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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Foundation skills for agility!

A lot of other pups and two-leggers have asked me about the foundation work Mum and I do for agility. So we thought it was about time we did a post about it.

And I'm sure it will be just as fun to read it four years from now and write again about what we've learned going forward.

First let's start with what foundation for agility is. There are many folks with many opinions about what foundation skills are. According to the dictionary...

Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1) - Cite This Source - Share This
foun·da·tion [foun-dey-shuhn] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation
1.the basis or groundwork of anything.
2.the natural or prepared ground or base on which some structure rests.

With that in mind, Mum and I have a definition. It's anything - behaviors, movements, actions, stimulation, reactions and responses (we'll call them collectively, skills) - that is and will be the building blocks for agility.

That's a lot, we know. But we believe that no matter your level and experience in training and competing - from beginner to expert - foundation skills can always and should be a large part of your ongoing agility training program. Mum, Gracie and I work on our skills every day, throughout the day.

Believe me, Mum and I are by no means experts in agility. We've only been competing for two years and training for two and a half years. We have been incredibly lucky - we chose something to do together that fits us like glue. We have always soaked up what was taught us like a sponge, applied skills we were taught, and we practice.

We have an incredible bond and it shows in everything we do together. Some say Mum and I are naturals at agility. Because of this we have been able to pretty well, pretty quickly. Yes, we have our bad days (or months!) and believe me such success isn't the case with other things in our life, but we are proud of what we have done, and still hope to accomplish, in agility.

When you are new to agility, understanding what foundation skills you need for agility is beyond comprehension. We know, and we've been there. That's when you rely on trainers, classes, books, magazines and DVD's. But there is nothing more important than knowing you, your pup and your relationship. Knowing and being keenly aware of this at all times will most certainly get you much more further in accomplishing your goals, whatever they may be.

We'd like to share with you what we have done and learned about foundation skills, in hopes that it can help you and others be more successful and have more fun in agility and other activities in life. So here goes...

On the first day after Mum adopted me at 12 weeks, I learned my first foundation skill. I didn't know it then, because agility wasn't even a twinkle in my eye. But that foundation skill has been very important in every run and every class and every practice we have done in agility in the past three years.

What was the skill? It was 'sit'. And how do I use it in agility? Mum has me sit and wait while she walks the course for training, and she has me sit at the start line before I run, and I sit on the table sometimes during an AKC run. Who would have known that learning such a simple behavior would be so important in agility?


And there are all kinds of behaviors - like down, stay and more that are incredibly important during, before and after my agility runs and practices. What other foundation skills behaviors do we practice and how do we use them in agility? There are many, but here are many of them:

On the course:
  • Sit - sit at start line, on table in AKC.
  • Stay, wait - at the start line for a lead out and on the table.
  • Lie Down - on table in AKC and USDAA.
  • Turn - turn out from Mum, based on the direction of her body/shoulder to take next obstacle cued.
  • Right and Left (turn) - then taking next obstacle cued.
  • Come - for me it means come in veering toward Mum to the next obstacle in front of me.
  • Here - means turn/come in tight toward Mum, like jumping tight around a jump.
  • JoJo (YoYo)/look - means look directly at Mum for specific direction to next obstacle - good for discriminations.
  • Around - for two jumps next to and in line with each other, Mum gives me an around command, take the first jump going out and the second coming in.
  • Obstacles - Mum has taught me all the names of the obstacles, so that if she says walk - I know exactly which obstacle to take, and so on.
  • Go - for me it means go on to the next obstacle in front of me on my own - see this post on how Mum taught me go!
  • Go (obstacle name) - for me it means go out or get out to a specific obstacle that Mum names, used in Gambles in USDAA or when Mum can't get there with me (sometimes she's slow, BOL).
  • Danger - I run and sit between Mum's legs - good for lining me up at the start line; sometimes if our start is delayed with timer issues and so on, and I'm getting bored or a little nervous, Mum will have me go around her leg and do Danger again; keeps me occupied and in total sync with her, gets me wound up too!
  • Easy - Mum doesn't use this much because she likes to keep my speed up and I'm pretty good with my contacts and staying on the table, but for those days that I'm incredibly wound up, she'll use them for both obstacles.
Off the course:
  • Look - look directly at Mum, good for when we need to focus on each other before a run or when there is another dog/person that Mum wants me to ignore walking by.
  • Touch - touch Mum's hand; this was great when I had classes and would become manic watching the other dogs run; kind of like a 'give me a job to do' activity and to get my focus.
  • Target - we use this a lot for fun games at home and at times in training contacts (Mum trained me with running contacts, so Mum puts the target out about 4-5 feet from the contact yellow); many use it for targeting closer to the end of the contact for waiting contacts.
Movement and Handling

