E119: Loretta Mueller - "Timing in Agility"

It's totally not helpful to be told your cues are late - without any idea what to do about it. Today Loretta and I get into why timing is so important for agility and how you can work on yours!


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we'll be talking to Loretta Mueller. Loretta has been involved in agility since 2003. She and her dogs are no strangers to the finals at the USDAA World Championships, and she currently coaches the World Agility Organization (WAO) USA Agility Team. She also runs Full Tilt Agility Training in central Minnesota. Outside of the agility world, Loretta has been involved in herding, competitive obedience, rally, and service dog training.

Today, we've brought her back on to chat about her upcoming class, which is actually going on now: Agility Drills for Better Timing.

Welcome back, Loretta!

Loretta Mueller: Thank you very much Melissa. I'm glad to be back. I'm going to apologize ahead for my voice. I just got done teaching for six days in California, so if I sound a little hoarse, I'm very sorry.

Melissa Breau: It's not a big deal. It doesn't sound bad at all. To start us out, do you want to just remind listeners who your current dogs are and what you're working on with them?

Loretta Mueller: Yes, I have five Border Collies: Klink, who is 13, Gator, who's 12, Lynn and Even, who are 10, and Gig, who is 5. Since I've been on the injured list for a little bit, I'm not doing a ton of running. I'm rehabbing myself and the dogs are working on a lot of obstacle independence and verbal commands, and I'm also doing some nosework and obedience with them currently.

Melissa Breau: Well, that sounds like fun.

Loretta Mueller: Yeah, it's a lot of fun.

Melissa Breau: Not the rehabbing, but you know. So… timing. Obviously, good timing is harped on as critical for a good trainer in any dog sport, but why is timing so important for agility handling in particular?

Loretta Mueller: Timing is really important because the courses in agility are always changing and the dogs travel at a very high rate of speed. So developing good timing is essential for the dog knowing what's coming up next. They have to prepare their bodies to jump, to weave, to go into tunnels and things like that, and so it's really important that we give them a clear and concise roadmap. They don't get to do specific patterns, as far as like when we do obedience and sit-stays and downs and things like that, so we try to create a pattern that's consistent handling so they know the cues ad where they're going to be going next.

Melissa Breau: Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, but if somebody has timing that is consistently off, what kinds of problems can that cause? As long as you're consistent, will some dogs just adjust?

Loretta Mueller: Being that I teach seminars all over the place, I get to see firsthand what happens when dogs have to try to adapt to bad timing. Bad timing can cause all sorts of problems. Obviously, as far as performance goes, it can cause off-courses. That's where the dog picks an obstacle they're not supposed to. And refusals — that's when the dog comes off an obstacle that was cued. So, for example, if you cue a tunnel and the dog looks at the tunnel but then turns away from the tunnel and doesn't perform it, that's considered a refusal. Also it can contribute to dropped bars, missed weave poles, things like that.

Bad timing can also cause dogs to have behavior issues because they're trying desperately to figure out what we want from them. An example of a behavior issue with a dog that dislikes turning: every time they're asked to turn on course, they can get stressed out, they can avoid turning, things like that. Because the handler is late in regards to turns, they can turn wider on purpose, basically, because they don't want to slam their bodies, and if they get information earlier, they don't have to do that.

Slamming their bodies, or slipping or falling, which happens to a lot of agility dogs because of poor timing, can cause wear and tear on their joints and overall shortening their agility careers. I found since my timing has improved greatly in the years that I don't have dogs with nearly the amount of injuries that I used to have. Agility is a tough sport, I guess, on the dogs' bodies, and we want to make it as easy as possible for them.

If they don't know where they're going, they can get frustrated and they can either stress high, which is barking, spinning, biting, or they can stress low. That would be leaving the handler, leaving the ring, sniffing, etc. If you give unclear commands, the dog wants to watch you even more so they can figure out what you want, which means they'll go around jumps, things like that, because they're unsure and they'd rather just look at you than do the obstacles. The goal is you want to be a good GPS for the dog so they have their commands nice and early so that they can perform them.

As far as adaptation, dogs are amazing. They somehow adapt to all of our mess-ups almost flawlessly, and they do that by performing different behaviors. Some dogs will actually slow down to their handler's pace, meaning they will decrease their speed to the point that the person has decent timing, and that's because they don't want to be wrong, they don't want to have to slam on the ground and turn and things like that. Some dogs will actually add an extra stride to their run so their handler can adapt and have more time to react to them. So instead of having two strides between jumps, they'll add a third or fourth stride so that the dog gets the information and the handler can give them the information.

