E133: Loretta Mueller - "Intro to Agility"

Today Loretta comes on the podcast to talk about how she got started in agility, and what's changed in the sport. 


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.

Welcome back, Loretta!

Loretta Mueller: Glad to be here.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, can you just remind listeners who your current dogs are and what you're working on with them?

Loretta Mueller: Absolutely. I have my old girl, Klink, who is 14, just turned 14. Gator is my 12-year-old, Lynn and Even, who are littermates, they're 10, and my youngest, Gig, who is 5.

I'm working on getting them all back into condition after a break in training due to an injury. I ended up with a hip injury, and so I'm rehabbing and just getting them back into shape now.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I wanted to talk a little bit about your agility journey. How did you originally get started in the sport?

Loretta Mueller: It started in obedience to give my first dog a way to get rid of some energy. He was a Border Collie/Pointer, we think, cross, and he had a lot of separation anxiety, and I was hoping that obedience would help him.

I happened to see someone running agility at the same building that I was taking obedience classes in, and I decided to try it and see if that would be another possibility to help him with some of his anxiety. I found out after a few classes that the act of agility helped settle him more, and it was a really good bonding experience for us.

I also learned a lot about separation anxiety and just dog behavior from that school in general, and I was able to turn him into an awesome little agility dog. He was the perfect agility dog for the first-time handler — not too fast, not too slow, just right.

From there, the rest is history. I went on to get some Border Collies, and that's kind of the start of it. I thank Ace for a lot of the information that I've learned as far as dog behavior and I thank him for allowing me to be educated so I could bring that to the table when I teach.

Melissa Breau: BC and Pointer — I would imagine that combination was definitely a little bit of energy.

Loretta Mueller: Yeah, it was an interesting combination. His favorite things to be trained with were Cheetos, and he loved to chase a plastic bag on the end of horse whip, like a fort pole back in the day, so that was exactly what I trained him with. He wouldn't take any other treats. He made my life a little challenging, but he taught me a lot for sure.

Melissa Breau: Hey, you've got to find that thing that's reinforcing for that dog, right?

Loretta Mueller: Absolutely:

Melissa Breau: What was it about agility that got you hooked, that kept you going?

Loretta Mueller: Obviously I loved the teamwork, and I got that in obedience as well, when I was doing obedience. I think more than anything it's the speed and the adrenalin rush that got me really hooked on it. Having a dog that's responsive, well trained, that's going all out at full speed — it's just a huge rush. I love running with my dog, and so the physical aspect of it also was something that just drew me to the sport. So I was hooked and I've never looked back.

Melissa Breau: Was there a moment when you stopped and were like, "Wow, I'm good at this! This is what I want to do"?

Loretta Mueller: I think I've always had a bit of imposter syndrome, so I have a tendency to underestimate my skills and my abilities. I wouldn't say there was a moment, per se. I'm always amazed that I get to travel all over the place and teach people and that they want to listen to what I have to say. To this day it still amazes me that this is my job.

But I guess to try to narrow it down, once I started getting consistently two dogs in the finals at USDAA Nationals, I would say that probably told me that I was doing pretty good, and when people started wanting to have me out to teach seminars was just crazy. So I always believe that I don't know enough, and I always want to learn more, and I feel like I can't convey enough. Again, that goes back to the imposter syndrome.

But yeah, I think when I was consistently getting dogs in the finals year after year would be when I realized, I think this is fun and I think I can do this.

Melissa Breau: I didn't prep you for this one. What did you do before you got into dog training and dog sports?

Loretta Mueller: I actually did research. That was my original job. I came from Missouri, a university, and I did research there. After I moved to Minnesota, I was unable to find a job, and so it blossomed from there.

I ended up with several people, my first students, who are all still my students now to this day. We joke; I call them the misfit toys. They were all wanting to quit agility because of behavior issues, zoomies, and dogs biting them during runs, and things like that. We started meeting together and I started helping them out with their dogs, and it kind of turned into a thing.

Again, it's the troubled dogs, the dogs that are not just fallen along with the plan, that have really been the educators that brought me to where I am today. I think once I started getting confidence with those dogs, it made things progress a lot faster.

