E273: Fundamentals for Training a Sports Dog

Join Chrissi Schranz, Deb Jones, PhD Julie Flanery and I for a discussion on the fundamentals of positive training — including the things most trainers overlook when working with their canine partners.


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 they have Deb Jones, Julie Flanery and Chrissi Schranz here with me to talk about all things training. Welcome to the podcast, guys.

[All say hello.]

Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you each share just a little bit about yourself, what you're working on with your pups? Deb, you get to go first.

Deb Jones: Oh, lucky me. I'm trying to civilize mine. Wizard is about 14 months old now, so he's through the cute puppy stage and he's into the very, very challenging adolescent stage of development. I'm trying to encourage good thinking and decision making, and he's not quite there yet, but that's what I'm working on. So I'm just working on some real basics and foundation stuff, and playing around with some tricks and things, and nothing formal, nothing serious. But it's taking up all my time and energy just to work on that right now.

Melissa Breau: I feel like you either get a perfect puppy that turns into a terrible teen or you get a problem puppy that turns into a terrific teen.

Deb Jones: I don't know how many puppies I've had now, twelve or something like that, and I'd say he's one of the more challenging all of a sudden. I think hormones kicked in. I've been very lucky to have some really, really good dogs in the past that didn't give me a lot of trouble when they were adolescents, and so now I'm paying my dues. I'm trying to tell myself every day, "He will grow up, things will get better," just like I tell my students all the time. The same things that I would tell students I'm now telling myself regularly. So that's what I'm doing.

Melissa Breau: What about you, Julie?

Julie Flanery: I am working with Fee. She will turn 4 this month. I'm like, "Oh my God, you're 4 already. You were just a puppy yesterday." She's 4, and now that we're starting to see some more live competitions available to us, she's actually been doing quite well this past year. She's earned several titles the last couple of years, so that's fun to get her out there and competing now. We're working on some more advanced skills, some more advanced tricks for Freestyle, some more advanced courses for Rally-Free. And now that I lost Kashi last year, she's getting quite a bit more of my training time, and so she's really starting to blossom a little bit. So I really like what I'm seeing in her.

Melissa Breau: That's exciting.

Julie Flanery: It is exciting.

Melissa Breau: What about you, Chrissi?

Chrissi Schranz: I just moved houses and I now have three housemates. We're currently working on four paws on the floor, treat the housemates as if they're her furniture, because all the housemates of course like to pet her and feed her and treat her and respond to her — you know the puppy-dog eyes that Game can make. She's a Malinois, but she knows how to look starving and sweet and cute, and she's really good at working people. So I'm both trying to teach her now generally don't expect to interact with them unless I give you permission to, and I'm trying to teach them to also ignore her unless encouraged not to ignore her.

They've already learned. I have a mat protocol. When I bring out the mat and I call it the magic carpet. Game will hang out on the mat and she trusts that nobody will touch her, and she also knows that she's not supposed to get up. I explained that to my housemates. The other day, they had friends over and Game was on her magic carpet, and one of my housemates explained to their friends that they couldn't touch the dog because she was on her magic carpet.

Melissa Breau: Dog training is as much about training the people as training the dog.

Chrissi Schranz: Yeah.

Melissa Breau: I figured this time we could start off our chat by talking a little bit about what you're each teaching and talking about this term. Do you just want to share a little bit about what classes you've got on the schedule, since this will come out … registration closes on the 15th? Julie?

Julie Flanery: I'm actually teaching two of my most favorite classes ever this term.

Melissa Breau: They're all your favorites, right?

Julie Flanery: Maybe so, but these are really my favorites, and partly, I think, because they're my two favorite things to do and to train with my own dogs. And so I really, really enjoy teaching these two classes.

The first one is Joy of Heeling, and in Joy of Heeling: Rock It Like a Freestyler, it's not just for Freestylers. It really is for any dog-and-handler team that's going to be utilizing heelwork in their sport of choice. And while we do cover some precision and accuracy exercises where the position is, it really is mostly about how to create a lot of motivation and a lot of joy in your heelwork. so that a dog, when given the choice of whether to heel or not, they choose to heel. That is the game that is one of their most favorite, because it is surrounded and sandwiched between all of the other fun games. And so heeling becomes part of the game, that the games predict heeling and heeling predicts the games.

It's all about teaching the students what those games are, how to use them as reward events and reinforcement, and then including the heelwork as part of that game. It's really, really fun, and it's fun to see the changes in the dog-and-handler teams from the beginning baseline that they do, that they did in the first week, and then going through the different games, and the processes, and learning about reinforcement, and reward events, and seeing what comes out on the other side. It's just a really, really fun class. So that's one class.

My other class that I'm teaching is Tricked Into Freestyle, and again also not just for freestylers. It takes the dog-and-handler team, starting with what I consider to be some foundation tricks that you can then build on. And so each week we have a couple of base tricks that they learn, and then we go through several other intermediate and then more advanced tricks, and each dog-and-handler team can choose what tricks they want to work on that week.

