E341: Janice Gunn - "Maintaining Connection in the Obedience Ring"

This week Janice Gunn joins me to talk about how she evolved her finger follow method to encourage connection while competing in obedience — from ring entrances to exercise transitions to leaving the ring for your jackpot! 


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 Janice Gunn here with me to talk about obedience training and a concept she calls the finger follow.

Hi, Janice, welcome to the podcast!

Janice Gunn: Hi, Melissa. Thank you very much. I am super excited to chitchat today.

Melissa Breau: So to start us out, do you wanna just share a little bit about you and kind of your current canine crew?

Janice Gunn: So, I have been in the sport of competition obedience for over 45 years now, and I started when I was like really young 14. And it's just a sport that I really, really love and I've stayed with it all these years. I've also competed in agility, conformation, tracking, and I do a lot with, I have retrievers. I started with dalmatians, but now I have Golden and Labrador Retriever. So I've also done hunt test and retriever field trial work with them.

Melissa Breau: Very exciting. Yeah. I wanted to kinda have you on today to talk about the idea of connection in the obedience ring and kind of in particular, you know, your finger follow method. But before we kind of jump into talking about that, can you just talk a little bit about why connection is so important, kind of even between exercises?

Janice Gunn: Yeah, so with connection it's important because if your dog doesn't stay connected to you, then they're going to be, they're going to actually probably disconnect due to distractions. So if they don't have a reason, you know, to stay connected or to be connected, then there's other things that they're gonna find that they should be doing. Like looking at the other dog outside the ring or looking at that spot on the ground or a wrapper, different things that can easily cause them to be distracted and, and what happens when the distractions take place, then it becomes really challenging to get your dog back into the game. So it's much easier to start off with a connection than, and keep that connection than to let your dog get distracted because then you've got to somehow get his attention back.

And also this goes for in between exercises because the same thing, they don't have a job to do or some kind of guidance to go from exercise to exercise, then that distraction is going to take place. And when you get to your next setup point and you have to, you know, put your dog into position for whatever exercise they're going to be doing, quite often what I see is that the setup itself becomes very problematic. I see handlers like, you know, walking in a circle trying to get their dog to sit or trying to sit properly and, and then all these kinds of things just kind of bleed into an overall poor performance.

Melissa Breau: Are there things kind of, other than the finger follow method, we'll dive in too much deeper just in a minute here that you kind of do in the ring to kind of maintain that connection?

Janice Gunn: So for myself, years ago, because I've been in this for so long, I didn't have a tool and I didn't really know what to do with my dog, you know, how to get them in the ring, how to get them set up, that kind of thing. So I wasn't really sure what to do, but now that I use the finger follow, I find that, you know, I use that. But also I've had probably about 15 different dogs over my career that I have, you know, brought up to the utility level and I found that with each dog it's a little bit different. So there are some other things to maintain connection that I will do, and mainly just because of my years of experience with all different types of dogs. But what I find, like I personally like to have physical interaction with my dog after an exercise, and just because I find that, you know, that's how it makes me happy. You know, anytime you pet up your dog that brings good endorphins and I like to do that. But with a lot of students and seminar participants, if they do that with their dogs, then they lose their dogs. So I don't like overly, you know, it's something that I can do because I can, you know, do a lot of tactile with my dog and then I can quickly pick them up with the finger follow and they know it, so they'll connect with it and I'll get them to the next place.

Now the other thing that I'll do often when I set up my dog, they'll set my dog up with the finger follow, and then I will get a couple of hand touches on my dog. And I just find that I like to do that as well because once the finger followers put my dog into a position, you know, then you need to wait for the judge to come over and say, you know, this is gonna be the, you know, command discrimination, we're gonna do, sit down, da, da da, and while they're talking, you know, you can easily lose your dog. So I might just put my hand out and get a couple of hand touches.

And those are basically the main things that I will do. And it depends on my dog that day. It depends on your dog, like if you want to do tricks, tricks, I find some of the tricks like spin and and twist, those kinds of things can, some dogs, their stress level is just too high that they, you know, they won't even do the spins in the ring. So I just find that the, if my dog, I'll do the physical interaction and let's say the dog I'm competing with right now, seven, if he's getting a little bit flat in the ring, I feel like I need to get his energy up, then I'll really pet him up and interact with him.

