Online Training: Fenzi Academy

We’ve dabbled in several formats of online training classes, and I just realized that my thoughts on those might be helpful to some of you.

Today, registration opens for the December term of the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.

The Fenzi Academy is a fascinating concept. Denise Fenzi gathered (and continues to gather) a wide variety of experts in various fields who don’t have the fame/resources/ability to reach a large training audience on their own. Under the umbrella of her academy, they can offer their fascinating niche training classes to students outside of their local classes. Every instructor at the Fenzi academy teaches via force-free methods, without the use of verbal or physical corrections, including in some fields where force-free training is difficult to find.

These classes can also be had relatively inexpensively–far cheaper than my very mediocre local training options, although classes here are apparently unusually pricey. The academy operates on a tiered pricing schedule, with price dependent on how much individual interaction you receive from the instructor. Gold spots are the most expensive, and limited to relatively few places per class. In a gold spot, you submit weekly (or more frequent) videos to be critiqued by the instructor. Silver-level students can ask questions in an online forum that is monitored by both the instructor and your classmates. Bronze access is read only, including the ability to see the gold and silver-level forums and videos. After the classes end, you retain access to your online material for a certain amount of time, which renews if you are a recurring student in any Fenzi class. The text portion of the classes is also easy to download or print for future reference. As of this writing, gold access is $260, Silver is $130 (comparable to an in-person class here), and Bronze is $65.

Structurally, the Fenzi Academy classes that I have taken are much like in-person obedience classes. Classes run six weeks, with new classes always starting on the first of the month. The instructor posts a “lecture,” which is usually followed by one or more assignments that you are intended to practice before the next “lecture.” Some instructors use a weekly format, but some post more frequently, or will post several lectures at once. The assignments are almost always accompanied by a video of the instructor demonstrating the exercise with her own dog. I have never felt that the instruction I received was unclear or lacking in any way.

My only dislike with the Fenzi classes is that I don’t find the online format they use to be intrinsically motivating. I came to online training via Susan Garrett, who is a poster child for ADHD. Susan’s Recallers classes move fast, with short activities posted almost every day. I got used to that. (Alternatively, many people, especially those with busy lives, hate the breakneck pace of Recallers, get frustrated, and give up.) It’s easy for me with the Fenzi Academy classes to think “Oh, I’ll read that lecture tomorrow.” Or “well, this class will be in my library if I don’t finish it.” Many students take Gold or Silver level specifically to “make” themselves keep up with the work.

There are many great things about these classes, though. First and foremost, they cover an astonishing array of topics that very, very few of us could find in local classes. Shock-free snake avoidance, agility, heeling, high-level formal obedience, IPO, tricks, conditioning, nose work, you name it. The December-January term has over twenty classes. The instructors are top-notch experts in their fields. Grisha Stewart teaches BAT there now, for instance. The price is unbeatable if you are good at reading and applying on your own.

In general, I’m not sure that online classes can 100% substitute for in-person training. Live classes have the added component of your dog learning to work around other dogs, which is extremely important but difficult for most of us to replicate at home. There are also some mechanical skills for reinforcement-based training that are really best-learned in person. If your dog is a bad fit for in-person classes, though, or it you’re just interested in a kind of class that you can’t find locally, there are some real gems here.

As I mentioned above, December-January enrollment is opening right now. By the time you read this most of the Gold spots will probably be taken, but Bronze-level spots are unlimited and will be accepting students until two weeks after classes start.

You’re Going to Make Mistakes

While I let Silas off the hook of being “perfect” years ago, I have a little harder time with myself.

Which is why I’m here to remind you that you are going to make mistakes with your dog. It’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when” and “what do I do now?”

Every dog trainer makes mistakes. For those of us with less well-balanced dogs, it’s painfully obvious when we screw something up. Anxious dogs have long memories, and they seldom “get over it” no matter how much time you let pass. Overestimate their abilities to handle a situation, and you can undo a lot of hard work.

It’s easy to say “be more careful,” and then beat yourself up when something goes wrong, but that doesn’t help you or your dog.

Untitled

Here’s my example from today:

Silas and I were playing a retrieving game. It was going great.

Then it went off the rails. First, I got greedy. He was having so much fun! It was our best retrieving in months! So I thought “Let’s do just one more!” (Pro tip: train yourself to say, in response to that little voice, “Nah, we’re good.”) Except the one more was really slow and kind of bad. “I don’t want to end on that! I’ll do one more, so we can stop on one of the great ones.” DANGER. ABORT MISSION. The last retrieve was perfect! I was so excited! I threw a big excited party, like all those trainers tell you to!

