E329: Amy Cook, PhD - "Thresholds and Decision Making with a Reactive Dog"

What is a threshold? Does it matter? Join Amy and I for a fascinating discussion on how what we know can impact or enable our choices when we're out with our dogs. 


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 Dr. Amy Cook here with me to talk about thresholds and management. Hi, Amy. Welcome back to the podcast.

Amy Cook: Hey, Melissa. Always the best time we have together. I'm so glad to be back.

Melissa Breau: Yay. Super excited to, to put you up. It's been a little while.

Amy Cook: It has, it has. I'm, you give me such a good chance to kind of get a lot of the thoughts that are in my head out, so I, I'm glad you invited me back.

Melissa Breau: Aw, me too. All right. To start us out, do you wanna just share a little bit of an update about you and your current crew?

Amy Cook: Who am I? People know, probably by now, Dr. Amy Cook. I am a developer of the Play Way. I teach the play way here at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. I also teach active management, which is also my own sort of developed system. And so that's where people might know me from my crew. I have Marzipan, the 12 year old Whippet, she's 12 now. I can't believe that. I know she's 12 and, and feeling every, every ounce her age. And I have Caper who's seven, and she's a chihuahua terrier, you know, butter colored leggy little thing. And she's my, my agility dog. And we have fared the pandemic well, and, you know, are coming back out into the world. And, and I don't know where the last three or four years went. I'm still pretending that they're three or four years new. Yeah. But that's who, that's who we are. Just us. And I know, I know it's time to get a puppy, but we're not talking about that yet.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Yeah. You realize with Caper seven, that means we've known each other for at least seven years. That's kind of insane. At least.

Amy Cook: Yeah. Yeah, that is. Yeah, that's, was she a baby when you met?

Melissa Breau: You got her after we knew each other 'cause we brainstormed names.

Amy Cook: Oh, that's right. That's right. Yep. She's, she's seven. She's seven. Plus it's not even, just…Oh my goodness.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, Baby, baby. All right. I know. So as I mentioned in the intro, I wanted to have you on to talk a little bit about thresholds and management. I know we've chatted about both those topics before, but just to kind of get all our terms out of the way and in the open. Right. Can you just kind of gimme what you mean when you use each of those terms?

Amy Cook: Yeah, for sure. So for management, for me, you know, all, all things are training and we know that.

But I put management in a category where I call it not training in quotes. And what it means to me is that the, the person, half of the team is going to be much more directing of the dog's behavior to get maybe through a tight spot to get past something the dog doesn't have skills for. So, you know, maybe there's going to be reactivity if we were to do nothing that our dog's behavior wouldn't be one we wanna see happen. And so we take over that might be by, you know, magnet luring through a place or by changing a direction. But, you know, while everything does result in training and behaviors get reinforced in all of this, I try to help people understand that it is a decision you make as the, as the human half of the team, where you're like, oh, we need to go, so we're gonna need to go now. And it's not exactly that you're training dogs to come along with you. So management is what we do when our dogs don't have the skill for a situation that we find ourselves in, and we need to really help them through it or, you know, put them somewhere where they're under threshold. We're gonna get into that because it's, you know, it's a, it's a bit of a moving target and everybody's got a bit of a different definition for that, right? Like, if you say somebody is under or over threshold, I'm not sure all trainers would say that, you know, they would say the same thing about the same situation. So, you know, really a, I think we, we set a bar for a threshold and say, our dog is under it. When we can get done what we need to get done, can get some teaching done, or can get some management done. And when a dog is over it, I think we're saying, my tools aren't working here. Like, the food isn't going to be eaten. My dog can't follow instruction or can't come along with me and is going to give me behavior I don't really want. And I think that, if we were a little more specific, when we as a community, as a training and owning community, when we talk about under and over or thresholds at all, if we were more specific about which one we were talking about, like my dog is getting really stressed. I think she's crossing over a certain stress level threshold where I can't work with her this way anymore. It gets rid of the shorthand, but it really clarifies exactly what threshold we're talking about.

Because otherwise it's just my dog is in know in one state and then now is in another state. And, and that isn't always information enough. So threshold's a moving target, but we can't do this work without really examining it and thinking about it. So I find it just endlessly, you know, endlessly worth talking about really.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. And we'll definitely dive in a little deeper kind of as we chat today. I know it's been about five years since we've chatted about this particular topic, and I think the training world has kind of come a long way since then, especially, you know, I think when it comes to understanding reactive dogs. So first, would you agree with that? And then if so, can you talk a little bit about the shifts that we've seen?

Amy Cook: Yeah, I, you know, I would like to agree with that. Like, I want that to be true and I will that into existence. I think that I feel like we've come a, you know, a way in reactivity training and thinking about it, I see a lot more conversation about, about seeing things from the dog's perspective, which I'm a big fan of. I see us thinking a little more about that definition. Like what, you know, what is reactivity? Is it different from aggression and, and are these labels helpful? Or can I, you know, can I be thinking about my dog just, you know, needing my help and doing normal dog behaviors, you know, you know, having a more well-rounded or more nuanced conversation around that word I think is happening. I feel that because we have an increased, at least in some way, increased interest or honoring of that they have a perspective and what that perspective might be.

