Collection, extension, and teaching agility foundations — Loretta and I talk about training agility skills so your dog can achieve their full potential.
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 with her first rescue dog, Ace. Since then she has earned ADCHs with four Border Collies. She and her dogs are no strangers to the finals at USDAA World Championships, either. Since attending her first nationals in 2008, she has competed with one or both dogs in each of the subsequent finals. At the 2012 USDAA World Championships, she had two dogs in EACH of the three finals: Grand Prix, steeplechase and DAM tournament.
In 2014, Loretta served as the assistant coach for the IFCS World Team; after their success, she was asked to be Head Coach of the World Agility Organization USA World Team, which she has done for the last five years.
Outside of agility, Loretta has trained dogs for herding, competitive obedience, rally, and service dog work.
Today she runs Full Tilt Dog Training in Brainerd, Minnesota, which she founded in 2007, and she travels nationally and internationally giving handling seminars.
Loretta works with all different breeds of dogs and believes there is never a "one size fits all" method in training. She is very good at working with each dog and handler as an individual team to help them succeed.
One of her specialties is building drive in dogs who otherwise might be a challenge. She has also helped a number of dog-handler teams overcome unwanted stress behaviors. She believes it isn't just about the handling of the courses, but the entire picture that makes a great agility team!
Hi Loretta, welcome back to the podcast!
Loretta Mueller: Hello. Thanks for having me once again.
Melissa Breau: Excited to talk! To start us out, can you remind listeners who the animals are that you currently share your life with and what you're working on with them?
Loretta Mueller: Absolutely. I share my life with five Border Collies: Klink, who is almost 15 and doing very well, Gator, who is 13, Even and Lynn, who are both 11 – yes, they're littermates; I will never do that again — and Gig, who is 6 years old.
We are working on a ton of fitness stuff right now, just to keep them in shape, because we're not going to do a lot of agility because of obviously the COVID stuff. Lots of foundation skills like jumping, contact behaviors, just to keep everybody in shape, and then my older dogs are working on fitness stuff as well and just doing lots of tunnels and nosework.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. So I wanted to start out by talking about your upcoming jump foundations class on the calendar for June. Of all the skills needed for agility, a lot of them are pretty unnatural behaviors for dogs. They're not necessarily things they do naturally. But I think jumping — most people look at it and go, "Yeah, most dogs get that. They'll do it coming out of the womb." But is that really true?
Loretta Mueller: Jumping, in my opinion, is absolutely the most important piece of agility and unfortunately, I think, the most neglected. A jump is the most used obstacle in agility course design, and there are so many different angles of approach, if they're going straight or turning, there are so many variables.
Dogs can be very natural jumpers, which I guess when I think of a natural jumper, I categorize the dog as they just get it or maybe they figure it out quickly. I've had a couple of those, I've been very lucky to have a couple of those, and I've also been very lucky to have them in the beginning of my agility career so that they just figured it out.
However, many dogs do really struggle. Some have a tough time knowing how to change their striding or how to transfer weight from their front end to their back end. You'll probably hear me say that a few times during this podcast: front end would mean their shoulder area, front legs, versus their back end, meaning their hindquarters.
Many dogs have a tough time just focusing on their job of jumping with handler movement involved. I always say agility is not send and stand, it's send and go. So that can really affect some things.
Some dogs are very talented jumpers but lack the commitment needed, and so when they're trying to think about everything, when all we really want them to think about is jumping, that can really cause some issues.
There are so many things to think about in regards to jumping. If you look at it from the dog's perspective, we are asking them to go really, really fast and to make these split-second decisions, sometimes with or without the right information. Is their form right? Is their weight on their front or their back? Depending on the situation, have they added or subtracted a stride?
If you think about it, it's actually really amazing that they keep as many bars up as they do. And so it's really important to understand that a jump program should be a very high priority for all agility dogs and all dogs that do sports that require jumping.
Melissa Breau: You got into this a little bit in there, but what are some of the more common problems when it comes to jumping? What do you see?
