E303: Deb Jones, PhD - Grief, Focus, and Negative Reinforcement

Deb and I chat about her latest book, currently running workshop, and upcoming webinar... and yes, it really is possible to build better focus in just 7 days.


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 trending methods. Today I have Deb Jones here with me to talk about, well, a little bit of everything. Hi Deb! Welcome back to the podcast.

Deb Jones: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me back.

Melissa Breau: So you've got a lot going on right now, but to start us out, do you wanna just remind everybody a little bit about who you are and who your current furry crew is?

Deb Jones: Sure. I've been teaching at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy now for almost the entire 10 years it's been in existence. I came in on the second term and started teaching a puppy class and I've been here ever since. They can't get rid of me now, but I'm here. It's just, it just fits me.

Melissa Breau: No, I hope not!

Deb Jones: And I've been training for about 30 years. I've been dog training, I have my PhD in social and behavioral psychology and when I was in graduate school was when I really started to get into professional dog training as well. It wasn't my intention with my career, but it came along. I've been a college professor, I retired for five years now. I was a full-time college professor for 20 years, happily retired now, but apparently not good with time management cuz I'm busier now than I've ever been. I'm really busy. I have two dogs, Star and Wizard. Star is going to be 12 and she's a Border Collie. Hard to believe. We still call her baby Star and she is the smartest dog I have ever, ever dealt with. She's, she's brilliant. And then we have Wizard, who is going to be two in a couple of days. He is my koolie, my first koolie, and he is a very, very sweet dog. Just, just a lovely, lovely dog and we're having a lot of fun. And then I live, when I'm in Ohio, I'm in North Carolina part-time when I'm back in Ohio. I live with two shelties, Tigger and Pixel who belong to Judy Keller, who I trained with for the last 20 some years as well. So that's us.

Melissa Breau: Okay, Awesome. So I think it makes sense to kind of start with the biggest news. You recently released your new book, When The Loss Is Deep, A Companion Animal Grief Journal, do you wanna just share a little bit about it?

Deb Jones: Sure. I, it was, I always say it's sort of a surprise book. I didn't plan to write it. I didn't know I was going to write it until I found myself in the middle of it. And it just practically wrote itself. I would say that it's not really, it's a self-help book though. It's not really an advice book. I'm not giving you a lot of advice about grief. I'm talking about grief because I've been through a lot of losses and I am kind of gently nudging people in the direction of processing the things that are important to you and the things that have happened to you as a way of dealing with it.

I'm a writer, so when I'm stressed, I write and I find that for me that is an incredibly helpful thing to get stuff outta my head and down on paper. And it makes, sometimes I don't understand what, what I'm feeling until I write it down and then I'm like, oh, that, that's easier to deal with now. And so I wanted to give something like that, put something like that out. So this book is very, very different from other books that I've written about dog training in the past. It applies to animals still, it applies to all species of animals. I tried to keep it very general in terms of companion animals because I know we form very strong attachments to any animal that we spend much time with.

And everybody I know spends a lot of time with animals. And because of that, we know that we're going to lose those animals. They're going to die before us most likely. And so then we have to find a way to deal with those losses and keep moving ahead with our lives. So what led you to write it? I think the latest kind of the last thing was the loss of my Border Collie Zen.

And a lot of people knew Zen, either in person or from videos or from shows when he was young and he was out and about trialing a lot. And Zen was a pretty incredible dog in many ways. We all say, we have, you know, that one special dog and I've had a lot of dogs and lost a lot of dogs. But Zen truly was that one special dog.

And so I kind of knew for the past few years because he had heart issues and, and we dealt with those for a long time. I knew I was gonna lose him, but I still, you can't prepare for how that is. And having Zen gone out of my life was a huge loss. I have had other dogs that have also had a strong impact on me, one that I had to euthanize for behavioral issues, which is horrific if anybody ever has to go through that. And the other dog that he actually attacked had to be euthanized. And so I've lost a lot of dogs. I've lost a lot of old dogs to old age. And even my cat last year, I always said, no more cats.

I'm not a cat person. But that cat got under my skin somehow a little bit. So that's hard. And knowing that I had so many of these losses and everybody I know, especially as we're all getting older, we're, we're losing these animals. And it's hard. About 10 years ago my son died. And so first I would say we never make comparisons between human and animal loss because you absolutely cannot do that.

