E281: Andrea Harrison - "The Human End of the Leash"

Join Andrea and I as we talk about how to recover when things go wrong — whether that means a bad training session or a bad trial!


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 Andrea Harrison here with me to talk about how we handle the human end of the leash.

Hi Andrea, welcome back to the podcast!

Andrea Harrison: Hi Melissa. Nice to be here.

Melissa Breau: Nice to chat again. Do you want to start us off by sharing a little bit about you and your current crew for anybody who doesn't know you?

Andrea Harrison: Yeah, for sure. I'm Canadian. I am an educator, a facilitator, a trainer, an animal person. I think I'm an all-species person. At the farm here we live with chickens, horses, dogs, cats, parrots, all of whom are rescued, and we're about to get too many donkeys, so my Instagram should be pretty cool soon. They're coming from a hoarding situation and I gather they're adorable. The local SPCA asked us to take them, and we said we would.

We're down to two dogs, which is a big change. I think the last time I did the podcast, we had seven/So we've had lots of losses through COVID, but it's okay.

We live on a 257-acre farm in Prince Edward County, Ontario. I work with people who are working with animals, and I also work with youth with comorbidity of mental health issues is the definition of them. So I keep myself pretty busy.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Busy, busy. I know you've got your No More Excuses class on the calendar again for this term, the August term, and a webinar scheduled for August 18 on bouncing back from bad trials, training sessions, that kind of thing.

As so many things that you teach are, both are focused on this idea of personal growth. How do you recommend balancing that sense of wanting to grow as a person against those times when it's better to just give ourselves grace?

Andrea Harrison: I always love your questions. They always make me think.

The thing I like about the root of this question is that they don't have to be opposites to each other. I think growth and grace actually are quite interconnected, and as we strive to grow, we learn the importance of grace, if that makes sense. So as we're thinking about there are good stresses and bad stresses. The bad stresses may mean we need to treat ourselves with grace and understanding and all of the stuff I often talk about, like being our best selves or recognizing our best self today isn't the same as our best self yesterday or tomorrow. It is where we are now. That notion of balance is exactly what we are striving for, to understand that you aren't going to get growth without the grace.

I think that looking for that interconnectedness is where it really can make a big, big difference. Those base blocks that we have to build on — exercise, sleeping, taking good care of ourselves, doing all of those things, laying down that foundation, those Maslow's hierarchy first needs — without them, we aren't going get to the top of the pyramid, and that notion of grace can get interwoven in. If we aren't sleeping, we need to give ourselves grace, figure that out, and be able to progress forward. Melissa Breau: I love that idea of our best selves today isn't necessarily our best selves tomorrow or yesterday. We're so good about thinking about that in terms of dogs, like, train the dog in front of you today, not the dog you had last week, but so bad, I think, of doing it for ourselves. Andrea Harrison: Oh, and it's so hard. People get so frustrated, including myself. We get so frustrated with ourselves when we aren't the best we could ever be. We have this goal constantly of being our very best all the time, and the reality is life is going to happen to us.

So our best after… I'm trying to think of an example … somebody is snarky to you at a dog trial, and you aren't going to be your best self when you get home, your best of best self, but you can still be your best self in the moment and appreciate that your partner asked you how the trial went, instead of maybe leaping to take their head off, or whatever it is.

Melissa Breau: Specifically pulling back to class a little bit, I think it's more common than many students realize to invest in a class and then, for one reason or another, not be able to finish working all the way through it. I know it's one of the things you talk about in your class. What are some of the reasons that a student might have those good intentions but fail to follow through?

Andrea Harrison: Oh yeah, what gets blocking us? I think the blocks that block us around finishing a class, or engaging in a class once we've signed up for it, or going back to it in our library, or whatever it is we want to do, because we all are collectors of information, or so many of us, and geeks. I definitely, hands up, I am a geek. I collect and I collect and I collect information, and then I think, "I have all this information and I don't use it. What do I do about that?"

