E271: Sara Brueske - What Does it Take to do Mondio OB?

Sara and I talk about training for Mondio Obedience - including who can compete and how varied the trials can be! 


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Sara Brueske here with me to chat.

Hi Sara, welcome back to the podcast!

Sara Brueske: Hi Melissa. Thank you so much for having me.

Melissa Breau: I'm excited to talk. Do you want to start us out by telling everybody a little bit about you, your current crew, what you're working on with them?

Sara Brueske: Definitely. I have ten dogs currently of my own, and then generally I have a puppy camper as well, which is just a sport puppy that's here for board and train, that sort of thing. Right now I have a little young Labrador Retriever puppy who is just a blast.

But my dogs, I have Australian Koolies that generally do disc and dock diving and agility and nosework. And then I have a couple of Belgian Malinois who do protection sports like IGP and mainly mondioring, because that is my favorite sport in the entire world, apparently, because I spend most of my days training that sport in particular.

I do have a few other dogs too. They are retired from performing at Purina Farms for the past eight years, and so they definitely deserve their retirement. I have a Boston Terrier/Shih Tzu mix, a Border Collie, a Border Collie mix, and a Border/Staffie as well. I have lots of dogs.

Melissa Breau: I want to chat a little more about mondio today. I know we've talked about it before, but I feel like since then, it's like one of those things where you get a certain type of car and then you see it everywhere. But I feel like since we've talked about it, I've seen a serious uptick in the number of posts on Facebook and just general chatter about mondio. To start us out, for those who maybe haven't listened to our last chat, can you just give a general recap on what the sport is, who can participate, that sort of thing?

Sara Brueske: In the United States, we have a few different protection sports. We have the one generally called schutzhund. It's also known as IGP, or it's known as IGP currently. That's where the decoy, the guy that's getting bit where it's just an arm sleeve, I see track with that and obedience with that. We also have something called ring sports, and that's a French ring and mondioring. With that, you actually have the guy who's getting bit in a full suit, and generally we teach our dogs to bite legs instead of arms or in addition to arms. So it is a protection sport.

With all of those different protection sports, they all have their own little emphasis. IGP focuses on precision and the way the dog bites, and how it barks, and what is the dog feeling in those situations. French ring is pitting the decoy against the dog. It's like a sparring match, but a really, really high-precision speed sparring match. Mondioring focuses on generalization of training and environmental stability, as well as control in all sorts of different scenarios. We like to call it the dog trainer's protection sport, because instead of just teaching heeling, we have to teach heeling through obstacles, pass through distractions, all sorts of weird things you never think of, up ramps, down ramps, all sorts of different things. It's a really cool sport because you don't really know what's going to happen on the day of the trial.

Each of our trials has a theme. I have a theme coming up for our trial that we're hosting in July. It's going to be an America trial, obviously, because of July 4th, and so we'll likely have lots of flags, there will probably be some gunfire because America, and some fireworks going off, and stuff like that all during the trial. For the exercise for food refusal we'll probably have a cheeseburger because America, or some hot dogs. or something like that. We try to cater our trials to themes so that you have a general idea of the distractions and the difficulties that might be presented, but you really don't know what they will be.

The other main difference between the sport IGP, formerly known as schutzhund, and mondioring is with that sport you do have the three different phases. You have tracking, obedience, and then protection. With mondio, you only have obedience and protection. However, there are scent elements in mondioring, so you have to do a handler scent-discrimination exercise. They have to search out the decoy using their nose. So you do still have those odor-specific exercises, but the main difference is that you don't put the dog away between the phases.

In IGP, you do your tracking in the morning, then your dog goes back in the car, you drive to the obedience field, you do your obedience, then the dog goes back in the car, and then they come back out for protection later. Mondioring, your dog is on that field the entire time. They do obedience, they do their jumps, and then the decoy comes straight out on the field. In the upper levels, you can count on being on the field and your dog actively working for about 30 minutes or so, and in the lower levels, like Level 1, between 10 and 15 minutes or so. It's like a long, endurance type of game as far as that goes.

