This episode is a little different than our usual weekly interviews; this time we turned to three long time FDSA students to talk to them about their training journeys and biggest training takeaways!
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 we'll be talking to three long-time FDSA students about their experience training and working with their dogs.
First up, we're talking to Alla Podkopaeva.
Alla has been taking classes at FDSA since August of 2015, when she took Engagement at bronze for the first time — and last session, Denise asked her to be a teaching assistant for that same class. She since has earned her Fenzi Dog Sports Trainer Certificate and is currently training for all the things … and sharing takeaways from her journey on her new blog, thedognerd.ca.
Welcome to the podcast Alla!
Alla Podkopaeva: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Breau: To start us out, Alla, can you just tell us a bit about your dogs and what you're working on with them now?
Alla Podkopaeva: Absolutely. I've got two dogs and a cat at the moment. Dante is my 2-and-a-half-year-old Australian Shepherd, Lilly is a 1-and-a-half-year-old Great Dane, and the cat is a shelter special.
We're working on pretty much lots of everything, with an emphasis on rally, obedience, TEAM, agility, nosework, and tricks. We have, of course, other interests that we also participate in, but those are our main focuses. As you can tell, I don't like to pick very much; I just do everything!
And the cat is working on her novice trick title, which we are almost there but not quite, so we'll be there soon.
Everything. Everything is what we do.
Melissa Breau: How did you originally get into dog sports?
Alla Podkopaeva: By force, basically. I got my first dog and I was really excited to have my first dog. I was thinking about all of the walks we would go on and all of the fetch we would play and then some tug, and how we would snuggle on the couch afterwards. And then I got Porsche, and Porsche didn't like to be touched. She was reactive and fearful on walks, and she didn't play at all, ever. What she did was she laid in the corner far away from you, and we had nothing else to do except train. I had done some training of horses, so it was kind of natural to be like, "OK, how else do you interact with this animal?" We started training, and then we found FDSA pretty shortly on and got sucked down that rabbit hole! And the next dog was specifically for dog sports.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. When you got Porsche and you got started, were you R+ right from the start? Have you always been a positive trainer? Was there something that specifically got you switched over? When you found FDSA, or how did that work?
Alla Podkopaeva: It was actually a little bit odd how it worked for me. In the horse world I was in the positive reinforcement world, so I wasn't really doing any punishment or riding or negative reinforcement with them. It was all strictly, "Here's a food reinforcement, and what can you do for me?" But when I got a dog, I started out balanced, mostly because I didn't feel like outside of a training scenario that you could get the reliability that you require for life with strictly positive reinforcement.
That lasted a short four months before I found FDSA. I was really lucky to find FDSA early, and there was no one moment where I said, "I am no longer going to use punishment or any coercive methods." It was more along the lines of, "But they're not really needed, and if I don't need them, why would I use them?" So the more I learned, the more creative I got with my problem solving, including in real life, and the less and less coercive methods I needed to use. It was a very natural and very quick progression down that path.
Melissa Breau: So I know you recently started a blog on dog training where you're sharing some of this stuff — and for those listening, you can find it at thedognerd.ca — and you recently did a post on this, but what's your favorite part of dog training?
Alla Podkopaeva: The fun part! The part where you get behaviors. The part where you can make progress very quickly and very fast, and where the dog is very engaged, and they don't know yet what they're doing, but they're figuring it out and you can see that thought process as you're working along. My dogs have, like, I don't know, a thousand behaviors started and probably three cues in total, one of which is "Go outside."
Melissa Breau: I think that's probably pretty common. You're not alone.
Alla Podkopaeva: I wouldn't be surprised. I'm not a fan of everything that comes after you actually get the dog to do the behavior reliably, so all of the stuff that's associated with polishing — adding cues, your proofing, your generalization, your distraction work — I basically avoid it until I need it, pretty much because I'm practical.
If I'm teaching something, I'm teaching something for a purpose. Sometimes our purpose is fun: Can we do this? Can I shape a new trick? Other times it's, I'm going to need heeling for competition for the life of this dog, so we're going to do it right, and we're going to do it right from the start.
So basically I go for high, high precision. That's my joy in training, to see those precise behaviors form, but not so much all the stuff that comes built around that behavior.
Melissa Breau: Is there a way that you address that in training or that you get yourself to deal with that, even though you don't like it?
Alla Podkopaeva: I tend to set goals that incorporate those kinds of things. For example, one of my goals is real-life competition, so I enter a trial not too far off, and assuming that I'm reasonably confident that we have at least the basic skills to get us there, and then I go and say, "What do I need to be successful in that trial?" That means we need to do some "floor is lava," we need to do some proofing, we need to do some generalization, we need to go outside and train at some point, we need to take a class. And in order to meet those goals, I have to work on the stuff I don't like working on.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned "floor is lava" in there and I actually don't know that I've heard that before. Do you mind explaining what you mean?
Alla Podkopaeva: "Floor is lava" is a thing I made up. Sometimes I don't want to go outside and I don't want to bring in distractions, but I still need to train and I still need to proof things. So what I do is I spread out treats on the floor of my training room, and then I do whatever it is that I want to train on top of that treat carpet, and the dogs have an additional challenge of not eating everything they're walking on.
Melissa Breau: I like that. That's actually really neat.
Alla Podkopaeva: It's one of the double-duty exercises that I do where I'm working on skills at the same time as I'm working on proofing, or as I'm working on distractions, or as I'm working on things like that.
