Trying to put together how consent and behavior modification and positive training all work together? Leslie explains, in this week's episode of the FDSA podcast!
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 Leslie McDevitt.
Leslie is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.
She was mentored by the world-renowned veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall, becoming first a dog trainer and later a behavior consultant. She was volunteering at urban shelters and studying behavior and clicker training when she caught the dog sports bug — and feels her work with anxious, reactive, impulsive, and aggressive dogs gave her a unique perspective when she became a student of dog sports training.
That same background in behavior modification and her experience working with dog sport clients led her to create her popular program for performance dogs "with issues," Control Unleashed. Her award-winning book based on the program, Control Unleashed: Creating a Focused and Confident Dog, was published by Clean Run Productions in 2007.
Leslie has worked with diverse populations of dogs, from pets to performance to police dogs, and is known as a versatile, compassionate and intuitive trainer.
Hi Leslie, welcome to the podcast!
Leslie McDevitt: Hi Melissa. Thanks to you and Denise for inviting me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I'm super-excited to chat today. To start us out, can you give us a little information about your dogs, what you're training, what you're working on?
Leslie McDevitt: My newest dog is a horse, so I'm learning some clicker fundamentals with her right now and having a really good time.
My dog Easy, my Border Collie, is 13 now, and mostly he likes to play and cuddle and still helps me with lessons. I had him yesterday, I was working with a dog-reactive Cane Corso, and Easy chilled out, sat there, did his thing.
I have two other dogs. I have Ever, who's my about-2-year-old Border Collie. She's from rescue, so I don't exactly know. She's been a behavioral adoption, she's doing really good, she's not a public menace. Then I have her dearest friend, which is my puppy. I have a Tervuren puppy, he just turned 7 months old a week ago. His name is Sage, and I'm having a lot of fun with him.
Every dog I get gets raised and trained with whatever I'm focused on in the moment, so everybody gets the next version of my training, so each dog progressively gets more foundation and having as much as I can in their life be voluntary and be choice-based. So at this point it feels like I'm having a conversation with my two young dogs and not ever really telling them what to do or not to do, but mostly having a discussion where we figure out what's going to work for everybody. The exception with my puppy being, "No, do not chase my bunny." That is old. That got old immediately.
Melissa Breau: That could be a problem.
Leslie McDevitt: Especially because he has a penchant for finding dead chipmunks and things that the cats leave outside and carrying them around, and sometimes carrying them into the house and leaving them under the couch.
Melissa Breau: Fun!
Leslie McDevitt: So I don't want him having thoughts about my bunny. That's been a clear just "No." But most things are up for discussion, and it feels really good to have the kind of relationship that I have with them. It's just a flow. It's just a good flow, and within it everybody gets what they need.
As far as what I'm going to do with him, my last terv I did some therapy work and I enjoyed that, so that might be something. I have competed in agility before, but never obedience, and I like to see tervs being so pretty in heeling, so maybe that would be a new fun thing to try, and definitely a lot of nosework with him. But right now we're focused on just having a good flow of communication and having a good, fun puppyhood.
It's kind of funny, because in my past, if I got a puppy I'd have all these plans and hopes and write things down, and each dog I get I teach less to and have less of a plan and have less of an agenda, and at this point I don't have an agenda for them at all. I'm just going to have a certain relationship and see where that takes us. At this point I'm just living with dogs.
I started out living with dogs. I got into it wanting to rescue companion dogs, and then I went into wanting to do all these things with dogs, and I think that was also attached to proving myself that I could do all these things with dogs, and at this point I'm back to I'm living with dogs, and we'll see where that takes us. Each one is different and that feels good. I don't have pressure on myself like I used to with "This dog needs to be titled in at least this many sports by this age."
Melissa Breau: Right, right. It's come full circle at this point.
Leslie McDevitt: Yeah, I'm just like, this is cool. The other thing is the last couple of dogs I've gotten from breeders, my tervuren and my 13-year-old Border Collie, I know all the other people that got littermates and so it's hard sometimes because the other people might be like, "This dog got her CGC already and she's 5 months old when it happened," and all this stuff, and whoever hasn't done that piece of things yet might be like, "Oh my god." So I'm enjoying not caring about that stuff anymore, not being competitive and just being like, "This is cool."
Melissa Breau: Absolutely, yeah, I totally hear that. I know you mentioned that you got into it, you started out with rescuing companion dogs. Can you tell me a little more about that? How did you get into dog training? How did you wind up where you are?
Leslie McDevitt: My family always had dogs, mostly pugs. If you go into my parents' house in Texas, you will see a lot of pug art and pug-related things everywhere. I'm thinking about that movie Best In Show. I'm imagining if someone in that movie had been a pug person what their house would have looked like — kind of like that. Any rocky parts of growing up I had a dog with me, so that was always a really big deal.