Loretta Mueller: I see dogs that are obviously are bulldozed through jumps and dogs that overthink. There's such a big gradient as far as what dogs are going to do. I see dogs that can't collect, or, in my opinion, rather, don't know how to, dogs that are not getting the information early enough.
A great example is my class I just finished up. It was a class on drills for better timing, and as the weeks went by, the dogs were jumping better and going faster, and I think information is definitely a key there, as far as making sure the dog has all the information. That's a big one.
Owners — this is another big one — owners that do not take their dog's build or stride or size into account and demand too tight of a turn. If a dog physically can't do the turn, for example, then you're really setting them up for failure and frustration.
Dogs that ignore jumps, stress or environmental stuff, not enough value in jumping. If you look at our training, we build tons of value for contacts and weaves, but what about jumping? We have a tendency to take that for granted.
The dogs that are going to drop a bar and they treat it as the most horrible event that has ever happened in their lives — I see that often. Or the exact polar opposite, which is dogs that don't care about a dropped bar. They like to play pickup sticks and they have no issue with it whatsoever.
But normally it usually comes down to the skills. Do they have them? That is the first thing you want to look at. Are they capable of performing the skills, a.k.a., physically do they have the strength? In order to be a good jumper, you really do have to have wonderful backend strength and core strength. Core is huge in jumping. But also not just physically but mentally. Are they in the right level of drive? If not, that can affect jumping. If they're too high, they may not even notice a jump. If they're too low, they may not even have the ability to do it, just mentally.
Are they chasing you? In that case, they may not even see the jump bars. They're busy focusing on your motion and not their job. I think it's important to remember that these guys feed off motion and they are predators by nature, and so in order to have them jump, they actually have to look away from your motion. I'm not sure if you've ever seen a dog that's chasing a rabbit, but they don't randomly just turn away and look back at you while they're chasing it. So we're really going against instinct when we ask them to just focus on that jump.
Is the dog overwhelmed, environmental or possibly people can ask too much too soon from the dogs — too much height, too much speed into transitions, like extension into collection. All of these can contribute to the dog not showing good jumping.
And then of course you've got the additional variables of surfaces and weather, if you're trialing outdoors, or if you have a slick surface, the dog has to adjust as well.
So there's just so much that really goes into it, and there's so many things that the dogs can do that can show you that there's a problem with whatever is happening with jumping.
Melissa Breau: It's interesting. I'd never even thought about the surface problem. I imagine that's especially hard to train for and plan for and deal with.
Loretta Mueller: It really is. Depending on what part of the country you're in, some of the trials can be more outdoors or indoors. But surfaces can really vary, and if your dog has not had experience with a particular surface, they can slip, they can fall.
Some dogs will adjust naturally and they will add a couple strides in here or there to keep themselves safe. But then you have some dogs that are just going to run as fast as they possibly can, and they end up slipping, face-planting.
That's something that we can work on with them, but it definitely can affect jumping, because if you think about the dog reaching a specific takeoff point on the jump, and as they go to lift to jump, the surface comes out from underneath of them and they slip. That's not necessarily the dog's fault. It's just more an additional variable we have to look at.
Melissa Breau: For those who are like me, who maybe have been on the fringe of agility conversations and talked to people like you, but haven't actually trained the stuff or worked super-deep in the stuff, we definitely hear the words "collection" and "extension" thrown around and know that they're important, but I definitely could not explain them or define them. Can you give us a little bit of a working definition for each and then talk about why they're important?
Loretta Mueller: For sure. I would start with extension. The reason why I'm starting with extension is because that's kind of the dog's m.o. They run straight, and they like to open up and really run, and so I would define that as speed, using all this drive you have.
As far as physical things you should see in your dog, the dog's head should be flatter. Their ears are normally forward or pinned — again, this can be breed dependent or dog dependent. Their back is going to be flatter. Their front and rear legs can be tucked or extended. Normally they're extended when they are jumping — I call it flat. But this also can be dependent on the way the dog is built.
