E304: Petra Ford - Confidence for the Obedience Dog

Being able to successfully compete in obedience requires a dog who has a confident understanding of each skill and exercise. In this episode Petra and I do a deep dive, talking through what, why and how to build confidence for training and the ring! 


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 Petra Ford with me here to talk about building confidence for the obedience ring. Hi Petra, welcome back to the podcast.

Petra Ford: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, do you wanna just share a little information about you and your crew? Can you remind listeners who's who?

Petra Ford: Sure. I have Zaden, he just turned 12. He's my old man. He's turning into a very sweet, very funny old guy. So I'm enjoying every minute with him. I have Zeal, he's retired. He is 10 and a half and then I have Zena, she just turned seven. I have no idea where that time went. And he is the dog I am currently competing with in open and utility. And then I have Zesty my wild and crazy youngster–well he's not that young anymore, he'll be three in May. He's training for competition obedience. He will hopefully be ready to start showing a novice in the next couple of months. We shall see. I don't like to push him, so when he's ready he will let me know.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. How exciting. You're just about at that point, right?

Petra Ford: Yes.

Melissa Breau: So I wanted to talk about creating confidence for obedience. So can we start by just saying what we're talking about? Right? So what do we mean when we say confidence? What does that look like?

Petra Ford: When we're talking about obedience, I would like a dog that looks comfortable, looks relaxed, looks happy, and clearly knows what's coming next in each step of the chain. So if you wanna take like one exercise, right? I can, if it's a recall, it's just a straight recall. If I leave my dog and they're looking really worried and nervous, then in my opinion they don't look confident, right? I want a dog to sit there and go, I know what my job is, I know exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm supposed to be sitting here until mom turns around and then when she calls me, I come running in. So that's what I would like to see in my dogs with each piece of every exercise, with every exercise. And that's how I want them to look before I take them in the ring. So there's steps layer upon layer and step upon step, right? The dog can be confident in one piece or in one or two exercises, but maybe not the third exercise or maybe the dog like Zesty right now he understands and you can clearly see it in his face cuz he is happy and he is like, I know what to do with all the pieces of the exercise of the different, so heeling stand for exam recall. But if I start to put them together further into the chain, he starts to look a little concerned.

So that says to me, he's not confident, he doesn't understand why he's going that long and hasn't received a reinforcer. He's not sure that, oh, it's okay, like Zena knows, oh no worries, I just keep on trucking. And sooner or later the reinforcer will come because she understands the process. So I want the dog confident with the pieces and with the exercises and then eventually with the whole chain.

Melissa Breau: Why is that kind of really important for obedience?

Petra Ford: It's important because if you look at yourself, right? So if when I, if I were to learn something new right now and some, and I would just start learning it and I kind of know it, but I don't know it really, really well, and then someone says to me, okay, now perform this task, these people are gonna watch you and we're gonna judge you on how well you do it. Well now I'm gonna get nervous and the nervous is gonna impair my ability to perform. And if I'm not that comfortable with the activity to begin with, I'm gonna really get nervous and I'm gonna be probably very anxious. I know I would be very anxious and I would really struggle and it would not be a good experience at all.

And so when our dogs go in the ring, we're not able to give, we're not giving them reinforcers, like we're not giving them food or toys. They're under a lot of pressure cuz there's pressure from the judge, pressure from the environment, pressure from having to stay focused on tasks that are not at all natural or innate for the dog in any or inherently self-reinforcing for the dogs. So we're gonna make them extremely uncomfortable. They're anxious and insecure and they're just really not gonna have a good experience. And then you won't have a good experience either. So neither one of you will be happy. So confidence I think is super important.

Melissa Breau: If somebody has a dog, sort of like you do with your little guy that they've been working to get ring ready for a while now, right? What's like, how do you kinda judge that? How do you look at the dog that you have now and figure out where their confidence level is kind of currently?

Petra Ford: So I think the biggest piece is being objective, right? Because humans are very emotional and we see things a lot of times through a lens that instead of looking at things just very objectively, right? So I'm, there's one part of me that's very eager to show Zesty cuz I think he's gonna be a super fun dog to show. And there's that goal-oriented piece of me that's like, oh for goodness next you're almost three years old, I'm gonna, you know what, let's get you ready and, and put you in a show. But if I look at things completely objectively, like if I just step back and I'm an observer, or if I videotape myself and look at him, there are certain pieces within the class where I can clearly look down and see that in his face. He's like, I'm not sure. Right? His ears are back a little bit. His body posture, he, he's like turns in on himself a little bit. He's not as bouncy and sparkly and he is a little hesitant. So that says to me that objectively with that piece, he's not confident yet. So therefore I need, in my planet, I wanna keep working on that until I see he's really confident. And anytime I'm objective and say, all right, you know what, he really doesn't know it that well yet and I work on it for a few more weeks or a few more months.

