E346: Pat Stuart - The Benefits of Box Feeding

In this episode Pat Stuart joins me to talk about box feeding - a method he's helped popularize! We talk about what it is and how it can be used in training and distraction proofing.


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 Pat Stuart here with me to share his story and the concept of box feeding. Hi Pat, welcome to the podcast!

Pat Stuart: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I'm super excited to talk about this today. To start us out, you wanna just share a little bit about you, your current canine crew?

Pat Stuart: Yeah, so my name's Pat. I am here in Sydney, in Australia. I'm a dog trainer. I've been doing that professionally for eight years now since I left the army.

Before that I was in a special forces unit here in Australia, and I left the Army eight years ago, injured, and so dogs was always a big hobby, passion, and I was involved with the sort of military working dog unit at my unit at the end of my career there. And so it just seemed sort of a natural progression to take up training.

I've got really lucky along my career and got taken under the wing of some pretty incredible trainers, spent a lot of time learning and yeah, so that's what I do now. I mostly educate other dog trainers at the moment. Most of my work revolves around working with police and military handlers quite a lot as well as, you know, mostly dog sport competitors and other professional trainers. My own canine crew at the moment is, I just have two dogs of my own. I've got a, you know, I'm working with a bunch of different dogs. I've got two puppies on the go at the moment who, who knows, could start barking and losing their minds at any minute. So we'll deal with that if that happens.

But of my own dogs, I've got a Springer Spaniel named Valerie, who's 10 years old, and I got her 10 years ago to film a video tutorial series on how to raise a puppy. And so she was that puppy, and we filmed that in real time, over 12 months, like showing every session and all that. And the plan with her was to give her away afterwards.

She was gonna be like a PTSD assistant dog type thing we're gonna train her for, but I just fell madly in love with her and decided that she had to live with me forever. So that 10 years later, she's still with me, and that video series is still up and still, you know, helping lots and lots of people. It's really, it's, it's probably not for anybody listening to this type of podcast. It's for first time pet dog owners, you know, like it's the very, very basics of how to raise a happy, healthy social pet. And then my Malinois, the dog called Remco, he's kind of an odd, you know, dog to end up in my possession as well.

Like I was raising him, I often raise, train and sell dogs, and he, I had the option of keeping him, and it was always sort of in my mind that I was probably going to, he was given to me as a Christmas present. I could do whatever I wanted, like I could sell him. But again, I kind of fell in love with him.

And he took a couple of injuries quite young, which meant that I probably couldn't ethically sell him to a department. He's got an ACL that's hanging on by thread, but has been for six years. And so he could, he does everything great. I just didn't sell him mostly because I love him, but secondly, because I probably couldn't. So that's, yeah, that's it. And with my Springer, she's my work dog, you know, she has helped me through client interaction. She's one of the bombproof neutral dog. She's all the dreams that a dog trainer wants. And now at 10 years old, she's basically a wild animal.

She, like, I suggest things to her and she sometimes does them, but she just lives seamlessly in my life. You know, I don't really do too much with her. She just comes along, she's my companion. And Remy is, I compete in PSA well in a bunch of different sports. So I haven't actually gotten to show in PSA in many years because of Covid and just the level that we're in. We haven't been able to get a judge out to Australia. So he's got his first leg of his level two in PSA, but we've shown in Mondio, he's got a leg of a Mondio one. We've done a, he's got a BH, we competed in GRC, we're the first people in the world to get a spring pole title in that and a bunch of other stuff. So pretty active with those dogs, I do a fair amount of stuff, but my real, you know, my bread and butter is training other dog trainers.

Melissa Breau: So you mentioned in there that you kind of got into dog training while you were still in the military. Do you wanna to share a little more about that story?

Pat Stuart: Yeah, so it, I sort of came into it in 2008. I was on a deployment and at my unit, we didn't have dogs at that time, and I was embedded with an Afghan unit, and there was an American guy embedded in the same, same position as me, sort of parallel to me. And he had a dog, and it was, you know, my first experience with a military working dog. We had engineers embedded with us with bomb dogs, and that was always cool. I was really into it. And, you know, because as much as everybody's into dogs, you know, everybody, and especially on a deployment, the dog is just this eternally happy thing that runs around and increases morale of everybody.

And so I got the bug having worked with another unit's military working dog, and when I saw my first live bite, it was super effective. And I just kind of really came to understand the force multiplier of it and, and how effective it was. And so when I came back to Australia after that deployment myself, I played a very, very small role in it, but other people who had been in similar positions to me and seen the effectiveness of military working dogs, did all the work to bring dogs into our unit. And so dogs came online at my unit, it was called, it's two commando regiment. They came online at about 2012. And at the time I was at the back end of my career, like I was the sniper platoon sergeant at the time. So it wasn't like I could just go, all right, like, I'm done with this. I'm going to get rid of all my rank and I'm gonna go back to the base and I'm gonna become a dog handler. So I was peripherally involved, like I ran the cell, I sort of acted as their, their platoon sergeant and organized everything for them. And for me, it was a time when I was really, you know, I'd been obsessed with dogs. I in my personal life, I'd become obsessed with and I'd gotten my own malis that, you know, turned out was like inviting a dragon into your house. I didn't know what I was doing.

I was obsessively researching. And these days when we talk about obsessively researching, that's a really easy thing to do. You know, there's this, and there's podcasts everywhere. There's online courses, there's really high quality tutorials about when I got into, I was 2008, so that doesn't seem that long ago, but the internet was a very different thing, and the access to information was very, very different. So, you know, I was really tearing everything that I could apart, and, and it was a lot more, I have to admit it, it was harder to get information, but I think the information you got was usually a bit more solid because you had to really work to get it.

