[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 have a very interesting and intriguing topic that I would like to hash out and share with all of you. And that is specifically about our training habits and our practice habits and how we use our training time with our dogs and how we can maybe do it better based on.
[00:01:00] Current brain research. Now I love nerding out and getting geeky as much as the next person, but I also find it to be very important to me that this can be processed and information can be relayed in ways that everyone can understand. And so. About six or seven months ago, my partner was preparing for a musical competition and he came across this fantastic series of videos put together by a musician and educator that has a background in neuroscience.
And this educator, Dr. Molly Gabriel, she has this fantastic. Series of YouTube videos that I will be sure to link in the show notes, talking about how musicians can practice. Better by applying the most [00:02:00] current brain research. And so, as I was listening to these and kind of watching my partner form his own training plans for his musical endeavors, I was immediately drawing the parallels to things that I see commonly done in traditional agility, training things that.
Instinctively do a little bit differently and also things that I am now looking at differently and looking to improve my own training. So I kinda wanna unpack some of that research and put it into how we're gonna use it. I'm not going to go into the exact details of what study and what study said.
What and who did the study? Dr. Gabriel does that beautifully in her video series. And so I do want to make sure that everyone who is interested in hearing about those specific studies goes out and checks out her, [00:03:00] uh, resources, because they're fantastic. But essentially what we need to know is that, but when we have a habit, whether it's a good habit or a bad habit, our brain.
Recognizes that neural pathway to make that behavior happen. And the more we repeat that behavior, the more that neural pathway is lit up and used the stronger it gets. So basically that means what is rehearsed is repeated. So that means when we introduce a new pathway to do the same behavior. So this might look like retraining in dog training, retraining a behavior, say we want to retrain our running contact to a stop or our stop contact to a running, or we want to improve on either one of those behaviors.
We want to kind of [00:04:00] retrain the dog's pathway of how they. Complete that obstacle. We know that matching law exists and matching law means that for every time it's already been rehearsed and reinforced, it's going to happen again. And that goes back to what I was just saying of every time something is rehearsed that neural pathway has lit up.
That pathway is used. It's getting stronger. So of course. Harder to replace an already well-established pathway. And I apologize to any neuroscientist that is listening to this podcast, because I know I will oversimplify and potentially say something incorrect. And I, so I apologize in advance of that. I want to make this simple, and even if I say something wrong, I do think that my basis is still pretty strong here.
um, so moving on that, [00:05:00] we just have to remember that what is rehearsed gets repeated. Okay. And that goes for whether we reinforce that with food and toys or social approval or the next obstacle or not. Okay. Just the go your, your body going through the act of doing it. The. Body going through the act of doing it.
It it's being rehearsed. That pathway is being lit up in the brain. It's gonna take two repetitions of the correct pathway to single out that one. Wrong pathway being lit up. That's what we need to remember and focus on not to freak anyone out, but to highlight how important it is to pay attention to your antecedent.
When you set up a training session in order to produce the correct response, I talk about it all the time. That it is up to the trainer to set the stage so [00:06:00] that the correct answer is easily accessible. And a lot of that is mostly because we are positive reinforcement trainers, right? We want to train by adding reinforcement to the table.
And when we set the dogs up to give us the incorrect response, it means we aren't able to add reinforcement, but it also means that from the brain side of things, When they're rehearsing the wrong behavior, that wrong behavior is getting stronger. Okay. And this makes so much sense when we are talking about raising our puppies, we want to set up the environment so that they learn new habits, right?
If you let your five month old puppy get ahold of your shoes from, you know, access to your closet and they can bring their shoes out, they're probably still going to have that habit when they're five years old, even if they're no. Destructive with the shoes, right. Even though they no longer possess the need to [00:07:00] destroy, shred and chew on your shoes, because they're now five and not five months, that habit of going into your closet is going to be ingrained because it was rehearsed as a puppy or insert any behavior.
If it happens, it's getting stronger. That's gonna be the key takeaway. Now, Dr. Gabriel talks about in music, there are two main forms of practicing. And when I was listening, I was like, oh my gosh, this is really similar to dog agility. How are we going to change this? And. The first way is to, for that musicians practice is that they start playing a piece.
