E292: Denise Fenzi - "Integrating Online and In Person Classes"

Many students take classes both online and in person — so how do you make the most of both options and integrate both into your training?


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 Denise Fenzi here with me to chat about integrating training you do online and what you do in-person.

Hi Denise and welcome back to the podcast.

Denise Fenzi: Hey Melissa, how are you?

Melissa Breau: Good, how are you?

Denise Fenzi: I'm doing very well, thank you.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. So, to start us out, you wanna just remind everybody a little bit about who you are, who your current crew is and what you're working on with them?

Denise Fenzi: Oh, I'm the founder of FDSA–Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. My dogs are Xen and Brito. I lost Lyra several months ago but I don't know if I've been on since then. And Brito is just practicing being a first class bed warmer and he's very good at that actually. And Xen is in training, he's just doing tons of foundation work but hopefully someday we'll do some Mondio ring and he's well on his way to being ready for his first Flyball competition. So that's new for me. Super fun, super exciting and we'll see. But it's been so wet here, which is good. We need the water but it's certainly slowed our training down.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, yeah. So we were chatting online the other day about how you like to think about the role of an online class versus the classes or seminars you do in-person and we thought it'd be kinda interesting to talk about it for the podcast. So here we are. When you think about online versus in-person classes, what type of information or experiences are you looking for with each?

Denise Fenzi: I wanna start by saying I'm actually a huge advocate for both. So while it is true I run an online school and I think some amazing things come from that, in no way do I think that taking online classes is superior and should exclude in-person classes if you have that option. I think the best possible outcome is both the things I like about in-person instruction. When I was teaching obedience, I started running FDSA and I stopped teaching in-person classes after about a year for several reasons. But really one of the big reasons is that my online students were actually progressing a lot more quickly, which is sort of an interesting and weird kind of a thing.

And I think it's because I was able to provide in a lecture format a ton of information which helps people be successful. That's very hard to give in a class environment cuz we don't normally give reading homework in a class environment that's just, that would be unusual. You could for sure. But in a lecture format I was sort of forced to think about how do I wanna teach this skill over several weeks. I found myself taking the time to give the background on how did I get to this place?

How do I basically pursue it? And then laying out a route that I could write down and provide video. And I was finding that my online students were bringing a lot more sophistication to the table. I think maybe because they understood why I was doing what I was doing, there was background for them. I think having video examples that they could review a hundred times was really helpful. Especially cuz on those videos I could say things like, be very careful at this step. Watch how my hand doesn't move from my side. Or you know, little details that you can bring their attention to. And it's not that I can't do that in-person but in-person I'm gonna do it once. So even if they forget it or I gave them so much information in a session that they don't have the things they need in the order, they need them over time. I found that in-person it simply was not as impactful, which is fascinating cuz you would think it would be the reverse. So I think the thing I could give people online was the ability to review what I said many times and I had thought it through in a way that made the information logical and in an order that made sense to people.

And I think that is something online training does exceptionally well is forces the instructor to make sure they're breaking things down. And frankly if I didn't do a good job, my students called me on it. So if I had a gold student in a class who's like, what about this thing, I would suddenly realize my god, I never talked about that. So then you go back and you clear up your lectures right in-person, you may not even know you're jumping steps and I think it's a little bit harder sometimes to fill that in. Another thing that the online world gives you is access to really, really good trainers because you're not limited so anywhere in the world who has the information, who presents it in a way that you like with a method that you like with a style that you like. And that's not necessarily good or bad, it's just what's appropriate for the individual.

When you are in-person, you're generally quite limited to the resources that are available in a small area and that is where online training just shines because you can have the best person from Australia, even if you're in the United States, what in-person classes bring to the table? Probably the biggest thing for me is community. I love the online community at FDSA. It's a rich community and I think it's powerful and it makes people feel connection but there is something about looking at another person, talking to a person face-to-face. And I think many of us going through Covid became exceptionally sensitive to the fact that we actually do need to talk to people to look at them. And there's something so isolating about not having that.

