We all know that foundations are important, right? Right.
We all know that practicing sequencing and coursework is important, right? Right.
We all know there are skills in between foundations and sequencing, right? Wait, what?
I get asked a lot about bridging the gap between “foundations” and “sequencing”. How you look at it depends on how you define foundations. I believe that everything is foundations – sequencing is just a more complex application of your foundation skills. Some sequences can be very simple and others can be really challenging!
I believe that the missing piece is simple sequencing.
Do you get told that your dog lacks obstacle focus? Or maybe your dog lacks commitment? Are you struggling with your timing because you aren’t sure the dog will take the obstacles?
When you have time, I encourage you to have a listen to my Monday Musing on Obstacle Commitment that’s linked below. It’s FULL of insight into how I think about commitment vs keeping commitment and learning to sequence, but for now, just keep reading!
Now, back to that blueprint.
There are foundation exercises that I am sure are familiar to you, like jump offering:
Jump offering builds value for the jump, and encourages the handler to observe their dog *choosing* to jump rather than just jumping. Notice when I am marking? It’s when the dog looks at the jump rather than completes the jump. This is teaching the dog to focus on the obstacles, but it is also teaching the dog to stay focused on the obstacles even though I’ve started cueing the next thing (come eat food from my hand).
Another foundation skill you might be familiar with is follow the handling:
This exercise is a way to balance your dog’s obstacle and handler focus. Alternating between going straight to the reward via the obstacle or following the handler’s body language around the jump to the reward.
This is teaching the dog that both the obstacles and the handler are valuable and both are paths to reinforcement!
Ok, ready for complex coursework, right? Nope. This is where I see the most frustration pop up in agility: you’ve done the foundations just like you’re supposed to, but sequencing feels hard.
This can happen for a few reasons:
Lack of handler skills. Agility is a really difficult thing to learn while you’re also teaching the dog, and yet this is how it’s done. It doesn’t make much sense to be teaching one learner something that you don’t quite understand yourself, right?
Reinforcement history. If you’ve been rewarding the dog a lot from your hand for single behaviors, then your dog is going to expect to come towards you between the obstacles. This is the opposite of what you want for sequencing.
Lack of Simple Sequencing. If you go from lots of one-jump drills to 8-10 obstacles with lots of turns, you might find that your dog has trouble keeping lines or extending later on.
How do we change this?
Focus on your skills first. Do you follow really experienced agility handlers and watch their young dogs work through complex sequences with ease, and wonder why that is? They’re dogs aren’t unicorns and neither are they! They do, however, have a high level of fluency when it comes to their own skills. In agility, most of the time, if we get it right, the dog gets it right, so we need to get it right a lot.
If you’re interested in focusing on your own skills, broken down into bite size pieces (just like how we train our dogs), then check out AG365 Agility Handler Mechanics.
Change Up Your Reward Strategies. Show your dog that rewards come from places other than your hands to get them focusing ahead for the next thing.
Include more simple sequencing. Introduce the concept of keeping lines, reading lines, and driving ahead before introducing turns and a lot of handling.
When you do move to adding handling, start with lower criteria again. In this video, Shrek is demonstrating some front cross basics, and the reward strategy encourages the behavior that I want when I add front crosses into sequencing: look forward.
Then, when adding front crosses into sequences, he has the required skills:
If there is some type of error, I can make a note of it, and when making my next training plan can decide how to proceed. Was it a mechanical error on my part? Is the dog’s reinforcement history not strong enough? What can I change to support the behavior that I do want?
My best advice is to make sure the sequences you are running are not over the current pay grade for either YOU or YOUR DOG. If either one of you is not prepared to make it through that sequence, it is very likely to be a frustrating training experience. Break things down, and remember, it’s all foundations.
If you’re looking for more on transitioning from foundations to simple sequencing to complex sequencing, check out my upcoming FDSA Class: Smooth Moves!