[00:00:00] Hey, everyone. Welcome to fostering excellence. Inability the podcast. I'm your host competitor, coach and mentor Megan Foster. I help agility enthusiasts focus on the small details of training and behavior while still having a clear understanding of their big picture goals. Join me as I take you through key elements of dog agility, training, competing, and teaching, and how you can take action today to start improving your skills within the sport.
Let's get started. Hey everyone today. I want to continue breaking down and talking about the behaviors that I teach my dogs, especially. With dog sports in mind that I refer to as essential skills. First, I'm going to tell you about how this module, this kind of subset of [00:01:00] skills got named essential skills.
It was back when I was developing my agility program for in person clients, and I was bringing on. New instructors and building a team so that we could get people in when they get puppies, when they just have an interest in dog sports. So really trying to focus on giving the best foundations possible from the very beginning, when they signed up to train with synergy, dog sports.
And so when I sat down with my instructors that were going to be teaching kind of the foundation level sports class, And we looked at the curriculum, the instructor, who is a very dear friend of mine, Diana HOK kind of looked at me and she said, well, how are they gonna do that? And I said, well, they have these, they, they already have this and they already have this.
And she kind of looks at me and goes, [00:02:00] no, Megan, they're not gonna have those skills. I think we need to break this down even further. And she was a hundred percent. Right. And that is why she was teaching classes for me. And why I still train with her today because we both, or she helped me to recognize that not every dog owner.
Puts in the same prioritization when we look at skills. And quite often, when we're looking at dog sports and dog agility in particular, we can be a little bit hyperfocused on the agility specific skills. So the things that are obvious, like the obstacle skills and following the handling and how to build obstacle, focus, and things like that.
But what about the skills that. Are actually the prerequisite skills for everything that we're going to teach them the skills that are going to make learning foundations so [00:03:00] much easier. And they're going to allow foundations to progress at a much faster rate. That's how essential skills were born. So we added.
An essential skills class before preport foundations could begin. And let me tell you it was magic. I really had to dig deep and really take a look back at like, what are the things that I'm teaching my dogs at home without being told to just instinctively or things that I've picked up in the last 25 years of doing agility.
and these are the skills that we've landed on and that I still continue. To teach for my own dogs and my clients to this day and the first thing. And they're not really in any particular order because they're all very important. I [00:04:00] tend to kind of teach all of these kind of at the same time, simultaneously making sure that I am progressing at the rate that my puppy or my dog needs me to.
So these are not in any particular order, so they're all equally important. And the order and intensity that I train them in is completely individualized for the team in front of me. So the first one is handler mechanics, and that means your timing of your marking and your reward delivery. And it also means specifically for agility.
I want the handler to be comfortable with some key movements that show up in all elements of handling before you ever start. Teaching your dog, how to follow your handling. So these key movements include your eyes and where to [00:05:00] focus your attention on the course. And this is something that I am always studying and always trying to improve my communication on about where to look and how to use your eyes most efficiently.
On course, while maintaining connection with the animal. Maintaining where you are on course, so that you're not lost or disoriented or running into obstacles, and also able to filter in the information that you need through your eyes, through your brain, through the rest of your body, in order to give timely cues.
So handler mechanics, those essential. Uh, skills for handler mechanics include your eyes. They include your upper and lower body movements. Just kind of moving in general patterns, forwards, laterally away, uh, turning like in circles or S lines so that you can be [00:06:00] comfortable with your upper body moving in one direction, kind of turning back towards the dog and your lower body moving in a new, a different direction.
So kind of being able to separate. Your upper body from your lower body, but also making them work together. So we focus on those and we focus on adding in your speed and fluency of your, where to look and controlling your upper and lower body movements and increasing your speed without the dog. okay. So we get the handler very, very comfortable with their part of the job, their part of the navigation system, before we add the dog.