I don't expect them to teach them all, because we usually have six to eight tricks every single week, so that's a lot of tricks. But that means there's something for everybody in that class, whether you're just at the base behaviors, teaching circles or spins or jumps or whatever it is, and then moving all the way up into the advanced skill behaviors and tricks as well. So that's a really, really fun class too.

The cool thing about both of these classes, I think, is that even though one is a heeling class and one is a tricks class, both classes are really just about good

training skills, because both of them involve good mechanics, good communication, good observation skills, timely marking. All of those things that we need in good training is encompassed in both of these classes. So it just depends on which one your interest is in, but you'll get all of those training foundation skills in both classes.

Melissa Breau: Chrissi, what have you got on the schedule?

Chrissi Schranz: I'm teaching May The Reinforce Be With You, which is my class on reinforcers. We just started week two, but it's already so much fun. Part of this is that I already knew most of the Gold students and they knew each other. That brings this wonderful dynamic to the class when they're cheering each other on and starting their own discussion threads and the new people jump right in. That has been really fun.

I'm especially enjoying it this time because I added a bunch of new lectures. It used to be very pretty straightforward, but I have bonus lectures with all kinds of experiments. I wasn't sure if people would be into that kind of stuff. For example, experimenting with how the dog's motivational state impacts their willingness or interest in working for a certain reinforcer, or experimenting with what the dog's cue actually is for maybe a behavior you haven't trained, but that you see happening in your dog by observing that. And they're so into it. It's so much fun. They're already on their third round of the bonus experiment, which isn't even required. I love when people are motivated, and that just makes it so much fun to teach.

And so we're looking at the things that Julie just mentioned: good mechanics, good timing, marker cues, the order of events — what comes first, what comes next. Also how to adapt your reinforcement rituals to your individual dog, how to build the performance of a reinforcing behavior like you would build a trained behavior. For example, if you teach a particular way of taking food, say, catching the food out of the air, really think about what do you want that behavior to look like, how do you cue it, and how do you want the dog to respond afterwards. Do you want them to come back into a certain position, or does it actually end the session? Really thinking about these details and taking them apart. So it's a foundations class, but I think the skills that we're teaching or looking at — they're useful for any sport that you're doing with your dog.

Melissa Breau: Deb?

Deb Jones: This term, I'm teaching Focus Games, and focus games … I always have a hard time explaining some of my classes because they're not exactly skills. They're more concept-based than they are skill-based, which means that what you're learning, or what I'm hoping that the person and the dog are learning together, is more general than just a specific behavior.

For example, in Focus Games, I guess my main goal is that people learn how their dogs want to be interacted with. I know that the grammar is off on that somehow. How to interact with their dogs in a way that's enjoyable for both the person and the dog. I think a lot of times what we fall into, especially as positive reinforcement trainers, is we rely an awful lot on food, and we rely sometimes too much on food. And then, when you take away the food, especially for competition, you've got nothing. You don't have a connection that you've built with your dog. And so Focus Games is a lot about discovering how to build those connections and what can we use. We use food, but we also use touch, we use voice, we use movement.

Every week we have three games that have a theme to them. The theme for the first week was food games, which most dogs can do that. You throw food, they're going to chase it. So we make it into some structured games. The second week is harder because now all the games have to do with interaction without food, and all of a sudden we're seeing a case where the dogs are like, "Wait a minute. You're not giving me cookies, so I don't know what you want, and I don't know that I really want to interact in this way." So we're starting to see where their weaknesses are, and working on how can we build up those weak spots, and how can we develop different ways of interacting with our dogs that are going to lead to focus and strengthening focus all the time.

So in one sense it's a deep class because we're thinking about a lot of these concepts. But in the other sense it's like there are three games, so it's pretty straightforward and there are things that you do. And then we customize the games, because what we say is "Not every game is for every team." There are lots of teams either the dog doesn't care for it, for some reason, or the person doesn't care for it, so that isn't going to work. So we go on and we try the next thing and see how does that work for the team, and sometimes we can make changes and customize. Our goal is to see the working relationship between the Gold teams develop and strengthen over the course of the class. So that's what we're working on this term.

Melissa Breau: Very cool.

Julie Flanery: I love that both Chrissi and Deb, your classes are like, "Oh, I want to take that class, I want to take that class," and that all of the concepts that you guys are talking about, I think that all three of us include all the same concepts in our classes, which is super-cool, and yet they're presented in just slightly different ways with different topics around them. So that's really cool.

Deb Jones: Yeah. I've always said that about FDSA instructors. It's like we all have the same basic philosophy. We might get to things in slightly different ways, but we all share that same, I think, general vision of how good training should be done. So that makes it easy for students to go between classes and have things still be very consistent.