Body movement in agility is everything. Us pups take all of our cues from the movement (or non-movement, BOL) of our handlers. A shoulder drop to the right, we'll move right, same with the left - a bend over by the handler and we'll go forward; feet pointed toward the tunnel, we'll take the tunnel. So understanding, practicing and syncing your body movements is really important to running a smooth, easily understood course. Most all call this 'handling'.

With all handling skills Mum and I started close in - meaning I was close to her. As we progressed, Mum taught me the same skills further away from her, little by little - laterally. What are the foundation skills I was taught for handling?
  • Front and rear crosses on the flat.
  • Turn - turn away from Mum.
  • Right/Left - directional turns.
  • Mum turns left, I turn left - no matter how far laterally I am from her.
  • Mum turns right, I turn right - no matter how far laterally I am from her.
  • Back up - Mum backs up, I come more in toward her, no matter how far laterally I am from her.
  • Stride shorten - Mum shortens her stride, so do I.
  • RFP (Reverse Flow Pivot) - this is sometimes called a fake out, Mum acts like she is turning right, or backing up, to get me to pull into her (or the opposite), then continues on in the opposite direction. This works well for us with obstacle discriminations.
Reactions, Actions, Stimulation and Responses

There are all kinds of reactions and responses that can occur at practice and at trials because of all the stimulations and actions going on. Other dogs, smells, missed, slow or conflicting cues, noise, you name it it's there!

All kinds of undesired reactions and responses can occur from these stimulations and actions; lack of speed, attention and enthusiasm; spinning, sniffing, lack of accuracy, running off in the ring, barking and more.

Over my short agility career, I've had a few undesired reactions. Of course I'm sure Mum and I will have other issues crop up throughout our years in agility, but what we have found so far is that many of the sniffing, and lack of speed and enthusiasm I have experienced in agility, was all because of lack of confidence. Lack of confidence in my Mum's ability to direct me appropriately, my lack of confidence in new situations, places and around other dogs, obstacle confidence, and my Mum's confidence in me and my abilities.

To help me (and her) build confidence, Mum now works really hard to be sure I know exactly what I'm supposed to do on the course so I don't have to think, just do - no wishy/washy cues, no jerky cues, no indecisive cues. She tries hard to be deliberate which makes me deliberate. Confidence comes with experience, practice, and time. And she makes sure that I'm totally focused on her at practice, walking to run the course at a trial, all the time, every time. It's just me and her - no one else.

And we did a few extra things mostly focus and energy related to help the process along:

Sniffing - when I'm at trials and training, I love to sniff - mostly to find all the treats left behind by the previous teams. Mum makes sure that she always has treats for me (I'm incredibly food motivated, which is why I probably sniff in the first place). She works with me constantly during training and before and after runs to keep my attention with her, and she uses the treats she has as a reward.

Lake of speed and enthusiasm - yes I've had my share of slowness. I went through about four months of the summer of 2006 pretty darn slow; many times not making course time. Within the past 9 months, though, it has been rare. When I do have some slowness, it's usually because I've ran a lot that day, we've traveled too much and I'm tired. (Mum needs to help me build up my stamina). Or, I'm getting cues from Mum that aren't making me feel very enthused or confident.