So the handler can be working on those essential key movements while we're also training these other essential skills to the dog. So that by the time you dip into foundations, both the handler and the dog are gonna be on the same page and ready to. So not [00:07:00] the second thing in my essential skills plan is teaching the dog and also teaching the handler how training works so that no matter where you go, if you're training in a parking lot or at a public space or in a store or at a class or a seminar or a dog trial, That you have a very predictable routine and pattern to how training begins, how you move through training, uh, how you might pause in training to move the camera or look at your next instructions, or have a conversation with the random stranger that has come up, how you end the session.
And how you keep that very clean and clear for the dog so that the dog completely understands the difference between a sniffy walk, where they don't need to be engaged in you versus you standing out in a parking lot, expecting them to opt in, to work. so the [00:08:00] pieces of how training works begins with building a ready to learn protocol.
And that does mean that we need to have those reinforcer skills that I talked about in the previous episode to, to be fluent. We need to know that we can go to a parking lot. and pretty much guarantee that the dog is going to eat the scatter off the ground or eat the food from my hand. So I need to be able to first test that the dog will take and will respond to the cue and take the reinforcer that I have available to them.
This allows me to make sure that they are indeed ready. To engage in that training session. It guarantees me that they want the reward that I have assumed that they will want. And so that if those things are not true, I can return the dog to the car or the crate or the station or whatever. And make adjustments [00:09:00] to that plan.
Before I dig myself a hole that I can't get out of, right. Ready to learn can also include acclimation and different ways dogs can acclimate and kind of finding that good spot, uh, and that good routine of transitioning from acclimation into, Hey, are you ready to do this? All right. Here's how I'm gonna ask you and going through those reinforcer questions to assess those things.
The second thing we talk about in how training works is pauses and training. So how does the dog know that they're going to be needed again soon? But they're not needed right now. And this comes from, you know, training, leash skills. So making it very clear that like, if the dog is on the leash, they're not needed in full attention, or if the dog is on a mat they're not needed in full attention.[00:10:00]
When you put them in the crate there, right. Just having ways to tell the dog, we're not a hundred percent done, so I don't want you to go back to sleep, but I can't give my, give my full attention to you right now because I'm moving the camera or I'm talking to someone or I'm reading my notes. Okay. So we teach the dog to be okay with that intentional disconnect, which also makes it easier for the handler to.
do the things that they need to do during a training session. And we, we just want it to be very clear to the dog so that your random disconnects are not random to the dog. They, the dog understands that they are coming. The dog understands what they mean. Whereas if we don't show the dog that, and we finish a repetition and then we turn our back and walk across the training space and move the camera and the dog is just left there going, um, What do I go with you?
Do I stay here? Do I sniff? Do I go pee on [00:11:00] things? We don't want the dog to have to guess because many dogs just go find something equally. Great to do sniff pee on things, get into people's bags, find food, you know, they're gonna. Fill the time somehow. Uh, and at first dogs tend to follow us around kind of hopeful that we just forgot to mention, Hey, come on, we're still working.
But over time they learned that our disconnects don't pay off for them. So they fill the time in their own way. So we wanna make sure that we are training good habits in ourselves and good habits in our dogs with very clear parameters around pauses and training transports. We're going to teach the dog how to move from point C.
They've just collected their reinforcement back to part a. that they've so that they can start another rep again, they're going to learn [00:12:00] how to move together connected from the car to the training space, from the crate to the training space, just having really good skills around moving together. Not in a very formal, like healing sense, but just in a connected way that we, that the dog and the person understand that they are working together, that they're just moving from one opportunity of work to the next opportunity of work.
And. again, this is all just to avoid unwanted behaviors, like checking out, visiting, sniffing, all of those things. And then we're also going to focus on being very clear with what the end of the session looks like. So we're going to be very clear to the dog that whatever reinforcer that we were currently using is no longer available that we're going to transition into something else.