Chrissi Schranz: Yeah. I love when sometimes a student tells me, "I learned that in in this other class," or "That makes a lot of sense, now that I'm thinking about it in combination with what Deb said," for example. It happens so much. It always makes me smile.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. Speaking on that, the idea of good training, when I was thinking through questions for you guys, based on what you are teaching this term, I started thinking about the importance of understanding the fundamentals of training, so I thought it would be really interesting to get each of your perspectives on that. What do you see as the fundamentals, at least for positive training? What skills would you maybe put under that label? Chrissi, do you want to start us off?

Chrissi Schranz: Usually my answer to that question would be get to know your individual dog and build a relationship with the dog in front of you. But I feel like I've talked about relationships so much in so many contexts, so I'm going to go with something else this time around: the three T's of training with marker cues. I set up a catchy name for remembering things that are important when you're using marker cues in order to get the best or the most out of those, and it's timing, tautology, and treat or toy delivery.

Timing means when do you mark the behavior, when do you also deliver the treat. You mark the behavior first, ideally right as it is happening, when you want it to happen. Let's say you're training with food. Your hands should stay in a neutral position while you're clicking or saying your marker cue, and then you deliver the treat or the toy, rather than having it all happen simultaneously.

Tautology means … this is something Shade pointed out to me that she has seen a lot, even in really good trainers, is that people want to use multiple marker cues, but they use a clicker as well, because that's what they started out with. We all learned that clicker training rocks and makes everything better, so you throw a clicker at it. So people will click and then they say their marker cue.

For example, they click and then they say, "Get it," and throw a cookie, or they will click and then they say, "Chase," and they throw a toy. But that is actually not necessary, because let's say your verbal marker cue, "Get it," means "chase the cookie," that is the marker cue. You don't need a click. It fulfills the function of the click, and it lets the dog know where it will show up or in what way will be delivered. So you only ever need one marker cue. If you have two, you're just muddying the waters. So stick to one.

The last one, treat or toy delivery, falls into the same general area. If you want to use a different marker cues or a large vocabulary of marker cues for different ways of delivering treats or toys, make sure that it is actually the marker cue you're saying, the verbal marker that announces where that treat or toy will show up, not your hand movement or reaching for a treat, reaching for a toy, because if that's what happens first, if you start moving your hand before you say "Get it," or "Yes," the dog is looking at your hand, is paying attention to your hand, and not to your verbal marker cue. You're thinking you're training with multiple marker cues, but actually you're just … and here I'm quoting Shade again … you're just teaching your dog many things that mean watch your handler's body language.

The whole purpose of having multiple marker cues is that they will exactly know where a treat or toy is going to show up and in which way. If you get these three T's right, everything else is going to be a lot easier because you can really reinforce the desired position. You can make the dog think head-up thoughts, for example, in heeling, or ahead thoughts if they're lagging, or just based on the marker cue you're using while they're still doing the behavior. And also they don't have to look around and get distracted because they don't know where the toy will land or where the treat is going to come from.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Deb, you want to add to that or come at it from a different angle?

Deb Jones: Well, I guess nobody would be surprised if I would say that for foundation, I think focus is the most important thing to work on and to teach. But people often have very different ideas of what focus is, and a lot of times what I see is not really what I'm working for when I talk about teaching your dog focus.

I want to set it up so my dog wants desperately to work with me and they are very persistent in pushing me to work with them, and then I feel like I have focus. If I have to do more work than the dog to keep them engaged in the session, I don't have focus. That's not focus. Just because they're looking at me and orienting in my general direction, that doesn't mean I have focus. Just because they're making eye contact, that doesn't mean I have focus.

I want this to be something that's very much dog-driven and that they are the ones who are insisting on working. To do that, I have to make sure that it is highly reinforcing for them to do this, and I have to set up my sessions so that whenever we're working together, we're focused on each other. If we're not focused on each other, we're not working. That's probably the hardest thing for my students is when I tell them "Stop training" in the session. "Your dog's not focused, stopped working," because all you're doing is digging a big hole now that you're probably going to never get out of, if you don't realize this.

And so it's important for me that before I teach my dog any skill or behavior, I teach them that working with me is the most enjoyable thing that they can do. If I can get that in, as Chrissi said, then everything else is easier. Once we get those basics in place, everything else is easier. I can swear, because students will tell you that same thing. It's like, "Oh, the difference." Once you've trained with focus, you go, "Oh, I don't ever want to go back," because the other way was a lot harder. So to me, working on that first.

I'm not impressed when somebody's got a young puppy who knows a bunch of skills on cue at all. In fact, I'm very unimpressed. I would much rather see a puppy who's just interested in being with you and wants to do whatever you're doing. That's the more impressive thing that I would see in a young dog and that I want to really encourage in my young dogs. And then hopefully, at least when they get over their adolescence phase, it's all there and it all comes back. So I guess that would be my one simple foundation thing is work on focus. I say focus first. Focus first, before everything else.