Melissa Breau: It falls very in line with the other blog post you shared a while ago on building complexity into the exercise, or building difficulty into the exercise, even if you can't go somewhere else or up the distraction level in a different way.
Alla Podkopaeva: Yeah, exactly.
Melissa Breau: As someone who has taken a lot of classes now with FDSA, you have your Fenzi Dog Sports Certificate, do you have any tips for other students for maximizing their learning, either tied to a specific level or just generally dealing with the online platform?
Alla Podkopaeva: I have lots and lots of advice, but I'll try to be quick. Learning, for me, is a social behavior. I've never been a person who is good at online learning. I love the camaraderie that comes from everybody working together on the same thing at the same time.
What FDSA does well, and what works for me incredibly well, and what I encourage everybody to take much better advantage of than most people do nowadays is the study groups. Use the fact that when you're working with other people, it's a lot more fun to work together towards a single goal.
Even if you're working with each your own dog, post your video to the study groups. Even if you're the only one posting, still post it, because when somebody starts it, other people tend to follow. Find a buddy. There is a specific FDSA buddy group. Find a buddy. Accountability is huge, especially with self-paced online learning.
Make sure that you pick classes that inspire you. It doesn't necessarily have to be the thing that gets you towards your end goal the fastest, but if you want to go down a different path, if you've been working on obedience forever and you want to try something new, take a nosework class. The more motivation and inspiration you're able to build in yourself with regards to a particular topic of a class, the more likely you are to stick with that class and learn as much as you can out of it.
Another little tip that I have is make sure that you optimize your workflow as much as you can. By workflow, I mean your video — taking your video, editing, posting. So try different tools for editing and shooting until you find something that works seamlessly for you. I highly recommend KineMaster if you're doing video editing on your phone. My workflow is entirely on my phone. I shoot, edit with KineMaster, and post either to Facebook or YouTube all right there.
I have multiple tripods even at home. I highly recommend having a tripod that's attached to a wall, so that you can just put your phone in or your camera in and press the button and you're good. You don't need to set up, worry about positioning, worry about being in the frame, worry about any of that. Preset your tripods. I've got a permanent tripod in my training space, I've got a travel tripod that goes with me to classes, and I've got a floating tripod that moves around the training space when I need to take a close-up of something or if I'm going outside and shooting there.
The key is to optimize your workflow for yourself as much as possible. I used to transfer my videos to the computer and edit in Premiere Pro, and that's just way too cumbersome.
Melissa Breau: It's a big program.
Alla Podkopaeva: Yeah. Especially saving, oh my god. The more you optimize, the faster and easier those things will get, and the less of a big deal it will feel like to take video, edit, and post to where you want feedback, which allows you to participate in that social part of learning. And of course get a wide-angle lens. If you're filming indoors, and you're filming on your phone, and you're struggling with getting everything in, wide-angle lenses are cheap and good and useful.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. To summarize that, the two big pieces there were making sure that people get involved in the community online, on Facebook, in study groups and things like that, and just to optimize the whole process in order to enable yourself to do that so you're not spending hours and hours and hours for the five minutes of training.
Alla Podkopaeva: Exactly. I'm huge on setting up antecedents to make things work for you as quickly and as easily as it can. If you have your treats pre- set out somewhere on a counter, training is as easy as reaching in and grabbing a handful and you start. The less roadblocks you put in-between yourself and training, the more training you are able to get done and the faster you learn.
Melissa Breau: I love that. I recently started working through Sue's levels with my puppy again. I decided every night for dinner, every night when I feed him his dinner, that's what we're working on.
Alla Podkopaeva: Exactly. Absolutely.
Melissa Breau: It takes the decision-making out of it and actually makes it happen.
Alla Podkopaeva: And with day by day, you get progress. Every day, little by little.
Melissa Breau: Yeah, it's neat to be able to see it, too, because it happens more quickly when you're training more often.
Alla Podkopaeva: Yes.
Melissa Breau: We're getting to the end here, but I've got two more questions that I wanted to ask. Do you have a favorite piece of training advice that you can share?
Alla Podkopaeva: I do. I'm a big perfectionist, and it is frequently detrimental to actually making progress in my training, so my favorite piece of training advice is that one session doesn't mean anything. You can have the worst session, where your dog blows you off, or nothing works, they can't figure it out, you're making really bad decisions, and it just doesn't matter.
Don't lose the forest for the trees. You need to look at the trends. You need to look over three sessions or five sessions. A single session is a single data point. You can't make any decisions going forward based on a single data point. Nothing is forever, nothing is immutable, no mistake can't be fixed.
Go out there and go train. Make your mistakes. If you have horrible sessions — we all do — that's fine. Don't let it block you from continuing to train whatever you're working on. It's not a big deal.
Melissa Breau: I love that. That's really awesome. So the last one here: What's the dog-related accomplishment that you're proudest of?
Alla Podkopaeva: I'm the most proud of the life that my dogs live, to be honest. They have a very fulfilled life. They have a lot of enrichment, they have friends, they get daily brain work, they get frequent hikes, we play, we cuddle on the couch, we do sports, we do seminars, and everything I do with them, I do with cooperation in mind. Lots and lots of creativity needed to problem-solve all those little teenage moments that come up, but it's all done with the most amount of cooperation that I could possibly get. So we build habits of cooperation, and they enjoy working and they enjoy their life, and I'm happy that I can give them a life that they can enjoy.
Melissa Breau: That's fantastic. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Alla!
