Leri Hanson is an amazingly talented dog trainer and world class competitor in many dog sports. She is the first and only handler to have an American Pit Bull Terrier achieve French Ring 3. She is an amazing asset for our breed. I'm lucky to call her a friend. I recently had the opportunity to interview Leri for the ADBA Canine Quarterly magazine.
Can you give us a little background on yourself? How you got into dog training and what it is about working dogs that make you so passionate?
My parents always had a house full of dogs; dad loved Dobermans and mom loved Chihuahuas. I would go with my dad to the local obedience classon the weekends, but at home during the week, was my time to put in the reps. Like most little girls, I grew up with a love for animals, particularly horses. As time went on I needed to downsize my passion to something more affordable and easy to access, so I traded in my horses for dogs.
Did you have any mentors and who have been some of your biggest influences?
I have several mentors, both past and present. These are the people who have influenced me the most.
Sandy Comer was a big influence when I first started, not because I had her dogs but because she offered both handling and obedience training classes at her property in Riverside. Sandy had a knack for taking on newbies under her wing. At the time it made perfect sense for two reasons, it was convenient since I lived nearby, and more importantly, her classes were great fun.
Nancy Corbet (UKC obedience judge), who later became a strong competitive influence for me as well as a dear friend. My very first obedience competition was in Sub Novice and there my boy Frazier tied with a Peach poodle; the sudden death run off began. I was new to competing, and without knowing what else to do, I just rolled with the flow. To my surprise, we rolled right into first place that day. I was indeed surprised, excited and proud of my self-taught pooch Frazier. The judge too, was impressed by our victory. So much so that after the trial Nancy approached me about joining her club Pacific Coast Obedience Club aka PCOC. Soon PCOC was working hand-in-hand with the local Pit Bull clubs to offer both obedience and conformation at the events. Nancy was tough, no nonsense and became a huge fan of the breed. She was also a contributing author for "Off Leash" magazine and took every opportunity to plug the breed whenever possible.
Al Banuelos, in my opinion, is the original pioneer of training and competing with American Bulldogs in dog sports. He was bringing up his infamous Predator SchH3, FH and son Ike SchH3, FH around the time we met. I was beginning to have success in the obedience ring when I was contacted by Dr. Annetta Cheek on the east coast regarding the possibility of breeding to her SchH3 bitch, Baroness. Of course my dog Frazier would need to be tested first and Annetta arranged for me to meet with Al to do so. This was pre-internet days, so I was impressed by how she was able to bring us together. I trained and worked exclusively with Al for several years. I had a good streak of luck in Schutzhund during this period, thanks to Al’s knowledge and direction. Al was, and still is, the type of guy who does not talk much about his dogs. Instead, he and his partner leave nothing behind on the field!! His quiet style and lack of ego regarding his animals is how I was imprinted into the "sport" dog world and still honor this style today.
Last, but certainly not least, is my current training director, Adrian Centeno. During tough times of training (and there were plenty!), when I wanted to give up; Adrian simply would not allow it. When I wanted to send the dog back to the breeder, considering it a washout; Adrian insisted I keep my cool and re-evaluate. Similar to my other, previous mentors, Adrian rarely says much about his personal dogs or ability, and instead lets his work and accomplishments do the talking. When he does compete, everyone drops what they are doing to watch with great intent. We all know that when he feels the dog is good enough to go, the run will be worth watching. I will always be grateful for his guidance, friendship and most importantly, his trust.
You have judged and competed in a multitude of events around the world. How do ADBA shows compare to other events you’ve participated in?
It is difficult to compare the two since each organization and registry targets a very specific interest and type of animal. ADBA definitely lends itself to some of the more serious bulldogs, but I am not always convinced the handlers share that same intensity or education in relation to safety and responsibility. Perhaps this is because of the constant flow of new comers? I am not sure, but perhaps an educational flyer on Safe Dog training/testing is appropriate here. As the Safe Dog test is as much about the owner (if not more) than it is about the dog! One thing I know for sure,the ADBA shows most certainly have the "type" of dog I am looking for in my own stock.