You had to travel a lot, you had to connect with the right people. So that's sort of how I got into it. And so at the back end of my military career, I was involved with the dog unit there, and that's what really kind of, you know, lit the fire. But also, I was always really into dog sport, even when I was in the military. And a big part of what I do now is trying to convince police and military guys that there's a lot of value in dog sport techniques and the things that, you know, dog handlers, people who their job is to just be amazing with a dog, and that's all they do.

They have a lot to offer to the people who, you know, handling a dog is just one small part of a very big and difficult job. And so, you know, a big part of my work now is I still work with my old unit. I still pass, I still go back and train those guys, you know, and pass on the information that I know now from an aggregate of, you know, so much dog world knowledge and experience. But it's still a lot of sports stuff is that I go back to these guys and, and they often, those sorts of units are usually happy to have someone like me come in because I'm an ex operator, you know, I'm a gunfighter by trade. They know that I know the tactics that is applicable to them, but I still just teach 'em sports stuff mostly.

Like, usually when I go to those guys, I say to 'em like, Hey, you guys know how to gunfire? You don't need my help with the maneuvering of a dog through a closed space in a gunfire. What you need is just how to understand how dogs work, how to communicate with dogs, how to motivate dogs correctly, and then how to actually coach them through these situations, not the tactical stuff about how to do it. You guys are better than me at that. I haven't done that in 10 years. So that's a big part of my work. And I really love working with police and military type handlers, that's kind of my, my favorite thing to do is, is try and bridge the gap between the sports stuff and knowing what's appropriate here. Like, what is sport and completely contrived and totally fake and isn't worth passing on, versus how do I take the pieces out of that that are applicable to the real world and pass those bits on and ha and,

and explain that to the operator who, who just wants to be good at his job.

You know, that's what happens with a lot, especially in the special forces community. They don't have a side on anything. They don't care about any politics anything other than being spectacular at their job because they, that's the personality type of someone that does that, but also their life depends on it and so does the life of others. So they're excellent learners. They're all, you know, selected to be very intelligent and motivated people. So that's why I love passing on those dog sport techniques to them and, and bridging that gap in that way.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, as I understand it, kind of one of the unique things you've been popularizing lately is called box feeding. So yeah, I wanna talk about that. What does box feeding look like? Kind of what's the goal? Let's start there.

Pat Stuart: Yeah, so the box feeding, it's just feeding the dog out of a box, right? And, it gets even, it gets even less cool when you explain to people you don't even need a box. It's just a mechanism. So really what it is, I learned the box feeding from Bart Bellon, and so Bart taught it to me and others in probably 2017 or 18, something like that. And he had his own sort of use for it, and that was really to build power. So what it is, is,the way that many people are doing it, it there, there's probably three different ways or, or we could even break those into more categories if we want.

But talking about it in three different ways. The first is just to build power where the dog is fed outta the box and you just feed them. You just put their food in this box. Now, first thing I should say, because this always comes up, is the size of the box doesn't matter. Like, is it that there'll be a million questions that have been answered online and, and since I've been talking about this, I think I spoke about it publicly in about 2018. The constant question everywhere is what are the dimensions of the box? So that doesn't matter. You use whatever size box you want.

The box that I tend to use is about a square foot, like 30 centimeters in every direction. But the idea is you just feed the dog outta the box and you just let the dog build this obsession with going into the box and you let the dog drag to the box. And so it's just that there's food in there, and very quickly start to the point where you are, it starts at, there's food in there, but then you put more food in along the way and to build this sort of power and obsession to go towards something that you control, we let the dog drag us to the box. Now you can do that in a harness, you can do that in a flat collar, you can do that, whatever.

But what we're looking to do is just harness the sort of unbridled power of the dog that wants to get to the thing that it wants, right? And we can put a little bit of resistance in them getting there that we want to kind of build over time. And what we find is that it, it toughens and strengthens the dog quite a bit in that they are, you know, they're pushing through that pressure. And what it allows us to do is really control the circumstances under which we can put the cues to pull into something or, or to, to lock into behavior. So the whole point of the box when you do it is never to have a dog that pulls into the box. It's to teach all the cues and the signaling and you know, a bunch of other behaviors that come of it that you, you're gonna pick that template up and you're gonna apply it to somewhere else.

So that's the sort of first way that I learned to do it was just building a dog that gets really obsessed by getting its head into the box. And once they're doing that, then you can start trickling food into the box. Then you can, you know, try and sort of pull them back a little bit. They resist to try and stay in the box. You put more food in for that so that they're learning that, you know, persistence is reinforced that they, the longer the, the longer they try to do a behavior, the harder they fight to be able to do the behavior, then they're reinforced in position of that behavior. And then you can be, you know, get more fancy with it.

You can click and they turn around and take reinforcement out of the box, or you can use their toy marker or whatever, and they, they turn around and they can end the session by coming outta the box. Ultimately, the goal of doing it this way is, and you hear people refer to it in this type as like a dopamine box, because what happens then is you can go to like all sorts of variable schedules of what's in the box and how it's delivered and what that allows you then to do, especially for people who are doing, you know, protection sports or you know, anything that there is going to be a really strong draw from some sort of item to the dog where the dog wants to, it creates an artificial conflict. And that's one of the main things that people use the box for is that now when you're training a behavior, you use that box as an indirect reward. So you've built this obsession. You've, you've got a dog that really wants to pull, get its head into the box because it knows something amazing is gonna happen while I'm doing this, right?

There may already be food in there, maybe the box is empty, maybe my toy is in there, maybe from putting my head in the box, you are gonna release me to the toy or pay me with food or whatever it is. But you create a really strong draw to the box and then that box can provide you conflict in your training.

So it gives you something that the dog wants to do. So it's just another indirect reward or reward that's in the area, but it's something that the dog's really drawn to. And then it assists in the conflict management of training where you're then going to the dog, well, hey, I need you to heel. I'm gonna show you a reinforcement schedule here.