I love the idea that people go to a class once a week or whatever they do and they see familiar faces and they have that personal connection. I support that every which way. And so that's one of my biggest reasons for loving in-person classes. The other thing is if you are going to compete in dog sports in-person, it's really hard to duplicate the presence of other dogs, other handlers, not just pet dogs walking down the street, other people who are focusing their dogs on them, doing things you wanna do in maybe crowded spaces, maybe indoors, maybe you live in a place where you never go indoors for a dog. You know, you just walk your dog down the street, your dog needs to be off leash and in many parts of the world you actually can barely get your dog off leash anywhere legally.

So when you take these training classes, that might be your only option to actually practice your skills off leash. And while there are a million things I can tell you and I can give you to help you duplicate some of these skills, it's hard. Like I can tell you, you can go to shopping centers, you can go to the post office, there's all these things I do laundry mats, places I go, things I do. But there's something relaxing about going to a class and letting somebody else worry about it. You know, your instructor gets to set up this complexity for you and it sort of comes along with the package. I love that. I love that you have another set of eyes on you because sometimes I have wanted to reach through my computer screen and just grab somebody's hand and literally place it and help them by manipulating their body.

And usually I can use words to not have to do that. But there are absolutely times when you just wanna be able to get your hands on them in real time. So like an example would be around shaping, around shaping. I wanna be right there with you, I wanna be clicking and your job is to to time your click to my click. Little things like that, that's where I think the online world or the in-person world is amazing. The in-person world can get you in touch with the trial community near you. So where are your events, how do you enter them? Who is the trial secretary who's gonna be here? That I know like, I mean I think the idea of never having done a dog sport, done all your work online and then going to an event I think would be incredibly overwhelming. Like if somebody told me you're gonna learn how to ride a horse online, you're gonna do all of it online and then you're gonna enter this show and you're just gonna show up. I would be, I, I would be so overwhelmed like well where do you park the trailer? When do you take them out? What, how, what do you do? And I can say those things to a person in words, but I think being guided by a group of other people at the same event is really just infinitely superior to what I can give you in words.

Even somebody saying to me, oh don't enter that show, like in fly ball, after your dog does the event you run at the far end with a toy with your dog. And I've had people say to me: don't enter that event with your dog because the runback is too short and you have a really big dog who's gonna need more space and you're gonna find that uncomfortable. So that's the kind of thing that you really need local knowledge of the conditions in order to be successful. So those are things I think are really hard to duplicate and I think for some people the motivation factor of being told that you will show up at your class at seven o'clock on Thursday night and you're gonna pay for it, whether you show up or not has a driving factor that sometimes the openness of the online world, well you can do it whenever you want. You got 24 hours a day. For some people the freedom is almost the problem and the structure is what keeps them on track and we don't do that, we don't provide that kind of a structure. So those are my, you know, maybe long-winded thoughts on all the pluses and minuses or different things that are brought to the table by different approaches.

Melissa Breau: Thinking about that for those people who don't have classes near them or what have you, is it possible to train hundred percent online? Like is that even an option?

Denise Fenzi: It is. But it's hard and here's some thoughts about that. If you are already experienced in the dog world, you can do it. So if you already understand the dog show scene in your area, you have a sense of the flow of training, you know what a dog show feels like, you know that if you had to, you could drive to one without a dog and just look at it and get a sense of what this event looks like versus that event.

I would be actually pretty comfortable, well I've done this. Okay, so for example, when I brought my dog to get her ORT–never trained in a scent work class, never went to a scent work anything, knew nothing about it and wasn't the least bit concerned. So I entered the event, I knew it would be fine, but that's because I'm in the dog world. So if a person is in the dog world, I think they're going to be fine. Some events would be harder than others depending on what equipment is required, what space is acquired. Some events really do require a helper. You need other people and, and then you're gonna, you know, maybe round up your neighbors but that gets stressful if you don't find that community which does exist by the way to support you.

