E338: Preparing Young Sports Dogs for Competition (Part 1)

 Join me, Megan Foster, Stacy Barnett, Barbara Lloyd, and Hélène Lawler for a conversation about preparing young sports dogs to compete - including the good, the bad, and the ugly! Note: This episode ran long so we've split it into two parts.


Melissa Breau: Hey guys, just a quick note before we start this episode. This episode ran really long, so we've actually cut it into two parts. So this is part one of our episode on preparing young sports dogs for competition. And you can expect part two out in just a few days. Thanks so much. 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 Megan Foster, Barbara Lloyd, Hélène Marie Lawler, and Stacy Barnett here to talk about preparing young sports dogs for competition. Hi all. Welcome back to the podcast.

All: Hi Melissa.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Alright, so to start us out, I wanna help listeners kinda identify some of those voices and have everybody kinda share a little bit about you and your current canine crew. Stacy, do you wanna start us off?

Stacy Barnett: Yeah, yeah. I'm one of the nosework instructors at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. And I've been teaching there since 2015, which is pretty cool. Out of my current four dogs, three are a little bit on the younger side. I've got three Labradors: Brava, Powder and Prize. And then my 12-year-old mini Aussie. My three Labradors, I started all as puppies and they all started in nosework so I think, I think it's gonna be a really fun topic. Awesome.

Melissa Breau: Megan?

Megan Foster: Yep. Hi, I'm Megan. I've been competing in dog agility for 25 years now, which is just, it's crazy every time that that number gets a little bit bigger. But here we are and I currently teach agility full-time online and I also mentor other agility coaches as well. There are five dogs that live in our home, ranging from two and a half to nearly 16.

And while the two and a half year old is the only one actively competing right now, they have all, at some point in their lives competed in agility, continue to do some demo dog work when necessary. And they do a lot of training in general, whether it's obedience or fitness and lots of agility because that's what I love so much.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. Hélène, what about you?

Hélène Lawler: Hi, I am Hélène and I'm also an instructor at FDSA and I have, what have I got these days? 14 Border Collies, two livestock guardian dogs, an Australian Kelpie. And I've recently added a rat terrier to the crew. All my dogs are working dogs, so the livestock guardian dogs guard my livestock. The Rat Terrier is meant to be a, hopefully she's a puppy still. So working Rat Terrier for clearing rats and the Border Collie's work sheep. I've done a number of sports over the years, but these days the only thing that I'm doing, I've decided to go do deep dive, go all in on herding. I also train fitness and we hike and do things like that. But in terms of like training and preparing to compete, it's herding. And this is gonna be super fun to talk about 'cause I've actually been out of competing for a few years for a number of reasons. I started up a farm and a business and everything and then my competition dogs passed on and I've started up, started getting some new ones up and running. And then with the, you know, the last three years we haven't been doing much competing anywhere, any of us. It's a little hard to do herding online as a competition sport. So I'm just getting back into it. So a lot of these questions that we're gonna be talking about, I've been very actively thinking about. So I'm excited to have this conversation. Thank you for inviting me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Barbara, how about you?

Barbara Lloyd: Well, I'm really happy to be here. I've been a guest instructor with Fenzi now for about three or four years I think. And some of the, I kind of bounce around in there as far as what I do. I do some stuff in the School of Behavior, and then some other neat stuff in my own personal life though, with my dogs. What I'm doing mostly right now is stock dog and herding, like Hélène. I have seven dogs currently. They age in, they're, they're my youngest is just over a year. That's Nimue. And then my oldest dog is 13, but it's mostly my younger dogs that I do the herding with as well as my one mixed breed dog, Dori Time. She does herding as well, but she doesn't do the field stuff that the Border Collies do. I have three Border Collies. I kept two siblings out of my litter that we had with my Pearl Girl and then I imported what they call a working beardie from England when she was a puppy. I went and got her. So she's exactly half Bearded Collie, half Border Collie. And she's just absolutely a joy. She's just so funny. I just love watching her. But like I have three young dogs, so I'm getting them ready and I'm really excited to talk about this 'cause I compete a lot and I have a real kind of pro, maybe a different take on competition than most people do. So I'm very excited to talk about this. So thanks for having me, Melissa.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. So I do think it's a big topic, I think it's a hot topic right now in particular, I think there's been a lot of conversation just kind of generally lately about who should and who shouldn't maybe be competing and what skills dogs need kind of beyond just those obvious sports behaviors, right? Like more than just going over the dog, walking in the tunnel or out to herd the sheep or whatever. How do you personally kind of reach that point where you decide your dog is ready to begin competing, or even if not competition ready yet maybe ready to try a fun match or ready to do for exhibition only, kind of depending on your sport. Megan, wanna start us off? I know you just went through this…

Megan Foster: Sure thing. I mean, yes, this is basically my whole life right now. I am just gonna, I want to be the specialized person of like preparing for competition. I want this to be what I do all the time. So for myself and when I'm talking with clients about getting ready, I want to see that the team has demonstrated all of the pieces at some point in a familiar environment, but also in a novel environment. And I say pieces because it's not practical or realistic to have done the whole thing with all of the pieces at the same time. So a lot of my preparation might have the entire routine, but it doesn't have the entire coursework and it doesn't have 150 people there, but it has a certain number, a few people there, and they're doing very specific things to show me that the dog is fluent. When I say all the things I'm talking about in the ring pieces and the out of the ring pieces, creating, navigating traffic, waiting in line, getting measured, waiting some more, entering the ring, waiting some more. There's a lot of waiting and agility. So I wanna make sure that they can do that in a familiar place and also in a novel place because I know that's, that's just realistic for them.

