Stacy Winkler's Keen Dog Blog

Finding the fun in creating great dog agility behaviors


Getting By Is Not Enough! You CAN Learn To Watch And Evaluate Your Dog’s Skills As You Sequence

cd_22755_414340_groovewinkler_a3173098_dlOne of the concepts that I feel many students struggle or don’t even think about, is being able to evaluate the success of their dog’s skills AS they work or run their dog.

Now I’m not talking about their ability to look at a skill in general and say:”Hey, awesome we made it through the drill! I am talking about REALLY looking at a skill, as the dog is performing it, and assessing its degree of success.

For instance if  I decel in front of a jump, front cross and run to the next jump, what should I be thinking at this point?
1) “———-” Nothing at all, or “Dear lord I think the next jump is to the left!!”
2) “Phew” “I think that was the right obstacle.”
3) “We are awesome, wheeeee let’s go!”
4) “We suck”
5)”Hmmmm that turn was a bit wide.”

If you guessed #5 you are the on the money.

Whenever I am running or working my dog I am assessing every bit of our performance. Yup, EVERY BIT!

In my last blog I talked about the necessity of having a “perfect picture” of what I want my behaviors and training session to look like before I begin training any skill. This concept is a complement to that. I need to know what the behavior I want looks like and then I want to make sure I am always observing each skill my dog does so I can make adjustments when need be to maximize the effectiveness of my training.

If you run your dog solely to get through the instructor’s sequence then you are ignoring what could make the difference between being just a decent agility competitor or being a truly great competitive team.

3 main roadblocks to accomplishing this are:
1) Belief that you will be able to do more than simply worry about where the heck you are supposed to go next.
2) Understanding what you are supposed to look for in the first place.
3) Knowing what the heck are you supposed to do about it if you don’t like it?

Ok so you have been doing agility for 3,5,7+ years and hopefully at this point you can say that you do have at least a pretty good grasp of how to handle your dog. Well, if this is so it is time to grab the reigns and take control rather than being dragged on the ground by the stirrup.


pupsblogI realize this can feel overwhelming and you will probably need the support of your instructor to help you out, but you can absolutely accomplish this. I believe in you even if you don’t. You can do it! It all starts with a single small step.

One of the things I always tell folks is that: “it is just as important not to over face you, the trainer, as it is to not over face your dog.” Over face basically means trying to do to much at one time, overloading yourself or giving yourself too much to deal with at once.

If we make things too complicated for ourselves we are more likely to quit. By breaking things into bite size pieces in the beginning it is much easier to create success. When we are able to create success then we are more likely to keep trying. The great news is that observing our dog’s behaviors and skills will eventually become second nature.
How do we do this you ask? Begin with a single behavior. One single jump with one turn.

Put your dog in a sit stay 12+’ behind a jump and lead out to about 1 1/2’ distance behind the jump, release your dog, front cross when your dog’s front feet leave the ground and turn the dog back in the direction of your sit stay. Make sure you keep your eyes on your dog as you front cross so you can assess the turn.

Before you attempt this make sure you know what the “Perfect Picture” of that turn should look like. You need to know what you want to see so you can judge what you do see. Makes sense huh? You can always go back and read my “Perfect Picture” blog for more information.

assesing-jump-performanceWell, what did you think? Was it : A thing of beauty? Totally sucked? Ummmm, sort of ok?
Did you like the turn but the dog came around the jump very slowly and didn’t power towards you?……..?

First of all, congratulate yourself because you, maybe for the first time, gave a sh**t about the quality of a turn.😀 YAY!! And so it begins.

The great take away here is that you made the process manageable because you are taking things one skill at a time. You are beginning to progress beyond just doing enough to get by, into being able to assess your dog’s performance and thereby improve your skills.
You can’t fix what’s broke if you don’t know which part is broke in the first place. Right?! So back to our first drill, if you didn’t like your dog’s turn in a sequence here are a couple of possibilities.