Alla Podkopaeva: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Breau: Next up we have Andrea Woodcock. Andrea has been taking classes at FDSA since December of 2013, after hearing Denise talk at an APDT conference earlier that year. At that point she had been training service dogs for about seven years, and today she continues that work as the training manager at Dogs for Better Lives.
Welcome to the podcast Andrea! So, to start us out, can you tell us a bit about your dogs and what you're working on with them now?
Andrea Woodcock: I have three dogs currently. I have Vega, who is retired, and she's going to be 8 coming up here. She's a rescue, she's a Lhasa mix, and she's been to Camp a few times. She has her CD and she's at the point where she has a back problem, so I went ahead and retired her. She got her TEAM 1, and pretty much her job now is barking when the neighbors come up the stairs. She lets me know when people come up the stairs, and she's a couch potato at this point.
And then I have Pixie, who is a little 6-pound Chihuahua-terrier mix. She's got terrible knees, so she doesn't do a whole lot other than sleep on the couch and sometimes takes part in the barking when the neighbors come up the stairs.
Melissa Breau: Important jobs.
Andrea Woodcock: She likes to get up on the cat tree and eat the cat food, and sometimes I play around with TEAM stuff with her. She's on the TEAM page quite a bit. We call her the Flying Monkey. She's really, really fast. She likes to learn, but I'm careful with her because of her knees.
And then I have Gizmo, who's my young boy. He's a 21-month-old Lab, and he just got his TEAM 2 recently, and he's a lot of fun. He loves to work, so he's the one that I'm doing my main stuff with, hoping to get into the obedience ring when he is a little bit older.
Melissa Breau: Congrats on the TEAM 2 title. I know you said before we got started you just got it last week, right?
Andrea Woodcock: Yeah, so that's pretty recent. He's a fun dog. He loves to work, he lives to work, so he's a lot of fun for me.
Melissa Breau: How did you originally get into dog sports?
Andrea Woodcock: I'd been training service dogs for a while, about seven years at that point, and I think I was watching YouTube videos or something. I had my very first dog, Sutton, who was this yellow Lab. He was a flunk-out from the service dog school that I was training in. He was kind of a naughty boy. He had a bite history, and at that point he was 7 or 8 years old. I was watching these YouTube videos, and at that point I was training service dogs, I was training them to get keys, and open and shut doors, and do all these things, and I watched a YouTube video and I was like, "That doesn't look that hard. I could do that."
So I got my dog, Sutton, who was 7 years old at the time, and he was fairly well trained, but he was definitely not ready to go into an obedience ring. I started taking him to some obedience classes and he was pretty terrible. There was one class that I almost left crying because he barked the entire class.
It was rough, it was pretty rough, but I did manage to get a CD on him after multiple failures. It was pretty rough. We got through it, but it was way before I found FDSA and it was pretty ugly, but he taught me a lot. He was something else. He was a very challenging first dog for me.
After that, we ended up in nosework, after I retired him from obedience, and that was his thing. He loved it, and I was so happy that I was able to do that for him, and he got his Nosework 1 title. That was his cup of tea, so I was really happy that I was able to find that for him and get him into that. So that was pretty great.
Melissa Breau: What got you started in positive training? Have you always been there, or was there something in particular that flipped that switch for you?
Andrea Woodcock: I got started in training service dogs. I was working at a service dog school down in California, and it was all compulsion-based. That's how I got my start with compulsion-based training. We did all forced retrieves, all the dogs were on either prong collars or chain collars, and we weren't allowed to use food to train. So no, I was not always positive.
I trained that way for seven years. That was how I got my start, that's where I got my certification, and that's how I learned. We were taught if you were using food you weren't actually training. That wasn't training.
At one point I got an interview for a different service dog school up in Oregon, Dogs for Better Lives. I went up there for the interview and they used positive reinforcement training. So I go up there for the interview, the interview went really well, I really liked the area, and so when I got up here to Oregon, that's when I made the switch and it was nice. I was really happy, the dogs were happier, it was a nice switch. Once I got up here I started immersing myself in it and learning as much as I could about it, and it went from there.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. I know from watching on the Facebook page and in the group, you've been working on your TEAM titles. We mentioned the recent TEAM 2, and you've been participating in the 100 days of TEAM challenge that folks have been up to on Facebook. What led you to want to do TEAM or to dive into some of the TEAM stuff? How did you get started there?
Andrea Woodcock: When TEAM first came about, I enjoyed it because it's a nice way to take all of the aspects of obedience and bring them together, so it's not just the skills, but it's getting the dog out to a new location, reducing reinforcers, and all of those as you move through the different levels just come together. It's a really well thought out program, and so I really enjoyed it.
The first TEAM title I did, I got a TEAM 1 from Vega. Hers was difficult because she can't jump, so we eliminated the jump, which meant everything had to be perfect.
And then Gizmo, I felt like a natural way to get the skills on him was to just move through the TEAM titles, so that's what we've been doing. He got his 1 and his 1+ and we just got his 2, and now we're working on the 2+ and the 3.
It's nice because now we're working on the 2+ in a different location, so it's making me take him somewhere every day and work somewhere besides our living room, which is great. So it's been a nice way to force me to take him somewhere and work on these skills he already knows in a different location, so it's a nice progression, I think, for his obedience.
Melissa Breau: For folks that are listening who may not be super-familiar with TEAM, when you said everything had to be perfect for Vega, that's because you can fail one exercise in a sequence?
Andrea Woodcock: Right, right, so she was an automatic fail on the jump.
