E145: Megan Foster - "Start Routines and End Routines for Competition"

​When your dogs expectations don't match reality, it can cause countless problems with performance - especially in competition. But routines can help — Megan tells us how.


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 Megan Foster.

Megan has been involved in the dog sports world nearly her entire life, and agility has been her passion right from the start.

With over 20 years of experience, she has competed with a variety of dogs, including an American Eskimo and a West Highland White Terrier, Shelties, Border Collies, and Parson Russell Terriers. Her accomplishments include many USDAA Agility Dog Champion titles, AKC Master Agility Champion titles, Regional and National Championships, and she represented the U.S. at the European Open in 2015.

Megan was also a USDAA judge for over 10 years, providing valuable insight into course design, course analysis, and handling styles throughout the United States.

For the last 6 years, Megan has taught agility full-time, in person and online, through her training school, Synergy Dog Sports. She became a OneMind Dogs Assistant Coach in 2016, and finished her Coach Certification in 2018. She believes in developing a system of communication based on the dog's perspective and what dogs naturally understand, and then individualizing that system for the humans that train and run them.

Welcome to the podcast, Megan!

Megan Foster: Thanks, Melissa. It's good to be back.

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

Megan Foster: Sure. I have two Border Collies. Smack is 11 years old and Shock is 8 years old. I still compete in agility with them on occasion, but mostly they just go on decompression walks to stay in shape, and when I need to work on my own skills, they're my go-to dogs.

Shrek is my 4-year-old Parson Russell Terrier, and we have spent pretty much all of 2019 working on ring prep, so that hopefully we can go back into the agility ring next year, and we're very close to submitting a TEAM 1 video.

Melissa Breau: How exciting!

Megan Foster: Yeah.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to have you on today to talk about the idea of routines for our competition dogs. This topic came up during my conversation with Denise and Shade a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about setting expectations for dogs that do different sports, and as it happens, you have two webinars on the schedule right now about routines specifically around agility, and I thought that was worth delving into. To start us out, what do you see as the advantage of having "routines" around pieces of your training and your trialing?

Megan Foster: Dogs are amazing at reading different contexts, so routines give us, the handlers, a little bit of control over that context, as it were. Through routines, you can teach the dogs how to act and even feel about the different things you're doing together. By putting a routine in there, you get to choose which parts of the context they pick up on and how they respond to those different contexts.

Melissa Breau: What kind of routines do you have for your dogs? Can you talk us through what they look like?

Megan Foster: Sure. You could even start with a decompression walk. There's a routine to that. We get in the car, we get to a location, and there's usually not a whole lot of structure around it. I just let my dogs out of the car, I put harnesses on some of them, or a long line on one of them, but they pretty much know, based on all of that context, that they're going to go for a run in the woods, and they're not going to be asked to actively engage with me or work with me, or they don't need to be checking in with me and trying to get me to do stuff with them.

From a training perspective, I do very specific things to tell them that we're going to be training. I even sometimes have different ways of telling them if we're going to be training something new versus training something they already know, so practicing different types of skills.

For instance, when I want to train something new and I want them to try stuff, I'm usually in my living room, I get down on the floor, I have a bowl of cookies in my lap, and I might have a clicker in my hand. Just that routine, my own routine, sets them up for a specific training session of trying new stuff. Don't throw known stuff at me versus when I pull out my ring gates and put their leash on them, that's a pretty clear clue that we're gong to go into and work more competition behaviors, so don't try stuff; wait for instructions.

Melissa Breau: Your webinars, as I mentioned, are broken up into two parts: beginning of run routines and end of run routines. Let's talk about the beginning first. What problems can having a consistent beginning of run routine fix?

Megan Foster: I thought a lot about this, and I think it solves — I'm going to say this a lot during this episode — it's going to solve energy problems.

If your dog starts a little bit on the slow side, or a little bit on the sluggish side … you see those dogs in competition that start off maybe the first four or five or even half of the course not at their full speed, and then they start going faster for the last half of the course. So I think it solves the dogs that start a little bit slower, but I also think it's going to help the dogs that start off … their heads are going faster than their bodies can go.

My goal is that a specific routine tailored to each dog can bring that energy back down to what you actually need for the thing that you're going to ask the dog to do, whether it's agility or any sport, really.

Melissa Breau: In the description you mention a few different pieces: warm up, get ready to work, wait your turn, and enter the ring in an optimal state of arousal. You broke it out really nicely, but can you talk us through each of those?

