E282: Loretta Mueller - Creating a More Responsive Dog

Loretta and I talk about what it takes to create the balance needed for a responsive agility dog — including how to rehab things!


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 Loretta Mueller here with me to chat about her class, Agility Drills: Get a Responsive Dog, which is running this term

Hi Loretta, and welcome back to the podcast!

Loretta Mueller: Hi Melissa, thank you for having me back. I'm excited to be here.

Melissa Breau: Excited to chitchat about this class a little bit.

Loretta Mueller: Absolutely.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, do you want remind everybody a little about who you are, your current crew, what you're working on with them, the new addition?

Loretta Mueller: The new addition, all that stuff. Hopefully she doesn't scream during the podcast. I have five Border Collies. I just recently lost my oldest one at 16, Klink. So I now have Gator, who is 15, Even and Lynn, who are 13, Gig, who is 8, and my newest addition, Zee, and she is about 16 weeks old. They're keeping me very busy. Just doing foundations with Zee, and nosework and agility with the other guys. So it's pretty fun.

Melissa Breau: She's awful cute. I've seen all the pictures you share on Facebook.

Loretta Mueller: Yeah, she's good, and she's a lot of dog, a lot of puppy. She's getting better. Every week we're getting more skills. She can be challenging, but I love her dearly. And she's very cute, which is very useful.

Melissa Breau: She's got to redeem herself somehow.

Loretta Mueller: Exactly.

Melissa Breau: I want to talk a little about your class topics, the responsive dog stuff. When we say "responsive dog," what does that look like? What does that mean? What are we talking about when it comes to agility?

Loretta Mueller: I like to think about it like power steering. When I want obstacle focus, I want to be able to push on the gas pedal and get that obstacle focus immediately. If I want handler focus or turning, I want to be able to tap the breaks — not slam on the breaks, but tap the breaks.

I'm looking for the most subtle cue that gives me the desired results and no severe overhandling required. The dog knows exactly what to do, and I, as a handler, can count on them to be predictable, because predictability makes agility fun, if that makes any sense.

Melissa Breau: For both sides of the team.

Loretta Mueller: Exactly.

Melissa Breau: I think you know that I've been working on agility foundations with Levi, and I think, to your point there, it's super-easy to do a ton of focus, especially early in training, on individual obstacles instead of, especially for a newer handler, knowing what the big picture needs to look like and working out all the big picture stuff right from the beginning.

Can you talk a little about how you try and create that balance as you're working with a dog that's new to agility to ultimately create a responsive dog, so you don't spend too much time on obstacle focus or too much time on any other individual piece?

Loretta Mueller: I like to work on responsiveness separate, so with jumps and tunnels, just like I do in my class, this allows me to show the dogs the handling, teaches them to go from extension to collection easily, or vice versa, and work on responsiveness away from just the obstacles.

The obstacle training is going to be done separately until I get the obstacle behaviors the way I want them. I don't want to add a lot of handling or sequencing into obstacles, if the final behavior for the specific obstacle is not done, because that just muddies the waters.

Once I get the obstacle trained completely the way I want it, then I will start adding in jumps and tunnels to create the handling situations that they'll see in sequences. I like to mix thing up a lot with my sequences so the dogs really have to pay attention and don't get patterned, and also they start seeing the consistency and the predictability in my handling so it all comes together.

I think it's very important that you separate them, because if you start to add them together too soon, it can create a lot of issues. It can create a lot of stress, frustration, on the dog's part and our parts as well. You just have to build them up slowly and then finally put them together. Once you put them together, if you've done all the foundation for the obstacle and the handling, it goes together pretty darn smooth, but it's just a matter of being patient and separating those two skill sets, if that makes any sense.

Melissa Breau: I think so. Are there specific foundation skills that you work on just for that responsiveness piece?

Loretta Mueller: From the beginning, you mean, as far as a brand new young dog?

Melissa Breau: Yeah.

Loretta Mueller: Yeah, I start when they get home. Recalls versus sending a dog to things. I'm not talking doing obstacles. My puppy, Zee, she knows how to recall. She will go away from me, so it's about on the ground stuff — calling the dog to me, sending them away from me, no equipment is needed. They're just learning to come in and go away. I do this on walks in my back yard, inside the house, wherever, so the dogs really pay attention to what I'm telling them.

And again, being consistent with what I want from the dog when I ask the specific thing: would I like you to go into handler focus or obstacle focus. Consistency is the key. The more consistent you are, the more consistent your dog will be. We always say that to ourselves, "I'm going to be super-consistent," but we have a tendency not to do that. We'll let them get away with kind of getting to us and going away, or things like that.

So we want to make sure even from the beginning, when they're puppies, or you've just started a young dog or an older dog in agility, you want things to be very clear so they know, "I need to come in to my handler," or "I need to go away from my handler."