It allows us to shift some of what we do. It doesn't all have to be, you know, obedience. Perhaps I can, you know, treat this more like, give, give the dog a sense of, you know, ask the dog what they'd like to do about this situation rather than me imposing upon them what I think they should do.

I think that's in its earliest stages, but it's definitely in the conversation. And, and I'm really, I'm really glad about that because I think dogs should be consulted about what they, what they want, what they'd like. And I don't know that we have enough tools to do that. I know there's definitely a lot of, you know, people exploring that right now for for sure of, you know, officially that I'm excited by. And I do think that after pandemic times, you know, people experienced shifts in their dog's behavior. We got people who have, you know, maybe more reactivity than they thought they were going to 'cause they got a dog at a time when it was difficult to socialize or different to socialize, right? So I think it has become, you know, more, we have to solve more of that than we maybe used to have to. And so that makes it, you know, in the conversation more. And then the one thing that I think is just kind of a relatively new thing, like we, we can do so much more online now than we ever used to be able to do.

I mean, you know, you and I have been, I've been teaching online at the Academy here for 10 years. So we've been doing online for quite a long time, but it wasn't always possible to do things with your dog online officially. And, and I think the pandemic really brought out a lot of ingenuity there. You know, people can title from home, people can, I saw, you know, USDAA was doing titling at home, set up an agility course, you know, run it through, send the video in, right? They were doing some, some stuff that way. And there are other sports you can, you can do that in. And, and I think, you know, that just gives a lot of opportunity both for people who are just isolated with where they are, but also with dogs who are not thriving in situations where there are a ton of social complexities. Like a trial. A trial is a very unnatural place for most dogs to, to really thrive. You know, like that's a really high level skill for a dog to do their absolute best amongst a lot of dogs who are also really, you know, aroused or, you know, really, you know, valuing what they're doing. And so I'm glad for that. It brings out a lot of possibilities. So, yeah, I think, I think that's kind of how the landscape has changed a bit.

Melissa Breau: Especially for those of us who, you know, really are into dog sports and maybe end up with a dog with some reactivity and just opens up so many more doors.

Amy Cook: You know, it really does. And reactivity in a sport dog is almost like, I feel like we should be prepared to prevent that or prepared to, you know, to have structures when we're raising our dogs that honor, you know, that we know that this is a very strong possibility because the dogs who are, who are who we pick for our sport are driven and interested in and find a lot of things of value and are also really responsive. Or at least, you know, many times we skew toward them being very responsive animals. They can tell when we've, you know, given a subtle cue, even, especially if they're agility dogs, you dip a shoulder and they might take a, you know, take a different path. And so the other half, the other side of responsivity can be reactivity. It means they're responding to everything that's around them, right? And with big feelings, they can have big overwhelm. So, so, you know, as for people, we should be very prepared to, to be addressing any and preventing early on the things that can lead to reactivity. 'Cause it's just so much a part of our picture.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Speaking of reactivity, right? Like, I think it's often much more complex really than just like one issue, right? Like a lot of times we're looking at some variation on trigger stacking where there's a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and it kind of plays a big part in what ultimately creates a reaction or an oversized reaction or whatever we kind of wanna call it from our dog.

So to go back to that threshold topic, like how do we determine what our reactive dogs can and can't do in a given moment, and how do we kind of determine, you know, I feel like a threshold is such a moving target. How do we kind of start to wrap our brains around what that might look like in a training situation?

Amy Cook: I think this is a great place where the art and skill of training get to blend a bit, right? Because it's, it's not that it's all just, you know, it when you see it like art and just having experience means you'll know when it's gonna be there. It's not quite just that there are, there are skills you can do, there's stuff you can do and I'll talk about it.

But amongst, amongst that, of all the stuff you can do to glean and get good information about where your dog is and what they're feeling, there's, there's an element of having experience that is going to make you make better calls. So it's a, it's a blend of the two. And, and I think that a lot of knowing, being able to predict your dog's behavior, you know, aside from from reading their bodies, because by the time you're reading them, they, they may already be having the problem, but, you know, being able to predict that this won't be a good situation is a little bit a matter of having experience. It's a bit of, I've been with my dog a while, I know what my dog's patterns are, or I've raised dogs for a while. I know dogs typically would find this fairly provocative. Perhaps I don't need to be right here, right in this, in this, you know, cluster or whatever. So there is an element of build your database, note what your dog is doing. If you're not sure exactly why, well note it. Put it in your database and, and get out of there for now and then, you know, think it through for next time you're gonna build some intuition around it. But I would never want to just assign people dog training advice based on intuition. Like, you'll, you'll get there. Just keep trying. You know, that's not, that's not how I want to be, right? So, so actually spending some time to outline things that are both reasonable triggers that dogs can have and triggers, you know, your dog does, that you suspect your dog does, and putting them in a document, it's actually far more helpful than I think people imagine I have people do it in, in my classes and, you know, I know some of that is just like, yeah, I know I'm, I'm telling you all the stuff I've kind of thought through already. But, but then as we keep delving in, it's like, oh wait a minute. I hadn't really put together that it's always this kind of person or always this kind of place. Making sure you understand your dog's triggers to the best of your ability allows you to keep them unstacked.