I will say that when I was finishing my dog's obedience championships, I don't recall ever taking a class with either one of those dogs, even from puppyhood on. I do recall paying to attend drop-in classes and then doing my own thing on the side so I pay for the class even if I don't participate. Cuz I just think that's good manners, I'm still using your space. And then I knew enough people that I was able to just call people up or whatever and get myself hooked up with a group of people who informally practice. So we would be at a park or whatever and run each other through and support each other. Many places around the world do offer rental options where you can go and rent a field, a training building or whatever it is.

It can be quite expensive, at least where I live, you're looking at $20 to $50 an hour to rent a space. So it's not, yeah. Similarly, it's not an insignificant thing. A new facility just opened up down the street that's charging twice that it's $50 for, I think it's $50 for half an hour and a hundred for an hour.

So yeah, and we're in a similar boat where I am so it's almost like it's almost cheaper to rent the space with an instructor. Of course you get less time cuz if there's six dogs in the class for one hour then you're not on it as much. But so we poached a fair bit on public parks and the like and you can get away with some of that but there are risks that come with that. So those are some of the things you can do if you do train online. I do an enormous amount of my training on my own, the vast majority, 95% or more. It's super convenient. I walk out my door people so underestimate how much you can get done in a small space. They think my training area is huge and then they come here and they're like, oh it's tiny and I'm like, you don't need much. So it's very convenient for me it means that in the sport I do as a group, I do fly ball as a group, my time commitment is about 10 hours a week and that is a lot and that's because I drive two hours each way and then I'm there for several hours because of how the community works.

Whereas if I look at my mondioring community, I train almost exclusively on my own and I would say I put in maybe a little over an hour a week of actual training time for the sport because there's no driving. I just, it's just simple and if I do drive somewhere, it's five or 10 minutes away and then I work on my own. So there are, there are different efficiencies.

Melissa Breau: So I know you already talked a fair bit kind of in that first question about what you see, you know, some of the benefits and downsides to online in-person. But if you were to kind of sum up the pros and cons and how do you look at that?

Denise Fenzi: I would say in-person is about in-person community and preparing for competition–the details, not the skills. I would say online is generally better for learning the skills because you can review them in a much more systematic focus with the best instructors that are available out there. Often it's a lot less expensive to do online and I think–time efficiency–you can probably get a little further with your online classes. So those, I think that's kind of roughly how I would split them and you can certainly integrate them to good impact.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. You talked about this a little bit before but are there things that you feel like you have to take an in-person class to really get to train?

Denise Fenzi: No, but your life will be a whole lot easier. I mean it's just, Yeah I know people who have done almost higher level stuff in almost every sport, but they absolutely had like if you wanna do agility you're gonna have to find your way to a facility. Even if you don't have an instructor you're still gonna have to find your way to spaces that are amenable. I know when I did my tracking titles, never took a tracking class, never worked with another person, learned all the material and then went out and found fields. So it's, it is also going to largely depend on what, what events…I think nosework is extremely amenable to online learning. Tracking is extremely amenable to online learning. Obedience is extremely amenable but you still need that preparation for the area. Agility's much harder because how many people have a full agility course you know with the, that would cost you $10,000 just in equipment. Well I don't know, I'm making that number up but it would be a lot of money. Not enough. Yeah, I don't know but it's a lot of money and space and maintenance and moving equipment around. So that would be, I would say, one of the harder sports to do on your own. A lot of the stuff we do online, the behavior work I would say you can go quite far with it. it's true you can't do certain kinds of setups but sometimes if you're strategic and you're using, you know, outside of dog parks and you're going places where like I always tell people go to a busy road, you never see off leash dogs on busy roads cuz they're gonna get killed. So you can kind of go across the street there's, there are some behavior things that I think you can actually do better online cuz I do know there are some behavior classes where the spaces are too small and it's just the nature of the environment cuz I live in the San Francisco Bay area, renting space is super expensive. So if you find a space which is 50 by 50, which is for those of you who need perspective like an AKC obedience ring and you wanna do a reactivity class and you have six dogs in a space, I know dogs that can't get within a hundred feet of another dog, forget 50 by 50. So those kind of situations can also be quite limiting.