If I feel that he is a little bit over the top that day, then what I might do is just stick with the finger faller. Or even if he's really, you know, spunky and feeling really good, then I just might heel him to the next exercise because when I heal him to the next exercise that's, that's more control and you know, kind of have 'em under a bit more control, there's more pressure. So you know, I kind of mix it. I tend to mix it up.

Melissa Breau: That makes a lot of sense. So to kind of dive into the finger follow, and now that we've kind of been talking about it a little bit here or on the edges, what does it look like? What, you know, like how does it work?

Janice Gunn: So what it is, is a distinct hand position that how you're going to hold your hand and that your finger, and it's one finger that comes out like a pointer and the rest of your hand is like in a fist, so your fingers are curled. So this distinct position as I call it finger follow because it's one finger that's being held out, it's not hand follow. And so I'm real specific, you know, when I see the students kind of, their fingers start to all unravel and stuff, it's like, no, you've got to use the one finger. So I'm very specific about it so that the dog is able to connect with it and that's what it looks like and how does it work?

What it's able to do is it gives the dog a focal point so that your dog has a job to do. They have something to look at. It's not like I don't often like to heel my dog from exercise to exercise just because there's a lot that goes with heeling, you know, like it's precision. It needs to be, they need to do it a certain way, you know, it's more, it's more pressure for the dog and I just wanna use the finger follow so that it frees up my dog. But yet he still has a job to do by holding and maintaining that connection with the finger follow.

Melissa Breau: Where did kind of this idea come from? You know, how did it kinda turn into a thing, the kinda the way that you use it today?

Janice Gunn: So years ago, like I never, in the beginning I never really had any, any come in the ring cues for my dog or in between exercise. So there, you know, even though I had, my dogs were very well trained and I had good performances, but you know, there was a piece missing.

And so I would watch, you know, seasoned trainers and I noticed that some of them had, you know, set up type cues and one was, I used to follow Patty Ruso back in the day, I really loved Patty. And, and she, what she did was she would put her hand up on her shoulder and tap to her shoulder and that would be her, you know, how she would set up her dog. I thought that was interesting. I played around with that for a little bit. I saw other handlers. What they would do would be to have their fingers pointing downwards and on their hip and then they would pre, you know, tap on their hip for the dog to, to set up.

So I played around with that for a while and, but what I found, you know, with doing those two different things was, you know, they were set up cues for me for a while, but I wasn't finding that it was really giving the dog a job to do. They were more just, the dog wasn't really able to connect with it as well because it was very close to my body and the way I didn't do anything.

Like I'd never played games with that there, you know, like with the finger follow, I've developed some games so that I can build a lot of value into the finger follow and with these, you know, two different things, set up cues that I was doing, I just didn't find that it brought out any extra enjoyment or a lot of extra connection from my dog.

So let's dive into that just a little bit more kind of what advantages are you getting from the finger follow, especially kind of compared to some of those other, you know, transition concepts that maybe are out there and that you just talked about. So the two that I'm familiar with, played around with, I don't see a lot of other methods really that people are using.

What I do see, like, I've literally watched, you know, hundreds, maybe even thousands of rounds over my many years and unfortunately I see it over and over and over again. And the handler, they don't have, they don't have something that they're using. And so unfortunately when the dog comes in the ring, he falls apart. So he does become distracted. He sort of, he's confused to what he's supposed to be doing. The handler's working really hard, trying to maintain the dog with them, but he doesn't, he doesn't really know what he's supposed to be doing. I mean, other than of course they know the exercises. So you've actually trained those exercises so that they know, but they don't know what they're supposed to be doing in between or for setting up. And that's where, that's where I find a huge disadvantage for many, many, many handlers because then I see the dogs kind of get really down and they get depressed because they just don't really know how to stay connected and the handler doesn't know how to get to that point.