Working dog competitions can seem boring to new comers. It is often a lot of "hurry up and wait" particularly in the entry level. Most spectators do not stay until the end of the day, which is a shame since that is when the upper levels usually compete. Unless you find someone to explain what is happening on the field, it can be rather confusing. Working dog events get very competitive and it is not uncommon to experience strong egos. But please do not let that sway you away! Most are normal people like you and I who love their dog dearly and get a little caught up in the heat of strong competition.
Personally, it is always a treat to experience a well organized event (regardless of type) with courtesy and patience from exhibitors inside and outside of the ring. When exhibitors come prepared with a sense of professionalism, it is always a bonus, but particularly for our breed!
Over the years you have had first-hand experience with many different working breeds. What are some of your favorites to work with and why?
The APBT is my all time favorite, hands down! That being said, I love ANY dog that enjoys learning and working. Coupling my love of dogs with my love of training, it is really a process of elimination to find the "right one" for me, despite breed. Over the years I have become increasingly critical of what is acceptable for my personal dogs. Because of this, I cannot seem to find the "right one" and one might think I am running a K9 senior citizen home. All my dogs are old and crusty and there are currently no "up and coming" competition dogs. Unfortunately, my last couple prospects did not work out. My current youngster, JR, a 2-year old Bully, was a gift from friends Mel & Tony at 818Concepts. He is tons of fun and the absolute best companion to my grandson. Sadly though, he will never be a serious competition dog. This is not to say he will never title in a couple different sports; he will, no doubt! All dogs in my yard must earn their keep in some way; no free loaders.But sweet JR (aka JuJu, Smokey, JuBug) has his limits, as they all do.
The herders are a fantastic breed! Similar to the APBT, they are NOT for everybody and can easily find themselves in serious trouble if not mentally stimulated as much as physically. But regardless of breed, a smart handler will recognize limitations and/or strong points and have realistic expectations for each animal. It is only fair, especially for the dog.
What qualities do you look for when selecting a puppy for yourself?
There are many qualities I look for when selecting a puppy, here are some examples: confidence, natural eye contact, desire to follow, desire to grip, quick recovery when startled or stressed. Aggression is also important. Toy play is much more important to me than interaction with other animals. I do not care to see the entire litter at the same time. I prefer to see the pups individually in an environment they have never experienced before. The earlier I can get them the better.
What importance do you place on pedigrees when selecting a dog?
Pedigrees mean very little to me. My husband used to say, "If the horses could read the form and know how they're suppose to run, we'd all be rich and happy!" I think the same holds true for the dogs. But since dogs cannot read their pedigree, I rely on the breeder or base my selection on my experience. There are certain traits in certain lines I am not fond of either, but since there are so few who breed APBT for high end dog sports, I have to gamble a little and hope it all works out.
What advice would you give to somebody just getting started in competing with working dogs?
Working with our breed or any breed? For our breed, “If you don't have thick skin, you better toughen up now.” I am usually the first to discourage newbies from working their Pit Bull in non-traditional competitions. I do this for a couple different reasons:
If you want a guard dog, go get a shepherd! If you want an obedience champion, go get a Sheltie! If the newbie still stands strong on their desire to train and compete after hearing these truths, then I generally try to connect them with someone in their area to help give them a start. More often then not, if they really get to thinking about it, they decide on another breed. I think this is fine and even preferred. Bottom line, Schutzhund III or French Ring III, or whatever your goal might be is difficult enough with traditional breeds and does NOT happen overnight. Instant gratification is non-existent in the sport world. We are generally talking a few years just to be at an intermediate level. Most do not have the guts to stick it out that long because there will be plenty of highs and lows along the way.
How important is temperament testing our working dogs?
It certainly does not hurt, however I am not completely convinced that it is indicative of anything noteworthy.
Does bite-work cause human aggression in dogs?
NO! However, it is a door that once opened, even just a little, must be completed. Please keep in mind that we do not TEACH dogs how to bite. We have to realize that when we allow and/or encourage them to do so, even in a controlled manner, we MUST be aware of the dog's mindset. Is the dog biting out of fear, true aggression or strong prey? All three of these can look surprisingly similar and convincing to the untrained eye. When encouraging your bulldog to use his mouth, what is the end goal or purpose? Personal protection? Sport? Fun? These questions matter and will dictate the training path you choose.