I think one of the things that can really get in our way — and we talk about this quite a lot in the class I'm going to be doing this term, but it's a bigger issue —is that lack of motivation. Where's that coming from? Is it we're missing the direction that we don't know why we signed up for the class and we just wanted to collect information, or is it the intensity that we look at it and we think, "Oh, that's too much," and we don't know how to break it down into small enough steps and say, "If I looked at just one lecture a week instead of one lecture a day. Or some instructors, I'm guilty of it, we are like, "Oh, I have all of this stuff and I want to share it, and I'm going to give it all to you." We tend to make our courses a little bit unwieldy, in that we've got so much on a topic to share.

And so, as a student, we look at it and we think, "Oh my gosh, this is too much for me." And it's really hard again, like with our dogs, to break it down into small enough steps to use it. And then, of course, sometimes the motivation issue comes around the persistence and the sticking with it. So we can have the direction as an issue, the intensity, like, how far to break it down, or the persistence, how do we stick with it. All three of those things can get us tangled up in the weeds, unable to move forward with the course that we want to take. If we're not clear how we're going to use the information we're collecting, then we tend to fall into just collecting patterns.

Our brain has such a tendency towards negativity bias that the minute things go wrong in a class, so you take a class and you're doing great, and all of a sudden the instructor gives you feedback that maybe isn't meaningful to you, or they see something that you don't agree with. And you're not going to argue back, because you're a good, polite, human being, and anything negative happens. A lecture doesn't make sense to you and you can't figure it out and you don't want to look dumb, so you don't ask whatever the negative thing is. Our brain goes, "See, I told you all along this was wrong. This was wrong. Get away from it." It causes us distress and then we tend to not dig in.

So two key concepts that people can really try to hold on to are these concepts of do the work, like, remind yourself, and I love these little three-word things because my brain is mushy and doesn't hold stuff. So if I was struggling to do a class, I might write on a Post-It note and stick it on my mirror so I see it every time I brush my teeth, "Do the work," and that would be enough to remind me to go, "It's Thursday, and I said I was going to look at a lecture every Thursday," and I'd go back to it and look at the lecture.

Or perhaps I might want to remind myself to sit with the thing. And by that, I mean remember why did I take the course, what do I want to get out of the course, do I need every lecture from the course to get what I wanted out of the course.

People feel so guilty. We get so lockstep. We want to take the course and do it and do every single thing. There may be a lecture in a class you don't even need to do. Even if you're a Gold student, you may do a lecture and think, "This isn't relevant to me. I'm going to risk skipping it and hope I don't get called on it," if it's not progressive skill building.

Your instructor might be like, "I'm not sure why you didn't do that lecture." But if it fits for you, you have to make the classes fit for you and your circumstance, I think. And I think if we forget that, it's pretty easy to get intimidated and then not get into it.

Melissa Breau: If we're thinking about that, and say I want to do a new class or even a class from my library, how does the language or the word choice that I have in my head, or even just in general around goal-setting matter, impact my chance of success?

Andrea Harrison: Oh yeah, language semantics. I think there's a lecture right on that in the beginning of this class. There's a whole thing on word choice. I should have read the lecture before we chatted. But some of the things to think about is who is it for? Why are you doing this? Are you doing this class for you? Are you doing this class for your dog? Are you doing this class for your instructor? A class like who is a good language piece to spend some time with.

And then are you looking for an outcome goal? Are you taking the class because you want to be on a world team, or you want to finish a title, or you want to do something that is extrinsically motivated coming from the outside. Or are you doing the class because of a process goal? I want my dog to be more responsive to me at home, or whatever it is that you are doing for you.

I think that all of that leads to thinking through, using the language. What does this make possible? Why am I taking this class? What is the reason behind taking this class? What is the reason behind the training I'm doing? We can even blow that up a little bit from taking the specific class into the bigger issue around motivation and failure, but why does this matter in this moment? Why am I getting myself worked up about this thing?

I think semantics can really matter. The stories we tell ourselves, the words we use for ourselves, make such a big difference. My husband hates the word "stupid," and I am very, very guilty of going, "Oh, I'm so stupid." I burn toast and I'm like, "Oh, I'm so stupid. I shouldn't have been trying to do the laundry while I was making my toast." And Tom will yell from wherever

he is, if I say it out loud, "Don't use that word." To him, it's a major swear word.

