E274: Dogs with Big Feelings

Join Julie Daniels, Sophie Lui, Karen Deeds, and Sharon Carroll for a chat about living with and loving dogs with big feelings — and for a sneak peek at what each will cover during their sessions at our upcoming conference.


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.

The latest offering from FDSA is its one-day conferences, and the next one on the calendar is on dogs with big feelings. The conference will take place on July 16th of this year, and registration opens on June 17th!

Today I have four of the presenters for that conference here with me: Julie Daniels, Sophie Lui, Karen Deeds, and Sharon Carroll. Hi all, and welcome to the podcast!

[All say hello.]

Melissa Breau: To start us out, I'm going to have everybody just give a little bit of information about yourself and maybe share a little bit on what you'll be talking about during the conference. Julie, do you want to go first?

Julie Daniels: Oh, I'd love to. I get to talk about … oh, I'm Julie Daniels. Nobody cares about that part. I'm from New Hampshire, USA, and I live with five dogs of all sorts of sizes and breed mixes and sport interests and all that stuff, and all sorts of big feelings, both the shut-down type and also the very loud type. So it's a subject dear to my heart. I'm thrilled to be part of this conference.

I get to talk about the role of choice. We all hear so much about choice and control, choice and control, give the learner control. Well, one methodology that does that very well is the Control Unleashed program, and that's what I'm bringing to this conference: the role especially of dog's choice approach to our training, using patterns and the Control Unleashed methodology.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Sophie?

Sophie Lui: My name is Sophie Lui. I'm a veterinarian and I have advanced training in behavior medicine, and my personal interests are sporting dogs, working dogs. I have a Dobi right now that I was doing protection sports with, but we've taken a break to hopefully — crossing my fingers — breed her, and I have a Taiwan rescue dog. If you don't know them, they're very interesting dogs who came over here shipped over from Taiwan, so she's been a totally new facet of dog behavior that I've been exploring.

My talk is going to go into my personal passion, which is what big feelings look like in dog sports, and how we can help alleviate them or modify them with the supporting role of medication. I think there's a lot of misconceptions about what medications can do and when to use them. The reality is that big feelings don't end in the sports ring. Dogs often take them with them when they live the other parts of life, like going to the vet hospital and other stressful events, and what we can do for dogs with a lot of sensitivities, a lot of big feelings, who need some help in acutely stressful situations as well as in daily life. So I'm going to look forward to digging into that

Melissa Breau: Man, we've got some good topics. Karen, do you want to go next?

Karen Deeds: Yeah, my name is Karen Dietz. I'm in Texas, USA, and I come to this from the pet dog world, but got into the assistance dog industry and was there for about fifteen years and then got into the sport world. My husband is a K9 handler, retired, for FEMA. So we do a lot of working dogs. We still procure dogs for different agencies looking for high drive, definitely big-feeling-type dogs.

The big thing that I work with, I also do shelter work, where I go in and work with the shelter staff in how to evaluate dogs and how to do some little training and behavior modification there. But the big thing I work with, like I say, is pet dogs with reactivity, and I started to see that sport dogs, big feelings, pet dogs with reactivity or fear issues, big feelings.

What I did with sport work, especially the bite-sport stuff that my husband did, and then with my most recent addition of my Border Collie mix, who really needed a lot of clear information, otherwise he would get very frustrated and overly aroused, is what I'm presenting about, is the multiple marker system and how you can use it to influence the dog's emotional as well as physical state, and also helps to create a more thoughtful handler. I'm actually going to be doing some … I've changed … I've talked with Leslie McDevitt about the pattern games because I actually use multiple markers within the pattern games as well.

Melissa Breau: Cool. All right. Sharon?

Sharon Carroll: My name is Sharon Carroll, I'm from New South Wales, Australia, and I've been a professional animal trainer for just over thirty years. I've got a few related academic qualifications, including a master's of animal science, and I'm currently working on a Ph.D. in veterinary pharmacology. Nowadays, in my behavior consulting business, I do a lot of work with aggressive dogs, both dog to dog and dog to human aggression.

My topic for this conference is reactivity — selecting a training protocol to suit the underlying driver. In this presentation, I'm looking at all the different underlying drivers that might lead a dog to perform big behaviors in response to a stimulus, and then discussing the influence the driver has on selecting an effective behavior modification protocol.

Melissa Breau: Good stuff. Good stuff from everybody. We're talking about the conference as the conference for dogs with big feelings, a phrase that I'm pretty sure was popularized by Sarah Stremming. If anybody out there in podcast land knows otherwise, feel free to let me know. But I'd love to hear what that phrase means to each of you, since that's kind of what we're talking about. Sophie, do you want to start us off on this one?

Sophie Lui: Sure. I think it's so interesting, because it's one of those things where you don't really know it until you see it, and then, when you see it, you're like, "Oh, my God, that's such a great way to describe what this dog is feeling right now."