I see a lot of dogs that actually will jump higher, so they normally jump 16's for competition and they end up jumping 20 inches on their own. The reason is because they're not really sure what's going to happen, but they know that their owner does not want the bars to get knocked down, and so they're going to jump higher to give themselves a better chance at clearing the course.

So it's just amazing how these dogs can figure things out, and even with sometimes poor timing and poor handling, the dogs still manage to have a pretty consistent run. But if you really look into the fine pieces of what exactly the dog is getting as far as information, they are doing a lot of the work for you, and so what I always tell all of my students at my seminars and my weekly students, my online students, is with your handling you always want to provide answers and no questions. And that's really our goal.

Melissa Breau: The things that you mentioned, adaptations, aren't necessarily desirable, especially the decrease in speed. You want the quickest time that you and your dog are capable of, right?

Loretta Mueller: Absolutely. Yes, you really do, and that's the name of the game: clean but also as fast as you possibly can. So each question that you provide the dog, each question they have to answer, unfortunately that decreases your time or increases the amount of yardage that the dog runs, and it basically boils down to that. But there are so many other things that happen being undesirable that can be tied to poor timing.

Melissa Breau: What led you to create this particular class, or a class just on timing?

Loretta Mueller: Actually, Denise and I talked quite a bit about it. I feel that FDSA did need a class that's focused not just on the skills and techniques of agility. We have plenty of those — AG110, we've got different classes for teeters and stuff like that, but I felt we needed something that was going to be more about communication and timing.

This is the first agility class at Fenzi that requires a bigger space to do the exercises, so I was a little concerned about that, because a lot of the stuff that we've been doing and teaching has required smaller space. This is the first class that's required a bigger space. I was a little concerned that it wouldn't go over well, but so far it's going very well. People are really enjoying it, and I'm already seeing, just starting into Week 2, I'm already seeing some really amazing responses from the teams, and so I'm really excited about this class.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. The official name of the class is Agility Drills for Better Timing. With the term "agility drills" in there, what do you mean by drills? I know in obedience, for example, that word is often used to reference repeating one behavior over and over. Is that what you mean here?
Loretta Mueller: Absolutely not. Personally, from just a personality standpoint, I don't like drilling in the way that you're describing here. I don't find that fun. I always joke that I'm that dog no one wants to train because I find it stressful. I get bored easily. I don't like doing the same thing over and over again, and usually when I do the same things over and over again, I have a tendency to think that I'm wrong, and so I extrapolate that to my dogs. I believe that's the same thing.

So you get several courses in the class, you can work through them all at once, you find your problem areas and then you can work smaller bits of the courses, fine-tuning your turns on commands, cuing turns, etc., and then I like people to put it back into play as a full course.

I don't mind repeating something once or twice, but in my opinion, if you have to repeat it more than that, you need to stop and figure out what's happening that's preventing the success, and if need be, even walking the courses again without the dog, getting your timing that way without the dog, and then, when you feel comfortable, you can add the dog back into the mix. So this is more just things you can work on to really hone in your timing, but as far as drills meaning over and over and over again, that is really not what I'm looking for as far as the performance elements of this class.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. I had a sneaking suspicion you might be going off a slightly different definition.

Loretta Mueller: Yeah, absolutely.

Melissa Breau: Beyond just telling somebody that they have BAD timing, what can they really do to actually improve their timing?

Loretta Mueller: I think when you go to a class and your instructor says, "You're late, you're late, you're late," I don't think that really in general helps us figure it out. If you look at the lectures from the first week of class, or even the sample lecture, we talk about exactly what is late and where the different areas are late. So is it the timing of the command? Is it the timing of the connection with the dog? Is it the timing of moving to the next obstacle, the timing of cuing the turn, or what exactly is it? If you can identify what part you're failing at, then you can work specifically on those areas, and so it's really important to say, "OK, what part of late am I?" and then you can really focus on that.

I just got done teaching a seminar, and this woman and her dog came to the seminar, and all I said was, "All you need to do is connect. If you have connection with your dog, your handling will all fall into place." It was really fun because I got to watch that. She was having a very disconnected run, so her timing was bad, the dog was frustrated, barking, and within two runs we got that connection figured out, and the last run of the seminar day was beautiful. It absolutely took my breath away. So sometimes it's just something as simple as that.