It's been really good for me to remember that the words we choose to use, even around ourselves, make such a difference in the way we move forward, the way we see the world, the way we treat other people. If we actually think people are stupid, that's problematic. Somebody can be stressed, somebody can be unhappy, somebody can be all kinds of things, but if we get hung up on something that's so negative and so discouraging, then we're going to turn that on ourselves.

I don't tend to think of other people as stupid, but I find it interesting because I'll still go back to, in my own internal dialogue, thinking I'm stupid. I've worked on this for a long, long time and that's my go-to. That's the one negative piece I'm still really fighting with.

Melissa Breau: I think a lot of us have that one piece, that one thing.

Andrea Harrison: Whatever it is. "You're not stupid." Somebody said to me the other day, "How can you think of yourself as stupid?" I'm like, "I don't know where it came from." I don't feel like sitting with it long enough to break it out and figure out where did that little piece come from, but that's a piece I'm really struggling to get rid of still. And I'm a good fifteen years into this journey.

Melissa Breau: In your syllabus for the No More Excuses class, you mention the idea of realistic optimism and the word "try." Can you share a little bit about what you mean there?

Andrea Harrison: There're actually two separate concepts in the class, I think. But the try is really easy. Try is simply if I put down a five-dollar bill in front of you, try to pick it up. If you can try to pick it up, you can keep the five-dollar bill. Nobody has ever been able to try to pick it up. They either pick it up or they don't pick it up, and they get really stuck on how to pretend that they are trying, but ultimately they're either going to pick it up or they're not going to pick it up, and I've never lost a five-dollar bill.

I think that that's a really important thing to remember, because a lot of people taking classes and wanting to learn are trying, in big air quotes, "trying" to get better. Well, you're either going to get better or you're going to get worse or you're going to stay the same. That's the only choice you have. So don't try to do it. Decide you're going to do it, and then it's either going to happen the way you want or it's not, and we can make adjustments on the path.

And so the word "try" is a word I have largely, along with a few other words, largely eliminated from my vocabulary. That is something I have been successful at. And boy, did I love the crutch of trying stuff. "I'm going to try to get a clear round," or "I'm going to try to get the cue," or I'm going to try to whatever. I realized it was just in my framework, in my mind, it didn't work at all. So I was able to let go of it.

If "try" is a really important word to somebody, and they use it, and it gives them the courage to get up out of bed in the morning, "I'm going to try to get through my day" or something, by all means keep using it. Test, experiment, with trying to reduce the use of the word "try" in your vocabulary, and I think for a lot of people it can be a big "A-ha, I was using that as a crutch to get through not being quite as successful as I wanted."

Realistic optimism, I think in this world, and I think maybe the last two years, have even driven that home more, both in terms of COVID, and in terms of all the race stuff going on in the world, and in terms of all the changes in our training and our showing and our access to information, and all the big picture stuff around the education I hope most of us have had, the exposure to things we've had.

I think one thing it really has driven home is that hope is really important to being able to forge your own path. We aren't whoever the big name trainer of choice that you want to insert in your field or your sport. We aren't that person. And we shouldn't want to be that person, but we can aspire to be more like the aspects of that person we want.

So when I say "realistic optimism," I'm saying you aren't going to say, "I'm going to be the next Denise Fenzi. I'm going to be this person." You're going to say, "I understand I can be more like this person," if that's what you want, or "I can be less like that person," if that's what you want. You are you. You are unique. You are your own self.

Optimism improves our responses to things and provides us with protection. Tons and tons of studies, and the class gets into it quite a bit because optimism and resilience both fascinate me. I think, when I look at all the people and dogs and animals I've worked with, that either having optimism and resilience or not having it is often the difference between being a superstar and sometimes not doing very well at all.

An optimist tends to assume that there is a solution, and someone who is resilient realizes that life is going to happen to us. That temperance of optimism, with a little bit of resilience and realism, makes us somewhat pragmatic about these things. We can look forward, but we are also able to accept where we are right now.