Hélène Lawler: On the handler side of the equation, I want to feel confident that I can actually guide my dog through those pieces. I don't want the competition to over face either member of the team. And so I am, I'm kind of, I have like a list and I'm trying to check off as many of those things as I can before I enter a competition.

And I might consider something like FEO or not for competition if I'm not able to check off as many boxes as I would feel comfortable before entering not for competition. So that's kind of a specialized case for specific teams if they don't, if they just can't check off enough of those boxes. So this is something I'm also sort of as, as I just said, actively working on kind of getting back to competing. So how do like, so evaluating myself, one of the things that I would say that I really break out the dog skills and the handler skills, like Megan was just saying. I think this is really, really important to understand that there are different sets of skills that both ends of the leash need to have.

And also there's a difference, there's also the skill of competing as a separate skill in and of itself. And so when you have the dog and the handler are both green, it can be quite challenging to then also work on the, on the, on the com competition skills. If you don't have your own, if you're not really familiar or comfortable with competing as a skill in itself, like with or without your dog in other areas. So for one of the things that I have done is I've actually purchased, and this is, I know a lot, this is not something that a lot of people would consider doing. I think it would be great if it became more common in the dog sport world. I purchased a trained dog so that the dog had all the skills that was necessary to do the competing.

And then the idea was then I would be able to compete and really focus on me, focus on my handling skills, focus on my, my mindset, which is of course, critical to be able to keep your mindset stable. Unfortunately then, then we hit lockdown and I didn't get a chance to put that into practice, but that, that really breaking out the, the like competition skills in terms of like keeping your mind in a calm place is, is very important. And then you have your handling skills and then you have your dog skills. And so I, if you don't have a way to test all three of those, one of the, one of my rules of thumbs for me personally is I recognize that we don't rise to the level of our hand of our training. We fall to the level of our habits. So when you go out, and especially if you haven't competed for a while, like myself, I just put this to the test a few weeks ago and boy, you know, this is, this has been very much the case for me as much.

I'm a mindset coach. Like I coach this stuff all day long and, and yet when, you know, when I'm out there, I'm just an, I'm just a human like the rest of us, right? And I still have my brain drama and so on, but going, I want to be able to, so for me to compete, I wanna know that when my brain goes, like takes a hike and I'm just flying on autopilot because my stress levels just spiked, my autopilot along with my dog's, autopilot is going to be sufficient to get us through the, the course. So I wanna know that my, like when, if, if I get knocked off my game, if my arousal goes up, if my mindset falls apart, I have enough practice that I have the skills in my on autopilot to be able to do the basics out there. And that might be simply like, I'm gonna leave, we're done. I've had that before where I just like, I had an exit routine, well rehearsed so that I could, when things really started to fall apart, I could just switch gears and go into autopilot and do my exit routine in a way that really supported my dog and myself.

So having that autopilot feeling that I have the autopilot there as a backup system, that's really important for me for competing. And I don't know if I am making myself clear about that, but that's a piece that I like to have in place. So as an example, when I was competing, I went to a fun match, which was really, which was awesome, and it was a farm trial, so it wasn't a typical field trial like you would normally see where the dogs go out and get sheep and bring them back. It was, we had a whole bunch of skills and, and I do farm chores all day long, so I'm like, I can do farm chores all day long and my dog can do farm chores all day long. So when I went out there remembering the order, we had to do the chores, we're working with different sheep, the, you know, I'm trying to get them through a gate and I don't know how the latch works, all those little things.

There's an audience of people watching me. All those little things trip you up and you, you know, some of those things you can plan for and some of things, some of the things you can't if you've never been, you know, like the thought of like, oh, I don't know how this gate opens. That had never been on my practice routine, right? But my teamwork with my dog went onto autopilot and we were able to complete the chores even if it got a little messy, it was fine, but like we're, our teamwork could withstand me, my brain short circuiting as I'm trying to figure out the gate in front of an audience on a time clock when I hadn't expected that that would be a problem.

My arousal goes up, but my cues are still smooth, my dog still understands them and so on. So that for me, that's an important piece to get in place. And I say that from someone who's not a fierce competitor, unlike I think the rest of the people on this, on this panel I compete for, to test my training.

I have like, I get all sorts of trial nerves. It really, I get very stressed out. So I've done a lot of work on this to be able to walk out there and feel really good about competing and I'm not always there a hundred percent of the time. So I have systems in place to support myself and that's, that's one that's really important for me.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. Alright, Barbara.

Barbara Lloyd: Okay. So I do actively compete in the stock dog and herding world. And I think the one thing that differentiates it from a lot of the other dog sports is we have another species in play. And you, you don't know what those sheep are gonna be like, you don't know what if they're gonna turn and be on the fight, if they're just gonna take off down the field, if they're not gonna move, if they're just gonna split, if they don't have a natural leader in the group, are they just gonna run in every direction? And as a result of that, I think that the one thing that we have as a benefit to that is that the top handler in the world can walk out there and get a crappy set of sheep and it'll all go to crap in a heartbeat.