Megan Foster: A warm-up: a lot of this is for me and the dog because — and I know we talked about this in the last episode that I was on — that there are some things that we ask of the dog that we're not necessarily giving to ourselves. A warm-up gets the blood flowing. You're about to go run, and the dogs are going to jump and climb and turn, and the handler's running and turning, so warm muscles work better.

Again, talking about energy, a dog that's not just pulled out of the crate, having just had a nap, is going to perform better, and a person that has the adrenaline up just a little bit is also going to perform better.

Melissa Breau: That's the warm-up piece. Can you talk us through some of the other pieces?

Megan Foster: Oh yeah. The get ready to work portion — for me, this is tell your dog what it is you'll be doing together. I think all of the FDSA instructors have a specific way of doing this, and so it can be tailored however handler or dog needs it to be done. But it's a specific protocol that you go through with the dog that tells them exactly what you're going to be doing.

For example, with Shrek, after we warm up, I bring him into the agility building, I put him on his cot, we do a little bit of heeling outside of the ring, and then I put him back on his cot. The heeling outside of the ring lets him know that we're going to be working together, and usually the sight of his toy means we're going to be doing agility. So I'll do some heeling with him outside of the ring with his toy, and that get him pretty amped up to go, and then we go back to the cot because that's the wait your turn portion.

I think this is the most difficult piece. I know I struggled with it, and I think a lot of teams struggle with it, because we get our dogs out, we get them ready, we get ourselves ready, and then something happens in agility. Maybe they have to re-stake a tunnel down, or the timer batteries need to be changed, or maybe the dog just vomited in the ring, I don't know. Things happen, and your perfectly well timed warm up and get ready to work and it's still not ready, still not your turn.

A lot of agility is hurry up and wait. Some dogs do really well with that, some people do really well with that, some dogs don't do really well with that, some people don't do really well with that.

This is where knowing your dog is really important, because for my older Border Collie, Smack, it's about keeping him calm, because just being in an agility building makes him too excited for life. On the other hand, for Shrek, I have to make sure that he's not wasting his energy during his wait your turn. So for him, it's about really setting up that it's soon, but I don't need you on right now.

That last piece, optimal state of arousal — everything that we did leading up to this point should get you the energy that you're looking for. It should calm Smack down or it should build Shrek up, so that when we go in there, they're capable of doing what we're going to be asking them to do.

Melissa Breau: In terms of their brain space and in terms of their bodies are ready and all that, right?

Megan Foster: Yeah. Their brains and their bodies are ready. For Smack, if I didn't have a routine that calms him down, he wouldn't hold a start line stay and I just shouldn't bother running.

I know if you can't do a sit — and maybe this is a bad example, because he's 11 and I've since let the start line stay go — but when he was young and I cared, if he couldn't hold a start line stay, the run wasn't going to be worth it because that meant he also wasn't going to hit his contacts, he probably wasn't going to hit the super-hard weave pole entry, and all the other things. Actually, jumping was his hardest thing to do when he was too excited. So keeping bars up was really hard for him.

On the Shrek side of things, if he's not amped up enough, he gets distracted. He looks … I don't want to say bored, because it's not the right word, but he just looks underwhelmed. So his routine has to put him into the space where he wants to run and wants to climb things and wants to jump.

Melissa Breau: I love how you broke those things out, because they're four pieces, but they're very distinct steps, and I think a lot of people maybe haven't thought of them that way.

Megan Foster: Maybe not, but that's what I think we should be better at is splitting it down even more and thinking about what everything we do with our dog — what does it mean to them.

Melissa Breau: To go back to that beginning of run description, another thing you mentioned is how important it is to know what works best for each individual team, and you kind of mentioned that in that last answer, too — the idea that you have to know what works for your dog. Can you talk a bit more about that — how that "what's best" can differ and maybe a little bit on how people can start to figure that out?

Megan Foster: Mostly I think it's going to be trial and error, but I'm going to go right back into energy.

If you have a dog that's more like Smack, who's over-excited, then you're probably going to try a routine that includes some more soothing things. Maybe you are using food instead of toys, and maybe instead of doing a lot of tricks outside of the ring, which might get the dog more excited, maybe you're using that food in a pattern feeding-type way. That's usually what I do with Smack is I warm him up and I make sure his body's good to go, but then I use pattern feeding to help keep his brain quiet when he would rather be watching agility TV and getting more and more excited.