Right now I have a 10-and-a half-year-old, little, tiny, white dog, Floof. I love her to bits. Just the way it's happened, she's the youngest dog in the house, she's my training partner. Do I get to do all the things I want to do with her? No, not right now, and that's okay because there will be a puppy down the road. There will be another dog in my life. The right dog just has to find us, because that's the way we work. So when the right dog finds us, I will have a new training partner and I'm okay with that.

I don't sit here thinking, "Oh, my life as a dog trainer is over because I haven't had a chance to train for six months," blah, blah, blah. I say, "Hey, what can I teach? How can I move my training skills forward?" I'm working more with the chickens because we got a bunch of sanctuary chickens. So I'm working on my chicken clicker training skills. I'm doing tons to keep my own skills up. But ultimately I accept that this is where I am right now and this will change.

Without that realistic optimism, I don't know that I would believe things would change. I think that's where you can throw in the towel. "Oh, dog training's just not for me. There's no dog I can train right now. I'm done." As opposed to "I'm going to hit pause for a little bit, do this work in this way." I'm collecting tons of information right now, getting ready to do whatever it is I do. Narrowing my focus.

We've got some new agility equipment coming because I'm moving back into teaching more people in person again, because that's the way I can continue to improve my skills. I don't have to do my own animals to be able to be a better trainer. So you can deliberately learn to be more optimistic, which is something I found really interesting when I first started looking into this years ago.

There's this notion that you either are resilient or you aren't resilient, or you are optimistic or you aren't optimistic. And the reality is you can be optimistic about your dog training and pessimistic about things going on at work or your relationships or whatever. So because you can be different levels of optimism in different things, it turns out, find something you are good at being optimistic about. Think about why you can do that, and bring those skills over towards the thing that it's harder for you to be optimistic and resilient about. And so we can learn it.

You can work through with somebody who's experienced in doing it, helping you get those skills built, but we can do it ourselves too. Look in your own mind for a place where you do feel optimistic, think about how that is, what that feels like, and bring it to something that where optimism is a little more difficult for you. But always temper that optimism with realism because we don't want to be Pollyannas: "Everything's perfect. I spent $3,000 on a trial this weekend and my dog attacked the judge and that's okay." That's not what I'm saying when I talk about realistic optimism at all.

Melissa Breau: There's got to be a little bit of realism in the mix.

Andrea Harrison: Yeah. I think we can get ourselves in a lot of trouble if we're just in "la-la land" or whatever.

Melissa Breau: Thinking about No More Excuses, is there anything else that you think folks should know about the class, or anything else you maybe want to share about who should sign up?

Andrea Harrison: That's a good question. I think, as with anything I do, we spend time talking about dog-specific stuff, of course, but in all of my classes, I always have people who end up realizing that the crux of the issue is not their dog training, but it is their work, or their relationship, or grief over a past loss, or whatever, money troubles. Everything comes up in Andrea Land, everything, and everything is okay in Andrea Land. I don't mind what rabbit holes people open up, because we're always in my classes going to look at social, physical, and emotional stuff. That's always going to be the framework. And of course, because I'm an animal person, I always frame it around horses and dogs and stuff because that's my comfort level, and that's what people want from me, which is great.

But you don't ever have to be afraid of coming into one of my classes. If I can't handle something, I will say, "I can't handle this," or "You need in-person professional help dealing with this thing." But I have had the opportunity, and No More Excuses is a class where I really see that at times. People bring all kinds of stuff, because some people will just have a really, really messy house, and it turns out that that really, really messy house means that they literally don't have a place to train their dog and they don't know how to deal with that. So we can, going back to our earlier conversation, break it down into tiny little steps, and help them see that that's the issue and we can make progress there.

The thing about No More Excuses I keep getting is feedback. Lots of people really, really want to take classes at Gold level with me, and my classes historically sell out. I think in the last seven years I haven't sold four Gold spots. But No More Excuses is one of the classes where being a Bronze is really beneficial too. Lots of Bronze will take the class once, maybe wait two cycles of it, and pop in at Gold or pop in at Silver and get a little more help and then sign up. Like the iteration, everybody, when the class comes up, people who've taken it all jump back on it. The Facebook group's phenomenal. So I think it's a class that gets benefit from being revisited. If it's in your library, join us in the study group and work your way through it. I don't think there's a person who has not benefited from it, quite honestly.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome.