You don't really want everything happening all at the same time. That would be true of all of us, right? We don't want the worst thing to happen to us on our already worst day. So, you know, we need some reserves to be able to handle things. And so knowing what they are gives you some control over what you're exposing. But then there's also the how do I know if my dog's okay right now?

Like, I've looked around, I think, I think things are good. Does my dog agree? Right? Right. Because you can, you can think it's good all you want, but your dog is the arbiter of that. Your dog says, actually no, it's not. Okay. I see and smell things you don't know about. Right?

And we know that's the case. So, what do you do there? That's sort of the skill piece, the part that's not your intuition. And so what, you know, there are great people doing great work on things that are usually called ready to work or, or some variation of that. I learn it and hear it mostly from Shade Whitesel or from Sarah strumming, but they're far from the only people who have things like this. And that would consist of things like running through certain things your dog does fluently, that in times when they are not feeling stressed would look a certain way. And then interpreting by their performance of those skills, if there's a detriment, if they're not not doing it as well as they otherwise would, you can, you can infer from that that something's going on, right? And so hearing that people might think complex behaviors give, you know, run through the big skills that you have, but actually they're, they're ready to work stuff that that other trainers put forth are paired down to simple things like, Hey, can you eat? And you know, if you can't eat, we, you know, we, we know there's something wrong. We can kind of stop here. We don't have to ask you the next question. You're not, you're not gonna eat food here when normally you would, I now have a lot of information about whether you're over a threshold. What threshold, I don't have to name it.

You're over the can't eat threshold, right? So, so I can, I can work with that information, I can change where we are, but there's other things you can also ask. So like, I need you to be able to do more than eat. I need you to be able to sustain attention on me when food isn't directly being given to you.

So can you do that? And I know one thing people do in their, in their testing for readiness to to work is, you know, throw food on the ground and after they go and get that food off the ground, what is their, their way of returning their attention to you? Did it take a long time to come back? Did it come back instantly?

Did they sniff while they were out there? Did they take a chance to look around while they were out there? All of these things are valid answers to the question you put in front of them about how, you know, can you, can you focus on me? It's asking the question and getting an answer back, not compelling focus onto you.

Right? It's a bit of a threshold test. It says, how are you feeling? Do you wanna do this or not? How, how is your brain right now? So that's a, that's a skill you can throw at it and you can test things like, or you can ask questions, I mean, of things like, you know, can you concentrate, can you hear my cues? I know I'm pretty sure that's from Shade. I can't remember exactly now, but you know, if there are cues that sound somewhat similar, but you have to kind of listen to them to know which one it was. Are you making mistakes in that? Like, are you thinking you heard one, but it was really the other I said, and normally at home say, you don't make that mistake. You're very clear on these cues, but when we come over to this place, you're, you're making mistakes in that vein, I can say, oh is maybe your brain is thinking is multitasking. You're really thinking about something else as well right now. And I don't have as much of your brain as I think I do, but I don't have to guess about it because I have the data in front of me that says, you couldn't follow this cue, you couldn't hear this cue as clearly as you otherwise do. So, the ready to work stuff that people really, other than me delve into I think is very helpful for a certain kind of threshold testing. They just, it's just not really called threshold testing. It's called ready to work. It's called, you know, are you, are you here and ready? But I think of it as you're under or over a line. Can I continue? Or are you too far over a line where I need to kind of abort this and stop and help you out? Or, or change the picture. So that's one way that you can determine threshold or, or get information about threshold. And of course you also can be doing, looking at their body and, and knowing what their, their physical, you know, signals look like. And, and you know, I do a form of threshold testing questioning that goes even lower.

