E328: Megan Foster - "Building & Maintaining Your Agility Startline Stay"

What do position changes have to do with maintaining a startline stay? Join Megan and I as we chat about teaching and maintaining your startline... even once you begin competing! 


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 one of the most current and progressive training methods. Today I have Megan Foster here with me to talk about start lines. Hi Megan. Welcome back to the podcast.

Megan Foster: Hey, Melissa. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, you wanna just share a little little bit about you for anybody who may not know you and your current canine crew? Sure. I have been involved in dog agility for 25 years or so, so I am currently a competitor. I coach other competitors. I mentor other agility instructors, and also for about 10 years, somewhere in there I was an agility judge, so I've seen a thing or two maybe. And yeah, you know, I, I can still be surprised, but I have seen quite a lot. And in my house there are currently five dogs who have done agility at, of some type in some way. And they range from 15 and a half all the way down to two years old.

And the two year old is my current competition dog. So she's kind of the one getting the most attention nowadays as far as sports goes.

Melissa Breau: I can't believe she's already two. I feel like you just brought her home.

Megan Foster: Well, and the Facebook memories keep popping up of her as a baby, and I'm like, yeah. Is he still that little baby? Yes, but she's two.

Melissa Breau: That's crazy. So I know you recently debuted with her. Yes. Do you wanna share a little on how it went? Any takeaways?

Megan Foster: I am, yeah. So she has had eight days of competition spread out from like the end of May to the end of July. So we did like eight days over those couple of months. And honestly, I'm shocked at how well things went and that it, it's weird because like I, I wrote the program, I trained my own program, I did what I would coach anyone else to do, and yet I'm still a little shocked at how well everything went and how easily she was able to transition from training to competition. So yeah. So I'm just so pleasantly surprised and pleased with how everything is going so far.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. Congratulations. It's a big deal.

Megan Foster: Yeah. Thanks. Yeah, it feels like a big deal.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, yeah. Especially, you know, kind of coming off of it, you know, kinda getting back into everything when it's been a little while since you've had a dog who usually…

Megan Foster: Absolutely. Yeah, totally. There it felt very high stakes to me having like one dog with health issues that kept her from fulfilling dog sport dreams, and then another dog that was very clear that competing was not for him. Yeah. It feels very satisfying at the moment. Yes. I Understood almost, oh yeah. Like almost a little bit smug, like, oh, I do know what I'm doing. Like, yes. Okay. Good. Woo. Yep.

Melissa Breau: As I mentioned kind of during the intro, I wanted to have you on to talk about start lines. So let's kind start at the beginning, right. So what are you looking for when you train a start line stay? What is kind of the goal? The goal that I have in mind for a start line is that the dog enters the ring focused and ready. And then once I get them into the position, I want them to maintain whatever starting position. I've left them in either a sit or down a stand, something else. And I want them listening very closely, and I want them to have this anticipation for, for going, I want them to be listening closely for that cue. That means that they can go now. So I want them very like tense, almost like they're primed and ready to run. Is it always the same position because you said sit down stand, you just like have one per dog. Is that kind of the idea, or does it change depending on the run?

You know, I'm, I'm like the least concerned with what the position is. Like that's the, I don't think that there's one that's superior than the other. I think that some dogs will have a preference for which position that they're left in. And I find that the fewer hoops that the dog has to jump through with the start line, the easier it's going to be in the long run. So if your dog likes to down and they offer a down, really quickly, use the down. If your dog doesn't want to put, if put their belly in the cold dirt, let them stand like, don't fight this. Yeah. And typically once I choose a position, yes, I'm usually leaving them in the same position every time.

But again, I don't get super fussy about those things. So if it were, if I was on wet grass and I didn't think she wanted to sit in the wet grass, I would leave her in a stand and it would be no problem.

Melissa Breau: I know like some folks, especially if they compete kind of at a local level, just kind of skip teaching a start line altogether, right? They just run with their dogs or they just kind of like out and take off or whatever. Can you talk about the advantages that having a good start line behavior kind of gives you?

Megan Foster: Sure. While I think it has to be individual for everyone and everyone can decide where they put their training efforts, the start line in particular is going to open up a lot more options for the handler and how they approach at least the beginning of the course, if not the entire course. And in particular, since I do a lot of my course strategy planning based on how I would lead out, and I use that strategy throughout the entire course, it feels really important to me to at least understand conceptually how a start line impacts your run. So even if it's not something that you use all of the time, you might find it really advantageous to have at least on some courses to open up those handling options for you.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. How is it kind of different from, you know, kind of any other stay we may kind of teach our dog for like kinda just our lives together?