Versus Shrek, where I'm trying to bring that energy up. I'm using less food, but I'm also careful to not give him too many rewards outside of the ring, because what I'm going to ask him to do inside the ring is very difficult, and it's not going to have a very high rate of reinforcement once I'm in the ring. I want him to want to go in the ring, and if outside the ring I'm Pez-dispensing food into his mouth, he's not going to want to bother going in the ring. He says, "It's great outside the ring. The paycheck's here, she's great, she's giving me a one-to-one ratio." So while I'm using tricks and things to get him excited, I'm still not using very much food with him.

So things like that.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned pattern feeding in there, and I just want to quickly see if you can explain it. I'm guessing it's what it sounds like, which is just feeding in a pattern, but do you want to describe it a little bit?

Megan Foster: This is one of Sarah Stremming's soothing techniques, as part of her Worked Up protocol. It's giving slow food in a rhythmic pattern. For example, Smack could be lying down in front of me, I'm kneeled down next to him, and I deliver one cookie next to his left paw and he eats it, and then I slowly deliver another cookie to his right paw.

It takes quite a long time to go through a small handful of treats because we're just going slowly, but it's something we can both rely on and breathe to, so to speak, and then he forgets that there's agility going on behind him. And that's hard for him to forget.

Melissa Breau: It gives him something else to focus on.

Megan Foster: Exactly, and that's calming.

Melissa Breau: You explained why it can be helpful to have a beginning of run routine, so I want to flip the script. What about the end of run routine? What problems can having an end of run routine solve?

Megan Foster: End of run routines are about solving the frustration and confusion around the reward. In training, the dogs usually know right from the start where the reward is and where it's coming from, and almost always in training we don't insert putting the leash on and leaving the ring before that reinforcement comes.

So then we get to the trial, and you've got a certain amount of dogs that just figure it out. They're just happy, they're easygoing, and they're like, "W don't know what we're doing, you don't know what we're doing, just put my leash on and we'll be fine."

And then you have this other group of dogs that avoid going to the exit gate. They don't want their leash on, because they're determined that the food or the toy should be happening right now. They're the dogs that, depending on the situation, maybe they're not even waiting for their handlers. They're just running straight out of the ring and going where they know their toy is, and that may or may not be OK, depending on the agility rules and the organization you're competing in, or the country you're competing in, or you may not like it, even if it's OK. You might not like that your dog's just ditching you at the end of the run and getting himself into trouble.

There's the types of dogs that learn to just grab their leash instead, and then you can't get the leash on them, and if you play in organizations that need you to have that leash on before you exit, it's really frustrating for the human. So now the dog is upset and just wants to tug on its leash, the human is upset because the dog won't let the leash go, and there's a lot of frustration on both ends that an end of run routine can solve.

Melissa Breau: Is an end of run routine also something that should be customized based on the team in question? It's really about getting the dog on leash and out of the ring, so I would assume there's a bit less variety there.

Megan Foster: A little. I'm not going to ask my 40-pound Border Collie to jump in my arms after he lands the last jump, but I might ask my 20-pound terrier to do it. So there's a little bit you can do. Smaller-dog owners can ask their dog to jump up in their arms, and they can just be carried to their leash. Other dogs can be taught to target the leash and tug on it, if that's what the handler wants.

And then I do work with some clients that it's absolutely not OK for the dog to drag them out of the ring, because the dog's so much bigger than they are, so much stronger than they are, so they actually need a lot more calmness centered around exiting the ring than, say, I do with my dogs. My dogs drag me all around, but the weight difference isn't so much that it's dangerous with me and my dogs.

Melissa Breau: If I had to guess, just from knowing the things that you advocate for in dog training, I would assume or I would guess that you recommend training all these pieces well before you're ever ready to compete. Am I right? And how do you go about teaching these things before you're at a trial?

Megan Foster: Of course you're right. All of these things — these are things that you can teach tiny little baby puppies to do, in case you don't have anything else to teach them, I don't know. They're really concepts, so you break everything down.

We talked already a lot about the beginning of run routines, but you can just train each of those individually first and decide what it's going to look like, and then practice it as a ritual, and then follow it up with a little bit of agility training. And they will get that concept of, "When my mom does all of these things, I'm probably going to do some sort of agility."

For end of run routines, since we haven't broken those apart as much yet, to me, the pieces are take the last obstacle and go to your handler. Go to your handler could be physically go to them, go to their side, or we can teach the dogs to target the chair, so once the handler decides … or the chair where the leash is held, or the bucket, or something. You could teach the dog to go wait by their leash, and then put the leash on, and then go to the reinforcement that has been stashed outside the ring.