Melissa Breau: Julie, what have you got?

Julie Flanery: Obviously what both Chrissi and Deb says, I totally agree with it. If we're talking about positive training, I might go in a different direction than if we're talking about concepts, say. Then I would say trust is probably the number one, that our dogs are much more likely to be engaged and focused in the process if they trust that nothing scary or worrisome will happen during the training process. We want our dogs to trust our markers and our reinforcement that when we mark, that reinforcement follows, and that we won't use our reinforcement to trick them into anything uncomfortable at all. I think that is really, to me, the basics of positive reinforcement training.

If we're talking about dog skills, then I think when and how and where to collect reinforcement and focus on the handler and on the task. So that's just piggybacking on exactly what Chrissi and Deb just said.

If we're talking about handler skills, then I'm going to go straight to the classic observation and timing and how to determine what is reinforcing to your dog. All too often we see handlers think they are reinforcing their dog because they're giving them a treat or petting them or playing a game with them. And the dog is like, "Oh my God, no, I don't want that." The impact of what they're providing is not reinforcing anything. It's not reinforcing the previous behavior. So I think that's a really important skill. If you're going to use reinforcement training, then you need to know what is reinforcing to your dog. You need to be able to observe what your dog is telling you about that reward that you are providing.

I think the other thing with handler skills, I think it's one of those things that handlers sometimes put on the back burner, or they think it's going to happen organically within the training process, is how to effectively teach the meaning of our cues. I think oftentimes, and as I've gone through my training career over the last twenty-five years, I am consistently surprised by how many people don't either have a process or understand the process for putting behaviors onto a verbal cue, that miraculously and wonderfully and it's so awesome that a lot of times our dogs do, over time, pick up the meaning of those cues. They do. And yet it's a very inefficient system that most people are using. So I think that's another really important fundamental of positive reinforcement training is how to teach our dogs the meaning of our cues.

Melissa Breau: As somebody who's been attempting to add the word "stand" to a stand cue for the last couple of weeks, I definitely feel that one Julie, very deeply.

Chrissi Schranz: I also think that would make for a really good webinar, actually.

Julie Flanery: I've done one, actually, but it was probably about, I don't know, three years ago, a few years ago. It was not recently that I've done one. But I really enjoy teaching about cues, and of course for me, being a freestyler, verbal cues are incredibly important. It wasn't really until I started doing musical freestyle that it forced me to fully understand that process, that there is a protocol of how to attach cues to behaviors. That's how I became very interested in it.

Melissa Breau: You've all mentioned some different stuff, and I think it's interesting because they all definitely go together. They're all related, but they're also different. Was there a turning point or a particular moment when you learned more about that, or became interested in how important those particular skills were? Does anybody have an example that they can share to maybe illustrate how much of a difference those particular skills can make? Deb, do you want to start us off?

Deb Jones: I think I would have to go back quite a ways to talk about the importance of focus. Judy Keller, who I train with a lot and who teaches the focus classes with me, when we first started training together, she had a dog. Her first dog had ended up on the World team in agility and won a Gold medal, and went overseas three times, and just was like a perfect dog.

And then she got her second dog to do agility with, and he was very talented, but he had issues. The issues were not that he couldn't do the obstacles. The issues had to do with something else, and it took me a while to try to figure out what it was. It showed up first as the dog walk. Sometimes he'd sometimes do it, sometimes he wouldn't, sometimes he'd do it, sometimes he wouldn't, and trying to figure out why was it so inconsistent and what was the problem here.

It came back to be something much deeper than whether or not he knew how to do the dog walk. It came to me to this whole teamwork idea that sometimes he was working very independently, sometimes he was not in an emotional space where he was confident enough to do the dog walk, even though he could do it in other situations. That was actually the beginning of us thinking about the concept of focus and writing the first book about it that we wrote. I'm thinking back in 2004, something like this, at that point.

So for me, that was the moment when I knew it wasn't that they could do the behavior or not, that there was a lot more involved underneath of that in determining whether or not that a dog could be successful, or a team could be successful, in the ring.

Melissa Breau: Julie, you want to go next?

Julie Flanery: Sure. There are a couple of things. One, like Deb, was long, long ago, and one was probably a little bit more recent. When I first started learning about clicker training, I took a class, and my instructor called herself a closet clicker trainer, because, at that time, clicker training was … this is in the … oh, gosh, I don't even want to … in the early '90s, maybe late '80s, I'm not sure, but right around that time. She was just experimenting with some of her students, so we had this special class that we were all learning about clicker training together.