It's really a fun sport, and while it is a protection sport, USMRA, which is the United States Mondioring Association, they actually have a special program for obedience, and obedience and jumps only. I could bring out my Border Collie, who doesn't do the protection side of things, and just get her OBE or her OBJ titles and go through the levels that way. When they do that, they actually take the exact program that the protection dogs are doing, and they just stop it before the protection. So you're doing the same challenges, you're doing the same difficulty things, you're still focusing on environment, and it's a lot of fun, but you don't have to have the protection aspect of it.

The other thing is that right now, to do the protection level or the protection phase of it, you would have to have an FCI-registered dog. What that means is that they are registered through the AKC or your home country of origin Kennel Club. If my dog was from Canada, it would have to be the CKC. However, we are lucky enough to have a five-year variance on that that's restarted this year, so until 2027, any dog can participate and get USMRA titles. They just have to be judged by a USMRA judge, rather than an FCI one.

So again there are some technical things there, but we did get a variance, so dogs that aren't registered, they can actually still participate, which was a big question last year because we weren't sure if we're going to get that variance extended or not. So, yeah, any dog right now can do mondioring, long story short.

Melissa Breau: Limited Edition title. You can only earn it for the next couple of years.

Sara Brueske: Exactly.

Melissa Breau: The biggest aspect of mondio that's different from other sports and venues is how drastically and intentionally different one trial is from another. Can you share a little bit about how you train for the unexpected?

Sara Brueske: Oh, yeah. We watch a lot of trials, so especially the national level or the world championships, we watch those for ideas, because generally at that upper level, then it trickles down to our club trials because they're like, "Oh, we saw this challenge. It looks really cool." For instance, I might watch a trial where the retrieve object is a hula-hoop, and so I'm going to go buy a hula-hoop. I'm going to make sure my dog can do a retrieve with that.

The cool thing about the generalizing to a whole bunch of different distractions or elements is that once you start generalizing, the dogs tend to get pretty good about generalizing in general. That means that if I generalize to fifteen different retrieve objects, that sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth one is not going to be that difficult for my dog. We just make sure we're training something different every single time, especially once those core behaviors are established. I don't like doing the same challenges over and over again, because that's not the sport.

And so mixing it up, getting ideas, and … really, really sorry … for those of you that aren't sure what's going on in that background, that is my 4-month-old daughter contributing to the conversation. She felt the need to pitch in. She's like, "I do mondio. I was out training this morning, so I know all about this."

Melissa Breau: Is there anything in particular that you do with young dogs to really ensure that they build that confidence for novelty?

Sara Brueske: Absolutely. I like to teach my young dogs different pattern games, so that when I do go to new environments, and I do have different environmental distractions out there, my dog's not doing the actual behaviors they'd be doing in a trial and potentially messing those up or getting negative feelings towards those behaviors. And so treat-toss games, choose to heel, super stuff that isn't super-formal. And then I bring them a lot of different places.

I try to find jungle gyms to work on. I try to bring them in as many dog-friendly stores as possible. Halloween is my favorite time of year because every store has Halloween decorations set out, and those things are pretty great as far as environmental distractions. You'll see me with my young dogs, just walking around the giant inflatables, even at Christmas time, that sort of thing, to help them feel confident and powerful in those situations, and not asking them too much, because already that distraction is so hard for them. Just a bunch of different things. Everything I can find.

Melissa Breau: All the places.

Sara Brueske: All the places, all the things.

Melissa Breau: Can you talk us through the exercises that you cover in your mondio obedience class at FDSA, what they are, and what each looks like for mondio?

Sara Brueske: Absolutely. We cover all of the obedience exercises for mondioring, everything but the jumps and the protection exercises. We also include the check-in. For each trial, when you walk onto the field, you immediately go and talk to the judge, tell them who you are, that sort of thing, so we cover how to train that as well.

The exercises for obedience are heeling, down-stay with distraction, position changes, food refusal, the retrieve, the send-away, and then little wood, which is my mondioring's handler scent-discrimination exercise. Each of those sounds pretty much like what it is. Obviously "little wood" is not very descriptive at all. It's called "the search for an object."