When I was in high school, my mom got me and my sister a puppy, our first and only non-pug, cocker spaniel puppy. My mom had the idea to hire a trainer because she wasn't as tractable as the pugs had been and my mom didn't know what to do about that. I don't know where my mom found the trainer. I'm assuming that she asked the vet. But we didn't know any questions to ask, or anything about anything, or even that there were different methods. I was a 16-year-old that was just happy to have a puppy.
This woman came to the door and my mom was like, "Leslie, the trainer's here, she's going to help you with Lucy," and my mom went and did something else. The trainer told my puppy to lie down, and she was like, "What are you talking about? I'm a puppy. No one's ever told me to do anything. I steal underwear, run around the house. What are you talking about?" She hung her. She put a choke chain on her and she lifted her up off the ground.
It's one of those traumatic moments that you can't un-experience, that you carry with you, a feeling like total powerlessness and being totally taken off guard, being shocked, seeing something and not really processing what you're seeing, feeling totally powerless to stop it, feeling like there's an authority figure hurting you, or an extension of you, and you can't stop it, and being the only other person in the room, and having that person tell you, "This is what you need to do, because she's not listening."
I have no idea what she said, and I can tell you … I don't know what happened next, either. It's like one of those traumas that gets encapsulated and you can give the details about that moment, but what happened before or after, you're like, "I don't know." We didn't have that trainer come back, and that dog was never trained either. So I thought dog trainers were evil.
I went to college and I adopted a few dogs, just wanting to rescue animals and to always have dogs in my life. I suck at science and math, and I was under the extremely mistaken impression that if you wanted to work with animals, you had to be a vet. I didn't know other avenues, so I had given up on that idea of working with animals for my life just wanting to be around them all the time. I'm a person who needs them, I need that to be OK. So I wanted to get into rescue and have that be my thing, rescued a couple of crazy dogs with issues, not cute little pugs, fearful or aggressive Shepherd mixes.
Melissa Breau: A little different, yeah.
Leslie McDevitt: So that's how I fell into it, looking for answers for them, and I found ways that worked that are humane and effective and "This is all I'm going to do now," became absolutely, completely obsessed and turned into the super-geek that stands before you all now.
Melissa Breau: Fair enough. So obviously, after having that terrible experience being your first experience with a dog trainer, when you ended up with reactive and fearful dogs, how did you discover positive training? How did that become such a big part of your life and your story?
Leslie McDevitt: It's funny. I was in grad school for … I did creative writing and folklore and cultural anthropology. Both my degrees are those three things combined into an interdisciplinary mess that I got to do my own program. I have two degrees in that.
Melissa Breau: I'm sure they're very helpful when it comes to dog training. They probably help with the books, though.
Leslie McDevitt: I'm a writer. I've always been a writer and that was always my plan, and I write about dogs and horses, which is something I've done since I was in fifth grade, so actually I didn't really deviate as far as I thought that I would.
So anyway, I was at Penn, which is where I ended up finding my mentor and my path, just not in creative writing and anthropology. I was looking for help for one in particular and found a trainer, probably through my vet, maybe through the dog park. I had become one of those people that's at the dog park several times a day, every day, whose life revolves around her rescue companion dogs and is always walking them and suddenly knows everyone in the neighborhood that has a dog.
I was not knowing anything technical or professional, but always with my dog. Being one of those people, somehow I found this trainer who came highly recommended. This is a person many people out there know and respect, and he's put out a lot of good material. He put out a book with a lot of good material in it. So I worked with him a little bit. He was, at that point years ago, what we were calling a balanced trainer. I don't know if we have a different word for it these days. I learned a lot from him about positive reinforcement and positive punishment. I got hotdogs and leash corrections from him, I got a lot from him about timing and technical skills that he was good at teaching, but I knew that this wasn't exactly what I was looking for. It certainly wasn't hanging them, either, but I didn't want to practice leash corrections and that stuff.
At the same time, two things happened. One, I somehow heard about Karen Overall, and at that point she was the director of the clinical behavioral medicine department at the vet hospital at Penn. I was like, "This is where I need to go, obviously." The other thing that happened was that the APDT had their annual — and if you guys don't know what I mean, I mean the Association of Pet Dog Trainers — had its annual conference or whatever, and I think it must have been the Houston one, because I'm from Houston, and so I think I was there visiting and went to it. There was a table with an ancient computer on it that was new at that time and a clicker training video on it, and I looked at it and I was like, "That's it. I'm going to spend the rest of my life doing whatever that is. I don't know what it is, but yeah."
Melissa Breau: Jumped in feet first.
Leslie McDevitt: Yeah. It was one of those, I don't know, you walk into a party and see some other person and you're like, "I'm going to spend the rest of my life with that person," or some story like that, except it was clicker training on a video.