Megan Foster: Basically, like I was explaining what my end goal is, it's a very active behavior. We think stay, and we automatically, you know, it's, it's not a group stay and an obedience where they're relaxed. No, this is, I want every muscle in their bodies like engaged versus a passive stay because we're waiting in line at Petco. I don't want you ready for anything. Like, so I want you falling asleep. Right. We're not out for a picnic. So for me, the biggest difference is I want to be thinking about active behavior versus passive behavior and, and also what they're anticipating.

Melissa Breau: How does that kind of impact what you do to actually train the behavior?

Megan Foster: Well, mostly it comes down to how I reinforce it. Like if I'm teaching a passive behavior and it's always followed with something super exciting, it's not going to stay passive for long. But with the start line, something exciting is always happening after it. So it morphs into an active behavior very, very quickly. And so I want to think about that in the long term. So I reinforce active start, active stays at the start line with active reinforcers. So I am releasing them to move way more often, if not always, versus feeding them in position.

Melissa Breau: Do you use a whole different queue for it? For them staying put. Yeah. Versus like a lifetime stay?

Megan Foster: Yeah, so they, especially with active stays, because this also applies to any sort of stopped contact is once I put you in a position, you should assume to stay in that position until you're given a go queue. So it's really the, the position, the cue to take the position, the, the cue to sit, the cue to down, the cue to stand is the stay queue. And then they're just listening for the go cue. For that next cue.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Yes. Yeah, exactly. You kind of mentioned the, the active piece of that, right? And I'm assuming that ties into what I was gonna ask you next, which is, I know it's really common for start lines to kind of erode over time, right? The dog begins competing and gradually that stay gets less of a stay and less of a stay, less of a stay. Is that inevitable? How do you maintain it? Like Yeah, talk me through all that.

Megan Foster: Oh my. Well, so gosh, what? Yes, because what's reinforcing the active stay is also breaking it, right? Because more and more anticipation builds and they start to, it starts like the active bit, the go bit starts leaking into the stay put bit, and then we don't have the stay put anymore. Like, yeah, this, and what I, what people think about it is like sometimes we think the dog's being naughty or the dog is anticipating this is just called learning. They're learning what's next, and they're like, I know, I know it. I know what's next. Let me show you how smart I am that I know what's next and I don't need you to tell me, look how smart I am. That's, that's all that's happening. And so when we kinda look at it like that, I think it opens up a bit more creativity and how we maintain it or fix it if it's already broken. So maintaining it does require some additional skills that I think are less common for agility dogs to learn. The first one I think is, is most people can get on board with it can be taught fairly quickly, and that is being able to have a reward behind the dog when you leave them. So that anytime I'm training, if I look at my dog and I want to release her, but she's leaning forward, her sit is not the pretty sit that I left her in. I don't wanna tell her she's wrong because she is staying put, but right, the learning is happening, right? Like she's, the, the active is creeping into my stay, and so I can choose to tell her to get the toy behind her instead. So that I'm still saying, thanks for that great effort. I absolutely love that you stayed there, but I don't love that you were leaning forward, you were going in the direction.

Melissa Breau: So in that moment, you're forward thought can thoughts?

Megan Foster: Yeah, exactly. In that moment, like I know that she wants the agility course more than anything in that context. So I can give her something that she still is very delighted with. It's her toy behind her, but it's not the thing that she was after. And so that particular skill I can start to select for those things.

And it is a tad bit ring sustainable because there are some organizations where you can choose to bring the toy into the ring and put the toy on the ground. Some organizations the toy can't leave your hand, so it's sort of ring sustainable. It just depends on which flavors of agility you play. But the other skill that I think is the harder sell, because it is, it can be complicated to teach our position changes because in the same way, so this is the completely ring sustainable solution. Same thing. If I look back and she's leaning forward, I can cue her to stand and her stand is a kickback stand, so she has to actually move away from the jump in order to take that position.

So same thing, I can select for perfect stays. And so the ones that are upright, she's focused, she's listening, but she's controlling all those muscles that are ready to go. Those get her access to agility every single time. And anything a little not as great as that, I can respond to it in a different way. I can make sure she's listening and then I can decide does she get, you know, if she stands up and it's a really nice stand, sure, let's let her have agility now, but I can, I can avoid that slippery slope if I have more, more ways to release the dog than just take the first obstacle.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. I imagine you, you mentioned, like training that does take some extra work, and I imagine there's actually quite a bit that goes into that.