Maybe a sniffy walk, maybe a chewy in the crate, maybe just a nice down stay or, you [00:13:00] know, uh, lying on the grass together, receiving pets. We just wanna transition out of work back into now. You're just a pet again, and you don't need to be a hundred percent. You don't need to be offering me your undivided attention.
You don't need to be expecting cues anymore because the session has ended. again, this just builds clarity. It means that they can kind of turn that part of their brain off. They can go back to being a dog. It's gonna make it easier for them to transition in and out of levels of arousal when it's very clear when they should be up and ready to work.
And when they should start to come back down, because work has ended. The third piece of essential skills and this, we obviously need some of these skills in order to make the training process. Work. Well, it is leash skills and those leash skills include [00:14:00] putting leash on without the dog feeling like it is an aversive and that the dog needs to avoid putting their leash on.
We need to be able to remove the leash. without the dog taking off without the dog, assuming what they're going to do next. We want to be able to remove the leash and the dog remains connected as if the leash is still there. This includes all the varieties of leashes and hardware that we might be using with our puppies, whether it's a harness or a head halter.
Slip lead or a call, a flat collar with just a clasp. They need to be comfortable putting on and removing any of the different wearables that we might have on them for training. Okay. A lot of times we teach them one, they generalize very quickly to the others, but we don't want to take that for granted.
We want to show them that it [00:15:00] is the same answer regardless of what they're wearing. I also wanna teach. My dog's about giving me their collar so that when I ask them to come next to me and put their collar in my hand, it is a good thing. Not an aversive thing. It is a time to yield to that collar pressure because I'm going to lead them somewhere or I'm going to, um, Help them line up somewhere or I'm going to place a toy.
And I want them to see where I've placed the toy or place the food. It is. I personally don't teach it as an opposition. Reflexing where I want the dog to pull away from me to get, um, frustrated or excited, frustrated, and amped up by the pressure. I want them to willingly come into my hand, put their collar in my hand, and then let me lead them with gentle pressure.
this also makes [00:16:00] leashing them up so much easier if they are willing to put their neck in my hand so that if I have a dog with a lot of hair, I can find that clasp to get that leash on. I can more easily get them buckled up into their harness if they are willing to come into that pressure. Um, so I'm teaching that from a very young age.
and also I'm teaching loose leash walking. And this is one of the newer skills that I have added to my program. Not because I am like an expert at teaching loose leash walking, but I do find that it has immense value in. assessing dogs, arousal levels and their states of mine. So it's not something that I'm incredibly worried about for some dogs.
Like my Parson, wrestl terrier, [00:17:00] Shrek. It never occurred to me that I needed to teach it. I don't think it tells me much about. His arousal level with regards to the types of training that I'm doing, or the types of sports that I'm playing with him. However, it might have been really a great tool to teach him in order to help him learn how to control himself around distractions, because he does pull me towards things that he wants to sniff.
And since sniffing is. Biggest problem. When it comes to staying engaged with work, he has severe conflict in his motivators, the reinforcers that I bring to the table he loves. And he also loves sniffing the world. He's a very curious dude. So perhaps if I had kind of installed this ability for him to control himself via [00:18:00] loosely sch walking around things that he wants to sniff, perhaps that would've helped him a lot in his earlier days of learning how to deal with those competing motivators.
Whereas with my 14 month old border col sprint, it was the like number one thing that I was prepared to teach her because I knew that she was going to be highly motivated by. Watching dogs run agility, seeing agility, equipment, hearing agility happening. And I wanted her to be able to self regulate and walk calmly, relaxed on a loose leash, regardless of what's going on around her.
And when she can't, that's telling me a lot. So if she can't. Self regulate and walk on a loose leash. She's probably not going to be able to eat when I get to the space and do ready to learn. She's probably not going to be able to hear her mark or cue discriminations, not as [00:19:00] cleanly. Right. So I'm just saving myself a lot of, um, hassle by having that additional layer.