And nobody bats an eye because they just, they just kind of go, thank God that wasn't me. And that person will walk off the, yeah, and the person will walk off the field and everybody's like, yeah, bad luck, man. Like, too, like that was, that was really too bad. And I think that in this sport we're very lucky in that there's not a lot of finger pointing as far as, oh, you shouldn't be out there, you're not ready, because some days when you're out there, it's very hard to differentiate between who should be out there and who shouldn't be out there. But myself, I think that for me, what are, what are kind of, what are my standards? What, what do I want when I'm walking out there?

First of all, what I really want is I wanna know that I have a really good relationship with my dog. I wanna know that we're walking out there as a team, we're out there and it's cohesive and my dog is out there looking at me with me looking for sheep and saying, we're doing it together. You gimme the go and I'm going.

And I think that, you know, walking out onto that field and having that is one of the most important things because even if your dog can't find the sheep or the sheep go all over, you walk through that gate and you still existed in your dog's world and your dog is willing to leave you. And for me that is a huge part of the equation.

The other part of the equation is when I'm going out into a field trial or an arena trial, I want my dog, I wanna be able to call my dog off. It's a huge thing in stock work as, as the skill is I wanna be able to calm my dog off and I wanna lay down or a stop, like in hurting everybody says, well, you told your dog to lay down and it didn't lay down, but it stopped. And that is the same as a lay down in our world. So I need to stop, I need a call off. I need my dog to know that I exist. The other thing that I will train for as well is I will train for some of the trials that I go to.

The sheep are set on horseback. So there's a whole three ring circus up at the top of the field. So there'll be this massive pool with water for sheep. There'll be two people on horses. There'll be two other or four other Border Collies up there. There'll be a horse trailer and your dog has to go up there, find the sheep, lift them off of the other dog and the horse and the handler and bring them down the field.

So your dog has to be prepared for that. So either you have to train, go somewhere where you know, somebody who's got a horse or some other kind of big livestock that can be around but not be part of the action. So that's one piece of the puzzle that I will train in as well. And another piece of the puzzle that I will train in is having somebody out there holding the sheep like a setter.

So I'll put grain out with my sheep when I'm training so that my sheep will stay. So there might not be another dog out there, but there'll be grain. But there'll be a person standing there so that the dog goes out there and realizes even though there's somebody there, those sheep don't belong to that person. There are sheep, honey, you can bring them to me. Because a lot of dogs when they first start and they get up at the top of the field and they see somebody holding the sheep with their dog and they're standing there and the sheep are obviously, you know, oriented towards that person. The dog says, I can't take those sheep. They're, they belong to somebody else, but I will train that in so that the dog knows you can go up there and you can take those sheep off of that person. So that's kind of, those are the things that I like to see, you know, so part of it's relationship and part of it is hardcore skills. And like Hélène said, there's also the, a huge mindset portion of it.

And this is where I'm a little bit maybe different in some respects in that when I'm going out onto the field with my dog or you know, my, I, when I go out, I look at my dog, I crouch down and I say to my dog, and I do this before training too. I say, I promise you I am. And I say it out loud, I promise you I'm going to be the best handler that I can be for you today. I don't know what it looks like and I don't know what it, what that, what's gonna happen, but I can, I promise you I'm gonna hold my end and you can count on me. And then I walk out.

And when I, the other thing that I find with competition is competition is the one thing that zeroes in for me, what me and my dog did, right? But more importantly, what we did wrong. And then I know what I need to go back and train and 'cause it's just this, it's, it's like being under a microscope for me.

And that for me is one of the most exciting parts about competition. I mean, I love winning. I mean, hey, Hélène knows how much I love to win. We talk about it all the time. She's like, oh Barbara, oh my god. And I'm like, I know, but I wanna win. And I love winning.

But at the same time I don't personalize loss either. 'cause I look at losses. Wow, that was invaluable information that nobody else could have given me. I know that now and I know what I need to work on and I'll know if I need help to train it or if it's just practice. So that's, I guess kind of my take on the whole thing.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Alright, so Stacy, how about you? How do you know when your dogs are ready to begin?

Stacy Barnett: Oh yeah. You know, a lot of, a lot of what I do is actually very similar to what Barbara does, although it's in a very different, very different context. You know, it's, it's really, and I'm, I'm listening and I'm like nodding my head.

I'm like, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, a lot of it's very similar because even though I do compete a lot, I don't train for the competition. So for me, I'm always saying it training is training and trialing is testing. So when I take my dog out, it's a moment in time,, I'm testing to see what I've got now because of the competition that I'm in, the dogs have to be a certain age before they can actually compete. And by then, because I've built up experience from all my prior dogs, thank you. Prior dogs, you know, the dogs generally come out, they're a lot more, they have a lot more training by the time they hit that 1-year-old than they might if I had less experience.

So I know the handler's a big part of that. But what I'm really looking for are really four fundamentals. I'm looking for focus. I'm looking for motivation, I'm looking for independence, I'm looking for hide commitment. Those four things, when you come together and if the dog understands what source is, they understand the basic skills and they can do this in a novel environment, you're, you're doing pretty good at that point. 'cause at that point then you start layering skills. And those skills are what helped to take you up the levels, the skills and, and building the dog's overall capability. But, you know, as a lot of times people always say, well, do I train for, you know, AKC?