I think if I were to objectively give some definitions, I think, for me, it's a particular sensitivity, and the amplitude of the emotion that the dog is feeling, I think, is so much higher or potentially lower than what the vast majority "middle part of the bell curve" dogs feel, is that I think they not only have higher amplitudes and lower troughs and valleys, but also that there's more of a sensitivity to all of that as well.

I think that what we see as big feelings are dogs who internalize and process all of that, but also demonstrate it much more visibly than another more inhibited dog. So it's a combination of all the factors — the internal processing, as well as the external expression, as well as the internal sensitivity to what those factors are. For me, that's what I see it in my head. I don't think it's necessarily just reactivity, but all of those factors, whether good or bad, whether positive or negative valence.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Karen?

Karen Deeds: What she said. I look at it it's they tend to exaggerate their response to specific stimuli. It's exaggerated. I think Sophie mentioned the peaks and the valleys. They're much higher than normal. They're much lower than normal. So that's the exaggeration that I see. To me, it's it can go either way, up or down.

Melissa Breau: Sharon, anything you want to add to that?

Sharon Carroll: Along the same line, really, I think my presentation description starts with the line, "Big feelings often lead to big responses," and I guess that's the part we often notice is the big behaviors. But the behaviors are driven by something, and quite often, although not always, the driver is an emotion. And so, to me, big feelings relates to the depth of the feeling, which is really what we're talking about there when we're talking about those troughs and valleys.

We all know what the difference in our own responses are, that they're heavily influenced by whether we're experiencing an emotion at a subtle level or at an intense level, are we a little bit frustrated or are we a lot frustrated. That intensity of emotion will absolutely impact our actions, and it does for our dogs as well. I guess, to me, big feelings is really about intense feelings and how that then leads to what we see, which is those big behaviors.

Melissa Breau: Julie?

Julie Daniels: There's hardly anything left to say, but I certainly agree with all of you. The only thing I can think to add is that the intensity, the exaggeration, all those things, yes, yes, yes. Sometimes we feel like a dog is not experiencing big feelings because they are quiet. So it's not always that we're loud on the outside, but it is loud on the inside when a dog is experiencing big feelings.

This is one of the areas where the research done on human children earlier is now helping us in dogs, instead of the other way around. You tend to think of, in a human expression, blood pounding in the ears. Even though we're not speaking and we're not screaming, like the dog next to us, the internal exaggeration and intensity of emotions is still very high. So I think it's such an important point that my colleagues made about the big peaks and the big valleys. Everything is exaggerated in a situation where big feelings are in play.

Melissa Breau: I think it's interesting, because we're talking about feelings, and obviously we're talking about dogs. And so we don't necessarily always know exactly what it is they're feeling, and yet nobody specifically called that out. Does anybody have anything they want to maybe comment on to that effect?

Sophie Lui: I talked about this with another colleague recently. I think it's so interesting, this concept of emotionality and what can we verify and what can't we verify in animals.

I know there's a lot of debate in veterinary medicine about how do you classify things in human psychopathy and find animal correlates when we can't verify if they're having intrusive thoughts, if they are truly obsessing, if they have recurrent negative thoughts that go through their head that's driving their behavior. What can we really know about that?

I think that my answer is that we don't have an answer for that that I think would satisfy most people. So in a lot of cases we are going off the external expression, which is going back to what Julie said — there's dogs who are very, very inhibited, who feel intense fear. Are they classified as having big feelings, and how do we know? So I think it's a really interesting question, and I don't think we have an answer right now.

Karen Deeds: I totally agree. I think we have to look at what we see, because we can't get inside their brains, so we have to go by how they're responding. But that does require knowledge. We have to be able to identify, based on what they're doing and how they're acting, what might be going on in their head, because we just don't know.

Melissa Breau: Which leads us really naturally into my next question, which is what are those behaviors that we might see that you would observe and then that would lead you to classify the dog as having big feelings? Karen, I'm going to let you start off with this one and continue on your thought there.

Karen Deeds: Again, it goes back to observation and what is the dog doing. We hear a lot of people giving labels, but we have to look at the specifics. I think from the pet dog, where I come from, the pet dog owners, they know what barking looks like and lunging. But we typically see that — barking, lunging, whining, spinning — and sometimes it's just intensity, intense focus. Their head might be high, their tail might be high, their mouth might be tight.

Or on the other end of the spectrum, versus the very outgoing, what I call the extrovert dogs, we have the introverted dogs, the ones that are hiding or slinking or their tail is tucked, their head is low, they have the submissive peeing. What I see a lot of, especially with — and I'm just going to say it — with Doodles and the Golden Retrievers nowadays, is a lot of appeasement behaviors, a lot of lip licking, jumping up, excessive licking, excessive over-greeting behaviors. I think those dogs have very, very big feelings. They're not reactivity, per se, but those dogs have some extreme feelings, and I see that a lot in the pet dog world.

Melissa Breau: Sharon?