Melissa Breau: Right, because you just eliminated it essentially.
Andrea Woodcock: Right, yeah.
Melissa Breau: What about the hundred-day TEAM challenge specifically? Have you learned anything particularly interesting by participating, or seen any significant changes? What about where that factors in?
Andrea Woodcock: The hundred days of TEAM was a monster that I created unintentionally. I started doing it on my wall, just privately, and I started giving it to promote the TEAM program and to do it for an accountability tool for myself. What happened was it ended up becoming this … one of my fellow students, Megan Walsh [Walsh? 25:09], she saw me doing it and she was like, "Oh, I think I want to do it too." I was like, "OK, great, go for it." Then I think Alla was like, "Oh, I want to do it too," and then she posted it on the TEAM players page and it blew up. I had no idea, because I figured nobody would want to do it. And then it just blew up. It was kind of crazy. Now there's so many people doing it, and people are already on Day 100. I started it on July 1, and I'm on Day 88 or something.
But the thing that I love about it is I've been very adamant about no rules. I don't want a bunch of rules around it. Do it, just record it, like, "This is day whatever," and then if you skip three weeks, great, just start again, like, you're on Day 87 and you skip three weeks, OK, now you're on Day 88. It doesn't have to be consecutive, you don't have to video, there are no rules, because if there's a bunch of rules, it gets demotivating. So it was really important to me, when people started wanting to do it, I was like, "Yeah, just do it, make it yours, do whatever is going to work best for you."
So that was probably my big takeaway was if you're going to do something like that, because 100 days is a huge chunk, that's almost a third of the year, so you have to do it in a way that works for you, so that you can get through it.
Melissa Breau: That's so cool. I hadn't realized that you were, I don't want to say the founding person, but that you were the person that got it all started. That's really neat.
Andrea Woodcock: It was a complete accident.
Melissa Breau: Hey, the best accidents, you know?
Andrea Woodcock: Yeah.
Melissa Breau: So is there anything that you feel you've learned or taken away as far as your own training where the challenge is concerned? I know you mentioned you're on Day 80-something.
Andrea Woodcock: For me, it's been a really good accountability tool, and as far as with Gizmo, we managed to get our TEAM 2, I think around Day 88, I'd have to look. But just plugging away and training as many days as we possibly can and suddenly we have this title, and I think if I hadn't been keeping track and keeping that accountability we probably wouldn't be where we are. So we'll keep going, and when we hit Day 100 … I've been thinking about, I don't know what I'm going to do. Will I start over? Will I keep counting? I'm not sure. We'll have to figure it out.
Melissa Breau: You're getting close.
Andrea Woodcock: We're getting there.
Melissa Breau: As someone — I guess to shift gears a little bit — who has taken a lot of classes with FDSA in general, do you have any tips for other students who want to maximize their learning, either tied to the different levels or just generally when it comes to that online format?
Andrea Woodcock: I'm one of the students that usually can't afford to take anything but bronze, if I can afford to take a bronze. I'm one of the lower-income students, and I know that there's a lot of students out there that are in the same boat as me. So what I can say about that is when I take a bronze class, I work the class as if I were a gold.
I don't necessarily always video. I try to, but it's one of those things where I'm not always as good about it as I should be. But I get out the lectures, I train them, I do it as if I were a gold. If, for some reason, I can't afford to take a class that term — which happens; the last term or the term before I didn't take a class — what I do is … I think most of us have classes sitting in our
library that we haven't taken, or now I'm on my third dog, or whatever, so I have classes that I've taken with one dog that I haven't taken with Gizmo yet.
So I'll get out my calendar, and I'll get out my library, and I'll plug in a class. I'll get out the lectures and I'll put the classes into the dates on my calendar, and I will just work that class in my library that term. That's how I make it work for me. I'll just work through that class in my library as if I were taking that class that term, and usually I can get through it.
So I've become a pretty good bronze student just because I don't always have the funds to take gold, but I'm motivated to get my dogs to where I want them to be.
Melissa Breau: I love that about plugging it into your calendar the actual days for the lessons, because I think that's a common problem. We get a class in our library — I know I do this all the time — and then it's like, "Well, let me read through the first five lectures, and then I'm going to work on this," and then it drifts in and out of my actual training plans. But I love that, the idea that you've got a lesson for a day and it's on the calendar exactly as if the instructor was releasing the lectures.
Andrea Woodcock: Yeah, that's exactly how I do it. It makes a huge difference because then I have a plan laid out for six weeks and it works really well for me.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. Do you have a favorite piece of training advice that you can share?
Andrea Woodcock: My favorite piece of training advice is Andrea Harrison's GOLS: Give one less and then 30:28 to everyone's imagination. But I feel like it's really important because dogs are going to be dogs sometimes. They're going to act like dogs. So if you get too worried, or you get too stressed out about what's happening with your training and everything, you're not going to have fun, the dog's not going to have fun.
You just need to, like, if you're doing the TEAM run-through, for example, I've had so many TEAM run-throughs where we get most of it, and then one little thing happens and so we don't get it, and it's like, "Oh my gosh." But so what? Set the camera up, give the dog a bunch of cookies, and we'll try again tomorrow.
Don't stress about it, because if you're that close, you're going to get it eventually. If we stress about everything, eventually the dog is going to be stressed out. I'm doing this because I want to have fun with my dog, so if I'm stressed about it, it's not fun for me, and eventually it won't be fun for my dogs either.
Melissa Breau: That makes perfect sense. What was the original bit from Andrea? I'm not sure I caught the very first line.
