Essential Skills vs Foundation Skills: What are they and why do they matter?

by | Mar 8, 2022 | Uncategorized | 2 comments

In my coaching program, Fostering Excellence in Agility, content is broken down into bite-sized pieces so that planning your training becomes less overwhelming, and those bite-sized pieces are categorized in a way that is easy to navigate.

Essential Skills and Foundation Skills are two of those categories, and they are the most critical.

Essential skills are the tools I'll use to make learning efficient and effective with my dog. These skills also give me the ability to test new environments without asking for my all-too-precious foundations and other sports behaviors. Essential skills are also very growing-body friendly, and they are often excellent brain games that are so great for enriching your dog's life! These skills are:

Reinforcement Strategies – not only is fluency around reinforcers more efficient for training, fluency makes them more powerful to our learners. And, as a bonus, it's an amazing brain game to teach a dog verbal fluency and verbal cue discrimination, which is foundations for teaching verbal fluency in agility.

How Training Works – This includes how to start training, how to move about during training, how to have pauses in training, and how to end training. It's no stretch to see how these skills directly impact a dog's ability to start work, move about in the competition ring, wait their turn, and how to end a competition run.

Leash Skills – This didn't used to be in my program because I assumed that everyone taught these skills! I was wrong, and so because I expect my students to know how to remove and put on a dog's leash and teach their dog how to respond appropriately to those things, it's now in my program. Again – agility dogs spend a lot of their time at dog shows on leash, so this is important.

Stationing – This is a newer one in the program as well, but I'm always learning and growing, so here we are. Stationing is a prerequisite to crating, and that means it's essential!

Arousal-Manipulation – this teaches the dog how to control their reactions and arousal levels, including ramping up and settling down based on the context cues in a given situation.

Foundation skills, on the other hand, is the ground layer of sport-specific skills that I want all of my agility dogs to know. These are the skills that ALL handling and obstacle and coursework skills are built upon, because advanced skills are just clever applications of the basics. These foundation skills are:

Targeting – Go find the thing and do “x” on it. This may mean: front feet up (perch) , back feet up (backup), run through (rc work) or stop on (2o2o/4o work), and nose to hand/object. So many great behaviors get built on the solid understanding of TARGETING!

Stay Put vs Go! – This jumps on the back of those fantastic verbal cue discrimination games your dog learned in essential skills and ads some of their targeting behaviors to that. This is your startline training, stopped contact training, and table training.

Commitment & Keeping Commitment – Because you've worked on your mechanics first in essential skills, you'll be ready to teach your dog how to commit and stay committed and you'll know where to look and what you're looking for, making this skill *chef's kiss* good. Dogs that know how to select an obstacle (a reward, a wing, a jump, a tunnel), and continue running towards that obstacle to complete no matter what the handler is doing, is a dog that can learn new handling technique and sequencing very quickly.

Following the Handling/Handling on the Flat – Everything in balance, folks! Because I will be building up my dog's focus on obstacles, I also need to show the dogs how to focus on my handling in order to gain access to their rewards. This comes in a ton of variety like: circle work, front crosses, rear cross, blind crosses, tandem turns, lap turns, and flicks. There's a lot that can be done to build your dog's ability to sequence before they ever learn how to jump or go through a tunnel.

It's always going to feel like there is something more fun, more interesting, more important to train. Every time I get sucked into that feeling, I find that it was REALLY easy because of the essential and foundation skills I already have in place OR I'm missing an essential or foundation skill to make that advanced version successful. Either way, these skills always have my back and my dog's back.


Fx Agility: Train with Excellence is still being built, but has over 600 lessons available to guide you through your entire agility training journey. Along with my feedback, group coaching calls, and the support of an amazing community we can work together on your goals. SEVEN spots remain for lifetime access to the program. Click here to learn more information and enroll.



  1. Rendina McFadden

    I’d like more info when your Fx agility program opens!

  2. Brenda

    Sounds very, very interesting!


Megan Foster


I have been training in agility nearly my entire life. With seventeen years of experience, I have had the opportunities to work with hundreds of dogs within a large variety of breeds.

I began my agility journey with an American Eskimo and a Westie. In 1999, I began competing with my first Shetland Sheepdog, Buddy. Buddy’s lesson to me was about connection and bond. While running him, I knew that agility was what I was meant to do.