on the floor and played Civilization on his DS until I could drive.

Melissa Breau: I love that. Starting out in agility, have you always been in the positive trainer arena? What got you started heading down that path?

Dresden Graff: Starting in agility gave me a really big leg up into the world of positive training, and starting agility especially with a fearful dog made positive training a necessity. You simply cannot force or pressure a dog into confidence. So between the sport that I happened to choose and the dog I happened to have, that made it a very easy choice.

Melissa Breau: If somebody was to ask you for a general sense of what your training philosophy is now, how would you describe it?

Dresden Graff: That's such a question in the dog world right now. For sports, the big thing that I look at is, are we having fun — "we" meaning both me and my dog — and if not, what do we need to change so that we are having fun.

Training is about celebrating little victories, and if we're not celebrating victories, then we're just finding areas that need work. If my dog is struggling, then it's due to something that I haven't properly prepared them for, and that clarity is kindness and knowing what you want, and work on the pieces and the picture will come together.

Melissa Breau: I like that. Lots of good lines in there. How has that approach impacted life, training, world with your dogs?

Dresden Graff: You talk to a lot of instructors, so you probably know that work/life balance doesn't really exist for many of us. They're tangled together pretty tightly. I try to bring that same philosophy to how I teach, and in recent years to how I treat myself as well. Empathy comes really easily when I'm teaching, and it's okay to take things at the pace of the learner, whether that's me or my students or my dogs. When you hit a big roadblock, you can break that into manageable pieces. Celebrate the little things, even when the big picture is still really messy.

Melissa Breau: Congrats on competing at the National Agility Championships this year! Was it your first year?

Dresden Graff: No, this was my third year competing.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. How did it go?

Dresden Graff: It was awesome. We had a blast. We had so much fun. The surface was awesome, as far as we were concerned. Harley Quinn, the little queen bee, absolutely thrives in the spotlight. She loves the additional spark of energy that a competitive nature tends to bring to big events, and it's really fun to be in an event with a dog that wants to be there. She's 8 years old, so we know each other really well. In our clear rounds she did spectacular. She was in the Top 20 out of 140, so I'm really, really pleased.

Melissa Breau: That's a lot to be pleased about. Part of the reason I wanted to chat today is we've got you on the schedule to do a webinar coming up on May 26, which should be the Thursday after this comes out. You're talking about See-Saw Strategies for the Sensitive Soul. Can you tell me a little bit about what kind of dog it is that we're talking about when we say "sensitive soul"?

Dresden Graff: When I say "sensitive soul," I'm referring to dogs that are thinkers rather than doers in training sessions. You can almost see them doing the math before they act on something.

Sensitive souls might be very aware of movement or sound, or they're just straight-up scared of it. They don't bounce back quite as easily from setbacks, and if something scares them or worries them, they definitely think twice before jumping back in to give it another try.

If you think you have a sensitive soul, you probably do. It's one of those where either you need to help your dog a little bit more or you don't.

A perfect example with my dogs currently is the difference between Harley and Poison, two of my Papillons. Harley is resilient, she'll look without leaping, she's very confident, things will always work out for her.

Poison is not at all that way. While she has plenty of drive, she's definitely lacking in resilience, so with her I don't get to be sloppy or lumpy in my training sessions. We have to work through individual elements. I have to dot every i and cross every t. I don't know how much longer that's going to be an expression with all the digital stuff we've got going on, but really check all the boxes. I don't get many things for free with her. I have to put the pieces together to get where I want to go.

Melissa Breau: Really break things down.

Dresden Graff: Yes, absolutely.

Melissa Breau: Can you talk a little about how you approach to teaching a seesaw or teeter behavior, especially with a dog like that?

Dresden Graff: Sure. I train with a lot of empathy, so I consider training seesaws with sensitive dogs to be an open-heart policy. By that I mean acknowledging that the concern or worry or fear that the dog has of the seesaw is very real to them.

It's our job as the handler to support our dog and offer them support, and sometimes that means listening to our dogs when they say, "Maybe not right now," or "I don't feel like I can do this." It's our job to be a beacon of patience and guiding confidence.