Loss is loss and pain is pain. But I think going through that I learned a lot about how I was gonna be able to go on and live and what was gonna help me and what was not going to help me moving forward in life. And I stumbled into a program, a writing program shortly after Chris died. And it helped me a lot and it put me in touch with a lot of people who, who were in similar situations to what I was. So I started thinking about this idea that I've seen it applied to human grief and I've seen it work very, very well to, to have kind of a journal type set up. And I thought that the same thing should be able to apply to our loss of animals. And that setting up some sort of structured writing guidelines would give people a way to work through the worst of the pain that they're feeling. So that was a lot.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. So you mentioned kind of the journaling thing. Can you just share a little more about that format, kind of how it works, how it's meant to be used?

Deb Jones: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I have the journal set up as I have 14 prompts, which are different basic topics or issues. And for each prompt I say a little bit about it, but I don't say a lot. I try to keep myself out of it a little bit because this is not about my experience or me giving you advice, but I'm telling you a little bit about, you know, why I'm thinking about this prompt. And they might be, there's things as mundane as food, you know, and, and the effect that changing feeding patterns and schedules or certain kinds of food now has an effect on us as we go forward. Times of day that certain times of day we might have done things with this, with this animal that's now gone and that's painful. So I have the prompt set up and then for each prompt some reflection questions. So for each prompt I came up with about five or six fairly open-ended questions for people.

And the whole idea is to give you, give people sort of some gentle nudging and guidance and structure as to how to start pulling apart what you're feeling and getting that on paper, getting the ideas out a little bit and getting some of those feelings out. It can be really overwhelming when you're, when you're feeling a lot of heavy loss and it can seem like there's no way to deal with it, there's no way to manage it, it's just way too much. And so basically as in good dog training, dealing with grief I think is a lot about splitting it down into little manageable pieces and addressing a little bit at a time. So I've set it up so you could, you could take a lot of time and do one prompt, you know,mand spend several days on it. Or you might be that person who wants to work through the whole thing really quickly and maybe even come back to it later or skip around. So I set up in an order that made sense to me cuz I'm all about steps and logic in order, but that doesn't, in this case, one of the few times I'll ever say this order doesn't matter.

Usually I'm telling people they have to follow my order cuz it's a dog training thing. But here you can jump around and you can skip stuff, especially if it's painful or unpleasant to deal with it right now. And maybe in a week or a month or a year, it will, it'll be better and you'll be able to address it and think about it.

So I set it up as ways to just try to kind of keep people on track, give all these ideas and thoughts and feelings, some, some real thoughtful consideration because we do know that ignoring things or trying to bury them, that's always gonna come back in and haunt you. So dealing with it, but dealing with things in a way that isn't too much, that isn't flooding as opposed to, you know, bit by bit. So that's the journal set up. And that means because it's set up that way, you are, you as the reader are doing the majority of the work here writing it. That's up to you, you know, I've set the stage for it and then I'm hoping people take it from there.

Melissa Breau: For those of us, you know, with a friend or a family member who maybe have recently lost a pet, do you have any advice for how to offer comfort things to do or not to do?

Deb Jones: So many things not to do, but I'll try to stick with the things to do because that's how we try to approach it. First of all, I'm, that's what I'm really hoping that this book will, will be is something that you can give to people when you want to support them and you want to help them and you know they're in pain and this is something beyond the, you know, condolences that you can give them that will actually be of significant help to them at some point they might not even be able to use it in the beginning, but hopefully somewhere down the line I would say things to do, let people talk about who they've lost and if you knew them, share your memories of them. People often say they don't wanna bring up when somebody's gone because it makes the person sad. It's like, no, it really makes us happy to talk about them. I can't see a case, you know, but you, you can be sensitive to that person. Maybe it is too much at the moment. I know I wanna talk about all the people and animals I've lost with other people who knew them and who cared about them. Okay. The other thing is we're there for support. Having support is great. Somebody trying to fix your problems is definitely not good.

Don't try to push somebody to do things they're not ready for. Don't try to tell them not to be sad. Let them be sad. Sit with them while they're sad. The concept in human grief is something they call holding space, which means simply being with the person in their emotions. And it's often very, very uncomfortable. We wanna do something to fix it and to make it better.

That's kind of our naturally nurturing thing to do. But that actually is the wrong thing to do in most cases. It's better to just support the person to be there for them, not to judge them or tell them how their grief ought to go, but to be empathetic to what they're going through at any given time. Maybe we think they should be moving through it faster.

That doesn't mean they should or that they can. And having somebody who gets that I think is very important. The other thing I would say is to be very thoughtful and tread very lightly when it comes to spiritual beliefs because what makes you feel better may not make that person feel better. So if you're not sure about their belief system, kind of stay out of that realm and stick to more practical discussions of things.