Am I training for NACSW? And they throw out all these other organizations. I'm like, no, I trained for a really good searching dog. And then I just basically, it's a test, right? You take the dog in and this is the test. And at the end of the day, you know, same thing as what Barbara was saying, it gives you information when things happen and maybe they don't go as planned, right? That's information. And then what you do is you, you kind of do a debrief of the day. You kind of build that into your training plan. But I'm not necessarily saying, okay, for NW one,

I need to do this and I'm not training to that. I'm training for a really solid searching dog with those four fundamental pieces and building the teamwork as I go, right? So then, you know, it's not a test. It's, you know, do my dogs have those four fundamentals and can they go into that novel environment?

Because where we, when we work our dogs, the dogs have zero chance to acclimate to the area. So they've gotta be able to go into a brand new environment, start to work. And that's why I have focus is my number one, can they go to that new environment? Can they start working immediately in focus? I mean, right off the start line, are they focused? Are they, are they working with, without thinking about overly thinking about the handler or you know, thinking about the environment or thinking about the time, or is the judge, or hey, what's off there on the horizon, right? Or maybe, oh, there's a dog that's, that maybe peed over here at one point. Or "Oh wow, that's a really cool smell." You know, I need the dog to come off and be focused. And they have to be able to do that in a novel environment. So you're building all those other fundamentals, you know, your reinforcement system, all of those things, all of those pieces. And it's, you know, when you go to trial, it's just a snapshot in time.

Melissa Breau: I've seen a bunch of nodding. I wanna give folks a chance if anybody wants to like comment on somebody else's stuff. So did anybody have anything they wanted to add there before we talk about the whys of all this?

So there, there was a lot in there right around like different things that you look for. And I'm kind of curious kind of how you came to some of those things. Like how much of it was just personal expectations, how much of it's expectations from other competitors, your sport, how much of it's just kind of the culture, like what made you kind of come to those things as the things you want before you step out onto that field or venue or what have you? That very first time. Hélène?

Hélène Lawler: So my criteria are very much my own. They came about through trying to work through my trial nerves and figure out how to get myself into a place where I could enjoy what I was doing. My start into the dog sport competition world. I actually started competing in herding and agility at the same time and with the same dog.

My Hannah, and we did very, very well. She was a fantastic dog. We were about, she was about three. We had good foundation skills. We went out, we competed together in both sports. We did very well. And what was fascinating to me for that experience was I could walk into an agility trial and I was calm, cool, and collected. I had fun. I'd run my dog, we'd do very well. We'd walk off with our Q or in our ribbons and whatever else, and I had a good time. And then I would go to a herding trial and I would be a complete wreck. Like nerves, not being able to sleep for days beforehand. Running to the porta-potty like 20 times before my run, not being like, just being a complete nerve nervous wreck. And we did very, very well. In our very first season, Hannah and I came high in trial in I think every one at all. But one trial we entered at the novice level and we ended up with winning the novice provincial championship, which was really amazing and a real honor. However, that meant we could no longer, I could no longer ever compete in novice. And so I had three months under my belt. 'cause our seasons are short here in Canada. And so three or four months of competing and suddenly I was, I was in with the big hats. And, and so that was one of my biggest challenges was all of a sudden I was only able to compete at the mid level, pro novice level. And then there were almost no trials. And so, and, and you know, everybody's always encouraging you, you know, like, move up, move up, you're fine, you can do it.

So then I moved to open after just a couple of competitions at the, at the pro novice level. So I was competing with the top handlers on the continent. And I was just, I just did not have the skills. I didn't, my dog didn't have the skills, I didn't have, I didn't have the handling skills, my dog didn't have the working skills, and I absolutely did not have the competition skills, the, the ability to like the mental skills and which I'm super grateful for because that is like my jam now, right? This is, I've like built a whole career around, around working on, on mindset coaching because I had to work so hard for myself.

So I, after becoming a complete, as I said, I was just, it was just a complete hot mess and an absolute wreck and just, I sat myself down, I said, I'm gonna do one of two things. I'm either gonna figure out how to make this an enjoyable process, or I'm gonna just walk away from competing and go back to hiking and just having fun with my dog and forget that.

So that was a pivotal moment for me to sit down and make that decision. And I decided I am going to, I don't wanna quit, so I gotta figure this out. So that launched me on the path of figuring out how to develop, you know, the mindset skills, the how to be prepared, how to go into competition. And I read books. I interviewed people. So when I say it was my, like, I've done a, I have studied extensively and this was, I mean, this began in 2008, so I've been on this path for a long time. So when I say it's my own, they're my own criteria. But very much developed through a lot of conversation, study, observation, watching, you know, gleaning from others and listening to podcasts and all of that. And I've come up with a system that works really well for me. And I also coach a lot of people on this specifically. So I've, through the back and forth of helping others, I've also kind of tweaked my own process. So that's, that's how I got to where I'm at.

Melissa Breau: Barbara, Do you wanna take it from there?

