E275: Stacy Bols - Competing in Agility with a Little Dog

Stacy and I talk about what it's like to compete in agility with little dogs who are not a "traditional" sports breed. 


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 Stacy Bols here with me to chat.

Hi Stacy, and welcome to the podcast!

Stacy Bols: Hi, and thank you for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, can you share a little bit about you, your current pets, and what you're working on with them?

Stacy Bols: Sure. I've been in agility eighteen or nineteen years. My current two dogs that I'm running in agility are Kermit, she's a 7-and-a-half-year-old Miniature Schnauzer, and Cosmos, who is my 2-and-a-half-year-old Miniature Schnauzer. Both of them are imports from Russia, so they get to have all their parts — ears, tails, dewclaws, all that kind of fun stuff.

With both of them, Kermit is in what I call maintenance mode. She's my comfortable shoes and lots of fun to run. Cosmos is my young boy, so he has quite a bit of maturing to go through, but I'm really excited to see where our career takes us.

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

Stacy Bols: The dog world in general was … I grew up always having dogs. My dad was not a fan of dogs in the house, so as soon as I got out of the house and I could make my own choices, I got my first dog. Lucky for me, I started with Miniature Schnauzers, which is my breed of choice. He was a great first dog, and from there I've ended up with five more of them.

Melissa Breau: What led you from that first dog to actually getting into dog sports?

Stacy Bols: I can credit my mom for that. She got an Aussie/Border Collie mix as a puppy, and she decided, since it was going to be a pretty active dog, she'd look into things you do with active dogs. She found agility and started training in it, and told me about it and how much fun it was, and that she was really enjoying it.

I looked into it, and lucky for me, there was a training facility about five minutes away from me, so my 8-and-a-half-year-old dog at the time and I started going to classes. And as they say, that was all it took, and now that is where all of my money goes.

Melissa Breau: Yours, mine, everybody listening. I'm sure none of us know what that's like.

Stacy Bols: No.

Melissa Breau: Have you always been part of the positive trainer camp? If not, what got you started on that journey?

Stacy Bols: When I got my first dog just as a pet, I didn't really know anything about dog training at all. Luckily at that time I just happened to find a local pet manners class that had a progressive trainer, which was a really big deal twenty-some-odd years ago.

We did crazy things like crate training and clicker training and things like that, so I really didn't have a lot of the aversive training background that a lot of people — that's all there was to do when they got dogs. Lucky for me, that's how I started.

I've always found it interesting to figure out how another species of brain works and how we could work together, so that led me down the road to learning about dogs and how they learn, and how we can develop a great relationship.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. How would you describe your training philosophy?

Stacy Bols: Definitely cut to size. Every dog is different, and every breed is different, every person is different, and every situation is different. So while the general rules of dog training also apply, I really enjoy the problem-solving aspect of training and "This is where I want to go with it; how do we get there?" Sometimes what we try works and sometimes it doesn't, but that problem solving of dog training is the reason why I'm still doing this twenty years later.

Melissa Breau: How has that impacted your approach to both life and training?

Stacy Bols: I think life, I'm not always as patient as I am in dog training, that's for sure. Being that I have started with and continued with Miniature Schnauzers, it has really caused me to have to think out of the box quite a bit. They're not what people would consider traditional sports breeds. Although I've been successful with mine, it has not happened in a traditional way, so that's really made training fun. Figuring out how each dog works, and getting the best out of them, is really why I enjoy doing the sport.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. Part of the reason I asked you on the podcast is because you're going to do a webinar for FDSA in the not-too-distant future on the challenges of competing in agility specifically with small dogs. I know you mentioned you've been in Schnauzers for a while. Can you share a little more on your experience training agility specifically with the little guys?

Stacy Bols: There's a lot of things that are different with small dogs than big dogs, and a lot of it has to do specifically with their height and their weight because that changes how they interact with equipment and handling on the course. It's something that's not really talked about very often and that a lot of instructors don't have a lot of knowledge about. Lucky for me, I started training with somebody who had small dogs. She had Jack Russells, so that was at least a good start for me.

But as I continued to get on in the sport and became an instructor, I realized that I had a rare tool that a lot of other trainers didn't have, because small dogs are different, and how they react and train on equipment, and things you have to think about that you don't have to think about with large dogs, can really make or break how successful you are with your small dog.

Melissa Breau: How does a dog's size impact handling choices that you might make on course?

Stacy Bols: Probably the biggest difference is the fact that here in the States, all of our courses are the same size for all size dogs. We don't have a small-dog course and a large-dog course, so the spacing is the same, regardless of what organization you're running in, for all size dogs.