So I came back, announced that to my trainer, who was extremely highly skeptical at the time. I was like, "I'm out, I'm done, I'm doing this now." It was sad. The two dogs I had at that time ended up being happy clicker dogs, but when I first introduced a clicker, I watched them make the assumption that it was something aversive and that that's why I was using it, because I had been taught to put pennies in a can and shake it, and stuff like that, and the one had extreme noise phobia, and so he had developed some superstitious behavior based on that sound. So it was more like, "You're clicking something, that must mean something bad." They just assumed it. "You introduced something new into the picture, so that must be some kind of aversive thing. We don't know what it is yet, but we're ready for it."
So I had to convince them that no, that was not the case. I did bring the very fear-aggressive, noise-phobic one to Karen, and was like, This woman knows everything about everything. We didn't say fangirl … I kind of freak out because occasionally people say, "I'm totally fangirling at you," and I don't know what to say to that. But anyway, that's me, I'm Karen's fangirl, and I was like, "Please adopt me, Karen."
She let me take the class for her vet students, the clinical behavioral course that the students at Penn take, she let me sit there and go through it all. I started assisting her with her clients because she knew that I would follow through with what she wanted to do. how she wanted to do it. and that I would do it right how she wanted it and be of support in that way. She could trust me to do that. So that's how it all started.
My goal at that time, because I started taking on my own clients soon after that, my criteria for that was if it's not crazier than my own dogs that I'm doing well with, if it's not crazier than them, I'll take it.
Melissa Breau: Fair enough.
Leslie McDevitt: So that was probably almost 20 years ago. I started learning agility and flyball with my smaller Shepherd mix at Y2K9 and started teaching there and etcetera, and I'm still there. It's been 20 years of Y2K9. My dear friends Jeb and Julie started it. I've been there all this time. That's a clicker training sports club, so in case you're going to ask me how did CU come about, that's how, because I had this behavioral base from Karen, and then we saw weird behavioral stuff with sport dogs in a clicker club, and I went, "I want to put all this stuff together." So that's what happened.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. I do want to ask you about that, but before we get there, I want to bring things to today a little bit. If you were going to describe your training philosophy today, how would you describe that to somebody?
Leslie McDevitt: My philosophy is that I don't even want to use the word training because people have a conditioned interpretation of it, about, like, "I know something that I want you to do that you don't know, and I'm going to show it to you in some way and make sure you do it how I like." I call that a cue and response. Yes, you do need that to an extent, and you certainly need it if you're training precision behavior for a sport, but that's a level of training and it's not everything.
So I'm just looking at, because I do behavior mod encounter conditioning, I teach precision behaviors to my dogs if there's something fun that I want to do, but that's not what I'm teaching others. For what I do, it's more about communication, like a conversation, and it's flexible. The dog can cue you, you can cue the dog, everyone is constantly giving each other feedback. It looks different and it's a different style and it's a different way of looking at what's possible. You set up a language that you both understand, and then it has the flexibility that you can both direct each other and give each other information. So if you wanted to make that into a philosophy, I don't have a catchy word for that right now.
I call my style conversational. It has to do with a heavy focus on voluntary behavior, on giving the dog agency to ask for the work, to give you feedback during the work. Also, part of the philosophy has to do with the importance of the human part of the team learning how to listen to their dog and adjust what they're asking, learning how to be flexible and how to adjust for the moment, because people get very Type A, "I need these three things, and now I need these three things in this environment when this other thing's happening," without having worked on pieces.
I want people to practice adjusting, like when the environment changes, your criteria may need to change, to look at their conditions, what are the conditions that you're asking for something in, do you need to change your conditions and can you change your conditions.
I heard Susan Friedman say a cool thing the other day. She's a wizard, she's one of the super-cool applied behavior analyst goddess people. The other day she was saying something about behavior's not intrinsic. It was very much like, don't blame the learner; it's not just coming from them out of the blue. We're all very much interdependent on each other and on the environment. Behavior is not intrinsic. It is very connected with environmental conditions, and therefore, first of all, blaming the learner is very unfair and a narrow way of seeing the world because it's not everything that's happening, "You are bad, you are a bad dog." But also the piece that she was highlighting was if you want to change the behavior, change the conditions, because conditions affect behavior, period, and people don't always carry that in their pocket.
Dogs notice more than we do, use their senses a bit differently than we do, have a different sensory skill set than we do. So if we make too many assumptions about what they see or hear or smell, or don't see or hear or smell, based on what we are experiencing, we're missing a lot of the conditions that the behavior is happening in. So it's learning to be mindful and be a trainer that can be flexible and adjust in the moment, and then all the technical things that come with being a good trainer, but being able to adjust, I think, is really important.
So the philosophy, I guess, be a good listener, be flexible, and create a system of cues that feels more like a flow or a conversation and not just like "I said to do this."