One day he comes out and he's like, I know how to do this. And I'm like, oh, there it is. I'm so glad I waited because you know, if I had pushed him more than likely I would've put him in a situation where he would've been uncomfortable and struggling and anxious and then you have to dig yourself out of that hole.

Whereas I just waited, had a little more patience. And then you can clearly see in a dog's body language that, and it's also how they execute the tasks you ask them to do, right? So if I say to Zesty, if I call him in to me and he comes like slowly, or he hesitates or he doesn't come on the first cue, then it says to me he doesn't understand it well enough. If he's consistently, if every time I call him on a recall, he comes and every time he comes flying into me and every time he nails his front and training, then I can say, okay, in this situation he clearly understands his job, he's happy, he's confident, he does everything really quickly and he does it on my first cue and he does it accurately and correctly.

So in that situation I can say, okay, he understands that. So I think if people are real, if they develop the ability to just be objective, right? Like I, people say all the time they'll be at shows and I hear them talking and they're like, yeah, he does it like 50% of the time in training, so hopefully he'll do it here. Well yeah, he's probably not gonna do it there, right? So I think deep down people really know if they're really and truly honest with themselves, they'll, you know, or if I say, are they doing it a hundred percent of the time correctly? They're like, well no. So they know the answer, right? It's just a matter of being able to separate yourself and be objective and honest about it.

Melissa Breau:So it sounds like a big piece of it is actually, you know, starting to put the pieces together and then being able to kind of video or watch yourself or kinda look back to analyze something. Is that accurate or those kind of accurate takeaways from that?

Petra Ford: Yeah. Yeah.

Melissa Breau: Okay. I can kind of guess the answer to this one kind of based on what we've talked about so far. But you know, is confidence something that needs to be instilled while the dog is fairly young? Or is it something that can kind of be worked on any point in a dog's obedience journey?

Petra Ford: No, it can be worked on at any point because we're teaching them. So some puppies, right? Some dogs genetically you could argue, are more confident than others, but that does not necessarily translate to obedience, right? So in life, Zena is insanely confident. She's downright cocky and obnoxious in life, like very obnoxious and cocky. And people that know nothing about dogs have always said to me like, well she sure is full of herself. I'm like, oh yeah, she is. But in obedience and competition obedience she is not, she's very, very, very error averse. She gets very nervous, she gets very worried, she needs everything to be exactly a certain way. So she is absolutely not confident in that environment because we're not working on something that's genetic, right? We are teaching you something and you need to learn this thing. So it would be no different than you could take a human that's pretty confident in general.

But if you teach them a novel task that's pretty complicated depending on, it doesn't necessarily transfer, right? Because they have to, they're, they have to learn the skill. It depends in large part on how they're taught. Like I've made some mistakes with Zena, I've misread some things in her, right? And so my training isn't, is gonna have a massive influence on her confidence, right? How I teach it to her, how successful she is when she's learning it, or how successful she is. Now when I train her, you know, how often is she, right? How often is she wrong? How thoroughly have I taught it to her? And then have I taught her to be able to generalize it? So every dog I think needs confidence instilled in them when it comes to teaching obedience.

I have had dogs that were like, Zeal was innately not confident at all. He was a train wreck and when it came to command discrimination and signals, he struggled literally until he was eight years old. And at eight years old, I finally figured out a technique that I used to help him with those two activities and it worked. And after that he was super confident with those two exercises. And so that was at eight years old and with a dog that, you know, had so had a long history with these two exercises where they were hard for him and then he was able to become confident. So I think you can do it at any age, not just puppies, all the way through forever.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. It sounds like though it's something that, it's important to think about how much your dog needs it, right? Like just kind of it's worth considering that they may need it for the sport, even if they aren't necessarily normally an unconfident dog or a less confident dog, they probably still need it. In terms of, in terms of obedience in particular, it sounds like… Is that?

