Episode 13 – Sue Conklin

Sue Conklin

Sue Conklin

Sue Conklin, “The Puppy Nanny” in South Carolina worked with horses for 40 years before she ventured into the dog training world. Since entering the industry 25 years ago, she has done it all, from puppy classes to obedience training, agility, and rally obedience to her current passion which is “Scent Work”. She loves helping people understand dog behavior and strengthening their communication for a stronger bond. Sue’s passion for helping people and their dogs is evident in everything she does.

The Puppy Nanny Website: https://thepuppynanny.net

Sue’s YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCs7qb2wSbiQR5MapJfoNVPw

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Sue Conklin, the Puppy Nanny in South Carolina, worked with horses for nearly 40 years before she ventured into the dog training world. Since entering the industry, 25 years ago, she has done it all from puppy classes to obedience training, agility and rally obedience. Her current passion is scent work. She loves helping people understand dog behavior and strengthening their communication for a stronger bond. Sue’s passion for helping people and their dogs is evident in everything she does. 

Hey, Sue. Welcome to the show. Hi Rachel. Thank you for having me. Yeah, I’m really, really excited to have you. So why don’t you kick us off and tell us how you got into dog training and a little bit about your background? I was in the horse industry for a number of years. Started when I was a kid riding and showing. And then when I graduated from high school, I went to work on the race track with thoroughbreds and did that for a number of years. Met my husband on the race track. We, uh, ended up managing some large thoroughbred farms and, oh, about 35 years into that, we left the last farm job and I needed something to do. And kind of fell into dog training, at the time in a local PetSmart, and enjoyed it and from there ended up opening my own business and been doing dog training altogether for about 20 years. About 11 of those, in my own business. Wow, definitely established. I’m fascinated by your background with horses. You finished that career moving into something else. You knew you needed a change that obviously I’m assuming, took a toll on you, right after all those years in all that work, how do horses and dogs kind of relate to each other? What was that transition like, I guess, is my question? For me, it was a fairly easy transition because it’s still about teaching people, even more so than the animals. So, you know, I’ve always felt to be a good trainer, whether it’s with horses or with dogs, you have to be able to pass that kind of those mechanics, and the ideas onto the owners. Or the riders or the handlers. And so a big part of it is teaching people, and I’ve always enjoyed that part. So it was for me, staying with animals, I’ve had dogs most of my life. Like most people, especially horse people. We’ve always got dogs around the barn, never did a huge amount of training with them, but, you know, they were always there. And so it was not a big transition. It was a little hard to leave the horse industry. And when I finally sold my last horse, you know, that was tough. But I found so many new and interesting things to do with the dogs, that I now don’t miss it nearly as much as I did 15 years ago. 

So what is it about teaching people, in this dog training industry, that keeps you doing this? I think that teaching the animal is definitely an important component. You have to know behavior. You have to, you know, understand how they think about how they work and how to get them to want to work with you. But at some point, you have to transfer some of this knowledge onto the owner who’s going to be living with the dog all the time. And so for me, I want to involve the owners with the teaching process of the dog kind of right from the get-go, because my feeling has always been that no matter how good a trainer you are, at some point you’re gonna have some issues. And if you don’t know how you got to a point in the first place, there’s no way you can fix anything. And so if I can involve the owners from the beginning and show them how to train the behaviors, later on, if they have some issues, they kind of know how they got there. And they may be able to, much easier, go back and say, Let me try this again or restart it and have a little more success, than if I just handed them the dog and said, You know, your dog is trained, but they have no idea how that happened. There’s no way that they can, you know, do any damage control later on, if anything happens. And I think that’s one of the things I learned with horses, you know, if you don’t have basics with horses, you can get really hurt. So, you know, if a horse is not comfortable having a saddle or on, or a bridal in their mouth or weight on their back, you can really hurt yourself. And so those really basic fundamentals are very important. And so with anything, if you don’t build a good foundation, then things are gonna fall down later.

 And I have an analogy that I tend to talk to people about with dog training because so often with dogs, you know, we work on sit and the dog does pretty well on sit. And then they take the dog, you know, to downtown or to the middle of PetSmart or someplace. And they think the dog knows how to sit. They say, “Sit” and the dog is like, I got no idea what you’re talking about. So what I always tell people is it’s I call it the “War and Peace analogy”, which is that in order to be able to read War and Peace, how many steps do you have to go through as a reader? Right? You have to learn the alphabet. You have to learn sounds. You have to learn small words, larger words, sentences, paragraphs, small books, and gradually build your way up. You know, if you give a first grader War and Peace, there’s no way they’re going to get through the initial page. And with dogs, we very much tend to get them to a first-grade reading level and then give them War and Peace and say, “What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you read? I taught you to read, why can’t you do this?” And so I think, breaking things down, baby steps.

