E205: Loretta Mohler - "Agility in Small Spaces"

Struggling to train agility because of a lack of space or equipment? Loretta and I talk about options for training agility when your access to space or equipment is limited.


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 Mohler.

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 more 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 went on to be a five-time head coach of the World Agility Organization USA World Team.

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, Minn., which she founded in 2007, and travels nationally and internationally giving handling seminars.

Hi Loretta, welcome to the podcast!

Loretta Mohler: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me again.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I'm excited to chat. It's been a while since you've been on — I think since before you changed your last name.

Loretta Mohler: Yeah. I did get married this past June, and it's been a pretty eventful 2020 for sure, but I'm really glad to be back talking with you guys again.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And congrats. I'm excited for you. It's good stuff. At least one good thing in 2020, right?

Loretta Mohler: Absolutely.

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

Loretta Mohler: Absolutely. I have my five Border Collies: Klink, who is 15-and-a-half, still going strong, Gator is 14, Even and Lynn both just turned 12, and Gig, my youngest, who is 6.

Right now it's winter, so we're working on keeping them fit and keeping their agility foundations solid, so when we start working in the spring and summer we won't be rusty. We've also been working on some nosework, which they're all loving. So it's been a fun winter actually.

Melissa Breau: That's exciting — a new sport. I want to bounce around a little bit with our interview today. I've got a bunch of different things I want to talk about. First, I feel like I've seen more "non-traditional" — for lack of a better phrase — non-traditional breeds, non-Border-Collies at least, playing agility these days. I wanted to ask what your thoughts were non-traditional breeds in the sport.

Loretta Mohler: I get asked this a lot, actually. I work with a lot of … whether you want to call them non-traditional or off-breeds. I don't like the word off-breed. But I work with a lot of them, and I work with my share of Border Collies as well, but I love seeing something besides a traditional breed running agility.

There are so many other breeds of dogs that can run agility really well, and I love the diversity and the thought processes of every dog I meet. I think that just because a dog is traditional versus non-traditional doesn't mean they're necessarily easy or hard to train. I think you just have to take different approaches, depending on the individual dog.

There are so many different factors with each individual dog, and one of my favorite things about teaching agility is trying to figure out what each team needs, regardless of whether they're traditional or non-traditional. But it's really fun when someone does a phenomenal job of training a dog that may not be known for being the perfect agility dog, and just seeing that dog running hard and being competitive, I don't know, it just takes my breath away.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I know not only when it comes to breed, but you've also worked with a wide variety of dogs in terms of competitiveness, from World Team members — I mentioned you coached the World Team for a while — to teams that play just for fun. Are there things you feel you've learned because you coach such a wide variety?

Loretta Mohler: That's a really, really good question. I think the biggest thing I've learned with all that variety is goals are always important, and each person is going to have a different goal. And my job as an instructor or coach is to help each team with those goals.

No matter who we are, we all started running agility because it looked fun. We didn't go to an agility trial or see it on TV and go, "Wow, that looks super-boring. I think I want to try it." We all started in the "just for fun" category. I really hope no matter where you're at, and which end of the spectrum you're on, you're still looking to have fun with your dog.

And so regardless of the goals, I feel that you also have to understand that good training is important for a team, regardless of playing just for fun or a World Team competitor, because confusion can be tough for the dog. So if we have less clean training, then we end up with a more confused dog, regardless of what level they're at. So knowing the goals and matching the training to those goals is very important, and I think that experience in itself has helped me grow as an instructor.

And I love the variety. I think that's what makes me really enjoy my job is I love that I can one minute be working on the perfect front cross, and then the next minute just working on "Can my dog pay attention to me if another dog is in the room." I love the variety, and that helps me enjoy my job that much more.

Melissa Breau: Are there things that both ends of the spectrum have in common that we wouldn't expect?

Loretta Mohler: I think something that sometimes can be overlooked is, number one, having a sound dog. Regardless of your goals, regardless of the dog's breed, or makeup if they're made up from multiple breeds, or you have no idea, a sound dog is very, very important for the sport. Keeping your dog fit is also a huge part of this game, and I think that can be overlooked sometimes, until you have an injury for your dog.