Except noise-sensitive Silas, focused on the second ball I was holding, wasn’t expecting a big party. He dropped his poor ball like it was a hot coal and cowered in terror.

Now, despite my best efforts at damage control in the moment, he is apparently terrified both of his ball and of bringing me things. (Yeah, this is really going to be a big setback on the retrieve front.)

And here’s where letting go of perfection is useful.

Instead of wallowing in self pity (although I might have, for just a minute, and that’s okay too), I am making a plan. When Silas wakes up from his nap, we’re going to do some hand-touches with high-value rewards. The absolutely most important thing is to make sure that he doesn’t get skittish about running up to me, so I’m going to go back and re-invest heavily in that step.

I’m also going to do some free-shaping games with the offending ball. (Depending on how this goes, I may change over to a different ball, but I don’t think he’s quite that frightened.) We’ll progress from there back to the retrieve game only once he’s comfortable with the toy again.

In a completely different context (probably with his favorite tug) I am going to work on his tolerance for sudden noise while he plays, just in case I forget myself in the moment again.

You’re going to make mistakes. Accept it, let it go, get on with a plan.

October Goals? Big fail.

Back at the beginning of October I wrote that my goal this month was to successfully trim Silas’s nails.

It has not happened.

This is not entirely from lack of effort, although I did flag a little mid-month. (We ran out of our A++ value cookies, and I was thwarted in replacing them.)

You know what the problem is? Silas is too smart for this game.

He’s perfectly happy to do anything involving the nail clippers, short of actual clipping. We worked through all of the following:

  • Approaching me while the clippers are nearby
  • Approaching me while I hold the clippers
  • Him touching the clippers with his foot while the clippers are on the ground (foot targeting is one of the first behaviors he offers in a shaping session.)
  • Offering me his paw while the clippers are nearby
  • Offering me his paw while I hold the clippers
  • Letting me hold his foot for moderate duration while I hold the clippers.
  • Letting me touch his nail with the clippers

But the little rat is quite capable of believing both that “this is some bizarre but okay shaping exercise that involves the clippers as a prop” and “Hell, no, you are not actually clipping my nails.”

We’re in a vicious cycle now, where his nails are long and very sturdy, but probably also sensitive because they are too long and clack on the floor constantly. I broke down last week and trimmed a few of the worst ones on the front. At that point I realized that my clippers have gotten really dull and are squeezing his nails too much. (It also hurts my cause that I went ahead with the clipping, but I am only human and couldn’t take it anymore.)

So, the next part of our action plan, in a roughly chronological order:

  1. Acquire new clippers. (Check.) Repeat as necessary until I get a pair that’s sharp.
  2. Persevere with the non-clipping parts of the counterconditioning, even though they don’t seem to be adding up to real change.
  3. Make him a scratch board and see if I can train him to “file” his own nails.
  4. Think about my actual clipping mechanics and match them better with the counterconditioning sessions.
  5. Focus on clipping the tiniest possible amount, rather than actually getting them to a tolerable level.

You Can’t Reinforce Fear, Continued

Last Spring I wrote this post about how you can’t reinforce fear.

I wanted to revisit the topic today, though, because I still see this idea everywhere. Also, a conversation I had yesterday on Twitter with a blog-less reader made me want to add a few thoughts to my original post.

“Don’t give the dog a cookie while she’s scared! You’ll make her worse!”

WRONG.

Reinforcement increases behavior. Fear is not a behavior; it is an emotion. We don’t choose to have or not have our emotions, and dogs don’t have our ability to talk themselves out of their feelings. Technically, you could reinforce a fear-based behavior, like cowering, but that assumes a level of active awareness on the dog’s part that I personally haven’t seen. Could you exactly replicate the way you jump when someone slams a door behind you?

One of the reasons that the “reinforcing fear” myth is so pervasive is that there is a distantly related scientific truth. You will, absolutely and without a doubt, have the best results from counterconditioning/desensitization if the dog is what behavioral scientists call “under threshold.” That is, the ideal time to deliver your reward is to do it before the dog starts reacting to something. So, yes, once your dog is already cowering or barking, you’re behind the curve. In a perfect world, you would deliver every reward while the dog is calm or happy.

Let’s get this clear, though:

The absolutely worst thing you can do for a fearful dog is to do nothing. 

So, you make a timing mistake. Your dog sees or hears something that you weren’t prepared for. Maybe you have a situation like thunder phobia where there is no “milder version” or “greater distance” to work with. If you believe that you will reinforce fear by delivering a cookie, petting, praise, or even by getting the dog out of the situation, your dog’s behavior will deteriorate. This is science.

