E351: Sara Brueske - "Building Controlled Behaviors in Sports Dogs"

Ever wondered how leading trainers can take a dog that is all about the "GO" and balance it out with beautiful focus and control? In this episode Sara and I chat about her approach to building a dog with the skills for both action and control. 


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa bro, and you're listening to the fnc 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 Sarah Brueske here with me to talk about teaching controlled behaviors in sports dogs. Hi Sarah. Welcome back to the podcast!

Sara Brueske: I'm Melissa. Thank you for having me. I'm super excited to chat about this today.

Melissa Breau: So to start us out, just to remind everybody a little bit about you and a little bit about your current furry crew.

Sara Brueske: Absolutely. I have a lot of dogs. They are, a lot of them are retired from my previous career, which was a performance trainer for Purina. So I would perform at Purina Farms every day with my dogs doing different dog sports like Frisbee, dock diving, agility, that sort of thing, trying to convince people to be more active with their dogs. And so I have a lot of dogs left over from that job. They are retired, they're couch potatoes now. But I do have a couple of younger dogs that are up and coming in training.

So I have two Australian Koolies, one who is three years old, her name is Vibrant, and then a one and a half year old named Cake. And then I have a little Papillon who's up and coming as well. She is just one year old named Pop Rock. And so those are my current in training sport dogs. But I do have a variety of other dogs.

I've done protection sports. I have a Malinois who has a Mondioring level three title, and then a couple other dogs kind of mixed in. So lots of experience with lots of different dogs.

Melissa Breau: How is Pop over a year old already? That's not fair.

Sara Brueske: The memories are popping up that got her a year ago. I'm like, how can this be?

Melissa Breau: So I wanted to start off the conversation today by talking a bit about what you're kinda looking for in an ideal sports dog, right? So what traits or skills do you wanna create for a dog who is trial ready, kind of when they get to that point? What skills or traits do you want them to have?

Sara Breuske: I think my biggest thing for what I prefer in the sport dog, and that might be different for everybody, everybody has their type of dog that they enjoy working with. I enjoy a dog who is go, go, go ready to conquer any obstacle or anything like that without a second thought. So I tend to do better with more active, more action based dogs versus thoughtful dogs. And then I also do better with dogs that tend to be a little bit more resilient in their training.

So not so handler sensitive just because I tend to rush training a little bit. I try to skip steps as much as I can. And for the dogs that are a little bit more handler sensitive or less resilient, that can be a little more damaging for them as far as their emotions go in training. So I actually have one of my dogs that I ended up placing because for a variety of reasons,

but her and I just were not a good fit. And that's Frizzle. She's actually here staying with me for the week and we're having fun revisiting all of our old training stuff. And she's definitely a lot more resilient now. But man, her and I, we just did not kind of make a great team when we were in training and I did the best I could, but ultimately I do best with dogs that are a little bit more resilient. And so that's what I look for now, specifically when I'm training or picking a sport dog.

Melissa Breau: So while we all kind of want that perfect puppy, right, that dog who comes outta the womb with like all of the things built in, most of us tend to instead maybe just get an awesome puppy, not a perfect puppy. And I think a lot of the times when we're talking about sports dogs, we get kind of a bias for action or sometimes you get a more thoughtful dog. How do you kind of evaluate that dog in front of you and figure out what types of skills they need to kind of build that ultimate sports Dog?

Sara Brueske: Yeah, absolutely. And if you find that perfect puppy, let me know because I have yet to meet the perfect puppy. I have some puppies that are pretty darn close, but every puppy is going to have the thing that you have to work on. And so when picking a puppy, really it's about being honest with yourself and knowing what your strengths are so that you can use your strengths to help boost up that puppy's weaknesses.

So especially if you're seeking out an action based dog, their weakness is gonna be control and thoughtfulness. So my strength is adding that to my dog. So I love having a puppy that I have to add more control to, more thoughtfulness to, and focusing on that to build more of a well-balanced dog. Cake, my young dog right now, she was pretty close down the middle as a baby baby, so kind of write a nice balance between balance and action. But I could see, and I know her lines that tend towards action. And so right away I started focusing on thoughtful and calm and duration behaviors because I knew she was gonna bring that go, go, go. And she definitely has. And so I'm really glad that I have focused more on calm duration control,mall of that when she was a younger dog because now that's coming into super handy now that the toy drive has hit through the roof, she's finding agility. So fun and discs so fun. Now I can go ahead and go back to all of those control games that we trained when she was younger and she's like, oh, that's, I have to sit and stay.