That means that you sit in like a balance between wanting to go out there and staying here with me. And of course there's a million other ways you could do that. There's other things you can do, but what it allows you to do is do that alone. You don't need somebody else out there and there's no risk as well, because if you say it depends on the method that you're in, some people who are doing this are gonna be using tools. They can compel the dog back into the position. Other people are, you know, hands free and, and you know, you can stay force free in this model because if you load the, that, that real pull to try and get towards the box and that fails and you are unable to restrain or stop the dog, you're in control of what's in the box.

So you can just not reinforce. So it allows a lot of conflict management and if you've got a dog that you know, wants to chase birds or, you know, like anything that if the dog is really drawn to that's away from you, you can create an artificial one of these to help that training in a totally safe and totally controlled environment.

And of course you then have to take that to the real world that has to be generalized that you haven't solved the problem doing this, but what you've done is developed all the communication, you've developed all of the motivation from the dog to be able to just pick that template up and put it into the real world. So that was how I was taught to use the box by Bart.

And then in doing that, I pretty soon after got a young dog and I thought, you know, I'm gonna just, I'm curious if I can start a puppy in this. And my training partner at the time, guy called Sam, we both had puppies from the same litter and we started trying to muck around with how long we could get the dogs to keep their heads in the box despite what else was going on.

So we developed a bit of a technique and again, like I'm, I probably didn't invent this, but I felt as though I did, but I'm sure other people were doing it parallel to me. And the idea being that we have the same start, we just put food into this box and then we start trickling food in.

So that what we essentially end up with something that looks a lot like an article indication and in fact, this is how I teach an article indication because why not? I teach a lot of tracking as well. So this is our way to have the dog, you know, learn to scent and to keep its nose to an article. We also, this is since the box feeding has become fairly well known and fairly popular, it's also a way that quite a lot of people are imprinting scent now in, in like special made boxes that actually has their target odor in the bottom of it. So what we're doing is just promoting that the dog keep its head in the box and we start building duration on that and trickling food in so that we get, you know, three to five and ultimately we want build it to, you know, somewhat indefinite period of time. Like my own dog, there's a video online of him keeping his head in the box for five minutes, like just stuck in there and he just is like indicating on the article. And what it does is it, it, it really, it, while it can be a step in tracking what we find with a lot of the really off tap, crazy high drive obsessive sort of dogs, especially in the bite work in police and military type applications, is those dogs that do that and don't also have some sort of low speed kind of scent component work, they tend to cook off more.

You know, like those dogs don't have the same working life as dogs that also track the, you know, when I deal with some SWAT teams that just sort of, their dogs are, you know, somewhat one dimensional wrecking balls, right? All they know how to do is storm into a building and bite someone. And those dogs don't lead as complete a life as a dog that also tracks and does a bunch of other stuff. So what we've found, and what I, my thought process around doing this was, well, what if I get like a nervous kind of dog, a dog that is having a lot of difficulty at just surviving in the world and I create this environment where the dog now has to breathe through its nose because we are, we're, we're, we're teaching it to scent and we slow down its breathing to indicate on this article that's in the box and the box acts as a little bit of a blindfold.

Like it kind of turns off the rest of the world. That's why we use a box. But you don't need to, this is the same principles that would go into teaching any article absent the box. But what we're kind of forcing the dog to do in this situation is slow down and breathe through its nose and it takes these long inhalations through its nose, which is the thing that we think that we get of tracking is this kind of forced nasal breathing where they just slow down, breathe calmly through their nose and it brings sort of something of a zen state to the dog and like, it, it, you see this kind of thing, we hear people talk about sniff and stuff like that. We know that this just really settles the dog down and lets them relax.

So what doing it in the box allows us to do is that, yeah, they're not getting to experience a bunch of different smells, but they get the physiological benefits of that slow nasal breathing. So when we start getting them able to just keep their head in the box and knowing that food will be delivered in place, from there we end the sessions by clicking them out of the box or whatever, right? Like a marker that tells 'em to come out. But what we start to do is now introduce some sort of conflict. So the first thing I do is just touch the dog. And so once I've got the dog that can hold its head in the box for, you know, three to five seconds at before it gets a delivery of food in that three to five seconds, I'm just gonna touch it somewhere. Just touch it on the back. And of course most dogs then turn and look and go like, Hey, what are you touching me for? And I do nothing. I just go like, Hey, I'm just standing here, I'm just touching you. And that new behavior of having a look and saying like, Hey, what are you doing is unreinforced, it doesn't lead anywhere. They just kind of stare at you and you stare at them and you don't move and there's no pressure, it's your own dog, right? Like they're just looking like, Hey, why are you touching me? And then very quickly they just go, oh, well I don't care about that.

And they go back to putting their head in the box and then you deliver the reinforcer into there. And so then our goal over time is that we increase the level of, you know, whether we want to call it distraction or whether we want to call it pressure, whatever it is, it's something that makes the dog want to pull its head out of the box.

It's something that makes the dog think like, I would really like to look at that. Now initially I do it with something really repetitive, like the dog's like, oh, I prefer, you know, being touched by my hand love, of course I want to, I want to engage in that. And then they have to learn, no, no, you're staying on the job that you're doing. And what I found when I started doing this with sort of pet dogs and do dealing with a lot of nervous reactive dogs is that while we are not addressing any of their triggers directly, and of course, you know, we hardly ever want to do that. We, like, I want to address all the issues that a dog's having are us are seldom the issue that the dog's having, right?