This particular session did two things. Number one, it made me realize, at that time, the power of the clicker, or the power of markers, and what they could do for our communication. And second was what they could do for our communication, which isn't always a good thing. In terms of the skills that I said were part of observation and timing, the exercise was to cue a behavior and mark or click that behavior a few times, and then remove the cue so that the dog was offering the behavior, and then we could mark the offered behaviors. That was our exercise.

I chose a down, and I cued my dog to down, and I clicked and I rewarded and tossed a treat. So she was up and then down, and clicked when she lay down, tossed the treat so she could reset, and pretty soon she's offering very quickly, within three or four reps, she's offering the down before I actually cue it. So I thought, "Wow, look at this. I'm so amazed."

And then a few more reps and I'm realizing, "Wait. My dog is doing bark, down, bark, down, bark, down." I had paired those two behaviors with my single click by number one, maybe my timing, or maybe my observation, or both. Both of them were lacking. That really was the moment for me that I felt so strongly about what a powerful tool this was that I could actually train my dog to do something that I never had any intention of training them to do, and then how I had to go back now and fix that, so that the bark was no longer included in that behavior of down.

That was huge for me, and that really took me … matter of fact, Deb, that led me to your book Clicker Fun, and to this day that is probably still one of my favorite clicker training books ever. I can't tell you how much it meant to me to have you autograph that book for me on our first FDSA camp together. So that was very fun.

The other thing, though, was Kashi, who I got as a puppy ten years ago, had some very, very severe food sensitivities. It was just not a good thing. I'm a cookie trainer, I'm a food trainer, and here I had this dog that would take a few pieces of food and then feel ill. And so that could not possibly be very reinforcing to her. Throughout her life, she was never able to eat anything other than a very, very strict and limited diet, which was not very valuable, quite honestly, because there was nothing novel in her diet, and it was all very bland and always the same.

I had to learn to figure out what was reinforcing to her, and what could I provide, other than food, that was reinforcing to her, and how could I use some of our interaction games and play. That was another turning point for me where I saw the value not only in just play and interaction as a reinforcement, but of having varied reinforcements depending on the dog, depending on the situation, depending on the challenges, depending on the environment.

That was huge for me, because we competed quite successfully for over ten years, and I don't think I could have done that with just food as reinforcement. And of course competing in musical freestyle, again, I said earlier that having effective cue transfer was hugely eye opening there.

Melissa Breau: I feel like people often forget that reinforcers are not necessarily just anything that people think of as reinforcement, but actually something that increases the likelihood of the behavior. If it's not increasing the likelihood of behavior, it's not operating as a reinforcer.

Julie Flanery: It's just free food.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. All right, Chrissi, what about you?

Chrissi Schranz: About the three T's of training with marker cues, I think I started getting really nerdy about those things when taking Shade's Heeling Class series, which everyone who is into really beautiful, high-energy heeling should take, by the way, because it made such a big difference. I've had sloppy heeling before. I've had enthusiastic sloppy heeling. I've had lazy sloppy heeling. But I hadn't had that combination of really precise and enthusiastic heeling, and really thinking about my mechanics and timing and where and how to deliver food or toys made a huge difference in that.

Ever since I've started experimenting with this, I feel like, wow, just recognizing that this is the angle I can look at this through, or at, depending on what my dog is doing, I will adjust the marker cue and, for example, the location of where I'm delivering the toy or food or whatever I'm working with — what a gigantic difference that makes. I don't know. It just blew my mind. So now I want everyone to know about it.

Melissa Breau: It made you feel very strongly on the topic.

Chrissi Schranz: Yeah, because now I'm using marker cues for all kinds of things, also lots of fun stuff that I didn't have a specific marker cue for, and it has really improved my communication skills with my dogs to a degree that I did not think was possible. And it's just so nice. The clarity it adds to your training and to your life, it's just really fun.

Melissa Breau: I've got to ask what you've added it to.

Chrissi Schranz: One thing is chasing furry little animals or feathery little animals. Now I can train in the vicinity of something like a flock of pigeons, for example, and ask my dog to take food and they'll take food, and then ask them to take a toy and they'll take a toy, and then use my marker cue for "chase." Something you want to chase is birds, and then I can release them with that marker cue to chase the birds, for example. So there's really this distinction. By not using something generic for everything and then having the dog figure it out, it just makes it so much fun.

Melissa Breau: It's good stuff, which leads into what I wanted to ask you about next. Are there skills that you think people typically overlook in training, especially for sports dogs, which is the main FDSA audience? Are there things that you wish people would pay more attention to?

Julie Flanery: Isn't that everything we've talked about? It's a lot that there is to pay attention to. I think a lot of these things are missed. For the dog, I think that, yes, all the things we've talked about, I think a lot of sport handlers do have an understanding of the importance of those things, though, even if they struggle to apply them well. I think they do have an understanding of those things.