Barbara Lloyd: So I think that the, you know, going out and competing, and it, for me, it doesn't, I don't really get stressed about it, and I'm not exactly sure why, but part of it could be because when I was growing up and in school, we were kind of an experimental group and we were sectioned off, and there was a group of us that were, if you wanna say at the top tier. And everything that we did was competition minded. We were groomed to be competitive. Everything that we did was timed and marked. So your grade was marked on, not only did, how, what was your mark, what was your grade, but what was the, what was the amount of time you did it in? So, if I did it quicker than somebody else and got more answers right then my grade was higher. So I, from a very young age, I was groomed to be, I guess extremely competitive, but in my own life with my competitiveness, what it grew me to be was mean and not very nice and cutthroat. And, but when I do dog sports, I'm not like that at all. I don't project that kind of pressure that I had projected on myself as a child and as an adult from university and all of those things. I don't project that onto my dogs at all.

When I walk out there, I'm walking out there and saying, you know, we're a team, we're gonna do this together. We're nobody knows what's gonna happen when we walk up to that post. And I send the dog. So I'm actually a very, very compassionate and caring competitor for my dog. And it, so when I walk out there, it's kinda like, I don't really care as long as my dog doesn't, we don't have a major wreck, like when we talk about wrecks in, you know, and that means that you've run your, you've run the sheep into a fence or your dog took a sheep down, or the sheep scattered. As long as we don't have a major wreck, It doesn't bother me. What happens out there. As long as I can call my dog off, that's all I care about. And so I kind of put my pride, I park my pride behind the post. I walk up to the post I send my dog, whatever's gonna happen is gonna happen. I call her off. I tell her she's fabulous.

You know, whether we get a score or not, whether we get a ribbon or not, I really don't care because I'm still getting really important information about where we are and what I need to do. Because the one thing I'll tell you is, is when you win a lot or you place a lot, and I place a lot and I win a lot, but I, you, you can also stagnate very easily because you don't know what to work on. You're not giving your homework sheet. And that's why I love young dogs because then you get young dogs and I've got one that's 1-year-old and two that will be two at the end of March. And they always give you something to work on no matter what, because there's always, there's always a wreck, there's always a problem with the lie down. So there's always something to work on and you can't get comfortable because you just don't know what's gonna happen. And my goal with my three young ones is to start competing this summer. So I have a lot to work on.

But again, the other thing that I do too, or I don't do more importantly, is how my Pearl Girl performs. I don't, I don't say, well, because she can do this, then Bitty Betty can do this or Kenna can do this, or Nimue can do this. I see my dogs as complete individuals and I accept them for who they are. And I will, for lack of a better term, exploit what they're really, really good at so that I can make them feel good and empower them and get them to have confidence. Sometimes I'll let them get away with way more than what maybe what another trainer would, but it's because I'm making up for a deficit in another area so that when I do have to apply a little bit of pressure, something that they don't like that they're not good at, I've already built them up in other, in other areas. And another interesting thing that I do a lot with my dogs to build up their confidence and their resilience for competition purposes, is I do a lot of cognitive challenges. You know, you guys know my, all that stuff that I do.

And so by default, I'm always setting up problems for my dogs that they have to solve and do it independently. I'm able to take that into real life training on the stocks. And it does translate very, very well into competition as well. But mostly when I'm walking out there, I'm not walking out there thinking I'm gonna win this. I'm walking out there thinking, man, Barbara, you just hold your side of the equation, be the adult in this whole situation, and be the person that your dog knows that the your dog wants to come back to be the person that your dog, when it's 32 degrees out there and there is zero wind and it's so hot that you can barely breathe, be the person that your dog says, you know what, I've given a hundred percent, but I'm going to give you another 50% because I know I can count on you. And that's who, that's the handler that I wanna be out there or my dog. So it's always about my dogs and who I am for my dog. So, which is fundamentally different than when I'm playing chess or Risk..

Melissa Breau: Good. Noted. Noted. No board games with Barbara?

Barbara Lloyd: No, no. Unless it's against the computer lady.

Melissa Breau: All right, Stacy, what about you? Okay, so in, in terms of the standards, my self-imposed standards, they're definitely self-imposed, right? Because a lot of these, you know, once you get to the point where you've gone up to the top level and you put titles at the top level on your dog, you kind of know at that point what's possible. And for me, I'm always kind of pushing the envelope of what's possible. You know, when you start out and you have your first dog in the sport that you're doing, right? You learn through evolution, you're always learning something new.

And whatever you're learning, you didn't know beforehand, right? So every time you learn something new, you're adding onto your what you, what you know and what you learn. And, and you've got this little sliver of I've worked this one dog up through the levels and, and this is what I know. And then you get up to the top level. And in my sport that is the summit level. And my first dog was Judd who had, who I did Summit with. And he ended up with three titles before I lost him to cancer. And then we start again with a new dog. But at that point, we have some insight into what we need to be successful.

And then as we keep going through with each successive dog, we end up learning a little bit more and more. And I know for me, I also rely a lot on watching my students and seeing what do they struggle with? What are the things that really build them up? What are the important things that they need to be successful?

And I layer that learning on top of what I'm learning from my dog. So I'm starting to see like, okay, four, you know, now I've, you know, I've titled my third dog at Summit. So at this point now I've got eight titles over three dogs. And so, you know, bringing up my next dog who's getting very close to entering that level, you know, my youngest dog, I've got the experience of being able to lean on the previous dogs that have already done the level and the previous dogs. I've already been successful at that level. And what I'm finding is that each successive dog gets more and more competent at that level because I know more, I know what the important components are to success.