Melissa Breau: To not necessarily jump back, but to bring up Control Unleashed again, because I did want to get into that, obviously it's something you're really well known for, so what do you feel it is about that program that has led it to be what it is, as successful as it has managed to become?
Leslie McDevitt: I think one of the reasons is that the science behind it is solid and it works. If you do it right, it does work. I didn't make up the science, but I have my own ways of seeing it and applying it that has been helpful, so that's one thing, I think, practically.
Another thing, which might outweigh the practical part, I have the impression that it does, but I wrote from a place of "I have been in your shoes, I have been a sport student, I am living in this culture, I've been told the same things as you, this is what I figured out that works for me, and I also have this behavioral background and this understanding of the science, but I feel like you do and this is what I've done to deal with it." I think most of the books were like, "Here I am, I'm a dog trainer, and this is what I've done," and mine was like, "This really sucks, I totally get it, let's have some wine or some ice cream or whatever, and we're going to talk about this."
Because the first book, the energy generated to sit down and write a whole book was like a rant energy of stuff that I was frustrated about. Certain mantras that I felt needed to be replaced about things like being the most important thing because it was exhausting people and they didn't understand what it really meant or what they could really do. It was a lot of blaming the learner. If you talk about conditions are affecting behavior and you look at your human learners like an agility class, and they've got all those concepts going on, plus the social pressure around them and then the teacher being like, "You're not interesting enough," and they don't have the tools to … they just can't process all that, and they've got this dog running away, it's so much.
I think honestly a lot of the success of it was, "This is how you feel and this is why, and we're just going to break it down," and then I gave them stuff that works. The other thing is people were drawn to it that either the traditional stuff you do wasn't working because everyone has different conditions and everyone has to have their individual thing, so one teacher saying this because it works for her dog might not be your thing. To be fair to the instructors, and I said this in the book, I was like, their job is to teach you the sport, so I'm not saying they're supposed to be behaviorists who fix all your problems and teach you the sport.
It's also putting a lot of pressure on the instructor for them to know all the things. There's a team, and together we can know all the things. But if the instructor doesn't know all the things but has heard a mantra without being able to adjust for your individual circumstances, the class setup might be fun for the one dog in the class but not your dog in the class, and the instructor has the class set up as it is.
Melissa Breau: In an agility class, they're there to teach you agility, yeah.
Leslie McDevitt: Right, exactly, so that instructor is giving the advice you're not interesting enough because the dog is running away and barking at other dogs or something because that's what she knows, that's what she's been taught, and she's there to teach you how to do a front cross, and the room is going to be set up how that teacher sets up her room.
I understand that. I was an instructor too. Not in agility, but manners and then Control Unleashed instructor, so I can see all the angles because a lot of instructors liked it too. I could understand from everyone's point of view, which is kind of my thing, and it's not always easy to be me, to live with that, because I'm sociable and I'm flexible and I want to know what you think, and I'm very I can see this and that, especially when it comes to positive training. I don't see any reason to not be a positive trainer. But I can see perspectives. It works for teachers because it was also if this is happening in class, here's something that you could do, and handlers that were like, I know how you feel, here's something you could do.
Melissa Breau: You empathize with all of the different potential readers.
Leslie McDevitt: Right, because that's my thing. I'm this empathic person. I'm not one of the dog trainers that likes animals more than people, because people are animals. I just like learners. I like all the learners.
Melissa Breau: It's been a little while since the book came out. The book came out in 2007, so it's been almost 10 years ago. How have you seen the world of training change since then, and do you still fully endorse everything you included in that original book?
Leslie McDevitt: No. There's one thing that I would change. The world, I think, has come along with me very nicely. There's a lot more trainers and material that are what I was trying to put out there and are compatible with that.
As far as what I would change, for one thing, in the puppy book, which came out a few years after that, and then in the new book that will be coming out shortly, there's more details on how to teach things.
One thing is I see things and then I write them down, but I don't necessarily see them how you're going to see them because I haven't met you because it's a book. So after working with a few thousand more people over the past eleven years, I can be like, "Here's a bunch more steps." So not changing the old exercises, but adding more things to make it more for everybody is one thing that's happened.
The one thing that I would and am changing is when I started out teaching a "leave it" type behavior, I was using some negative punishment. In other words, you go toward the food without a cue and I'll remove it, food or toy. For most dogs I don't think that that shatters their psyche, but it's not necessary and it's always good to creatively find better ways to train.
Negative punishment is going to happen in life occasionally. You're not going to get something you wanted, ask my two kids, but I don't want it to be the first thing you think to do. When I started out teaching leave it, I learned that from a good clicker trainer. It was humane because we weren't using a leash. Everyone else that I saw was putting something on the floor and then jerking back and going, "No, leave it." This is what I was seeing in the world. To me, to have the dog not on a leash and just remove the food temporarily until the dog offered something else and click that was the humane way to go.