Like this brings us back to the source. And what it does is just teach a dog to calm down and to manage and regulate its own sort of internal state. And also to ignore things and just go like, Hey, that's not for me. That that doesn't, that doesn't that that you noise, that stimulus, that thing that I'm drawn to and maybe I'm drawn, you know, like it push, it repels me because I'm afraid of it or it draws me in with aggression be again because I'm afraid of it. All those things we can incrementally build to the point where the dog is like, no, I can handle this. I can, I can stay in this position that I'm in and I know that food will come to me, that good things will come to me in this box and I could ignore everything that's happening out there. And when we build that really slowly and incrementally, it's the truth, right? Like nothing is gonna hurt the dog because we're, we are protecting the dog in this moment. We are never putting the dog in a position where the thing that it's concerned about actually can get to it.

And so it's just a form of desensitizing and counter conditioning, right? Like people listening are probably going, this sounds like desensitization, counterconditioning. Well that's exactly what it is, but it's just in a particular way, it's just a particular method of doing that. And the reason I like the box is because when you say to people like, oh, well you have to, you know, someone's dog has an issue, you, oh, you have to desensitize and counter condition that you require access to the trigger to do that. And so not everybody has access to their triggers all the time. And what I've found typically is that bravery kind of generalizes.

So the better you can get a dog at a at dealing with staying calm through a bunch of random sort of stuff, the better that the dog will be in general. And, it learns like, oh well you are rattling a stick or shaking cans that otherwise would be a problem for me. I've learned to just manage that, keep my head in the box. So now my real trigger is also not such a difficulty for me. And, the reason I sort of became this proponent of teaching the box stuff and started teaching it when I first did was on my podcast called the Canine Paradigm.

It was episode four, now we're 270 something episodes in, right? So for anybody that goes back and listens to episode four, just be mindful of the quality of the episode and the quality of my instruction is, you know, it's five years ago and 270 practices later that I'm better now. Yeah. But the reason I started teaching this publicly was a good friend of mine had a Malinois rescue dog and she was in Darwin with the dog, and the dog had bitten the vet at being vaccinated. It was a very nervy, very fearful dog. And, it had had a really hard, you know, God knows what had happened to it prior, but it was really struggling with a lot of different stuff and she couldn't take it to the vet. She couldn't get it vaccinated.

It was a whole ordeal because it's a, it's a, you know, it's a very regional area. There aren't many vets there. And so the dog developed a reputation as a dog that bites vets. And so it was difficult to get anything done. And she wanted to fly me up to Darwin to assist her and, just like it's impractical, you know, like you, you can't afford to have me there long enough to make a significant impact. But what I did, and this was in 2018 and Facebook messenger at the time only allowed you to send one minute clips. And so I sent her this one minute video clip explaining how to do the box work stuff with her dog. And we were back and forth a little bit.

She sent me some videos on how she was doing it, and I tweaked a couple of things that she was doing, but I think it was about six weeks later, the dog got vaccinated with his head in the box. And so what she did was she built it to the point where that dog kept his head in the box and she could touch him and she could, you know, like pinch him and do all the things that were necessary to prep him for that. And then she sent me a video. Now of course they did it in the car park. They didn't go into the room, but the dog had no idea that he even got vaccinated. He was, he had his head in the box, she was standing there trickling food to him and the vet was able to pinch him by the neck and you know, it was a subcutaneous vaccination, put it straight in and no change of behavior from the dog. And then I was like, oh, that's amazing, that's great. I'm really happy that that worked for you. But then in the conversation I had with her, she also then told me that his life was completely different in every other way.

Like he was a very storm phobic dog and was no longer that like, you know, he's not like, he's like totally fine in storms, but it was, she doesn't have to sedate him anymore. He's still noticeably upset, but it's not like he needs to be locked in a box and, and put to sleep when there's a storm happening. And so many other things his life changed. And what was really interesting as well is that he wasn't a very affectionate dog.

He didn't really like to be touched very much. He wasn't the kind of dog that would cuddle on the couch, but he became that. And so what it did was it really changed the dog's personality just by teaching him, Hey man, you're strong. Like you can overcome stuff and delivering that dose in a really measured way where he could overcome it every time, right?

He could, he could manage to like find that internal strength and fortitude and think like, no, I've never been hurt by any of the things that have happened to me while I'm in this box in the past. If I can continue doing what I'm doing, I won't be hurt this time. And then they generalize that and they apply that template over other parts of their life.

So that's when, when she said to me, this is the results, and I spoke to her at length about it, I was like, okay, this is something I can teach. I can teach this publicly. Like I know the system well enough now and there's enough value in that that it really should be, that should be public information.

Melissa Breau: I do have a follow up kind of based on some of that though. So I know you said size of the box doesn't matter. So why does the box matter, right? Like what are we adding kind of by using a box instead of just like handing food to the dog or putting food on the floor?

Pat Stuart: Yeah. Yeah, that's a good question. So it, there's a couple of things. The first is that it's a really contextual cue that you're going into that, that that state, that arousal like the box really becomes, you know, depending on how you're doing this and there's a couple of other methods even for doing the box, but as soon as the dog sees the box, there should be a strong draw to it.

So that's one of the things, the sort of black out-ness of the box we think assists as well in that it kind of puts the blinders on a little bit. Like, you know, your blinders on a horse where you are like, Hey, don't worry about any of that stuff, just commit entirely to this. And so one of the things that I've sort of noticed with the more box work I do, sometimes we have to have the article in there because for some dogs the criteria of keeping your head in a box is not enough. You know, you get some, especially some very sharp malis that might even attack the inside of the box or bite the sides of it because they're frustrated at how loose that behavior is.

So especially for those dogs having a single point in the box and the blacked out box that is like, I think somewhat necessary to have them achieve that zen state in there where they really are just at peace while they're in the box and they're, they're not stimulated by other things going on outside of it because they can't see it. They can hear it of course, but they, you know, there's not much I can do to turn that off. But what I want to be able to do is essentially blindfold the dog. And we do that, you see, you know, really serious trackers will often track with their dog blindfolded because it just totally takes out that sense and makes the dog rely on its nose.