I think a couple of other really important ones: shaping skills, helping our dogs understand how to offer, when to offer, when in doubt they should offer something, anything, even if they're offering the wrong thing, because that gives the handler information from which to adjust. I think a dog that knows how to offer not only understands the path to reinforcement, but understands how to problem-solve. In dog sports, we're asking an awful lot of our dogs, and we're not always very good at communicating to them what we're asking. And so having a dog that feels good about offering and problem-solving I think is incredibly important in dog sports.

I think a lot of dog-sport handlers start their dogs with some shaping skills, but I don't think that they continue them, and I don't think that they really take full advantage of them. I think it's easy. I don't know … easier. But it is more comfortable for a lot of handlers to use luring over shaping. It's much more … what's the word I want … immediate gratification because they see a behavior right there. You can lure a full behavior. But I think in terms of having robust behaviors and confident behaviors, that having our dogs understand how to shape and enjoy the shaping process is one of the biggest things that sport trainers miss out on.

That, and I think also the focus skills that the Deb talks about, both focus on the handler and focus on the task, that that perseverance and tenacity — by the way, which I think shaping teaches a dog, so I think they go together — a dog that is lacking focus, it's very difficult for that dog to learn how to shape. A dog that is also struggling with shaping is often the result of a handler that doesn't understand about high rates of reinforcement and observation. So I think those all tie together, and I think shaping brings all of those skills together in both the dog and the handler, which is, by the way, my third favorite class to teach.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. I was going to say, you made the comment about luring and the fact that people end up doing it so often because it's reinforcing for the handler

Julie Flanery: Because it's reinforcing for the handler, exactly, because you get the behavior. It's the same thing with hand cues versus verbal cues. It's reinforcing to us because the dog is successful at doing the thing. That, and again, I have to go back to it again because it's a biggie for me, that handlers don't fully understand how to apply the process of adding verbal cues. That would be the other thing. So shaping, focus, and verbal cues would be the things I think that handlers often miss out on.

Melissa Breau: Chrissi?

Chrissi Schranz: Oh, shaping. Learning how to shape something. I've taken Sue Ailsby's shaping class twice as Gold because it was so amazing and so much fun, and I feel like if she'd offer it again, I'd take it again. You should all go out there and hone your shaping skills, if you're listening to this. Thank you, Julie, for bringing this up.

I think one of the things that shaping teaches you is to really see the little puzzle pieces that a behavior consists of. It teaches us to split and not to lump, and we are so prone to lumping as humans, I think. When we are ourselves learning a new skill, we realize how hard it is, but we don't realize that when you are observing another creature, or when you are imagining another creature doing a skill.

The last completely new thing I tried was boxing, just because a friend of mine does it for fun and for sports, for exercise, and he was like, "You should try it. It's so much fun." I'm like, "Okay, sure, you show me a little of it." He made it look so easy. I tried replicating his movements, and I was like, "Wait, no, it's so hard," and it looks so easy. In my imagination it was also so easy, just observing him doing … I don't know what the technical terms for the things are that he did, but just trying to replicate things and to keep my body in a certain position — it is so difficult.

The same is true for our dogs when we teach them things, and shaping really forces you to split it down small enough that the dog actually understands what they are doing, rather than just following somethign like a treat lure. What was the question?

Melissa Breau: What do you think gets overlooked in training? You took what Julie said and it started a whole thought process.

Chrissi Schranz: That is also something Deb or Julie said, I don't remember, just observation skills. We tend to have this one dog, and we learn what is reinforcing for this dog and how this dog works, and then we assume that every dog is going to be like them, and it's just not true. Every dog is an individual. It's a study of one.

Just because one dog learned well this way, or just because one dog was very good at picking up our own slack sloppy training, doesn't mean another dog or the next dog again would be like that as well. Or just because you think the hot dog is reinforcing doesn't necessarily mean the hot dog is reinforcing. I really think observing your dog and getting to know the dog you're working with, trying to not do that with any preconceptions and stereotypes and ideas of what the dog must find reinforcing, makes such a big difference.

One of my amazing gold students this term has a dog who is challenging us, let's say, in a really good way. Those are always my favorite dogs. You assume something about them and they're like, "No, that's not it." She has a training room, and the dog would opt out of even favorite food sessions. The dog likes to work, it's a working bred dog.

She thought about it and she's like, "Afterwards, I take her to the office and she gets to watch the cat." The training room and the office are in the same building, so what's more reinforcing to this dog is watching the cat. So walking away from the training session — which is always allowed because we want our dogs to push us to train, we don't want to beg them to train — has actually been reinforced by then getting to immediately go and see the cat. Now we're going to try and use watching the cat as a reinforcer instead of the food and we'll see what happens.

I think that's just such a good example of how you really need to watch the dog and also the slightly more distant antecedents or consequences of a behavior to figure out what is reinforcing for them in a specific context. Once you know that, you can use that to your advantage, rather than just having it in your training sessions. Also shout out to my amazing Gold teams.