But there's other ways, and some of my friends are talking right now, some of them being fabulous FDSA instructors, are talking about the idea of it's just stimulus control, like, let's stop using this phrase "impulse control." It's just stimulus control, it's just training, it's just more operant work, looking at how you can teach leaving one thing alone as being more about the side of the equation that's about "and do something else," instead and that's why it's about a stimulus control issue. Do this, and while you're doing this, you aren't doing that. So it's just a different way of looking at it.
Back when I taught the first book, I had not heard of the concept of marker cues. Maybe if I had been in different sports I would have. I don't know when that started and became a thing. But that's interesting to me, and so I like the idea of using marker cues to teach a leave it. It's food in two different places. The cue is going to tell you which food to get, so you're automatically leaving one thing. It's just a stimulus control operant issue now. It's not "Don't try to take this or I'm going to take it." So I'm looking at that. I did write a chapter in the new book, I called it "Leave Its Without Tears."
Melissa Breau: I like that. Speaking of the new book, obviously
I know that you have a new book coming out. Can you share a little more about it? What's it called, and how is it different than the existing Control Unleashed book?
Leslie McDevitt: It's called Reactive To Relaxed. The way that it's different is I've had eleven years to think about this stuff and make it better, give more information to it, tweak what I want of it, add stories to it, add experience to it.
You could read it separately from the first book, but I'd rather you didn't. I'd rather you add the first book with it. What I've tweaked from my experience over these years, using these different situations, what I've added to it, what I've changed, how I've come to see it, and I really hope that everyone that's still using the first book will look over this one so that they can add to what they're doing. I've had a lot of years to watch people do things wrong and figure out different ways of teaching different people that are going to work. I've just had a lot of time. So I would really hope that they would look through to see how it's been tweaked and added to.
The other thing is I've got a bunch of fun new games that are in there, again things to add, and I have all the pattern games, which I made a DVD about when I was pregnant, knowing I was going to be out of commission for a long time, and I was. But I never wrote anything about them, so I've got that, and I've got a lot in there about voluntary behavior, start-button behavior, how it's worked in Control Unleashed, because I wasn't using those words then, but the concept was behind some of it. But now I have more language around that, and all the new games use that. The dogs can initiate the new games and give feedback about starting and stopping them. So heavy into the counter-conditioning side of things, so tweaking old things and adding to them, new games, lots about voluntary behavior and how it works within CU as a system, because it was always meant to be a system — a flexible one that you could customize to work for the individual, but a system of things combined.
I know some people just flip through or hear about, "Oh, look at that game on the Internet," and do one thing, and they're not getting the full picture of what's going on. You said, "What's your philosophy," so that's so ingrained in how everything's approached and why we're doing what we're doing. It's all pieces, and you could do just one piece, but it's nice when you see the flow of how it works.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned in there start-button behaviors and consent and things like that. I heard before we chatted that that was in there. Can you talk a little more about that? Why is including this concept of consent important, first of all, and what does that really look like when we're talking about dogs?
Leslie McDevitt: It can look like two things when we're talking about dogs. One, you could watch your dogs and look for their natural behaviors that they give that are asking behaviors or consenting behaviors, like if you pet them and then you stop petting and they like being pet, what do they do? Do they move a little closer to you? You can watch your dog and see are they asking for something or not.
And also all the times that they turn away. As trainers, we can see someone pet their dog and the dog is like, "Ugh," and moves away, and that person doesn't notice. I've had a lot of people like that and they're like, "My dog's so friendly," and I'm like, "Your dog hates being touched." That's the obvious thing, but there's all kinds of little things.
The second piece of this is the conditions that we can teach a behavior that is easily recognized by anybody. So for the person that doesn't notice little things, it's good to learn to notice little things, but also you can say, "Look, this dog either is resting their chin on this target or they're not." So you can condition a behavior that literally means start. If it's petting, the dog can be like, "OK, I put my chin on your knee, pet me. OK, I moved it, stop." Like you said, it's clear criteria for everybody.
You can also shape your way into it based on reading your animal. People have been doing that kind of stuff for a long time, and some of my friends are super-good at it and teaching, like Deb from FDSA is teaching the husbandry class, and stuff like that. So what I was looking at was I really like all of this, personally I suck at husbandry, I'm lazy, I don't want to clip your nails, it's never been a draw to me, however, volunteer behavior is a giant draw to me, so now I'm willing to do more husbandry-based things because it's a chance for me to work on voluntary behavior, where I never would have done it before. It's like, my last terv had dreadlocks fur and my puppy is always shiny because he brings me his brush and asks me to brush him, and it's because of the way that I taught him, just because voluntary behavior is fun. If he sees me brushing the kids' hair, he runs up and sits and he's like, "Oh my god, am I next?" He steals his brush, and I'm not going to lie: his brush is the kids' brush, and he goes into the bathroom and takes it and I find it in different places around the house because he loves it so much that he wants to carry it around. That's fascinating to me, and weird, but he's a terv.