Andrea Woodcock: GOLS. Give one less.
Melissa Breau: I like that. So last question here, getting to the end: What's the dog-related accomplishment that you're proudest of?
Andrea Woodcock: This is not from a competition experience. This is from my service dog experience. Several years ago I had a dog … at Dogs for Better Lives, we rescue a lot of our dogs. They come from animal shelters and they come from various backgrounds, and you pull the dog out of a shelter and you don't really know what you're getting. You evaluate them in the shelter, but that's kind of hit or miss.
I pulled this dog from the shelter and he was a yellow Lab. He had been found running in the woods in Klamath Falls, Oregon. He was covered in pitch, like tree sap. He was pretty gross. We evaluated him, he seemed like a really nice dog, so I brought him back with me and I trained him for six months and he made it all the way through training, was a very nice yellow Lab. It was like, "How did you get out as a stray and nobody came looking for you?"
I trained him as a hearing dog, and I took him to Iowa and placed him with this 33-year-old deaf gentleman who was single, lived alone, and he was profoundly deaf. He didn't hear anything. I used a sign language interpreter to help me communicate with him while I was placing the dog. His mom and dad lived right down the road from him and they would come and help him out quite a bit. I stayed with him a week. helping him learn how to work the sounds and everything with the dog, and on the last day his mom came because she was going to learn how to help him with the sound work with the dog.
One of the sounds that the dog was working with was the smoke alarm. What the dog would do is he was lying on the bed, and the dog would jump on the bed and alert him that the smoke alarm was going off, and then run to the smoke alarm and show him where it was. I was standing on this chair and I'm setting off the smoke alarm because it's on the ceiling, and the dog, his name was Chevy, and he was pretty dramatic about the smoke alarm. He would run over there and pounce on the bed, and then he'd come back to the smoke alarm and he'd howl and sing as it was going off. So he goes and he pounces on this guy and he runs back, and he gets up and he follows the dog to the smoke alarm, and the mom is watching the whole thing.
So he sits there and he's waiting for his hot dogs because he alerted to the smoke alarm. The mom looks at me and she has tears in her eyes and she goes, "He's going to get out." I said, "Yeah, the dog will let him know and he'll get out." She goes, "No, you don't understand. I sit up at night and I worry that if his house catches fire down the road that he's not going to get out because he's deaf, he's not going to hear the smoke alarm, and there's nothing I can do because I'm in a house down the street and I can't help him."
I think that was the first time that I realized, and I'd been training service dogs for quite a while at that point, but that was one of the first where it really hit me what an impact these dogs have, not just for the people that I placed them with, but also for their family members, because yeah, the dog will help him get out of the house if there's a fire, but also his mom is now going to be able to sleep at night. So that's probably my biggest dog-related accomplishment.
Melissa Breau: That is such a cool story. I love that. It got my hair standing on end a little bit at the end. That's really neat.
Andrea Woodcock: So yeah, not competition-related, but I feel like it's for me a little bit more important than any competition thing I could ever do.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. That's such a huge difference to make in somebody's life, and the ripples that that has out to all of the people that care about them. That's fantastic.
Andrea Woodcock: Yeah.
Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Andrea! This is great.
Andrea Woodcock: Thank you.
Melissa Breau: For our final guest we have Sara Pisani. Sara has been taking classes at FDSA since it began offering obedience classes, and has taken a gold class every single session, except for two sessions in 2015, when she had both knees replaced. Before finding FDSA, Sara and her first performance dog, Jazz Marie, who she began with in Novice A knowing nothing about dog sports, went on to earn over 350 OTCH points and a Champion Tracking title.
Welcome to the podcast Sara!
Sara Pisani: Thank you Melissa.
Melissa Breau: So, to start us out, Sara, can you just tell us a bit about your dogs and what you're working on with them now?
Sara Pisani: I think I'm best described as a one-dog girl. Although I live in a multi-dog home, my life is most enriched when I can totally focus on the training of one dog.
Rick and I share three dogs. Disco is Rick's personal 8-year-old Border Collie, who retired from agility with an injury over a year ago. But the cool thing is that he just finished his utility title a couple of months ago, and now he's gearing up for his UDX debut. He is sound and happy, and I think for everyone in our house that's the most important thing. Rick's other young Border Collie is Tom, who'll be a year old next week. He spent the last year learning what the world is about, cooperative care, and foundations for obedience and agility.
My personal dog is Buckle, who is a 2-and-a-half-year-old Border Collie from Finland, and our main focus is preparation for Buckle's AKC obedience debut. We're also students of agility. We're not interested in competing in agility, but we are interested in how it stretches me personally and physically.
Melissa Breau: Gotcha. So just the idea of continuing to learn and continuing to develop as a trainer.
Sara Pisani: Yes, exactly.
Melissa Breau: How did you originally fall into dog sports or end up in this world?
Sara Pisani: I had moved away from family and friends to live with a now ex-boyfriend who was was not a very nice person and an incredibly bad personal choice. Finally, after months and months of me desperate for a dog, he relented, saying that it would be better to get a dog than it would be to listen to me talk about not having one every single day.
So I got a black Lab from the newspaper. She was a firecracker, the cutest little black Lab you could possibly imagine. She risked intestinal surgery every day by eating something that she shouldn't eat. After she was about four or five months old, she was walking down the stairs in our condo ahead of me. Drew was over to the side in the kitchen, and she got adjacent to Drew, and she stopped and she turned her head to the wall so she couldn't see him, and she kept walking down the stairs. And Drew said, "I don't think she likes me." I instantly lied and said, "Oh no, of course she does."