Melissa Breau: I think if anybody has any doubt that it's super-easy to get sucked into the idea of the dog that you are working with is the way all dogs work, all you need to do is ask for advice on Facebook. Everybody's positive the one thing that worked for them will work for you. And it's so important to remember that not all dogs work the same way. All right, Deb, what do you think? What do you think often gets overlooked in training?

Deb Jones: One of the main things that I think about and that I see is that people are focused on what the dog is doing and on the behaviors, but they're not focusing on how the dog is feeling, so the underlying emotions that are going on, the arousal levels that you see in the dog, whether they're too high, too low, falling somewhere in the middle, because that has a lot to do with learning and with enjoyment in the activity.

I think we get too focused on that ultimate goal behavior, those target behaviors that we want to see, and we ignore some of the other factors and the other variables that I think are really important in learning and to a dog that's going to want to compete long term. If you want a dog for the long haul in competition, you have to think bigger than what they're doing today and whether or not they qualified today. That's the least important thing, especially in a young dog, is whether they qualify, no matter what your sport is.

What's much more important is that they come out of the ring feeling good about themselves, and if you can accomplish that, you are going to have a nice, long, successful career with that dog. But if you come out and they're confused, or they're frustrated, or uncertain, you're digging a hole you may never get yourself out of with that. So focus much more on how they're feeling than what they're doing. That's what I'd say is something that gets overlooked.

Melissa Breau: That's such a hard thing to remember, especially in the moment when you walk out of a ring and you're like, "Oh, that could have gone so much better."

Deb Jones: It really is. I think probably one of the best things anybody ever said to me at a trial was I'd come out of the ring with my Papillon, Copper and they'd say they never knew if I qualified or not, that I acted the same whether or not we did well or we did terribly. I had to with Copper, because if he thought I was disappointed, he would wilt and die. It would have just killed him. He was so sensitive to my moods. And so I developed this ritual of always doing things in the same way and always making him feel like he was a champion, no matter how well or how poorly we did. And so if you come out and you're all happy, people think you did well. They never really know.

Melissa Breau: They'll just congratulate you anyway.

Deb Jones: Yeah, exactly.

Melissa Breau: My next question for you guys is little bit selfish because I'm starting to think about next dog. I think we hear all the time, and it's proven pretty true in my experience, that with each dog they train, trainers often end up thinking about, "I'm going to do this, this, and this differently next time, with the next dog. We always have this next dog in mind. I'd like to ask each of you, or hear from each of you, what has made it onto that list for you? What have you learned from your current dog or dogs that you have stashed away or slated away as a mental note as something you're definitely going to do differently next time? Chrissi?

Chrissi Schranz: I think that is the hardest question you've asked us so far, and for me it is because honestly, all the dogs I've had, they have been so different that the question didn't even apply. It's like their personalities have been so different, even if they were the same breed. I don't think that's always the case, but it just has been the case for me.

I've also had a large variety of breeds. My first dog was a Dachshund, and I had a retired racing Greyhound, and I was going to point my camera at Game, the Malinois sleeping next to me, and then I realized this is a podcast; people don't actually see it. So obviously Game is not the same as Fanta, my Greyhound, but also within the same breed, their sensibilities and sensitivities are different. Their character is different. Their degree of sociability is so different.

So really, one thing I hope to remember with my next dog is to have to meet that dog as if they were the first dog I ever met, because the moment you think, "I'm going to do something in this particular way," life throws a curveball at you and you get the dog this is not going to work for, obviously.

Melissa Breau: What about you, Deb? Do you have "next dog" thoughts?

Deb Jones: I'm still in "this time" thoughts, but I think it's very similar to what Chrissi said. In the past, I used to have this set of expectations about the dog that I wanted and the dog that I needed for my next dog. They were either going to do obedience or agility, and I needed a demo dog, and I need this and that. I had this list of criteria in my head, and so if I got a dog that didn't meet those criteria, then that was a problem.

I think what I've learned over time is to just let them be who they are. Try to figure out who they are, try to determine who they are as the dog, and appreciate that as much as I can. And not try to change them, not try to fit them into the mold of the dog that I want them to be, and not be disappointed if they don't meet some external expectation, because it's not their fault. They are the dog that they are. So accepting that there will be things that I may not like or I may not want, but things that I have in this dog. And then dealing with those and living with those and learning how to work with them, rather than just being unhappy because they're not the mythical ideal dog that I had in my head that I was going to get.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Julie?

Julie Flanery: I think what I mentioned a little earlier, what I learned from Kashi about the value of the varied types of reinforcement, including personal interaction and play, and not limiting my thoughts on what reinforcement value is to the dog.

But I think something that has come back, specifically with Fee, in the last few years is to worry less about my score goals and more about my dog's needs. So really what Deb was saying also that it's not about me getting this title and me teaching my dog the things that get me this title. Whereas I would say ten years ago, or even five years ago, even a few years ago, that was a big chunk of that.