So anyway, what I wanted to do with that is, I looked back over CU and over the way that voluntary behavior does play a role in it already, like the "give me a break" game was all about the dogs learning they could ask you to tell them to do a behavior. And then looking at new counter-conditioning games, building new counter-conditioning games from this voluntary perspective that the dog can say, "Walk this dog towards me," or "Walk me towards that dog," and "Stop. Walk me away from the dog." What would that look like? There's a lot of stations, so the dog can very clearly use a behavior to say, "Walk me to that spot under these conditions," or not. That's what I'm looking at, and it's great. It's super-awesome.
I'm going to quote Susan Friedman again from another cool thing she said, and that quote is in my book. I think I started the book with this quote. Of course, I don't even remember the quote, but it has something to do with control being a primary reinforcer, that controlling an outcome is what behavior is for. That's the evolutionary purpose of it. Guess what: Animals like controlling stuff that they might be scared of. They feel better then, and that makes your training go faster.
I had this experience with this weird kind of doctor called a physiatrist, it's like a chiropractic physical therapist witch doctor person. I've had all kinds of back problems and pain over the years. She was working on my back, it was bad, it hurt so much, and she was like, "I'm just going to stand here with my hand out," and she's like, "You do it. You can pick how gentle or how strong you want this to be. I'm just going to stand here." I was like, "Interesting." I was suddenly willing to take 100 percent more pain because it was my idea. That made a huge impression on me. Possibly literally a hand-shaped aggression on me because I was like, "Yes, dig it back in there."
If you know anything about me, you know I love mats and stations, and all these things can make it really clear: This dog is only going to walk up to this point, not all the way up to you. Are you ready for him to go to that point or not? Stuff like that. And they're like, "Yeah, I can handle that." And then if you change your criteria, if you move the station, they see it. They know that you did it, and they can say, "Sure, do it again," or be like, "You moved that too close, I am not pushing that button." You're like, "OK, I'll change it again."
So when I talk about a conversation, this is a language of cues that you can both speak, and the dog can clearly say if it's OK or not. You can be very specific in, "How would you like your counter-conditioning today?" You can be very specific and they buy into it right away. They're like, "Yeah." And if you have companion dog clients or whatever, they don't have to have tons of training background to jump right into this. All they need to have is good environmental management to keep things safe and some kind of start button. It would be nice if they were station-trained, but even if they're not, you can do all the ones where the other dog is going to a spot and they'll recognize that that's the spot.
Melissa Breau: I can totally see why it would be hard to continue to be afraid of something if you were in control of the thing.
Leslie McDevitt: Yeah. I'm thinking of this Simpsons episode where Homer's in the hospital and he realizes that he can make the bed move by pushing a button, and all day and all night you see the sun go up and down and he's like, bed goes up, bed goes down, bed goes up, bed goes down, bed goes up, bed goes down.
One dog that I worked with hated the husband of one of the other students in the CU class and was lying in wait for him in the parking lot to explode at him. I didn't know it was happening, because that husband used to read the news in his car and not even come in, and I didn't even know he was in the parking lot. One day, the dog was a Border Collie, the handler broke down that this was going on and I was like, "Oh."
He was the first one that I used an in-motion target behavior for him to move her towards me and then towards this guy. So he could say, "Bring me closer to this guy," and then if he wasn't doing the targeting behavior then … mostly they keep doing it. People are like, "What if they don't do it?" If they don't do it, stay where you are. Don't keep approaching. Or turn around and go the other way back to your starting point. There's usually a clear starting point of some mat or station, and you just take them back to it so they can start over. But anyway, so he was walking her up to that guy, and we made a play station at a halfway point and he was able to play there with his toy and then tell her to keep walking, and we did various things.
He was doing great, and then she wanted to fly him to Finland for an agility competition. We were concerned about flying him and the TSA, because various men were triggering and we all kind of freaked out, but she really wanted to do this. So we practiced. We brought the airline crate, he had not met my husband, so my husband was the TSA guy, and we were doing more old-style my husband was going to walk up and you'll get a treat and he'll walk away, stuff like that. He was tolerating everything, but he was not relaxed. He was more like, "I'm a good dog and I'm going to have to just do this." But he wasn't like, "Yeah, great, do it again."