It wasn't long thereafter that Jazz replaced Drew, and she became not only my best friend, but at that point, where I was living, my only friend. Our classes in the local community center, eating cheese that everybody else dropped, with her tongue on the floor — and that was her early version of heeling — morphed into private competition obedience lessons, and we had a great journey in competition obedience and agility and tracking together
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. What started you on your positive-training journey? Were you always in that camp? Was there something in particular that got you interested there or got you started there?
Sara Pisani: Yes. My first seminar, I'm at seminar — I love seminars, I love Fenzi camp, I love that collective learning and collective spirit. My first seminar with Jazz, she wasn't even a year old, was with Patty Ruzzo, who many people will recall, she is a pioneer in the R+ journey of competition obedience. That seminar was amazing.
I think that I'm not an angry person, and my relationship with Drew was really based on anger, and I had to reground myself in kindness and respect after having been with him for three years. And that seminar, to me, was amazing, because here was this woman who she was like magic, what she did with her dogs. She was extraordinary, and her dogs were extraordinary.
I remember a woman going up to work with her dogs, and it was a positive reinforcement seminar and the woman popped her dog when it looked away. Patty could have instantly shamed that woman, and she chose kindness. To watch that scene blossom under her was life-changing for me.
Melissa Breau: That's really neat. To have an instructor who actually takes the time to, even in a moment that obviously isn't ideal for that seminar environment, still chooses the path that follows their own philosophy — that's really quite impressive.
Sara Pisani: It was an amazing moment for sure. She could easily have said, "What the heck are you doing popping the dog? I'm Patty Ruzzo; we're going to talk about cookie power," and she didn't. She didn't choose that at all. That was a great moment.
Melissa Breau: A little bit before we started recording, you were talking about that journey you had with Jazz, your first dog. Do want to tell me a little bit more about that?
Sara Pisani: I'll tell you a quick story first. Our second time in the ring for novice, it was in a very large breed and obedience show, and people's dogs were laying quietly by their sides. I was like, "What the hell is that?" because Jazz was like a Ping-Pong, racing after this, racing after that, totally uncontrollable. I was like, "I can't believe these dogs are just laying here quietly like this. This is crazy."
So it's our turn in the ring, and we just squeak by on the heel on lead, we get through the figure-eight, stand no problem, and now we're ready to do the heel off leash. Jazz looks across the grey expanse of mats, her ears prick, and she's staring at something. I'm desperate to get her attention, and of course screaming "Ready" at the top of my lungs does not do any good. Off we go, and the judge says, "Halt," and he halts next to what Jazz is looking at. So now we all look at it, and the judge says, "Forward." I say, "Jazzy, heel," and she bolts from my side to a piece of mat that was ripped. Six inches of mat and she rips it up, and the judge is still calling heeling, and I'm still walking and I am by myself.
She throws the mat up in the air, catches it, she's running around the ring in the opposite direction, I do the whole heeling walk of shame, finishing the pattern by myself. I get Jazz, I get the mat, and the judge takes the mat and he throws it out the ring. Now Jazz is going to do a recall towards that end of the ring, she gets within six inches of me, this breathtaking recall, and decides "No," jumps out of the ring, gets the mat, jumps back in the ring, and dances her way around, and that was before you could excuse yourself. So that was our obedience debut.
Melissa Breau: I am very impressed that you stuck with it.
Sara Pisani: Oh, I stuck with it. It was a long six-hour ride home, and from that moment I learned, I studied, I thought only about thoughts of precision and joy, and we ended up with 350 OTCH points, a tournament win, a tracking championship, and I've started to write a book about Jazz.
I know this isn't the Jazz Marie Show, but I'll share with you a tiny bit of it and try not to cry. "I don't say this to my non-doggie friends, but I've come to believe that I was put on this earth to make sure that this dog had a great day every day of her life. Mission accomplished. But how do I redefine myself when she's gone? There's irony here, because what was it about this dog, and the journey we've traveled together, that has given me a life rich with love, friendships, and accomplishments beyond my wildest dreams, that for some reason, before this dog, I couldn't get to that great life on my own. I'm not sure what morphed our connection, our girl-dog bond, into something stronger. There were always better-trained dogs in every class we competed in, but the bond between us carried us to feats beyond my wildest imagination. It carried us to the final articles of impossible-to-follow tracks. It carried us to obedience and agility wins, triumphing over amazing teams. She knew before I got dressed in the morning that she was coming for the ride and what we were going to do. I could guess which trees, stones, or bend in the path she would stop to sniff before she slowed her gait and lowered her head. Spooning at night, I could feel her heartbeat, stronger than my own."
Melissa Breau: That's really pretty, Sara. It's very well written.
Sara Pisani: Thank you.
Melissa Breau: It almost feels wrong to go on to the next question after that.
Sara Pisani: It's OK, it's OK. She's been gone for six years and she's still in our house. Her spirit is still here. We could start talking to her at any moment. So she's around. She's here with us.
Melissa Breau: That's really beautiful. As somebody who obviously fell into obedience and fell in love with it, what is your favorite part of the sport? What draws you to it and has kept you with it?
Sara Pisani: I really love that relationship, number one, with an animal. But what I really love that obedience offers is precision and joy. If you watch a team that is not joyful in obedience, I find that really hard, and so how I train really impacts the fact that I am going to emphasize joy over precision.
