Episode 17: Interview with Sara Brueske - "Disc dog training"

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Summary:

Sara Brueske has been training dogs for over 15 years; she became a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner in 2011 and jumped into the world of professional dog training.

Sara and her dogs work at Purina Farms in Missouri where they demonstrate the sports of disc, agility, and dock diving for the public in over 400 shows each year.

She and her dogs also compete nationwide. Currently, she is active in the sports of disc dog, agility, mondioring and dock diving -- plus, she’s a trick dog enthusiast.

Sara has recently re-entered the world of competitive Disc Dog and is the 2016 overall UpDog International Champion as well as the 2017 UpDog Freestyle Champion.

Sara believes in positive reinforcement not only for dogs, but for their handlers as well. Her biggest joy in training is watching a handler and dog become partners and grow as a team.

Links mentioned:

Next Episode:

To be released 7/7/2017, featuring Laura Waudby.

TRANSCRIPTION:

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 Sara Brueske.

Sara Brueske has been training dogs for over 15 years; she became a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner in 2011 and jumped into the world of professional dog training.

Sara and her dogs work at Purina Farms in Missouri where they demonstrate the sports of disc, agility, and dock diving for the public in over 400 shows each year.

She and her dogs also compete nationwide. Currently, she is active in the sports of disc dog, agility, mondioring and dock diving -- plus, she’s a trick dog enthusiast.

Sara has recently re-entered the world of competitive Disc Dog and is the 2016 overall UpDog International Champion as well as the 2017 UpDog Freestyle Champion.

Sara believes in positive reinforcement not only for dogs, but for their handlers as well. Her biggest joy in training is watching a handler and dog become partners and grow as a team.

Hi Sara! Welcome to the podcast.

Sara Brueske: Hi Melissa, thank you for having me!

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. I’m excited to chat a little bit.

Sara Brueske: Definitely.

Melissa Breau: So, to start us out, can you tell us a bit about your dogs and what you’re working on with them?

Sara Brueske: I have a whole bunch of dogs. My job kinda dictates that i have more dogs than the average owner. I have 14 current in my household. So all 14 of them are either in training or participate in my job, which is doing shows at Purina Farms. I compete with a handful of them outside of that job as well. So it depends on the dog, what I’m working on with them. My main sports that i do with all of my dogs is agility, disc, and dock diving. And my malinois i compete and train in mondioring as well.

Melissa Breau: Do you want to give us a little bit of an idea of who you have in the household? I know you’ve got a mix of breeds and all sorts of stuff.

Sara Brueske: Yeah, Sure! I’ll do the run down. I have a whole bunch - I really like variety. I have 3 australian koolies, which is a little bit of a rare herding breed here in the United States. I imported 2 of them from Australia and I had my very first litter this year, so I have their daughter, too. She’s about 11 weeks old now. And then I have 2 border collies, both of them are rescues. I have a border staffy, who is a rescue as well, and a whippet -- a rescue actually from the same house as the border staffy. I have 4 malinois, one of those is actually a permanent foster through the malinois ranch rescue in Tennessee. And I have a boston terrier mix, a papillion, and a labrador.

Melissa Breau: Wow, some of those I actually hadn’t seen pictures of before; it’s definitely a household, huh?

Sara Brueske: It’s a full household, they’re all very very active dogs other than the elderly foster; she’s a little bit slow these days, but…

Melissa Breau: How did you get started with all of this? Obviously, where you are today -- it probably took a little while to get there, but how did you first get started in dog sports?

Sara Brueske: I was actually 11 years old when I begged my parents to let me buy my very first sport dog. I wanted a border collie and i wanted to compete in agility and that was because I watched the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge on TV. So I saved up all my money, and I found a border collie in a newspaper, which is the worst place to get a dog, and we went out and i bought my border collie. And so then I did my backyard training -- we had stick-in-the-ground weave poles made out of PVC, my tunnel was actually a construction drainage pipe that my dad found and gave me, and that’s how I trained all my agility and I started competing as a junior handler. He actually got injured, and so I had to stop training him in sports and that’s when I figured out about trick training. When he was 7 years old, he knew about 50 different tricks.