They play to that they, they play until they make a mistake. They back up, they redo that one thing. They fix their mistake and then they continue and they finish it. And that really resonated to me with dog agility. When we go [00:08:00] out and run a course, and you say to yourself, or you say to your instructor, well, let's just see what happens.
And you run the course until you make a mistake, and then you might stop ask for help, kind of start one or two obstacles before, maybe fix that mistake. And then you keep going. That's really, really common. However, you are still rehearsing that error and by stopping and kind of doing it, not in the same situation, you're also not rehears.
the way you want it to happen in real life. So that could be potentially why it's hard to get clear rounds in competition. If your primary PRI, if you're primarily running courses and training with that practice habit in mind, running until you make a mistake, fixing that mistake and then continuing. And then the second way that Dr.
Gabriel talks about musicians practicing is. [00:09:00] to start playing you make a mistake, and then you begin at the start and you try again. And this sounds again, better than the first one, which is correct, because we're at least giving ourselves another opportunity to do the correct thing in the same situation.
Right. And it's almost a little bit for us. Like we don't get to continue until we fix this problem. However, we're still rehearsing that mistake. So as the video continued, uh, Molly also had a different take and it was very similar to my own take of coursework training. And that comes down to when you look at a course map, You probably know where the potential sticking points are.
And she was saying the [00:10:00] same is true for musicians. You can look at a piece and you know, where your weaknesses are, you know, which pieces when, um, played separately are not very fluent. You can get those feelings when you look at a course map or you walk a course. And so the suggestion, both of. Dr.
Gabriel's and my own is to start where the mistakes usually are. So you're gonna start when you're you're most freshest and you're not gonna have any speed or fatigue set in because it's at the end of the course or a really long run. It's not gonna have all those other factors that you can't control everything.
You're gonna start at the mistake. And maybe it's a small question mark, over your head. Do I have this skill. And so you take maybe the obstacle before and a couple obstacles after, and you give yourself a go at that particular sequence and you prove to [00:11:00] yourself, yes, I can do it. And then you go to start the course and run the whole course, or if it's a bigger question, mark, where you're like, I know that.
I don't possess this handling skill because I've only ever done two German turns in my life and my dog's never done any. And you know, you have a big question, mark. Maybe you don't even know how to handle it, or maybe you know that your dog doesn't possess that skill and you don't have a lot of confidence.
There's no need for you to attempt something that you don't have. a pretty good awareness of that. It's going to be possible. Okay. So if you look at something and you go, I know I don't have the skills for this. Your time is better spent. Breaking that apart and building a training plan to acquire those skills, then running the whole course and proving yourself, right?
Because we have two things happening is one you've re you're rehearsing the [00:12:00] mistake. And also you're picking up this mental story of, we can't do X, Y, Z skill, and both of those things, those neural pathways. Of the technical physical skills in both yourself and your dog are going to go with you everywhere you go.
And every competition you enter, but also that mental story of we can't do this, or we always struggle with this is also going to go with you into the ring. So when you see something similar to competition, even if you. Do have those skills, that mindset piece might end up psyching you out and doing a little bit of self sabotage with some storyteller, something going on.
So you can see how quickly that I was just completely nerding out over this because I could see the technical and mental replications of rehearsing, the wrong thing. I could just [00:13:00] see. How quickly these things could break us down over time. So again, start where the mistakes are, figure out a plan for them.
And then if you have time or maybe the next day come back and run that full course as it was. Okay. And that is always going to be my advice, whether you are at a competition or you are. On short sequences by yourself at home or long sequences and courses by yourself at home. If you are at a class at a seminar with me or anyone else, your time is going to be better.
Spent. Training the things that you know, are weak areas and then putting them into longer pieces of coursework later on when you have that confidence and those neural pathways lit up for the correct thing. It also came up [00:14:00] in this YouTube series that musicians practice. Pieces. So individual skills over and over and over and over again.