At that point I hadn't yet made a protocol where he could have done a target behavior in the crate to have my husband walk towards the crate or not. That's probably what I would work on now with him, but that didn't exist yet. So what we did is I took him out of the crate, had my husband go stand far away, and I was like, "Do you want to take me over to him?" He puts his chin on the person's hand and that's your cue to walk, and if he moves it away, she stops walking. So he walked her right up to my husband and he was like, "Hi, I know this." Then he went back in the crate and was like, "OK," and then he was a lot more relaxed and that thing for him helped normalize this is a strange dude, you don't know what these conditions, are but you do know this, which is when I talk about rule structures a lot, this is what I mean, and when I talk about patterns, like in pattern games, it's a system or a set of rules that is reliable so you can plug something unknown into this equation, but the dog trusts the equation and he likes doing that behavior so much he'd walk her up to anybody.
He did go to Finland and all that and he was OK. He was all right. But anyway, that was the first dog that I experimented on in terms of a moving target behavior. So it was kind of cool. It goes fast, like, "Yeah, I'm going to go closer to this thing."
I was in Norway recently and I got asked a good question about, because I was using food, well, what if the dog is working for the food and thinking about the food and not what they're approaching, and then they eat and they look up and then they're like, "Oh my god, now I'm at a thing because I was lured by food and I wasn't prepared," or stuff like that. Or what if the food is masking that they're doing more than they're willing to because they want food or something like that, and then they look up and they explode.
These type of games make that not relevant because the dog knows exactly where the thing is, they're saying if they want to go somewhere and if they want the thing to move, and they're getting food, but they're directing things and there's no surprise, like, "Suddenly I'm closer than I meant to be," because they said, "Take me there," so it's just not relevant.
The other thing with it is if I'm doing a game where there's some kind of approach, it's always paired with a retreat, so the dog knows, if you ask him to go toward something, when he gets to a certain point, whether it's a station or all the way to the thing, the next thing that's going to happen is he's going to turn around and go back to his starting station. He knows that because I have more steps of mat training now, and one is something moves towards you while you're on a mat, if they move towards you, they also get to a certain point and move away, and you can use the start buttons to control that too. It's counter-conditioning, but there's an operant base behind it that the dog is controlling.
Melissa Breau: We're getting close to the end here, and there are three questions I usually ask people the first time they're on, the first of which is, what is the dog-related accomplishment that you're proudest of?
Leslie McDevitt: This is about my behavior, because I talk in the book about having had an anxiety disorder and all the counter-conditioning I've done with myself, and it's dog-related because of the books and this kind of stuff.
I've been asked for a long time to fly around, and travel, and teach strangers that speak foreign languages, and be in airports, and do all kinds of things that were immensely triggering at first, caused all kinds of anxiety, and I've been able to train myself to feel relaxed about doing it. So when my book is called Reactive To Relaxed, it also refers to me.
I talk about how I learned to see my brain as a little dog that I train. It's fine. I know Heathrow Airport like the back of my hand. I used to pace all night and throw up and have horrible panic attacks over much smaller things, like I wrote in the book, like a local dog show, and make myself do it. I made myself do it, but that's the tolerating, not the learning how to relax. I forced myself to tolerate it because I was that motivated to do it. Now I'm totally cool about … I shouldn't say that, because I'll start getting asked to travel more!
It's hard, but it's hard for different reasons. It's hard because I have kids and I'm busy and it takes time, but it's not hard for the emotional reasons that it used to be. I've done some more stuff with my own brain that I have with the dogs, and it's science. It's just science. I'm not saying I made it up and it's magic. It's science and it works. It changes our behavior too.
I don't want to say what I'm most proud of was a dog, because I feel like that's picking my favorite kid or something. I've done lots of things with all the dogs. But I'm proud of myself that I can just, "You want me to go to Germany? OK, fine."
The other day, I presented for the working dog conference. It was a room full of FEMA, search and rescue, cops, first responders, with Malinois, and I was like, This is not my usual agility club that invites me for a lecture. This is 250 cops looking at me. But I feel like it was the best presentation I ever gave. I realized early on that I could make them laugh, and I felt like dizzy with power over that. And then I was really funny, and when I'm funny and when people are laughing, that's when I'm the most relaxed and talking to you. It was great.
That was really anxiety-provoking, because the conditions were not my normal conditions and I didn't have a dog. If I have a dog or I'm working with a person's dog, then I'm thinking about the dog and not so much about I'm up here on a stage. But I didn't have that either. I had a room full of cops, and that is intimidating to me.
Melissa Breau: I think that's intimidating to most people.
Leslie McDevitt: Yeah, and you know within every dog culture there's suspicions about people that are coming outside of your culture to tell you about your business. But I do consult at the working dogs center and I had been working with those dogs, so I did have video of the kind of dogs that they would be working with and stuff. But even so, that's not the world that I'm coming from. But anyway, that was cool. I still feel pretty happy with myself that I did that and it was OK.
Melissa Breau: That's an awesome thing. That's a huge accomplishment. Second-to-last question here: What is the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?