So then sort of like nagging comes in and, and the setups become difficult and, and stuff like that. So, when I watched that, you know, it just, I really wanted to like, I was using a finger follow for myself and people would notice it or they'd see it on a video and ask me about it. So then I kind of thought, well, you know, maybe this is something that I decided to use my finger because I could hold it away from my body. It's heeling, but it's not heeling. Like when you see my dog Seven do it, he looks really pretty. But there's also times when I can see in videos that I watch of him that he's much more relaxed when he's doing that.

He's connected, but he doesn't feel any pressure. I can just tell by the way he's moving and he's like, yeah, I don't need to do this precision heeling. So he takes it a little bit more in heart that it's something that he doesn't have to be perfect on. So, but what I did was I wanted to move my hand away from the body.

So not on the shoulder, not on the hip. It's level with my hip, but it's about six inches or so away from my body. My finger is out like a pointer and I do this so that my dog can see it easily and connect with it easily. And it's something that I'll use to, you know, bring them into the ring with and use it for setups and exiting the ring. And I just find that there's so much more advantage to it because it has so many purposes. I can use it in many different places.

Melissa Breau: Sort of an interesting concept to think about the fact that your dog can relax more because they have a visual focal point that's a little bit different than like all the concentration it takes to heel really well, you know, And that's actually what you just said is, is really brilliant because you are right, it is, it's a visual focal point, right?

Janice Gunn: When we can't do that, you know, like you can do that in between exercises coming into the ring, exiting the ring, but you know, you could, otherwise you don't, in your heeling or your other exercises, there are no visible focal points. So you know that that is probably why Seven feels like, or my other dogs feel much more relaxed because it's something that they can actually see. So obviously, like anytime we talk about any method like this, right, what we hear back is like, that's great and all, but then once we add the pressure of the ring, my dog can't, right? Like they can't do that, then it doesn't hold up whatever. Can you talk about maybe the process that you go through of building a finger follow up so that the dog can do that even in the ring and it can kind of have its intended purpose? Right. So what I do with this particular method is I start off by, you know, teaching it as something that's, you know, really fun. So the first thing that I, you know, when people say my dog can't do this or he, it's not working, it's basically because I have many steps to the finger follow. So it's not just I hold a treat in my hand and my dog looks at the cookie.

So it's not like that. And if that's all you ever do with it, then yeah, then probably the dog will not find a lot of value in it and chances are it when they get into especially a stressful situation that they won't do it. So I put together, like the webinar is like over an hour long just on teaching the dog, you know, different ways that you can keep them engaged to want to do the finger follow. So, you know, I start off with getting them super interested in the hand that the, you know, the finger follow is going to be in, I get them super interested in the hand. We do like food chase games and so I want to build just simply value for the hand and then I start to move it and change it so that it's starting to show into the position that they're actually going to see it.

We, you know, I keep it lower. We eventually start to raise the hand and then I've also added in some games, so I will, you know, one, I call it like finger pickup and so it's teaching the dog how to, I throw a treat and the dog leaves me and then I pick him up with my finger cue.

So, and it's a very specific way, but what it also helps to create is a dog that wants to when you're playing these games is a dog that wants to return to you quickly, so they're going to leave you, but then you're going to quickly pick them up and the finger cue's gonna be waiting for them. And so these things are all different ways that I'm building the value into wanting to do this finger pickup and or the finger follow. I also add in, I have a recall game that I use with it. So anytime, you know, like if quite often we do motivational recalls and that's where we're not asking the dog to front and we want them to go, you know, through our legs or off to the side.

And what I quite often see and why I developed this game, because I saw this over and over and over again. So I give lot, you know, lots of seminars over my years and taught lots of students and I continually saw the same thing is that they're, they would throw a treat and the dog would go get it and then the dog was like, oh, there's something over here. Oh, there's a good smell over there. Like they didn't have any urgency to, to wanna get back to the handler. So I developed this, the recall game where the dog wants to get back to the handler so that they can seek that finger cue and then the handler will put the dog into the sit position.

