Is there a trainer out there that has significantly influenced you in a major way? I have several, but one of the top women that changed the way I look at training is Leslie McDevitt. I loved her book and, as soon as I finished it, I purchased the accompanying DVD set.

I first met Leslie at Clicker Expo in… 2010? 2009? One of those years where I looked and felt much younger. She said she liked my dog. I knew right then and there that we had a lot in common. (You may remember my shameless name dropping in this post.)

In fact, not only do Leslie and I share a love of Belgian shepherds, but we have a number of other strange parallels. We both get a little (okay, a lot) nerdy, and share a love of Science (which always deserves a capital S in my opinion). We both love Firefly, Dr. Who and all-things-geek-culture, because #obviously. We were pregnant at the same time, and had babies at the same time. And…because she’s better than me at everything, she had two babies in the same amount of time it took me to grow just one baby.

The cherry on top of this creepy universe sundae you ask? Recently, we both let our old dogs go. On the same day. With appointments at exactly the same time. (Totally by coincidence. No prior knowledge on either side.)

Seriously? Yes. So weird.

I told Leslie I wanted to interview her for my blog, primarily as a thinly-veiled attempt to get closer to her. And she (foolishly) agreed. Check out our Q&A session below.

Hannah: So, Leslie, if you were to describe yourself as ice cream, what flavor would you be? Just kidding…. Let’s talk about dog training. For those who aren’t already familiar with it, can you explain what Control Unleashed is about?

Leslie: I tell people it’s a class about being in a class. Because the skills needed for dogs to be in a class are different from the skills being taught in the class. And for some dogs, it’s too much to learn agility, for example, at the same time as learning how to work loose near other dogs, how to see other dogs jump or go through tunnels or tug near them, etc. We also work on how to handle the pressure of people and dogs watching the dog or moving around behind them at the start line. These skills are about the dog learning self-regulation and being desensitized to exciting or worrisome things they face at class and at shows too.

It is all easily customizable–for dogs showing in obedience, conformation, therapy work, anything, we can pinpoint the exercises or environmental problems that lead to a poor performance, and teach the dog how to handle those things and feel confident and good about those things, so they can put their energy into the performance. Beyond that, it is really about honoring the dog, teaching the handlers how to read their dog’s emotional state and how to adjust their expectations and training criteria for their dog in the moment. At the core it is simply about relationship building through communication, And communication is a two way street. It’s not just about the handler being clear in her training. It’s about the dog being able to communicate what their needs are in the moment. The dogs learn ways of saying “yes” and “no” to the handler and training is like a series of questions: “Are you ready to heel off leash while this other dog is also doing that right next to you?” If the dog’s answer is no, then you can adjust for what the dog is ready to do, and build up to the other thing in baby steps.  

From this perspective, the dog never gets anything wrong and there is never a need for telling the dog he got anything wrong. The dog is just telling you what he can and can’t do and you are just receiving that information and adjusting your own behavior to make things work for the dog. Lastly, it is about breathing. Everyone needs to take nice deep breaths, dogs and humans. We all do this together–and the first thing I teach the first night is how to teach your dog to take a deep breath on cue. From there, the dog starts learning, notice something in the environment, turn back to handler to report it, and breathe. The dog learns to feel calm about things that used to trigger him, and he learns that he can USE the environment as a tool rather than reacting to it. He learns that rather than interacting with the environment through information-seeking behavior, which is reactive, he can report on the environment to his handler. Dogs enjoy the job of being a good reporter. And this changes the conversation—if you see dogs being reactive to something external as dogs having a conversation with the external thing about the threat level of that thing. And instead the dog is now having a conversation with the handler about that thing, and how smart and amazing the dog is for finding that thing and pointing it out to the handler. We call that concept Look At That and it’s probably the best known concept from CU, but it’s just one piece.

Hannah: What about trials? How do these skills translate to a competition environment?