That's agility in a nutshell. Are you either an obstacle focus or a handler focus, and if they can do that immediately and that's all they've learned, that really prevents a lot of these different behaviors that get you into this class in the first place — the shopping and the lack of responsiveness, just taking a line, and not paying attention to the handler, those types of things.

Melissa Breau: You touched on the importance of being consistent. Can you talk a little bit more on the role the handler plays in that picture? What kinds of skills does the handler need to have so that we can do our job as part of the team?

Loretta Mueller: Teaching the obstacles is the easy part. People are like, "I have to teach the weaves, and I have to teach the A-frame, and the dog will walk," etcetera, etcetera. But in reality, getting from Point A to Point B is the tough part. The handling in between the obstacles — there are so many factors that come into play, so really understanding what your body is telling the dog to do is very important.

Dogs don't always see handling the way we do, because we're two different creatures, so I prefer to adapt to their instinctive nature, as opposed to try to get them to adapt to mine. Obviously we have things where they just have to do certain things, but I try to use a language that's going to be with their instinct.

It really can depend on your handling system, whether it's motion based or verbal based, but regardless of that, you are the director, you show the dog the next line, and how you show it will be based on whatever training you've done. Being consistent with the cues you use, working on knowing how you show obstacle focus versus handler focus is extremely important for you to be able to be the handler your dog needs you to be.

And so understanding when I run forward, I'm cuing this, when I decelerate I'm cuing this, or if I'm pointing this way up to the sky, down to the floor, to the jump, away from the jump, all those kinds of things, It's really important for you to get that consistent so that you can give that clear communication to your dog. I think that that's a big piece.

We're dealing with that in the class currently. We're on Week 2, and we're starting to see some of the weaknesses in the teams, and a lot of it can be contributed back to a person meaning to cue one thing, but in reality their body is cuing something else. So you really want to work on your consistency and knowing exactly what you're communicating with your dog.

Melissa Breau: We've been talking a lot about dogs who are newer to agility. But what about those dogs who have been training, maybe competing, and they've got some of the problems that pop up. The dog has been off course, they're blowing off their handler, they're doing other things. Can that really be rehabbed, and if so, how do you approach it?

Loretta Mueller: It's really going to depend on why the dog is going off course. Is it handling, is it a communication error, or is there stress involved, there is always that possibility as well. You have to figure out the why first. Once you have the why, then we can address the cause and hopefully deal with the behavior. Many times it is handler error or just handler lack of consistency.

An example of that would be let's say they just assume a tunnel. What I mean by that is you're handing a course and you throw your arm out towards the tunnel and your dog takes it. In theory, that's not a consistent cue, because you threw your arm out there. You weren't deliberate and methodical and you didn't say "tunnel," maybe. That's where the start of tunnel sucking begins. One has to always remember tunnel suckers were not born. They are created. There is something that's causing it, and yes, it can be rehabbed, but you must get to the root of the cause of the issue first.

If you assume a tunnel or if your dog is really stressed in the ring, and tunnels or A-frames are a calming factor, it's fun or it releases stress for them, they're going to be sucked to that specific obstacle. And if you don't deal with the stress, you're not going to end up fixing the problem. So it's really going to depend on whether it's a skill situation or an emotional situation.

Melissa Breau: Expand on that a little bit more. What are some of the reasons that a dog might start going, "My handler is optional" when they're in the middle of a run?

Loretta Mueller: Or at the beginning. Whatever. Confidence is a big one. You'll see this a lot with younger dogs, where they're like, "I really like this game. This is fun. I recognize patterns in handling, I'm understanding what my handler wants me to do." And then they think they know where they're going.

People say that's a bad thing. It's not necessarily a bad thing. It means you've created a confident dog with a healthy ego, which is great. We don't want to take that away from them, but what we want to do is say, "This is where you think you're going. What if I change the handling this way? Are you acknowledging it? Are you noticing it? Are you being responsive?" That's what a lot of these drills do. They make these dogs go, "I don't know everything."

But the big part of it is the dogs never lose confidence because they get reinforced continuously through these short drills where they make choices based on whatever their handler is doing and they get reinforcement, so it's like a game to them. They're like, "What are we going to do next?" and that's the goal.

You don't want to get rid of that confidence, you don't want to correct when they're doing stuff like that. You just want to say, "You really, really want that tunnel. Here's how you get that tunnel. Now I'm gong to show you a different way, and let's see if you acknowledge it." That's what we're doing in the class. That can be something where the dog is like, "I don't need you. I know what I'm doing."