Petra Ford: Yes, yes they do. Because see, you know, obedience is, it's not natural, right? They're not doing anything that they were bred to do. I mean, you could argue, okay, the retrieves, but really, you know, Zena loves retrieving, but obedience retrieves not so much. Cuz there are rules, right? You can't chomp the dumbbell, you can't parade around the ring with it, you can't throw it at your mother. She would, and then you have to hold it and then you have to front and the front has to be perfect. So none of that really is working on anything that's natural for them, right? And unlike, so they have all these tasks that are very complex and that are very picky and that are not, you know, instinctual. And then on top of that they have all this pressure placed on them, right? Again, they go into a ring, a novel space, there's distractions, there's a million things going on, they have to ignore everything. The judge is there. So it's very hard. So I do think that every dog needs to have every dog that's gonna do obedience needs to, we need to instill confidence in them.

Melissa Breau: So kind of deep to the heart of the question, right? How do you actually approach building confidence?

Petra Ford: So one of the big things that I'm gonna be doing in this course, and I'm hoping it goes well, is a huge percentage of that is just how we train our dogs. So for example, if we give our dogs very clear information, like clear instructions, right? Then our dogs will say, oh, I understand that. They learn it, they feel really good, we move to the next step. If I'm giving my dog information, that's not clear. Like if I'm not using my markers consistently or clearly, which most people think they are and the majority of them are not, that's been my experience, right? So breaking things down, people don't break things into pieces enough. When things get a little more complex and the dog struggles, a lot of trainers don't read their dog correctly and therefore they don't react appropriately. So all of those things will un, can undermine a dog's confidence, right? So if I'm taking dance lessons, heaven forbid that would be a disaster. But if I were, It's the novel task, Oh that would be terrible. But if I were, I know that if the instructor taught it to me, didn't teach me step by step by step, they would lose me. And then I get very frustrated cuz I'm a very linear learner, right? So the instructor would have, a good instructor would have to say, oh, okay, this is how she learns. So I have to approach it this way. One of my friends is the opposite. They're like, throw me in the middle of the mix and I'll dig my way out. That's the only way I can learn. If you do it one by step by step, I get bored. I, so the instructor has to adjust, right? I need to teach you this way and I need to teach you that way they have to be able to show us exactly what we want and show it to us in pieces, right? If the instructor says, okay, here are the first 10 steps, I'm like, all right, I'm already done. It's too many steps. I can't even remember the first three, right? So then if my instructor tells me for the first two weeks, oh, the way you're doing, doing that step, that's just fine. And then all of a sudden on week three or four, he says, all right, you're not doing that step right. I'd be like, well what do you mean you just clicked it for three weeks? Now you're telling me that's not right. So a huge burden and building our dog's confidence is on us as a trainer, right? It's on how we communicate with them, how we read our dogs, how we set up our training for them, building piece by piece, not working too quickly. So that's very important. And making sure that, and at each step the dog is very confident with that step before moving on.

So we're gonna work a lot on breaking things down, communicating clearly. I'm gonna really hold people accountable more than I usually do. And I think that's gonna be super helpful for them. And then I think they'll see that their dog is picking things up more quickly, that the dog is more clear, that the dog is more confident, they'll be able to read what the dog is saying to them, hold on, I'm not, I'm not following here. They'll be able, I wanted people to learn on their own to be able to read that and adjust accordingly. So there's also a lot of games we'll play with the dogs, but I'm gonna put a lot of emphasis on the handlers really taking responsibility and kind of upping their game to be better coaches for their dogs. Cuz I think that will build a lot of confidence in their dogs.

Melissa Breau: So we've talked a whole bunch about confidence, but what role does kind of resilience play in this picture, right? Are they the same thing? Are they super different things? Kinda, if they are different, how are you differentiating them?