I want to know how, you know, what their emotionally, what their emotional system is like, how, how are their emotions today? And I use an even more fragile one, which is social play, which we've talked about before. But it's all sort of in a cluster of I want to ask you a question about what your subjective experience is like right now and get an answer from you that allows me to make a good next decision, right? Whether that's to train further or go in that building or let you say hi to someone or whatever the next thing is in front of us. The habit of consulting them and getting real information and not just going on your intuition, even though your intuition is very valuable. 'cause you're, you're gonna have a feeling about, you know, something here, but it, it combines with you actually asking a dog and, and getting as much information as you, as you can. And, and from there, from there, you, you take your best guess and it's not always right. You know, it's not always right. Right, Right, right. So once we kind of know where that line is, right? So we've got kinda a process for figuring that out. How does that impact what you do next? What's kind of the decision tree from there? Yeah, so I will be thinking along the lines of, I wanna pre-think this, right? So I wanna do as little improv as I can. There's always improvisation and, and handling of live, you know, being right and being in conversation. But you, you wanna have a bit of a pre-thought out plan. If you're asking questions and getting answers from them about their readiness to continue or about how they feel about the situation you put them in. You need to know what you're gonna do with that information. I wouldn't want you to be in a situation where you said, are you ready to do this? Would you, are you clear to do this? And they say no. And then you go, oh, Right. Oh, okay. I was, I was expecting a yes. Shoot, okay, I guess we can stay here, right? I, you know, it helps you make your decision, but your decisions about what you do is something you give pre-thought to.

So I say there are two answers to that sort of in a, in a big bucket category. And one is we stay here where you, where you said this level was, okay, so like you can eat but not focus. So we can stay here and eat a little bit, and get you more comfortable. Might be one answer, but another answer might be they've told you this is unsafe.

I don't feel like I can concentrate here. I'm vigilant about what might be going on in the world around me. And I would say then your, your decision is biased toward safety. So how can I get your dog to a place where you feel more safe? I'm asking you if you feel safe. And your answer was somewhat no.

Or at least it wasn't a resounding yes. I want to restore for you the feelings of safety. So where can I go now? Where can I remove us to? What pressure in the environment can I relieve? How can I solve this problem? Some, and then, and for more advanced work, if you're, you know, if you're at that place with your dog, you can ask them, what would you like us to do? And that's, you know, and a system I don't teach called choice-based communication that Sarah Richter does. But you know, a way to say, I can help you with this or tell me how to help you with this, but either way, that's what I would want to be able to provide if I got information that said my dog needed help.

So, so, and then if it's just garden variety in the sense of like, I wanna train this and you're stimulated by the environment and you can't and can't concentrate on what we're doing, what I don't wanna do is compel it. I don't wanna say, well, we have to train. You said it was hard for you. I'm gonna, I'm gonna raise the value of my food and really kind of compel your attention.

I think that digs a hole that I think those trainers would agree now that that digs a hole you don't wanna go into. So when you get an answer that's I'm over a certain threshold and you've defined the threshold you should know what you're gonna do next to address that. And I want to discourage people from having their main answer be, but let me convince you, otherwise let me, let's work through this and get to where I wanna go. I think it's better to use that threshold information to help you collaborate.

Melissa Breau: So I know this kind of isn't in our list, but just kind of based on what you just said, like there's a difference there though, right? Between coercing through positive methods, I guess you could almost call it, or…

Amy Cook: Right, I think Shade's called it force light, right? Oh sure.

Melissa Breau: Kind of that concept and giving your dog some time and then asking again. But I feel like that's such a fine line. Do you wanna talk to that at all?

Amy Cook: I think it, I mean it is a fine line and the pieces I think that go into that sort of decision are like, what are we actually talking about? Because if we're talking about something that has to happen that, you know, I know more about this situation than you do, and this, we have to go there, we have to get in this room, we have to do vet care, we have to, whatever it is that might make me ultimately decide, I need to veto what you've said, but still collaborate with it in the sense of like, do we have to go right now or can I take five minutes to settle you? And then we can go, right? That's, that's different from, oh, you can't be here.

Well we don't have to be here, we can go over here and that's fine with me entirely. You knowing what it is you're trying to accomplish is gonna, is gonna color what you do next with, with the information they give you. Sometimes you're gonna say, I hear you, I hear that this is uncomfortable. We do have to do this.

I'm gonna make some adjustments based on what you said to maybe help it be more comfortable. But we do have to go forward and in situations that are fuzzy in situations where you can't honor the dog or you know, you've gotten, you've gotten the information you asked for and you're, you're not gonna be able to, to kind of do it. I think you have to be really honest about that and build that into your communication system.

So I would hate to think I would tell a dog, Hey, give me an answer about if you'd like to continue. And they say, no, I absolutely would not like to continue. And then my next answer is, yeah, but we're gonna, I mean, why did I ask? Right? So, it's just, it's not really all or nothing.

I would like it to be all or nothing, but in the real world, we are figuring out how to collaborate with animals that don't share a communication channel with us. And we do the best we can with that information. And I think the more we center ourselves on first learning how to ask and get decent information about them is one level of it.

But a next level is also asking them if they have a different idea what else they might like to do with this. I think that's rarefied air I think, I think I only know of Sarah Richter who's, who's really, really delving into it. And, and, but I think it's sort of the next, the next front because it might be that I have to veto some things, but it also might be that my dog has a different idea and that idea might be a better one than I had. And if I knew what it was, I might go, oh yeah, actually we can do that. That would be a solution to what we're trying to solve here. So I know I'm getting a little off, away from thresholds, but it all feels like it relates to me, because we're in the habit of not collaborating very much and that leaves us in a little binary place of like, yes and no, can you do this or not, you know? But once we start asking questions, we get so much more nuance than that, that the threshold is the first question.