So a lot of behavior work can be done online but it's going to take a lot more initiative on your part to figure out where can I go to to be successful. So there's absolutely–Rally–setting up all those signs and courses. I would be the first one to run to a class. I really would. But I would prefer to teach the skills at home on my own and then use the class for practicing. Somebody else set that course up for me. Practicing around other dogs, like there's an efficiency there that I think is really best served in a class environment.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. What about like, or how would you handle it I guess if you don't have a local class that aligns with your training approach? Cause I think we hear that a lot from students, right?

Denise Fenzi: Yeah, this is actually, in my opinion, one of the most difficult things. Here's my first just right off the bat suggestion. If you walk into an environment, the first thing is you gotta be honest with people. If you are taking online classes, I would strongly suggest you make sure that the person teaching the class knows that and does not stumble upon it by accident. It's kinda like when you ask somebody their name, I recommend you do it when you meet them and not three weeks later because eventually it becomes awkward. Like there's a point when you should have asked a long time ago and you didn't. And so now you're kind of like, I don't know if I can admit to this person that I don't know their name, right? It's like really awkward. I think the same is true with classes. If you are taking online classes and you are taking in-person classes, don't wait until a whole lot of time has combined and now we all stumble upon the fact that gee, how come you already have a running contact? Oh well I've taken this class that gets awkward and it didn't need to be awkward.

It would've been very simple if when you walked into the class you start in with I'm so excited to be here, I love agility so much, I'm taking a class online with Megan Foster and I'm learning running contacts and I need to be here, I'm gonna work with the other… Like you choose how you go in, don't make it awkward. Your choice to talk about it is what makes it not awkward. So bring it up like don't let it become a surprise. And I think the more this is, this is a people communication skill. The one thing I always go back to in life is I get older when people feel awkward about conversations they're gonna have about any topic with any person about anything. If you just remember to be honest with the other person, honest doesn't mean judgmental and it doesn't mean putting my opinion on top of yours. Honesty simply means saying in words why you think or feel or choose to do the thing you choose to do. And it should be why you are doing the thing, not why you are not doing their thing.

So just like with the dog, we teach the dog what we want rather than what we don't want. I can go to an instructor and say, oh I'm gonna, I'm learning running contacts with Megan, I've always admired her style and how she gets that done and she works with some dogs similar to me so I went ahead and contacted her and she's giving me some help or I'm taking this class or whatever. That is very different than saying, well I don't like the way you teach running contacts and I've observed your dogs flying off the equipment and that scares me so I'm gonna go take them with this other person online. In both of those circumstances you might be telling the truth. The point is not everything needs to be said and you can focus on the why you're making the choice you make without talking about why they might do things differently. And I think that is that little tweak in communication focusing on why you do what you do as opposed to why you don't do what they do is probably, if you just hold that in your head, it's probably gonna lead you to a conversation that ends up respectful and you put it out there and this is what I'm working on. And so I know you also do some contact stuff in this class if you, if it's alright with you, I'll just skip that and I'll go work, work on my impulse control cuz boy my dog needs some help with that.

And it would be a pretty unusual person who in this day and age with so much online learning would not be aware of online learning doesn't mean they might not get a little bit of a sting or a little bit of a discomfort, but they also generally have enough social skills to know to hide that and work that out on their own time, not give you grief. If a person to your face gives you grief about your choices to do some things differently than you, I'm going to suggest that you are probably going to run into a lot of problems with that person if you are not going to follow them hook, line and sinker. And there are absolutely some people out there like that who have a "my way or the highway" and they're gonna make you feel very uncomfortable and squeezed if you do anything different.