So regardless of which side of the spectrum you're on, as mentioned earlier, clean training, knowing exactly what you want from the dog, and how to teach the dog to perform the behaviors. There's bad training, like I said, at all levels of competition. It's important to have a clear training plan.

Another one that can be really overlooked is working on your mental management. Agility should be fun, and if you're nervous or anxious or worried, regardless of what end of the spectrum you're on, it can't be fun if you're having those kinds of emotions. So even my "just for fun" people will still work on some mental management stuff so they can keep perspective and be consistent for their teammates.

Melissa Breau: I love that. You mentioned this idea of goals earlier. I think for some dog handler teams, they may only have limited access to equipment, and that makes it harder for them to achieve those goals. What's your advice for a handler? They want to play the game, they're excited to play with their dog, but maybe they can only get access to that stuff a few times a month.

Loretta Mohler: I actually think that people that don't have a facility full of equipment have to do a bit better training, and here's why I'm saying that: because they have to focus on foundations. That's the only option they have in a small space, especially if you're training inside your house and you have very limited ability to get on equipment.

You have to think of all the things you can do at home to build on those skills you need. Contact training, little bits of handling, impulse control, skills with one or two jumps, distractions — those are just a few of those things. To get creative, you can work on them at home.

So much of agility can be done with five minutes of training here and there. And then, when you get access to equipment, you don't have to worry about your dog being "rusty" and having to work on those foundations when you have your equipment time.

Or, if you get used to having equipment all the time, it's not exciting to go back to just reward and contacts, like, "Ooh, I'm going to reward my two on and two off." It's not very fun when you have an entire course to do. So this, in a way, is better because it kind of forces you to really focus on the foundation skills that your dogs need and that do break down over time. You're always training your dog. If you could just get your dog trained and that was it, that would be super-great. But the bottom line is that's not how it works. And so, because you can't have constant access to equipment, you have to go back to those foundations because that's what you can train, you're going to have a more solid foundation in the end.

Melissa Breau: When you're working with your own dogs, how much of your time is spent doing full courses with all the equipment all set up?

Loretta Mohler: Along the same lines as I was talking about with the previous question, I work a lot of short drills, things that test certain skills. If my dog nails the drill, I'll move on. I don't like to do the same thing over and over again. That's just not who I am. I get bored very easily.

If they're doing great on something, I might put it in the course, run something designed to test that specific skill, for example, a threadle or a serpentine. But a lot of my stuff is short course work or foundation work, rewarding and building value in those behaviors that I need when I do get to equipment, full course work, or a trial, that I want to make sure I put enough value and enough experience in for the dog to really want to do that behavior when the time comes that I really need it.

Melissa Breau: Do you use a specific handling system?

Loretta Mohler: Well, I would say mine is a combo. Overall, it's going to be motion based, like your Linda Mecklenburg Awesome Paw, some One Mind Dog. But I've also started adding a lot more verbals as I see things changing in relation to course design and course challenges presented. Agility courses evolve very quickly year to year, and so you always have to reevaluate, or at least I feel I need to reevaluate exactly what I'm doing with my dogs.

What I found is I'm getting older every day, and verbals are becoming a much more important part of my handling. And so for me, if you say the words "handling system," I always think of a consistent set of cues that your dog always knows so they can evolve, they can change, if the course designs do present that. And so I'm always trying to stay up to date on those kinds of things. But definitely motion based and adding more verbals in as I see the challenges being presented.

Melissa Breau: How do you handle that if you get a student who was "raised," I guess, in a specific handling system? How does that integrate with what you're teaching?

Loretta Mohler: Lucky for me, I guess — unlucky a bit for my earlier dogs, but lucky for me — I started in position-based systems, so Derrett-type method, and then moved into more motion based, which I said before, Mecklenburg. I also have a lot of experience with One Mind Dog and also some more verbal systems like J&J and other ones. So I can meet anyone where they are, and I can help them improve their communication and identify areas that they can improve upon to help their dog or maybe to work on a skill.

I am definitely not a "put everything in a box" type of person. I think rules are more guidelines. That's just how I am as a human and as a dog trainer, because a lot of times I don't think I fit in boxes, and I think many of the dogs that I started training when I first started my journey that weren't mine, they were my students', I called them my Island of Misfit Toys because they didn't fit in other people's training boxes.