But there are more questions you can have after that. And if, and if the answer is we kind of have to anyway, then having a communication system that you've already built up in your built up with your dog that says, I heard you, but we do have to go forward. I'll make this as light as possible on you, but we are gonna go in here that they understand.

That I think is also a stress reliever. So, so I, I'm a fan of, of using my power carefully, but also clearly and with clear communication because that is, that seems that should be part and parcel to being in charge of, of anyone, you know, especially someone whose emotional life, you know, you are, you are either just holding because that's what we have with dogs or that you're helping them with, which is what we have with reactivity. They have big outsized feelings about stuff that it doesn't match and you're trying to help that situation. And that's, that should be a space we take very seriously in that it's a three D space. It's not really a simple matter of under over, okay, we're good, let's go forward. Right? It gets deeper the more you look at it. So we kind of started there talking about, talking about, you know, how does knowing where our threshold is kind of impact what we do next, but what about if, you know, either we misjudge it or we did know where it is and we didn't mean to, but we somehow managed to cross it anyway. Like what, what about when we accidentally cross our dog's ability to do the thing our, our threshold? Right? Right. It's gonna happen. First of all, just know that, I think a lot of times we feel like that's a failure. The community at large out there hears don't go over threshold.

These are under threshold techniques. These should be only used when your dog is under threshold. And there's this pressure to keep your dog at all times under threshold and, and threshold's a moving target. So keeping your dog under threshold at all times, it just does not seem possible. You know, especially if you keep lowering what you call a threshold. Well then like being under, it's like when you're sleeping, right? So you know, you know, stay home, stay home all the time, you know, or whatever. Yeah. And so I think making sure we think kind of holistically about the whole thing helps us not feel like failures when we think we've defined something for ourselves. And then our dog has, you know, has crossed. But I do also know that that question is usually aimed at a dog who displays a reaction of reactivity is over threshold and a dog who is not displaying that is not over threshold. Now I would push back on that. Obviously that's not how it works. You can not express something and still be very agitated on the inside or very, you know, stressed and distressed. But usually that's what that means is like I crossed threshold, he barked, he exploded, or I'm over threshold. He has stopped taking food. That's a very common one as well, right? And that's very reasonable. You have crossed a certain threshold for sure. I would argue that you crossed one longer ago that was more important.

But either way you've crossed one that you've identified, it's not a failure. Nobody's perfect. Living beings change their behavior and their perceptions constantly. And we go up and down on our stress scales. This is how it goes. Reminding yourself it's not a failure helps you get to the next thing you need to do, which is go back the way you came down that stress scale.

And that might mean that you notice it in your dog and get distance. It's usually the first day, if I don't know what's going on and I'm gonna give you scattershot advice to help the most people, distance is usually your first one. It's like we're probably too close to something. We're probably just, even if I don't know what it is exactly,

I can change where I am. I can go for a walk in this park. I can, instead of being stationary, I can move, get distance first. You wanna seek to get them away from whatever it is that's causing the thing you just now determined is making them over a threshold. That's not the only answer and it's not always going to be the thing, but it's it applies so often that it's a good enough one for you to start with. You're probably too close to that dog. It's probably true, right? You're probably too close to that stranger. You're probably too close to that street where your dog is, you know, triggered by traffic. So get yourself some distance it, you've crossed the threshold, note it and attempt to cross back the other way. Attempt to return your dog to safety. And it won't be perfect, but you're there to assist and, and do your best with it. And then tomorrow is always another day you cross threshold, your dog will recover and you'll, and you'll figure it out tomorrow. Think the long game, like react in the moment, but then forgive yourself for the long game. That's what I tend to suggest.

Melissa Breau: That makes a lot of sense. I think we kinda layer in some additional bits and tidbits here, right? Like, I think a lot of times recently we've kind of been hearing the words agency and choice, and especially when it comes to reactivity, like how important those things can be for dogs who have big feelings about things and management is kind of the definition of the opposite of that. Can you talk a little bit about like, which one do we want when and how do we want them and what are we talking about when we talk about agency and choice to kind of dig into some of that?

Amy Cook: Yeah, so it's, you know, it's the million dollar question right now, I think, or for me anyway, or for the people I hang out with and think tank things through. I look forward to the next 10 years of dog training for this exact reason, right? It's, it's part of what also excites me about Sarah Richter's work Please or Ready, just go find her. She's developing ways to ask these very nuanced questions and solicit the dog's actual opinion on what should happen. Not just their feedback on how they're feeling. And I think that if the training world goes that direction in the next 10, we're going to see different solutions to reactivity than we have today. Because I think dogs would know often best about what they'd like to see happen.

