E300: Mari Valgma - Teaching Your Dog to Move"

Sometimes dogs totally grasp our criteria - they just can't do the thing we're asking at speed. Mari and I talk about how she works with dogs to teach them to use their bodies more skillfully... and therefore more quickly in sports like 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 Mari Valgma here with me to talk about her training journey and the concept of movement puzzles. Hi Mari, welcome to the podcast.

Mari Valgma: Hi Melissa. Thank you so much for having me here. Super excited to talk to you.

Melissa Breau: So to start us out, you wanna just tell us a little bit about your canine crew and what you're working on with them?

Mari Valgma: Yes. I am sharing my house with three dogs, two Australian Shepherds BP and Mr. Bo and Rescue dog Murro, who is a mix of hunting breeds possibly. We don't know exactly who, what breeds, but definitely hunting breeds. And BP is my oldest dog and because of her health problems, she hasn't ever been very active in dog sports, but instead she's involved in fitness training and was actually the reason why I got into this kind of world in the first place.

Then Murro is my partner when creating new training videos for my students. We are not doing any sports, but she really enjoys doing exercises for my students and also she's the kind of dog who teaches me a lot about working with dogs who don't actually naturally want to work with people. So she's very independent. She's, we jokingly call her the cut of our household, so she wants to do her own things at her own terms. Totally doesn't care what I think about things at all and that's how we, well work together trying to create videos and exercises for my students. And then my youngest dog, Mr. Bo is an Australian Shepherd as well, and he is my sports buddy or training partner and we train to become a search and rescue team. Actually, he's also involved in creating new exercises for my students and testing some of them ideas that I come up with, all the crazy stuff. But we do try to do sports as well and search and rescue is where we are active at the moment.

Melissa Breau: Very cool. So that's pretty involved in the dog world. How did you originally kind of get into all this?

Mari Valgma: Actually, I haven't been in this world for that long. I just thought about it today that it's now 10 years since I got my first dog. And my first dog was a six year old Australian Shepherd, Gino. And I just wanted a hiking buddy because I really enjoy spending time outdoors and all dog sports looked cool to me, but I wasn't 100% sure it's for me. But with her I decided to give it a try and I really enjoyed it. So kind of, well here I am now.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. But she was the kind of dog who made it really easy to first feel successful because it was very easy to work with her and she really enjoyed doing things together and was very easy to train. And it was also, well she made me feel like a good trainer that later like, well the next dogs just showed me that, oh Mari, you have plenty of things to learn still. But she was, she was the starting block and I'm very grateful for her previous owner who trusted me with her. So that's how I got started in the dog training world.

Melissa Breau: It's so funny, I feel like most trainers have one of two starting stories, right? It's either I had a really easy dog and didn't know how lucky I was or I had a really hard dog and had to figure out how to survive.

Mari Valgma: Exactly, exactly.

Melissa Breau: Do you consider yourself a positive trainer? And if so, kind of what got you started on that piece of the journey?

Mari Valgma: Yes, I do consider myself a positive trainer. However, I just want to emphasize that it doesn't always mean that my training is positive through and through because life still happens, things happen during the training that I can't prepare for. And so I do my best to be a positive trainer and then see what life gives us basically and then try to do better next time.

But I was very lucky in the sense that before I even got my first dog, the books that I read were Suzanne Clothier's, Bones Would Rain From the Sky, and The Other End of the Leash, which I believe is Patricia McConnell's book. So like the two bibles of positive reinforcement training and that's how I got started. So when I first started going to the dog sport classes, so I first did obedience and agility with my first dog, then obviously not all of the choices back then were positive reinforcement based, but the ideas that I got from these two books. And then very quickly I also discovered the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a brilliant resource for trainers who are striving to become better trainers for their dogs. My journey has been pretty positive reinforcement focused since the beginning. If I was to kinda ask you to describe your current training philosophy, kind of how would you, how would you describe that? My training philosophy as I am a canine fitness trainer, is quite focused on our dog's physical capabilities and what I call the physical skills. So it's always often we talk about fitness training and then the results of fitness training or how our dogs learn to use their bodies.

I like to call it physical skills. So my philosophy is very much focused around that and we can't really look at training our dogs without focusing at least partially also to fitness training and training physical skills because you can't really take the mind and body separately. And I have a feeling that sometimes we tend to do that, to think about like all of the training challenges or behavior problems or different sports exercises as it's just teaching the dog how to feel better in certain situations or how to meet certain criteria of the exercise or how to earn the reinforcement.

And at the same time, often it's forgotten that actually the dog has to be able to control the body and move it with precision and become really skillful at using his body in order to do these tasks. So for me, whenever I look at a new training exercise, I first try to look at what the physical skills my dog needs in addition to what criteria he needs to already know or what things he has to have learned before doing this task.

But also like does he have enough, like does he know how to balance in this kind of situation? Does he know how to control his movement so that he could fulfill the task that I'm asking and so on. So for me, I would all even say that it's part of thinking about what prerequisite fitness skills my dog needs in order to complete tasks and there are always fitness skills and physical skills involved in doing the exercises, if that makes sense.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And I think, I think we're gonna talk about that more in just a second, right? So my next question for you is if you could share a little more on what your professional focus is today. So I'm gonna ask you to go even deeper. Go for it, right?