And so it has a lot of reinforcement history, like a ton of reinforcement history. So it's like a trick that we're doing for the dog. And I continue to play the games throughout the dog's lifetime and, and career and throughout this entire time I'm also, I'm going to reinforce the finger pickup or the finger cue like 90% of the time.

And I do show different ways that I will check my dog and make sure that I've built good muscle memory on this and that he knows what's expected. I will show how to fade, you know, fade it away, make sure that it's strong, make sure that you have it. But the reinforcement history for this stays with the dogs and so it keeps it really, really strong. So I find if you take all these steps and you continue to play the game and you do all this kind of stuff and you follow through with it, then you know the dogs will do really well with it. But another thing that is really important that I need to stress is that this isn't just something for the ring like this, the finger follow, I use it in training every single time. Like I use it to transport my dog up onto the floor. I use it to set my dog up for every single exercise. So it's, you know, I know there are some people that just like forget to do that and then they go to the show and the dog doesn't respond to it. So you've got to make sure that you put all the pieces together so that we don't have a dog that says I can't do this. That makes a lot of sense.

Melissa Breau: Now I know you mentioned kind of earlier that you know, you kind of decide when to use that and when to use other things the day of while you're in the ring, kind of based on where your dog's at, kind of on arousal level or you know, kind of whether your dog's feeling a little flat or can you talk a little bit about kind of that piece, do you use the finger follow with all of your competition dogs? Can you talk a little bit about when you do use it, when you don't use it, if there's ever a given dog where you just be like, this dog shouldn't learn this, some of that.

Janice Gunn: Yeah, so I use it with, I've probably been very strong on using it over the past maybe four dogs of mine. So going I guess seven or eight years I've been and consistent with it and I want to, I want to use it for entering into the ring.

So it's a wonderful tool to keep your dog going into the ring gates, you know, through the ring gates, keeping that focus going through the ring gates. And then I always use it going to my first setup point because that's where I want my dog to set up properly. So if you set up your dog and he's not connected and he's not sitting straight, those are all kinds of things that, you know, are going to lead to a poor performance. So it sets my dog up nicely, he knows where to be. And then once that exercise is finished, that's when I make a decision with that dog. I'm in the ring with that day, you know what am I gonna do?

Am I gonna give him some tactile and rub him up or am I just gonna pick him up with the finger cue and take him to the next exercise? Or is he really high today and maybe I actually have to, you know, precision heel him to the next exercise. So I'm going to use it for entering the ring. I'm gonna use it for setup, I'm going to use it mostly, I use it pretty much every time I go to set up in between exercises, it's my transport queue. So once I release my dog, if I do decide to, you know, rub him up and pet 'em up and, and get him excited, then I'm immediately gonna pick him up with my finger cue and I'm gonna take him to the next exercise.

So it's transporting my dog to the next exercise. And then the other place that I found it to be really useful for is when I'm at the, I finished my round and now I am at the ring exit. And of course it's like the judge actually always says, you know, make sure that you leash your dog and that you leave under control.

So this is really important, like, I guess dogs were, you know, we've got our special jackpot outside the ring and dogs were literally just, you know, doing a nice performance and then just racing their handlers out the ring. So now all this has to be under control and my dog, he's, you know, he knows he's finished like the last exercise, he knows he's done and he's anticipating, you know, his jackpot back at his crate. So, you know, it's, and he knows he's done. So what I'll do is then get him connected back up to the finger queue and use that to take him out of the ring. And that's where that, so it's got lots of different purposes. So I think that honestly any dog, you know, can use it and it's very safe. That's the one nice thing is there isn't any dog that I wouldn't use it with because it has so much reinforcement history to it that it should actually bring the dog's mood up. It should make him feel good, you know, because it's something that has always been a positive to, and so it should almost be like, oh, my best friend has come in the ring with me, you know, other than the handler, his finger should also become the best friend. So I think it's really safe to use.