Andrea Harrison: Which is hard for me to say. I don't have a ton of ego. So yeah, that's tough to say, but the feedback's always really positive about it. So it's an exciting class to teach.

Melissa Breau: That's a good thing. I want to switch gears slightly and talk a little bit about the webinar too. Let's start with just generally can you share a little bit about what you'll cover?

Andrea Harrison: One of the things, this was a suggested topic by somebody. Everyone I know I'll always be like, "What do you want to hear me riff on?" Often what happens is a webinar will start and then a class will come out of it, and a blog or two will come out of it, and we get some real momentum around it.

This came up because somebody said, "I went to a trial and it was shitty, and you say it's okay to cry in the car on the way home." Because I do. We often do cry in the bathroom in between classes, whatever. It's okay. It's how you feel. Express it. And they said, "Here I am, three weeks later, and I still just can't get out of my head. I just cannot let go of this terrible, terrible, terrible trial experience."

I said, "What went wrong in the trial?" They described it, and I was like, "If that was a bad trial, oh man, we've got some work to do," because it really, to my ears, didn't sound like a terrible trial. And they were like, "Help me get through these blocks." So I started thinking about when bad stuff happens, how do we recover from it? How do we move forward when these bad things happen? Because again, going back to that optimistic piece, if we aren't optimistic, if we don't have hope, if we don't look forward, if we don't stop making excuses, if we don't do all of these things, we're going to get really stuck. I believe that growth and moving forward is super-important. Ruminating is destructive and distressing and all of that stuff.

So this webinar grew out of that experience. Coming up with the ten tips has been tricky. I have a list of twenty right now, and I'm trying to integrate how they're going to work together and where can I meld and what am I going to leave for part two or in the class or in the blog or whatever I do with it. I've got some of what I'll call my old regulars, but I also have some interesting new ways to try to help people look at it, to help them move forward from when tough stuff happens. Because tough stuff is always going to happen to us.

I think no matter how optimistic we are, no matter how resilient we are, not nice stuff happens. We're going to lose a dog. We're going to have a health issue ourselves. We're going to be financially hit. We're going to have conflict with somebody who we did respect and we don't anymore. All of these things are going happen to us in our world, so how do we grab it and keep moving forward?

That's really the heart of the webinar. I can't wait. I'm sure people are going to bring me some really challenging questions and problems, and you know me — I love the question and answer part. I'm already like, "Oh yeah, I'll get the lecture done, bang, bang, bang. but I can't wait to hear the real stuff people have."

Melissa Breau: From the description, it sounds like … I know you talked about resilience before, but it sounds like that's a little bit on what the webinar is too, this idea of resilience. So I thought it was worth asking how is the concept similar or different? We're talking about human resilience versus the resilience we want in our sports dogs.

Andrea Harrison: Oh, so good. I think that the thing about resilience in our animals is we have to make some assumptions about it. We want them to be able to recover from a loud noise. We want them to be able to come back and do things, like when you look at the mondio and the protection sports, those dogs have a ton of resilience in them.

I think the thing about us as humans is we can be more conscious of the fact that this is a place where we want to connect to resilience. I think we can get so afraid of things that we forget that fear can actually be a friend of ours. And that if we can tap into that understanding that, all the different components that make us up can be a piece of what we're doing. I think that that's actually really an interesting way to look at resilience. How can we pull these things together to make us who we are?

Melissa Breau: Can you give us a sneak peek and share maybe a tip or two from your list? You mentioned twenty tips, Andrea.

Andrea Harrison: I know. I can't guarantee you that these are going to come up, but let me think which ones.

Melissa Breau: You can intentionally give us some of the ones that won't be in the webinar.

Andrea Harrison: I think one of these will be and one of them might be. Two things. You have to come to the webinar and find out if they're both in it or not. But one of the things I think that's going to come up probably, I don't know which one actually, but I think two of the things that I'm really mulling with right now as I pull this together for us all, is to not be afraid to unlearn.

