The Secret

Written By: Jean Emery - July• 24•11

A few months ago, I offered a Saturday seminar for novice handlers.  The number of handler/dog teams was limited to 10 and the slots filled quickly.  That Saturday, I set up a novice standard course and a jumpers course.  Without any prior coaching from me or discussion with fellow participants, teams walked the course, made their own handling decisions and then ran the courses. 

Although I was not surprised by the teams’ uncoached performances (most were true novice handlers, one was an experienced handler running her baby dog), it became quickly apparent that while these novice handlers had signed up for the seminar looking for advice to improve their handling, the struggles these teams were having getting around a course had little to do with handling.

Take a look at a few of the teams’ runs and see if you can pick out what is really challenging these teams.


Now if you are new to agility, or even dog training, you may not have been able to discern the common problem reflected in these teams’ performances.

These are problems many novice handlers experience as the embark on this sport, intrigued by the exciting dog sport they’ve just discovered, tantalized by the images of successful teams racing flawlessly through what seem to them to be diabolically intricate courses.  Eager to start trialing and not yet aware of the secret that the seasoned handler knows and often learned the hard way.

The Secret Revealed

The teams that signed up for this seminar came for more than an opportunity to run their dogs on full courses (although that was likely part of the attraction as well).  They came because they wanted to learn the secret of to how to improve their performance on an agility course.  “What word should I yell to get Sammy to touch the yellow?”  “When should I call Maggie to keep her out of that off-course tunnel?”  “Where should I have been to push Rex into the correct weave entrance?”

For the novice handler, these seem to be the mysteries of successfully negotiating an agility course.   Yet the reason these teams struggled with this course, and tend to fail on similar courses in agility trials, is something much more fundamental.   The secret–as popularized by the self-help gurus–the law of attraction that the elite agility handlers know and the newcomers strive to uncover is this —

Success is 70 percent foundation, 20 percent handling!

Team after team struggled because instead of being able to focus on directing the dog around the course, handlers had to fight against the lack of critical foundational skills or behaviors:

  • No start line stay
  • No trained independent contact behavior
  • Very weak weave pole skills
  • No understanding of acceleration/deceleration cues
  • Low drive or engagement levels in the dog

Rewatch the earlier video with new eyes.  Notice how in the first clips, the handlers end up altering their position on the lead-out because their dogs did not stay on the first lead out.  This causes them problems getting to the next obstacles.  Can you see now how things go awry when the dog does not have a solid contact behavior or understand its job in the weave poles?  In a couple of situations, you can almost see the dog’s energy drain out of its body as the handler displays exasperation or worse at the dog’s fumbling about.  Pay special attention to the dogs that stop before obstacles, look off into the distance or excessively sniff.  This is a sign of stress and should be a big red flag to handlers to step back and refocus their training on building engagement and enthusiasm for the handler and the activity.

Handling Usually Can’t Fix Weak Foundation

Many novice handlers mistakenly label foundation weaknesses as handling problems.  Some may even misguidedly think they can patch over foundation problems with certain kinds of magical handling maneuvers.

They can’t.  I can’t.  You can’t.  World team competitors can’t.

You might have a lucky break for a run or two, but sooner or later, poor foundation will bite you.  But don’t despair.  You can start to turn things around right now. Go back to basics.  Train.

Train the foundation skills you didn’t know you needed.  That you didn’t understand how to train before.  That you thought you could take a shortcut around. That’s exactly what several of the handlers you just saw did.  We shot the video many months ago and since then they have worked on their foundation skills and I am delighted to now see them at trials, qualifying and enjoying their runs much more because they have reduced their’s and their dog’s frustration levels.

Foundation.  That’s the secret ingredient for success in any enterprise, whether it be painting, singing, accounting, plumbing, golfing or agility.

When the Foundation Skills are in Place

Now consider another scenario.  One where the foundation was well built right from the start of a dog’s agility training.  Here’s a short clip of another team taken that same weekend.  This time with a green young dog but with a experienced handler who had already been successful with three previous agility dogs and who recognized where to focus her training energies with the youngster.



Over the next few weeks, these e-courses will show you how to build a training foundation that you can depend on and have confidence in.  And that will in turn build your dog’s confidence.  To get started though, you need to know where you are right now.

If you are struggling to qualify or get around a course, it’s time to dissect exactly what is going wrong.  Too often, handlers blame the dog, or ascribe some calculated motive to the dog’s state of mind: “my dog blew me off” or “he’s just not motivated today” or “my dog doesn’t like to run in dirt.”  But none of these rationalizations–even if true–help you get to the source of the problem and address it.  What you need to do is objectively, and unemotionally, identify the error that occurred.  You may need to track your errors for awhile before you start to see a pattern.  Or perhaps looking at the errors from a new perspective will help you see what is going on in a different light.

Click here to find a self-evaluation form that will help you assess where the weaknesses in your foundation may be.  Complete a self-evaluation after every trial, class or practice session for the next couple of weeks.  Before too long you will have accumulated enough data to start to see where to direct your training focus.  Hang on to the forms.  I’ll come back to them in a few weeks and help you make sense of the data.

The other 10 percent

Those of you adept at math may have noticed that my percentages only add up to 90 percent.  So what acounts for the other 10 percent?


Good luck and bad luck.  Bad weather, muddy surfaces, unfair calls by the judge (both for you and against you), balloons drifting overhead, a train stopping on the tracks running alongside the rings, you running into an obstacle, gophers popping up out of holes on course right in front of your terrier, coming down with the flu, pulling a hamstring, worrying about a big assignment at work.  All kinds of serendipitous events, freakish or commonplace, can affect the outcome of your run.

We are not going to worry about that 10 percent.  This blog will be dedicated to helping you direct your energy to the things that you can control.  Thanks for coming along on this ride.  Let’s get started!

P.S. Thanks to Shelley Permann for the Starters USDAA course.

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  1. Jenn says:

    This is going to be great. Thank you in advance!

  2. Kathryn Wauters says:

    Foundation, foundation, foundation. You are so right. The more experience I get the better I understand the importance of those very first foundation classes…….and it really never ends…… we keep going back to review and retrain. Thanks for this special training site. I am looking forward to the journey.

  3. Barbara Draper says:

    This looks like a great blog — I will be looking forward to future lessons. Thanks so much for doing this.

  4. Mary says:

    Foundation is so very important! Do you remember when I started Agility? Rocky and I started the “novice” class. 2 weeks later she was moved up to the next level & I was asked to help train the novice class. Was it because of my knowledge & skills. Heck no! I just had a dog that learned fast, and there was a need for help at the novice level. Rocky & I never learned foundation. Our club started to realize the importance of foundation (along with the rest of the Agility world) after my girl and I were already trailing. If I’d realized then how important it was I’d have taken Rocky 3 steps back to learn that foundation. We did have a fun Agility career with a few Nationals under our belt, but imagine how much betteer we could have been with that foundation work. Many, many runs were great but could have been even better, and those not so great runs well they showed the truth in our lack of foundation work.

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