The Value of Foundations

(Original Post on March 22, 2016)

I was recently talking to a friend about Jenga’s training, and it got me thinking about how my training approach has made such a dramatic change over the past 20+ years, but in particular over the past 4 years. Way back when (with my first two agility partners), we used to train agility to our dogs by simply getting them onto the equipment right away. We would do so either with force (shove them through the tunnel, pull them through a tire with their leash, force them over the dog walk with 3 people spotting and handling the dog over the equipment). It was fun for the handler because we got instant gratification of our dog immediately “doing” “agility.” But let’s be honest. Our dogs were slow on the equipment. They relied heavily on handler interference, and they weren’t the happiest of agility dogs I’ve seen over the years. In addition, it was really hard to progress the dog as we always seemed to be dealing with the same performance problems. For Brooke, it was her weave entries and contacts. For Baxter it was teeter confidence and distance work.
Then the sport got smarter, and we started bringing in more agility foundations. The dogs would play on mini-equipment, do some body awareness training, and learn about being in the handler’s Reinforcement Zone. As an instructor and as a trainer, I saw the immediate benefits of implementing these foundation skills. This was Kelsey’s training era. We jumped pretty much head-long into these when she was a puppy. She progressed faster than any of my previous dogs; however, we still hit a wall with our performance. Her confidence wasn’t fully developed. Our relationship wasn’t as strong as it needed to be. My mechanics were pretty good, but they still needed to be sharper for her. When she turned 3yr, I stopped training the agility sequencing and “doing agility” and restarted our foundations. This time, investing more time and resources into her foundations. We enrolled in a NADA course on “Relationship building,” we enrolled in several Say Yes courses, including Recallers, Shaping Success, and Handling 360, all of which focused heavily on foundations. (We still have yet to make it to the full course work in H360, and she’s 2 runs shy of her Agility Championship title.)
Then came Jenga. With Jenga, I vowed to myself that I would let him be a puppy first and foremost. That we would do puppy training, and relationship training first and foremost. That all that foundations work, which I missed with my first two teammates, and had to go back and do with Kelsey, would be done up front with Jenga. Even though I saw puppies his own age moving on and doing equipment, sequencing and “doing agility” and “having fun,” I knew and I know that investing the time to thoroughly set up these foundations now will pay off huge dividends down the road.
Jenga and I have completed Dynamic Canine / Rose Browne’s puppy class, and NADA’s Sports Foundations class, and now we have completed Agility Level 1 (the original agility foundations class). Each step along the way has had a critical part in his training, and our relationship. Sure there is overlap between each of these classes, but overlap is what allows you to progress a skill set and make it stellar. Building on the name awareness in puppy class, builds into a stellar recall in Foundations. The stellar recall in Foundations builds into value for the handler over distractions in Level 1 Agility. Habituation to different sounds and surfaces in puppy classes builds into value building of ladders, mat work, crate work in Foundations, and happy exploration and value building of boards, tippy boards, short tunnels in Level 1 agility. Clicker training in puppy class builds into shaping more challenging behaviors for Foundations, which build into shaping even more behaviorally complex behaviors in Level 1 agility (like foot targeting). Doing Foundations after a puppy class also allows for generalization of a behavior in a new habitat; it promotes learning of the behavior!
So often I see handlers assume they have done enough foundation work, and they want to dive head-long into the glamorous and fun stuff of doing the equipment. Whatever shortest path will get them there is the best. I have seen handlers complain about “having to do foundations” in agility camps with high-level trainers, when it is clear when I watch the team that these are the teams that need these skills the most. However, as a trainer and competitor, I have seen the undeniably large payoffs of the small wins for the dogs and the teams. Now when I introduce a new challenge to Jenga, he seems to excel at it immediately. It seriously surprises me, and I’ve seen a lot over the years! Even though he will be much older than any of my other dogs in his introduction to “Doing Agility” I already know we are going to be MILES ahead of any of my past teams because of our investment in the foundations. As an instructor I have seen how foundations and seriously investing in them leads to incredibly faster progression in the development of “agility skills” than dogs and teams without those foundations.
To that end, I encourage every single agility handler and instructor to look at your foundations. How good are they? When was the last time you brought them into your training? How much did you want to skip to the next step?
I won’t lie; it isn’t easy holding off on the sweet satisfaction of having a dog “do agility” [parentheses because dogs without sufficient foundations don’t do agility as well as dogs with foundations], and it requires faith that there is a point to these foundation games and exercises. Based on my experience, the experiences of my coaches, and my training friends across Canada and internationally, I know, they do have value, they are worth the wait. They are simply too valuable to me, to him, and to us as a team. I wouldn’t trade in my foundations with Jenga for anything.
For more information on what makes an effective team, see my Note on Effective Teams.

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