The dog should be more on the front end of their body. I hear people say all the time, "My dog's on their front end." That's not necessarily a bad thing. That's great for straight lines. This type of jumping, again, it's used for straight lines, and my dog should not be adding in extra strides or slowing down.
I like to think of it as it's like you're driving your car down the interstate and you're going forward, you're going in a relatively straight line. You're not going to slow down in the middle of an interstate, or you shouldn't, and so that's that extension line.
That's very different from collection, which in general I'm going to say is used for turning. In collection, the back will be more rounded because the dog has to create a smaller jump line. The front legs will probably be tucked, back legs also, more so than extended, but again it can depend on the dog's build.
The weight will be transferred to the rear end of the dog, so they actually have to rock back onto their butts, for lack of a better term, and you will see a defined change of speed and/or an avid stride.
This is more what you would do if you were driving, needing to turn at an intersection. You would not approach an intersection going seventy miles an hour. Hopefully you would slow down and use some light braking, and then eventually, as you go into the turn, you would speed out of the turn. But you're not going to speed into a turn. So it's city driving versus country driving.
If you look at an agility course, you can really see those moments where you will need the extension and you will need the collection. So a dog that runs just on their back end all the time is not what we want. We want a dog that can transfer from city to country driving, back and forth consistently and on demand, given whatever is presented in front of them. Hopefully that makes sense.
Melissa Breau: Yeah, absolutely. I think you know folks tend to get analysis paralysis when talking about some of this stuff, so they either don't realize it's important at all and just jump ahead and "The dog will figure it out," or they overthink it, like the bulldozers and the thinkers. If they are overthinking it, if they're falling into analysis paralysis, they get stuck with "How do I choose a method?" or "How do I decide on an approach?" So if somebody just wants to start their dog "off right," where do you start? What are those early steps?
Loretta Mueller: First of all, you need to make sure your dog has the physical strength to jump. Is your dog fit? Overweight dogs really struggle with jumping. Dogs with weak rear ends, with weak cores — your stomach muscles — struggle with collection. So number one, making sure your dog is fit is very, very important. Obviously with little puppies, they're still learning stuff, so you're not doing any kind of jumping, but that's going to be something to take into account when you start. So if your dog's not fit, try to work on getting on a fitness plan of some kind.
As far as methods and what to do and what's the best thing to do, this is based off my experiences. I try to be as consistent with whatever method I use. I think a plan really helps with your goals of having a good jumping dog. If you're just haphazardly putting things together, I think you're going to end up with some holes that you don't necessarily want, and you may not find out until you get to a trial, which is not a good place to find a hole.
But as far as starting off right, to me and my past experiences, honestly, it starts with teaching commitment to jumps and teaching the dog to deal with handler motion. That's the biggest area of needing improvement I see in those that I work with. They've got all these great skills on their dog with jumping, but as soon as we add handler motion, it all goes out the window and the dog loses their technique.
So if the dog can be taught to commit, then that makes the jump training much easier, because the dog is focused on their job and not on the handler's motion away from them or ahead of them or behind them. I think that's the biggest piece that people in general leave out, and it's a really, really important one that will bite you further down the road from a young dog to a very experienced dog.
Melissa Breau: Taking that from jumping to handling, you've also got your basic handling class on the calendar for June. If I remember right, you don't really use any one handling method. Can you talk about that a bit, why that is?
Loretta Mueller: Sure. I don't subscribe to just one method. Do I have a very consistent set of cues for my dogs? Do I have my own method? Absolutely. But my dogs have taught me through the years that they don't always fit into boxes, and my students have also taught me through the years that they don't always fit into boxes. And so that's my job as a teacher, as a trainer, to help them get as much information to their dogs — or if you're a dog, getting as much information — as possible.
I think that one can take different areas and ideas from other methods and apply them. I find that to be the art of handling. I like to be creative, and rules to me are … I know don't … a little bit more like guidelines. I feel a little boxed in otherwise.
I also work with people from very different physical abilities. Some of my handlers are very limited physically, so we do mostly verbals. Some of my handlers are very gifted physically, and we can do a lot more motion-based cues. So I educate myself, and ultimately I go with what works for the dogs, first and foremost, and then secondly what works for the handlers.