Mari Valgma: Yes, yes. I can go deeper, right. So as I mentioned, I'm a canine fitness trainer and I have been a full-time canine fitness trainer since 2017. So that's for quite a long time already. I'm considering that I have been in dog training world for 10 years and most of the time I have been a canine fitness trainer. My current professional like interest is helping dog handlers help their dogs to move with precision awareness and balance in otherwise potentially challenging and even they can't even be considered sometimes dangerous situations so that their dogs would, could solve them training challenges with confidence and ease and without putting themselves into danger. So here, just like to give an idea is for example, running on a dog walk, that can quickly become quite challenging and dangerous because the dog is navigating a narrow and high plank. So that's what I mean. I don't mean that the dog has to be like in an outrageously dangerous situation that most dogs never get into, but actually that is a hugely popular, popular sport already involves certain elements that can quickly become dangerous if the dog doesn't know how to use his body super well. You're not just talking about like jumping out of airplanes or something with your dog, you're…No, that's not, that's not what I'm preparing you for, but it's like the sports that quite many animal or dog parents are involved in and that can quickly become tricky for the dogs or expect certain awareness and control over their bodies.

Melissa Breau: So you're doing a webinar for us next week on movement puzzles specifically. So can you talk a little bit about what a movement puzzle is and what led you to kind of come up with the concept?

Mari Valgma: Yes, definitely. I love talking about movement puzzles. It's a very fun concept that both handlers and dogs love doing them. But basically movement puzzles are exercises that allow dogs to explore how to move in tricky situations with ease basically. So it's creating scenarios or setups where the dog is moving, they shows or give the dog some kind of a balance challenge or maybe a coordination challenge so that they will have to place their paws on certain objects and so on. But it always involves movement so that the dog is moving and then trying to do certain challenges that will improve their balance and coordination and so on so that they will become more confident and controlled in their movement, if that makes sense.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, I'm excited for it. I've got a very uncoordinated lab, 16 month old lab that I'm working with at the moment that I'm trying to teach agility skills too. So he needs all this.

Mari Valgma: Yes, exactly. Can you remind me, what was the rest of the question? I think it was…

Melissa Breau: Yeah, yeah, so what is a movement puzzle and then what led you to come up with the concept?

Mari Valgma: Oh yeah. So I first got the idea for movement puzzles around 2017 or 2018 when I saw an European agility handler, Martina Klimesova, doing Vito's Game. If you know this, the two-bowl game where a dog moves between two bowls, it's often called Vito's game and Martina does really cool agility exercises with the two-bowl games.

So the dog is doing things independently, the handler is just standing by the side of the training area, the dog goes and does exercises independently and gets reinforcement in two bowls. And her idea of doing exercises like that instantly triggered this idea that we aren't doing anything fitness related like that. But back then I didn't have enough experience to do anything with that idea.

So I just had this idea and then I just forgot about it for a couple of years. And in 2020 when Covid hit and I had to close my in-person canine fitness training classes, I had a lot of time to think about new ideas and try out things. So I started experimenting a little bit with this, the idea that I got from Martina Klimesova videos and initially it was just like for fun that I was doing this two bowl game with my own dogs and we did different fitness related exercises with the two-bowl game. And then a good friend of mine came to me, she was taking my in-person fitness classes. So when I was allowed to start the teaching in-person classes again, and she came to me saying that, okay, I have this challenge in actually that my dog, she has a very, a very powerful young Border Collie who tends to be a bit reckless and she had this problem that her dog understands the criteria of the dog walk. So meeting the contact zone criteria and hitting it with her rear feet. So she was teaching running contacts, but she had this problem that her dog was completely oblivious to how to keep herself safe while running on the plank.

So her dog just wanted to get to the contact zone, like no matter what basically, and not caring about like misplacing paws. So she often stepped off the side of the plane and even had falls of the dog walk. And she asked me, is there anything that we can do about it that like, obviously it sounds like something that we should be able to fix with fitness training.

But her, she, her dog had been involved in fitness training for a while and the usual like body awareness and strengthening workouts and all of these things and doing exercises on small poor targets, for example, they didn't seem to have an effect on her dog when she was actually running. And so we decided to give a try, a try to these first movement puzzles I'm, so it was basically just like an experiment to use the two-bowl game and have this running on a narrow plank kind of exercises for her dog just so that she would understand that it's about keeping paws on the plank at all times and don't focus, don't think about the contact sound criteria. That's not included in here at all. It's all about running on a narrow plank and keeping your paws on.

And just a few months after doing this exercises, her problem was solved. That led me thinking that, well, or actually, well not thinking, but I realized that our sport dogs do need exercises where they also learn to control their bodies while running because so many of them, they, they really enjoy running. They want to go fast and you can see them like, oh my God, this is so exciting. And as soon as you have that dog running, it's like everything else is forgotten no matter how hard to try to like, okay, let's, we are just starting our training journey. Just let, let's calm down a little bit. But no, no, it's so much fun and it's so cool and that they really do need to learn how to control their bodies while running as well. That's how movement puzzles got started and since then the idea has expanded a lot. There are a lot of different exercises that I've discovered can be taught with this approach.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, it's a fun journey. Can you talk us through like kind of an example, like what a movement puzzle might look like?