Melissa Breau: Because then you knew you could handle that type of thing, the problems and things that pop up.

Loretta Mueller: Absolutely, yeah. I didn't start teaching dogs that were perfect drive and perfect arousal level and took cookies and took toys and all of that. I didn't have that. And so to be able to work through problems with people and their dogs was extremely beneficial.

Melissa Breau: Wait, are there people out there who only train those dogs? I mean, they seem pretty hard to find these days, but … . I mentioned that you got in the sport back in 2003, but it's been about sixteen years when you do the math. What changes have you seen? How have you see the sport evolve over the time you've been in agility?

Loretta Mueller: Saying "sixteen years" is beyond crazy to me. That's a really long time. The sport has definitely changed a lot since I started. The dogs have gotten a lot faster, the course is tougher, the skills required are on a much larger scale, running contacts has become the thing. It's changed so much, it seems like year to year it just changes very fast, and I think you've got to really have to want to keep up with everything.

I've also seen the safety aspect of agility really coming to the forefront in the last five years, competitors demanding safe equipment, safe surfaces, which I think is a good thing. Like I said, the dogs are just so much faster than they used to be. And I think people are starting to treat it more like a legit sport, as opposed to a weekend warrior situation. Not to say weekend warrior is a bad thing, but I think from the standpoint of keeping ourselves healthy, and our dogs also healthy and uninjured, I'm glad to see it becoming more of a dedicated sport.

Melissa Breau: There's definitely been, at least from my perspective, more on fitness and more on conditioning, and more of those types of things offered and out there, and more awareness of them, it seems like.

Loretta Mueller: Yes, absolutely. Canine massage, canine chiro, people doing fitness programs that are centered around agility and lateral motion, and stuff like that. So yeah, we're definitely putting a lot more into it than we were in 2003, when I started. I didn't even know what canine massage was then. So it's a good thing to see that people are definitely understanding the sport a lot more as far as how it pertains to human and canine bodies and just taking care of that situation.

Melissa Breau: Are there things that you do differently today — I'd imagine yes — than when you first got started? What lessons have you learned over the years?

Loretta Mueller: Oh my gosh. We could talk days and days on that one. I guess for me, personally, I put a lot more work into foundation work with my dogs. I now fully understand just how important those skills are. It might not be fancy working on two-on-twelve contact versus doing a whole course, but it really is the foundation that you build everything off of, and I think as a newer trainer I just didn't get the concept of how important that was.

One of the first things I do with my students who come in to work specifically with me is they have to get my sends — which would be forward send, lateral send, backside send — to a specific distance before we do any sequencing. Again, that doesn't sound super-awesome, but at the same time, once you start sequencing, things come together, the more advanced you get, that's when you realize things in your foundation might have to be redone, retrained, stuff like that.

I am blown away thinking back about how much foundation I did not do with my dogs, and they still managed to do OK. So I guess I would really put a lot of effort into the foundation training.

Melissa Breau: Is there anything else? You said there was a whole bunch there, so I'm curious.

Loretta Mueller: Oh my gosh. Just being consistent. As a young trainer, you don't think about consistency. Just being consistent, maintaining criteria. One of the things I've figured out is that I really, really love agility and it's obviously my passion; however, I love a well-trained dog more. So I think to be able to change from really loving the game and being a bit impulsive myself, therefore having impulsive dogs, I'm a little bit more into the "I want a dog that knows their job in the ring, understands exactly what they should be doing, and a dog that I can depend on for predictable behaviors," because by and far they are way more predictable and consistent than we are.

I think it's been very eye-opening for me to realize that I really want a well-trained dog more than I actually want an agility run. That's really improved my game a lot. That took years, I would have to say, to develop that attitude, and I'm really glad I have it now. But that would be another big one for sure.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned some of your sends and stuff in there, and I think, if I remember correctly from talking in the past, one thing that is fairly unique is that you don't necessarily recommend or follow one particular handling system. First of all, do I remember that right, and second, can you talk a little bit about that?