The things like number of strides the dog takes between the obstacles, ability to stay committed to the obstacles as the handler can move away, those sorts of things are completely different for small dogs as they are for large dogs. So if you would like to be able to handle them in a similar manner to the large dogs, you really have to train differently and have a whole 'nother layer of proofing that the larger dogs may or may not have to have.

Melissa Breau: Are there pieces of equipment you train differently with a small dog than you might with a larger one?

Stacy Bols: For sure. Probably the one thing that people think about the most often is the teeter, being that it's an obstacle that moves differently depends on the weight that's at the end of it.

Those things are quite challenging for little dogs, and there's a whole bunch of components that go into the performance of the teeter that you have to consider differently. Think about how far up in the air they are, how far the teeter drops underneath them, things like rebound that wouldn't happen on a larger dog. Those things are pretty common challenges for small dogs.

But even some things like jumps. When you think about proportionately what they're jumping compared to their shoulder height, that can be significantly different, the physical effort that we're asking dogs to do. So really almost every piece of equipment is different for small dogs than large dogs.

Melissa Breau: What other kinds of unique challenges do you see handlers run into when they're working with a smaller dog?

Stacy Bols: One of the things that I see probably the most often, and something that most large-dog people would never even think of, is the timers and the cones, and where they are in relationship to the jumps. They can be in the takeoff area for the dog, it can be in the landing area for the dog.

And so small-dog handlers, when they're walking the course — on top of everything else that they have to do when walking the course — they have to be aware of looking at those things and potentially changing the position of the cone, or asking the judge to look at the placement of the timers, things like that. Contact approaches — those are different for big dogs than little dogs, so what may be safe for a large dog may or may not be safe for a small dog.

All of those things that you have to keep in mind for a smaller dog when you're walking, on top of handling and timing and remembering the course, and all that other stuff that everybody else has to do, can definitely make it challenging.

Melissa Breau: Any general tips for how handlers can think about the sport from their small dog's perspective?

Stacy Bols: Probably the main thing is to really look at the dog's lines and what they can see, because again their perspective, their head height off the ground, changes what they can see or not see on the course. Looking at that from their perspective, and understanding how they physically execute the obstacles and the ground differently than the large dogs, can help you understand how to give the dog the best information on the course and when they need it.

Melissa Breau: I hadn't really thought about that, I guess, just the fact that obviously they're shorter, so they can't see quite as far ahead on the course, and they may or may not be able to see you, based on where the obstacles are, and things like that.

Stacy Bols: Yes, it's totally different.

Melissa Breau: Definitely adds an element of challenge for sure. I've got three questions here at the end that I always ask a first-time guest, so I'd love to go through them. The first one is what's the training-related accomplishment that you're proudest of?

Stacy Bols: There's a lot of them, because I really enjoy the thought of "You can't be competitive with a small dog," or "You can't be competitive with a Miniature Schnauzer." I was told that quite a bit when I first started agility.

So I think just bringing out the best in each one of my dogs. I know that obviously I didn't know near as much when I first started as I know now, and of course if I could go back knowing what I know now with my first dog, he would have been even better.

But I really feel like each dog has benefitted from what I've learned with the previous dog, and I've worked hard to figure out what is the best for them, so when we end up closing down on our career and retiring, I can look back and say, "We got the best we could out of playing this sport together."

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

Stacy Bols: I think "Be flexible." I think that's really key. There's lots of methods out there, and there's lots of philosophies out there, as far as training different things, and listen to your dog, to look at what they're telling you.

I try to start out with an outline in training: this is what I want to try to accomplish and the general steps I want to use to get there. But if you really pay attention to what the dog is telling you, you can be flexible with your training plan, and try some different things, and end up still achieving the best results. But how you got there may be completely different than how you'd originally planned.

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

Stacy Bols: One of my best friends is Dudley Shumate. Luckily we crossed paths seven or eight years ago when Kermit was really young. We got to know each other, and we very much view dog training the same way: let's problem-solve, let's figure it out. Her and I both enjoy bounding things off of each other. She has a completely different background in dogs, and horses before that, than I do, so we really enjoy being able to be open to what is the dog telling us, and how do we figure out and problem-solve what we need the dog to know.

Melissa Breau: I like that. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Stacy.

Stacy Bols: Thank you for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to all 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!

E276: Watersports with Erin Lynes & Sara Brueske
E274: Dogs with Big Feelings

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