And when you see people do that, of course they're doing that. Usually when people have their dog track blindfolded, it's because the footsteps are so obvious, right? Like you've done it in wet grass and the footsteps are so obvious. But what we observe when dogs are tracking blindfolded is they usually are so much more calm while they're doing it. The franticness of getting to the end of the track disappears and they just really calm into this zen state.

So that's probably the reason why the box is important in that it just provides the contextual cue of what's happening. And when we do it, you know, like to, to explain in a little bit more detail how we actually do it. One of the things is we are really careful in the early stages not to give a command to do it.

And I, beyond knowing that, making sure that the dog knows it has permission to do it, like it's, you know, some dogs won't take food without being told that they can. Or some dogs when they see you set up, might put themselves into a sit and then when they see you put food in the box are convinced this is conflict.

Like I need to hold this sit. So you, you maybe need to give the dog permission to do it, but what we don't wanna do is turn it into a cue or a signal. We want the context to remain that. And what I want is that the decision to do it comes from the dog. So that's why, you know, when we're doing sort of desensitization counter condition and we are just doing it on a leash and we are moving around and we are slowly exposing the dog, sort of walking up, walking back sort of BAT type stuff, all that's great, but it, it's sort of the dog has to go with us and, and so we're sort of having to, you know, we're never forcing the dog to do it, but we're, the dog is, is going along with what we are doing. The reason I want the dog to, I want the box static and the dog to make the choice to go in there is I really want the dog to think I'm going along with what you are doing, man.

Like, and you are driving this ship. We're gonna go as hard as you want to, when you tell me you are ready for more pressure, more pressure will come. But if you're not, then it's not coming. And it allows the dog to really feel like it's the driver of the session. And I think that that is probably one of the reasons why it's so effective because it empowers the dogs.

And that's one of the things I've seen, like I, you know, I do this with everything from special forces military working dogs because it's one of the best ways to prevent them from getting gunfire aversions or being overly drawn to explosive breaching. That's one of the things that we do. Like the, the sort of third way that we use the box is the same as we'd use it for the nervy dogs, but for the strong dogs we use it to try and keep all the things that would draw them as keep ongoing signals. So one of the biggest issues we find with military working dogs is especially within the sort of the special forces community, and we see this in SWAT team dogs as well, is that in training you're gonna have to at some point show that dog multiple times, some sort of explosive breaching charge where you're gonna blow someone's wall or door in and then run in through the hole. And if you do even one rep of bite work with that where the dog goes through that hole and gets to bite on the other side, every explosion becomes the world's biggest clicker to that dog because it's, those dogs are nerves of steel, no explosion's gonna upset them, but we really like biting. And when they feel the arousal and they can smell the adrenaline of everybody involved and what, you know, in my experience, those kind of dogs before too long, they realize that they're hunting in a pack and they are, they're like, oh, I'm just a weird furry member of this special forces team.

And they get very, they feed off the arousal of the team. And so you'd think that's great because you're going into that gunfight like sure. But the issue is then for those guys, if they hit an IED now their dog doesn't know no, this is the kind of explosion where you stay dead still and nobody moves because there's probably more of those around.

So having a dog that gets too aroused by gunfire or explosions and stuff becomes a real issue. So what we do is we use it as a keep on going signal. So while one team's doing their explosive breaching, another team is feeding their dog in the box. And so while the dog's got his head in the box, he hears that explosion and he knows like, oh that explosion, you know, of course there'll be times where he pulls his head out and he tries to pursue that and we just don't let him pursue it. And then we often can end the session there or we wait for him to come back into the box and we start feeding again while he is in the box. So what it does for those type of dogs, and we do this with sport dogs, with their clatter sticks and their canned curtains and stuff like that.

So it doesn't matter whether you're doing ring or or PSA or whatever, we do this with a lot of agility dogs and I've seen plenty of people that are doing this like on the side of the field whilst other dogs are running the course because it brings your dog up in such a state of arousal that it, you know, it becomes somewhat unmanageable but also the dog's burning energy that you really need while you are on the field. So what we use the box for in these instances is to develop all the things that would draw my dog to or cause me conflict and problems in behavior. I turn those into keep on going signals. So when my dog is in the box comfortably, I can have an explosion go off and then I just keep feeding the dog. And, and he realizes, oh, okay, that explosion actually is just a keep on going signal to me. And we do the same in the bite work with these dogs like the clatter stick. So when the dog is aroused and wants to bite the decoy, the decoy is rattling the stick and then the dog bites.

Now that acts as a pretty strong cue for most dogs. When the stick gets rattled, that means you're gonna bite it, but that's not the case. You're gonna have to walk around the decoys. It doesn't matter which sport you're doing from Mondio to ring to PSA, there's a point where there's decoys walking around and they're not to be bitten and they're gonna try and use that stick to try and draw the dog in.

So what we do is, yep, we still use a stick in the bite work, but we also use it in the box. And while the dog's got his head in the box, we rattle the stick and of course the first few times he's aroused by it, he wants to go towards it. He has no success in doing that. He puts his head back in the box he's fed.

And so what, all these things that are designed in the sport and happen by accident in the real world as causing conflict for my dog actually become keep on going signals for my dog. So when I'm heeling and the decoy rattles a stick and tries to draw the dog outta the heeling, he may as well be telling my dog, good boy, keep on going.