So there's a lot that we can do to help each other, and to be supportive of each other. But there's a lot of things that actually are just very, very painful. Everybody who's lost an animal can tell you, somebody probably said to them, well it's just a dog or it's just a cat. And we know that it is very, very much beyond that. For those of us that really care about them, you know, and live with them and the idea that they're replaceable or that you should have this short time of grief and then you're done. None of those things are helpful. So kind of acknowledging what the person is going through and being willing to talk to them and being willing to be there for them without telling them how to behave or how to process.

Melissa Breau: I think that's really important. So I'm super glad the book is now kind of available as a resource for those who need it. I wanna kind of change gears though and talk about some of the other things you've got coming up cuz you've got some fun stuff going on too. So first, on March 5th, you're gonna offer your FDSA workshop Seven Days to Better Focus. Starting with that title, can we really get better focus from our dogs after just seven days of work?

Deb Jones: Yes. Short answer, short answer, definitely you can get better focus in seven days. I wouldn't lie in the title. I think that it's very, very true. It's not the amount of time that you train, it's doing it correctly.

It's doing the right thing and doing it effectively and having the right mechanics. Less is often more in training. I say this all the time, just because you've put in weeks or months or years, that doesn't mean you have any focus with your dog unless you're doing the right things at the right time. And as with everything that I train, we break it down into teeny tiny little bits and we get those right. And once you do that and I've got, you know, a week's worth of exercises, you can go really far really fast.

Melissa Breau: So what's the secret here?

Deb Jones: The secret, if I had a secret, I could sell it for a lot of money. I would love it if I could give you a secret. But when I try to describe what it is that, that I do with focus that seems to work, it's always hard for me. But I'd say tiny perfection, little tiny things just right, that's the secret. Not getting the big picture, but doing each little interaction with your dog in just the right way. There's a consistency to the mechanics of training. There's, there's setting up our dogs for success in a session and if we can get that right, we can see great change. The thing I tell people in terms of a secret, I guess, but as a secret they don't wanna know, is that it's all on the trainer's focus. Lack of focus is not your dog's problem, it's you. And so that sounds like I'm blaming the trainers and I wouldn't say it's blame, but it is definitely responsibility in the right place.

It's up to me to develop focus in my dog. Some dogs will come to me much easier to develop, focus. Other dogs will take a lot more effort to develop focus. I'm not saying it's always gonna be easy, but I'm saying that it is my job. And so I would say to people, if you're really ready to take that responsibility, then you're gonna go very, very far, very quickly. If you wanna blame your dog for lack of focus, you're probably not ever gonna make the progress that you could. Right. So that's my secret is it's you, it's you, not them. But I keep, I hold myself to that standard too.

Melissa Breau: So Can you share just a little more about kind of what's in the workshop and maybe who might wanna consider sending up?

Deb Jones: Yeah, the workshop is, I think I have six specific exercises that build on each other. So starting at the beginning as order always matters to me day to day to day, and any dog, any age, any level. So it doesn't matter how much training your dog has had or not had, you can, you can jump into this workshop and I think it's, it's gonna be a really good way for you to, for people to get a feel for how I approach the topic and the subject. As I said, setting the dog up for success, making focus really, really easy for them. Some of these exercises almost look too easy until you start to do them and then you realize there's a lot more under the surface.

There's a lot more to the mechanics of it in order to make them effective. There's daily homework to work on, but you can, if you can work five minutes twice a day, that's more than enough to make some progress this week to make some really good progress. This week I would say that the way I think about it and I'm stealing this and paraphrasing it, I'm stealing it from Shade Whitesel and paraphrasing it a little bit, is that you add the work to the focus, not the focus to the work. So we need this foundation of focus for under the surface then we can either add work or put it back in, but we're separating focus from work and that's definitely the case when we, when we start with the workshop. And I think it's a good place to see what are the strip down focus exercises.

Melissa Breau: You've got your focus class coming up too on the calendar for April. How does the workshop kind of compare to what's in the class? The workshop I think is a little, is more of a sampler for what focus is all about. Okay. The class of course being six weeks as opposed to one week class really expands on the topics.

It's a much deeper dive into in, into the trainer education as well as working with the dog. So it's a pretty deep concept class. And I have lectures and I have lots of thought type questions for people to consider when they're going into the focus class because again, it's more about changing the trainer once we get the person on the right track.