Petra Ford: I don't think they're super different, but I do think they're different. Resilience to me is, you know, if the dog gets stuck, if the dog is faced with a challenge that the dog is able to continue on and push through, right? Versus the dog is faced with a challenge and it can't push through, which can look any number of different ways. I think the dog needs to be confident in a task before I build resilience, resilience into that. So if my dog is not confident and then I challenge them, they're not gonna know the answer and the whole thing's gonna be a mess. If my dog, so for example, if my dog is confident, I understand how to do a novice recall, then I add some challenges to it. And if he gets stuck, like, oh that's weird, somebody behind me threw the dumb, there's a dumbbell behind me. If he'll know the answer, right, he'll know. Okay, the recall means I come straight and go to mom in spite of the dumbbell. If he doesn't understand his job, then the whole thing's just gonna fall apart. So I build confidence first. There is some resilience built into confidence, but I, I would not say they were exactly the same. You could be confident, but as soon as in what you're doing, but if something changes, you might be like, oh, now I'm not so sure. And then you need to be resilient. So I kind of build that after they have confidence. How can having this kind of deeper understanding about confidence and resilience really help the handler support their dog, both in training and then ultimately obviously like kind of in the ring, right? I think the hardest skill for handlers to develop is reading their dog and knowing that, oh my dog is doing X. That means they're not confident or they're a little nervous or oh, my dog is being challenged and now I can see that they can't push through. I think that's very hard because dogs don't speak our language, humans aren't good observers. And then to make it even more difficult, so for example, a dog can yawn, well it could mean the dog's tired, it could mean the dog's stressed out. It could mean that the dog's pretty excited and it realizes that it's going to need to concentrate. So it yawns to bring their arousal level down. So that can be quite challenging, right? Well how do I know? Well my dog yawned and you know, typically we will say, oh my dog's stressed. Well Zeal yawned every single time. He would get really excited when we went to the figure eight cuz he loved the figure eight. And he'd get off, I'm like, we're gonna do the figure eight. He's like, oh, we're gonna do the figure eight. And then he is like, oh boy, but I, I, I have to think for this. And he would yawn every time, every time. And I know he wasn't stressed cuz if the judge was the second the judge said forward, if I didn't instantly haul out of there, he was already going. Cuz he was like so happy and he was always, his ears were up and his tail was wagging and he was prancing around, right? So it's important for people to learn to read their dogs. I would say that the vast majority of people, that's where where they're weak and if they can learn to read their dog and that's something we're really gonna work on in this course, it would help them tremendously because then they can adjust their training.

They can say, oh, when my dog does this, it means that I better so my, every time my dog whines, it's because my dog's confused. That's awesome information, right? Oh, she's whining. All right, well I better change something because I'm not helping my dog out here. So I think reading their dog is really important. Videotape I think helps with that. That's what I love about these online courses. You know, it was so funny, I was at this trial, I'm going on a little tangent, but, and so was a trainer was saying to me like, isn't it hard to teach people to do online or you know, I don't know how that, and I said, I think it's better because what I love about it is people are taping themselves and then they have to edit it.

So they're looking at it and I will start to see pretty early on in the course where they'll self-critique, right? And I don't mean that in a bad way where they'll go, oh whoopsie, I can see I was supposed to do that and I didn't and I was supposed to do this and I could have done that better. That's awesome because I don't live with you. You need to be able to learn how to do this yourself. And if you're developing those skills, that's great. So if you aren't sure, sometimes when you're in the moment there's so much to think about, right? My mechanics, what am I doing marking, getting the food or the toy to the dog. Sometimes when they go back later and look at the video, it's a lot more clear cuz then you can say, oh yeah, my dog didn't look too happy there. Or my dog looked a little nervous there. Or my dog, you know, was really slow when I gave them the down signal. So then that's helpful for them in starting to read their dog and eventually, hopefully they can do it in real time. I don't know if I even answered the question. I feel like I went in a big circle.

Melissa Breau: I think. I think you did. So, right. So thinking about, just like, I think you definitely answered like how understanding those things will give the handler the ability to support their dog in training. I am kind of curious about the carries over to the ring piece. Do you feel like it allows handlers to make smarter decisions about when to pull? Is there like more to it when it comes to the day of a trial?

Petra Ford: Well, what's real, what's really important day of trial is you can adjust your handling. So when I go in the ring with my dog, all I'm doing, like I never know what happened. Literally, I do not know I have someone tape me every time. Cuz I, cuz all I'm thinking about when I'm in there is my job and I read my dog and react. So that's what I tell my, I'm like, read and react. Read and react. So if I walk into the ring and Zena's like, oh boy, then the, I'm like, okay, she's nervous. So then I'll say, it's all right girl. Bounce, bounce. And I can get her back up. And now we're moving to the setup point and all of a sudden she's like, oh man. She's like, I don't love this judge, mom, I, I don't like him. He is a big man. I don't like it. Then I'm like, it's all right, you know, you're, you're fine right here. And she goes, okay, you've got it under control. That's good. So I'm constantly reading her and reacting and if she makes a mistake in the ring, I immediately help her. Like, because I can see on her face, she's like, oh, I don't know. I'm like, it's okay down. Good girl, that's it. Or if she is having a really good day and she's getting a little crazy, I can be like, easy now. That's it. Good girl. Easy. And she's like, okay, okay, I'll hold it together. So that's super important. I do that with all my dogs.