So then now you have to figure out what you wanna do with that. My personal experience is I find those environments sufficiently unpleasant that I usually, instead of fighting all the time to get what I want, I usually find another place to be. Or I do so much on my own that by the time I get back to them I've sort of worn them down. But that's not fun for me. You wanna have fun. So maybe also be looking for instructors who, even if they don't necessarily agree with your choices, respect that you have the right to make those choices. And especially in this day and age versus 10, 15 years ago, I think you're gonna find that I would not be at all surprised if the person said, "Oh I'm in that class with you." Right? If you're talking about an online class, right? That's where we are these days. It's very normal to opt for a degree of online work.

Melissa Breau: Are there, so you mentioned that there are basically, but I was gonna originally ask, are there alternative ways to teach the skills that you need, you know, for in-person stuff, right? Or that you kind of get in those in-person classes without actually taking the in-person class. But maybe you could talk a little more about what those skills are and maybe how you approach them if you don't have a class option available.

Denise Fenzi: One thing is like, if you're on the alumni group, go to the list and bring it up and say this is the thing I'm trying to teach, this is the behavior concern I have. Or this is the, you know, my dog has issues with crowds, my dog has issues with groups of dogs. My dog has issues with strangers wearing hats, calling me in the ring. Ask for people's suggestions cuz people have done some brilliant things over the course of time. It's a, it's a matter of creativity and looking at the world differently. Like if you are not already driving down the street observing every, like you should see me in the car, like honest to God I'm driving along going, I have seen you in the car. Yes, Look at that fully fenced field with grass that's six inches long. You know exactly what I just said. If you do tracking cuz you do it too, right? Like you drive down the street doing exactly the same thing. Or when a store closes and the parking lot is now empty, oh my god I get so excited. Like I see you see a parking lot, I see a training opportunity. You know, you start training your brain that way. And if you're not there yet, if you don't currently see the world as a training opportunity, you would want to go to the alumni and just ask people what have your experiences been?

Because there are so many possibilities. Like when I had a young dog who had some reactivity problems and I started socializing him out of the back of my car and it just worked so unbelievably well because other dogs who walk by don't look in your car. That's just an unusual thing for a dog to do. So there you sit in the back of your car with your hatch open, with your puppy watching the world and nobody watching you and that was, what's that…something is the mother of invention. I've lost it now, you know it. Necessity. Necessity is the mother of invention, right? I feel like I'm getting that wrong anyway. Y'all know what I mean?

Melissa Breau: I think that's right.

Denise Fenzi: Is it? See sometimes you don't, you say it so many times you lose it. I think that's right. Yeah. But basically it forces your creativity and other people may have already been through your problem, your route. And I find the alumni list to be full of people who want to be helpful. So ask, you know, how did you deal with this reactivity thing before your dog had shots? And you know what, you're gonna get a lot of really interesting ideas, throw half of 'em out and that's fine. Like half of 'em are not gonna meet your risk profile. Maybe too risky or not risky enough for you. Well it doesn't matter. Ask and then start sorting and you'll get a few ideas that I never thought about.

I never thought to go to the laundromat to get my dog exposed to tight spaces, right? With people pushing carts and doing weird things and yet here I sit, right? So you ask for help if you're not looking at the world yet that way.

Melissa Breau: Even if you, you know, do have an in-person class with an instructor that you absolutely love, right? Often the way one person kind of teaches a skill is gonna be at least a little bit different from the approach somebody else might take. So when you do kind of get that differing advice from different sources, you know, how do you approach that? How do you integrate it?

Denise Fenzi: Oh my gosh, I think it is the most difficult thing.