It's kind of magical how the dog just follows along. So the class allows me to expand on that a lot. Workshops you have like an hour-ish, you know, lecture that you can put in. Whereas with class we've got lots and lots of time to do that. So I think we're able to add a lot more challenges. We go along with the class itself.

We're able to get into adding the work back into the focus and combining those things, which is where everybody wants to be, is they want to combine the work and the focus. They've got the work, they don't necessarily have the focus and so we can't just put it back in, we can't just put it on top. We have to slip it underneath the work and get it in there and the class allows us a good opportunity to do that.

But if you're not sure, you know, how, how this kind of training is going to work for you and your dog, then try the workshop, take a look at that and see if that looks like and approach that you'd be comfortable with and then go from there.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, and I mean for the price of the workshops they, they feel like a non no no-brainer sometimes. So there's one more thing I kinda wanna talk about before I let you go. So you're also doing, cuz in case you know there wasn't enough on your plate webinar on March 16th on negative reinforcement. Hey you, you disclosed that right up front. So nobody should be surprised. So I know we talked about kind of off the air the other day a little bit about this topic, but why negative reinforcement? Why are you doing webinar on this topic?

Deb Jones: Yeah, first of all, yeah, my time management was so bad on all these things coming together at the same time, but negative reinforcement, I, it fascinates me. It's a topic that, that is really interesting to me and I think it's very misunderstood in the world of dog trainers and in the application of dog training, a lot of trainers I don't think would recognize it if it was right in front. And they don't, they don't recognize it when it's happening right in front of them cuz they're not aware truly of what it is. We talk all the time about positive reinforcement and the power of positive reinforcement, which I strongly believe in. But if we ignore the fact that negative reinforcement is also happening, then we're going to run into all kinds of training issues that we don't know how to fix. So I think it gets, first of all just the name of it negative, that gives it a bad wrap right off the, the the bat. Cuz if you use, you know, common vocabulary, you're thinking it's a very bad thing. There's just not much about it out there that's unbiased for trainers.

There's a lot of people who have bias against it and they don't even know why or they've seen it done poorly or they've seen it used only in specific circumstances. And I'd have to say also the reason I wanted to do this underlying everything else is I sort of miss the sciencey parts of teaching, learning and behavior. I did that for what, 20 years.

And so it was kinda nice to go back to a topic that I haven't lectured on or talked about for a long time, but yet now marry it into the application in what we do day-to-day with our, in the way that we change their behavior. So all of this came up and my idea for doing this webinars, it's been a little while and then all of a sudden negative reinforcement sort of became a thing that was trending and people were talking about it, but my idea for working on it came before that.

Melissa Breau: So let's operationalize it really quick. What is negative reinforcement? O

Deb Jones: Okay, I can give you some very simple ways to think about it, but I would say just that, to go back just a step, most people are aware of the four quadrant model of learning. Okay? So you have positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, negative punishment. That's a model that a lot of dog trainers know about and use. But that's really not all there is to learning by a long shot. It's much bigger than that. But we use negative reinforcement. So negative means taking something away when we're using it in these terms, removing something. Okay. And reinforcement means to increase behavior.

Okay. So taking something away in order to increase behavior, which always kinda sounds odd when you say it like that. Taking either way to increase behavior. So the way that I think of it and the way that makes sense to me is the other term we use for it, which is escape or avoidance learning. So escape or avoid, if I can get away from something that's unpleasant or I can avoid it from happening to me that's negative reinforcement at work.

Melissa Breau: Okay. So you mentioned in there, and I know we talked about the fact that this is a concept that a lot of trainers kind of misunderstand or maybe has some misconceptions about anything in particular you wanna debunk?

Deb Jones: Well the fact that I think one of the problems is that, that people confuse it with punishment and it's not punishment. Punishment is meant to decrease behavior. So negative reinforcement is meant to do the opposite of that. It's meant to increase behavior. The confusion comes in there because there is an aversive element in negative reinforcement and I understand why there's confusion. This is always the one on exams that all my students have had a lot of trouble with and, and didn't do well with. So I understand why it's an issue, but I think in dog training, especially when we're trying to focus on the positives and losing, getting away from aversives that sometimes trainers don't see it when it's actually happening. The denial that it exists in their training, even though it's naturally present a lot of the times. So it's like gravity or oxygen, it's there, it's happening. Just because you don't see it doesn't mean it's not having a strong effect.