I can do a chin rest here. I can do my baseline games here. And I'm bringing back that thoughtfulness into her, into her games and her training. And it's balancing back out just beautifully. She's really a nice clearheaded dog in work and I don't know if she would've been that way if I would've just focused on action, action, action with her. So when picking that puppy and really coming up with your foundation behaviors they're working with, so you have your puppy and you're realizing they're more action-based. I really like to focus on that control stuff and their babies making it fun. Obviously that's why it's controlled games and not control period that way it's becoming fun to play those control games. They're learning about control and working with you as a handler to get what they want right from the beginning.

If you have a more thoughtful puppy, that's when we wanna tweak those games and make 'em more action based and more fun and that way and reduce the level of control so we can use the same games, we're just gonna approach them in a slightly different way and we're gonna focus more on getting our puppy to engage and be action based. And so really it's kind of taking a peek at your, at your puppy, start training them, see what areas do they excel, did they nail that down, stay right away or that chin rest right away. They might be a more thoughtful, more controlled puppy.

Now if they nail that recall right away and that choose to heel where they're bouncing next to you and they're really enjoying that movement and the stay stuff and the duration stuff's a little bit more difficult for them, that might be a more action-based puppy. And so we wanna adjust their foundation training accordingly to help fit them and boost up their weaknesses.

Melissa Breau: I love that. You mentioned in there the idea of a clearheaded dog. Do you mind just explaining what you mean by that phrase really quick?

Sara Brueske: Yeah. When I say clearheaded, I mean a dog that is still able to be thoughtful and listen to cues without a lot of help or guidance when they're in high drive mode.

So when I bring out those Frisbees for Cake, that's her highest drive mode. Can she do the baseline games? And when I say baseline games, I mean the treat toss game, the pattern games that I've established with her since she was a puppy, are those easy for her to do or do I have to kind of babysit them and help her out for Cake?

She can nail those pretty much right off the bat, even if she's in a high level of drive. She listens to her verbal cues, she listens to her directionals without a lot of extra help or guidance. Vibrant. On the other hand, my 3-year-old Koolie, no, she's not a clear thinking dog. She hits high drive and she is out of there.

Like there is not a lot. I have to really go down and help her stair step down in arousal, meaning I start, if she's in high drive, then I'm going to ask her to do a game that's higher or high-ish drive and then medium drive and then normal drive and then low drive to help her come down in that arousal level where Cake, she doesn't need that extra help. She can just kind of go from high drive to lower drive easily without those extra steps and extend.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Super helpful. Thank you for explaining. Yeah, so I think a lot of times we're trying to kind of stack the deck for dog sports, right? So a lot of times people do tend to go towards that action-based or action biased puppy. How do you approach that stuff? How did you approach it with Cake? How would you approach helping the dog learn?

Sara Brueske: It's not always go time all the time and actually start to, you know, introduce that control. That's what this class is all about. So control games for all the sports is about creating those games, those pattern games that help my dog access, that control part of their brain, the thoughtful part of their brain. And then what we do is we artificially increase their arousal, not really artificially. We help their arousal increase in kind of a more controlled way. So I'm gonna do different games that bring out the action part of the brain and then help them come back down using those other games that we built that are a little bit more thoughtful.

And so by kind of methodically increasing their arousal and then bringing it back down, they're learning to go into high arousal and then helping manage their thoughtfulness while they're there and come back down in arousal. And pretty soon we won't have to babysit it nearly as much. But all these games are based on duration behavior. So play stays control around reinforcers. So the food bowl game, pay attention to me to get the food that's in the bowl. That's one of the basis for all of my classes is that food bowl game. And then creating fun games that do allow them to release some of that energy in a way that we want them to, rather than them just going, I have all this energy, I have to go somewhere. Maybe through the roof.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Or off the walls. Can you walk me through just an example of a game?

Sara Brueske: Yeah, absolutely. So the food bowl game, I mentioned that one. This is my favorite way for teaching my dog that they can access what they want by working through me, the handler. So initially we just teach them, Hey, I'm putting this food in the bowl.