So often in Jazz's career we went from hero to zero and champ to chump. But it was those glorious flunks, where the dog was so ridiculously happy to be working with me, that I look back on fondly. Whereas if she didn't feel so great about herself or what we were doing, and she was precise, those are the memories that I can do without. So for sure joy first, precision second.
Melissa Breau: Are there any aspects of the sport that you find you struggle with? How do you address those in your training?
Sara Pisani: Now, fast forward to training Buckle, I would say that I have a small challenge, two small challenges, is my treat mechanics. This is really nuts, but I think I can improve Buckle's skills if I get better at delivering treats with my left hand. That sounds crazy, but it's really true. I'm making my dog one-sided by always delivering treats with my right hand, and his behaviors are going to reflect that, so I say, "Buckle, you've got to take one for the team. We're going to go down and I'm going to click and I'm going to feed you with my left hand."
Melissa Breau: I'm sure he finds that torturous.
Sara Pisani: Yes, yes he does! He's like, "Oh, Mommy, please, do I have to eat another treat?" Actually he's good about that. So that, and a larger challenge would be my footwork. I've had bilateral knee replacements, but that's no excuse for the fact that I don't have the best rhythm with my footwork, and I have to be really conscientious of what my eyes, my head, my upper body are doing in relation to my feet and how I cue the turns for Buckle.
And then I would say the largest challenge I have in training is reducing reinforcement, because I love to reinforce behavior, This is a huge part of it for me, and it's really hard for me to know when in a dog's training, and with the balance of skills training, to reduce that reinforcement and build that program to the point of progressing to no cookies for an entire ring performance. That's really hard for me, and I have to plan methodically to be able to do that.
Melissa Breau: Looking at how you 51:25 on training, you mentioned you've done treat sessions where you were basically working on your treat delivery with your left hand. I think that's awesome. I think that's something that a lot of people can think about — the fact of just practicing your reinforcement strategies and your delivery. And then you said you break out that removing reinforcement and plan through it. Is there any way you can get into a little more detail on how you do that?
Sara Pisani: Yes. Hannah just did a great class on Unbroken and working through that chain and working with remote reinforcement. So whether you put the treat on the bowl, that type of thing, or in the bowl and away from the dog, and you move the dog away from their mat and away from their dish, go do behaviors, do a ring entrance, whether it's a simple thing as a hand touch, and then you build from there, and go back to give the dog their reinforcement from the dish. That is actually a great program for me to follow because it's sort of a step-by-step process.
And I'm working on it, but emotionally, it's hard for me not to reinforce my dog. I'm just going to call that out right there. It is hard for me. I find that I try and train without conflict between the dog and I, but here I have conflict with myself because I want to reinforce, but I know it's inappropriate because I'm not giving my dog the skills to work through chaining behaviors together to get a larger reinforcement at the end, whether that's a simple chain, like a retrieve or training two retrieves or whatever, how many ring exercises together to ultimately work without reinforcement for our ultimate goal, which is competition obedience not 53:34 utility.
Melissa Breau: Right. I think that's really useful for folks to hear, because I think a lot of people do struggle with that. But especially as positive trainers, it's like either we struggle with OK, we need to split more and give more cookies, or we need to split less, or we need to increase criteria. Breaking those two things apart and figuring them out, and what they look like for each of us as a trainer and each of our dogs is … that's very different. It's a complex topic; I guess that's what I'm really trying to say.
Sara Pisani: It is complex, and I'm very fortunate in that Buckle finds work reinforcing. But within the work and meeting criteria and having expectations of Mommy giving him a cookie or Mommy giving him a toy, and feeling that I haven't set him up for that delayed reinforcement will cause Buckle to be frustrated, and he'll vocalize if I am incorrect. So I have to plan really well those types of sessions so I don't frustrate him and cause the rate of reinforcement to drop too low, because I'll hear it.
Melissa Breau: Fair enough. To shift gears a little bit because we're getting close to the end here, I wanted to ask, as somebody who has taken a lot of classes with FDSA, do you have any tips for other students for maximizing their learning, either in terms of working through at a specific level or just generally working through the online platform?
Sara Pisani: Absolutely. Definitely, if you're not taking gold, I would highly recommend that you try it. If you have the ability to video and edit your videos and have appropriate working space size appropriate for the class you want to take, it's an incredible value.
We're talking about every FDSA instructor is a complete gem. They're a gem from the point of being supportive, they're a gem from the point of being gifted dog trainers, and the best and the brightest. So for the amount that a gold session costs, it's just crazy the value that we get from that. So at any level, I would say read every gold thread, watch every video, read all the feedback, because the chances are that whoever else is in your class … so I've got 56:38 Buckle, but you know what, there's a Corgi that I just hang on every single word because they're so similar.
I would say plot your weekly schedule. I'm a busy, self-employed individual, I have a four-and-a-half-hour commute four to five days a week, I know what my access to daylight is versus nighttime and in the basement. So plot out training so that you can maximize your six minutes of videos every week without posting three videos on the last day; that's not appropriate. If you know you're going to be away for part of the session, stockpile your videos for vacations, because I find that's really helpful, but also, if you've just received very specific feedback from the video, I wouldn't recommend then submitting a video that flies in the face of that feedback. I would just hold off and wait until you're able to respond appropriately to the feedback.
All those are staying the course, keeping up for six weeks, and then everyone should always remember those six-week courses — you're never going to get the entire thing in six weeks. I'm not. I would imagine many people are not. Specifically like for a heeling class, these things take time. There's a progression about them that they're not confined to six weeks.