And we do that same thing in agility, whether it's a sequence or a course, or just an individual obstacle skill, we tend to pack in a lot of repetitions during our training session. However, if say we're going to do 10 reps of anything and our rep count goes. Reinforced reinforced, fail, fail, reinforced, reinforced, reinforced, fail, fail, fail.
so we're getting close to that 10 reps and we've ended on a failure. It's very common for dog trainers to continue until we get to success. Even if it means making it way easier than we need to, or piling up a few more [00:15:00] errors and things like that. And I know I am very guilty of this, and I'm always having to check myself to make sure that I'm training in a smarter.
because the suggestion for musicians is that to make your goal, if you want 10 reps make it your goal, that you can do 10 in a row, and I've do find that idea. Fascinating. And I've hinted at this, uh, in a previous episode, answering a. Community members question, but this 10 in a row thing is so fascinating to me because when I'm practicing my own mechanics, and we all know that I am a big, big, big, big supporter of practicing agility without the dog, as much as possible.
That is one of my goals is that I can do a technique or a movement 10 times in a row before I ask the dog to [00:16:00] come out and do it with me. And when I am. Training myself and I don't ha and I can kind of stay in, in my own head and check in with myself about fatigue and distractions and, and whatnot. I can, if I go, that was great.
That was great. Ugh. I looked away on that one. I can just start over and I can continue that training session for myself until I get that 10 in a row. I don't recommend that for the dogs, because that would, that could potentially mean that you're asking. lots and lots and lots and lots of reps in one training session and that's not fair.
So my suggestion is to aim for a number of repetitions in a row. That makes sense for that skills. Level like that particular skill, like how far into the skill the dog is, and also [00:17:00] that dog's experience level with the skill. And so I'm going to give you a couple of examples of how I'm using this in a row streak to better inform my training and progress my training faster.
So my 16 month old puppy sprint is starting her two by two training. And the first step of two by two training is that the, the two, the set of two poles is wide open, like a channel basically. And the first goal is to teach them. Which direction to enter which shoulder to enter nearest the pole, uh, how to enter correctly and then rotate it so that it's two poles straight in a line.
Okay. So that means that. It I'm a really long way from the end behavior. So the more split down it is, the lower the streak number I need [00:18:00] before moving on. So that means when I'm starting this process, if I get two in a row of her going through correctly, I'm going to move the poles an inch or two in the direction of.
And then I'm going. So when I'm splitting and acquiring a skill, my streak might be as low as two and I'm already changing and starting a new streak, two in a row. Good two in a row. Good two in a row. Good. And obviously with that, I'm gonna have a, maybe a 10 rep max. And so it might take two sessions to get the, we pull straight, depending on the dog's level of latency.
Did we have any question? If I had an error in there, when did it happen? Did it happen at rep six or did it happen at rep two? Cuz that matters as well because if my dog is consistently making an error at around higher numbers of reps, [00:19:00] 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, somewhere in there, I can pretty much say that the dog is fatiguing and that I need to ask for fewer reps so that I can keep my streak.
Going because I would rather have lots of little sessions with a very clean streak than a few big sessions with errors kind of sprinkled throughout. Okay. Because over time, those shorter sessions with clean streaks are going to create. More lit up neural pathway than the lots of reps with two different pathways being lit up.
So I don't wanna share any of my dog's precious energy with a neural pathway that I don't ever want to see. And hopefully that visual makes sense over a podcast. The next example I have about using. [00:20:00] Streak is with running dog walk training. This is another project that I have open with sprint and for simplicity's sake, we're just going to say that my only goal on the running dog walk is to get her to run across it and exit straight in an extension.
We won't talk about all the. Nuance and details of turns and different things that can happen. So a huge part of this now is that this started, this behavior started on a target just on the ground, a mat on the ground. Then it was a mat on a flat plank. Then it's a matte on a raised plank using tables and other props to raise it up.
Then it's on a low, full length dog walk. And then that low dog walk increases in height. so, one thing that I was [00:21:00] aiming for in that early training is to set up those situations where I get a high, high, high rate of success. And obviously that makes sense. We want success to build on success, but it was requiring quite a few reps to be able to progress.
And. Easier when you're just asking for a target on the ground, you can easily get 15 or 20 reps in a two minute training session with a fast dog. And just go running to a target a few feet away, right. Easy and not physically taxing to pile up those reps. But as we've now progressed to the full length dog walk, this is now taking more physical energy.
And so I don't have the same number of reps in her that I would, if we were just doing the target on the ground. So it's very important to me that. [00:22:00] She doesn't start with a mistake and that I can keep a really good streak going so that the few reps that I do have are really high quality. Okay. I don't want to use any of my reps on a mistake if I can help it.