 Many years ago I went to a course seminar with a guy named John Lyons and one of the things that has always resonated and this was probably 30 something years ago, and he said, “If I want to teach, I think it was a horse to pick up a cantor on a certain lead. How many steps are there to teach that?” And people were throwing out numbers and he said, “I have not actually calculated,” he said, “But I think it’s around 350”. And because most people were saying, you know, 6, 8, 5 and he started breaking things down into all these little tiny steps. And so I think when you teach anything if you start thinking about how to break it down into the lowest common denominator and then gradually work your way up, you’re gonna be more successful with whatever it is you’re learning. 

I do want to ask about your philosophy when it comes to your training philosophy, tell me a little bit about how you approach things and how you work with your clients from day one. So my approach is, I say, typically kind of 95% positive. You know, I will say no to a dog. I will redirect dogs, that sort of thing. But I want to start with all those foundations of a lot of positive training and a lot of positive reinforcement. I do like clickers and markers. I think using a clicker or a marker, a verbal marker is a great way to teach new behaviors. It seems to make sense to the dogs, so I do like to use clickers and markers right from the get-go. I try to teach my clients to use verbal markers, at least. If they want to use clickers, I’m more than happy to show them to do that. And I’m all about getting buyin from the dogs, by using whatever reward the dog wants to work for. So in most cases, it’s food. But I like to teach people how to use fetch or tug or whatever game their dog really likes to play, even if it’s kind of pushing the dog around and, you know, playing hands-on rough with the dog or whatever. I like to teach people how to use those alternate rewards so that they’ve always got something that they can use to reward their dog. I agree with you and that there was a lot that you took from the horse side of things. And when you transitioned over the dogs, it’s amazing to me that you can control a 1500lb animal with no touch and positive reinforcement, positive training, So why wouldn’t you be able to do that to a 50lb dog? That is very relatable. So I appreciate you sharing that with us. It brings a little bit of perspective.

 So one of the things that I’m curious about when you’re taking on a new client, what’s one of the first things that you teach them? Typically, what I start with are behaviors or exercises that help the dog kind of que into paying attention to the handler. There’s one from the control unleash that we call Reorienting, which is you simply drop a treat on the floor, the dog eats it, and you wait for the dog to reorient to you. It doesn’t have to be eye contact, but the dog has to be kind of focused toward you. At that point, you market, we use a yes to tell them that’s what I want. You could use a clicker and you drop another piece of food and you work toward getting a rhythm going of a nice clean loop or whatever you want to call it. A rhythm of eat the food, check back in. Yes, drop it, eat it, check back in. Yes. And the thing that I love about that exercise is that it’s fairly simple. Most people can get it with a little bit of coaching pretty quickly, and it’s a really good way to gauge your dog’s distraction level. You know you can start this in your kitchen or your living room and fairly quickly get that nice, clean rhythm going. When you take it out on the front porch or in the driveway or in the yard, you very often find that it may take you a couple of minutes to get that rhythm going because there’s distractions and the dog eats the piece of food and looks up and sees the bird or the squirrel. Or here’s the leaves rustling or the car or whatever, and it takes them a little time to get back into that rhythm. And so that’s a nice kind of an easy exercise that I like that can help.

 I start teaching a lot of what I call easy obedience. It could be sit. It could be reorienting. There’s another exercise from training between the ears, which is a version of a hand target that a lot of people do. But you just use your two fingers. But it’s a very similar exercise where you teach the dog to put their nose on your two fingers, and then what I tend to do is then again drop food on the floor to take the dog’s attention away. Present your fingers so that the dog has to come back and touch your fingers again. You know, we start with those easy obedience things, and if the dog can do several repetitions of whatever it is, then you know that they can focus and you can start moving on to other things.

 On your website, you have a class called Control Unleashed. And one of the things that I like about this is, I hear from other trainers, that there’s so many over-excited dogs out there. They can’t focus. And to what you were just talking about, I love that this is something that you solely focus on. You don’t wrap it up within your other classes. This is designed specifically for those people who have those over-excited dogs. So how did that come about? What made you pull that out, from maybe some of your basic training courses? Well, the original Control Unleashed book, Leslie McDevitt wrote that several years ago. I don’t even know how many and I won’t guess. But I was doing agility at the time, and the ideas that she had come up with were really helpful for agility dogs, who tend to be high drive dogs that have to sit on the sidelines and watch other dogs run and get pumped up and then go in the ring and lose their minds. So I had known about this for a long time. She wrote a newer book a couple of years ago, kind of a newer version, and incorporated some new things. And I think it’s been maybe a couple of years ago, decided to accredit trainers for teaching Control unleashed. And so I had been in touch with her and went through kind of her pilot program of accreditation. I sent in a lot of videos to her and in a class that I was doing. So I had done a class for a number of years, that we called Focus and Control, which was taking some of her control unleashed exercises and some other things and putting them together. And her kind of putting everything, consolidating everything, with her new book and her accreditation, then kind of moved me to just do a Control Unleashed class, using almost exclusively the control unleashed exercises I feel like there’s so many different components of that, in working with those dogs and their owners that, I do feel like it is something that should be very separate from basic training classes because there is a lot of work that has to happen with those dogs. So I definitely love that. 