The entire time I'm outside the ring going into the ring and in the ring I'm reading them and adjusting, reading and adjusting. And if I've done things like flunked myself. So one time, for example, Zena went to pick up her article and as she was picking it up, I could see on her face she was like really worried. I don't know why, who knows why it doesn't matter. She, I think she would've had her mouth on it. I'm pretty confident she would've brought it in, but she just looked nervous to me. So I just said, yes, I marked it, I flunked myself. She was super, as soon as I said yes, I could see it on her face.

She's like, oh thank God. And to me that was worth it. And then after that, she's never had an article issue in her life. She just had this weird moment and I read that on her. It didn't matter to me. I didn't need, like there's a million dog shows, right? I didn't care that she didn't Q, she was struggling and I knew that in that second, if I just marked it, she would be relieved. And it, and she was, so there's a, there are many ways you can use reading your dog, you know, in the ring to help them out in real time.

Melissa Breau: So I know you're going into kind of all of this and more in the new class, right? In April, Creating Confidence In Your Obedience Dog. Do you wanna just talk a little more about the class itself, kind of what you're covering, your inspiration maybe for offering it and who should consider taking it?

Petra Ford: My inspiration for offering it, I just got up one day, I, well no, because my inspiration was I see a lot of dogs not competing for sure, but also training and they're not confident. But I also can tell that the handler's not confident, right? So I feel like that, so in my head I was thinking that if the handler was more confident and their communication was better and they could read the dog better, the dog would be more confident. And if the dog's more confident, the handler's more confident and it goes in a circle, right? They're connected. So that was kind of my idea behind the class. And then the more so I just start with, that's what I start with one big vague idea and then it was in the back of my mind this past semester and that's when I started to think that yeah, the handler's a really important part of this. So I'm gonna be focusing on that a lot.

It's easy for me to come up with games and activities that are confidence building for dogs and we are going to do those as well. But I definitely wanna work with the handler too, cuz the handler has to be confident as well. Not just in training, but in, you know, handling their dog, especially when they're trialing. But just, but when training it, this isn't just for people getting ready to go in the ring, right? It's really for anybody, any age handler and any age dog. As long as they're hoping to do obedience, huh?

Melissa Breau: Yes. Obedience. Yes. So what else do you have coming up? What else is on the schedule right now?

Petra Ford: Well, I have my ring entrances ring entrance workshop coming up that I redid completely because the first one was how many years ago? I don't know, four or five. And I, I just changed it because when I thought about it, I realized that my approach is different now because I feel that from the minute you leave your warmup area where you're waiting to go in the ring, heading into the ring and entering the ring, it's just… all it really is is one gigantic pressure exercise, right? It's just pressure. That's all it is. So that's the approach I take with it. Now I just, it's just handling, teaching our dogs to have a positive relationship with the pressure instead of a negative relationship. And I kind of break it all down. So I have the ring entrances coming up and then the other class I have in April is a distance attention class and that's it. I don't know, I know I have other workshops, but I don't know what they are. My students usually know better than me. They're like, oh. I'm like, oh that's on the schedule.

Melissa Breau: That's so funny. I try to keep, I think we kinda covered a lot of ground. Are there any kind of final thoughts or key points that you maybe wanna leave listeners with?

Petra Ford: I think I, yeah, I think I said everything. I, when you show me the list, I thought of how I was gonna wrap it up and I'm like, I've said that already. I missed that. Confidence is important. It can, but we can do, you know, it's not too late. You can work on it with a puppy, you can work on it with a dog any age, you can work on it at any point in their career, right? So I'm working on confidence with Zest who has never been in the ring and I'm still working on confidence with Zena who's been showing, you know, at a high level for a long time. It's something that's ongoing and, and it's the same with me, right? I'm working on my confidence all the time and still trying to be a better trainer. Maybe someday I'll get there.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. All right, well thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Petra. Thanks.

Petra Ford: Thanks for having me as always.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Shade Whitesel to talk about puppies.

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