Connection allows you to have good timing, and if you don't have connection, then you're chasing that timing and you're basing your handling off of where you are on course, and the thing is the dog is what's moving on course and constantly changing. So if we have connection, we have the ability to reference our handling to the dog that's moving, as opposed to "Did I just make it to three?" And so I think it's really important to be able to figure out where you're lacking and to really hone in and try to fix that part so that other things fall into place.

Melissa Breau: Just in case anybody listening doesn't know, all of the FDSA classes — well, most of them at this point — do have sample lectures, and they're free on the website. You just go to the class and scroll down and there's a little sample lecture chunk and it's basically a lecture from the class that you get for free.

Loretta Mueller: Yeah, it's pretty awesome.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, it is. In the class syllabus you specifically call out rear crosses, blind crosses, and sends. I'm kind of a non-agility person, so first, can you describe those, and then maybe for one of them describe what "good" timing looks like when you're talking about that?

Loretta Mueller: Sure. A send would be when you cue the dog to go away from you and take an obstacle. They're going to either move from your side, or they're going to move forward away from you. They can also move from the back side of a jump, for example, but the dog is actually moving away from your body. A rear cross is when the dog is in front of you and you're actually going to cross behind them, so they switch sides. So if they start on your right, they will end up on your left.

A blind cross, you will also switch sides, but it's done when the dog is behind you and you cross in front of them. The reason why it's called a blind cross is because for a slight moment you do lose sight of your dog, but the nice part about it is with a well-timed cross, the dog is busy taking the obstacle while you're crossing anyway, so they should be focusing on that. I'm going to break one down, so let's talk about a rear cross as an example. The dog is going to be sent forward to a jump. So the send is happening, and before the dog starts jumping, I like to say one stride before they actually start taking off, you would cross behind them. What happens when you cross behind them is your motion would tell them to turn. It's a little tricky when you're just trying to explain with words, but if the dog is on your right side and you do a rear cross, the dog would turn right and then you would also be crossing behind him to the right, and the dog would end up on your left side. Now I know it sounds probably very complicated, but if you see it in photos and videos, it makes it a lot more clear as far as that goes.

So basically all of these crosses just take you from one side of the dog to the next. Some of them cue turns, some of them cue extensions; it depends on how they're used. I believe the techniques, learning a front cross and a rear cross and a blind cross, those are all techniques, and the timing and the way you handle different stuff is going to be kind of the art form and the way you tailor it to each dog's needs. So it's really important that we learn how to do these well timed, so that the dog can react to the motion and do what we need them to do, which makes a predictable run.

If I couldn't predict where my dog was going to land all over the course in agility, I think it would take a lot of fun out of it for me, and so once you get really good timing, you realize just how much control you actually have out there, and it really is a pretty fun situation when you can communicate flawlessly with your dog.

Melissa Breau: You also have the words "methodical" and "perfection" in your syllabus — words that are probably almost as hard for some people as the word "timing." Can you tell me a little about that? How are you using them here?

Loretta Mueller: For me, obviously I want everybody to aim for perfection in your training. We aim high. Can a person always have perfect timing? No. Absolutely not. We try to do the best we can, but the goal with that is we should aim to communicate to the best of our abilities. That's really our goal. So we strive for perfection, sometimes we get it, sometimes we don't, but the bottom line is we're moving towards better and better timing.

As far as methodical, the goal is I want a fast body but a calm mind. So the body is running as fast as you can — notice I said "as fast as you can" — not everyone has to run super-super fast, that's not how it is and that's not necessarily needed, but you have to be able to run as fast as you possibly can while maintaining a calm, centered state in your brain so you can see when the dog is committed, you can cue things appropriately, and you can show the dog where they should go.

We think that's really hard for us, because when we run really fast, we like to do things really fast in our brains, and so we want to make sure that we are maintaining the fast body but also the calm mind. So when I say "methodical," the best runs are like that. They're methodical. The person is moving quickly, but the dog is under complete control and the person is just focusing on the technique. That's what I'm really looking for with that.

Melissa Breau: You mention that in Week Six you'll cover building up "mental stamina." What do you mean by that? Are we talking about the dog or the owner here?

Loretta Mueller: I am absolutely talking about the owner. We start with cuing one turn. That's Week One. And we work on some smaller stuff, but as we get going, once they cue one turn well, then we work up to multiple turns. In the learning phase, the handler must think about everything — their feet and their head and where their hands are pointing and if they're moving and if they're not supposed to move and all that stuff, where they're looking, and it's a lot. So what happens is as things get easier, instead of being like, "That was good enough," I continue to build up more and more challenges, which helps a person have mental stamina to remain focused during the run. So it's easier to do great timing on two jumps. It's much harder to do great timing on ten obstacles or twenty obstacles. I see a lot of times that at trial people will have really, really amazing runs until obstacle 12, and then they start losing their timing because of the mental stamina. And so it's really just about you being able to stay connected for that 45-second run or that 1-minute run, so that you don't lose your technique and you don't have a slip-up or there's a moment of miscommunication, which can cause a fault. So that's what I'm looking for as far as mental stamina.

