E284: Megan Foster and Liz Joyce - "Increasing Your Handling Options for Agility"

Today Megan and Liz join me to talk about the role of handler fitness, handler skill building, and contact behaviors in agility! 


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 I have Liz Joyce and Megan Foster here with me to talk about agility and the handler's role in the game.
Hello to both of you and welcome to the podcast!

Megan Foster: Hello ladies.

Liz Joyce: Thanks for having us.

Melissa Breau: To get us started, would you each both share a little about yourself and your pups, for anybody who doesn't know you? Megan, you want to go first?

Megan Foster: I'm Megan. I live north of Seattle in Washington state, and I have been a dog sport competitor for over twenty years, so most of my life, and I have been teaching full-time for nearly ten years now.
I currently have three dogs of my own. Shock is an 11-year-old Border Collie who is mostly retired from all sport things, even though she tells me she is not, so I entertain her desires as much as possible. I also have a Parson Russell terrier, Shrek, who will be 7 years old in a couple of months. He primarily trains in obedience and Fenzi team obedience. Those are really suitable for his brain. And I also have a 15-month-old Border Collie, Sprint, who is training all of the things all of the time. We both live for agility and obedience, and I'm really excited to see where she takes me in dog sports.

Liz Joyce: So am I, actually. I'm Liz Joyce. I live currently in Vancouver, BC, and I've been in training since 2006 and self-employed since 2011. I started really focusing on working with dog handlers maybe five years ago. I've worked with people who are in agility and also IGP and helpers too, helping them stay safe, and working with big dogs, and helping agility handlers move faster and cleaner on course.
I run a company called Canine Handler Fitness, and my current dog is a 14-month-old German Shepherd named Levi. I'm going to use your words, Megan. His brain is best suited for all kinds of scent work, so him and I are doing tracking and scent detection stuff. But most of his training right now is about being a really big dog with big feelings in society, so that's most of what we're up to right now.

Melissa Breau: Good stuff. You both have different FDSA-related things on the calendar, so I thought right here at the beginning we could take a minute to talk about what you have coming up. I want to give you a chance to share a little about it. Liz, do you want to go first? I know you're new to FDSA.
Liz Joyce: Yeah, I am. I'm so excited to be here. The workshop that I have coming out is for sale right now, actually. It's about handler speed development. In the workshop and the webinar, the recorded presentation, we talk about all the different things that can limit handler speed and also information is fine but if there's no action plan it's not that useful. So there's a ton of jams and easy to put into play drills that can fix very common mechanical issues that do limit people. So I'm really excited about it. I've been coaching this material for a couple of years now, and the change in people's movement and the speed they're able to generate is incredible.

Melissa Breau: That's exciting. Megan, what have you got coming up?

Megan Foster: Next on my plate is a webinar that is called Essential Skills For Stopped Contacts. In my mind, that is the prerequisite games that I play with my own dogs and my students' dogs to prepare them for training stopped contacts later on down the road. It breaks down everything that I do that's not directly contact training, but is indirectly in contact training.

Melissa Breau: It leads into the class you've got coming up, right?

Megan Foster: It does, because I am teaching my teeter training class for the October term, so it does help you out there, get a little precursor of what's going to happen in the class, too.

Melissa Breau: Sweet. You know each other pretty well. Do you want to share a little about that?

Megan Foster: I do. End of 2020, Shade Whitesel, our colleague at FDSA and she's also become a very good friend of mine, was telling me, "Everyone has to work out with Liz for the rest of their lives. She's amazing, and everyone needs her in their corner." And so I did.
Shade is a very brilliant woman and I respect her immensely, so when she says to do something, I believe her. She was a hundred percent correct, so Liz has been coaching me since then, and I was hopefully a helpful role in dragging her into this online space. And we've become good friends over the last couple of years too.

Liz Joyce: Thanks for saying such nice things. We work really well together, you and I, Megan, and Megan has also been instrumental in developing all of these courses that I have put together and will be putting together out at 9 o'clock in the morning on frosty grass, trying drills. "Does this feel like it's hitting the mark? Does this feel like it's hitting the mark?" From there all the way to picking platforms, she's been an invaluable resource — thank you so much, Megan — and also a very inspiring client to work with. And yes, we've become great friends, so I really appreciate our time together.

Melissa Breau: I do feel like, Liz, every time I talk to somebody else lately, your name seems to come up, so it's good stuff.