Loretta Mueller: As far as handling systems, "system" can be a very loaded word in general with agility people. I like to consider it just a consistent set of cues.

I'm really more of a guidelines kind of girl. Rules — they're meant to be bent a lot, and I think especially with dog training, the dog is an intricate addition to the relationship, and they do provide feedback and they do provide yes-or-no answers to questions. I think as I've realized that, my handling has evolved.

I started in the very beginning with position-based handling, which is getting into a position and using decel in that position to show the dog a turn or whatever. Then I moved on to more of a motion-based handling using acceleration/decel, rotating early through turns, stuff like that. I've also worked with some verbal-based handling as well, which is going to be mostly verbal cues to guide the dog through the course.

I think I've taken bits and pieces from all of them and I've come up with a consistent set of cues that works for myself and my dogs. No two dogs are the same, and I find that taking that kind of approach, I can mix and match things to that particular dog. I like having all the knowledge to draw upon working with my dogs and with my students' dogs. It allows me to work with whatever system a team is using during seminars, new students, stuff like that, which I think in turn helps me help more people. I'm happy that I'm not in one specific system, but that I can jump around if need be, just for education purposes.

But also there have been times where certain things haven't worked for one dog. Because of that, I have the different knowledge base that I can draw from to help communicate. I feel that we can all do a front cross, we can all do a rear cross, but the ability to adapt your handling to each dog that you run, I feel, is where the art of handling comes into play, and so it's nice that I have multiple areas that I can draw from to create a full picture when I'm handling my dog.

Melissa Breau: That makes me really curious, because I know that obviously you mentioned your dogs in the beginning. You have a number of different dogs you play the sport with, so how different is your handling per dog? Is it 90 percent similar, or they only have 10 percent in common? How much do you end up adapting it for your dogs?

Loretta Mueller: I would say yeah, it does depend on the dog. The three dogs that I'm currently working … my oldest boy, Gator, he does not turn unless he hits a brick wall. He goes forward, that's what he does, turning is not his favorite thing. And so for him, my cues are much earlier, they're much bigger, so a lot more of a cue. Whereas if I gave the same cue I give Gator to my dog Lynn, who is very bendable, she turns nicely, she would probably not even take an obstacle. So for her, her cues are much more toned down, they're much more subtle. And for my youngest dog, Gig, she's somewhere in the middle.

So I would say in general 90 percent of the cues are the same, but it's about the intensity of the cue, whether they need really intense cues or they need more subtle cues. My goal with my dogs is to give the most subtle cue that I can give them to get the desired behavior. That allows me to keep moving through the course better.

But if the dog needs more of a cue, then I can adapt. I think over time some dogs start off needing a lot of deceleration cue, for example, to turn, and as they get older and more educated and settle down a little bit mentally, then they can actually start getting less of a cue. So you can even adapt it with a young dog versus an older dog.

So I would say 90 percent of it is going to be the same, but just the ways that the cues are given, the intensity would be variations, depending on the dog's need for cues.

Melissa Breau: I am so impressed by those of you who run multiple dogs in agility, because you're not the first person that I've asked a similar question to that about how you handle different dogs, and I could not imagine trying to keep them straight in my own head, if I was running multiple dogs.

Loretta Mueller: In the beginning, I think, your first transition from running one dog to two dogs is a little tricky. But I think after you go through that, it gets a lot easier.

My dog Gator was by far the hardest dog that I've ever ran, and it was not because he was a bad dog or anything. He's actually a phenomenal dog, a very, very good boy. But he just doesn't have the ability physically to turn. He's got not the best front end/shoulder area. And so I learned to run him, and I can run anything after him, basically. He was the one that was the hardest dog to turn and to get cues to, but now that I've worked with him and we've become a really good team, every other dog doesn't seem nearly as tough.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Your Intro to Agility class is on the schedule for October, which is partially what led us to chat tonight. Can you talk a little bit about what you'll cover in that class?