And, and, and working with that will yield different, different, it will get different strategies and different frameworks for working with reactivity. But for right now, the agency part, the choice part I think is being expressed in that sense of like, at least for me, I'll talk about how I, how I try to use it.

I use it in the Play Way. What the Play Way is really doing is saying, I'm going to set up a scenario in which I feel safe to give you the opportunity to make these choices where I don't feel I have to step in and control anything. 'cause all of the choices you could make here will be safe for you. Now that I've determined that I can, I can let go of having any control over. I mean other than that we, you know, physical control, like I have you on a leash or something and, and explore what you do and see what you do and read it. I think that we're at the beginning of it. I want us to go further with it, but the beginnings of it show me that dogs have ways to solve their problems and they're often just too over threshold to use any of those ways because we have them already in a place where those ways are not going to be available. They're too close to something, you know, too, too stressed in the moment to use different strategies that they also have.

So the more we can give them a chance to do that, the more choice they get to make, I think the better it goes. But we often can't, we're not in a scenario where that's possible. I do wanna push back on myself because sometimes I don't, I might not be having the faith that they could make a good decision and I might just, you know, decide that it wouldn't be a good time for them to do that. I think that's the place to grow. Like am I always assessing when management needs to happen? Right? But let's say you've assessed it and it does need to happen. Management is the opposite of giving them a choice. You're saying, Hey, we're going this direction.

I've decided we have to get outta here and we're gonna go this way. It's, it's taking over and saying, I've got a solution at least for now and we're gonna go with it and I'm not, I'm not gonna negotiate this one 'cause we have to go. It's very important. So it is the opposite of giving them a bunch of choice. And because of that, because of the fact that you, you know, you have to know that you're taking over it. You're not, you're, you're not taking their, their, you're not folding in their ideas right then 'cause there's a safety issue and you have to go, I think the only honorable thing to do is to practice that ahead of time and to, to show them what that picture looks like.

That you know, what you look like when you take over and, and where food will be available and, and how you'll be softening the blow of taking over and deciding things for them. That's why, you know, I have a whole class in it which teaches how to ritualize that. You know, like, I'm going to pick you up, you know, like let's work with how I'm gonna do that. But there will be times where that's not your choice. I will be picking you up, but here's how it will go and here's where food is and this is, let's get it familiar to you. I think all of that is a stress buffer. Maybe not for the stressor of the environment you're in, but the stress of having your agency just taken like the stress of someone's going to make choices for you. That's a bit of a stressor as well. And you can minimize the impact of that by ritualizing it through classes, through the class I teach. So it, it is the opposite, but knowing that you're gonna do it and honoring that, that's not always, that's not in line with what your dog might have wanted. Maybe if you know that you will, it will help you teach it in a way that's, that's in it's introduced collaboratively. You know, and I, and we do this with children, we do this with children all the time. It's like sometimes I just have to pick you up because you can't go there and I have to pick you up.

But I will explain to you about this, right? There's a, there's a language channel you can explain and so I've just kind of taken some of those ideas and tried to, to give it to dogs when we have to take over. I think we still have to be kind and respectful of what it's like to be taken over. So that's kind of how I thread that needle. But I'm really interested to see what happens in the next 10 or in the next five really. We can meet again in five years and talk about what's changed in that time.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Yeah. You know, all these big feeling things and all these decision things and all these like moments that maybe don't match the picture that the handler went into, that relationship with their dog kind of imagining right? Can often cause some real damage to the relationship between the dog and the handler. Are there few suggestions or thoughts or, you know, are there ways that people can kind of repair some of that and or deal with the guilt that sometimes comes with it?

Amy Cook: You know, when you have a dog that you are calling reactive or that you're struggling with the emotions of, I think we're, we don't always really honor how difficult that can be on the person, right? We get a dog with dreams in our eyes and a picture of how they're gonna grow and what they're gonna be for us. And whether that's sport or not, you still picture what dog ownership is gonna be like or what your pet kind of behaviors your pet is gonna have.

And when it doesn't work out that way, I think we're often caught, you know, flatfooted and, and many feelings can come along with that. And, and you can add to that the idea that you might feel you created it. Oh, you didn't, you didn't socialize 'em enough. Oh, you over socialized and you heard about that. You heard about over socializing.

Maybe did, maybe you did that. Maybe it was the covid years. Maybe, you know, maybe you use techniques you don't wanna use anymore, but now you're sure that that's what caused the reactivity. And then even without that guilt piece, it can be embarrassing to be outside with a dog who behaves that way. It can be, you can get angry legitimately. People need to understand that it's okay to feel angry at things 'cause feelings are valid and you can, and you have them. But, you know, honoring that, that it's really hard then comes along with, you know, you treating yourself kindly about you having those feelings, but also really looking at them and really trying to do some self care and do some relationship care that helps you get through that. If you mostly see your dog as that dog who reacts when you're on walks and you, you're trying your best and you, you, you don't know what else to do and you've done everything, then when you're home, you're also maybe still feeling a little bit like that.