I think that the dogs and handlers that I work with, they've been quite consistent in helping me see and understand that if I just limit myself to one specific thing, I'm limiting the ability to get creative when things don't go quite the way they should according to whatever method. Hopefully that makes sense.
Melissa Breau: So when they don't fit perfectly into the box that the method was designed for, in other words.
Loretta Mueller: Yeah, exactly.
Melissa Breau: Keeping that in mind, how do you approach a basic handling class? What do you cover?
Loretta Mueller: I cover commitment. Like I stated earlier about the jumping, it's huge. Sends are very, very important, and yes, I can adapt whatever method the person is using. If you use the Derrett method, if you're more Mecklenburg, if you have no idea what those two words are and you're just trying to figure it out, I can work with you. I know and have studied the major handling methods, and so I can adapt pretty much anything.
We also work on training the dogs to deal with motion and some jumping, because jumping is very important. But even if you have a young dog, you don't have to jump them in this course. There can be bars on the ground or no bars.
And then the biggest thing is I really work hard on the person to get them not to babysit jumps and to move off a cue or a send while staying connected to their dogs. We're training the human as well so that they are not doing some of the most obvious mistakes that many agility handlers do, which is staying there on the jumps and babysitting and not moving off. It's very, very important that you do move on to the next obstacle, because motion to the jump is a cue, but motion away from the jump is also a cue.
So all of that gives the dog the information on where they're going next, and most people have a tendency to wait until the dog has taken off before they move on. So I'm working on training you as a handler how to do this and get it stuck in your head and make it muscle memory.
Melissa Breau: On your syllabus from Week 1, you have a lecture on both the use of handling but also the theory for handling cues. First, what's the theory here? What are we talking about?
Loretta Mueller: When I'm thinking in terms of handling, I really, really look at the dogs. I want to know what the dogs instinctively read, I want to know what would be a trained behavior versus instinct, and that's going to be really important. The theory is basically dogs read motion, period, and we have to understand how dogs respond to our motion in order to understand how to effectively communicate with them.
So either you're cuing extension or collection — that's really what it comes down to. I know we can complicate it, but we just go over how to do that. Sometimes our bodies are telling the dog to do one thing, but we want something else, and so those questions that we provide with our dog can set us up for some bad communication.
It can be really tough when you're working with a different species. Let's face it — we can't always communicate well with other people. So we start with theory just so everybody is on the same page with what communication works. And again it's based on the dog, so we go through how your motion affects them, we go through verbals, how those affect them, late verbals, late motion cues, pressure, aka your body pressure, training pressure, all that kind of stuff goes into play when we're talking about theory.
Melissa Breau: When you take that theory and you're applying it to real life, can you talk a little bit more about where that line is?
Loretta Mueller: Sure. As far as at home, just in general around the house, or any other random communications with your dog, you learn how your body pressure or body language can cause issues with communication. A really good example of this would be bending over a small dog makes them want to back away from you or slink down, and that's because of all that pressure applied to them.
As we study and learn more about dogs, it becomes very obvious that sometimes human behavior doesn't always mesh with dogs, and so things that we do to other people don't make sense to the dogs. And if we take some of the behaviors we use with dogs and we apply them to other humans, it seems crazy. Running up to a random stranger, excited and throwing yourself into their arms, makes no sense to another human, but sometimes we'll do that with another dog. It's just real life situations. We learn about how that works.
As far as agility, which is real life too, if you're aware of what you're handling, or what your body language does and your motion, you get a very predictable response to a handling cue. Having a dog that you can trust on the agility field is priceless and makes agility so much fun.
If you compare that to running a dog that you have no idea what they could do — maybe they might do this, maybe they may not — that gives me anxiety, personally, and it makes agility way less fun. I like a predictable response. And so the more you can become consistent with your body language and understanding the theory behind how you affect your dog on the course, the more consistent and predictable everything will be.
Melissa Breau: Are there any super-common problems that handlers make, especially when training their first agility dog, where they go wrong?