Once your dog is reacting fearfully, he is over threshold. Not only is being over threshold bad for your dog physiologically, it will sensitize your dog to future encounters. His threshold for future fear reactions will lower. Sensitization and the lowering of thresholds is bad enough for problems like leash reactivity, but for conditions like separation anxiety or thunder phobia it can be disastrous. For any fear, once that threshold gets low enough, your only choice will be to medicate, because it is no longer possible for your dog to be safely counter-conditioned otherwise.

Now that your dog is over threshold, you have two choices: you can either do nothing, because it “reinforces fear” (bad idea), or you can deliver an admittedly sub-optimal reward. What your poorly-timed cookie/praise/petting/escape will get you is the chance that your dog will go back under that threshold. You may or may not get long-term learning out of it (whatever the books say, counter conditioning in the real world is hard, imprecise work), but at the very least you are stopping the damage.

Your frightened dog is not making a choice that you can validate or (heaven help me) punish. You are helping your dog–a creature who completely depends on you–handle a bad situation, whether he’s coping in an ideal way or not.

Control Issues

I’m a person who likes ORDER and ROUTINE. I balance my budget to the penny. I always go to the grocery store with a list. I read the care labels before I do the laundry. My husband and I once went to the same restaurant, on the same day of the week, every week for six months.

In other words, I’m a control freak who doesn’t tolerate change well.

As I’m sure you can imagine,  Silas and I struggled a lot in his early life. There’s some of this evident in the earlier parts of the blog, but most of it had happened before then. The dog training facility we used rolled puppies straight from puppy class to Obedience I. There were our pals from puppy class, gazing adoringly at their humans, begging for instructions. And then there was Silas, at the end of his leash, checking out everything but me. That’s how he was everywhere. When he was about a year old, we were on some trails with loose dirt over rock, and he pulled me completely off my feet. I went back to the car and cried. It wasn’t that it hurt; it was because my dog didn’t seem to even know I was outside with him.

I wasn’t “in control” of his behavior. I couldn’t even influence his behavior.

It changed everything when I realized that he constantly scanned his environment, apparently not paying me any attention, because I was the one thing out there that he could count on.

I also distinctly remember reading a passage in Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed. McDevitt brings up that old saw–you need to be more interesting than your dog’s environment in order to get your dog’s attention, and you need your dogs attention 100% of the time. Then she says that it just isn’t true:

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be interesting or rewarding to your dog. But I am relieving you of the burden of having to be the best thing in the galaxy at all times….It should be very rewarding for your dog to work with you, and I hope it always is. If it isn’t, you need to thoroughly examine your training structure and methodology. But you don’t have to take this concept to the extreme to train your dog…and you don’t have to feel like a total failure if your dog occasionally wants to act like a dog. (54)

Since then I’ve thought a lot about control. How much do we need in our relationships with our dogs? What purpose does it serve?

Silas

Force-free dog training changed the methods that we use to teach our dogs, but it hasn’t always changed the assumptions that underlie what “good dog training” looks like. I touched on this a few weeks ago when I wrote about failure. We don’t want our dogs to fail, because we still believe that failure is something bad that needs to be punished. Since we know we don’t want to punish, we feel like we can’t allow failure.

Control is on that same continuum. Traditional dog training said that your dog should be “under control” 100% of the time. Obedience trials are expressly designed to test that level of control. Will your dog stay in a cued position even when you aren’t there? Will your dog work devotedly even when there are no tangible rewards?

Perhaps ironically, positive dog trainers are often more intense about control than trainers who are willing to use punishment, because we feel like we have fewer options. I’ve seen a good bit of paranoia about dogs “self-reinforcing.” There is a real fear that our reinforcements won’t be reinforcing enough to get the behavior that we want, unless we keep the poor dog in some kind of sensory deprivation the rest of the time.

Obviously, an “out of control” dog is a problem. Dogs have sharp teeth, strong muscles, and poor judgment. Dogs need to be kept safe, from themselves and from the world, and people need to be kept safe from dogs. Also true, a dog with unlimited access to reinforcement isn’t going to make a great training partner. Why work for something you can get for free?

There is, however, a vast amount of grey area between no control and too much. Most importantly, trying to control your dog all the time is filling your world with NO, and that’s exactly what positive dog training is trying to change. Our dogs will be happy to work with us without Stockholm Syndrome. Let yourself off the hook. Sometimes it’s okay for your dog be a dog.

October Goals

We’ll be working on lots of things in October, because we’re always working on lots of things. Tricks, obedience behaviors, and sidewalk-walking will all continue apace. I’m hoping to improve Silas’s rear-end awareness, and we’re continuing our quest to have more fun.