Like, oh, this isn't what I was trying to do. And I'm a really big advocate of people spending other time with their dogs, doing what their dog does best and doing what their relationship, what the best parts of their relationship are. I tend to foster that through play. I think people can fall in love with each other again through play, but it doesn't always have to be that, certainly. But spending time with your dog doing something your dog is so good at or is really cute about, perhaps your dog just really does head tilts really well and you might, you know, be using the head to, to remember how cute they really are when you've been stressed about them for the week.

And I don't, I would like that not to be done by happenstance done because it just comes up. I think people could directly foster that in themselves, reminding each other, reminding yourself of, you know, what's amazing about your dog that maybe other people don't see, but you see it. And that combined with having a very solid plan for what to do when, when reactivity is happening, and then keeping in mind that your dog's having a hard time. You know, nobody's giving, nobody's on purpose, giving you any kind of hard time. Your, your dog is doing the best they can with the information they have. Building your empathy around that I think can get you through to, to, to the long haul game that reactivity sometimes is, you know, sometimes a longer game than we want, than we wanna be playing. It's longer to, to the solution sometimes and not always, but sometimes. And so the self, self-care around that can be vital. It can be really helpful. But, you know, guilt has no place. Tomorrow is always the next day and you always do the best you can and I'm a firm believer in that there's no room for guilt. Just move forward today. Yeah, I wanna build on that a little bit, right? This whole handler piece. I think often handlers kind of fall into the trap of either constantly testing to see if things are better, right? Like, let's push the limits just a little bit. Let's push that threshold just a little bit.

Let's see if we can get a little bit further or a little bit closer or a little bit whatever. Or they fall into the trap of, my dog has a huge problem with this, I'm never gonna face it. Like, they'll do the work to get better, but they never actually stop and reevaluate whether or not the things that used to be a problem are still a problem and they just always assume the worst, right? Obviously either extreme there is kind of not ideal, But it's what we do.

Melissa Breau: Yep, Yep. It's what we do. So how do we, or can we kind of walk that line, find the happy medium? What is the happy medium? Maybe? I don't know, right? Is there a medium? Is medium the right thing?

Amy Cook: Right? You know, it's like with, with growth in a lot of ways or a lot of, you know, domains, it can be hard to like go of an old story. It can be hard to realize how far you've come and all of this. And you know, if the people listening are one or the other of those orientations, if you, if you recognize yourself in, in either you don't reevaluate how far you come and you get in your rutt or if you're always pushing first, identify that in yourself because, because you really can just balance that out with being really conscious of it and, and blending that with this solid principle knowledge, right? We, at least I,

I feel like emotional work should be led by the one having the emotions. In other words, we read and honor, you know, what they're saying about whether they feel safe and that means a lot of questions being asked. But if you don't know, if you don't feel like you can a ask those questions and you don't feel like you're getting any updated information, then you're, then you aren't moving forward. You can ask the questions a lot. Like your first, the first part of your questions were, you know, testing and reevaluating all of the time. There's a good to that because you're saying, oh look, new information I asked you if you're okay, you said yes, you're never okay here or you usually are or whatever, oh you are here. That's really interesting. Keep updating your information, right? The, but the sort of the downside of the constant, constant testing is that you might be connected to your goal of getting to the destination, not the goal of asking if they're okay and using that information, right? If your goal is I want to be able to get in that trial ring, or I want to be able to take my dog to that location, the house with the dog, whatever, then you constantly asking if they're better is really just in service of getting to where you wanna go. It's not the same thing as asking if they're better to be in service to helping them be better and getting that information. I'm not sure if I'm really putting a fine enough point on that.

Like when we are goal focused and the goal is I just don't want you to have this problem anymore. We can get off center and push too hard when our goal is, I want you to feel better and I wanna legitimately know when you do and don't, you can be pushing on that goal all the time because you're asking and you're honoring the answer that you get, right? So it might be a like a centering yourself on what exactly you're trying to accomplish here. But the other, and maybe more practical piece is that you should be in some kind of community, right? So other people can give you feedback about what your dog, that your dog has gotten better lately that you may not see. You know, other people can be like, wow. He's like, look how much like he, he, he's so coming along, look at his face, he's so happy now. And you can be like, oh gosh, I wasn't really seeing that. I was so prepared for him not to, not to be good here that I, I kind of stopped asking or I stopped seeing what the answer really was.

Having somebody out there that knows, you know, what you're aiming for in person or online, it doesn't have to be someone who, you know, who, who you know personally in, in, in your actual dog training community. I think that's, I think that's more valuable than people give, give credence to or give credit to. You can get myopic and, and solving your own problems in your own little vacuum can, can freeze you in place. And so when in doubt, when you're just not sure if you should be pushing on the skills a little bit or hanging back and, and letting them lead because maybe you don't know if they know how to lead and you, you're, you're not sure if these are skills or emotions.

