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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why & What Foundation Work?

Today I turn 40, so I might be a bit nostalgic - but I realized that I've been training/competing/teaching in agility for 13 years now!

Last year I got my 5th dog, a Dalmatian I named Rouge (or Ru for short). Since she is now 13 months old it's time to start thinking of agility training beyond puppy concepts. With that in mind, I attended a Foundation Seminar given by my favorite instructor, Stacy Peardot-Goudy. I've been working with Stacy for 12 years now and it's great that she is still my "go to" person.

Why go to a Foundation Seminar:

As I mentioned, I've been in Agility for 13 years, am on my 5th dog and I paid to go to a Foundation Seminar.  Some might ask why?  Well first, no matter how many times I may have heard something, it's always good to be reminded of it again - especially in Foundation work when most of us want to skip on off to the end result. Next, I might learn a great exercise, learn a new tip, be reminded of something I'd forgotten, learn by watching the other young dogs or have a chance to ask a knowledgeable person a question or two and to see their view point on various topics.

But the biggest reason is that no matter how much I've learned or how much I know, it's fun to be the student again!  There is so little pressure. I mean I don't have to prove myself, all I have to do is LISTEN and WATCH (the 2 best ways to learn) and it gives me an opportunity to work & focus on only my young dog.

History of Foundation Training for Me:

When I think back on the 5 dogs I've owned and the journey we've had together, I can see how things -including me - have changed.  My first dog was my FIRST dog ever.  With her, Agility was just coming into the main stream and training was a wing on a prayer (Foundation was never a thought).  

With my second & third dogs, training was better, but both dogs were rescues and there was a ton of "other" baggage that had to be worked through before I could even think about Agility (Foundation Training was called "Obedience").  This is when I also became more interested in behavioral shaping and decided to greatly expanded my training skills beyond the basics and even beyond Agility. 

My 4th dog was brilliant and I could experiment on his agility training and behavioral shaping as much as I'd like because he loved to work and was very high drive. Unfortunately he knew how to push my buttons so the unexpected lessons learned (via the school of Fort Knox!) was to stay calm (even when he was a whirling dervish) and break the training steps down into TINY pieces and TINY time frames so that both of us could be successful. 

This is when I first heard the term "Foundation Training" as it relates to Agility.  A "well known" seminar person said "you need to work on Basic Skills," but when I asked for specifics, they couldn't define them!  I love their theory, but I work much better in reality and so I've since been on a mission to better define all of the skills I've acquired and taught dogs so that I could come up with a definable and relevant Foundation Skill Set & Plan for myself.

Foundation Training Today:

I'm happy to say that before the seminar, I had about 80% of my Foundation Plan formulated in my head and had been actively doing it with Ru over the last year.  After the seminar, I feel I'm 99% there.

After 13 years and 5 dogs, this is the first time I really know EXACTLY what outcome I want when it comes to her agility related performance and I have the hands-on experience to know exactly how to train it.  Maybe I'm a slow learner, but more than likely it's because I've been growing and learning during the last 13 years and now have a solid definition, skill set and a plan for Foundation Training.

What is Foundation Training To Me:

My definition of foundation training is the general & "every day" skills that I teach my dog that can easily be translated into basic agility skills. While these are the ones that are important to ME and since each dog is different, plans may need to be adjusted to take that into account.  

I should note that thanks to Stacy's Seminar, her influence and smart training over the years, there is no doubt she is the master behind this list.  Especially since she is the creator of the Contact Training Method 2-on-2-off, which I have spent a lot of my time playing with and having fun shaping.

My Basic Foundation Skills Plan:
  • Attention - okay, this is Stacy's word.  Mine would have been the sentence "ensuring the dog doesn't zoom around the ring, race off to another county or leave you frantically yelling "come" as you chase the dog down"  However, the point is still the same.  Without you and the dog working together, there is no team work - only frustration and conflicting agendas.
  • Name Recognition - ah, it's so basic and yet there are still dogs out there who don't know their name or more importantly, don't care about their name when there are other exciting things happening!  When naming my current Pup, I knew it had to be a short, fun name. While Rouge is her formal name, it was automatically shortened to Ru and when I call her, it's a fun "Ru-Ru!".  That name gives a positive feeling for both of us since I keep it light and up beat.
  • Play Drive - this is definitely Stacy's word!  Each dog is different and my Dals love their toys, but not in the ring.  I'm sure it's something that I've done (or not done) and this is an unfinished item for me in the plan. Food has been a great motivator for the Dals, but toys were easily used with my Border Collies. Note to self: I need to experiment in make toys a higher paycheck for my Dals in the ring if at all possible.  Second note: Play doesn't have to be about toys - it can be a game of chase, etc. Now that I'm good at!
  • Eye Contact - I just love this one and work hard to share with my students the impact and information eye contact can have on a course.  I encourage my dogs to make eye contact at a start line when appropriate, when I need to be very specific about something (collection, come into my hand to go between obstacles, etc.). It's a powerful tool that most people don't think about.
  • Hand Touch/Lead Hand - Stacy uses Hand Touch, which is the first step to teaching my favorite term, Lead Hand.  The end result is to teach the dog the importance of following your hand cue - a must if you want to make it around an agility course or snake your dog through a crowd.
  • Parallel Path Work (Stacy's name) - Heel & Side (the terms I use).  It's interesting that I learned this skill set wwwaaaayyyy back when after having done quite a bit of obedience work with Pinky (this would have been 12+ years ago). I don't remember what led up to it, but I got the idea that Pinky should learn to work not just on the "heel" but also on the other "side" as well.  I'm not terribly creative with names and "side" stuck.  I worked it various ways and played lots of games with it.  The one detail part that Stacy's seminar definition added (& that I will be incorporating) is that the dog must be parallel to you and not kind of parallel or sitting crooked.  I know I had that with Pinky because of Obedience, but not so sure I would have been that much of a stickler in detail with my new pup - it was a great point to relearn.
  • Verbal Release - Ah, the age old proofing of not moving and using a single word to release the dog from a position.  It's been around for a long time and yet it seems to be one of the hardest to maintain, especially as we begin to compete and potentially forgo the release word in our excitement to be on course.  Yes, I found myself doing this with dog #4 in our very first run.  That was a HUGE mistake and I'm going to have to work HARD at not doing that again .
  • Directional Commands - Some folks can use Right & Left (refers to the dog's right and left), but I am NOT that talented so I tend to focus on relative directional commands such as "Get Out" (means move away from me), "Here" (means move into me), and "Back" (means 180 degree turn).  Other commands you may have heard are Switch, etc.
  • Rear & Front Cross Hand Signals - Defining what your Front & Rear cross signals are is the first step in this process.  After all, if you don't know what you're trying to teach, it won't get taught very clearly to your dog. Details are important on this one and should be done on the flat first.
  • Reinforcement/Shaping - It's important that trainers/handlers know and understand what actions or steps they want and are actually shaping or reinforcing. We may have an idea in our head, but the reality of the situation may not match what's happening. This piece of Foundation Work is for the handler/trainer as it will help in communicating your expectations to your dog.
So even after the hands-on experiences, training, seminars and other education I've received, a Foundation Seminar is still relevant.  I would suggest everyone go with their new dog, even if you know the content it's GREAT to be a student and have fun with your dog.

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