Liz Joyce: Yeah, it's exciting. It is good.

Melissa Breau: I've talked to Megan a bit about this before, but I think it's easy for agility handlers to overlook their role in the sport, to focus on training the dog skills and forget about their own entirely. Can you each talk a bit about how trainers can increase their options in agility competition by improving their own skills or focusing on themselves a little bit? Liz, do you want to go first?

Liz Joyce: Sure. I'm going to come at this obviously from a fitness perspective and a body-care perspective. I see a lot of space for people to improve. Even simple things like being able to run more courses and being as strong on the last run of the day as they were on the first run of the day is a huge deal. I'm also getting a lot of feedback from people saying that they are able to even increase their dog's speed on the course because they can support them better, they're stronger.
I'm also loving that at the beginning of course, as people are working their way through that twelve-week program, at the beginning there's some growing pains that can happen, and towards the end of the course, people that leave it are feeling so strong and powerful and confident. I love all the things about that and how it bleeds into their life like that.
But I think overall there's definitely room for people to, in a general sense, improve their handling in a way of being able to support their dog and get to obstacles faster, and in a safe manner that doesn't cause injuries for themselves.

Melissa Breau: Megan, do you want to add your other side to that coin?

Megan Foster: I do. My whole coaching career has been banked off of that I don't coach people to run faster. That's not advice that I give because it is such a limiting factor for so many, and myself included. There's only so much faster you can go. And then I met Liz, and she knows how to make people stretch that limit and stretch that threshold.
I will never tell you that running faster is the answer. But if you believe that running faster is in your goal set and what you want to work on, Liz is the answer to that, because my side of things, the handler's role is about using your current ability and your current skill set in the smartest way possible to be the most efficient and to be there for your dog in all of those ways. That's one way that we work really well together.
I think of it like the more skills you have, the less limitations you have. I can draw the parallel to dog training in that if your dog has independent obstacle skills, you have a lot more freedom on course than if you have to stay right next to your dog.
That same thing can be said for the running mechanics and the fitness skills, and also your ability to plan a handling strategy on the course. The more robust repertoire of skills that you have in all of those areas, you're going to look at any course and go, "Yeah, I've got this," because you have so many options.

Liz Joyce: I love that.

Melissa Breau: I think the idea of expanding your own skill set — it's important to think about it from that angle. The more options you have when you're trying to figure out how you're gong to run the course, the more options you have when you're actually running your dog, or if something goes wrong or changes in the middle of a run — sometimes it helps to be able to put on that burst of speed or have other skills under your belt that you can pull out.

Megan Foster: Absolutely.

Melissa Breau: Liz, I know in your workshop you're talking about both mechanics and speed for the human teammate. Is handler training, for lack of a better term, one size fits all? Is it a program that everybody can follow or everybody should follow? Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

Liz Joyce: Yes, I do, and I would love so much to say that the answer is yes, because that would be so clean and simple, but the answer is definitely not yes.
It takes quite a lot of experience and strategic planning and taking feedback from hundreds of people over a long period of time to figure out how can you accomplish the same end goal but accommodating for different physical limitations, injuries, body shapes, fitness levels, all types of things.
It isn't a one size fits all, but I think I do a great job of curating programs and courses that take people from a variety of different fitness levels, and all those other factors that I just listed, and bring them together so that the goal they're achieving is the same. But maybe one person has a very high-impact and intense variation of something that they would do that worked towards that end goal, and someone else would have a very low-impact variation of that so that they don't get hurt, but the other person can explore their limits at a more rigorous fashion.
So I would love to say yes, but the answer is definitely no.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Are there small changes handlers can make or some piece of advice that can make a big difference in a relatively short period of time?

Liz Joyce: I was thinking about this for the last couple of days, just on my own, and there are a couple of things. If we're talking about the human's long-term comfort in their body — the people that I see, my oldest client right now is turning 91 in a couple of weeks. I've trained all kinds of age ranges, and the people I see that age the most comfortably in their bodies are people that maintain a good mobility routine and keep their joints mobile. That is definitely the thing that will help people age the most comfortably in their bodies.
But the things that they can do to make a big difference right now is pick the thing that they want to work on, and then make sure that it's appropriate for their fitness level, and just be consistent at it. Keep practicing.
If your goal, for example, is speed and you're currently walking for exercise, or maybe jogging, I would encourage you to think about what your end goal is and have your training or workload look like it's heading in that direction. And practice often, consistently.