Also, I should mention that I use it to, so when I'm at my crate and my turn is coming up, I will use it to get my dog from the crate to the ring entrance because, you know, once I leave the crate, I want my dog to know and I'm gonna be going into the ring next and I want my dog to already put him into working mode back at the crate. So rather than sauntering up to the ring gate and letting him get distracted, and I've already done my acclimation, you know, we've done all that when we came into the building when he goes in and out to potty, but now I'm, it's for real, it's showtime. We're going to go to the ring entrance, I wanna already back at the crate, use the finger follow to get him engaged, focused. And it kind of sets him up that, oh, we're gonna go to work, and it keeps him connected to me right up to that point.

Melissa Breau: Alright, so part of the reason we're chit chatting today is that you've agreed kindly to do a webinar for us that digs deeper into all of this next week, or at least it'll be next week when this airs. Can you talk a bit more about what you're gonna cover in the webinar and maybe who might wanna join us for that?

Janice Gunn: Yeah, so I would say anybody that wants to have a good connection with their dog, if you don't have specific cues for ring entry, for setup, for transporting in between exercises, all these things, if you're finding that when, you know, you come into the ring and you're trying to set your dog up, they're just not with you and in between exercises it's a struggle or they just don't have a focal point, they don't really know what to do. Absolutely great information for you. I'm going to walk you through on how to start it, how to add in some games with it, a couple different games with it, how to master your setup. So that when you do go to set up in the ring, your dog knows where, like how to set up, because that is a very common problem as I see that the dogs are sitting crooked or they're just not able to pay attention. So these are the things that would help with that.

I also do use it in situations where, let's say I'm going into a pet store or I'm going to, in any public area where it's very distracting and the dog is gonna get aroused by all the stuff that's going on, I can use it outside of the show environment. It comes in handy just for everyday life situations where, and there just might be too much going on for the dog.

So this helps to keep them a little bit more relaxed and not have to worry about everything else that's going on. And it gives you a better transport tool when going in and out of different places. But one important thing is that I wanna say about it is that you need to use it in training and you need to use it when you're in the ring.

So it's not something that you do halftime, like, oh, I'll just use it for one or two setups when I'm training, or I'm not gonna use it today, maybe I'll use it tomorrow. You know, that is not going to get you the picture that you want. So consistency of training it and using it is going to be really the key to success. Playing the games is going to be a fun way to keep the value. So I do that for, again, the lifetime of the dog. I'll throw in the couple games that I'm gonna show you and that way the, it always, the finger cue is always gonna hold its value.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. All right. So any other maybe final thoughts or key points you just kind of wanna leave listeners with?

Janice Gunn: Yeah, I think, I think that the biggest thing is keeping your dogs from being distracted, to start with. So not letting them get into that, into that situation is, I think you're gonna find that you'll have a bit of a different dog when they don't have the ability to want to look at the distractions because they're going to be, instead watching the finger cue.

Make sure that you use it in matches as well. So we want to take it, you know, even to a match or take it to the shopping center even before the dog show. As with anything, all exercises that we train in obedience, we need to generalize 'em. So we wanna take it on the road before we actually take it in the ring.

So practice it in all different areas, make sure that it's strong because some areas we go to are going to be, you know, if you're gonna go into the tractor supply or or the tech store, the level of distraction is going to be that much higher. So we wanna take it there. And the other thing that I wanted to mention that I find with a lot of dogs is it actually helps with their heeling, their overall heeling. Because when you see it, it looks like it's heeling except for the fact that my hand is, you know, away from my body. The dog is looking at the finger, but the dog is actually heeling, he's actually working. So, you know, if your heeling isn't as good as you like it, you are actually probably gonna get a little bit of better heeling because the finger cue is almost like a lure and a prompt. So the dog is gonna be looking at it and so it just might enhance the heeling for you as well.

Janice Gunn: Awesome. A free extra bonus, right? Yeah. Anything we can get. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Thank you very much for inviting me and I'm really looking forward to the webinar. I hope that everybody loves it and I really hope that I already do see people using the finger cue in the ring and, and they're starting to get success on it, so the more we can get out there, the better.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I couldn't agree more. Janice, thank you. And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in.

We'll be back next week. Don't miss it. If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast, music provided royalty free by bensound.com.

The track featured here is called Body 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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