Melissa Breau: wow.

Sara Brueske: So like, high five and wave and spin, and other ones were throwing away my empty soda cans, and turning off the light because by then i was a lazy teenager.

Melissa Breau: That’s awesome. So I think that just goes to prove that anybody… people don’t have an excuse if you could do it in your backyard with sticks and PVC pipe…

Sara Brueske: Exactly! And I think my parents always were hoping that I’d outgrow this, go to school and maybe be a veterinarian, but here I am, with 14 dogs and training is my career.

Melissa Breau: So agility is generally thought of as pretty positive -- same with trick dog training. Have you always been a positive trainer?

Sara Brueske: I actually wasn’t -- I was kind of what you’d consider a balanced trainer back then. All my agility training and trick training, that was all done with clickers, so I had read up on clickers and learned how to do that, kind of a self-study, but my parents were very much punishment based and they should be dogs and they should behave as dogs. And so that’s kind of the background I have with that. I didn’t have any formal dog training, so it’s a mish-mash of everything you can imagine… and I actually was that way until I had a great dane and he was not the most balanced - mentally - dog, he was a little bit reactive and he was a big dog, and everyone told me I had to show him who’s boss, and everything else and alpha roll him, and come-to-jesus moments and all that. Well, the dog out weighed me and it wasn’t working. So that was when I switched and I became a positive-only trainer. That helped him tremendously.

Melissa Breau: And I know that now you’ve done the Karen Pryor Academy, and everything else -- it sounds like that was kind of your pivot moment there… but it sounds like then you went that next step with it, right?

Sara Brueske: Absolutely. So when i had that great dane i also actually on the path to becoming a professional dog trainer. I was looking for ways to enhance my education, looking for places to teach group classes, and that’s where the Karen Pryor Academy came into place - it was a formal education that I could put on my resume and show people that I was serious about becoming a dog trainer.

Melissa Breau: So, I think most dog trainers -- at least professional dog trainers -- would say their dogs are both their life and their work, right? Because of the nature of what you do at Purina, it seems like it takes that to a whole other level. Do you want to just talk for a few minutes about what you do a Purina and what that’s like?

Sara Brueske: Sure. So my job at Purina is to promote pet ownership and Purina believes that your life is really enhanced by owning a pet, so my job at Purina, at Purina Farms is to talk to the public, promote pet ownership by putting on shows every single day. So my shows are three times a day, 6 days a week. And I bring my dogs with me to work everyday and we show them what you can do with rescue dogs, what you can do with your dog at home, which is really why i like to have a variety of dogs. So my goal at Purina is to hear the audience go, “We should go home and train Sparky to do that.” That’s my favorite thing ever to hear. It means they’re going to go home and play with their dog -- and that’s huge to me. And so, because we do so many shows a day I actually bring between 11 and 13 dogs with me every single day to work. And that means my dogs are with me from the time I wake up, I feed them, we get ready, we all go to work - I work with them all day long, I come home, I unload them, I feed them, and they’re with me all evening. My dogs are literally with me 24/7.

Melissa Breau: When do you find time to train, if you’re working with them so much?

Sara Brueske: To train? So that’s my job at Purina, is to train them -- between the shows that’s the time that I have to train my dogs and work them and make sure they’re getting what they get.

Melissa Breau: Wow - that’s a very full day.

Sara Brueske: It’s a very, very full day - yes.

Melissa Breau: You’re basically relying on your dogs for your livelihood; I’m sure that’s had a lot of impact -- and like you said, you’re with them 24/7 -- on the actual relationship that you have with them. Do you want to just talk for a minute about how you think that’s impacted things for you?