So that means. Her rep numbers is going to be very low until she tells me she can do more. And I know she can physically do more, but she might not be able to do more at the same high quality. And let's be honest at a dog show. I need two or three dog walks a day with probably hours in between. She's not going to be fatigued in the middle of a dog show in the same way.
She might be fatigued at the end of a training session. Okay. So I wanna keep my, my expectations [00:23:00] real about what I actually need from her. So my. Task was to find the setup that she nails the first time, every time. And this was a little bit frustrating at first. It sometimes meant that I needed to start easier than I wanted to to make sure that I started with success.
Because if we started with a miss, I am pivoting to go do something else. I'm not even, I'm not going to start that streak. With a miss. We're gonna just end the dog walk session for a moment. We're going to pivot. We're gonna go do something else, train something else that was on my to-do list. Or we're just gonna have a little pet in the grass.
No big deal. She likes that a lot. Then we're going to go back and try again. If she can hit the first time we start that streak. And right now the current streak is like at three reps. Right. The fourth one is still a hit, but I start to [00:24:00] see it's different. So there's that fatigue setting in, and there are lots of different factors involved.
It could be time of day. It could be. Did I start with running dog walks or did I end my training session with running dog walks? There's all these little factors that you have to think about, but it means that when she's consistently showing me that she can. Three in a row really well. And then four in a row really well, I'm gonna ask for five or six in a row really well.
So then as her kinda her education grows about the running dog walk and also she will probably increase her stamina, right. She still quite young. She still has to think really hard about it. So as this behavior becomes less taxing, she'll be able to give me more at the same high quality, which means.
Over time. I will be able to get more reps in without piling up those errors. Because every time they [00:25:00] rehearse the wrong thing, you are lighting up that neural pathway for the wrong thing. And you are making that neural pathway stronger. And in my head, this is what it means. To me to take it slow with a young dog because their brains are still developing.
Their bodies are still developing. We're not in any hurry. And by the time she's able to give me more reps, she will be much more prepared to give me those reps. And like I said before, I started this running dog walk conversation. We wouldn't talk about all the nuances and the turns, but I'm gonna have that same process for any.
Variation of the running dog walk. So if I go out and I'm going to work on right turns or soft turns, or turns away from me, whatever the skill is or discrimination, I'm still gonna start at that same point of where am I certain that I can get success. [00:26:00] And can I get two in a row? Great. Tomorrow, I'm gonna try for three in a row.
Super let's try for four. Wow. That was amazing. Can we do. Six. So I don't always have to take it one at a time either I can use my best judgment. And I also want to share just a very recent example of when I did not use my best judgment and pivot when the first one was, am miss. And that was with her Teeter training very recently and the, uh, training session two times ago.
So two training sessions ago, I had her toy on the ground. I was moving. I was standing still. She looked fantastic. It was great. So I started this session in the same way, toy on the ground. It was not the first thing that we had trained. I admit we were probably getting close to the end of what her brain was capable [00:27:00] of, but her very first rep she landed and two on two off and the Teeter started to.
Pull her push her rear feet up. So I just immediately released her to the toy because I knew that that could be potentially aversive to her. She is not going to want that to do something that she didn't know it was gonna do things like that. And based on everything that I have just told, told you all , I should have left it alone, either pivoted and come back or said, you know what?
We were gonna be done after this. Anyways, we can just look at this another time, but I didn't. And I asked for her to do it again. And I asked in the exact same way, and she didn't let the Teeter finish tipping. It started to move and she goes, you know what? I didn't like what it did to me last time. I'm gonna just [00:28:00] come off the side and everything's gonna be okay.
And. that's when I remembered that I know better and that I can do better. And so all is going to be fine. I'm going to put it away for a week. I'm going to start my next session with confidence building, making sure that she's comfortable with that, but that's always gonna be in the back of my head that if she.
gets herself into a situation where the Teeter is lifting her rear legs up, that I know what her logical next step is. And this definitely has a lot to do with her lack of education around the Teeter. And it's not that she doesn't have a lot of skills. She just can't have a huge amount of education because she's only 16 months old.
If that had happened to. Any of my other dogs where they're rear lifted and I ask them again, [00:29:00] they probably would have changed their behavior to, to what they know to be correct, because that neural pathway is so much more lit up and very strong in comparison to the others. But it wasn't in this case.