Melissa Breau: It goes back to what you were talking about before about being able to keep that clear head while you're running and still have good timing.

Loretta Mueller: Absolutely.

Melissa Breau: Can you share a little more about what you will and won't cover in the class?

Loretta Mueller: Absolutely. What I do cover is when to cue obstacles, how to cue turns and extensions, how to notice when your dog's committed to the obstacle so you can leave, when to give your verbal command, and how to maintain connection through your runs.

Things that we are not specifically covering, although it is talked about, because you obviously see people doing different methods or different handling plans, but we're not going to actually cover specific handling plans or teaching specific techniques, but rather using what the team has to perfect their timing.

So we're discussing front crosses, we're discussing rear crosses, and things like that, but I can offer suggestions as far as where people should put them, but ultimately you're going to see people handling with different plans, and that's totally OK because what I'm looking for is are they communicating correctly, are they well timed with their commands and their turns and all that stuff, and so you're actually going to see different handling techniques and that's OK because I want the variety so that people can see that not everyone is going to handle the same way.

Melissa Breau: Anything else you'd add — either about what you'll cover or who might be a good fit, for folks that are considering the class? It sounds like you want somebody with at least a little bit of agility under their belt.

Loretta Mueller: Yeah, I'd say they definitely need a little bit of agility. I believe the prerequisite is able to sequence three or four obstacles.

I think that all levels can benefit from a timing class. There's always room for improvement in your communication with your dog. Let's say you just need course ideas. This is a great class. It is a smaller space, relatively speaking, so the smaller little concentrated drills are in, like, a 40 by 40, and then the bigger area is a 60 by 60, and so we only use five jumps and a tunnel, so it's really nice to be able to have ideas for courses, and so I think all levels can benefit. We have beginner, intermediate, and advanced courses each week that we work on. It's really helpful to have those different levels.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome, because it means folks can do what works best for them or use all of them, if they're at that level. I have one final question here before I let you go. What's something that you've learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Loretta Mueller: Actually something that has come to my mind after just teaching for six days. I have it in the back of my head, but it was put back in the forefront. It doesn't matter how many books you've read or studied, or if you have degrees in dog behavior, or if you've been training for years and years, lots of different breeds or just one breed. You always have to remember that dogs don't read books. Dogs don't study theories. They do just basically what makes sense to them and it's either rewarding or it's not rewarding. It really comes down to that.

I think it would be really awesome if I could just sit my dog down and say, "I'd like to know why you're no longer hitting your contacts there," or "Why are you not holding your sit-stay?" It would be great if he could just tell me and I could formulate a plan from there, but the bottom line is they can't, and I think that's what makes dog training so interesting, sometimes really frustrating, but it's always up to us to figure out what exactly they're trying to tell us.

It's tough, because sometimes we get caught up in the theory of everything, and we forget that we're humans trying to communicate with dogs, and we're different species and there's always something to work on. And just in agility, we're human, and that probably sounds obvious, but we have to develop trust with our dog, and through understanding what they're trying to communicate with us and understanding also again that they don't care about our books and our theories, we can look past that kind of stuff and it definitely helps us figure things out.

But the bottom line is sometimes you have to put that stuff aside and think about what exactly you might be seeing. So it's just important that people understand that, and like I said, teaching this week seemed to bring that to the forefront. I was reminded of that by several dogs this weekend.

Melissa Breau: Kind of the idea of making sure that you're responding to the dog that's in front of you and not just the plan in your head.

Loretta Mueller: Absolutely, yes.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Loretta! This has been great.

Loretta Mueller: Thank you. I appreciate it. Hopefully my voice lasted long enough.

Melissa Breau: I think it was good. And thanks to our listeners for tuning in. For the next few weeks we'll be chatting with instructors of FDSA's new sister school, the Pet Professionals Program, talking about things like whether playtime and puppy class is a good idea and how to handle tricky training situations.

Don't miss it! It if you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.

Also one final reminder: If you're listening to this on the day that it was released, then tomorrow is the last day to register for classes at FDSA for the June session. So if you've been considering a class, now is the time to get registered.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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