Loretta Mueller: Absolutely. When I was talking earlier about my students having to have sends in order to sequence, that's really what I'm looking for in this AG110 class. So commitment to jumps, making sure that the dog goes to the opposite pole when the handler is moving in the opposite direction — that's a huge thing in agility because you're supposed to be moving the entire time, and if your dog cannot handle that, you're going to struggle. It's one of the biggest issues I see in teams that are struggling with handling. What happens is, if you have to babysit, you end up stopping and starting a lot, which doesn't allow you to move through the course, and then you become a lot more inefficient.

In addition to commitments and jumps, we learn basic handling skills — front crosses, rear crosses, etc. — and it's just a nice way to break everything down into small pieces so that when you put everything together, you can see the big picture, but you've already done all the little pieces that go into that.

Melissa Breau: In the description for that class, you say there are two people that might benefit from it: those total newbies — folks who just really, truly need an intro to the sport — and those folks who maybe they've been in the sport for a while, but they want to go back, they want to rework some of their foundation skills. Can you talk a little more about that? What is it about the class that makes it work for both of those, and what can each of those "types" expect to learn?

Loretta Mueller: I think for new people, we go into a lot of depth about how to handle. It goes into so much depth, as far as I'm concerned. So where you look, where you point your feet, when you move off, how you move off. I think for new folks to agility it's broken down into small pieces that can really get them started on the correct foot. That kind of is a pun intended but kind of not. That way, you're not developing bad habits. You go to a seminar, I fix your bad habits. But if you've been doing it for ten years, it takes a long time to fix those habits.

If you're new to agility and you learn all this stuff and how to be technically correct from the get-go, you don't have to fix bad habits. Your dogs get this, they understand your training, they understand what your body's doing, they read it, and it's amazing to see these people that have never done agility that don't have bad habits to fix how quickly they come into this training and turn into superstars with their dogs.

For people who have been doing agility for a while … which actually when I started doing AG110 I had all newbies, and now I'm not having all newbies. I'm actually having quite a few people that have either done agility before and they're bringing their training dog back in, or they've done agility before and they have a new dog that they're wanting to work up.

For people looking with a new dog or a trained dog, just going back and working on those foundations, again, you get very specific information so that you can see the holes in your training and you can fix them, and also so that you can see the holes in your body language as far as are you getting sloppy with your handling. I think it's very good to go back and work basic handling so that you don't get sloppy, because as your dog gets more educated and more seasoned, they will let you get away with some stuff that a young dog is going to call you out on. So I think it's really a great opportunity to be able to back up and work on those specific things.

As far as what works for both types, everything we do in agility is based on basic handling maneuvers, so even the advanced stuff is just using those basic moves, possibly putting them together. If you're not doing the basics correctly, the advanced work is going to be a major struggle, so it's always really good to get the foundations solid, and if it's not solid, then let's work on what the team needs to get there so they can have that foundation so when they do go on to more advanced course work, it's a smooth transition and it's not going to be a struggle for both the dog and the handler.

Melissa Breau: For those listening who maybe are totally new to agility, if I was to ask you to give them one piece of advice, what would you tell them?

Loretta Mueller: I would tell them, honestly, to reward your dog. That might sound completely simple, but remember, agility is not an instinctive thing for these dogs to do. They're not born knowing what body language is, as far as how to translate from human to dog, and basically it comes down to if they don't know it, you didn't teach it, if they're confused about it, you probably confused them. And there's so many things that they do figure out that we don't always give them credit for.

But they're working for you, they're working hard for you, and they need their paycheck. And so by rewarding your dog for errors as far as when you're handling, you're not going to get a dog that gets upset about when you're late on a front cross or if you cue something incorrectly and cause a refusal. You're going to get a dog that is resilient, bounce back, and in a perfect world obviously we would never make handling errors, but that's not the real world, so it's really, really important to keep that intensity in your dog and the drive and the want to work.

The bottom line is I don't think there are too many of us that would go to work, even if we loved our job, every day and not get a paycheck. So just always, always make sure you reward your dog and keep that rate of reinforcement very high.

Melissa Breau: Let's flip that. If somebody — you mentioned that the class is for newbies and for people who have been in the sport for a while — so if we're were talking to that person who has been in the sport and they can't seem to achieve the level of success they had hoped for, what piece of advice or what would you recommend for them?