And those components aren't necessarily, oh, my dog can do a high hide. 'Cause that's what everybody focuses on. Oh, I need to be able to do high hides. I need to be able to do, you know, converging odor. Well, no, you really need your dog to be really committed to odor and to be extremely motivated, you need to be able to have that reinforcement, you know, that ability to really reinforce your dog beyond what you're even thinking. You have to have the, you know, the whole, you know, the, the whole scheme of it, right? It's building. 'Cause you know, the more you get to the upper levels with that dog that you started from the beginning,

you start to realize all the foundations and all those pieces that you build in from day one is what turns into your upper level dog. So for me, I'm looking at, and every time, you know, when I get a young dog, how am I gonna build that dog into my future summit dog? But when you start with your first dog, you're like, well now I have this dog and I wanna do this sport. What do I need to learn next? And it's a completely different mindset of what do I need to learn next versus I know where I wanna get to. And by the way, I keep pushing myself because that's what we do. We wanna learn, we wanna grow, we wanna get better.

And I see my dogs, I'm like, you guys are amazing, but if we could just tweak it here, if we could just add a little bit more here, right? I can build that in sooner and I get a stronger dog at the back end. And I, I think, so for me, when I bring a dog out and have these standards of what I'm looking for in my, in my dogs, it's all a result of the successes that other dogs have had throughout the entire all the levels. And it kind of, that's where it all kind of comes from.

Melissa Breau: I think that highlights like a lot of things that, you know, kind of everybody has said so far. Megan, do you wanna take it from there?

Megan Foster: I do. Certainly. My criteria for entering is set by myself. And it comes from, like Stacy was saying, all of the experience that you gain from going through the process. And you know, I started with Shelties while I was watching my family work with German Shorthair Pointers. So like I saw a lot very early on, but you know,, I had a Sheltie that really struggled with confidence. And then when I got my first Border Collie, he struggled with ringside behavior and being able to watch agility. And every time I would try to solve something, I would go look and I would go look for a solution. The only solutions that were available were kind of in the ring solutions, you know, changing some obstacle skill or changing some handling skill. But at some point in Sack's career, very early on actually, I could predict his takeoff and landing and anything that he was going to do with the obstacles within inches. Predicting was beyond easy at that point in our career. But I was still this very tense and nervous person taking him into the ring.

And so working with him and working with other dogs of my own, and also again with students, dogs, that you start to go, okay, there's not anything else that we can change inside the ring. So there must be some other piece of the puzzle. So when I started training Sprint, the two and a half year old, and I took this incredibly different approach than the norm of only focusing on preparation for the different environments and the different things that could happen and trying to minimize surprises.

I can't exactly predict everything that she's going to do with the equipment, but I'm not nervous at all. I know exactly what she's going to be like because I know that she's prepared to be there. And just having those questions answered for me, now I know that I had to go through all that to learn it and how to experience it, but it feel, it's now like non-negotiable for me because I recognize that competing is for myself and that none of my dogs care if they compete or not. They would act, they would all much prefer to go to training than a competition.

Remember all that waiting I was talking about, most of that doesn't exist in their lives at training, right? So for me it's now non-negotiable that they're prepared for almost anything and that there are minimal surprises for either one of us because I know that's how we can best take care of each other. And that's how I can assure that they want to be there at the competition and that competing isn't taking anything away from their life. And that's a big priority for me. And I couldn't have gotten here without everything else that I've already experienced in the dog training and dog sport world. So I'm happy to now share that as far and wide as possible because we don't all need to take 25 years to get here. Let's fast track that for everyone else.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, so thinking about all of that, right, y'all led very well into my next two questions. So the first part of that is, okay, so thinking about everything you guys kinda just shared, like how does that change what you think about or how you prioritize what you're training with a new puppy or a new young sports dog? And Barbara, you've got three of 'em, so go ahead.

Barbara Lloyd: Alright, that's, thank you. I think that for me, what, how I prioritize what I'm doing with a young dog is exactly like what Megan said, kind of, I focus a lot on environmental training as far as crate training, driving around, having no destination, having my dogs. I am kind, I guess you could say that I'm a little bit over the top on certain prep things because I knew that I wanted, my dogs were gonna have to travel.

So I took road trips where I would stay in hotels and prepare my dogs so that we weren't going and doing anything. It was just, we're going on a road trip, we're going to a hotel, we're staying there for two nights. Are you going to eat? Are you gonna potty, are you gonna settle in an X pen or in a crate because you need to live the lifestyle that we're gonna live. So those kinds of things. I've, even with Dory time, one of my mutts when she was little, I flew her on a plane just for the experience of it for travel purposes and competing. So for that first year, what I'm really doing is I'm looking at all of those things that are part and parcel of competing and I'm preparing the dog for those things, not doing any of the actual sheep training really, because they can't handle the pressure and they're not old enough to be able to take that on really. So I'll expose them to sheep a little bit, but there's none of that real pressure of you've gotta lay down, you need to do this, you need to do that, none of that.

It's just, we're gonna put some light sheep out there, they're gonna run all over. It's gonna give you a little bit of a good time. And that's that. And then the other thing that I do a lot of is I do, the cognitive challenges are a huge, huge, huge, huge part of rearing my competition dogs. Because what those cognitive challenges do is they set the dog up to do a task.