You're doing great, right? Because that's how I've programmed those things to be. And so that's probably the third and last, which I stopped waffling for so long, but that's how we use the box in those three ways for, for developing a real drive and obsession and, and then for fixing sort of nerve issues, but then also finally as a keep on going signal or to develop things as a keep on going signal. And, and in my opinion, because of that broad spectrum of the way you can use it, there almost isn't a dog that can't benefit from doing the box work. And, and it's easy and it's simple and it's really easy to follow. It's really easy to do. There's tons of information out there about it, there's loads of people teaching it now. And even if you get it wrong, you're still gonna get decent results. The, the, the only way that I see it going wrong is when people try and, you know, when you, when you go into the nitty gritty of it, if the dog does decide, I'm not going back into the box, then you just don't give anymore food.

Like the food is in there, he's left it. And sometimes, and certainly maybe the way that I and others have explained it in the past is like, people try and take the box away too much while there is food in there. The only way that the session ends is when the dog says, Hey, I don't wanna do this anymore. Right? Like, and they leave rather than people trying to steal the food away from it. So done incorrectly. The only risk is, and you need to do it really, really incorrectly. The only risk is that you can create, you know, like a food aggression. 'cause you're taking food away from the dog. Yeah. But you really have to do some, you know, you really have to misunderstand it and do it stupidly. When I see people do it, their timing's not right. There's just a few things. It still works. Still works.

Melissa Breau: Great. I was gonna ask kind of as a follow up, 'cause we were talking in there for a little bit about like kind of why it, why the box works, right? I would guess that part of it's also about the consistency, right? Like the predictability and the, like, if we're feeding from her hand or even feeding from the ground, like there's so much inconsistency and I know a lot of times we see even like if somebody's using a manners miner or something like that, right? A lot of times the dog's like, that's better than a cookie from your hand. 'cause it's so much more consistent.

Pat Stuart: Yeah, And I think beyond just the consistency, I totally agree with you, but also I think when you're dealing with desensitized counter condition type issues that the way that food can be delivered from the hand often involves a lot of pressure.

You know, like it's, it's the, you're gonna have, you have to close distance with the handler and in this moment, like the handler might be one of the sources of the fear. And so you, there's, there's this inference of, you know, you're making it more difficult by your own body language. And I think often with the average pet dog owner, they're, when they are in the presence of the trigger, their stress is so high that that's inferred onto the dog. Very much so. That's why I love doing the box work because we can do this for weeks without going anywhere near the trigger and have amazing results. We can still prep the dog for when, if eventually we do have to go near the actual thing that causes the problem for your dog. By that stage, the dog probably has no problem with it anymore. And we never had to, we never had to look that monster in the eye. We just got to sort of, you know, stay averted from it the whole time.

Melissa Breau: Can you just talk a little more about kind of the approach you use kind of starting with a puppy? Like how do you use it to, I guess, maybe prevent issues or solve problems that maybe come up in training? It sounds like you introduced it to almost all the dogs you work with then.

Pat Stuart: Yeah, Yeah, we play with it and, and, and in one form or another, you know, so like what you probably see with a lot of working dog people, I'm doing it with these puppies we've got now is, you know, we get like the kiddie pool full of, of balls like, you know, soft balls and put food in there and they have to sort of rummage around it. So that's, that's essentially the same thing, you know, like we're, we're teaching these dogs, hey, you gotta hunt with your nose and you, you gotta push through a little bit of difficulty to get food.

It's not, it's not easy to get to. We do it with puppies as soon as they're big enough to fit into the box, we start to do it. And like sometimes I've, I've got a smaller box if I need to do it earlier because sometimes, especially with some of the bloodlines that I'm working with, they're very sharp, right? And they can be like, I guess you would describe them as quite reactive dogs because they're just very alert, they're very, they know what's going on.

So we can dull that down just a little bit by starting the box work a bit earlier and, and because, you know, all the dogs get torture track. This is usually how the part of the article indication is done, especially with if you get a older dog that is very impulsive and you know, again, very, you know, on a hair trigger, turning off the rest of the world via the box can be very helpful doing that. It speeds up your article indication. But yeah, with puppies we started out right away. But what I don't tend to do is go to the trickling phase of building duration until they're a little bit older.

Like at least 16 weeks. I don't, I don't like, for me, I like crazy puppies, you know, I don't, I don't wanna settle a puppy down too much. And so I don't like to build duration in anything with puppies. I like to keep 'em pretty fiery and keep 'em, you know, very happy, experimenting and moving to the next thing.

I think that that makes them easier to train. It makes a better, makes them their best version of themselves, but also easier to train later on when they're a lot more, they have a bias for action rather than stability. And so I don't teach the box stuff to puppies and build a stability portion until they're much older. But certainly as when they're young, I'm gonna be in a fun and encouraging way, creating some form of difficulty that they have to either endure or overcome before they get to their food. And of course they're always gonna be successful. It's not like we set them up. We are not, not setting them up for failure and we're never putting them in a position to encounter like a real threat or something that could actually harm them.

But we make 'em work. We make 'em put in some effort to get to these things. And so by scattering a handful of kibble in a shell pool that's full of balls that dog's gonna have to nudge around. He's gonna have to use his nose to find each piece and, and they love that. It's a fun, it's a challenge. And then we sort of increase that a little bit to the point where, you know, with young dogs, I might put the box as soon as they're big enough to do it, I might put the box on an unstable surface like a wobble board or a bozo ball or I might put one of the things I use just because it fits properly in the box I have is like a rebox step.

And so if I put that upside down in the top of the box as the dog goes in to get it, that's gonna move and slide around on his belly. And so again, same deal, it's just a little bit uncomfortable, nothing that could hurt or injure the dog, but he's gonna show him like, hey, discomfort actually leads to a really amazing outcome for you.