My hand is in their collar that teaches my dog to look at me. At that point I mark and we move away from the food bowl. So then I'm gonna go ahead and reward them just for staying focused on me, just for staying focused on me. At one point when they are with me, I'm gonna go ahead and release them to the bowl using a separate word.

So this teaches them two different things. It teaches them that I'm reinforcing and that I will allow them to go back to the bowl if they just stick with me long enough. And then two, it helps teach 'em verbal cue verbal cues. So teach 'em the difference between yes, food from my hand versus take, which means take the food from the bowl.

So that's pushing them into that thoughtful state of mind because they're really having to pay attention to the words that are coming outta my mouth. It's much harder to do than just watching my body for body cues, right? And so this game specifically is teaching my dog really pay attention because what I say matters and that's gonna help us in the future when we're using verbal cues for like agility or obedience or whatever sport we're going into. 'Cause we're already teaching my dog to pay attention to the words that are coming in our mouth and to work with me to get the thing that they want.

Melissa Breau: Can you maybe just elaborate a little more on kinda the finished behaviors that this stuff can build to? So what specific sports behaviors are we looking to kind of set the foundations for? Yeah, so not just the verbal cues, right? So what we're gonna end up doing is increasing the amount of work around that food bowl. So instead of just paying attention to me, they're getting the food, whatever, I'm gonna start playing some of my pattern games. So we might move to choose to heel around the food bowl or we might move into the treat toss game.

So now they're moving away from me and learning to come right back to me even with that distraction present. And so from there I can increase the behaviors, the complexity of the behaviors and difficulty so that they're learning to work with me around that distraction. So now conceptually that distraction could be replaced by anything. It could be the judge in the ring.

So my dog's learning to heel around that distraction before going back. They're learning to stay with me even if I don't have reinforcers on me. So getting them ring ready in the future, I can chain together behaviors, do a whole obedience routine. It could be my toy back by my leash for agility. If you do like UKI, you can bring a toy in.

And so I can do a couple of agility obstacles, maybe work my start line stay, then send my dog back to that toy. So that's a foundation for that. So there's a lot of different ways this can go and that's why it's such an important foundation game for my dogs. But yeah, it can go for pretty much any finished behavior.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. So as you mentioned, the control games for all sports is on the schedule this session and you're using the name Control Games. So what do you actually mean by the word control in this context?

Sara Brueske: For control, I want my dog to be thoughtful and listen to my cues for direction on how to get their reinforcer. That's specifically what this class is teaching. And so we will be using some behaviors in this class, but it's gonna be mostly focused on reinforcement delivery and how to access those reinforcers. And then we'll give the steps on how to add behaviors and how to elaborate on, but control just means look to me for guidance on the next step.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. So what types of behaviors or problems might somebody see if their dog doesn't understand this piece or kind of lacks that understanding of control?

The dogs that really struggle to engage with the handler and focus on the handler in new environments around people, around other dogs around reinforcement. So if your dog continually runs back to the toy or continually runs to where the food is or they only focus on you when you have food or that they are breaking, their start line stays in higher arousal situations, they're chasing other dogs on the other side of the fence when you're running agility or whatever it might be.

Those are the type of dogs that would really benefit from this. This is geared specifically towards sport dogs and sport dog behaviors. So those family dogs might not get a whole lot out of this class, even though there are still good foundation behaviors to teach, it's more geared towards the sport dogs.

Melissa Breau: Got it. Okay. Talk to me a little more about the class. What else are you gonna cover? Who should consider it? That kind of thing.

Sara Brueske: Yeah, so this class is based on my protection sports class, so the control games for protection sports. There are some big tweaks in it though. So that class specifically has decoy or helper activities. So sending your dog to the person, they will ultimately bite for fun obviously.

So that class I took that, the same foundation exercises for keeping those the same, but I'm gonna show you how to tweak 'em specifically for other sports that don't involve sending your dog to bite a person.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Alright, so any final thoughts or key points you wanna leave listeners with?

Sara Brueske: No, I think this is a great class. If you have a young dog, a puppy, absolutely fantastic. Or if you have an older dog that's doing sports and you just wanna kinda revisit the control, the handler engagement stuff, definitely a class to to check out.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Alright, well thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Sara Breuske: Thank you for having me. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it. If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to 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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