She, even though she has a ton of training and it's excellent training and her Teeter looks fantastic. Nine times outta 10, that one time that it's not perfect. She notices because it's, it's lit up. Right. And the other one isn't bright, the correct way. Isn't quite bright enough to drown it out. This is another reason why I'm very protective of habits that I let my young.
Create in the home, around other dogs, around people in competition. I'm very protective about how I debut dogs because of this very thing is that if [00:30:00] two pathways are being rehearsed equally, one can't outshine the other. But if one is being re rehearsed and repeated and reinforced 99% of the time, For years and years and years, one time doing this other way is going to feel really wrong.
And you're, it's very easy to not do it again. And hopefully that makes sense in whatever training habit or training picture, you kind of have been visualizing as you listen to this. And so I just want to put all this out there. Not to freak us out about errors because they will happen because we are not perfect.
Our dogs aren't perfect. Neither one of us are machines. I do want to flag all these things up so that there is more thoughtfulness going into the planning of [00:31:00] training sessions. And also when you go back and you watch those videos, look for those reasons. Uh, that you might shorten the session or that you might ask for fewer next time or that how you might set up that the first one is always correct and that you can build a streak from there.
I think there's a lot of value in setting the dogs up to be successful with that streak, rather than relying on the very common advice of get to 80%. Correct. And make it harder. I think there's more value in. a short rep session, maybe four in a row, a hundred percent, even though it's low rep. Now make it a little bit harder.
Can you do four in a row here? Great. Can you do six in a row here? Great. Now make it harder. I think that overall you'll progress more quickly. You'll have less frustration. You'll be able to train more things at one [00:32:00] time because you're doing four to five, six reps of something and you can do lots of things in one training session.
Versus 10 to 20 reps with a high error rate and only training one thing in a training session before the dog is fatigued. And that does lead me to one other point that. Dr. Gabriel pulled up and it is blocked practice versus random practice. And essentially that means with blocked practice, you do a long period of time, the same thing, and then another period of time, the same thing.
And then another period of time, the same thing or random practice where you do a short amount of each of those things. but you might go through them two or three times. And [00:33:00] I really like training this way. So in circuits, so I might do six reps of weaves, then four reps of dog walks and four reps of some jumping skill, and then go back to dog walks and back to jumping and back to weaves and back to jumping and back to weaves and back to dog walk.
So. I'm still able to get in maybe that higher number of reps that I'm looking for 10 to 12 reps overall of all three, but I'm making sure that I'm training in shorter sessions. I'm paying attention to those streaks that can I get those four to six reps in a row clean? And I'm also. keeping things a bit more interesting and changing things.
So that gives the dog time to decompress and kinda learn what they learned in that first session, do something else. And it also means that you can structure [00:34:00] your training in ways that maybe the really arousing skill, the highest arousal skill, maybe it's the running dog walk is a lot of. Energy and excitement more so than two by two weaving.
So you can kind of stack your arousal levels in the way that makes sense for that dog on that day, in that location, so that they're able to be successful right when they start out. So those are some extra tips with regards to training habits and things. That I am finding are more and more important overall, when I am training agility, either for myself, but definitely with my own dogs and my students dogs.
I feel like I covered a lot of ground and dumped a lot of different information on y'all and [00:35:00] I would love to hear your thoughts on anything that I've said here today or about Dr. Gabriel's videos when you've watched those. And again, I will link to those in the show notes, and I really look forward to hearing your thoughts on the subject while I am here.
And I have you. Coming up on September 8th, I am presenting a webinar for the F dog sports academy titled essential skills for stopped contacts. This is all the little games that we can play that are not. Directly the stopped contact behaviors, but influence our stopped contact behaviors. So training these games and using these skills can really supplement your weekly class and just make learning those contact obstacles that much easier, even when you don't have regular access to the equipment.
So [00:36:00] again, that is September 8th at the finse dog sports academy. I will also link to that in the show notes, and I hope to see you all. Talk more next week.
Thanks for listening, please subscribe and leave me a review. If you'd like to support this podcast, head over to synergy, dog sports.com/community to access bonus content and to get your questions answered via podcast episodes and other social media content. If you'd like to know more about what I'm up to and what's coming up, make sure to bookmark my website.
Www dot synergy, dog sports.com.