The other thing that I saw on your website is that you guys have Nose Work classes or Scent Work. And I’m really excited to dive into this and learn a little bit more with you about what that is and why are you so passionate about that aspect of this industry? The quick answer is that I’ve always been kind of an animal behavior geek. When we had horses, I loved to, you know, sit on the fence and watch the interactions between the yearlings and the broodmares and the mares with foals and all of that. That’s always been fascinating to me. And so when I got into dogs and dog training, watching behavior and learning about behavior has been a big component for me. Scent work totally feeds into being a behavior geek because you have to be able to read your dog’s behavior, to understand whether they are in odor, whether they’re still searching, whether they’re messing around, all of that. And so it’s been really fascinating.

 I have a very good friend, it’s been probably about six or seven years ago, got into Nose work, and she just fell absolutely in love with it and kept telling me, Oh, you’ve got to do Nose work, you’ve got to do Nose work. At the time, I was much more into agility and rally obedience and six years ago got a new puppy. My new puppy is a Beagle, so she said, You’ve got to do Nose work. And I said, Well, I’ll do Nose work with her until she’s old enough to do real dog sports, like agility and rally. So I started doing Nose work with her, and the more I got into it, the more I loved it. And so fast forward, six years and I don’t do agility anymore. I still do rally, but Nose work is one of our biggest sports that we enjoy.

 How does somebody know if they should lean towards agility or towards Nose work, with their dog? Is it something they should just think is interesting and they should just see if their dog reacts to it? How do owners decide, is this a good fit for my dog? Is this a good fit for my dog? And then how do you help them down that path? I think some of it depends on what the owner thinks is interesting because, you know, if it’s not something, so like me in the beginning, saying I’m going to do Nose work until I could do real dog sports, you have to kind of want to do it a little bit in order to follow through. But I know one of the things that I think when I was teaching agility, I would get a lot of people who would say, Oh, you know, my dog is really fast and loves to climb on stuff, and he’d be a great agility dog. Agility is really about control and focus, and the speed comes in there. But in the beginning, it’s much more about, again those fundamentals which are not fast and furious and running around. And so a lot of people kind of have that mistaken idea that you know, if my dog is crazy and climbing on the back of the sofa and running through the house like a maniac, he’d be a great agility dog. He might. But you’ll have a long road to get there.

 Nose work is, I think, one of those things that is easy to start. There are a lot of online classes that you can get started with. You don’t need a ton of equipment. Agility, you know, you gotta have equipment or access to equipment. Nose work, essentially, you can start with your old Amazon boxes, so it’s a little more, probably user friendly. It’s a great sport if you are, you know, not a person who likes to run. And you know, if you’re not a particularly agile handler, Nose work can be a good sport for that, and again, it’s good for dogs that may have a little arthritis or again be an older dog that can’t really run and jump in all of that sort of thing. So I think with any dog sport, the first thing is that the owner has to be a little interested in it, and if they are, then there’s probably some level of it that they can do. If you or your dog are not particularly agile, you can still do some low jumps and some kind of low key, agility type things. I think it comes down to, also, any dog sport you can do for fun or you can move on and become competitive. And so there are lots of people who like to do things with their dogs and not necessarily want to go on and compete, in which case you can, let’s say, you can find a level for almost any dog sport to do that. If you do want to compete, then you have to get a little more serious about it. And then, you know, decide whether you’ve got the right dog for it or if you can keep on and move on with your training to get to a competition level.

 So if somebody today was listening and they really were interested in this Scent work or Nose work, what could they do today to get started? I know you mentioned there’s a lot of resources out there. You guys also have some stuff on your website. You’ve got some short videos and a page dedicated to that Nose work. What’s the one thing that somebody could do today to see if that’s something that they might want to investigate further. So one of the things that people can start doing is just kind of Nose work with food for their dogs. Our dogs are built to use their noses. About 30% of their brain is dedicated to their sense of smell, and so scent is a huge part of their life, and encouraging them to use their nose is always a great exercise for them. I do some simple things like we call it Scavenger Hunt at my house, where I stand on the deck and throw handfuls of kibble and treats out into the backyard, and the dogs have to go out there and search for it. You know, you can put little stashes of kibble or treats around your house and let your dog go on a search for them. And typically, I tell people, try not to help them because we see the things and we want to be able to say, Oh, look here. Just put the dog away in another room or in their crate, put out two or three little handfuls of food in your living room, and let the dog back in the room and just sit and wait. And at some point, the dog is gonna catch the scent and they’ll search until they find it. You can start and just do some fun things like that. And a lot of times when people start actually sitting down and just watching their dog figure out how to find things with their nose, the owners get a little more interested in what’s really happening.