Sharon Carroll: I guess the behaviors we're looking at are going to be big behaviors. It's difficult for me to sometimes separate out those dogs that are shut down from those dogs that are visibly reactive, because, quite frankly, what we often find in the behavior consulting and in the training industry is we get those people turn up with the dogs that are showing the — what we would say — the big behaviors, the big expression of behaviors: the leaping, the lunging, the barking, the pulling behaviors associated with excess arousal, and then leading to that inability to process cues effectively enough to be able to respond rapidly and accurately.

Now, for me, obviously, and most of the people in the sport dog world, we're also looking at big behaviors as being those dogs that do stall and freeze on the start line, or shut down, or that inhibited behavior. But I don't think that is so much what a pet dog person would incorporate as big behaviors. When they say big behaviors, they mean those activated behaviors, not those inhibited behaviors, but of course we include both.

But I guess because my presentation is about reactivity, I'm mainly focused on that in this particular conference, which is more so to do with those outward expressions of behaviors. I think one of the key aspects is that we're seeing a dog that's clearly struggling to manage themselves. The challenge is beyond that dog's current coping skill set, and even though they really need our help, they often aren't mentally in a place where they can take in our information and process it effectively at that time. So I guess our goal, then, is typically to not get our dog in those situations where they're struggling to manage themselves. And then separately we need to help them to develop the skills they need to better cope in that situation.

But it's a hard one to say what are we going to see, because in reactivity, what are we going to see, it's mostly going to be those big, reactive, outward activated behaviors. But certainly I also would incorporate, when I say "dogs with big feelings," I would incorporate those dogs that show those big shot-down responses, those big inhibited responses, as well.

Melissa Breau: So something drastically different than what is normal. "What is normal" in air quotes.

Sharon Carroll: Yeah.

Melissa Breau: Julie, you want to go next?

Julie Daniels: Coming from the standpoint of pet dog owners and how to help them recognize signs of big feelings, particularly when the dog is not an extrovert, as Karen said, when the dog is not loud on the outside, but we can tell that the dog is very loud on the inside, the first things that I invite my students to look at are ears and tail. Everybody can see ears and tail. Whether the dog has a tail or not, you can still point out clamped versus upright tail.

Talking about the extremes, is the tail tucked, or is the tail wrapped around and touching the belly? That's the extreme in that kind of thing. Are the ears down and flat, or are they pasted flat back against the head? There are differences that even the most inexperienced dog person can learn to recognize and appreciate, I think, because I think it's very challenging, when the dog is not loud on the outside, to help the dog find equilibrium when they're coming from a shutdown space. And of course we talk about distance and all those other things that I'm sure you'll get into, but how can we help the dogs find equilibrium.

Melissa Breau: I like that word, equilibrium. It's a good word to talk about when we're talking about it. Sophie?

Sophie Lui: The types of behaviors that we might expect to see. I think, for me, the easiest way to filter it out in my head is to think about arousal and to think about sympathetic nervous system activation versus parasympathetic.

What would a dog that is sympathetically activated, highly aroused, what behaviors would they show? They would refuse food, because blood flow goes away from your gut and prioritizes your skeletal muscles. Your heart rate increases, your respirate increases, so panting, potentially salivating, but not salivating because they're hungry for food. Their pupils dilate. When you see that in a dog that is emotionally aroused, it's such a jarring signal to see, because that dog feels a lot of physiological arousal. Hackles raised, ears up, the tail up, so ears and tails, like Julie said.

And then, all of the things that come downstream of the arousal activation system, I think, is what helps me to really determine how is this dog feeling and how big are those intense feelings. For me, it helps to filter out into is this animal sympathetically activated? Are they in that fight or flight zone of their brain, and if they are, what does their body look like? I see a lot of that, whether because they're feeling really, really happy about the ball or whether it's because they feel really, really upset about the vet clinic, those help me to filter out how do I think this animal is probably feeling right now and how we can better help soothe them.

Melissa Breau: I like that you brought in the eye dilation and some of those other pieces. I think those are some of the more subtle things that sometimes don't get talked about or that get missed. We've been talking all this stuff about feelings, and I'm going to go out on a limb here and ask you to put some labels on stuff. What kind of feelings are we talking about when we say "big feelings"? I think Sophie hinted at some of those there, but Sharon, do you want to start us off on this one?

Sharon Carroll: This is where it gets tricky because, to me, when we talk — and I guess I'm mainly thinking here about reactivity, because that's my topic here — but, to me, when we talk about reactivity, I like the umbrella to be really broad and to capture all the big behaviors we see in response to a stimulus.

For me, that includes responses driven by fear, anxiety, excitement, frustration, and so forth. I also include big behaviors that are driven by habit and instinct as well. I'm aware, though, that not everybody likes the big umbrella approach, because, obviously, behaviors driven by fear are vastly different to those driven by frustration, which are vastly different to those that are driven by excess arousal due to excitement and so forth.