*Author’s note: I do not condone the use of Bulldogs in a guard or personal protection application.
Why do we see so few game bred APBT involved in dog sports?
That is a good question. My guess is that the breed as a whole (not just game bred) is not taken seriously as a true competitor in any of the “controlled” venues. Look at it like this; weight pull, wall climb, lure course, slat mill race, tug of war, dock diving, barn hunt, etc. What do they all have in common? Drive!! The dog’s drive is turned on, with no “off” switch for these particular sports. There is no “on/off” switch at the handler’s disposal.
Conditioning, YES! A fit athletic dog would make an exceptional competitor in this respect. As well as drive building, strength conditioning or even nutrition. But control, NO, which is a major part of any high-level dog sport. The old adage: stubborn like a bulldog; I've yet to experience. You will not kill drive or character with control work.
Also, aggression will always be a factor in any field you play. You might have the biggest dead head around but people will still be wary for the safety of their own animal, and rightfully so. If I do not know the dog and handler, I am the same way. Even if I do know the team, Bulldogs will be Bulldogs. That is something all the training in the world will not change. So I am more interested in a handler’s ability to recognize where the dogs head is at and handle appropriately.
To answer your question, there is no place for a "fighter" in the working dog world regardless of breed. Dog aggression is one thing and can be managed to a degree with smart/early imprinting and handling. But a dog who wants to fight above anything else will never make it past on leash, elementary skills.
What is your favorite dog sport? Why?
French Ring sport is my favorite because there will never be another dog on the field at the same time as mine, “hahahaha.” I have competed in every internationally recognized protection sport in the US, and find FR to be the most challenging and satisfying for me. It is difficult though, and at the top level, is stressful; not only for the dog but for the handler as well. Honestly, I am not so sure I have another Ring 3 left in me. But my next Pit will need to be capable of FR3, even if we do not go quite that far.
Do you enjoy competing in that sport with dogs “made” for that sport or would you rather use a different breed?
Definitely prefer the challenge of using non-traditional breeds. Not saying there is no challenge with a Malinois or GSD, but it is a different type of challenge. Plus, I am not looking to win any world championships, so I can get away with it. Currently I am training/handling a lovely bitch Malinois for a sick friend. I did not want another Malinois. I do not want another dog at this time. With that being said, this bitch has picked me to be her partner and we make a damn fine team if I do say so myself. Sometimes the dog picks us, in spite of our original intent. This particular bitch is good, as expected. She DOES live up to her pedigree. There is nothing worse then hearing "not bad-for a ______." Meaning not bad for a Pit or a Jagd, or a Bandog, or a whatever. But mark my words! I have seen just as many cruddy Herders as I have good alternates!
Are there any unacceptable qualities that you will not tolerate in your dogs?
I am not fond of shy or a sharp dog. And I am certainly not looking for "over-the-top-drive" as many seem to use as a selling point in advertising. Crazy is often just that: crazy! School of hard knocks taught me that crazy and I do not do well together. I will forgive many other "poor qualities" if the work ethic, health and ability is strong. Most importantly the dog and I must genuinely "like" each other or we have no future at all.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge working dogs face today and what do we need to do to improve it?
This would be directed at owners with APBT.
A little bit of training goes a long way! Particularly early in life will yield the best results. It is what we call imprinting and it will NOT change the character or heart of the animal. There is nothing wrong with allowing our dogs "to be dogs,” but it is also our responsibility to be able to reign over them upon command.
I make a 3 minutes challenge for 3 weeks. At feeding time, instead of simply setting down the bowl, put some food in hand to lure some simple behaviors like sit, down, stay and follow. If your dog does not look at you differently when you approach for feeding after 3 weeks - I'll eat my hat!
If you had a magic wand, and you had the power to change one misconception amongst the dog-training world, what would it be?
My magic wand would be pointing at the clubs and judges, asking them to please give each dog (regardless of breed) a fair and unbiased critique based on the performance or potential ability of the dog before them. All dogs are not created equal, and often times, club members and judges look at alternates or off-breeds as a joke. Not taking their performance seriously or not having high expectations of the dog. Which often times will manifest a low value critique, regardless of the dog’s performance. That is something my magic wand would like to change.