Melissa Breau: What kinds of symptoms or signs might a handler see when they're working on those skills and maybe the dog does fall into the "sensitive soul" category? What might hint at that?

Dresden Graff: Symptoms makes it sound so clinical! Some signs, when you're working on teeter skills, might be things like you feel like you're always coming back to square one every time you start a teeter session. Or maybe you get them to play the bang game and you feel like you've got that down solid, but then it falls apart when you add in the rest of the seesaw. Your dog might look from side to side as they navigate the tilt of the teeter, that pivot point. When the teeter hits the ground, they might shoot forward. Or you might see other little things like they lack confidence in being able to discern which one is the dog walk and which one is the teeter, so you'll see some creeping on the up ramp on the dog walk after you've started working on the see-saw. And things like a beautiful performance on their home field, but difficulty when they see different seesaws at trials.

Melissa Breau: Difficulty with generalizing some of that.

Dresden Graff: Yes.

Melissa Breau: Can you share a little more on the webinar specifically, what you'll cover, and who might want to attend?

Dresden Graff: Sure. If you're struggling with any of the things I just mentioned, this webinar is for you. We'll definitely be covering the bits and pieces of training the seesaw, things that you might not get out of your weekly agility class.

We'll talk about being creative as far as working on noise and slight tipping point changes that mean a lot to sensitive dogs, especially when you only have one see-saw that you have access to, so maybe just that one in your training center or just the one in your backyard.

And we'll focus on teasing out the individual pieces of the seesaw and building up confidence in each part. So the approach, the up ramp, tipping point, the initial landing, the bounce back, end criteria, and exit.

Melissa Breau: I love that. I love how you've broken it down into each of those individual components, because I don't think I could have named that many little pieces for the one behavior.

Dresden Graff: I've had many a student and many a dog show me exactly how many pieces there are.

Melissa Breau: How many different pieces. I've got a couple of questions I usually ask guests the first time they're on the webinar here at the end. The first one is what's the training-related accomplishment you're proudest of?

Dresden Graff: There are so many moments that bring me a lot of joy, but I'm incredibly proud of every moment with one of my sensitive dogs where they feel confident enough to show off their real skills at a trial.

Seeing something that used to be a huge struggle for them get tackled with ease due to a mutual trust and full understanding of the task is just magical, just like when I first watched that agility on TV as a kid.

That's exactly what I was hoping for when I got into dogs and when I got into dog training, whether it was my first dog doing this see-saw at her very first national after probably a year-and-a-half of working on it, to my Shepherd mix strutting his stuff for off-leash heeling, or even my silly little Poison when she looks up at me in a trial, and seeing that she's not worried about the people or the dogs around her, and that it's just us, we got this.

Melissa Breau: What is the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?

Dresden Graff: Ever is really big, but right now, one that's really struck a chord with me, as I'm working on jumping skills with Vice, is one of Susan Salo's quotes, which is, "Set your dog up to be successful and reward him highly for his efforts, and what he offers you as your working partner will amaze even the most skeptical. Always try to remember that while training is a mechanical skill, the relationship is not. Enjoy the process."

Melissa Breau: I like the reminder that relationship is not a mechanical skill. It's easy to forget that.

Dresden Graff: Absolutely. My professional background is in ABA, and Bob Bailey's chicken camps is what got me into more professional training and moving down to Texas. So that's definitely one that brings me back to my roots of why I got into dog training.

Melissa Breau: The last one: Who is somebody else in the training world that you look up to?

Dresden Graff: Many of the instructors at FDSA are absolutely fantastic and have helped me quite a bit on my training journeys. But the first trainer that I really looked up to and was like, "Wow, I want to be like her when I grow up," was Sylvia Turkman. The stuff that she does in agility is fantastic. She really stresses relationship first and confidence first, and just going out and having fun with your dog. The rest will come.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, the rest will come. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Dresden.

Dresden Graff: You are so welcome. Anytime!

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Sara Brueske to talk about mondioring obedience.

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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