And I think that's where we're getting into trouble, that we're, we're ignoring it as if, if I don't think about it, it doesn't exist. And also that it's very powerful and that if we harnessed it properly and carefully and thoughtfully and ethically, there's a lot that we could do with it. And I talk about all of that in my webinar. I go into the ethics of it in great detail because it's something we do wanna be very careful about cuz there is an aversive element to it.

Melissa Breau: Can you share maybe an example of when you might choose to use negative reinforcement, either in your own training or like for a skill or behavior you maybe find it useful?

Deb Jones: For Sure. I think that it's there whether I'm choosing to use it or not in a lot of situations just because of the way of training. So when I'm working with fear or reactivity or avoidance of something like imagine a dog that avoids agility, a specific agility obstacle, often the teeter, the weaves, those are the two common ones. In any of those cases, there's going to be negative reinforcement happening. Okay? Again, whether I know it or not. So if I'm aware of it, I can harness that and use it to my benefit rather than it making the fear of the activity or the avoidance worse, which is what it will do if left to its own devices. Negative reinforcement has a life of its own and it will go down that path of making you more fearful, more avoidant, more defensive and reactive unless we can find a way to help our, our learners deal with it. So I have actually two protocols that I'm gonna talk about in the webinar and that I work with. One is what I call the approach avoidance protocol where there's that thing, whatever triggers you, right? And my learner is allowed to approach and avoid and that's it. I don't add any other reinforcement, I don't do anything else, but I give them the freedom of choice. You can go check this thing out and whenever you want, you can back away from this thing. We get into trouble when we try to force proximity and they're not ready for it. And, distance is a big thing and negative reinforcement, and I'll talk about distance a lot as well.

So you can approach it, but you are also allowed to back away from it because if we don't let you do that, we are indeed making the reactions much, much worse. And we don't need anything else for that to work. If we do that over time, that in itself is often enough to make a big change. Okay? Like an example I can give you is my dog Star who doesn't like new people necessarily. And what she really doesn't like is new people who try to be her friend. Okay? So she wants to approach people though, which confuses them, but what she wants to do is investigate, okay. And then she wants to be able to back off and she doesn't want you to interact with her. And once people realize that and she gets a few chances to approach and back off, then she's like, you're fine and you're her friend for life and that's no issue. But if she didn't have the opportunity to put the distance there when she wanted to and to avoid, then we'd have a worse problem and then, then she'd become defensive. And that's what we don't want.

Okay. The other protocol I use is a double reinforcement protocol. So you're using both negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement. And so then this is really powerful, this can, this can work great that they're allowed to approach whatever back away. And I reinforce them for moving away from whatever the thing is. I can reinforce them for moving towards it, I can reinforce them for moving away from it. So it gives them a feeling that, more confident feeling and they're more successful. I don't withhold reinforcement because you move away, in fact, just the opposite. I reinforce you because you made a good choice and you decided something was too much for you and you moved away from it. And I use this in, in a number of situations where I decide to feed for my positive reinforcement, I can feed close to the thing, the trigger or away from it or both. And those, those all have their moments and that can make it a pretty powerful thing to do. But still, my learner has to have the freedom to move away from the thing. And I think that's where we get into trouble when we don't give them that freedom and that distance. Right? So those are a couple of things and I will explore those more in the webinar for sure.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Any final thoughts or key points you wanna leave listeners with on any of the things we talked about today?

Deb Jones: Can I start a totally new topic here?

Melissa Breau: If you wanna…

Deb Jones: And I'll, but I'll keep it, I'll keep it very brief because there's been a lot going on in the dog training world yesterday or yesterday these days with arguments about different ways to train.

And that's been going on for the 30 years that I've been training dogs. I mean there's just, I call 'em the trainer wars now, but they've been going on. And if I could just give people some advice, it would be focus on your own work. Do the very best you can with the dogs that are in front of you. Don't waste your time criticizing what somebody else is doing.

Show us how you do it better. And if you do your own work and you show people it'll speak for itself, also be open to learning new things you never know. Even if they clash with something that you believe or you think is true right now, you can still learn things and things and you can learn different things. So don't think that your viewpoint is the only way in dog training,

I have learned so much and I've changed so drastically. My approach is to training. Even over the last 10 years I've been at FDSA, and I think the time that I stop changing and that I start caring more about what other people do than what I do is, is I'm gonna be in trouble. So then I'm probably time to retire for good when I do that.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Okay. All right. Good place to kinda leave things. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast, Deb.

Deb Jones: Oh, I enjoyed it. Thank you so much, Melissa.

Melissa Breau: Thank you. As always, it's a joy to chat. So thank you to you and thank you to 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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