Leslie McDevitt: I'm going to give a quote, it's not exactly advice, but it's a quote. It's a quote that Karen Pryor has been quoted as saying. I heard it in the context of she said it once to Emma Parsons when Emma was feeling anxiety about her dog being aggressive and all the exhausting stuff that comes with having a dog like that. Karen Pryor was quoted as saying, "It's just behavior." To me, that makes it all OK. Like a shark is eating you and you're like, "It's just behavior. It's OK." It makes it OK, it like, it's not personal, they're not out to get you, it's just behavior, and if you don't like it, behavior can be changed. Conditions can change, behavior can change.
Also it takes away … where I come from, at least my little corner of the dog sport world that I came of age in can be very judgey and very finger-pointery and very "Your dog did something wrong, so it's your fault." I think that sort of it's just behavior, and therefore we have agency to change it and it's not personal. It's not like you weren't enough of a leader or whatever, and even if your dog did the wrong thing in agility because you took the wrong step or looked at the wrong thing … there used to be that T-shirt, "Praise the dog, slap the handler." It's funny, except that a lot of people used to come to me for a lesson and they would burst into tears. It was more like therapy because I would be like, like I said about why people liked that first book, because I had a teacher that said that too, I went home and cried too.
I feel like that whole idea, "It's just behavior," is like, yeah, and so your behavior may be part of it, well, look at that, and you can change your behavior and the dog's behavior will change because you're part of the condition. That's normal, that's how learning works. It's not "And you're therefore a bad person." It's "That's how it works." So I feel like those three words, "It's just behavior," to me, make everything about training calmer. There's no need to judge people because they're less experienced or don't have the timing or the whatever that you have. Their behavior can change. It's just behavior.
One of my kids has sensory processing disorder, and maybe a little side-helping of ADD in there, and he has a lot of behavior, but sometimes I can be like, "It's just behavior." That's what it is. I think also if you're afraid of something but you can label it — it's just a spider, it has a name now, it's not so unknown, it has a name, it has parameters. And the same thing, people get worked up, whether it's they want a perfect performance and they're freaking out, they're waiting to go into the ring, and it's like, "Take a breath. It's just behavior. This is not life or death. Calm down." Or feeling like they've done all these things wrong because their dog is this way or that way, for both of them it's just behavior. It's OK.
Melissa Braeu: Behavior can be changed.
Leslie McDevitt: We all behave. If we weren't all behaving, we would all be dead. Anyway, I heard Emma tell that story and she took it the same way I did. I think it calmed her down a lot when she was upset about her dog's aggressive behavior to be like, yeah, it's behavior. It's not a bad dog, you haven't failed handling a dog, it's just behavior is happening. It's not even personal. I just really like that.
Melissa Breau: To ask you a final question here that's probably not going to be an easy one, who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to? You don't have to feel like you have to name the one and only, but just somebody.
Leslie McDevitt: All my friends. There's some FDSA trainers that I really look up to because they do such fine precision work and they're my girls, like Hannah, Sarah Owings, Denise, Deb, and I'm seeing such high-quality good work getting out there to so many people. It's really cool, I think. In terms of who I'm awestruck by, it's Ken Ramirez. Ken Ramirez knows everything.
Melissa Breau: You're not the first person to say that.
Leslie McDevitt: He's made of magic, sunshine, and rainbows, and the fact that he was willing to talk to me and even put me on the faculty, because I'm on the Expo faculty — speaking of having to work with anxiety about presenting — the fact that he did that, I'm still like, "What?"
He's working on conservation training right now, teaching wild elephants that they can choose a different migratory route and avoid being poached, and here I am in my living room with a dog? The dude has literally been shot by poachers. He is living this amazing craziness of a life to help animals, and he's just so bright. He sees so much.
I really appreciate trainers that work with a variety of species. That's a big deal to me. The other trainers that I would mention being influenced by and looking up to are my friends that are training other species or have trained a variety of species. I've got some clicker horse trainer friends, and my friend Laura Monaco Torelli, she started out at Shedd Aquarium, she trained everything, and she does all voluntary husbandry stuff now, really good stuff that definitely influenced me in the whole voluntary thing.
So there's a lot of good stuff happening right now, which is really cool. When I look around and I'm like, "The world's going to hell, oh my god, what are we doing?" I can calm myself down and be like, 'Our community is still progressing." Sometimes it seems like nothing else is progressing, but our community is looking pretty good right now. Too bad we don't run the world or anything, but you know.
Melissa Breau: Working on it, right?
Leslie McDevitt: Just saying. It's just behavior, right?
Melissa Breau: Right. Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Leslie! This has been fantastic.
Leslie McDevitt: Great. Thank you so much. I guess I have to put my kids to bed now. I'd love to keep talking to you, but hello.
Melissa Breau: Fair enough. I suppose at some point I should let you go do that.
Well, thank you again, and thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!
We'll be back next week with Trish McMillan to talk about behavior modification and shelter work. Don't miss it.
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