Again, you've also got stress. The owner isn't able to help the dog with stress, so the dog chooses another option, like I said, taking tunnels. It can calm them and get rid of stress. The dog has to learn how to trust in the human to help them with their stress. The human has to learn how to help the dog with stress. So again, the dog is not necessarily blowing them off. They're just looking for a way to release that stress and get rid of the icky feelings that they have.

You've also got chronic late commands. The dog just makes up the course because they don't know what the handler wants. Again, I don't feel that's blowing them off. I just feel like the dog is like, "You don't know where you're going, and so I'm going to help." Okay, fine. So again we work on timing to get those late commands in a better-timed situation, so the dog can have information.

You've got the situation where the dog is more rewarded by doing the equipment than by anything else. There's no other high-value reward. That's tricky because there's nothing more rewarding than taking stuff. If the dog is just running amuck, they're still having fun, and sometimes we have to figure out a reinforcement schedule or a reinforcement strategy, if we have a dog that's more rewarded by doing the equipment than by anything else. Dog is frustrated, again just trying to figure things out, so they just shop, maybe they're hoping to pick up the right obstacle, those types of things.

People say, "My dog is blowing me off." I hear that a lot. That's a way to describe it, I guess, but for me, it's the dog telling us, "I don't know what's going on," or "I'm unsure," or "There's a higher value situation somewhere here." Let's figure out what it is, so then we can address it and we don't have those types of behaviors.

Melissa Breau: Let's say somebody has worked on it, this was a problem for them, they're at the point where they would really like to start getting back in the ring. Is there a way, or how do you tell when you've worked on this stuff, and the dog skill stuff has rehabbed enough, or is strong enough, to get back in the ring? How do you know when the dog is ready to go back at it, and you can expect a different result?

Loretta Mueller: Again, depends on if it's a skill issue or stress issue. Normally I tell people to go back to trialing when they are consistently having no issues with responsiveness at home and two other places. Why I picked two, I don't know. It's easy.

It doesn't mean you have to go to two agility facilities, but if your dog can do the things you need them to do on jumps and tunnels in another person's back yard or wherever, at a park, wherever you can take your dog your dog to get them in a different place, you want to generalize it and make sure you're getting that response and it's there.

Once you have that, then you can go to a trial. If you can run FEO — which is For Exhibition Only, it's not for Q — you can bring a reward, depending on the venue, with you, and you can reward some of that responsiveness. But be prepared for some default behaviors to possibly come back, and have a plan for that, whether you re-gather the dog, center them, let them continue on, or whatever you need to do for the dog, specifically to help them understand that we're not going to do those old behaviors. We're working on this other behavior.

But you have to play by ear. Sometimes you go in, you'll do one day of trialing, and you'll go, "Not ready," if you're getting a lot of shopping or long lines of things like that, and then you have to maybe step back and work on some more responsiveness. But usually, if you can get good responsiveness at home and two other places, the dogs are telling you that they're ready for that next step.

If you have stress, it's a little different. You're looking for a happy, running dog — goal number one. And then, if we can get rid of the stress, the responsive dog will show up and you should have the consistency. Sometimes it an be a little hairy the first few weekends you get back in, but you just have to make sure that you have a plan, so that way, if you do end up with some default behaviors that come back, you can assess those and work forward, or stop, reassess, work a little bit more at home, and then go back at a future date. So the dog is going to give you the information. They're going to tell you whether they're ready or not.

Melissa Breau: I mentioned the class. I know we've talked about it a little bit throughout. Can you share a little more on what you cover specifically in the Agility Drills class?

Loretta Mueller: Absolutely. We talk about how to cue both obstacle and handler focus to properly to ensure your consistency and understanding for both you and the dog. I will give tests every week to see where their dogs' weaknesses are as far as team responsiveness. Is your dog a tunnel sucker, does your dog like to shop long lines, is your dog blowing off your turning cues, do we need to work on timing, things like that.

I'm going to diagnose the issues with the specific dog's responsiveness, because again, it's always really important to know why. We can't attack a training problem without knowing why.

We go over the rules of having good timing to communicate with your dog effectively, how to cue the perfect turn so you give them all the information, how to cue those longer lines. Also talk about how to prevent and cure tunnel sucking. We have a few of those in this class for sure. Sometimes we have to address some behavior stuff like stress, over-arousal, and how that can cause issues.

There's a lot going on in this class. I love it personally. The Golds, they're working their butts off already. They're working really hard and we're already starting to see some changes, and we're identifying and diagnosing what those communication issues are. So it's a pretty fun class. That's a general idea of what we go through in that class.

Melissa Breau: I know one of the things you mention on the syllabus is having students set specific goals for the class. Can you share a little more about that and maybe an example?

Loretta Mueller: I think not just with this class, but with every class, it's really important to focus on what the individual student or team wants out of the class. Are they just looking to work on tunnel issues, off-course shopping, or possibly getting more consistency with timing.