When we go to a trial, when we go to an event, when something difficult happens to us, if we can actually spend some time processing our emotional state around it, what triggered us to react in the way that we did, and look for the opportunity — and I really mean that word, an opportunity to unlearn this thing, this reaction to it — we can take what is a distressing thing and turn it into an opportunity to grow.

By choosing to unlearn — and obviously there's lots more to unlearn; we could do a whole either webinar or podcast on unlearning as a topic — but by seizing the opportunity to unlearn this thing, and then putting the pieces in place to unlearn this thing that made this not go right, then we have an opportunity to move forward from it. I think that whole notion of unlearning is something that is not often discussed as a tool to help us recover from these difficult things that we experience in life.

The second one, and this is again not often talked about in this context, and again could be a webinar or podcast, and I've probably done blogs about it, but I've got, as usual with me, a new spin, but it's around this notion of setting boundaries and when we're going to establish some boundaries for ourselves.

If we do a good job setting our boundaries, we actually will have less opportunity to have these horrible, horrible blocks. I don't mean to make mistakes, because I think mistakes are good, and we learn from mistakes, and all of that stuff I've talked about for so many years, but through the establishment of boundaries, we can actually identify ways that we can set ourselves up to be more successful the next time, so when we look at the travesty, the horrible thing that happened to us, and we can figure out what boundaries got pushed or weren't set in time. An example of that would be, and generally boundaries fall into space, time, money. Those are the big ones, and relationships, meaning people and stuff.

But say our dog doesn't do as well at the trial as we expected. We sit and we think about it, and maybe we saved our money for the trial and we didn't actually go to the fun match. We didn't go to the practice. We didn't take the lesson. So the money got spent in a way that wasn't helpful to our end goal. Or perhaps our kids ended up having rescheduled, because we weren't using our brains and they scheduled stuff, so we did sports night with them, and they went to their friends, and then they had to go shopping for something for school, and then something else happened, and all four nights before the trial were occupied with our kids.

And that happens. And then we didn't have the time to set ourselves up to pack the car the night ahead, and do the mental management stuff that I recommend, and work through all of the pieces that put us in the right state to be successful in the trial.

So our lack of boundaries around our familial obligations and our relationships, or our lack of understanding of meeting them, can have a really negative impact. That's a trap that we can fall into time and time and time again, without that boundary in place to say, "Three nights before a trial, we're not doing anything that's outside of home."

And so I think those two tools alone can actually really help people be more positive. And then of course I've got eighteen other ones I need to figure out to what I'm going to share for. But I think that those two are two that people can grab right now, listening to the podcast, and think, "How am I going to be able to use that?" Because I think you probably can.

Melissa Breau: One final question, because I think we've covered a ton of ground today. If you were to sum up what we've been talking about into one final piece of advice or a takeaway you want people to have, what would you say?

Andrea Harrison: Good question. I think I would say you need to be honest to yourself. If something isn't feeling right, if something isn't working right, it's okay to let it go. Sing that line out of Frozen: "Let it go." Be you. No one else on the planet can be you, so start to embrace that. Even if maybe you don't like yourself that much right now, why aren't you liking yourself that much? What's going wrong, and how can you get to a place where you are more comfortable in your own skin? Because I think if we can reach being comfortable in our own skin, we can stop making excuses. We can start looking forward and we will start to meet the success that we want.

Melissa Breau: I like that. I like that a lot. It's a good place to round things out. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Andrea.

Andrea Harrison: It's always such a pleasure, Melissa. It's so lovely to talk to you. I always enjoy our chats. It's interesting, on the blog or when I'm talking to people, I refer people way back to early, early blogs, and people still are finding podcasts and people are still finding tons of value in them, and that's really neat for me, so thank you. You're an amazing interviewer.

Melissa Breau: Well, thank you for coming on. I love having you as a guest. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Loretta Mueller on what it means to have a responsive dog in the agility ring.

If you haven't already, subscribe to the podcast and iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to 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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