Megan Foster: Yes. Fortunately we have brilliant obedience instructors at FDSA because that's what this is, is like you want, and it's maybe even a little bit more complex than the context of doing position changes in obedience, because I want the, I want to be able to cue the position changes while I'm moving away from the dog. And I want to be able to cue these position changes with a jump in front of them, a tunnel in front of them. Like everything about the situation says I want to go and I want them to be listening. It's, it's an effort like it, right? It has probably taken her entire existence for me to like feel comfortable using them in competition, but it so far has been way worth it. Yeah.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. So if somebody is thinking about rehabbing their start line, it has begun to erode and they're listening to this and going, Hmm, I think I need to fix it. Do they need to stop competing in order to fix it? You have to at least stop rehearsing the problematic behavior.

Megan Foster: So if you absolutely cannot stop competing, I would stop asking for a start line. I would come up with a completely different routine where you, you're not, you're not going to ask them to get into a position. Maybe you send them around your body and you take off running together. If you absolutely have to continue competing, it needs to look way different than what you want the final picture to be. The easiest way though is absolutely take a break from competing, take some time, reset things, train some new skills, and then get back at it. It's going to be a much smoother process. If the habit that they have created in training, kinda, we, we stop doing that because you'll, you'll find that you'll, it'll be fixed in training, but that habit that has already been created in competition still exists because every time you, you know, you have a good training session, you also go compete that weekend. You're basically undoing all the work that you've done. Yeah. Which makes it take really long, if not making it impossible. Yeah. At some point, like, you know, when I work with clients on this particular issue, I'm honest about it and like I try to, like, I can help them if they have like a few more competitions that they want to do, and oh, it's not a big deal, it hasn't been hurting me too much. But eventually there always comes a point where like, okay, you have to choose, do you want to fix this or, or not sort of thing.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, absolutely. Does your approach for teaching the behavior differ at all if you're teaching it for the first time versus if you're rehabbing it? Only to account for the habit that's already been formed and like the reinforcement history around it?

Megan Foster: If there's a lot of baggage or like maybe some stress behaviors that are related to it because of it going wrong for so long, we might have to go about things a little bit differently for each dog, but in general, the prevention is also the cure.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Yeah. So if somebody is kind of teaching it for the first time, how do you kind of decide, or even if they're rehabbing it, how do you decide that the say is now kind of ready for prime time? Either again or finally…

Megan Foster: You, you, you mostly don't know for sure, but anytime that I am thinking of entering a competition, and this goes for any behavior, and if I'm competing, I'm, I'm making this guess about all of the behaviors, right? So, so basically it's, I, I don't know, I'm, I printed out an entry form just today and it's 20 bucks a run. Do I, would, would I like to bet $20 that this is going to go well for me? And you know, and then you, you kind of look at your big picture like, okay, and it is kind of like gambling that, but you do control the odds. Like you, you get to see the stats, you get the inside information on this, like it should be a nice gamble for you. It should not be like scary if it's feeling like, if it's feeling a little bit too much like a slot machine, I would say it's not ready.

But if you're feeling like this is a for sure thing, you've done your research, you know what the odds are, and you're like, yep, 20 bucks no problem, then absolutely let's do this. Let's give it a shot and then get your data and pivot and move forward from there.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. So part of the reason we're talking about start lines is that you have a webinar coming up on the 14th.

Can you just share a little more about kinda what you'll cover in the webinar and who might wanna join it? Absolutely. So anyone who does agility obviously wants to listen to this webinar, but in particular, if you have a start line problem, absolutely this is for you because I think it is such a different approach to what most start line stuff out there kinda is.

And if you are needing to train your start line or get your start line more ready, like you're really happy, you're pretty happy with it, but you're not sure you're ready to put 20 bucks down for it. There are some things we can look at to really make sure that it's ready. But in the webinar we're gonna cover all the elements of the start line.

So like I said, they enter focused and then they're listening very closely. We're gonna, we're gonna go over each of those elements, we're going to go over all the skills that I think a dog needs in order to have a solid start line. I touched on a couple of those today. And then we're gonna go through some things that I see handlers do and even things that I have done in the past that feel really well intended and are really co even common advice, but they might be causing problems. So the common mistakes that we're gonna go over and some of the solutions to those might not be the ones that you're used to hearing because they're, it's so individual for each team. And like I said, the thing, the reinforcement, the ability to go is what's holding your stay together and also what's breaking your stay. So we have to be really smart about how we use that. And so we're gonna unpack quite a bit of those things.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Any final thoughts? Key points you can only leave listeners with?

Megan Foster: Hmm. Yeah, I, I think that when it comes to this training project or any training project, we first have to decide like where do, where does my dog and me and my dog together, where do we fit in this whole like agility scheme and you know, what are my goals for this team? And then prepare for that because your results are a direct reflection of your preparation, but everyone might be preparing for something different and that's okay. I like that.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Alright. Well this was awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Megan.

Megan Foster: Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Heck Yeah. And thanks to all 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 ben sound.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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