Sara Brueske: Sure. It’s really… you hear a lot of the time people in my line of profession looking at their dogs like they’re just part of their paycheck. They have their job - they’re tools of the trade. That’s very much NOT how I view them. The reason why i have so many dogs is that i don’t want my dogs to be burnt out; I don’t want my dogs to hate their job. I want my dogs to have fun, just as much fun as I have working with them. You can’t do this job and have that many shows to perform in and only have 6 dogs… you’ll end up ruining your relationship with your dog. You’ll end up hurting your dog. And really their well-being in the long run is the most important part. That’s what I care about the most and that’s why i have so many dogs. But, I mean, it is what it is. My dogs pour their heart out for me every single day. And I appreciate that so much. But they also really love what we’re doing. So I have dogs that love frisbee, i have dogs that love dock diving, I have dogs that love working with me, and that’s a big part of it as well.

Melissa Breau: I know you mentioned you typically bring up to 13 of the dogs with you each day… how many tend to compete in any given show?

Sara Brueske: So we run 5-6 dog shows. And I rotate through those. So I don’t like my dogs to do more than 3 shows a day, and I actually rotate days. So for instance, yesterday it was Zip Tie, Nowie and Taboo and Zuma’s day to work. I rotated through those dogs for the show, the other trainer covered the rest of the dogs in the show. And then tomorrow, since today was my day off, I’ll have 4 different dogs that I’ll put in the show again.

Melissa Breau: It’s so interesting, just kind of juggling all of it, and managing schedules.

Sara Brueske: Yeah, we count a lot of shows. We tally it all up and make sure everybody’s not working too much all the time, and it’s helpful having other trainers there because we each pull equal weight on any given day.

Melissa Breau: So I want to switch gears and talk a little more specifically about disc -- I know that’s kind of what you teach at FDSA. I think, like you were talking about having watched agility on TV, I think a lot of people have seen some of the cool tricks disc dogs can do and I think that some people probably look at it and go, “my dog couldn’t do that.” So, I was curious what skills a dog actually needs to be able to learn some of those disc tricks.

Sara Brueske: Sure. So freestyle is what you always see on TV and in the incredible dog challenge and really, in reality, that’s just a tiny little aspect of the frisbee dog community and the competitions. It’s actually not even the most competitive, you could argue. There’s a ton of different games you can play with your dog in each competition, in each venue. Just like there’s AKC agility, NADAC agility, USDAA and they all have different rules and different games, the same thing applies to disc dog. So your tradition frisbee dog competition will have freestyle and a toss-and-catch competition. And the toss-and-catch competition is just like it sounds -- it’s a game of fetch, a timed game of fetch where you get extra points for distance and accuracy, so you want to throw in a certain zone, and how many throws you can get off in a minute or the 90 seconds that you have. So really, to compete in toss and catch at the novice level all you have to do is have a dog that loves to play fetch. I mean, whose dog doesn’t really like to go out there in the backyard and catch a frisbee, right? So that’s pretty applicable to any dog. Oh so you also have your handler, who has to be able to throw… but lucky in like the novice competition you just have to throw 20 yards, which isn’t very far. Then there’s other venues, such as UpDog, which is my preferred venue, it’s just come out in the last 3 years or so. And they really cater to new disc players -- they do something that’s called a roller, which is you throw the disc on it’s edge on the ground and it rolls and the dog has to grab that. So you don’t even have to be able to throw a frisbee to be able to compete in novice. And they have a bunch of strategy games, each kind of tailoring to each dog’s individual strength and each handler’s individual strength. So that’s kind of cool; they’re really starting to incorporate the idea that anybody can play frisbee with their dog, which is really interesting.

Melissa Breau: So, in your classes at the academy, what are some of the common things or tricks that you wind up teaching?

Sara Brueske: So all the tricks that we wind up teaching in the academy classes, the tricks themselves, are for freestyle. There are some that apply to the other games, such as the flatwork and stuff like that -- and that’s just moving your dog around the field and connecting with your dog. That’s where I really like to lay my emphasis with my classes, it comes from my agility roots - it’s a lot like handing in agility. But the tricks themselves, for freestyle, we teach a whole bunch of different things. We do dog catches - which is where you literally catch your dog, with or without a disc. We do rebounds, which is where… it’s kind of like a flyball box turn, but on your body, so the dog hits you and then jumps off. And then leg weaves, which is really good for any sport because it’s a nice warm up, and then we also teach things like stalls, where they actually jump up onto a part of your body, and hang out there for a while.