The problem is, though, that in the general dog-owning population, many people are not able necessarily to distinguish that difference. Many times I get calls about a highly aggressive dog, and when I get the video, the dog is clearly just a frustrated greeter. Or conversely, I too often get videos where the people say, "I'm fairly certain he just wants to play," and the dog is clearly not showing signs that he wants to play at all.

And so for me, although I'm acutely aware that the underlying driver really does matter, and it's going to heavily influence what we do, I still feel like it's wise to not ask people to have to categorize beyond the overarching term of reactivity. So I'd actually ask the owners to try to say whether they believe it is fear or whether they believe it is frustration, because I think it can get more complicated at that point. Sometimes looking at the behaviors is almost a little simpler than asking people to define what emotion they believe the dog is expressing.

Melissa Breau: Julie? You're nodding.

Julie Daniels: I'm completely onboard with that, absolutely. I'll just expand upon the emotionality aspect. I think that's very important. I always say emotions drive reinforcement. I think what we see often is the handler becoming too emotional and becoming, you might say, invested in the story that they tell about the dog. Not that the stories aren't true. Like Sharon said, they might have it right, they might have it wrong, but we don't really know that. But it's the story itself that can get in the way of helping the dog get to equilibrium.

So I'm much more interested, even though again, as Sharon said, even though it would be helpful to know what the driver is in a given situation, and we might make some modifications depending on that, in terms of a behaviorist approach. But generally, safety first. No matter what the driver is, the dog needs not just the physical safety of the dog, but the dog needs emotionally to feel safe. That is our first step, no matter what the driver is. So that's my cop-out on that one. Emotions drive reinforcement. Dog needs to feel safe. Step one.

Melissa Breau: I think it's a pretty good cop out. Sophie?

Sophie Lui: I think that if we go back to our first definition of big feelings, I think that encapsulates all of it. If the animal has same brain structure, same adrenal glands, same amygdala, same physiological structures that allow us to feel fear, anger, happiness, frustration, excitement, joy, pain, all of that, then I think it's prudent of us to assume that animals do, too, and that when they are displaying big feelings, or maybe big lack of feelings, to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are probably feeling something that we would feel in a similar situation or if we had a similar background. And so when we talk about big feelings, I would encompass everything that we would expect a 2-year-old kid to feel if placed in a similar situation with similar preparation, with similar background. So fear, anger, disgust, happiness, all of that.

I do want to say that intense, I guess, desire and intense joy is a big feeling. When you see those working dogs where you are working with them with food and they're fine, and then you bring out a ball and their pupils dilate, that's a big feeling too. Those dogs, even if they're not reactive, deserve just as much carefulness and thoughtfulness and attention to detail as a dog who's screaming at the end of the leash at another dog. So if you see that level of nervous system activation in response to something that is joyful, that dog requires a lot of care and thought also, maybe even more so than another dog. So I think that we should be open to the possibility that everything that we feel, they can probably feel to some level as well.

Melissa Breau: Karen?

Karen Deeds: I'm going to keep it simple, really. Ask what we're talking about here, and I love what Sharon said, personally. I also use a big umbrella with the word "reactivity," because there's a lot of things that fall under that.

My dog has a big reaction when I come home, and it jumps all over me. Is that fear? No, that's a reaction. People want that to change, so we have to find a way to change that emotion about them coming home. Sometimes that puts it on the owner — maybe you shouldn't be doing what you're doing to evoke that type of response.

But again, that reactivity is not always fear. It can be arousal, like Sophie and Julie said.

And since I'm talking a lot about reinforcement strategies, I think Julie said emotions drive reinforcement. I'm going to try to make reinforcement drive emotions to change emotions. That's where I come in with the multiple marker systems, and how can I change a dog's emotional response by getting them to eat or using toys.

My own personal dog, not necessarily a food dog, but God love him, he is a toy dog, but he had no human interaction for the first almost year of his life and he played with toys by himself. He had no use for me. And so I had to put that under stimulus control, really, so that I had a tool. Now, granted, once I put that under stimulus control, I started to change his emotions, because I was using that to reinforce behaviors that I liked.

It all boils down to, in my opinion, how do you want the dog to feel? Safe? Happy? Excited? I don't know. Everybody's probably going to be different, depending on what you're doing with your dog. How do you want them to feel and what do you want them to do? That's where, whether you're a sport dog, whether you're a pet dog, whether you're a service dog, assistance dog, or even in a shelter environment, you really want the dogs to feel one way and act one way, so that they do feel safe and you get what you need and the dog gets what they need.

Melissa Breau: Julie?

Julie Daniels: I'm onboard with that. I was going to say about the emotions that how you feel determines or impacts what you want. I think we can actually use the environment, whatever stimulus you're working with, such as you were talking about, Karen, to influence emotions for sure.

