The 3 Rules that Make or Break Your Agility Foundation

Saving time, teaching your dog to love the sport, and building agility skills that are solid anywhere you go — these are just some of the benefits of a strong agility foundation. 

But you likely have questions, like...

What goes into a strong agility foundation? Are there games you can play to help you get there? How early in your new agility partner's life can you get started?

Here's the good news: In this post, we'll share the answers to those questions.

And the best part? 

They're all things you can start working on today.

1) Happy Place is Real - All learning is contextual.

The story of what is to come is told while you are on your way to the ring. Your dog's Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) to the fears or joys he expects will be told clearly by his body language as you walk into the area.

How do you condition your dog to enjoy the competition ring space? It might be easy to do this at home, but it takes effort to ensure it carries over as you move from place to place.

Make each training space first and foremost a Happy Place. It's not about the skills until after you have a puppy or dog who expects to enjoy himself in the space where you want him to work.

You want to see a clear indication that your dog wants to go to the training spaces. He wants to be there.

Why? Because he feels happy and confident there.

That positive CER must transfer to other places away from home if you want your dog to do well away from home. If you make Happy Place your first priority everywhere you go, that will make generalization of your agility skills much easier.

As with our own learning, the expectation to enjoy and to do well is a major factor in the outcome of enjoyment and doing well.

2) Relationship First - How Does It Feel to be Trained By You?

Agility embraces action plus precision. It requires a higher state of arousal than many other dog sports. Relationships are complex even when you can control most of the variables. In agility, you and your dog will both need to embrace complexity on the run!

What is the best foundation game for building a good agility relationship? There are so many good choices. I will choose one that you might not have thought about: Teach your dog to put his own collar on.

It's a game of cooperation that can be taught at any age, even to very young puppies. The game is useful in daily life and will be very useful for your agility ring exit. How you and your dog play the game of "Collar On" says a great deal about your relationship!

Here is how I play this game with my agility boy, Sport. You can see that we enjoy Collar On as a win-win game. He doesn't tolerate his collar; he demands it. We play this game in the ring. It sets up a spirit of fun and teamwork as we begin and end each agility run together.

Teach it the way I am doing here, with cookies for on and for off. You won't need the cookies for long, because it's just fun!

Sport Collar On and Off Game

How does Sport feel about his training in this video? Design your early training games to build this kind of teamwork into your foundation.

How does your dog feel about training with you? That feeling will carry forward into training for agility skills.

3) Confidence and Trust - More Important Than Skills! 

Confidence: Create Value for Novelty. Play a daily game of "What is That?" in your house. Like all these other games, it's perfect for young puppies as well as older dogs.

Put one familiar ordinary item in an unexpected place. In my Empowerment class I use a video of puppy Koolaid being surprised by the family's teakettle sitting on the kitchen rug. I'll describe the game and then show you how I played this sort of game with baby Koolaid. A different surprise every day. Soon you'll be doing it more often just because it's fun for both of you. Soon your dog will love surprises!

Koolaid Teakettle 'What is That' Game

I obstruct little Koolaid's view of the teakettle as we walk into the room together. Then I front cross to show it to her and I say "What is that?"

It is the only thing on the floor in the small space, and I have pre-placed kibble around it.

That ensures it quickly becomes a 'good surprise.'

This is the key: the dog feels surprise, and then immediately becomes attracted to the novel item. The novel thing is a good deal for your dog. That is the feeling you want to condition over time. Soon they think of good things when they see unexpected things.

It's easy to set up such a session with one familiar non-scary item out of place in your home each day. That is hundreds of good surprises per year. That's how to condition your dog that unexpected things are good things!

Trust: Teach LAT. My favorite game for building trust away from home is Leslie McDevitt's "Look at That." It's a perfect foundation game for puppies and older dogs alike.

In a busy environment like agility areas, this is a useful game for worried dogs, reactive dogs, excited dogs. The most beloved game from the Control Unleashed program, this famous game, now called simply LAT, is the best way to teach your dog that you have his back in a busy environment. Like Happy Place and Collar On, teach the game at home and then take it on the road.

To teach LAT away from home, begin with a clicker and mild distraction, first in the car and then outdoors in the parking lot. Click when your dog notices something in the environment. Treat when he looks back to you.

If he can't look back at you, then your distraction was not mild enough!

Don't go into the building or onto the agility field until the outdoor environment is easy. It's important to preserve the agility space as a Happy Place where you and your dog can function well together. LAT is foundation homework that helps you do that. (Leslie McDevitt's newest book is called Control Unleashed: Reactive to Relaxed.)

One reason I love the LAT game for building your dog's trust is that it is not possible for you to ignore your dog or take his feelings for granted if you are practicing LAT. You will indeed have your dog's back if you teach this game and play it in new environments. It gives your dog a coping skill, and it trains you to observe your dog when you are out and about.

Using Motion to Connect the Rules Together. For agility dogs, we'll need to put our games of trust and confidence into motion.

Physical teamwork joins mental teamwork when you put these games into motion.

Can you walk with your dog beside you and feed him a cookie while you're walking together? Learn to play LAT while you are walking in parallel path. Collar On is a fun teamwork game while walking in parallel path. It's challenging! Can you play tug with your dog in parallel path?

Those are all useful agility foundation games. They will test your teamwork and also help you raise and lower your dog's state of arousal on cue, which will be very useful in agility training! Playing these motion games in agility spaces before you ask for work speaks to the level of readiness you bring as a team to the busy world of agility.

Three Little Rules 

Happy Place is Real, Relationship First, and Confidence and Trust Before Skills

It's fun to build these cornerstones of agility training. Any dog or puppy can play, and you don't need a big space or special equipment. They will make life with your dog more fun and they will keep your agility skills grounded as you go.

Keep those three rules at the forefront of your training and you'll have the foundation you need to teach even the most complicated agility skills you'll ever want. 

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