With heeling, it's not worth very many points, but you know the heeling pattern when you watch Dog in White, which is the example dog that goes before everybody else at the trial. That's the first time you see the heeling pattern. It'll include two stops, and you might go over an obstacle or through an obstacle or something along those lines, but it'll have a left turn, a right turn and an about-turn as well.

For the down-stay with distraction, that's an out-of-sight down-stay for one minute. The dog is in a down, the handler goes out of sight, and the distraction is whatever the judge wants it to be for that trial. It could include people playing catch with each other, I've had gunshots in some of the distractions, that sort of thing, all sorts of weird, weird, different distractions. The difficulty changes by what level you're on, but they're never going to be closer than five meters to the dog, so you don't have to worry about anybody touching the dog or anything along those lines.

Position changes — it's sit, down, stand, but it could be in any order and it's only a verbal cue, so you can't give hand signals along with it. The distance is dictated by which level you are in, for how far you are away. The dog could be on something, the dog could be in something, they could be on an incline or angle of any sort. Typically they're not on anything wobbly. I haven't really seen that. And the handler could be in any position as well.

Food refusal — dog is in a down, and the food is presented to the dog some way. It could be by a person dropping it. It could be an RC car driving the food up to them. We even had a doughnut on a fishing pole at one of the trials I was entered in. The doughnut was cast in front of the dog and then reeled so it drug along the ground in front of the dog. That was really tricky as well.

The retrieve could be any object. It could be over an obstacle. As long as the dog can physically pick it up and carry it, that is a good object. Squeaky toys, hula-hoops, you name it, we've done it.

Send-away is run straight and fast between two markers, and then recall once you get past that point. There's no send to a down or send to a sit. They just have to cross a line and then the handler recalls them from there.

Melissa Breau: When you talk about all of those, some of them sound similar to some of the things you might see in an AKC sport or something like that. How do they compare to their similar components in other sports?

Sara Brueske: The emphasis for mondioring is environmental stability and then making sure you generalize your training. A lot of the other sports really focus on precision and making sure you want the dog's head to be a certain way, you want the positions to look a certain way, that sort of thing. Mondioring is more about just surviving the tests the best you can, so you can get quite good scores without having super-flashy obedience, which is really nice. It just has to be functional.

I want flashy and functional, and a lot of times that flashiness actually helps my dog be functional. For example, the retrieve, because I don't know what that object is, it could be a squeaky stuffy toy. It could be a jolly ball, for all I know. My dog loves jolly balls. But because the retrieve is so precisionally trained, he knows how to bring it back without going into toy mode. He knows his job in that exercise. And so even though we don't have to have a perfect retrieve, so the dog doesn't have to hold it, you just have to grab it after the dog sits. Dog doesn't have to be in front position. He can come back into heel position or even just sit kitty-corner to you. It just has to be a functional exercise.

Same thing with the position changes. We do put a lot of emphasis on not moving forward or backwards, but as far as whether it's a tuck-sit versus a rock-back sit, or something like that, doesn't really matter. The only thing is your dog can't move more than a half-meter forward or backwards. Again, it's all about functionality versus precision in the sport and making sure that you just survive the test.

Melissa Breau: Making it through to the other side.

Sara Brueske: Yeah, exactly.

Melissa Breau: Out of all of those, the two exercises that I think are maybe the most unique are the send-away and the food refusal. Can you share a little bit on how you would approach training the send-away when it's impossible to know what you're going to be sending the dogs towards in mondio?

Sara Brueske: This is actually the great debate in mondioring is how do you train your send-away. You'll go to a trial and you'll see this amazing send-away, and everybody goes up and like, "How do you train your send-away?" There's always a good debate.

The national that Kreacher I entered last year in Colorado, there was three dogs that did really well with the send-away, because a lot of times the judge will mess with it. The send-away is a certain distance from the markers, and oftentimes the judge will put objects on the ground on either side of that path to draw the dog towards it. It might be an IGP blind, or just some objects scattered around that look like toys, so that the dog is drawn to the corners rather than that straight line. Or they might do the little wood. The handler would go down, place the little wood, they do that exercise, and on the same line now they're doing the send-aways, so the dog might go and search for that object rather than doing the send-away. So there's a lot of little tricky things judges like to do.