Melissa Breau: That’s kind of neat.

Sara Brueske: Yes, it’s very exciting.

Melissa Breau: So If somebody’s trying to decide if they should take the class, are their any skills they need or their dog needs to start to do some of those tricks?

Sara Brueske: We teach all those tricks actually with food, first. So if your dog has food drive, then you’re pretty much golden for it. You can actually wind up taking the class and teaching those tricks for food and not ever touching a frisbee if you want to. But ideally, if you want the whole frisbee aspect of the class then your dog should have some sort of toy drive or disc drive, because I don’t hit on that a whole lot in the classes. There are plenty of other Fenzi classes that build on toy drive, and I want to make sure that mine focuses just on the frisbee aspect of it.

Melissa Breau: If someone was just interested in getting started, what’s that first step -- where should they start out?

Sara Brueske: The first step, which is what i always recommend to anyone looking at any sport, find a local club, find some local help that can give you hands on help because that hands on help is going to be priceless. And hopefully there’s somebody there that’s actively competing, and who has gone to the world’s level to help you out. That’s where I would start. There are a whole bunch of places on facebook that you can look - disc dog discussions is a group that you can check out and they have a whole bunch of different clubs that participate in that discussion group, so you can always post where you are and somebody will chime in to give you some contact information. After that, the online class at Fenzi is a pretty good one for foundation, and there are other online classes as well for disc dog foundations currently.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. And kind of the way that we end every episode -- our big three questions -- what’s the dog-related accomplishment you’re proudest of?

Sara Brueske: So I thought long and hard about this question. I have a whole lot of accomplishments that I’m very, very proud of. But the reality of that is that I get to experience something that a lot of people don’t get to experience -- forming a new relationship with a whole bunch of different dogs. So in the last 4 years I’ve had 14 different dogs plus many fosters and dogs I’ve raised come through my house. And all of those dogs I’ve started in training and formed relationships with. My most favorite accomplishment i’ve ever had is with each of those dogs is when that dog really kind of has that light bulb moment and goes, “I really do enjoy working with you. This is fun, this is a game!” That’s what I’m most proud of.

Melissa Breau: That’s definitely like that golden moment, that everybody is looking for, right? To form a relationship.

Sara Brueske: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Melissa Breau: So, what’s the best piece of training advice you’ve ever heard?

Sara Brueske: That everything’s a trick. From my history -- when I couldn’t do agility anymore, I just did tricks with my dog. So when I actually started looking into IPO and Mondioring, and looking at these very complicated obedience maneuvers, and precision things it was really kind of eye opening to remember that everything is a trick. And that kind of came from Sylvia Turkman’s DVD, Heeling is just another Trick. And that was kind of a light bulb moment for me -- this is just like teaching all those other things I teach.

Melissa Breau: I think that’s really interesting, because you mentioned it specifically in relation to Mondioring, which is not a sport people look at usually and go, “oh it’s just tricks!”

Sara Brueske: No they definitely don’t.

Melissa Breau: And then finally, who is someone else in the dog world that you look up to?

Sara Brueske: So Sylvia Turkman. And the reason for that is that when i first started my dog training career she was the one i went to for online classes, i watched all the DVDs, and it was her upbeat attitude and her relationship with her dogs that really inspired me to be that kind of trainer. I wanted [my students] to be happy - i wanted to think that they’re still going to come out the other side and they’re still going to enjoy their dog and they’re sitll going to be having fun. Melissa Breau: Thanks so much for coming on the podcast Sara -- and thanks to our listeners for tuning in!

This week have a special treat -- FDSA's own Hannah Branigan Also runs a podcast, called Drinking from the Toilet - and today we’re sharing an excerpt from her most popular episode, “What to do when you get stuck.” Enjoy!

Hannah Branigan: Hey there - you’re listening to Drinking from the Toilet and I’m Hannah Branigan. Today we’re going to talk about what you can do when you get stuck.