Having people you can turn to is, I mean, I have people I can turn to. I, this is not a thing of like, you're a new person, so get, get somebody who's more advanced than you. It is, I don't try to solve my own problems all by myself all the time. I really don't. I have a trusted group of people where I'm like, am I seeing this? Is there something different here? Do I need to, am I holding myself back? Is my dog ready for this? I never hesitate to lean on people. Don't, don't be an island because likely this is your first time through reactivity. You know, most people, they, they, they get the one dog who does this now and they're like,

oh God, I'm in an area that I'm not prepared for. I know exactly how to do my sport, but not this behavior stuff or whatever. You would never try to do your sport with only one other person ever telling you anything and no other feedback anywhere. But sometimes with behavior we just, we sort of, we get our source and we put our head down and we do our thing and we don't have people also looking at our dog. So I, I think some, some combination in there to keep staying soft with it. But you, you can never go wrong leading with empathy. So if you're ever not really sure, lead with empathy rather than leading with your longer term goal and you'll probably get through the problem that you're having right now.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Just to bring things back full circle. So part of the reason we're talking about this right, is that you have a webinar and thresholds coming up on the 21st. So I wanted to give you just a minute. Can you share a little bit more about what you'll cover and who might wanna consider joining it? Kind of what it's all about?

Amy Cook: Yeah, so I went more into things that are kind of outside that webinar in this, you know, podcast so that I could kind of, you know, stretch into other things like, like agency and, and the human half of it at all. I get more into the details of how to, how to assess things for your dog in this webinar.

So I talk a little bit at first about how thresholds are a moving target, but not just vaguely like, nah, it's kind of anywhere. So we don't know. I'm more, I want people to think about what are you trying to accomplish? 'cause if you are training than being under or over a threshold, it's a different threshold line than if you are trying to deal with a fearful dog who is, who is fearful right now. And there isn't just one threshold. When we started this long ago, your dog was over a threshold the second they wouldn't take food. Right? But that's, that might be a threshold for a thing you're, you're doing with food, right? So I, I lost the, the chance to use food so my dog's over a threshold for this thing I'm trying to accomplish, right? It doesn't necessarily mean that they're scared. It might be that they're overstimulated, it might be a lot of things, but you, you've left that. So I wanna, I wanna make sure people understand that there's categories in that to know if your dog is under or over, you need to be also looking at what you're, what you're actually doing and your threshold testing would be different for these different things. So if you're trying to see if they're ready to work, that is a form of threshold testing, sort of, and or a related concept. And it's different from if your dog's over threshold emotionally. So I'm gonna break that down a little bit and then talk about how to assess a dog's lowest possible threshold.

Because I'm a big fan of therapeutic threshold. That's what I put out there. I want dogs to be able to be un distressed, not distressed when doing, you know, work on things that could make them feel emotion, make them feel unpleasant. Emotions. So I advocate getting very, very low threshold information. And that's what I will be teaching people how to, how to assess and you know, why that's important, why, why that matters. Why being even a little bit over a threshold can kind of thwart some of the work you wanna do. So I'll give you some, some, some ways of assessing that and why it's important and, and hopefully people will be able to go forward with knowing, at least knowing good information from their dogs so they can make the next choices that are in front of them. Awesome. Any final thoughts or key points you kinda wanna leave listeners with? Yeah, I think that, I think that it, it's really like, I wanted to say lead with empathy, right? And I think sometimes that feels like, okay, but then what do, what do I do if, if it's only, if it's only sympathy, I get nothing done. And so I want people to understand that empathy can be an active, it's an active process. It's not just note what your dog is feeling, but it is empathetically. Listen to what your dog is saying so that you can make good choices next.

And the choices you make are the ones that you're learning. You're learning how to, if you lead with empathy, you'll be able to make better choices. It's not just so that you can know how your dog is feeling. It's so that you know not to put things in front of them that make it worse or that sabotage their, their, their progress.

You can go wrong leading with empathy, but you can go wrong if you don't take that information and turn it into some kind of action plan. So, so, so collaborate actively, empathetically, but have your training plan that can take you forward, know, to know what you're, where you're trying to go next.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. What a good kind of place to leave things, right?

Amy Cook: Yeah, Yeah, for sure.

Melissa Breau: Well, thank you Amy so much for coming on the podcast and chatting about all this.

Amy Cook: It couldn't be more of a pleasure. You are welcome to ask me questions anytime, Melissa. Anytime.

Melissa Breau: Noted. Yeah. Thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it.nIf 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 Fendy 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! 

Mastering Side Steps in Rally: A Step-by-Step Guid...
E328: Megan Foster - "Building & Maintaining Your ...

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to https://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/