At the national level, there was only three dogs that got the send-away in this situation, and one of them was Kreacher. I was chatting with the other handlers and listening to what other people said when they chatted with them, and all three of us had trained the send-away different ways. So it really doesn't matter how you train it. You just have to generalize, generalize, generalize.

A lot of people will train to go to a place, so a front paw target, like an upside-down bucket that we use for pivot work, they'll send to that. Some people like to train their dogs to go put their front feet up on the fence, so they'll go up, put their front feet on the fence, wait for the release to a toy. Other people like to place a toy, and then I'm just sending my dog to a toy that way. I'll have a toy hidden along the fence line. All three of those methods just teach our dogs to run straight to the fence, either to perform a behavior or to find the toy for them.

After that, we have to really proof our recall. So making sure that our recall is the most important thing ever to our dog, because especially with the method I do, which is find your ball along the fence, and a dog that really loves his ball, like Kreacher does, that recall has to be the most important thing, because the worst case in that scenario is he runs straight, I recall, and he doesn't come back because he's busy looking for his ball. So again, that's something I have to proof.

There is one other method I do. I have two different send-aways trained, and it involves a bird launcher. I have a bird launcher, which they use in a lot of hunt training, but I put a ball in it instead of a bird. I don't need that level of distraction. The ball is in it, and I have it set at an angle behind one of the send-away markers, so that it'll shoot out right into the middle of where the dog should be. I'll point my dog to it, I'll tell him, "Go," and as he's dedicated to that send-away and whatever distance we're working on, I'll pop the bird launcher so that ball just pops out right in front of him.

I like that method if I don't have a fence to send my dog to, because the tricky part about the other method is finding somewhere that has a fence that I can put that ball on, because that fence really does act as the target for the dog.

So, long story short, there's a million different ways to train the send-away. There's not one method that's better than another. I really like playing with a bunch of different methods. In the class, I do teach different methods, so you can figure out what works best for you and your situation and your dog, and then use that method to train it.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Obviously, an important piece of this is the proofing and generalization piece. How do you approach that so that it's truly proofed and truly generalized, so when you go to a place the dog has not been, especially in the competition field, they can do it?

Sara Brueske: There is one advantage if you train at a club trial: a lot of them have open field the day before. That's the time where you go, you practice your send-aways, you guess, "This makes sense for the judge to do the send-away here." That's one way to go about it. However, if you trial at a national, you're not allowed to go on the field as a competitor before the event. So there's no open field, and it can't be a field that has had a trial recently on it. So there's no practicing or anything like that on this field beforehand.

What I do when I'm prepping for a trial is I go to as many different fields as I can. I'll go to a park. Just this morning I went to a baseball park and I put my send-away along the home-run fence. I put my ball along there and I did my send-away at that place. I just do one, just to show my dog that, "Here in this situation, the send-away still happens. Still run straight to that fence. Your ball will be there, I promise." I go to as many different parks as I can, I try to get on as many different mondio fields as I can, so it involves a lot of travel, but just really, really practicing it.

One of my other favorite ways to do, and I teach this exercise in the class, is to go to an open field. It's even better if there's a fence all the way around. But to have your toys placed out, you stand in the center and you have one at 3 o'clock, one at 9 o'clock, one at 12 o'clock, and one at 6 o'clock. I can send my dog to the one at 12, he gets that. I turn around, send him to the one at 6, he gets that. Send him to 3 and then 9, so on and so forth.

And then I can start shrinking that distance between them down a little bit, so now my dog's like, "No, I have to run straight, even though there's a different toy I could be running to right now." That's one of my favorite ways to really proof it and make sure my dog is running straight and going in the direction I ask him to do it.

Melissa Breau: I like that around-the-clock idea to narrow in your points and have them really understand the concept of straight. That's neat. To switch to food refusal, I think people unfamiliar with mondio might assume the best way to teach a food refusal would just be never let your dog eat off the floor. Is that how you approach it? How do you approach it?