Why are we even talking about this? Well mostly because I was sitting here trying to think what topic i should make my next podcast be about, and I got stuck. I couldn’t think of anything to talk about. So I kind of sat here, I looked at a few things on the internet, facebook, took a few pictures of my dog with my phone, and pondered on how many other places in my life I feel stuck, maybe feel like a failure. And at least one of those places in my life where i feel stuck is when I’m training a dog. So I thought, well, let’s do a podcast about getting stuck when you’re training because I think that’s a fairly ubiquitous experience. There’s probably people out there that sometimes get stuck when they’re trying to train a behavior. And so in my previous life, when I would run into a problem, it really was almost a pattern, really… so I’m working on training a behavior or maybe untraining a behavior problem and I would get so far; I would make a certain amount of progress and then I would get stuck and i would revert to punishment. Maybe intentionally, as a training choice, or unintentionally as an emotional expression of frustration. But either way I would often fall back on these old habits -- after feeling like I was running out of choices. And so as my journey continues, i continue to improve my understanding of behavior, i have a better picture of the behaviors I’m trying to train. My knowledge in that area increases and I think clarity in your goal of your behavior is always helpful. And I learned more and my skill set improved. I had better tools for manipulating behavior and for manipulating contingencies, particularly those using reinforcement. Better understanding of how reinforcement works -- both in general, in concept and in theory, and then also in practical application. And so overtime, i can get a lot further before i would resort to that old habit.

So eventually, maybe about 10 years ago at this point, I made a conscious decision to just take punishment totally off the table. So aversives are no longer an option for my training. So I still have frustration attacks occasionally - I am human - but i do try to recognize them for what they are. They’re just emotional expressions, they have nothing to do with training the dog and i don’t have any expectation that they’re going to change either of our behaviors for the better in the long run. But I still have a lot of situations where I still get stuck. And now there’s a vacuum. I’ll still get training to the same point -- a little further each time because I’m learning more -- but when I get stuck, there’s a place where I would punish or I would use an aversive in some way, which may or may not solve the problem because we know that simply bringing in punishment is no guarantee of getting the results that we want.

And so now I’ll get about 80% of the way there -- I’ll get about 80% of the behavior trained that I want -- and then I’m stuck. And simply not punishing doesn’t give me any information about what i should do instead to continue making forward progress. I end up with a kind of vacuum.

So sometimes I quit. I don’t have all the answers. And I know that’s disappointing to hear, because frankly it disappoints no one more than i disappoint myself when i don’t know the answer to a problem, when i don’t know the solution…. Well, maybe my father. He has pretty high standards so he might be more disappointed but I learned it from somewhere. And I’m willing to bet that you get frustrated sometimes too. And your stuckness may not manifest in quite the same way that mine does, maybe instead of frustration, anger, and potentially aggression you turn to other defensive strategies. Maybe like rationalization. Sometimes I find myself thinking thoughts like, “Maybe my dog just doesn’t like to do obedience. Maybe my dog actually can’t do this -- it’s not possible. You know, maybe he has a health problem! Maybe it’s his thyroid -- he could have a thyroid, he could have low thyroid! So if my training plan didn’t pay out the way that I expected it to, clearly the problem is caused by his thyroid and no protocol would have worked. He needs medication! This dog needs pills to fix this problem, and it has to be just the right medication, and it might take weeks or even months, or years, to find what that medication could be and so none of this is actually a training problem, it’s not in my control. It’s not me, it’s the dog, right?”

Okay. Now, to be clear, I’m not trivializing endocrine disorders in any way. They’re very real and certainly having a health problem does throw a wrench into the works and can add contingencies beyond those that we can realistically control within the context of a training session. So if you’re worried or suspicious that your dog has a physical or medical problem, it’s always a good idea to consult with your vet. Get that physical problem ruled out. Make sure your dog is healthy and sound. I know I certainly have no problem paying my vet $100 -- sometimes maybe more -- to be told I’m crazy and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with my dog. But just to be clear again, every now and then I’m actually right. And so I have that long interval of random reinforcement effect that maintains my behavior on dog after dog, year after year.