If you weren’t totally standing still it’s possible you were cueing acceleration towards the jump when you should have been cueing deceleration.This would result in a wide turn.
Your dog doesn’t understand how to turn well. A bad turn and slow speed around a turn is most likely caused by a lack of value and training specific goals for turns. How to create a great turn is a whole other blog 😀 but I am sure you can talk to your instructor and get some solutions.

Next let’s assess your dog’s performance on a contact behavior. Every time my dog completes a contact I am judging their performance. I never ignore this. I am always aware of what occurred as my dog performed the skill.

In order to asses this we have to go back to the concepts in my Perfect Picture Blog. If I don’t know what I want the skill to ultimately look like it is hard to judge performance. So make sure you have your perfect picture in your head before you begin.
Just do one contact to begin with to keep it simple. Set them 20’ back rev them up and let them fly!

cditem_a_m0u4654How was your dog’s speed?
Did they power across the apex?
Did they confidently drive into the 2 on 2 off position or were they hesitant or slow?
Did they run off the end rather than stop in position if 2on2 off is my criteria?

Did I pull them off?
Are they always random, so it was status quo?
Did they hold the end until released, or jump the gun?

If I made the contact a challenge such as sending to the contact and running laterally away to my next position, what did I think?

Often in my head I will quickly rate their performance, was it: Amazing!!, Great!, Good, Passable, Not So Much or That Sucked!

By rating the performance every time I can also make a decision whether to reward the behavior, go on with my sequence or stop and try it again.

As a drill, video the session and see if your on the spot assessment jibes with what you see in the video review.

Remember to make things manageable for yourself! Begin by assessing a single behavior and then move to short sequences and see if you can still assess each piece.

Quick Thoughts AGAIN On Connection

By learning to evaluate your behaviors as you run you have the added benefit of keeping a better connection with your dog on course. You can’t assess what kind of a turn your dog made at the last jump if you are not seeing them take it and finish the turn.The better your connection the clearer your directions will be to your dog. That is an awesome benefit!

If you are struggling with this, the culprit probably is that you are losing sight of your dog as you front cross. I mentioned this earlier in the article but it is important to reiterate. As I front cross while my feet step towards where I am going and my body moves through the cross, my head stays with my dog so that I am able to maintain eye contact.

Connect,Connect, Connect!

_p3a7667-2If you use blind crosses then you want to practice connecting back with your dog as quickly as you can. This way you will be able to see your dog’s performance and communicate your directions with more clarity.

Practice this behavior starting with just a single jump as well. Even this simple act will help improve your performance on course as you will be much more aware of your dog’s performance.

Have a blast focusing on these skills and make it part of what you do every time you run or a course or practice a sequence.

Have Fun Training!
Stacy Winkler




keenthe-perfect-pictureIn training are there are so many details that it is easy to let some pass by the wayside. But as the saying goes, “The devil is in the details.” This is definitely a truism for dog training. Although we may get frustrated by the amount of details and the clarity that is required to create great behaviors or even decent skills, the fact remains that whether we embrace these facts or choose to dismiss them, they are facts that exist regardless.

If we agree that there are many facets to the behaviors that we want to create, and that dogs learn best when we are clear and consistent with our training, then would it not make sense to state that if we do not totally understand what we want out of the behavior or a session, then it will be impossible for us to communicate that clearly to our dog? If we don’t totally comprehend it, than how the heck can we teach it to someone else??

Some of the basic points I always make to my students is that before you take your dog out to train a drill you need to:
*Have a plan!
*Know exactly what you want the dog to do.
*How you are going to begin.
*How you are going to end the drill.
*What to do when the dog succeeds.
*How you are going to react if there is failure.

While analyzing reasons why students struggle, I found that that there was one simple component to training that most were neglecting: They did not have a complete vision of what the behavior and session they are trying to create looks like. I call the visualization of what your training session should look like your Perfect Picture.

If you can’t envision exactly what you want the behavior and session you are training to look like, then how you can you possibly tell your dog accurately when they are right and when they are wrong?

Even more importantly, if you don’t have a Perfect Picture of your session, how will you notice when undesirable things are occurring? Ummm, you can’t. And guess what happens when your dog rehearses behaviors that you don’t want? THEY CAN GET REALLY GOOD AT THEM!!!