Sara Brueske: That is not how I approach it, because one of my favorite things to do with my dog is a treat toss game. It's one of my favorite environmental games. I can go into a new environment, play the treat toss game, and how my dog eats the treat off the floor is a great way to see how they're feeling, how quickly they come back to me, so on and so forth. But that's a whole 'nother podcast.

So for that, I just make sure that my dog eating food off the floor is on cue. I have specific marker cues that tell my dog when to eat food off the floor. "Get it" means I'm going to throw it to the floor. "Find it" means there's a treat somewhere on the floor, you better find it. And then I have another one if I want to be working with a lot of food on the ground or sending to a target, a food bowl, so take the food out of the food bowl.

It would be nice and straightforward if all we had to do is proof our dogs not to eat food off the floor. That would make our game a lot easier. But we play mondio, and, of course, hardly ever is it actually just on the floor at some of these trials. So we have to proof for people trying to hand it to the dog. We have to proof for it falling out of nowhere, because sometimes the person is on the other side of the barrier and the dog doesn't see them. We have to proof for it on fishing lines and on remote-controlled cars.

It would be really easy if that's all we had to do. But because it's this sport, we have to generalize the understanding of "Don't eat the food after I give this cue." Mine is "Leave it." If I say, "Leave it," my dog's in a down, he knows he's not supposed to go for any food, even if I try to hand it to him. That's not the time and place to eat the food. He will get a better reward when I come back.

And so, yeah, it's not that easy.

Melissa Breau: Not that simple.

Sara Brueske: Right.

Melissa Breau: Part of that dynamic is that you're not there. Somebody else is either presenting the food, or it's appearing, or you gave all those different things. How do you ensure that behavior is fluid enough the dogs can refuse food, even when you're not actually present? How do you train something where you're not even going to be there?

Sara Brueske: I train the picture of somebody approaching, because I have dogs that … my Malinois aren't very friendly. They're not social Malinois. I know there's many social Malinois out there, and mine are not them. Famous does not like people approaching her. Both of them are perfectly safe working around people. It's just people approaching is really pressure-y for her and she doesn't like it, and she hates the food refusal. For that reason, I actually taught her to eat the food because it was a reward on the field. It's only five points at Level 1, "Go for it, honey," if it makes her feel better.

But for her, when I started retraining it after that, I would train the picture of somebody approaching, walking in front of her, and then release to a toy. Now, if somebody approaches, they drop the object. It's not food at the beginning. Drop an object like a rock or something, and then release to a toy, and so on and so forth. I can build it up that way so that the person approaching actually causes my dog to hyper-fixate on me because of the expectation of getting released to a toy.

That's how I worked through that particular thing, because that's a really big cue, somebody walking up with food in their hand and trying to give it to your dog. That's a giant cue right there. My dog can go, "Oh, that means that my ball is going to be thrown, so I better pay attention to Mom because she has the ball." And so that works really well for helping proof that particular problem.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. This answers what I was going to ask you next, I think, but that's okay. So is the food refusal contextual for the dog then? Do you expect, after you trained it, that if a stranger was to walk up to your dog and try and feed them in public, would they eat it? What do you …

Sara Brueske: All of my exercises, because they can look quite similar to each other, and because of all the different levels of distractions, they each have their own pre-cue, their start pattern, and then the cue for the behavior itself. There's a lot of things telling my dog what they need to do in each circumstance, which also means that none of this would transfer to real life, unless I gave those specific start patterns and cues to help my dog. So it is contextual.

We do have our start pattern, so you'll hear a lot of handlers tell their dog, literally tell their dog, what exercise is coming. They'll say, "This is food refusal, this is food refusal," and they'll handle them in some way when they approach the start line for that exercise. And then, at that point, they get the actual cue for the exercise. The good thing with the food refusal, it's always a down. You walk up to the line departure, tell your dog what exercise it is, give them their pre-cue, then you move up to the line of departure, put your dog in down, give them the cue.