And so I find that I want to know a lot about a lot of stuff, and I want to be able to help people where they're at, and help them take the next step forward on whatever they need to do with their path.

Melissa Breau: Are there aspects of agility — we were talking before about the equipment piece — that you feel get overlooked because folks tend to focus so much on equipment? Tiny pieces that should be broken out and worked on, even without the equipment or without a ton of space, or that not having access suddenly becomes an advantage?

Loretta Mohler: Yeah. I totally get a beautiful agility field full of pretty, shiny equipment is super fun. I understand that running lots of obstacles is also super, super fun. It's really hard to make foundations attractive sometimes for people.

Melissa Breau: Make them sexy.

Loretta Mohler: I didn't know if I was allowed to say "sexy" or not. But that's the word I would use, so thank you for allowing me that.

But the behaviors are not instinctive. Obviously running is, but a lot of the stuff that breaks down — the dogs want to drive back to their instincts. You can call it instinctive drift, you can call it whatever you want, but start lines, stopped contacts, dogs don't run to the bottom of a hill and slam to a stop. Weave poles. They don't do that.

For some dogs it's collection, something that needs to be revisited often. It's not something natural. The dogs that need collection, they just want to run. You may have dogs that naturally want to take life at a little slower pace, and we have to work on that running.

Those things that tend to break — tables are another great example. Lots of people have a hard time with tables, because whether they believe it should be completely thrown out of an agility venue, or if it's just a menace, or some people love tables because they can catch their breath. That's reality. But these things that are non-instinctive for the dogs, it's a great time to build value. It's a great time to really put a lot of money in the bank so that these dogs enjoy these processes as opposed to fighting with their handlers.

Fitness. So many dogs lose conditioning in the winter if they're not running courses. Great example is tomorrow it's going to be 22 below zero at my house, which I've learned there's always someone that's colder. However, negative 22 — that's cold, so we're probably not going to go for a walk tomorrow. But fitness is going to be very, very important, and you can work on it in your house.

Working on distractions. Whether the dog gets excited or they get distracted and go low, depending on that, you can work on that kind of stuff. Very important pieces to the overall picture. I always tell my students that if you are rusty when you come out in the spring, that tells me that you haven't been working on the non-sexy parts of agility, and we've got to somehow make those exciting, or make them fun, so that the dogs come out in the spring and they're like, "Oh yeah, I've been working on my skills all winter long, and I've got this," and you won't have that lag.

A lot of us aren't trialing, and when things open up, or if we feel like trialing again, don't have that rusty situation where your dogs haven't done some of their core behaviors in a long time. That's going to be very, very important when you get out there running. It's not just about running courses. It's about how you get to and from 1 through 20 in order and about those core behaviors that you need on course.

Melissa Breau: You're talking about winter, which obviously is a deterrent in some ways. But also with the state of the world and COVID, I'm sure lots of people are feeling a little rusty.

Loretta Mohler: Absolutely. It's not just winter. For those of you that are in the … when summer is … which I can't even imagine. I've seen people make fun of me and laugh at me when I say, "It's going to be 22 below zero and we're all going to live." But if someone is saying, "It's 120 degrees in Arizona," and I'm like, "Ugh, I don't want that," I would still be using that same stuff if I was in Arizona and it was 120 degrees, because that just sounds pretty miserable to me. So you've got plenty you can do with the dogs. It's just sometimes you have to be a little more creative.

Melissa Breau: Which ties nicely into what I want to talk about next, which is your class this session, Agility in Da House! What skills do you work on and build in the class?

Loretta Mohler: Foundations, foundations, foundations. Those sexy … we're going to call them sexy, even though people don't think they're sexy … those sexy behaviors that are really the blueprint for your agility runs. Contacts, start lines, collections, distractions, building drive, calming over-arousal — those things that your dog can have issues with, if not worked on consistently.

The pieces that break, the pieces that fall apart, those pieces that you're like, "We haven't done agility in six months; my dog is going to be really rusty." Those are good for you because we get rusty as well. It's just those behaviors that are going to break. We're really focusing on those.