Melissa Breau: Imagine that — it's almost like in dog training.

Liz Joyce: It's almost the same.

Melissa Breau: The things you work on are the things that get better.

Liz Joyce: That's true, but it's a little bit complicated for people sometimes when they really love what they do. Well, it's still running, but it's not sprint training. If you want to sprint, you have to practice.

Melissa Breau: Megan, I know you've got your stopped contacts webinar coming up. Do you want to talk a little about why a team might choose stopped contacts versus running contacts, and how that factors into some of what we've been talking about?

Megan Foster: Sure. I definitely encourage all agility competitors to sit down and decide what their version of agility looks like before making huge decisions about stopped versus running contacts.
When we unpack what our version of agility looks like, we have to consider our goals and what types of courses that we're going to be running on, because there's such a wide variety and the challenges spread across the different organizations. And also how high up the ladder in those organizations you care to aim for, because that might be a big factor in what you choose, because obviously running contacts may have an advantage over time on the course.
We also have to consider your version of agility when it comes to time as your most valuable resource. I do think that running contacts takes up a little bit more time than stopped contacts, but it also takes up a little bit more access to equipment, which is tied into your time, if you have to drive somewhere to access equipment or rent somewhere to access equipment.
We also do have to consider the handler's ability, both out there on the course and as a trainer. I believe that running contacts and stopped contacts do require quite good training skills, but it's much easier to see stopped contact criteria than running contact criteria. It's just easier to observe if the dog is stopped in a position versus hit a very small spot of the entire contact with their very fast feet and butt. It gets much harder if your dog's feet are a certain color and if they blend in. White feet on yellow is kind of hard sometimes.
So there's all these things that I want everyone to consider, if they really want to go down the route of training one over the other. And then, of course, most of us, if we choose running contacts for one, we all need some sort of stopped behavior on the teeter. So there's definitely going to be both happening potentially in your life, and you just have to decide if that's right for you overall. Big picture, very big picture, thinking.

Melissa Breau: Can you share a little bit about how you break down stopped contacts, what the piece are there?

Megan Foster: Of course. When we visualize a really good stopped contact, and it doesn't matter which obstacle we're talking about — the dog walk or the A-frame or the teeter — we see in our head a dog that confidently and as fast as they can climbs the board, descends the board, and just stops in that perfect position, either two feet on the ground and two feet on the board or all four feet on the board. We have all of those components there. We've got speed across the board, confidence on the different planks, knowing when to stop and how to stop, and when to go again.
So I break it down, all those concepts, away from the equipment themselves. We've got cue discrimination — when to stop versus when to go. We have ignoring the handler until you've been told to go again. You've got speed. You've got the mechanics of how to stop. You've got what position to stop in. You've got some bravery games in there. There's all these little pieces that we can pick apart and train separately, and that's exactly what I do.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. I know it's not necessarily in the list of questions, but if somebody is going to train running contacts, a lot of the foundation skills sound like they would still be useful to have, even if ultimately you decide to have running contacts on your A-frame.

Megan Foster: I had written it down in my notes for today, but absolutely. So many of these concepts overlap for any stationary behaviors, so they're the same concepts that I may use for my start-line training. But also the cue discrimination and ignoring the handler — those specifically also help with running contacts and weave pole training and all sorts of things.
I'm a firm believer that the skills you train need to work over time for you. If I'm going to put time and effort and prioritize these skills, I need them to show up in a lot of different places for me.

Melissa Breau: Train smarter.

Megan Foster: Yes, because I have to have time for my sprint workouts now. I can't be training my dog all the time, because I have to train. Go do your workout, Megan. Go do your sprint training, Megan. I don't have time to train different things to the dogs anymore.

Liz Joyce: But you can get there.

Megan Foster: That's true.

Melissa Breau: One of the neat things about what both of you have on the schedule at the moment is that they're agility skills, but they can actually be worked a fair degree away from the agility field. Do you each want to talk about that piece a little bit? What people need and where they need to be, or what they need in terms of space or materials or what have you to work on this stuff? Liz?