I'm there in a supportive role, but I'm not there to fix, to solve the problem for them. I watch them do it and if they need help, I don't go in and do it. I will alter the problem so that they can do it, or I'll give them adequate time. It's, you know, I don't have, it's not like, oh, it's been 30 seconds, you can't do it. I look very clearly for signs of are they enjoying the problem? Are they enjoying trying to figure it out because that's what I want. I want to rear my puppies. So they look at a problem in a challenge and they think, I can do this. Just gimme two more seconds. Yah, hold my bone, I got this right. That's what I'm looking to raise in these puppies. And that's what these challenges do. And then the rest of the time it's pretty freestyle. They have a lot of free time, they have a lot of free time when we're out in the field running and playing and they're just being dogs.

And then there's other times where, no, no, no, you gotta be in your crate and this is gonna happen and that's gonna happen. But, so it's kind of, you know, on the one hand it's a very intense education as far as cognitive challenges and things like that. But on the other hand it's totally freestyle. But you know, I came from a First Nations rearing and I guess I'm rearing my puppies the way that I was reared as a child, which was very much, there were a few rules. You had to abide by those rules. One of the rules was you had to just do good in school and you had to, you know, you had to respect your elders. But other than that, you could pretty much do whatever you wanted. And that's how I rear my puppies because I want them to come out and say, "Hey, yeah, what are we doing?" Instead of, "oh my God, what's gonna happen? I have no control over this. Who's gonna do what?"

Whereas I really believe that the way that I rear my puppies and I raise them and get them ready for competition is they come out and they say, yeah, I got this. Whatever, it's not, this is, this is not gonna defeat me. And the other thing is, I am very crafty about helping them believe that as well.

I will set things up in a way for them to be extremely successful and be able to do things in a progressive way in little increments where they do feel on top of the world. So that's how I'm preparing my dogs for competition from a young age until they actually start their real hardcore dog dog training, which they're in now. You see?

Melissa Breau: Stacy, what about you?

Stacy Barnett: Yeah, so I would say that what I prioritize is novelty and novel places and when, and so what I mean by novelty is, you know, different types of surfaces, right? Different types of environments working in different types of environments. Can they focus in different types of environments? Are they confident with their physical environment if possible?

You know, I even get them to different climates because odor behaves very differently in different climates from the novel places. Honestly, I don't train in training buildings. I actually avoid training in training buildings. I don't need them. I don't want them, you know, I want my dogs searching in new places all the time. And between that and, you know, my dogs actually get to love working in novel spaces when they love working in novel spaces. Honestly, this goes back to kind of, my dogs actually love trialing more than training, believe it or not, because they go and it's a place that they've never seen before. It's a little exciting. They're like, woo hoo, I've never been here before.

And we're getting to work different places that we maybe we've never done, never searched that sort of area before. And that's really what I prioritize. But to do that with a puppy, they have to be able to, you know, kind of Barbara kind of touched on this, they have to be able to be comfortable, you know, in their crates.

They have to be able to work out of the car. This part actually gets very easy for me. It's when you have multiple dogs and you get a puppy, they just automatically kind of tag along with you, right? They automatically kind of like, well this is our life now we're gonna crate now we're gonna crate at the trial. You know, it gets to be very easy once you have the multiple dogs with your first dog, it's a little bit harder with your first dog. You really want to prioritize things like, can you crate nicely in the car? Can you wait in the car? Can you go potty on cue? All of these really important things that you need to have in place really to be able to trial, just to be comfortable trialing. So that stuff is kind of like a given, because I kind of do it all the time anyway with the new dogs. 'cause just by simple fact that they've gotta, you know, kind of, you know, they've gotta tag along, right? But then, you know, it's building that love of novel environments where novel environments get to be exciting, novel environments get to be fun.

And it's all about making the novel fun. And if I can do that and I can get them really, really wanting, you know, having that, that high commitment, those pieces, everything else falls into play. That is just experience, honestly. It's just experience at that point.

Melissa Breau: Megan, you wanna take it from there?

Megan Foster: Sure thing. My, what I prioritize is always very individualized to the puppy when we really start breaking things down. But it is based on where I expect to go with that puppy in the sport world. Luckily there's a ton of overlap in just living with the type of dog that I like to live with. So preparing to live with me and preparing to live in the sport world.

There's a lot of overlap there. But ultimately it comes down to prioritizing what their brains are capable of every step of the way. So that, and also who I bought, so like when I bought Sprint, I had zero fears that she was going to be slow or hard to motivate. Like I knew that she was gonna go fast as soon as she was confident that speed was not an issue.

And having to teach her to not dive into my breakfast every morning solidified that she was gonna be pretty easy to motivate. So not a problem. I don't have to work on those things, but that meant that she's easy to motivate. So the priority was going to be, can you be in exciting places? Can you appreciate novelty without being overwhelmed in either direction by novelty, right? I don't want an overreaction in, in either direction of fear or oh my God, let me at it. I don't actually need that in agility. So it's always about, so yes, echoing what the others have already said about novelty. Yeah, I want my puppies to be really confident and really brave and approach novelty with optimism. But I can't say that that was the first priority with Sprint because she wasn't approaching novelty with optimism naturally.