Melissa Breau: If folks have not looked at your syllabus, you name your lectures fun things, so they should at least look at the fun things.

Loretta Mohler: Yeah, it's based on songs. I play musical instruments and I sing. Not right now, of course, because of COVID, but in a band, I play bass guitar, even some drums, and I do some singing. So I was like, "You know what? I'm going to have fun with this." So if some of the titles look weird, just think about songs or go look some songs up, and maybe you'll get some new inspiration.

Melissa Breau: There you go. How big of a space do folks actually need to do the class, if they're considering it or thinking about it?

Loretta Mohler: I tried to design this class to fit in a small living room. I actually based it on one of my rugs in my living room, so it was a 10-by-12 or 8-by-10, not a big space. Now granted, if you have a large dog, we're talking Danes and stuff like that, a bigger space would be a bit better, obviously. But you can get this all done in a small space. That was definitely my goal.

If you get in the class, you can see dogs from all different sizes. We have tiny little terrier mixes all the way up to we do have a Dane in there this session. It's designed to make training efficient in a small space.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. How much time are we talking that they should be spending each day if they sign up?

Loretta Mohler: Remember I get bored easily. If you're effective with your training time, five minutes a couple of times a day. It's easy to fit into a busy lifestyle. You'll spend more time probably editing your videos, if you're a Gold or a Silver, or looking at your own videos — please, Bronzes, do that; it's a wonderful tool — but you'll spend more time doing that than the training.

My goal is for it to be fun, easy, and lighthearted. Now I say "easy," if you're a beginner. We've got some advanced teams in there that we're doing some fun stuff with to make stuff a little more challenging. But the goal is going to be for you not to be training and training all day. So it's just five minutes a couple of times a day. Your dog can get a lot done.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. Anything else folks need to know or that you want to share about the class?

Loretta Mohler: Actually, I just touched on it a little bit, but it's one of my favorite classes to teach. The reason is, I think, because I get beginners and advanced teams. With my handling classes it's geared toward either beginners, intermediate, or advanced. But this stuff, it's fun to see either beginners learning the new stuff or advanced people going back and working foundations and really challenging their training. You get to see all the different ways we get these foundations trained. If you watch the Golds, you learn how to proof a ton, and then if you're in an advanced team and then for beginners, you learn how to break things down.

Again, I love the variety. I get bored easily. This is one of my favorite classes because I can really push someone that has great skills but wants to brush up on stuff, and really show them how to take their skills to the next level, and then I can also break things down for beginners. So I love it.

Melissa Breau: When you say "beginner," how beginner are we talking?

Loretta Mohler: We're talking a dog that has never seen equipment. A dog that, as long as they can learn to focus on a cookie, we can get it done. I also have people that are doing the class that have dogs that are in upper levels and they're just working on revisiting foundations. So it's a big difference in groups.

Melissa Breau: Fun. So really, truly, no prerequisites needed. It's comfortable for all of us.

Loretta Mohler: Yeah. I usually say start with 12 weeks for puppies, just because they may need a little bit of ability to focus. Some puppies at 8 weeks, it's like a 30-second moment in time. So I usually say 12 weeks to be able to work on the stuff a little bit more. But you definitely can be a beginner, and we can start you off in the beginning and work you up. The nice thing is you'll get good, solid foundations for when you decide what your goals are, whether you want to do it just for fun or you want to move on to something different.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. One last question, and it's the question I'm asking everybody as their last question for a while lately. What is something you have learned or even been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Loretta Mohler: Just like dogs, if the people you're instructing are in a tough emotional place, as many people are right now, I think it's important to make sure that you're teaching in a way that is kind and understanding, which of course FDSA is, and always takes their emotional state into account.

For many of my in-person students, weekly lessons are their time to not think about the cares of the world, and I'm very grateful that they choose to spend it with me and their dogs. I think that that's something that we all have to be very aware of, because usually we're really focused on the dog's emotional state, and I think it's important that we also take a little extra time, when dealing with each other, to focus on our own emotional states.

Melissa Breau: Super-important reminder. Thanks for that, and thank you for coming on the podcast.

Loretta Mohler: You are very welcome, Melissa. I always have a great time talking to you. Thank you so much.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week. 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! 


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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