Editor's note: In his day job, Attila Szkukalek is a biochemist in Norwich, England. In his private life he's a husband, father, and dog training instructor. To the rest of us, Attila with his dog, Fly, is the best freestyle trainer and performer on the planet-UK freestyle champions that perform regularly at Crufts and throughout Europe. Attila and Fly's performances are a powerful ambassador for reinforcement-based training. Attila is also one of the newest members of the ClickerExpo faculty. We spoke to Attila recently about his career, and his success.
Which came first, dancing with dogs or training dogs? How did you begin?
Definitely the training. I started training and showing my first dog, Dolly—a Boxer—when I was 10 years old. I have always loved animals, especially dogs. I'd always try to stroke them-and according to my mother, was bitten by a dog outside a shop when I was 4 years old. I cannot remember this incident and it certainly did not discourage me from nudging my parents to get me a dog. They gave in finally, when I reached 10. Perhaps my parents thought that I was finally old enough to look an animal. Once I had a dog, I had to train it-which I loved.
We understand you are a scientist. How did your career in animal training begin?
I studied cell biology and afterwards worked mostly on molecular biology and genetic engineering projects. I came to England for a two-year postdoctoral research position. (This was in plant research, generating virus resistant maize plants-funded by the Rockefeller foundation.) When my postdoctoral grant expired in 1996, I changed careers and started working fulltime as a pet behaviorist and trainer. I always had a huge interest in animal behavior and had read many books; however did not choose to study it, since it would have been difficult to find a job in Czechoslovakia at that time. I saw an opportunity to start working with pet animals and their owners in England, which I have hugely enjoyed since.
What does your family think of your career?
I have a 6 and a 4 year old son. They enjoy playing with Fly. Carmel, my wife, was 100% behind my career change 10 years ago, even though she is not interested in dog training. However, she enjoys taking Fly for off-lead walks in the forest.
Can you introduce us to Fly, and give us an overview of her successful career in freestyle?
I got Fly when she was 8 months old. Her owner could not control Fly, and when she tried to restrain her, Fly became aggressive. She was an extremely energetic Border collie with strong interest in chasing/fetching balls. We entered the first freestyle competition in 1999, which we won. The following year we won the National Championship in Intermediate Division and the next two years in the Advanced Division. Fly also won twice the World Canine Freestyle Organization's International Championship. Fly won all the competitions she participated in and she is possibly one of the most famous freestyle dogs ever. She still competes once or twice a year and does a few demonstrations; but it's less than she used to do.
What about other dogs you've worked with?
Fly is my eighth dog, however my first Border collie. With my previous dogs I was more interested in breeding and showing and my second Neapolitan Mastiff, that I bred myself, became an FCI Inter Champion. However, I also passed Schutzhund exams and competed at regional Schutzhund competitions with my dogs.
What would/will you do differently if you train another performance and competition freestyle (dancing) dog?
First of all I would start doing warm-up and cool-down exercises and stretching with my dog from young age. By doing warm-up and cool-down exercises and stretching from a young age, one can delay muscle injuries and the onset of arthritis and other wear and tear and age-related joint problems. Fly avoided muscle injuries; however, lately she sometimes gets up stiff. With Fly, I started doing these exercises when she was 4 years old.
I would also put more emphasis on developing body awareness and teaching speed modifiers (fast, slow) and gait/dressage (walk, trot, gallop, canter, etc.) moves on cues. And last but not least, I would start teaching a dog to enjoy working at distance from young age onwards.
We've seen Fly do moves that are otherwise seen only in dressage horses, for example, trotting in place ("passage"). How can you train that without a bridle and saddle?
With the combined use of targeting and shaping and a lot of patience. I observed that if I shortened the backward walk steps Fly occasionally lifted her feet higher. So I started shortening the steps with Fly in heel position, while maintaining the speed/rate of Fly's steps by using the heel commands as beats. Since her energy could go backwards it went into the height and she sometimes lifted her feet high, which I captured by the click. This exercise is difficult for most dogs, since they have to build up the shoulder muscles. Therefore I practiced only short periods-20-30 seconds at most-twice a day to start with. So it took many weeks to teach Fly to do this on cue and in different positions.
What do you like best about ClickerExpo?
Everything. If I have to pick a specific point perhaps it is that ClickerExpo presents a combination of theory and practice and brings in expertise from the whole animal world and even human psychology and teaching. I definitely should not leave out TAGteach, which is the recent breakthrough in human training. I like that each ClickerExpo session has the theoretical part and then the participants can learn by practicing. I like the mixture of lecturers who are leading experts in animal behavior and trainers/instructors who are excellent in the applied field of animal training.
What is the first thing one needs to know to go into the sport of freestyle?
To love teaching dogs or animals.
What is the most important thing one needs to know to go into the sport of freestyle?
To love movement, rhythm, and being a good observer of the animal or canine partner; what they like or do not like and what they can do-and respect them.
What do you admire most about Kay Laurence's teaching?
The drive and ability to develop better techniques all the time, so that dogs can understand their trainers' desires easier and learn faster and with more enthusiasm.
Mary Raye is the other great freestyle performer in England, starring on closing night on television at Crufts dog show each year. What do you admire most about her work and performances?
The best, most accurate, flashy heelwork in the world, Mary is unified with her dogs during heelwork. However, despite the high precision, her dogs still shine.
What do you admire most about Karen Pryor's dog handling?
Karen is the most gifted trainer with practical, observational, and analysis skills and timing. Karen continuously pushes the boundaries; comes up with new theories. I read with huge interest her recent article about jackpots. Karen is the fastest trainer I have met. She knows by glancing at a dog just what she has to do; how much she has to break down the exercise to shape; her timing of clicks is spot-on and she never overdoes the training, always finishes at the right time.
What are you working on right now?
To develop workshop programs focused on sequencing moves to get fluency. I am also working on programs focused on choreography; the use of space and time/rhythm of the music. With Fly I am still working on the Hunchback routine; it finally got to the polishing phase.
To learn more about Attila and Fly—and freestyle—read Will You, Won't You, Will You Dance with Me?