Loretta Mueller: That's a really good question. That's a tough one to answer. It really is. For all of you that are sitting out there going, "Oh my gosh, all the things I did with my first dog," there are so many things, but I would say overall not rewarding enough, and trying to think and process while handling.
Handling should be an autopilot activity, so your muscle memory is going to come into play. So trying to train yourself and train your dog and learn the moves and memorize the course is just a lot and can really stress you and the dog out.
That's why I guess I love my method of working on the stuff we work on in the basics of handling class, because we work on each thing one at a time, on one jump, so there are a lot less things to think about for both the dog and the handler.
We're working on changing human behavior to make it more applicable to the dog, and we're working on the dog doing the correct behavior, and we're able to put it together in a very simple format so you don't have to think so hard and worry about processing everything at lightning speed.
Melissa Breau: If folks are evaluating the schedule for this term, I'm sure there are a couple of common questions that you get all the time. They're bound to come up for classes like this, like, how much equipment and what kind of space are we talking about that they need for these?
Loretta Mueller: Yeah, I get that question a ton. For the jumping class, you really need a line of at least four jumps. More if you can, but four is going to be a good starting point. So a longer, skinny area, if you have one.
For the extension work, I would say the jumps are going to be eighteen to twenty feet apart. So you can get away with a sixty-by-eighty space. We can modify it if we need to — add a jump, subtract a jump — for extension. Collection work can be in a much smaller space.
So we're looking for longer, skinnier spaces for the jumping classes. It does require more space just because of the fact that we need to get speed for some of the exercises.
For my handling class, most of the work is done on one jump. And then toward the ending weeks, we do use two and three jumps. So about a thirty-by-thirty would work just fine for that class. A lot of people have done it in a very small area for the first several weeks, when we're working on one jump, and then either went to a park or rented a space for the last couple of weeks when we work on multiple obstacles.
Melissa Breau: Is there a particular experience level that a team should have or things they should know going into either of these?
Loretta Mueller: I would say no, the dogs don't have to have experience. I've found a stay is very nice, if you have one. It just helps with both the handling class and the jumping class. However, if you have someone that can hold your dog, or if you have something like a Pet Tutor or a Manners Minder or a Treat and Train you can send the dog to, we can make that work.
I've had quite a few students that didn't have a stay, but a stay definitely helps. I've had dogs that have never done agility before in the classes, I've had dogs that are seasoned competitors, and it works out great for either level.
Melissa Breau: Is there anything else that they should consider when they're deciding whether or not to sign up? Is there anything else that you want to mention?
Loretta Mueller: I guess for jumping and for the handling class, what are your goals with agility? That can help you customize your training and get the most out of class, even if you're not a Gold — Silver, Bronze — take video, even if you're not going to post it. I think that's really important. Make sure you have lots of rewards. Also make sure you don't get your dog fat during the classes, because we use a lot of rewards, so you might have to think in terms of thinking ahead on that.
And then especially for these classes where a lot of people are doing it in the back yard, do you have a Plan B if the weather is icky, just to help you stay on track if it's raining, or we even had snow in May — welcome to Minnesota — you can still stay on track. So if you have ring rentals or stuff like that, just to be proactive so you know what you're dealing with and you're not surprised by something.
Melissa Breau: Last question here. What's something that you've learned or you've been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?
Loretta Mueller: That if your dog doesn't have the right mindset for your training session, just stop, get the dog in the game, and if you can't, go for a walk and try again another day. They say, "Never end on a bad note." We hear that all the time. I don't think that's true. I think sometimes you just have to stop, even on a bad note.
Stopping and going for a hike is not a bad ending for a training session. You're not going to do anything horrible. But you have to understand that you really can't train a dog that isn't able to absorb the information at that time, so it's not worth the frustration to try.
Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Loretta! This has been interesting, and I certainly learned some stuff about jumping today, so thank you.
Loretta Mueller: Thank you. I had a wonderful time as usual.
Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Megan Foster to talk about mindset training for competition.
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Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!