Mari Valgma: Yeah, it, there are, there are very many like different ways we can set up these exercises, but basically this two-bowl game, so if you don't know, it's basically that you are, you place the reinforcement in bowls. So you have one bowl on one side and the other, the other bowl on the other side of you. So bowls at your sides, the reinforcement will be delivered there and then the dog basically goes away from you to do some kind of exercise and then get some reinforcement in the bowl next to you.

Then heads off to do another exercise and then get some reinforcement in the bowl and in movement puzzles the focus then is on exercises that help with balance and coordination and body awareness and so on. So an example exercise may look like the bowls by your sides and then maybe a long plank right in front of you with cones at either end because I normally use cones as indications for dogs where they should go.

So they use cones to navigate area. So the dog leaves your side, runs around the cone for example, gets onto an narrow plank, runs along the plank, gets off the plank around the cone and back to your other side to get a treat from the ball. And you can make these sequences quite long, you can combine different exercises together. So obviously it's better to have videos to show what these exercises look like.

But for example, you can have a sequence of a dog running over Cavaletti poles than crawling under a bench and then getting onto a platform, running along a platform and then coming to your site to collect reinforcement. So technically you can build quite long puzzles. You can also keep them short, just like one exercise per puzzle and you can, you can use very many different exercises with this structure. I hope this clarifies it a little bit.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, it gives us kind of a little bit of a picture of what we're, what we're thinking about.

Mari Valgma: And of course they can come to the webinar and see the actual video examples, which will clarify a lot more there. There will be a lot of video examples in the webinar. I really try to show all of the different options that we've used or there's different setups that we've used with puzzles.

Melissa Breau: Can you share a little more about kind of what you're gonna cover in the webinar and then maybe who should consider signing up for it?

Mari Valgma: Yes. So in this webinar, first of all I will talk about our Movement Puzzles and I will show some videos so that we are all on the same page that what do they actually look like and what kind of exercises are we talking about?

And then I'll also share how these exercises and how this kind of training can help sport and working dogs, especially the ones who have to navigate some kind of challenging surfaces independently. So without the handler guidance or you learning by the side or encouraging them. So that includes, for example, dogs who actually agility dogs for running the dog walk, for example, dogs doing parkour where they have to move on different surfaces. And obviously one of my passions is search and rescue dogs who have to navigate a whole lot of different surfaces on their own and while working. So these are just a couple of examples and I will also, because Movement Puzzles actually have a lot of benefits beyond helping our dogs become more skillful in their movements.

Movement Puzzles also help, for example, to improve confidence for dogs who are maybe shy or not that, well, brave. For example, when exploring the surroundings or who, who want to stay really close to their handlers and are expect hoping for a lot of guidance, then Movement Puzzles for example, can help them become more independent and more interested in exploring the world and also feel more confident when going to explore different objects or their surroundings.

And we'll talk about that, how that works, how movement passes can help these shy and more sensitive dogs to feel more confident in the world. And we'll also cover some other benefits like how it affects the dog's learning abilities because I'm really passionate about how the mind and body work together. So how looking after your dog's physical skills affect their, the mental side of training, how they are able to focus better and learn new skills faster and so on. I find it super fascinating. So that's something that will cover as well. So it's definitely something that will be useful for sport and working dog handlers, but also if you're not in actively involved in sports, that includes this kind of tricky situations. But you do have a sensitive dog who tends to be more careful with things than it's something that you maybe of interest for you.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Exciting. So to kind of round out our chat, I've got one last question here, which is, if we were to drill down everything we've been talking about into like a key takeaway or piece of information you really want listeners to understand, what would that be?

Mari Valgma: So it's the same thing that I have or actually mentioned a couple of times because I think it is super important that we should never forget that it's the often the dog's body is to the thing that is doing all exercises and we have to look after it and teaching dogs how to use their bodies. Well, it's not something that you can just do once and then forget about it. It's a lifelong journey. My dogs who have all grown up doing fitness exercises, I still find things that we need to work on.

For example, with Mr. Bo in our search and rescue training, I constantly encounter things that need some tweaking or where we need to focus more on how, how he copes with different situations physically. And he has been raised with fitness training, so it's not something that is like, my dog is so fit, so that's it. I'm done. But it's, it's a process. It's it's, it does take commitment, but it's definitely also worth it for all the benefits. So don't forget about it that it's the body doing the things and it's always included in all of the training and it's best to look after it.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. All right. Well thank you Mari so much for coming on the podcast.

Mari Valgma: Thank you so much for inviting me. It was absolutely, it was really fun.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, it was great to get to chat about some of this stuff. And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Dr. Chris Zink to talk about movement in a slightly different sense. We'll be talking about gating and why it matters if you haven't already subscribed to the podcast in iTunes to the podcast app of your choice to 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 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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