I have pretty good verbal skills and I'm pretty good at communicating and I struggle with this one because I don't wanna offend the other person and sometimes it's worse than that. I not only don't wanna offend them, I actually want their opinion, but after I get their opinion, I want to reserve the right to make the final decision. And this is difficult, it's easy if I'm just willing to go right over the top of you because I don't ask for your opinion. I just kinda walk in and say, hey I'm really excited about doing it this way. And I didn't open up a conversation there. I just told you basically I'd be doing it this way. What's more difficult is when I'm looking for somebody, I wanna brainstorm with somebody I respect and I want their input, but I also wanna reserve the right to…

My dog is throwing a bone around, he looks quite cute, but he's loud…

I wanna reserve the right to make the final decision and I find that really difficult to navigate. I wish I could just tell you this is how you do it. I just think it's really difficult and it's probably a little different with each person. I have found that over time I tend to go in on a more assertive side and then back off as opposed to going in on a more collaborative side and then become more assertive. Cause I find it much harder to add boundaries than to remove them. So I'm more likely to go in with a, this is how I wanna do it. And then if I'm not thrilled with something then say, tell me your thoughts. I mean not how would you just tell me your thoughts and then they tell me your thoughts and you say "thanks" and you leave it at that. You don't even have to come to a conclusion. You, you're just, but trying to retain control of your dog's training plan in my opinion,

especially in certain sports is so very important. Especially if you're a woman. I'll just put that out there. I think we struggle with that line between being nice and polite and taking people's input and appreciating them and also holding the line about expectations. And I would fully assume that I have an easier route than many because I come in with a certain amount of authority. People know who I am usually. So I have it easier. I think it's a very difficult road and what I will say is you're gonna learn some skills coming in practice what you're going to say before you say it. And I think it's, it's tough. It's hard to do it well.

Melissa Breau: So if you've kind of chosen to approach or implement advice, you know, from an online instructor in particular, you kind of mentioned that you'd go in upfront and, like, let your in-person instructor know that, you know, kind of take that approach. How do you bring that up? Or do you mention it kind of in a way that's still pretty respectful? Right?

Denise Fenzi: I do it when I first contact a person about taking a class from them, I tell them on the email that this is what I want from this is why I'm approaching you, this is why I wanna participate in your class. This is what I need, these are my parameters, these are my concerns if I have any, is this something you think might work for you? Because often what I'm actually asking for is truly the environment and no instruction at all. So I'm really saying, you know, can I come in and work around the edges? My dog struggles with other dogs or people and I need an opportunity to work on that. Would that be a problem for you? Of course I would pay for the class. Let me know if you have any concerns. So generally people say yes to men. But again, I don't come in as an average person. So I think people are more likely to say yes. But that's, I would approach it kind of roughly the same way anyway. I just recognize that the emotional burden on you is greater if you feel like you're looking up at an authority figure and still trying to hold the line about that you wanna do things this way, you wanna do them maybe because you do live in a place that hasn't really changed their training methods in a super long time. And here you are: Miss progressive, 23 year old female walking in the door. Sure, that you know, you got this plan and you may, well, you may actually really be right on the right track, but you find yourself in that, you know, you're looking at somebody who could be your grandmother and feeling really uncomfortable about the elements of respect. And I, so I feel that I'm not, I don't wanna make light of the challenge. I'm not saying it's just a matter of using the right words. I think it's an enormous challenge. I do think you can work it out and I think a lot of people have worked it out, but it's something that deserves some consideration before you walk in the door.

Melissa Breau: All right. So kind of to round things out, one last question for you, right? So if we were to kind of drill down all this stuff that we've been talking about, about online and in-person and integrating them into like a key takeaway or like one kind of piece of information you really want listeners to understand or like a final thought, what would that be? What do you wanna leave people off?

Denise Fenzi: I would say online is the best place to learn skills and in-person is the best place to apply them so that they'll hold up in a real world setting.

Melissa Breau: Nice condensed, good place to end off.

Denise Fenzi: You know, look at me, get it down to as few words as I can.

Denise Fenzi: Excellent.

Melissa Breau: Alright, well thank you so much for coming back on the podcast. Think this was excellent stuff. Thank you so much all, 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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