You can't work on everything at once. You can try, but if you try to work on everything, it's going to become way too much, so I really want my students to focus on a few goals that they can test and measure, so they can see where their improvements are happening. It really helps, number one, see if what you're doing is working, and number two, it helps motivate you, because you can see the changes in your dog. That way, if you have a frustrating session or whatever, you have a bad day training, it doesn't set you back mentally, because it can for many of us. We can get very frustrated.

So I want to make sure that they're just focusing on a handful of goals. As examples, better timing for my big-strided dog. We're going to work on the timing specifically needed to cue that individual dog, and then we determine what the lack of timing causes for both the dog and hander in that team, and go from there.

It's really tempting to try to fix all the things in six weeks. You get in there and you have Gold or a Silver or a Bronze, and you just want to fix everything. But reality is you want to start slowly working on the big things, and then as you get them figured out, you check them off the list and you move on to the next most important thing, just so it really helps students zero in on a few key things that they really want to get out of class, so that they don't get frustrated and overwhelmed or just like, "This is never going to work."

If you're trying to work on ten things, that energy that you're putting into class gets spread across those ten things, but if you're going to work on two or three things, you can provide a lot more energy into those two or three things. That's why I have people set specific goals, because I do feel it helps them really think about why they're in class and what they're wanting to get out of it.

Melissa Breau: For folks who are thinking about the class, what skills do they need to qualify or for the class to be relevant for them? Are there any pre-reqs?

Loretta Mueller: I say that they need to be able to sequence five to six obstacles, jumps, and tunnels, and we can work on the rest in class. We'll talk about timing, we'll talk about obstacle versus handler focus, things like that.

And then, if they need other pieces, like working on sends and stuff like that, if they take advantage of the Facebook group, which you absolutely should, because my TA is freaking amazing, she is really awesome and she would love to help you. But if you're Bronze, Silver, or if you're Gold, obviously, I'll be there with you every step of the way. If you're Silver, you can still do some video stuff with me too. But again, take advantage of the Facebook group.

We can work on timing and all those other little things with sends and stuff that maybe you have some holes in your training or whatever. But as long as your dog can do five or six obstacles, jumps, and tunnels, we can make it work. We even have people who are breaking up some of the sequences because they have a smaller area, because it's supposed to be a 60-by-60 area to get the maximum use of the course. But we have people that are breaking it down, and that's working well also. So we can make most things work, unless you're trying to train in a 10-by-10 area. That's going to be a little rough. But otherwise, we can make it work for most people.

Melissa Breau: Anything else you want to share about the class, who should take it, or anything else you're working on?

Loretta Mueller: We have a really fun mix of dogs in this class. We have big-strided dogs of all different breeds, we have some tunnel-sucking dogs, we even have some dogs needing motivation or confidence building. And if you're just looking for some fun drills to do in your back yard, sign up.

If you're wanting to work on specifically timing, even if you think you have a really responsive dog and you just want to work on timing, maybe your dog … you feel like you're not communicating well, it's a good class for that as well because it's not like we're doing very long sequences. It's short sequences and lots of reinforcement.

And when you get in the class, if you haven't taken a class with Fenzi before, you get to see everybody work and all their different videos and feedback. I give second-by-second feedback to people. And it's a great group of people.

Again, all different breeds. We're not just dealing with … I obviously have Border Collies, I have a few of them, but we're not just dealing with Border Collies. We've got all different sizes of dogs and breeds of dogs and it's a fun class. You should try it. Just check it out at Bronze even. Just come see.

Melissa Breau: To round things out, if we were to drill down what we've been talking about today into takeaway or one key piece of information you really want people to understood, what would that be?

Loretta Mueller: If you have a training issue, don't ignore it. Figure out why. Analyze the info your dog is giving to you and develop a plan to fix it. Instead of being frustrated or saying, "My dog is blowing me off," or "My dog is a shopper," instead of labeling your dog as something, figure out why that's happening, and then decide what you want the behaviors to look like, and work towards that.

Develop a plan to fix it, so that way you have consistency, because I don't know about anybody else, but the fun for me of agility is the fact that it is a predictable sport. If I'm running a dog that's unpredictable, that makes it not fun for me, and I'm not into spending my weekend not having fun. My goal is to have fun with a predictable teammate.

So if you have something that is not predictable, don't just go, "Well, that's just how the dog is." Most likely it's not. You can change it. You can fix it and make it better. So that way you've got that teammate that you can look back when you lead out off your start line, you can look back at your teammate and say, "We've got this." To me, that's what agility is all about.

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

Loretta Mueller: Thanks for having me again. I appreciate it. It's fun.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in.

We'll be back next week. Don't miss it! If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast 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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