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Ask the Dog Trainer: Attention is the key – TCPalm

VERO BEACH — Recently I had an opportunity to do some training with Michele Pouliot. While not a well known to the general public, Michele is a champion in Canine Freestyle, a sport where you do obedience and tricks in a choreographed routine to music. In addition to her Freestyle Championships, Michele is an international assessor for guide dogs and guide dog training. In this role, Michele created new training protocols that focus on reward based training. Her methods have increased the number of dogs that succeed in becoming service dogs. You might imagine if she can create better service dogs, how effective Michele's methods must be for all dogs.

The seminar focused on using clicker training and motivation to create fluency in your dog's training. On Saturday, most participants concentrated on formal obedience skills. This was challenging for me. I have never trained for obedience trials. One big reason is most obedience classes I have observed use compulsion as a main training method. I believe in teaching dogs with praise and rewards, so I have avoided this sport. Michele's clicker methods fit my perspective. I enjoyed improving my lackluster obedience skills.

The second day of the seminar focused on freestyle training. It was really a blast. We learned how to teach a wide assortment of tricks, both stationary and in motion. Rio pleasantly surprised me by backing up, sitting pretty and learning to go around me in a small circle.

The true foundation of Michele's training is teaching "attention" as an individual and specific skill. Most of us teach "attention heeling" or sit at attention. But, truly attention is its own skill. You need to be sure your dog can separate attention from specific positions. If you want to brush up your training, start asking your dog for attention in an assortment of situations and locations. The key is to gradually increase the difficulty so the dog can succeed. Then increase the distraction in small increments.

I frequently hear criticism about training with food. Michele showed us how to "train clean" and cure the lure. She explained how to use secondary reinforcers such and pets and praise to create a solid performance. I can't remember when I have taken so many notes. And couldn't wait to get home and train some more.

Want to see Michele in action? Here are some links to her freestyle routine.

Cissy Sumner of Best Behavior Dog Training is Vero’s first Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge and Skills Assessed and Certified Behavior Counselor Canine-Knowledge Assessed as well as a Consulting Trainer and Behavior Counselor for the Humane Society of Vero Beach and Indian River County. If you have a training or behavior question, email Cissy at or visit for additional information.

This story is contributed by a member of the Treasure Coast community and is neither endorsed nor affiliated with


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