Melissa Breau: I think we've danced around this a bunch as we were talking through that last question, but I want to address it head on. Does what that feeling is matter when we're determining or working with or figuring out the plan to do stuff with these dogs? Julie, I'm going to have you start us off on this one.

Julie Daniels: Okay. Let's stick with Sharon's big-umbrella approach. Yes and no. It depends. It's very helpful to know the drivers of a behavior. It's very helpful. We can't deny that. We can still make progress without knowing exactly what's going on, but it would be good to have a handle on whether the valence of the emotion being expressed is positive or negative. That tells us a great deal about a good and effective start point.

Do we want, for example, more distance, or do we want to change the contingencies of how the dog can earn the reinforcement that he's working for. So I think it does matter, but it doesn't have to stop us from making progress if we don't know exactly what the driver is. But the first thing to establish in a big-umbrella sort of framework is, is it a positive valence that's being expressed or is it a negative valence that's being expressed. In other words, are we accidentally finding ourselves in a negative reinforcement situation where the very best thing we can do is reward by running away, which often happens. It's often the most effective reinforcer we can think of is distance.

Melissa Breau: Sophie?

Sophie Lui: I agree. It's yes and no, as in many things in life. A lot of times in our treatment plans, we may say that the motivations are open. We don't really have a very clear diagnosis or label for it, and so what we do is pretty similar across the board for many conditions in "regular" vet medicine, so non-behavioral vet medicine too.

I think there's principles that I think are going to be true for most situations, and so you can pretty much go off of those principles and create variations off of that. So in some ways it doesn't matter, in the sense that there's certain principles that we're always going to abide by — ideally, don't push the dog over its threshold, figure out its threshold, try to stay below it, gently prop that up as you build successes and confidence.

At the same time, I remember when I first had my truly, truly dog-aggressive dog, and I think this is just when that was coming out, and I think my dog was truly dog-aggressive just because she just wanted … she had this compulsive aggression that I don't think there was a good explanation for it. I don't think she wanted to avoid. She certainly showed desire to move towards it and show aggression, and she would close yards to do so. For me, at that time, working through all these protocols, I think a lot of them at that time really emphasized, "If this is the emotion your dog is feeling, this is the response you should do." It was very hard for me because I couldn't figure it out for her, and it really seemed like there was no other better explanation other than that she "wanted" to be aggressive.

And so I think that as long as certain principles are being met, that there is respect given to the dog's arousal state, there is respect given to what can be reinforced for the dog that is beneficial for the dog as well as for you and for society, that there are certain principles that we're all always going to use. But I think that the more fine-tuned you can get with what drives the behavior, probably the faster you can make progress. And I think when we can't fine-tune it and really define it well, that's where you fall back on the main principles and work through the protocol, make adjustments as needed. But you don't necessarily need to know the fine-tuned reasoning for everything. So that's my wishy-washy cop-out for yes and no.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Karen?

Karen Deeds: I'm going to go right along with that. But I love what Julie said about is it a positive versus a negative driver, so to speak. I was actually prepared to say yes, it matters what the dog is doing and how it's acting and feeling. But again, it goes back to the question you first asked. We don't know how they're feeling. We just have to look at what they're presenting in front of us, you know, the dilated pupils, the tight mouth, the ears up, the ears pinned, the tail, all of that kind of stuff. It goes all the way back to that.

But, of course, with my subject that I'm talking about, using marker cues, and use reinforcement to influence that reactivity or that feeling that they're having, it's helpful, like Sophie said, but I don't think we ever truly know what drives it, because we just don't know what they're thinking. We just can't get into their brains like that. Obviously I'm not as technical as Sophie about talking about things like this, because I'm just a stupid pet dog trainer, but with a lot of experience. But I do think the way I use the marker cues system to influence their emotions, I never know. All I can do is, "What happens next?" If I do this, does that get the result that I like and that I need? And if so, then I'll do it again. But if it doesn't, if it actually makes things worse, then I go, "Okay, maybe that's not what's going on here, so I have to try something different." So again, just like everybody so far has said, yes and no.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. All right, Sharon, do you want to round us out?

Sharon Carroll: I agree with what everyone said. I think it is kind of important, and Julie made this point first, to try to work out are they experiencing negative or positive emotions, is it positive or negative valance.

I think it's also important to work out is the arousal up or down. A lot of times people misunderstood an inhibited dog and believe it's at low arousal, and so they're trying to arouse the dog more because that's going to fix it. You're like, "No, this dog's already at high arousal. It's just inhibited." And so I think that part is important.

However, obviously, my topic is reactivity. Selecting a training protocol to suit the underlying driver does indicate that I think yes, it's kind of important to know the underlying driver to select that training protocol. But that comes back to what Sophie said, and that is I think we're going to get our best outcome, our most productive, our biggest progress if we really do know, or if we can work out roughly, what's driving that behavior, or at least what reinforcement the dog is getting. Those sort of things matter so much.