So it had to be woven in slowly and very methodically and systematically and not just taking a puppy everywhere to explore, which is exactly what I could do with a puppy before her, which was my Parson Russell terrier. He is like, yeah, right? Like, you know, my life was, if I dropped something the Border Collies would scatter.

Oh no, what's being thrown at us? And the terrier's like, cool, you like drop something and like diving on it that, so you can't really approach those two personalities the same way. So knowing that I ultimately have the same boxes that I need to check with every dog, if I am always putting their brain and their experience first, I'm probably going to get it done. And it doesn't really matter to me in what order or on what timeline that it all happens in.

Melissa Breau: Hélène, you wanna round us out?

Hélène Lawler: Sure. So probably a lot of what I'm gonna say is, you know, we've talked about already, but when I train up a new puppy, I also, it will vary. The path will vary from puppy to puppy.

And like Megan was saying, I like to make sure that I don't see extremes in either direction. So I want to keep my puppies experiencing life in such a way that they build a stable, confident nervous system and that being in a state of optimal arousal as opposed to over arousal, which could look like being stress high or stress low.

I wanna avoid those, especially in the first couple of years while they're developing, wanna really make this like a, like really build out their, a solid nervous system. So that's my like top priority. And I will vary that depending on what the dog is show or the puppy is showing me as I raise them. But generally speaking, most of my puppies get to be, and I raised a lot of puppies. I've got 14 Border Collies right now. I've the only one that, that, let me do a quick tally in my head. No, there are two that I didn't welp out myself. One of them I got from Barbara and the other one I imported from overseas and the others are all pups that I have raised since birth.

So I've got lots of practice with this now and I want them to learn how to just be luggage is what I call, like I want them to be able to go with me everywhere. I will attest to Barbara being absolutely fantastic at doing that. 'Cause I have one of her puppies that she did the first three months worth of work with, and that puppy has been just like the best luggage possible. I can take her everywhere. So what I do with Annie, what I did immediately, right, pretty much from the get go was I took her to trials when and events with me as an auditor or as a spectator. And I just brought her along because she really had those skills. She had those skills down really well. She also has a really stable temperament or nervous system so she can just like go and be fine and nothing really phases her, which is really lovely. So with her, I've taken her to a number of events.

I've dragged her around all sorts of places. I've gone to a bunch of clinics where I was auditing, not participating. And, her job was just to either sit in the car or come and sit next to me and watch and then we take little breaks and go for walks and come back. But then I have two other youngsters who are basically the same age as her, who are my own puppies. And they are, they don't have that lovely, stable, nervous system that Annie came with. They, they definitely are. And that's why actually, 'cause I held those, held, one of them in particular, I held him back 'cause I saw it as a very young puppy. I was like, this puppy, I'm reluctant to sell him 'cause I can just see that's a puppy that's gonna have a lot of big feelings about all sorts of things. And so I've been very, very careful with him to raise him in a way to just really try and get him to be as stable as possible. And for him, that has been not taking him places.

We do tons of off leash hiking. He does lots of running in the field. So and he's had, he's had a very different upbringing even though they were both roughly the same age. And I just respond to what I'm seeing with the dog in front of me, what they need. And with him, I'm just like, this is a long game. This is not a dog that I'm gonna be hitting the trial field at two years of age with. Now one of the things that's really, I think may be an advantage in the herding world, not always but may, but often, is that they are built, they have this built in.

If you get a, you know, working bred dog, they've built, built in desire for the work. And as long as we don't damage that, then that you can take on the road. So the other piece that I really prioritize is when we start getting into training, I want them to have a love of the work and the passion for what they're doing.

And I also want them to have an enormously strong trust bond with me. And so I want them to know, like when we go somewhere, so even Grin like his mother, when she was young, she also was sort of, she had big feelings about strange dogs, which surprised me. 'cause she didn't for a while.

And then I took her to an agility event and she just was like, and I was like, Ooh, okay. But she loves her job so much and I can take her and I, you know, when she's been to trial, she's been to clinics and she knows when we go there, she knows that like, I've got her back. She's never gonna have to protect herself or her space. I've always got that covered. We have an amazing relationship in our working relationship and, you know, non-working too. And she loves her job so much. So because of that, now as a mature adult, she's very, she can go into a trial and be around other dogs and she is like, I don't like other dogs, but I know they're not gonna bother me and I know I have a job and everything's gonna be fine. So I prioritize building up that nervous system. I just want that stable, confident, nervous system and working with, depending on what the dog in front of me needs to build, that I build this, the desire, the passion for the work, or I nurture it and I protect it. And then I also really focus on the, the, the trust and connection with me as a working partner and friend. And when I have those three pieces together, I find I can very easily take that on the road.

I have land. I can do all my own training here. I may not take a dog off the property until they're like two or three years old. And I can take, I have taken my dogs like for the very first time, like off my property other than, you know, vet visits and stuff like that.

But, you know, into an event with no puppy classes, no prior training, nothing like that. And I go straight into a trial setting and they're fine because I have that foundation. So that's how I approach it. But I also am not trying to get a dog into a trial, you know, at 18 months or, you know, if it's two or three years of age, that's fine with me. Generally it's gonna be older.

We'll be back in just a few days with part two of our conversation on preparing young sports dogs for competition. If you haven't already subscribed to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice, 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! 

E338: Preparing Young Sports Dogs for Competition ...
E337: Lucy Newton - Follow That Track!

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