All of those pieces you break apart and you teach them. We're going to dive into this in the webinar a lot, but once I teach them individually as pieces, then, when I put it together into a routine, I actually back-chain it. I back-chain the routine so that the dog builds up this anticipation for getting ready to run or exiting the ring. But both should be exciting things that they're looking forward to, not things that are just so-so.

Melissa Breau: I love that, the idea that you're intentionally building that as part of the thing the dog's looking forward to. It flips on its head that perspective of, "OK, now the fun's over."

Megan Foster: Exactly, and I do think that that's how a lot of people feel, like, why would we train this? It means the fun is over. I certainly feel that way, because I really wish I could run more competition runs than I get to. I love competing, but if I feel that way, if the handler feels that way, I can't imagine that that's what's being relayed to the dogs. So I want really the dog to love putting their leash on and exiting the ring as much as they love going into the ring, or doing the obstacles, or things like that.

Melissa Breau: Once you have that routine, do you do it every time you train agility?

Megan Foster: For the most part, yes. There are a few things that I do differently. When I'm just training agility skills, I might not be so formal with their leash skills or their start line behaviors. But everything before that is the same. And of course if I'm training specific skills, I'm not thinking about leaving a ring and going to reinforcement that is stashed somewhere else. But I definitely do have training sessions that I set up that I call working sessions, and that is where I practice my competition routines, start to finish.

Melissa Breau: While we're specifically talking about agility, I would imagine there's a fair amount of carryover here for other sports. What are the differences you take into account for agility versus somebody who wants to do TEAM, or who wants to do competition obedience, or rally, or whatever?

Megan Foster: I would definitely say the biggest difference is the energy that you want the dog to have. I have not competed in rally or obedience in a very long time, but who knows. I won't say never again. I'm getting there, getting used to the idea.

But I could not imagine trying to take either of my Border Collies into an obedience ring if they were thinking agility thoughts. Not only do I think they would be incredibly disappointed, but they would be pulling into their leash.

Because of the agility beginning of run routine that I have, my dogs usually drag me into the ring, so spoiler alert: Students, if that's not something you want, we need to discuss it. My dogs push the gate open themselves and they're like, "Let me at it," sort of thing, and I don't think that would work for competition obedience. Their routine would have to be much calmer, much more structured, and that you have to heel, you can't drag me into the ring sort of things.

So I think all of the steps will apply to any sport, and all of the different pieces should apply to any sport, but your overall goal and how you train it might be a little bit different for each sport.

Melissa Breau: So the pieces that you're picking in the individual routine, and that kind of thing.

Megan Foster: Yeah, and there's some times when the leash doesn't come off at all, so you don't have to train that piece. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think nosework — you do a lot of that on leash?

Melissa Breau: I don't compete in nosework, but I do think it's possible to search on leash in nosework.

Megan Foster: Right, so those things, or the lower levels in rally or obedience. That's a piece that needs to be different, so I might do something specifically with my leash to tell my dog, "We're competing in obedience now. We're not just walking through the crating area now." But I don't actually have to worry about taking it off or putting it back on, things like that.

Melissa Breau: The end of run routine webinar actually comes first, before the beginning of run routine, since it's happening next week. The end of run routine is December 26 at 6 p.m. PT, and the beginning of run routine will be in February. Any particular reason for covering them in that order?

Megan Foster: No, nothing scientific, really. I had the idea to do end of run routines first, and so it got submitted first and on the calendar first.

Melissa Breau: Hey, it works. Anything else that folks should know if they're considering the end of run routine for next week?

Megan Foster: Don't discount it, even if you don't think this is your problem. I'm finding that the quality is different. You're getting better results in training and it's not quite showing up in competition. Sometimes a routine solves a little bit of that. So even if you don't think it's your issue, don't discount it just yet.

Melissa Breau: That makes sense. Last question, which I'm asking all of my guests lately: What's something that you've learned or that you've been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Megan Foster: This is actually really good because I've been thinking about this a lot lately. What I've been reminded of is to try to not solve problems in the context.

What I mean by that is that if you're having a problem in a competition, you're very unlikely to solve it in a competition. You need to pull it back to a place where the problem isn't happening, and build up that behavior based on success, because when we try to solve something while it's happening, our brains tend to go to corrections, and when we take it back to training, we tend to solve our problems with positive reinforcement. So I think that lends itself to these two webinars too.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Megan!

Megan Foster: Thank you for having me. This was great.

Melissa Breau: It was! And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Helene Lawler to talk about the concept of Foundationland … and why we tend to get stuck there.

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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