With reactivity, if we go and choose a protocol that's structured around working with fear and anxiety, but we have a dog that has no fear, they're just frustrated, or maybe they have a genetically based dislike of other adult dogs being in their immediate space, a genetically based dog to dog aggression issue, then we're not going to make the same level of progress using that fear- and anxiety-based protocol that we might make with a different protocol. And of course, conversely, if we're working with a dog where the driver is fear and we're not using a protocol designed for that driver, then you have the potential for causing your dog increased stress and setting them back even further.

So I do think it's kind of important, especially with that one heading of reactivity, I think it's kind of important, if we're looking to make big progress with the dog, that we can try to determine what's really driving those behaviors. And that can help us to be more accurate with how we plan that path forward for the dog.

Sophie Lui: Can I add to that? Because, Sharon, I think you explained that a lot better than I could when I was telling my story. But that's exactly what I meant was my first truly aggressive dog just had this desire to attack. There's no other better reason than that. We don't know how she was feeling. I have no idea how she was feeling. We just kind of joked that she liked to attack dogs. It genuinely seemed that way.

So for us, when we were recommended protocols that were really for more fearful dogs, you would still make progress, but it would probably be a lot slower if we did that versus if we did something more hands-on intensive could really bump up that threshold with "Look at that" and maybe more focused pattern games. So I think that's where it gets to the "yes and no," because they all use pretty much very similar concepts and principles.

In vet medicine, for example, if you have a urinary tract infection, you don't know what bacteria is causing it. You have some general idea, so you start them on broad spectrum antibiotics, but then you're going to pull a sample, send out for a culture, and realize, "Maybe I should switch my antibiotics so it's more narrow spectrum. Maybe it's more targeted for the bladder." That's how if you can figure out the emotion, you can fine-tune it and then get a more precise, maybe faster, treatment plan.

Sharon Carroll: That's a really good analogy. I think that's spot-on with that broad spectrum and then can we, over that, hone it in and find something that's going to be more specific for that dog and that dog's particular drivers.

Melissa Breau: I think that all ties back into what Karen was saying about sometimes you have to make that hypothesis upfront. You think it's this; we've got to observe the dog and figure out then along the way if we're right. Our last question before our final question here. I want to actually talk about what some of the options are out there in terms of treatment, in terms of training, what bag of tricks do we have to pull from for helping these dogs live and operate in our human world. Sophie, I'm going to have you start off with this one.

Sophie Lui: Sure. Karen, you're not a stupid pet dog trainer. You said that and I was just like, "Oh my God, no!" Because I was going to say for any tips, tricks, methods, I would defer to all of you. Methods, protocols — Karen, Julie, Sharon, you've got us covered, I think.

But the perspective I can offer is that these big-feelings dogs have to go to the vet, they have to sometimes travel, they have to do other things that allow them to do sports or to just live a normal pet dog life. They have to have visitors over to the house. You have to have Christmas dinners, Thanksgiving dinners, all of these things that happen in daily life that I think get shoved under the rug.

I would say that there are options that are medication options that I think a lot of people don't consider but could help. I grew up in a very traditional Chinese family, and Western medications were shunned. I think, for the first two decades of my life, I didn't take ibuprofen when I got sick. Boy, when I took ibuprofen when I had a cold, I was like, "I've been suffering for twenty years of my life for no reason!"

So I think if we can just recognize that drugs are not a cop-out, and to be aware of what they are, and to consider the full spectrum of activities we ask of our dogs in our daily lives, I think that then having that conversation and considering options will help us all to be a little bit more humane to each other and to our dogs. So there are options, and we can discuss some of that during my talk.

Melissa Breau: I love that you used that analogy, the ibuprofen analogy, because I think a lot of people have the reaction when you talk about drugs. "Oh, but I want to see what behavior training plans can do first," or whatever. But it's like, why are you suffering if you don't need to be suffering? It's such a great analogy for that.

Sophie Lui: Ibuprofen is amazing. I took it for the first time and I was like, "Oh my God, I don't have body aches anymore. It's so unnecessary."

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. Karen, do you want to pick up from there.

Karen Deeds: I love the fact that we're going to have somebody talking about behavior meds, because it's such a piece of the puzzle. In fact, I had an email last night from a Doberman breeder, and she's like, "One of my puppies is being put on behavior meds, and in all my years of breeding Dobermans, I've never had a dog that's on meds. I think that's ridiculous." I'm going, "Okay, well, I have yet to see the dog, so I can't say one way or another whether she needs them, but obviously somebody thinks she needs them." And of course, the breeder is putting the blame on the dog owner. So there's a lot of pushback, and I am thrilled that Sophie going to be talking about that.

But first and foremost, what the options are is management first. Don't let them practice the behaviors you don't want. I just started two classes last night, and out of twelve dogs, I think I have four that live in an apartment that are dog reactive. That's like an alcoholic living at the bar. They're never going to sober up, or it's going to be really hard to sober them up, because they're always going to be exposed to what causes them to react.