Leslie: There are foundation behaviors taught in basic CU (and expanded upon in the advanced CU class), that have to do with self control and focus and how to have a conversation with the handler about the environment, that are generalizable to any venue (some examples: breathing, off switch game, parallel games, ’Give Me a Break’, “Look at That” and mat work).  In addition there are specific rituals, such as how to enter a building, how to leave a crate, how to relax outside the ring, etc, that are also generalizable of course. The newer set of CU games, the Pattern Games, in particular create a rhythm between dog and handler that allows the dog to process the venue environment while also staying in connection with the handler, in a variety of ways. Games like “Give Me a Break” teach the dog to focus around Judge’s, ring crew, whoever they will see at a typical trial.

The dogs become so conditioned through repetition of all these games that they learn to read anything of interest in the environment as a cue to attend to the handler. So the handler is never at odds with the environment. But always in a discussion about it. This discussion can take place anywhere. And it is self generating. The handler does not have to ask the dog to pay attention. The dog is already talking to the handler about what he is experiencing, and paying attention happens naturally as the result of that relationship.

Hannah: Ok, so when you enter a new building or location for a training session, what is the first thing you do?

Leslie: I open the door–that is an environmental cue for the dog to go in ahead of me, turn around in the doorway, make eye contact and breathe. Then I give their station cue—I always have students create their station (chair, mat, crate, treat/toys) in a space before bringing the dog in. That is another way that we help dogs generalize to different venues—even in a novel place, the dog knows that he will be doing his check-in behavior and then going to his station. Even if he doesn’t know where it is, he knows he will be going there and that the handler will show him where it is.

If he needs extra support between the door and his station, the handler can do a very simple pattern game like the 1-2-3- treat where you treat the dog every three steps. This game builds a strong prediction in the dog and they focus on the counting, which can be done out loud. And if you forget what step you are on, don’t worry, the dog will let you know when you get to three. It does not have the pressure of a cued behavior like heel from one place to another in a new venue. The treats just happen, in a rhythm that the dog participates in. When the dog finds his station it’s up to the handler if they want the dog to rest in a crate or on their mat for a little bit, have a drink, massage, whatever (and I mean water for the dog! Although the handler might need a drink too! And maybe a massage too!) Then they can walk around the building, within the structure of a pattern game. Or they can do one at their station first, such as put the treat on the ground, dog looks up, makes eye contact/breathes, click, put treat on the ground. These patterns all have a very rhythmic ping pong vibe. That way the dog can easily “plug in” what is happening in the environment, into the structure of the game, and process what is going on without getting caught up in it.

When ready to move around the building, handler can go back to 1-2-3 or a  harder variation, like the one I call Two Steps Treat or Click for Decision. It’s about creating a structure, again, that allows the dog to process things around him without getting caught up and still have the relaxed focus that we need before a show is being continually reinforced. Within the Two Steps Treat pattern for example, it is up to the dog to keep the pattern going. There is no penalty if he doesn’t, but he will, because dogs like the predictability and the rhythm. That particular game lets the dog check out the environment and choose to focus on the handler instead, with lots of repetitions and without pressure because it’s his idea to keep going. The dogs have practiced doing these deceptively simple patterns around a variety of stimuli—people walking dogs up to them, people going, “Ready? GO!” to their tugging dog basically in the CU dog’s face, etc. We have seen it all, so we can incorporate it all. The dogs can note it happened, report it to their handler, and pick up their pattern with ease. Note and Report!

Hannah: What do you think is the most important skill a sport dog needs to know?

Leslie: They need to know that they can count on their handler to recognize and meet their needs. Then they need to know they have the internal ability to regulate their own arousal.

Hannah: And finally, which of the Doctor’s companions is your favorite?

Leslie: Does River Song count? Because duh.

There you have it, folks. My interview with the great, Leslie McDevitt. My new BFF-4ever, and ever and ever (even if she doesn’t know it yet). Thanks for your wisdom, Leslie!