Now you may be thinkin’, “ Wait a minute, that is so not me.” Oh, but very likely, yes it is you. I’ll just go ahead and tell you why :-).

Having a Perfect Picture isn’t just about the big details of the behavior. I am talking about the whole training session – every little bit. Most people miss the nuances. You know, those pesky little details that are so vital to giving our dogs a clear understanding of what we want them to do.

To qualify, my ultimate Perfect Picture (when the training is perfected) may not be what I am working on at the moment. My current Perfect Picture can partly be about what I want to accomplish in this drill, but the most vital part of that P.P. is that I visualize the entire session start to finish. The drill is only a piece of the whole. My P.P. begins the moment I approach my dog and is complete when the session ends and the dog is in their crate.

If I am not clear about what all the pieces of that drill should look like, one piece of training may be accomplished while I may inadvertently be creating failure somewhere else that could cause big problems in the future.


Let’s break down my Perfect Picture of a simple sit-stay in front of a jump. What should that look like? You could be sitting there thinkin’ “ Hey, it’s a sit-stay. The dog should sit and stay!”

But what does that sit-stay really entail? What should that really look like? Close your eyes and imagine what you want to see when you set your dog up at a jump.

My Perfect Picture for that sit-stay has many components. I try to keep it simple, but I need to know what is desirable and what is not. I begin at the beginning:

  1. I connect with my dog as I approach them in the crate and create a state of anticipation and arousal.
  2. I release my dog dynamically from the crate with focus and drive and reward with play or food.
  3. I maintain a connection as I bring my dog to the start line. When I set my dog on the start line they should be engaged and working at a high level of intensity.
  4.  They should sit quickly when asked, ready to jam.
  5.  They should hold their sit no matter how much they are pumped up and they must have no foot or butt movement. (I will reward accordingly)
  6. Their eyes should stay on me the entire time until I tell them to look for their line.
  7.  They should leave only when I give them their verbal cue and not a moment before.
  8.  I work my drill with attention to all the details.
  9. I make sure to keep my connection throughout the skill work particularly as I finish one repetition and begin another.
  10.  I manage the session, maintaining intensity and drive until my dog is back in the crate.

If anything deviates from this picture, I need to train the issues. Break behaviors down, add more intensity, focus and value..…

If this feels overwhelming to you in any way, take into consideration that the bulk of the Perfect Picture is exactly the same for every session. The only thing that really changes is the actual drill that is the focus of the training. The rest should look the same every time I train. I always want connection, attention and a desire to work. I always want to manage my sessions and so forth. Sometimes my sessions are extremely short . Or I may just be building on, strengthening or creating the skills and attention that will be the core of my training sessions, such as with a puppy or a new dog. I am not saying that this needs to be perfect immediately, just that you know intimately what your goals are so you are able to work with clear intent towards those goals.

I use the start-line as an example because it is the biggest point of failure in most people’s training. And I feel it is also the biggest point of stress for dogs. Not only can it be very confusing and produce a ton of failure, but it is also how most sessions begin.

For instance you take your dog out to work, put them on the start-line, they pretty much immediately leave. Then we give some sort of verbal or physical correction. Verbally I am referring to some sort of non-reward marker ( UHUH or AAAAAAGNNNNN) (I have no idea how to write that and hopefully you get the idea). Physically I am referring to slumping our shoulders or looking disappointed; I do not mean beating on the dogs with a stick.

Even though these corrections may seem minor, they are often the lead-in to your skill work. NOT A FUN OR MOTIVATING WAY TO BEGIN TRAINING! We are starting drills that should be exciting and fun with some NOT very happy campers. This of course makes everything more difficult to train. After all, the dog’s motto is “if it ain’t fun, why the heck do it!” You are beginning your training session in the hole.