Of, I don't know, barometer to be able to see how she's feeling in that context and build from there. The fourth thing on my list and final in my kind of essential skills program piece of the program is stationing and downstairs and creating and creating quietly and happily. So they're all very similar in skillset.
Being able to put the dog on a station and move equipment, set up the camera, see your notes, talk to people again, right? Th this directly ties into teaching them about how training works. They need some of these skills to make those routines be more seamless. Um, a big part of my beginning of the run [00:20:00] routine and competition is that as you move closer, To being ready to get into the ring when you're a dog or two ahead, I have my dogs in a down stay so that I can.
Watch the course and make sure that it's in my head, I can make sure that nothing has moved. I can make sure that no equipment has, you know, no tunnel has come up or anything like that. I can make sure that the bars are set correctly and my dog is at a down stay at my feet. And then I release them to move through the ring gate with me.
So having that downst is a really important piece of my ring routine, but it's also. a really big deal to be able to have downstairs, you know, during class or seminars, or just hanging out at a dog show when you're not getting ready to run. And obviously creating happily is a really big deal for dogs in general, because they're going to need to be created at some point in their.
And for [00:21:00] dog sports. There's a lot of crate time when you're at an, at a dog's dog event, a competition, you know, a lot of dog agility trials is not a lot of dog agility, right. Even when you have the potential for six runs a day, that's only like six minutes of agility. And so that's a lot of not agility time.
When you think about what a dog show. And so very quickly we'll recap, the essential skills are handler mechanics, building a functioning routine and program of how training works, the leash skills that you're going to need and stationing downstairs, creating those sort of things. So those stationary calm behaviors and.
When I'm why I am so [00:22:00] interested in teaching these skills. And so why I'm so adamant that we do teach these skills to our puppies and our new to training dogs is that it's going to improve your training. Tenfold. It's going to provide clarity. It's going to provide predictability. And you're going to avoid unintentional adversity, right?
So if your dog understands the rules around loose leash walking, they, they're not going to find it aversive. When , you don't let them pull. They will have already have that skill. They understand the boundaries, they understand the criteria, you've set them up to succeed. They understand that loose leash walking.
Earns them the right to do X, Y, Z. They understand that putting the leash on is not the end of all things nice and fun and lovely in the world. They [00:23:00] understand that you have a good idea of what you're doing. So right. When you practice your handler mechanics, before you ever introduce your dog into your hand, You're going to avoid potential confusion.
When, if you were learning together at the same time as the dog, you're gonna make mistakes and the dog might think that they're their mistakes. So having these essential skills on board, you're going to avoid a lot of problems is really the short way of saying it. You're also going to be able to develop a more accurate idea of how your dog feels.
Pretty much all of the time, all of these essential skills, give me the ability to go, oh, you can't do a downt stay here today. I didn't realize this environment was that hard for you? Let's see if we can make that easier. Versus if I didn't have those essential skills and I just brought the dog [00:24:00] into the environment and I brought them into the training space and I just asked them to do a sequence, or I just asked them to learn weave poles for the first time.
And they couldn't do it. They're failing and they're miserable and they're distracted and they can't work. And they, it, it feels like a fight to train with my dog. Then I, that that's the experience I've had, but if I have the essential skills on board and I can see, well, before I get my dog into the training situation, that they are not in a good head space, I can adjust and pivot and avoid that problem training session before it ever happens.
And that is a very big deal to me. if I'm going to label myself anything that comes close to a positive reinforcement trainer, it's important to me that I use the best of my ability to not put the dog in a situation where they are going to fail. Right. That is [00:25:00] one of the most important jobs that I have is to set my, set myself up and set my dog up for like nearly inevitable success.
it's these essential skills are going to improve competing for all of the reasons I just stated. Plus your team is going to be better prepared for what a dog show actually is. Right. They have the ability to rest in between. They have the ability to self regulate when it's not their turn to be in the ring.