So don't shy away from discomfort whenever you feel a little bit uncomfortable whenever things get a little bit more difficult or in your situation that you're, you're thinking this is an ideal for me, that's a good outcome is likely to come of that for you. And we program that very young so that's what the dogs just have a bias for. So my own dog, who was the one that I first started doing this with seven years ago, he, I mean he has great nerves. He's a great dog in many ways, but he has this bias for doing things the hardest way, right? Like when and if there's, if there's something that can be climbed, he's climbing it and, and you know, if you, I famously have this video of him that there's a, as a toy under the couch that he's, he's trying desperately to get but within the rules of the house, you know, he, like, he, if he wanted it, he could just light up the chainsaw in his face and cut through the couch in a second and get to it.

But he's like pawing under the couch and he is crying 'cause he wants this toy, but right next to him is the same toy. There's another one right there that he could have, but he wants the one that's hard to get because he's just been programmed to feel very comfortable in that, that like thing should, I should have to work hard to get things and things that are free are not fun.

I really wanna work hard to get things. And as a result that makes him a super trainable dog, like an incredibly trainable dog because he loves solving puzzles and when things get a little bit difficult to understand, he hits that level of like minor frustration of like, hey, what's happening here? Not only is he very comfortable, but he actually maybe even prefers to be at that level. He likes to simmer at that mild level of frustration waiting for the, when he understands it, the relief of the pressure of frustration is of getting it is just astronomical to that dog. And so as a result he's super easy to train. Like he, it's like he can speak English and has for a long time he just, he really dials in and can solve puzzles very, very well. Now also I did a ton of shaping with that dog to get him to that point as well, but I'm no doubt that the box work was part of that picture. Yeah. Kind of teaching him how to kind of work through it, even if yeah. Even if it's a little more difficult than he might have been originally expecting.

Melissa Breau: Going back to the idea of kind of how you handle it when the dog lifts her head of the box, is that an indication for you that things got too hard? Is it an indication that you need to make things easier? Is it just, I know you kind of talked about how you deal with it, but is there anything that you then change about the situation kind of based on that?

Pat Stuart: Yeah, so you do have to be a little bit careful because, you know, there's degrees to which a dog will bring its head outta the box. You know, sometimes that's just because they're like, oh, what's that? It could be something more repetitive, like something that they actually prefer is drawing them outta the box. And then there's things that make them wanna leave the whole session.

So there's a spectrum of reasons a dog will bring its head outta the box. And knowing that is very, very important. For the most part what I want is to control the dog. So like I, it's on leash control the dog in a way where it can't get to this. The other thing, if it's drawn to it, but also, you know, I wanna keep that if it's something that is designed as a pressure, something the dog has to overcome, something the dog like is concerned about, I want to keep that at a distance and a duration and, you know, a distraction level that is manageable. We're all human, of course, we make mistakes, we misread the dog's capability.

Of course there's times where you put too much pressure on the dog and the dog quits the session. Now for me, that just ends the session, that just ends that like, hey, no worries, we can do this, we can try this later on. And, you know, six hours later I readdress it and I always consider, you know, in that moment, this is my fault. I have created too much for you and I need to either up the value of why you would want to keep your head in the box. So bigger reward deliveries, you know, whatever it is that for your individual dog that's gonna make them wanna do it more. Or I need to decrease the value of the thing that was causing the issue in the first place.

And I've got six hours to figure that out between sessions. And so the, when the dog pulls its head outta the box,, you know, the spectrum of things that can happen goes from nothing. And I stand there and wait for 'em to put their head back in all the way up to, well that's the end of the session.

And I say the dog we're done and we walk away and, and it really just depends on why it's happened and how quickly the dog either recovers and goes back into the box or realizes that's not something I should be concerned about. You know, that's not for me if it's repetitive or that's not something I should be concerned about, if it's not and just gets back into the box and then I reinforced them straight away for that food, accompanies them straight back in. And so one of the things that people get their sort of a bit wrapped up around when they first do the box stuff is the dog's head coming in and out and then they see me do it.

And like in the first three sessions, I almost don't care how much the dog's head comes in and out. I'm not, not reinforcing when it does, but I, because I'm not bringing any, any pressure in and there's no reason like there nothing is set up to go wrong. The only challenge is actually putting its head in the box itself, which, you know, for some dogs is a big enough challenge. I don't care whether the dog looks its head out, I'm just not reinforcing that.

In the same way when I'm teaching a sit, I'm just not reinforcing while the stand is happening, Where soon as the sit happens, I pay, pay, pay, pay, pay. If I go too long in duration and the stand happens, it's not like the dog's in trouble for standing, it's just not gonna get paid for standing. And I do whatever it takes to manipulate the sit back, whether that's a bit of a lure or I just wait and wait for the dog to get bored and then I pay, it's the exact same thing with the box. And usually what I find is that doesn't take long at all for the dog to the first and your most obvious reason the dog is gonna bring its head outta the box is when you are trickling food the dog's got its head in the box and you're trickling food from pretty close. The dog's immediately gonna go, Hey man, I can't help but notice I'm putting my head in this box. You are putting food in the box, I'm eating it. We could just drop this whole box step and you could put that food directly into my mouth. And of course they're gonna do that.

But I want that. I'm counting on that happening and all I do is I close my hand on the food and I don't let 'em take it. And immediately I've got the benefit of showing like, nope, this is an indirect reward. This isn't luring, this is you having to do a thing to earn something. Not just pursue a thing to earn it. And so that is very valuable like that. And that's how I teach that in the box, like right away. So as I say, there's lots of reasons why the dog's head will come outta the box and everything from doing nothing and just waiting for 'em to put it back in to ending the session is on the table for me at that point.

Melissa Breau: Are there times where, I mean, you talked about a lot of different applications and a lot of different, like ways or times when the box might be really useful. Are there, you know, certain things that if a dog's afraid of it or certain things that if you need to kind of work through them, the box is not a fit that you kind of intentionally avoid using it?