The last thing I would say is don't get so structured in the importance of submitting your videos and keeping up with class, but honestly look at the dog and let the dog lead the way. A perfect example: In Precise Precision, I was going to kill that class. It was going to be amazing, Buckle was going to be chippety-chop, get every single video every week perfectly, and at the end of Week 1, Buckle decided he was afraid of his platform, and then he decided he was afraid of his beloved basement. I spent the next two weeks sending Hannah videos on, "I think he might be a tiny bit happier now. What do you think?" So you can do all the planning you want, but you really have to pay attention to the dog and let them decide what's next.
Melissa Breau: I think that's good advice, not just for online learning but for any learning, for any time you're working on something with your dog.
Sara Pisani: Yes.
Melissa Breau: Do you have a favorite piece of training advice that you care to share?
Sara Pisani: I've been thinking about this question, it's a totally cool question, and I do have one that I would love to say, "This person recommended that," or "That person recommended this piece of it." But overall, I would say find a reinforcement system that both you and your dog enjoy. If you both have that, then the other side of the loop that is opposite of that reinforcement cycle will be easy.
In other words, many people have said Buckle should tug with a stick toy instead of a hanging ball off a fleece rope, and he doesn't like those sticks and neither do I, but we can literally play all day with that particular toy, that same brand. When Buckle was a baby, we did nothing but reinforcement. We didn't do any skills. We did toy play and then we did food, and we were able to tug on a toy, eat a cookie, tug on a toy, eat a cookie, so I have all the reinforcement available to me because we created a system we both liked, but we also maintain that system.
And we use — and I learned this from Shade and Kamal — different reinforcement markers for every toy delivery and food delivery, so we have about fifteen different markers. But we have a system, and I would say right now that's the most important part of my training.
Melissa Breau: That's neat. I like that. I like thinking about that not necessarily as there is a system out there that you have to go learn, but as discovering your own thing that works with you. I like that. I think that's been a thread through this whole conversation. I think a lot of what you've shared follows that concept of discovering what works best for you and your dog and sticking with it. Last question here: What is the dog-related accomplishment that you're proudest of?
Sara Pisani: Can I use three, if I'm quick?
Melissa Breau: Absolutely.
Sara Pisani: One for each dog?
Melissa Breau: Go for it.
Sara Pisani: Let's start with today. Today I drove five hours in the pouring rain through Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens for thirty minutes at a match with Buckle. I've been working on Buckle's "pushing me with calm behavior," because he gets very excited in dog training environments and he vocalizes, he barks, and call it what it is, it's a barking [expletive] show, or it can be. Today I put Buckle's mat down, and I put down a chair, and I had the judge sit in the chair, and Buckle walked into that ring and he laid on his mat and he was calm. You could see on his face, "My job is to lay here until Mommy says, 'Let's go do something,'" and I release him with the exact same word.
We work, we go back to our mat, he lays in a curled down, and he's next to the judge, and the judge can talk and I could talk to the judge, and for ten minutes, for the first time in his life, he didn't bark. It was pretty great today.
I would like to tell you that with Finn, who was a pioneer at the Fenzi Academy and my rescue Border Collie, I would like to tell you that Finn's first time in the novice ring, when he scored a 198 and a half, after a really long time of giving Finn the courage to be able to perform in that environment without fear, and to trust me that I would not let anything bad happen to him in that five minutes, I'd like to tell you that that was my greatest accomplishment with Finn. And what was my greatest accomplishment was we tied for high in trial and we were going to have a runoff, and the best thing I ever did was give the high in trial to somebody else so Finn wouldn't have to do it again.
For Jazz, Jazz is a tough one. I would say, so my journey with Finn was cut short, my journey with Buckle is just getting started, and they were both amazing, and Buckle, I hope, will continue to be so. With Jazz, with hindsight being 20/20, I would say that the level of communication that we reached together, in life and in sport, was really my greatest accomplishment. As an example — and one could argue this isn't really communication, it's a trained behavior — but if I saw Jazz coming into a front that's crooked, I could flick my eyes and she could go, "Got it, Mom," and move her butt and sit straight. Or when she would go to finish and I could see that she was going to be butt out, I could tighten all the muscles in my upper arm and that dog could go, "You're right," and make that extra effort to sit straight.
We were at a TDX start, and Jazz, the Lab that she was, was chomping on grass, and I was standing in a split stride and she wasn't starting to track. She was digging in for a nice good graze, and I loosened my fingers on the lead, and I moved my weight from my back leg to my front leg, and she trotted up the hill and became the first dog in that site to get their TDX title in six years of trying. So that's pretty cool.
The last thing with Jazz is we were in our championship, our DST trial, and she headed into the parking lot, and the dog has to do a moment of two turns where the track goes on just pavement 90 degrees, and she flicked her head to the right after having gone out 50 yards into the parking lot, and I just tightened my hand on the lead, which to Jazz that was me questioning, "Are you sure?" She turned her head again to the right in response and followed that track to 1:07:53 and the judge had not, in 40 years of … well, actually the DST isn't that long … but it was his first time seeing a dog achieve that title. So that level of communication was, to me, just amazing.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome, and that's a very FDSA-esque achievement, so I love that.
Sara Pisani: Oh, that's good! That's good!
Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Sara! This has been great.
Sara Pisani: Thank you, Melissa. It was really fun.
Melissa Breau: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in!
We'll be back next week, this time with our annual anniversary edition of the podcast.
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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!