When we first start out in conditioning, we can easily become overwhelmed at where to start, which exercises to complete, how to best train them and what we can do as handlers to set our dogs up for success. It’s easy to fall victim to “information paralysis” and become confused and frustrated with all the information available at our finger tips. That’s why I took some time to ask the trainers and pro-canine conditioners in my Facebook group the Canine Athlete Pack for their number one piece of advice they wished they knew when they first started out. We got some excellent feedback and I wanted to share with you the most common pieces of advice they gave us and some tips that I have also found to be incredibly helpful over the years.
Carolyn and the Canine Athlete Pack’s Tips to Foundation Success!
1) Have a plan
It’s important to go into each session with a specific plan to minimize both dog and handler frustration. Consider this your map that you need to get to your destination. Your training/conditioning plan does not have to be overly complicated but you should have a general idea of what you’d like to accomplish in your session, the exercises you want to review and the pieces of equipment you’ll need. Planning your sessions ahead also allows you maximum mental focus in your training session. It is pretty challenging to have to think of your plan on the spot while executing the exercise with proper form, positioning and utilizing supportive handler mechanics! Plans help you to stay focus towards your goals. It is also helpful to write a few notes about what you might not want to see. By knowing ahead of time what you aren’t looking for (e.g. lack of control, improper foot positioning), you can be prepare yourself for what you aren’t going to reward and have a game plan to manage any behaviour you want to adjust.
A great strategy to keep you on task is to keep a journal. This is a journal that you can write what you worked on (e.g. which exercises), how many reps/sets you accomplished, and any training difficulties that you encountered. This journal can also keep you motivated by tracking your progress over time! It’s hard to remember how challenging an exercise might have been when you first started but by writing down your progress you can look back and realize how far you’ve come. This will give you a greater sense of accomplishment and keep your momentum going forward!
Tracking your training or conditioning sessions helps you avoid falling into “mindless” conditioning where we don’t think about what it is we’re doing and instead fall into repeated motions. It’s very easy to fall into a conditioning rut if you’re not paying attention. Remember, dogs and their trainers love a pattern! Many students who join my coaching programs talk about how they keep doing the same exercises over and over – but we need a way to track our exercises to make sure we do equal work with the exercises that are more difficult and work to challenge the ones that are easier. It is human nature to stick to the things that our dogs can do well but this doesn’t necessarily progress our towards our end goal!
2) Keep Sessions Short
Short and frequent training sessions will always yield the most success and keep your dog in an optimal state of learning. Think quality over quantity!! When you’re first starting in canine conditioning, you want to build enthusiasm for conditioning and keep your dog in their best mental state for learning. This will help to your dog learn their conditioning behaviours much quicker with fewer frustrations. The length of your training session can be based on a number of factors (there is no cookie cutter approach to this) and can be influenced by: your dog’s age, their level of tolerance to learning, their personality, their abilities, their previous skill level, the environment and our responses to how they do. Yes! Our responses/emotions (whether good or bad) during a training session can drastically impact the results we get!
If you’re working on a new exercise or fine tuning a challenging behavior you might want to work on this daily but in 2-3 minute sessions. I am currently working on a few new high level exercises with my 15 month sheltie Keeper, and instead of pairing these with other exercises, I work them in isolation for 2-3 minutes throughout the day to keep her in a good state of learning, minimize frustration and overload and maintain her confidence and enthusiasm for her training. Set a timer to keep you from accidently going on too long – a common problem I see!! Try to avoid falling into the trap of “just one more rep” mentality. Canine conditioning can be physically challenging but is also mentally challenging for the dog. Remember, by pushing your dog beyond their limits we run the risk of not only discouraging them and squashing their enthusiasm and confidence but pushing them pass their physical abilities potentially causing an injury.
3) Know your Dog
During any training or conditioning session, be mindful of the needs of your dog. If your dog is showing confusion, stress signals or frustration, rather than pushing through it, stop and ask yourself – how can I make things clearer for my dog? Sometime it takes going back to the drawing board to figure how you can implement different strategies to help your dog gain more success and clarity. A great strategy (proposed by Bob Bailey) is to break down the exercise into smaller steps/behaviours (splitting) versus lumping everything together. This will help your dog achieve the desired behaviour quicker without overwhelming them by asking for a progression that they aren’t ready for.