But, we also have official goals this month.

Nineteen of them, in fact.

Dog nails that need to be cut

Yep, that’s a real-live, just-taken photograph of how horrible Silas’s nails are.

Silas hates having his nails done. Like a lot of his handling issues, we’d settled on the pragmatic–do it fast, get it done, have a party afterwards. Because Silas’s very first stress response is to stop eating, he’s tricky to counter-condition with food in the moment. But while the post-procedure party worked wonders for bath time, nail trimming was just not improving. Then, for reasons that are only reasons to an anxious dog, it started getting worse.

Now Silas has determined that he will not be put on the table, then only place he didn’t squirm too much for me to safely trim. It wouldn’t be too important, except that Silas spends very little time walking on concrete, so his nails grow quite quickly.

That means my big October goal is to counter-condition the process of nail clipping. I really hope it doesn’t take all month, but it may. Past attempts to work through this have always hit a plateau somewhat before actual clipping can happen.


 

I had this post largely drafted yesterday, when I heard that Dr. Sophia Yin had passed away. I’m incapable of writing a tribute that can do her justice, but this post is very much in her spirit. Dr. Yin cared deeply about how dogs and cats felt about being handled during grooming and medical procedures, and she used her position within the veterinary community to both advocate and educate on their behalf. I can’t write her an appropriate tribute; I will try to practice one instead.

Progress Is Not Always Obvious

Silas with his bed

Wednesday afternoon, morbid curiosity drove me back into the blog archives. It isn’t a place I go often, just in case I said something that would horrify present-day me. Instead, I was left feeling the need to give my old self a serious hug.

It’s been about two years since I started the blog. Silas turned one in May of 2012, and I started the blog in August that year. I suspect, reading my first few posts and remembering some of the things that prompted them, that I started the blog out of despair.

We went to the vet every month from March to September or October that year. One of the things that came out of that was his food allergy diagnosis, which meant that by August we were doing a tedious and emotionally draining food elimination diet. It took over a year before we were at a sustainable diet again. On our summer vacation that year, Silas erupted in hives so bad he looked like a dog-shaped cauliflower, prompting major (and thankfully unfounded) panic that he was going to have severe seasonal allergies.

At the same time, it was becoming obvious to me that he was not just afraid of a few things, he was afraid of almost everything. It took me a long time to really process that, during which time his behavior continued to deteriorate in many situations.

On top of all that, he was an adolescent male dog. He’s never had significant bad behaviors at home, but dog adolescence has its problems for everybody.

I knew we were having a rough go of things, but I don’t think I was capable of processing how miserable it all was. It’s one of the more adaptive and useful traits of the human brain. However, an inability to really assess the situation right this minute means that you can’t, by definition, see if you’re making progress or not.

A lot of those issues–the stuff that used to drive every decision that I made, every day–just quietly went away with time, and we developed patterns of behavior to mute the others, further blurring the distinctions.

I adjusted to Silas’s food issues. We have four proteins he can eat now, and I buy the same five or six kinds of “safe” treats all the time. I got used to the grosser parts of preparing a raw diet. He’s still a finicky eater at meal times, and he still has serious stomach problems, but we get by.  I also know when to watch for and how to manage his seasonal allergies, which are fairly mild but do exist.

We’ve reached a middle ground with his anxiety, thanks in no small part to his medication. He’s stopped reacting badly to neighborhood sounds, which lessened my stress levels by about 99%. I’ve learned to live with every street-facing window in the house completely blocked. I know what he can handle, what he can’t handle, and what might be a good learning experience. I’ve let go of many, many expectations.

Silas also grew up. His temperament and energy levels stabilized. The last of our “regular dog” behavioral issues around the house (like chewing on the bathroom rug) went away. We did so much training to channel his energy that he’s a really good dog at home, and there’s even some residue of it finally showing up in other environments.

On Tuesday, when we went to the park and he was happy and well-behaved, I was a little stunned. Like I said, it’s hard to tell these days what’s really improving–Silas’s behavior or our ability to mold our life around his problems. And those, of course, form a fairly complex web. For example, I manage Silas’s barking out the front windows by covering them all up, but every day that he doesn’t practice that behavior is also lessening his need to do it.

When you have a reactive dog, or an anxious dog, it’s easy to see the setbacks. I could tell write you a list right now of behaviors that I’m working to improve, from the pragmatic to the most dog-geeky. Progress, though, is so silent and so slow that it’s easy to feel like it isn’t happening at all.

Have faith, and stop to look around once in a while.