Mine would look like this: I would walk up, my dog would be on my left side because that's the way we start food refusal, so that would already cue him in that it's either going to be heeling, food refusal, or retrieve. So walk up, I tell him it's food refusal, then I walk to the line departure, I tell him, "Down, leave it," and I walk away. That all right there tells him which behavior is coming up, and so that means, "Whatever food is presented to you, ignore it. I probably have something better," and then we can move on from there.

The tricky part with mondio is that they can put their food refusal at the check-in. So you would walk onto the field, and you're already doing food refusal when you put your dog in a down to go talk to the judge. That changes it just a little bit, and that's when you have to really think, "How can I ensure that my start pattern is still going to happen?" I'm going to get my pre-cues in, and even though I put my dog in the "down and leave it," now he has to leave it for either the entirety of my check-in, or I tell him "Leave it," but I'm going go check in and they're going to do the refusal before I return. That's a whole big break between those cues and make sure my dog doesn't forget that.

So yeah, we try to train it to context as much as we can, but then our judges are like, "Ha ha, let's just make sure your dog really knows this."

Melissa Breau: They put another twist on that.

Sara Brueske: Exactly, but that's why we love this sport.

Melissa Breau: I mentioned the mondio class. We talked a whole bunch about that. Do you want to share a little bit about who might be interested, anything else specifically about the class, and then anything else you've got coming up on schedule?

Sara Brueske: Absolutely. The mondio class is for anybody interested in the sport, whether it's to do the full sport with the protection or maybe they're interested in the obedience-only title, so the OB or the OBJ.

It is a very heavy class. There's a lot of content in it, because I do go through each of the exercises, and there is multiple ways to teach each exercise. So you get a lot of bang for your buck with this class. However, that also means that you won't possibly be able to work on all of it within the timeframe of the class.

I always tell people, "Go into it with an idea of what you'd like to focus on." Most people focus on three or four exercises, depending on how much time they have, and really work on those things. Pick the ones that you're in need of a little bit of guidance with, if you're a Gold spot or a Silver spot, and then go from there. It is a great class. It's a little overwhelming, so I always let people know that up front. Go into it with that mindset for sure.

Anybody can do it. If you have a small dog, the obedience-only track would be the way to go, because those jumps are quite high at a meter for the hurdle, and then the palisade is like 1.8 or something. I can't remember what the Level 1 is. So there are really, really big jumps in there; that does have a size limitation. There is an alternate to that, but you have to have a club that has those jumps. So the obedience-only track is really the way to go with smaller dogs. There's no less to it, no big difference on that.

So anybody really can do it. It does go foundation to more advanced, so if you just want help on proofing things and ideas, and you're more advanced in your obedience, you can absolutely go that route. Or if you have no idea, and you are just working on pivots with your heeling and you're at that point, then you can actually work on it then too. So definitely something for everybody in that as far as that goes.

Melissa Breau: What other classes do you have coming up?

Sara Brueske: I was just trying to think about that. I do have my disc dog strategy class coming up next term as well. What that is, the UpDog Challenge is a really cool disc dog organization that has really cool strategy games. I break down those in different ways that you can work those games, and how to train those patterns, so that your dog goes into it knowing what's going on versus just running around catching Frisbees.

That's a really cool class, especially if you just took the Handler's Choice disc dog class. It's a nice continuation from that. You do just have to know how to throw. Your dog has to like Frisbees, even better if they have a return to hand and a drop on cue, because then you can really work on the patterns themselves. So that's another good class.

Melissa Breau: Fun! To round out our chat today, one last question. If you were to drill down our conversation into one key piece of information you want people to understand or walk away from this with, what would it be?

Sara Brueske: That monitoring is literally the best sport ever.

Melissa Breau: Not being biased.

Sara Brueske: Not at all. Even if you train it every day, and you think of all these cool little challenges, and you're so proud of it, you go to a trial and then there's that one you never even thought of. That's what's so cool about it, because now you can go home and work on that new thing. There's always something new to train. And mondioring is a ton of fun and everybody should do it.

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

Sara Brueske: Thanks so much for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks 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 on 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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