Anyways, okay. Let’s assume that we’ve ruled out any physical issue. What can we do when we get stuck trying to train something? So it is a training problem, we’re stuck with the training, we need to change something about the training to get past this obstacle. Ok. So here’s a pretty common scenario. You’re trying to train some behavior. Maybe you’re following a training plan or a recipe that you found on the internet -- or you saw on youtube, or maybe you’ve just been to a seminar and this is now Monday morning and you’re trying to apply the technique you learned at that seminar to your training in real life and now the powerpoint slides aren’t there and the presenter isn’t there, and so you’re on your own. And so maybe you get through the first couple of steps -- you’re shaping and things seem to be going ok. You think you’re doing it right; you think you’re doing it the same way as you learned in that seminar. And then all of a sudden you hit a plateau. And the dog keeps doing the same version of the behavior over and over again without progressing to the next step. So maybe you’ve made it through steps 1 and 2, and step 3 - instead of performing step 3 a couple of times and then moving on to step 4 your dog keeps doing step 3 over and over and over again. You can’t see why you’re not able to make the leap to that next step.

This is a common problem that I run into with different behaviors with different dogs and certainly see it in my own students periodically. Maybe you’re trying to teach your dog to retrieve an object and your shaping plan is I’m going to start by clicking when the dog looks at the object and then click him for sniffing it and then I’ll click him for touching it with his nose or targeting it. And then the next thing I’ll click is for him to open his mouth and bite the object… but instead of biting the object he just keeps touching it with his nose over and over again and he never opens his mouth. What do I do then?

Another common place where we’ll run into this situation would be adding duration or distance to an existing behavior. So you can get the dog to hold the sit for 8 seconds -- as soon as you reach for 9 seconds the behavior falls apart. Or you can get your dog to respond to a cue -- maybe he’ll lay down if you give him the cue at 6 feet but one more step back and the behavior disappears or starts to degrade. And it’s really frustrating - and then it’s easy to think this isn’t working, something’s wrong with this technique, this method is ineffective, or we can continue to spiral down and think about what might be wrong with the dog, and then the world in general.

And so obviously continuing to repeat the thing that’s not working isn’t the right choice; that brings to mind that quote that I know i’ve seen lots of different places… I often see it attributed to Einstein but I don’t know if that’s true or if it’s just internet-true. So, to paraphrase, the idea that repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. So, I may still be crazy, but this totally applies here.

Even if we just look at the A-B-C operant contingency, repeating that same A-B-C … the same Antecedent or A, the same Behavior or B, and the same Consequence - “C” - then yes, we’re probably going to continue to get the same result. So, we need to change something. I like thinking about it this way because it gives me three solid categories of things to look at -- and three is my favorite number, also it’s a prime number so a lot of things to recommend it. Three categories is a very achievable way to start putting stuff in buckets and structure our thinking.

So let’s start with A -- antecedent. So the Antecedent, this is the cue. It’s what’s inducing or causing the behavior, what’s associated with the behavior. And when we’re thinking about this in terms of cues from us -- so I say sit and the dog sits -- well that’s easy to recognize and understand. In active training, when we’re learning, the antecedent really is much bigger than that. It’s a bigger idea; it’s more than just the cue you’re deliberately giving, but it’s that whole picture, all of the stimulus and all the pieces of the picture. So it’s the whole set up that the dog is associating with a particular behavior. It’s your body, your body position, where you’re situated in space, your dog’s position, any props that you might be using, if you’re using a platform or a target or if you’re using an object in the case of that retrieve. And it’s the environment in general -- where the dog is, where you’re training, all of the sounds, smells, feels, tastes maybe, all of those things are in that big stimulus picture and that whole picture functions as the cue when the dog is learning the behavior.

Melissa Breau: Thanks to Hannah for letting us share that with you -- I hope you’ll consider subscribing to both our podcast and hers if you haven’t already, in itunes or the podcast app of your choice. We’ll be back next week, this time with Laura Waudby to talk Fenzi TEAM training and training service dogs.

CREDITS:

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 and transcription written by CLK Transcription Services.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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