Loretta Mueller: I would say the biggest thing, especially if you've been doing agility for a while and your dog is trained, is just identify where the communication issues are at. Are you cuing in time? Are you connected to your dog? Does your dog have the commitment that you need in order to keep moving through the course? Are you actually moving through the course? Are you trusting your dog? Identify those situations and say, "What skills am I missing?"

Another thing to think about as well is, especially if they're not having the competition success, do they love agility more than they love a well-trained dog. If that's the case, sometimes impulsive people and impulsive dogs can end up with bad agility runs because both are impulsive. So that's definitely something to think about as well. We love doing agility, so do our dogs, that can be a double-edged sword.

And then also just the competition aspect of mental management. Do you have a good mental management program? Do you have the ability to block out all the outside influences and just work on that moment with you and your dog?

Those would be the areas that I would look at first to see if we could improve, and then we can come up with a plan to help that person achieve the success that they really wanted.

Melissa Breau: That's a topic I'm going to have to have you back to talk a little bit about. I think it would be a great one to have a couple of folks on, from a couple of different sports, to talk about the mental management piece. That just seems like a huge topic, some good stuff to dig in there.

Loretta Mueller: Absolutely. Mental management is kind of a make or break. As someone that used to have really poor mental management, I can completely understand what a struggle it is, and also just how long it takes for you to develop a program and a plan to not let any outside influences take a hold. So that would definitely be something I think that our listeners would be interested in hearing about for sure.

Melissa Breau: Totally. I'm going to add it to my list. I know, in addition to the Intro to Agility class, you also have your multi-dog class back on the schedule this session. I know we did a whole big interview about it last time it ran, but can you share a little bit about the class, what do you cover, maybe who should take it?

Loretta Mueller: I love this class. It's near and dear to my heart just because I have five Border Collies and a Labrador Retriever in my house currently, and dealing with dogs that don't always speak the same dialect can be interesting. And so from that, it's just one of those things. Labs versus Border Collies — they definitely communicate extremely different.

For anybody that wants a calm house with more than two dogs, honestly, when you add that third dog, things start changing and more problems arise. And so you're going to learn about areas that could have issues as far as working on areas of conflict. If you're looking at getting a puppy and want to know how to introduce them to an already existing group of dogs, that's a good class for you. Working on impulse control with multiple dogs, that's a good class.

And again, just to think in terms of dog behavior and just how much different things change when you add that third dog or fourth dog. But usually, once you add three — or not once you add three; don't add three at a time, bad idea — once you add one to the mix and then you add two, you're OK. But that third dog and on – three, four five, continue on — that's where things get a little tricky.

So it's just a nice class to take if you're looking at having a multi-dog household that you can get a lot of information. A lot of it is going to be so you don't have these problems arise. You can stay ahead of them and know what's happening and be able to take care of it before it becomes a big issue.

Melissa Breau: For folks that are listening who are not aware, registration is open now. It will be open when this first comes out, if you're listening to this then. Class starts October 1, and registration is open until October 15, so you have to make sure you get on and sign up by then, though if you wait until the last minute, you'll be just a smidge behind everybody else, but that's OK. You can move at your own pace. Last question for you, Loretta. What is something that you've learned or been reminded of recently when to comes to dog training?

Loretta Mueller: I was actually just reminded of this at my recent seminar in the Southwest. Mirror the dog you want. What I mean by that is if you have a lower-drive dog, you want to show that dog energy and excitement. If you have a dog that's the type to go through the roof, you want to mirror calm and collected.

So instead of going with them, which is the most normal thing for us to do as humans, you want to concentrate on the energy that you want to give back that's going to help them become the dog that you want. I think it's really important.

People have quoted me many times saying, "There's only room for one crazy on course, and your dog has it, so you can't." I think it's really important to see that. I saw several handlers change the way they were interacting with their dog, and it was a completely different dog within a few seconds. So I think it's really important to remind people of that, and I was just reminded of that this past week.

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

Loretta Mueller: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in!

We'll be back next week with Suzanne Clothier to talk about her training journey. Don't miss 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. 


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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