So management first — when we can, of course, obviously — and then we do some training and b-mod. I like to teach a strong foundation of incompatible behaviors. I work on impulse control — again, if that's necessary. Obviously a shut-down dog who's not impulsive doesn't need work on impulse control. Obviously I'm talking about reinforcement strategies, so I like using those a lot. A huge variety of desensitization and counter-conditioning-type protocols, the pattern games, engage, disengage, just simple classical counter-conditioning. Like Sophie said, there's so many options out there now, and you have to go, "You know what? Your dog would be better using this protocol." And I'm thrilled that Sharon's going to be talking about that kind of stuff.

So there's a lot out there, but again, adding to it, we can add in the pharmacological side of things. I have a lot of people that, "I want to try training first." I'm like, "Okay, we're going to give it a month, and if things aren't better, guess what? We're going to go talk to a vet." The problem we have is we don't have behavior vets. My closest veterinary behaviorist is three hours away. I do have two vets in the area that are somewhat educated in behavior, but they're not behaviorists. So it's frustrating. And the general practitioners, God love them, I have a sister who's one and I was in the vet practice for nine years. Like my sister said, she says, "I know how to fix a broken leg. I don't know how to fix a broken brain." And I go, "Okay." I understand why general veterinarians don't want to deal with behavior meds. It's hard, because we can't get inside their brain and ask them how they're feeling. We can just go on and on about this. What do we do? What do we do?

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Sharon?

Sharon Carroll: In terms of how do we treat these dogs or how do we work with these dogs, there's just a huge range of behavior modification protocols out there. There's truly a strategy for every dog and every underlying driver. The key is matching the problem to the solution. When we get that right fit, then we typically can make huge progress. And of course management is going to play a role in the overall protocol. In some cases, it's only going to play a small role. It may even be transient. In other cases, it's going to be a big role and it's going to be long-term in some instances.

And then beyond behavior modification, or behavior modifying training and management, of course we also need to ensure that we're meeting the basic needs of that individual dog, including health and nutrition, ensuring pain as a potential contributor has been investigated and treated, and adequate physical exercise and appropriate cognitive enrichment, and of course behavior meds, if that's an appropriate addition as well.

I think we just have to look at that whole big picture when we talk about treating the dog, not "Let's just pick a protocol and train this dog and it's going to be fixed." We've really got to look at the big, big picture. But definitely when it comes to training protocols, it's really important to remember that they reinforce different things. And it's no use using a strategy like an approach/retreat strategy where the dog really wants to escape that situation and really wants to get away. Yeah, that's fantastic, but if you've got a frustrated greeter, you're now making the dog more frustrated, if you're not careful. So it's really picking that strategy to suit that dog.

Melissa Breau: Julie?

Julie Daniels: I look forward to every one of these talks. This is such a well-rounded approach that we're taking to this topic, and I'm very excited to hear what everybody has to say.

Sophie, when you spoke about the behavior meds, it resonates with me that my first introduction to the idea that maybe we didn't have to resist meds throughout the life of the dog for as long as possible was through FDSA. I listened to … I think it was a webinar by Jennifer Summerfield, and it really gave me a completely different perspective on how earlier is better. Earlier can help people like me do our jobs much more effectively. And so I can't wait to hear you educate me further on those points.

I think for me, the topic that I have of introducing choice, a dog's choice training approach into whatever protocol is the one that you decide to use, I think makes a phenomenal and often unexpected difference in how well the dog does through the treatment plan. There are so many dogs who have never had choice in their lives, and we can change that a little bit at a time and give the dog a whole new empowerment that they've never had before.

I was going to make mention of Leslie McDevitt's analysis through her FLIRT assessment that she makes early on, because we were talking about how to choose a protocol for a dog and how to find out what's going on with this dog. I think in general it's just a broad spectrum approach, but the FLIRT assessment stands for, in other words, how often is this unwanted behavior occurring? What's going on with this behavior? She itemizes frequency, flexibility of the behavior, under what conditions does it occur, the frequency, the resilience, the threshold at which the dog is operating, these simple little questions that we as trainers can ask ourselves about the dog in question.

Even if it's a Zoom call and we're not seeing the dog in person, we can get really good and useful information that help us determine things like a start point and possibly what the driver is. Possibly we don't get to the driver, but at least we can choose the start point and possibly make an assessment, too, as to whether behavior meds would be helpful early on to help us get what we want.

So the dog's choice training approach is my angle, and I think it's hugely important and life-changing for so many dogs in whatever situation they find themselves. But I can't wait to hear every single talk in this conference. I'm going to be there all day.

Melissa Breau: You and me both. To round things out, I've got one last question here. It's a little bit of a freebie. If we were to drill down all this stuff we've been talking about, I want to give you each a chance to share what key takeaway you want listeners to walk away from this with, or one final point that you wanted to make. Karen, I'm going to have you start us off.