Right. So they're not wasting their energy. Amped up and excited and anxious outside of the ring so that they can be a hundred percent when they walk through that threshold, enter the ring, boom. They use all their great energy on your run. You have a higher quality performance. You have a higher quality performance because you're not managing your dog outside the ring.
Everyone just has a much better [00:26:00] time when your dogs outside the ring skills are just as sexy as you are in the ring skills. Right? Everyone will have a much better. The dogs around your dogs will have a better time. You will have a better time. Your dog will have a better time. So you're gonna be more prepared for all those things.
The ring prep is gonna be so much easier when you have essential skills on board. Just like I'm saying, they'll routines will be. The norm for them. So when you introduce, um, beginning of run routines and into run routines, your dog will pick up on how powerful they are much more quickly because they've been functioning in a predictable pattern in a predictable routine for their entire training existence.
So if you started this with a puppy by the time they're 18 months, two years old, and you're starting to compete. By the time they're 18 months old. And you're starting to put your beginning of run routines together that are like, oh yeah, [00:27:00] this is just like that other routine we do. And I love that other routine.
Sign me up, you know, enter those training, enter those competitions, write that check. I want to do the things. So it's gonna improve your competing a lot as well. and if you're teaching, you're going to improve your teaching because you're going to be start seeing the problem behaviors before they happen.
You're going to start to see dogs, walk into your training space, looking a little bit distracted, and you're going to start wondering. I wonder what that dog was like outside the ring. And so then you're going to be able to help that handler in front of you better because you're going to be able to offer a solution, not a bandaid.
You're going to be able to offer a training plan that they can do at home, away from equipment. They don't need equipment to solve a problem that isn't specifically agility related, which is a lot of the problems that I see in dog agility by the. [00:28:00] you're going to be able to help them with a solution that is sustainable so that if they go back and they train that essential skill, and then they start to see the results in training, huge win.
Then you're also going to see it help in competition. Double the win. and then you're gonna go, oh my gosh, this is amazing. And you're going to work it into your next curriculum. When you bring in your next set of foundation students, you're just going to fold this in. You're going to develop your own essential skills class before preport foundations, especially for handlers that have never done dog sports before.
So if that is a part of your. clientele, working with people who hope to compete someday, but they have never done dog agility. They've never done dog sports. They don't know about these skills. and some people who have been doing dog sports for a long time, don't know about these [00:29:00] skills because that's the cycle that we are currently in.
And so here I am giving y'all the secrets. They're not secrets, but they are magic and they are very important to me. Uh, I see a humongous difference in my puppy. Friend's confidence when I take her to new places because she has these. essential skills, very, very, very fluent. And so I can put her into very well known patterns and routines, and those behaviors are solid.
And I can tell immediately if she's too aroused or she's a little bit anxious or she's not sure if she, or if she's concerned, I can tell very quickly just based on how she's performing these essential skills behaviors. And so there, therefore I'm not risking. Bad experiences with the sport behaviors that are so, so, so important to me [00:30:00] and very precious and very fragile, especially when they're first learning them.
Okay. So essential skills, they're called essential skills for a reason. I don't think that we can skip them. I think that these are more important than any of the foundation skills that I can teach the. if I'm going to do any dog sport, these are the ones that I wanna start with. And they're obviously very puppy friendly.
They are skills that you'll want your dog to have as a pet. Anyways, I feel like they provide just a lot of. Very good things to your dog's life. Um, nothing that I mentioned is hard on their bodies. It's right. Whether you're doing sports or not, they gotta wear a leash in a collar at some point. So making that a cool thing is great.
Having downstairs is super for patio eating. I find that these skills just make it easier to have [00:31:00] a dog. In public spaces, period. So even if you're not thinking about dog sports or you're not sure which dog sport you're thinking about, I find that essential skills are still at the top of my list and that's all I have for today.
But next week I will unpack what I define as agility foundation skills that are also quite puppy friendly.
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