Don’t forget to use the knowledge you have of your dog! Before you’re next training session I want you to take some time and figure out:
Signs of Fatigue could include:
If conditioning exercises are new to your dog, you can anticipate that fatigue will set in a little earlier. As they get more practice and develop a routine and improved endurance for their exercise program, it will take them longer to become fatigued. Remember that fatigue isn’t just physical but also mental and emotional! So, during your training session try and keep in mind that new exercises will also mentally fatigue your dog. Be sure to document in your training journal when your dog gets tired and the signs you saw in them.
Always be sure to work your dog IN the moment. Like us, dogs can have good days and bad days. Just because they executed a known skill the day before, doesn’t mean they can do it perfectly the next day!!! Dogs are constantly learning and some sessions go better than others. If it isn’t going well, always go back to – what could I have done differently to bring better clarity to my dog for the session?
Another thing to keep in mind is to recognize that breed form and function places physiological and anatomical limitations on conditioning. Make sure to take into account your breed's unique considerations and limitations as this will help to guide your training and conditioning sessions and minimize any chances of injury.
4) Choose equipment wisely
The equipment we choose will have a large impact on our training outcomes. There are definite “right” and “wrong” equipment choices that are largely based on both your dog’s current fitness level as well as their knowledge of the behaviour/exercise you are practicing. One of the biggest mistakes I see with people just starting out is they want to jump right to the “fun” or “sexy” equipment which generally include unstable pieces of equipment. Ask yourself, if your dog can’t perform the correct posture or positioning on stable equipment, does it make sense to add the challenge of instability?
Choosing the equipment for a training session is just as important as choosing which exercises to work on!! Without proper planning, being creatures of habit, we will tend to use what is close or convenient instead of what is best for the task. This method of choosing equipment is highly discouraged. We want to be purposeful in our equipment selection to help our dogs achieve the desired posture and positioning of the exercise we are training. While foundation training can include both stable and unstable pieces of equipment I prefer to start with stable piece and ensure my dog is comfortable on the equipment and has the proper form and position for the exercise. Each type of equipment works different areas of the body. Stable pieces of equipment tend to focus more on the larger muscle groups while unstable pieces tend to work the core and small stabilizers more. A common misconception is you “progress” from stable to unstable equipment. This is NOT the case. They work different muscles and should BOTH be incorporated into your training sessions.
In foundation training, if my dog is struggling to attain the proper form and positioning for an exercise, the first thing I ask myself is “Do I need to change the piece of equipment I am using?” Does your dog require an easier piece of equipment? Do they require a larger piece of equipment? Poor equipment choice is one of the top reasons why dogs struggle with finding proper balance and form in their training.
5) Be Present
Leave your preoccupations, worries, and frustrations at the door and focus on your dog. If you’re distracted, you’re not giving your attention to the task at hand. Conditioning asks a lot of precision work from your dog but of equal importance is your ability to be an effective team mate and support their training and understanding. If you can’t give them 100%, best to choose a different time to work your dog. There is always tomorrow!!
Create a training environment that is free of distractions. I am talking about distractions for YOU, the handler. In order to maximize success, I want you to focus on the training session and be present for your dog. Tune out the outside world for these 10-20 minutes of training time. No phone, no kids, no interruptions if at all possible. Choosing a time of day that is conducive to this also helps. We all have "bad" days and that is ok but remember frustrations will just travel to the end of the leash which can affect our dog’s performance.
A final word...
Canine conditioning is something ANY dog can do and with the proper planning it's not only easy to do but fun as well!
Susan Garrett recently did a fantastic podcast on why we should condition our dogs, what a good conditioning program looks like, and how to implement a conditioning program into your regular training schedule!
I highly recommend you check out her video and keep your eyes peeled for a special cameo and offer!!!
This is just the start of our tips for foundation success! We have more super helpful tips to share with you that will make your canine conditioning journey even more successful. Part 2 will include more tips that will help you to avoid the pitfalls that might happen as you learn.