 So before we start to wrap things up here, I quickly want to ask, our current world situation has definitely changed. It’s been flipped upside down in the last few months, and so I’m always curious, what was it like before? Are you doing online courses? Classes? Are they working for you? Is that something you’re going to continue? Talk to me a little bit about what that progression has been like for you and what you plan to do coming out of this? Yeah. So, like a lot of trainers, you know, we pretty much had to shut down our in-person business for several weeks, and now we’re just starting to come out of that. I’m in South Carolina, so our state has not been particularly hard hit and we’re kind of starting to lift things a little bit here and get a little more back into working again. So I did start doing, several weeks ago online, with some of my new clients and some of my older in-home training clients. I’ve met with them online to keep them going a little bit until we can get back again. I’ve picked up several new puppy clients, and the online puppy classes have been great. It’s been a lot of fun to work with people online, and they seem to really be getting a lot out of their lessons. I’ve got a few behavior clients with reactive dogs that I’ve been working with online, and those have been going very well. So I do hope to keep this going. The online lessons going. It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s kind of a nice way to be able to reach people that aren’t real close. One of my behavior clients, they moved down to the beach to be with parents, and so this has been the only way that we could work with them, so that’s been something new for me. Another kind of twist in my teaching abilities that I’ve been working on. 

And now we’re just starting to get back. I’m going to be starting next week to do one on one lessons here, my training building, where I can make sure that I get things disinfected and then later next week we’ll be starting back on a very limited basis with our group classes. With only three teams in each lesson. I’m starting back with my Nose work classes. We’re gonna be meeting when we can meet outside and do exterior searches for Nose work. So we’re starting to get back into the swing of things, on a limited basis. Is the virtual side of this something that you think you’re going to continue then? I would like to. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s very similar to doing an in-person lesson at someone’s home, you know, really, the only difference is that I can’t demo the behavior with the dog. I have to talk them through it. Although I do a demo with my dog so I can show them what to do with my dog. And then they do it. And I talk them through, which is still very similar to what I do and in homes, which is I just demo with their dog and then they do it. So it’s not that different, and it is definitely something I’d like to keep doing.

 I think the biggest thing is for the clients. I’ve had a lot of clients, a lot of people who have called me during this. And you know, I need help with my dog and you know, what can we do? What can we do? And I said We can do it online, at the time. You know, I’m going to do in-person lessons starting in a few weeks, and they’re like, OK, well, we’ll just wait.  Apparently it wasn’t as dire a need as they seem to make out, that they could wait a few weeks to start in-person lessons. But for the ones that have started, it seemed to really be enjoying it, too. I think what I really like about that is through situations like this, we have to challenge ourselves right? We have to learn and grow, and we can’t always rely on what we’ve always done. We need to pivot and you’re not only helping them in a new capacity. But you’re helping yourself. You’re self-teaching, you’re educating yourself. And you’re pushing yourself to learn and grow as not just as an individual but as a trainer because you have to adapt to your current situation to be able to help your clients. And so I certainly hope that you’re able to continue the virtual aspect of this going forward. Seems like everybody is really gravitating towards that, and we’re learning technology, which is something that is pretty scary. Even though we live in a very tech-driven world. There’s a lot of pushback when it comes to technology. And so I think this is helping people overcome that worry, which is always great as well. Yeah, and it’s especially scary when you’re older. I’m in my sixties, so I’ve always wanted to learn new things. Tech has not necessarily been one of them, so I’ve kind of gotten thrown into that, but I’ve enjoyed it.

So as we wrap things up here, I’ve really enjoyed my time chatting with you. Is there anything that we didn’t get to talk about that you wanted to bring up before we close this out? Gee. I think we covered most of the things that I wanted to talk about. So thank you. I’ve greatly appreciated my time with you today. I learned a lot, and I actually am a little bit more interested in the nose work side of things that I was before I even met you. So thank you for sharing that aspect of what you do. Yes. Try Nose work. You won’t regret it. It’s a lot of fun, even if you just do it in your backyard or in your local park. There you go. I definitely love it. Well, Sue, thank you so much for joining me today, and we’ll be following your progression here in the future. Thank you, Rachel.

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