Getting on a start-line soapbox here, almost all start-lines issues I see have to do with a lack of clear criteria. Too many releases on an “almost.” It always pains me to see trainers get pissed-off at their dogs for start-line failures. Especially when on the previous repetition they allowed the dog to leave early. Training 101, yes I know, but is it fair to correct a dog one moment for what you said was just dandy the repetition before??? Now to be reasonable, many trainers have no idea that their dog left the start-line early in the first place. But unfortunately, just because you didn’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. And because it has happened, the dog is likely to learn a lesson from it. I frequently tell my students it is just as easy to teach something incorrectly as it is to teach something correctly. Yes, it’s a bummer. Removing feet from soap box.

As I mentioned earlier, when we concentrate on an aspect of training, some things may get by us. We all know that the need to always be consistent can suck, but whether it sucks or not, it is a fact. If you don’t know comprehensively what your session should look like, important pieces of training will be missed. If you are not detail oriented you can inadvertently cause issues that may take a great deal of time to resolve.

By looking deeper into your training and considering the session as a whole, not simply one facet of the session (the sit-stay), you will be elevating and progressing a much more extensive amount of behavior all at once.

I will use my foundation contact training for one more example of the need for a Perfect Picture. I do most of my contact training on a baby A-frame. It is 2’x4’ on each side rather than the standard size.

When a young dog has a training session, I always emphasize the importance of the trainer taking time to imagine a comprehensive Perfect Picture before they begin their session. Most folks are only concentrating on the contact work ( the drill) itself: such as will I work distance? Speed? Where will I lead out to and so forth? That is usually where the picture begins and ends for most folks. Unfortunately by simply focusing on one aspect of the session, the drill itself, rather than the session as a whole they are missing a ton of important training details that can negatively impact the success of your training .


First I will plan what I want to accomplish on my repetitions, always prepared to adjust my session if the dog is struggling, and knowing that if I struggle, my best Plan of Action is to give the dog a break and figure out how to proceed.

My P.P. will then include:

  1. Get connection, desire and drive from the dog in the crate.
  2.  Release the dog dynamically from the crate and play.
  3.  Keep my connection with the dog to the start line (can be with play or treats)
  4. Put the dog on the start line with drive and intensity.
  5. Keep my connection while I lead out (rewarding successful connection and the stay).
  6. Raise my arm to get focus on the obstacle and release the dog on my verbal.
  7. Implement my training plan.
  8. Make the reward an event if the dog does well, then release the dog dynamically from the contact.
  9. Maintain connection and enthusiasm with my dog from the conclusion of one drill to the beginning of the next drill.
  10. End the drill by running the dog back to their crate.

Of course I am not going into the minutia of the actual drill here, but hopefully you get the idea.

Remember most aspects of the P.P. are the same in every training session. I am not reinventing my whole P.P. every time I train. Principally, especially once my connection foundation and play training is where I want it to be, only the details for the individual drills change.

Therefore, my P.P. will always contain pieces concerning focus on me and intensity out of the crate; connection from the end of one drill to the beginning of the next drill or to the crate; enthusiasm from the moment the dog comes out of the crate until the moment they return. The variations include having a comprehensive plan for the individual drill and knowing what to do when the behavior is going well and what to do if there is failure.

Without a Perfect Picture, what I frequently see are sessions with some attention to detail but one where many other vital bits fall by the wayside. Connections are frequently not maintained and session pieces are not managed. While the handler focuses on the most central aspect of the training (in this instance the contact) their dogs get distracted, leaving their handlers to sniff the ground or have a pee. They beg for rewards by continually trying to jump onto the contact (or cookie machine) without being cued and at the same time ignoring the handler’s body language and so forth. But when the handler has a comprehensive picture of what the whole session should look like these issues can be minimized or erased completely because the session is clearly defined and directed.

To recap, remember that your dog is always learning so you must visualize your Perfect Picture from beginning to end. If you do, you will know exactly when your training is on the money and when there are problems.This knowledge will propel your training sessions to new heights. Not only will you train more successfully but you will get more accomplished in a fraction of the time. It’s worth it!! Embrace the P.P. concept and if you need help, ask your instructor, or for online help with me, contact me at for private or group classes. Yes that was an extremely shameless plug 🙂

Have fun training!!
Stacy Winkler