Karen Deeds: For me, based on what I'm talking about, it's clarity, and I know that used to be a big buzz word, maybe still is, but being clear in your information to the dog. I didn't really start using marker cues, multiple marker cues, on pet dogs for quite a few years after I was in the sport dog world, until I got a dog and it was a heeler and he'd been through training before, but he had some major crate aggression. When you close the door, he comes after you. He had a lot of threshold issues, so she sent him to us for a board and train.

I knew he'd been training, and I knew where he'd been training, and they use markers, they use clickers. I clicked and that dog went, "Oh my God! Do I look for the hand? Do I look on the ground? Do I get excited because I'm going to throw it? What are you going to do with the food?" And I went, "Dude, the clicker is so confusing." So I went, "Okay, well, we're going to start all over. This word means this. This word means that. This word means the other thing." And pretty soon I could just see this dog go, "Thank you. Oh my God. I had no idea that when you said, 'Toss,' that that's the only time I have to chase food. Or if you say, 'Scatter,' I get to calm down and sniff a little bit and eat multiple pieces of food on the floor. And oh my God, it's so nice to know exactly what to do when you say a word versus guess."

So I like clear information. Predictability and consistency helps to reduce anxiety, which a lot of times … it's not always, obviously, but it's one of the big underlying reasons for some of these big feelings. So clear communication. They're trying to communicate to us, and most pet dog owners aren't really good about that. And of course that's part of our job is not only to educate the pet dog owner so that they can see their dog for what is going on. That's a huge part of it. And so that they're clear about their choice of words, their behaviors, because their behavior is going to influence the dog's behavior. So a lot of this is about teaching people.

A colleague of mine, I teach at her facility here in Dallas, and we were having this conversation. My God, it is so hard for people to understand what a marker is. It's a bridge. It's a connection. It pairs this to that. And oh my gosh, it's hard, but it's so important from where I see the change in the dogs, because I use these markers, this information, to help the dog go, "Oh, that's what that means." And the more the dog understands that we're going to be clear in our communication, the less stressed they're going to be, because they understand. And understanding is power. Knowledge is power. And I want to give the dogs clarity and knowledge.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Sharon?

Sharon Carroll: I couldn't agree more with that one. It's actually a topic that's in the class I'm teaching right this second, so it's very familiar to me right this second. In terms of drilling down from my presentation, it would be to try really hard when it comes to reactivity.

Again, my presentation is specific about reactivity, not so much about other big feelings, but with reactivity, our best outcome is going to come if we can tease out what that underlying emotion is that's driving the behavior. If it's not an emotion, if it's habit, if it's instinct, we need to tease out exactly what's driving that behavior. And then we need to seek out a protocol that's going to effectively influence that driver, and that's going to give us our best outcome and our quickest outcome as well. So that's my drilling down my presentation to a bit of a summary.

Melissa Breau: Julie?

Julie Daniels: I'm looking at my job in this conference as a how-to job. I think the whole choice-and-control concept is popular nowadays. I will spend very little time trying to convince people of the value of a dog's choice training approach. I'll just do my job and gloss over that.

But then I get into the how-to. How do you, for example, give a dog choice when the dog has a long history of making terrible choices? How do we begin in a way that uses an errorless learning approach and a dog's choice training approach to minimize poor choices and raise the probability that the dog will find comfort, safety, and empowerment in choosing differently going forward. So we need clean training loops, and my job is the how-to of all that when we have whatever drivers in play that are influencing behaviors.

Melissa Breau: Sophie, you want to round this out?

Sophie Lui: Sure. I think I would round it out by taking a bird's eye view approach and say that if we, as a society, could … I've always believed that if we could better recognize and understand the inner world of our pets, that we would develop more empathy as to what they're feeling is probably driving how they're behaving, and that would immediately change our approach to them as a society.

And so my bird's eye view is, if our listeners could take one thing away, it's to recognize that there are some animals who feel more intense feelings, who are more sensitive, whether that's a positive or negative valence, and to recognize what that might look like and therefore guide us in making more humane, holistic choices. So encapsulating everything we've been talking about — management, specific protocols, medications if it's indicated, and to take a more holistic view and to recognize it's not just what happens in the ring, it's not just the dog that shuts down when the treats stop flowing.

It probably extends to the vet, and going off, like Karen said, the marker system. If you could even tell a dog that a shot is coming, that's going to save that dog from freaking out and not trusting you the second time you come at them with another vaccination, because they don't understand what we're doing at all. This is completely foreign to them and makes no sense. It's totally crazy. Why are we jabbing them five times? All of this comes together for our pet dogs, for sport dogs, for our working dogs, and the more that we can make it work for them, going on Julie's choice and control, I think the smoother and more cooperative outcomes we can get. So my bird's eye view is listen to all the lectures, take it in, absorb it, and realize that it all bleeds into each other. All of this comes together.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you all so much for being here and doing the podcast. I totally appreciate you. Thank you, guys. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it!

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training!


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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