Like many newbies, Mum felt pressured in the beginning. She's a perfectionist and is competitive. But, since my last injury, Mum's attitude toward agility has changed a lot. There was about four or five months at the end of last year and the beginning of this one, when Mum and I didn't know if I would be able to do agility anymore. But after my injury, we both felt like 'we're just happy to be doing our favorite thing'! And that's how we now look at each trial, each practice. It's helped both of us a lot - giving us more confidence, energy, excitement, and desire - and it's shown in my speed, consistency and energy.

Many pups will have a wide variety of reactions and responses from a wide variety of stimulations and actions going on around them. Gracie has much different ones than I. What Mum and I think is that by watching your dog, paying close attention to what you are doing and how your dog is reacting - tuning in to your dog, you will be able to understand why the undesired responses and reactions are occurring. Get advice from a trusted source if you need to, but always remember no one knows your dog better than you. Be patient and work through your issues - sometimes it takes time, experience and maturity.

Other Thoughts

Other words of advice that we've learned and picked up along the way that we'd love to share:
  • Be positive, all the time, every time. This is a fun time to spend with your pup, value and embrace it.
  • Use a clicker - it's one of the best ways to teach your pup.
  • Make training sessions short, don't overdue.
  • Never slow your dog down (Mum wishes she would have been taught this in the beginning).
  • Set your standards and make a plan to achieve your goal, no matter how small or large.
  • Never stop learning, 'cause learning is fun!
  • Never stop listening to your pup - they have a lot to say if you pay lots of attention.
  • Always pay attention and practice the basics, and learn new ones too - they are your foundation for which you build upon.
  • Mistakes are a part of learning, and most all of the time they are the fault of the two-legger. Mum even says I never make a mistake, only she does. That's right Mum!
  • Be consistent, be deliberate, be sure about all your directions and commands.
  • Be kind and respectful to your fellow competitors, dog politics just ends up hurting the pups.
  • Play with your pup, learn tricks, build a bond, get close and get to know your pup and have a wonderful relationship.
  • Have lots and lots and lots of fun!
I'm sure that not everyone will agree with what we've said here. And I'm sure that we've forgotten to mention some important stuff. Feel free to share your thoughts, ideas, successes and lessons learned.

But fur sure, this has been really fun sharing what we've learned so far about foundation skills. Hope you enjoy it!


  1. This was a fascinating article to read Johann. We've always loved watching agility trials on tv, and it must be even more exciting to actually participate. Thanks for taking the time to write about it.

    Chris, Abby and Rosie

  2. Johann, this is a fascinating article. I'm going to print it out and read and re-read it. Thanks!

  3. That's very good, foundation work is extremely important. And so is cross-training!

  4. I think I need to add to this article, or post again on how Mum and I used foundation skills to learn obstacles. Stay tuned!

    Woofs, Johann

  5. luv your blog,lets be friends.im a shih tzu.

  6. Hi Johann,

    This isn't really foundation-related, but you briefly mentioning contacts got my mom thinking.
    I know you're a little guy (like me)--do you do running contacts? And did your mom teach them to you, or do you have natural running contacts? How did your mom teach them to you?
    Or, if you have natural running contacts, then my mom is way jealous because I like to dive-bomb off of tall places. The NQing doesn't bother my mom, just the thought that I might really hurt myself :(
    In a way, my mom thinks that contacts is an important foundation skill to teach too...she wished she had officially started teaching me contact behavior from the very beginning instead of messing around with it now...


  7. Hi Anonymous! Leave me your blog address or email, we'll give you the whole scoop. And we'll post about it in another post soon.

    Woofs, Johann

  8. Thanks for the info JoJo! Always informative!


  9. The great thing about having things come up in agility is that you get creative about how to get your dog to understand how to work through it.

    It only enhances the relationship you have with your dog, and that is the coolest thing ever.

  10. You are so right Jt! We agree! Thanks for stopping by.



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