Pat Stuart: Yeah, so there, there's dogs at real opposite ends of the spectrum that share the same problem. And so sometimes even getting the box is too hard for some dogs. You know, like if you get really, really nervy dogs, even just putting their head in the box can be too hard. So in those instances, I'll turn the box on its side, you know, I'll do whatever it takes to try and make it, you know, a challenge that's overcomeable for the dog. And so if that means, if the baseline is too hard, I won't rush to doing this. I want the dog to have to sort of work through it. But if it becomes clear to me, hey, he's not gonna do that, I'll turn the box on its side. I'll even have a trail of food that leads to the box and see how far the dog can get to it. In an extreme case where I wanted to use the box and the dog was even fearful of the box, something I like to do, it's probably a different topic, but I do a lot of like what we call that like fear shaping, where I'll free shape the dog towards something that it's afraid of. I find that a very safe and effective technique because the dog will never put itself in a position that it doesn't want to when it's going away from you in order to earn something that you have. Right? So like I've done that in an extreme case.

So some dogs, the really, really nervy dogs can have a really hard time getting into the box. You know, like they can have a hard time doing that, so it's maybe not appropriate for them or, or it's a longer road to starting. And then at the opposite end of the spectrum, there's, and I've only met a couple of these in my life and I deal with a lot of very powerful dogs, but sometimes what the box does is really empower and toughen a dog. And I've met a couple of, especially the, those very high end, very expensive working dogs that don't need any more advice about how tough they're, you know. And so there's been a few dogs that I, that I've seen and I've actually told people, Hey stop that. That dog is a monster and you are creating even more of a monster.

That said though, one of the most remarkable things, and this kind of blew my mind a little bit, and it's one of the reasons why I've been such an advocate for the box, A lot of people get sick of me talking about it and I'm sick of talking about it, but it's such a powerful thing, is that one of the SWAT teams that I've, I work with, they have this dog that is a different thing. He's, he's, he's on another level. The dog is, it's incredible. The the dog is something to behold and he's a dual purpose dog. He can, he, he does, he can search as well as bite it, but they're a SWAT team. So the way that dog bites is, you know, the dog gets kicked in, he goes flying in and nails people. And what they do with that dog is they have, in their armored vehicle, they have a box. And after the dog and on live jobs, they do this after the dog has done what he needs to do, he's bitten, he's done whatever.

And usually that dog is in hyper aroused, like beyond what most dog owners have ever seen from a dog in aggression. But it's controlled aggression, right? Like the dog is totally under control. They give him his box and he puts his, this dog, it, it was one of the most incredible things we've ever seen. He puts his own head in the box and he calms himself down in the box and over a period of like two or three minutes, he just stands there with his head in the box like breathing and you can watch his whole body relax. And then he pulls his own head outta the box and almost like nods at his handler. Like, okay, I can be trusted now and now he can search.

And without that he's like, he's in fight and he can't bring himself down to the point where he can search the building that he's just been in a fight in, but via the box he can calm himself and do that. So he's a dog that I would normally say, oh, don't do box work with him 'cause he's, you don't need this dog any tougher.

But what they did with him is taught him how to calm himself in the box. And so there's no pressure in the box, with him there's like, there's no need to put any, there's no need to teach that dog to overcome anything. But what they did was just taught him to calm himself in the box. So the spectrum of uses for the box is incredible.

And, like I say, I've never seen it beyond people doing madness of stealing food from a dog while it's eating. You know, like the obvious things that will cause problems. There's so many different applications and there's so many people playing with it and doing various things with it now around the world, you know, not be, not just be like, there's plenty of people doing what I've instructed them to do, but there's people who have gone back to the source beyond me and, and have developed their own techniques around it. So the beauty of the box stuff as well is that while we can talk about a few ways that I like to do it, the the truth is there is as many ways to do the box as people doing the box.

Melissa Breau: I love that. It's super interesting to kind of learn a little bit about it and, and kind of all the different ways that you can, you can kind of play with some of those concepts. Alright, we've been talking for almost an hour here, so in the interest of kind of trying to wrap things up a little bit, any maybe final thoughts or key points that you might wanna kind of just leave folks with?

Pat Stuart: Yeah, the dimensions don't matter. Don't email me asking what size the box has to be. I get f from doing the podcast that I did on it five years ago, which in which mind you, I'd say the dimensions and I say they don't matter. I still get at least an email a week about that. So that's the main thing is, is don't let not have, like you see, a friend of mine, a guy in my club is a, he has a company that makes gym equipment and stuff internationally. So he has all of the manufacturer and distribution channels and he approached me and said, Hey man, I can make these flat pat boxes. You can ship them anywhere in the world.

They'll put your logo and everything on 'em. You can send 'em anywhere in the world. And like we can, people can assemble the box. I've got all of the infrastructure for that. And I told him no, because I don't want people to think there's something special about this particular box. You can use a bucket, you can use a, like you can use a storing a storage shelf.

It doesn't matter. The box is not what's important. It's the technique around it and the principles that surround it. So that's kind of my final thoughts is like, while we've talked about what it is, this is probably enough to trigger people to go and find the detailed information about how to actually do it. And there's tons of information about that available.

But my key point is you can, you can, these days you can buy boxes. I've seen people selling them for up to like $500 that have these all singing, all dancing. They're made from, you know, like indu, like a food grade plastic. So they can be washed perfectly. They have all these different size adjustments. They've got containers for you to put the Senate, like all these cool stuff and you can use those and it'll be super effective. Or you can go into your laundry and pick up the bucket that's in there and that will work just as well, right? So like don't get too wrapped up around the box itself. It's the principles around it that matter. And you can apply those, you can pick that template up and apply those principles absent the box.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Awesome. Well thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate you taking the time, Pat.

Pat Stuart: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it. If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.

Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast, music provided royalty free by bensound.com. The track featured here is called Buddy Audio Editing provided by Chris Lang. Thanks again for tuning in and happy training.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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