It's not that I didn't care about my dog's needs, but it was always about, "Maybe I could just push a little bit more." I think I really did my last competition dog a disservice, and I really regret that. Even though we had a really fabulous, I think, fabulous, enjoyable, mutually enjoyable competition career, I have regrets about that relationship that I didn't take her needs more into account. I did, but I didn't feel it was enough. Oh, this is hard. I didn't know this would be so hard to talk about. So with Fee, I'm just working very hard to take her needs more into account than my goals, I guess.

Melissa Breau: I think that's super-important, and I think it definitely gets to the heart of the question: How do we think about the dogs we've had in the past, and how do we continue to grow as trainers and as handlers and as partners?

Julie Flanery: Totally.

Melissa Breau: I've got one last question for you guys, and I feel like I picked you lots of hard ones this time, but I'm not sure this is any easier.

Deb Jones: These are hard questions.

Melissa Breau: To round things out, we've covered a lot of ground. We talked about a lot of different things. If we were to drill things down into one takeaway you want people to have, or even if you just have one last point you want to make, what would that be? Deb?

Deb Jones: This is the hardest question, definitely. I'd say what I want people to do is realize that it's more about the trainer than it is the dog, and if we change ourselves and we improve our skills, our dogs will magically get better. So stop putting so much responsibility for success or failure on the dog and turn it back on yourself as a trainer, and take that as your goal is to be a better trainer, rather than for your dog to do X, Y, and Z. If you do that, then you have a much better chance at meeting those performance goals that you might have. But don't put too much responsibility on the dog to be the successful partner in the team. Put it much more on ourselves.

Melissa Breau: Julie?

Julie Flanery: I totally agree with that. I think that it's important that both parties, the dog and the handler, need to benefit from that training relationship, that it's not all about us, or what we want from the dog, or how we want our dogs to learn. That we have to take their needs and wants and desires, the dog that they are, into account, also knowing that we have needs and desires in terms of our personal goals in dog sports.

So it's really about understanding that training is most effective and rewarding, I think, when both the dog and handler benefit from the training process. That means that handlers need to educate themselves on best practices, not only when it comes to training in general, but also in training their specific dog and the needs of their specific dog, and that that education is what is going to move them forward toward their own goals.

Melissa Breau: That's so hard. Everybody talks about how important it is, because I think the more experience you get, especially if you've had multiple dogs, you can begin to see what some of the different shades are there. That's such a hard thing when you're starting out, or getting started with a dog, and you haven't had a lot of dogs, or you haven't had a lot of experience positive training, to really get a sense of who this dog is and how they're different.

Julie Flanery: And at the same time, you're getting a lot of advice from a lot of different people that aren't there with you in the room with the dog, and they don't live with this dog. I think that can be really difficult for new trainers and first-time trainers just trying to find their way through this maze of advice that they're getting. I really feel for young and new trainers. There's so much to learn. So much to learn.

Deb Jones: And as older trainers, there's so much to learn. It's crazy.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Chrissi?

Chrissi Schranz: Just thinking about what Julie just said. I think there is so much to learn, and also we just tell people all the things they should be learning.

Melissa Breau: We spend a bunch of time doing that. You are right.

Chrissi Schranz: I sometimes feel like the dog training role can be such a shark tank, and it can be really hard on the human too. We, as humans, have this tendency to compare ourselves, or our performance and our dog's performance, to other teams around us who may have a different dog or maybe they have been training longer. So maybe one last point that I would like to make is don't compare yourself and your dog to other people and their dogs. Compare yourself and your dog today to yourself and your dog a year ago, or yourself and your dog two years ago, and you will see the progress you have made. And that's what matters. And also have fun with your dog. Take a day a week and don't train. Just go for a hike, or chill with your dog and watch Netflix, and enjoy your dog.

Melissa Breau: I love that. I think it was Susan Garrett who shared once at one point one of her things. She tries to spend at least 5 to 10 minutes a day with each of her dogs, doing whatever they think is the best thing, whether that's a walk in the park, or whether that's sitting there for belly rubs, or whatever. That idea has stuck with me.

Thank you all so much for coming on the podcast. I feel like this was chock-full of absolute fantastic stuff, so thank you all so much.

Julie Flanery: This is my most favorite podcast ever, I think.

Deb Jones: This has been a lot of fun. I've enjoyed chatting with all of you.

Melissa Breau: Likewise.

Chrissi Schranz: Thank you for having us.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, and thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We will be back next week with some of the presenters from FDSA's next one-day conference. The topic will be Dogs with Big Feelings. We're going to talk about the conference and what it's like to live, love, and train those dogs with those big feelings.

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! 

E274: Dogs with Big Feelings
Breed, Behavior, and Mutt Genomics

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