Liz Joyce: I love so much that both our courses are things you don't need to go to an agility facility or have a lot of equipment for. My course, for the sprinting thing you need thirty to maybe fifty meters of space that's a meter wide, just to run in a straight line, preferably on the similar type of footing that you experience on course. But grass, pavement, tracks, whatever like that, is totally suitable. What I love about that is that people can do it in a lot of different places.
A big thing that I do, very carefully and thoughtfully, is make it as accessible for people as possible. I think it's important. And you don't need any equipment. Some people even do their workouts without any shoes on at all. So very minimal things needed.

Melissa Breau: Cool. Megan?

Megan Foster: I've always kind of joked about agility training as if it's a skill that cannot be taught in my living room, in my pajamas, with the beverage of my choosing, it's not worth training. Everything that I teach my dogs starts there. The very first skill that my puppies learn is "Do not knock over my beverage." Because there will be one nearby, whether it's coffee or bubbly or some other variety. There will be one nearby. Please do not knock it over.
I really do enjoy making sure that I can train when I don't have access to equipment. And again, like Liz was saying, that accessibility, if we can break these skills down into the smallest piece possible, we don't need the equipment and we don't need the space. But we can still be improving our skills, because dogs are amazing at piecing things together.
Particularly for the skills we're going to talk about in this webinar, you might need a platform or even just a mat, just something that the dog can target and stop on, and a cone or anything you have laying around the house that the dog can go around. And you just need a lot of rewards, your dog's favorite stuff. All of that can be done really, really easily in a small space with things that you have around the home, and that's really important to me.

Melissa Breau: Is there anything that we haven't talked about that listeners need to know about your upcoming workshop, Liz, or the webinar, Megan, or the topics we've been talking about as a whole, to help them decide if they want to join you? Megan, you want to go first?

Megan Foster: Yeah. I want to mention that the skills presented in this upcoming webinar are both really puppy-friendly and really retrain-friendly because we're not going to be working with the actual equipment.
From a puppy perspective, all of these exercises that I'm going to cover are low impact and can be trained in very small spurts of thirty seconds of training and then give them a break. So everything can be made to fit the puppy's brain space, and then built upon until the dog is ready, old enough, and mentally aware enough to start the obstacle training.
But also when you're talking about retraining a skill, it's incredibly important to get creative and rebuild those skills away from the obstacle itself, because the obstacle has all of that history packed into it. So we need to write a new story, so to speak, before we reintroduce the obstacle.
So it's very friendly for both those situations.

Melissa Breau: Liz, anything else you want to share on your workshop or the topic?

Liz Joyce: I do, yes. I think this workshop is important for a lot of different agility handlers. And I think the thing I like about this particular workshop and how I've laid it out is that I was very careful to accommodate as many fitness levels and injuries as possible with the patterning drills that I put together to improve people's mechanics and speed development.
Also there's homework that comes with it, so there's included a training plan and a sample workout week, so people could take this webinar, audit it, and in the feedback, while there are drills that are in the webinar that are on a YouTube playlist, I have a lot of tricks up my sleeve, and I will be adding in different videos and drills as needed, and those will all be included in the YouTube playlist.
I did my best to make this a one-stop shop for speed development and all the patterning drills and homework and sample workout week so people can take with them and just start their speed training journey at home by themselves fairly quickly.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Final question here: If I asked you to sum up our conversation today into a final piece of advice or a takeaway you want people to have after listening to this, what have you got? Liz?

Liz Joyce: I want to go straight inspiration meme and say something along the lines of "You're more powerful than you think you are," and "You can show yourself just how strong you are."
With just a little bit of effort and consistency, you will be shocked at the improvements you can make at any fitness level, and any injury history, with a smart, thought-out plan. You can do it, and all you need to do is just be consistent and keep trying your hardest. I think that's what I want to say.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I think that's a great reminder for everybody as we close things out. Megan, what about you?

Megan Foster: I completely agree with what Liz just said. Mine is a little bit similar. Really excellent training, no matter what you are training — your own skills or your dog's skills — doesn't need a whole lot of access to the fancy things or full courses or loads of equipment. It only needs consistency and a little bit of creativity. The good news is that Liz and I have done the creative part for you, and so you just need the consistency part.
This is the bonus of having access to you can train with whoever you want to on the internet now, and so the creativity is out there. Once you get started in both fields, you'll figure out how you want to tweak things and work things around for your own individual needs. So it will also help you in the creativity department.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you both so much for coming on the podcast. I think this has been a fun chat, so thank you and I'm glad you could both make it.

Megan Foster: Thank you so much.

Liz Joyce: Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely, and thanks to 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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