Top 3 Principles of Teaching

by | Jan 3, 2023 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Today I want to share with you a few principles of teaching. These are the things that I am finding show up time and time again when I'm working with clients, both in person and online, and I think that we can all be better at using and applying them. 

There can only be one learner. 

In our heads, we may be thinking that we're there as dog trainers, but really any dog trainer is actually just a human trainer that also happens to know a lot about dogs.

If you are currently coaching and finding yourself only aligning with the dog, it’s time to upgrade those skills and it's time to upgrade that narrative. When you are instructing in dog agility or any dog sport, or even just pet dog skills, it's your job to make these skills sustainable when you are no longer there and so, you must align yourself with training the human as well. 

  • Train the human and the dog separately

For example, we're going to practice rear crosses without the dog first. That way the handler is really comfortable with the sequence that they're about to attempt., they understand the cue that they're supposed to give, and they are really consistent with their mechanics of that cue when they're practicing without the dog.

Then when they go to get the dog, we're technically in dog training mode now as the instructor. We all know that if the handler gets the rear cross correct, the dog will follow the rear cross appropriately.

  • Use reward placement to match the dog’s behavior to the handler’s new skill

I'm going to use reward placement and whatever I have to do to make sure that that dog does a rear cross when that handler cues it because I need the handler to have that positive reinforcement experience of, “I know how to do a rear cross and look at the proof that my dog just did it!” 

If the first couple of attempts with the dog are successful, your job is done, because now the handler has some proof that they can in fact cue a rear cross and their dog can in fact follow the rear cross and still take the jump.

And now they're trained, you can ask them to do that rear cross again without the help of the reward placement. The rear cross will still exist because the handler had no reason to change the behavior that they had practiced without the dog. 

What if you didn’t do any of that?

The handler learns the rear cross and practices a couple of times without the dog and then tries to do the rear cross with the dog immediately. They think that they're doing a rear cross, but they actually cue the dog to go to the backside. So the dog goes to the backside and the handler thinks that they've done something wrong, but they haven't done something wrong. They've just done something different.

They've done a beautiful backside send and the dog follows the handling beautifully, but because you’re working on rear crosses, the team will not gain credit for that backside send! When they pull up “rear cross” in their brain, they will remember how *not* to do it, or how they *aren’t* very good at rear crosses. 

This is incredibly important when they are new or less experienced because they can't fill in the gaps of what they don’t understand. They don't know that when they cued the rear cross incorrectly, but they cued a beautiful backside send. They don't appreciate the teamwork in that mistake. They don't appreciate how beautifully their dog follows the handling because all they can think about is how they didn't cue a rear cross properly.

Ask Yourself:

  • Who is the learner here? 
  • How am I going separate the learners? 
  • How am I going to make this as successful as possible for this team? 
  • How can I split this in a way that when my human learner thinks <skill you’re teaching> that they only pull up a file that is built on success?

You need to keep some secrets. 

I love knowing things and I love sharing what I know. But there are some things that we need to keep to ourselves until it's appropriate for the student to need that information. Students are often trying to absorb every ounce of information that you are giving them and also apply it the minute they hear it. 

So if you are providing information that they cannot use yet, I suspect you're adding too many plates to their little spinners and they will end up dropping a plate. Unfortunately, we can't control which plate they drop. What we can control is which plates we give them. 

  • Separate out the how, when, where, why, and why not. 

If we are using principle number one, there can only be one learner at a time, I can just focus on: this is the footwork of a front cross, or these are the mechanics of a front cross because that one plate is actually quite a few small plates that lead up to one tray, right? 

  • Then, split that information into smaller bits that are easier to absorb and apply. 

We have to do one thing at a time and keep some secrets because we don't need them to be responsible for the timing of a front cross if they don't understand what a front cross is and how to execute a front cross.

And we're doing this dog-less to start because we're splitting as best we can, so the timing isn't relevant yet. Once we see some fluency in the mechanics of the front cross, meaning they don't have to think about which arm or which leg or which direction to turn or where to look, then we give them the next piece: timing. 

I'm going to be your dog for the student, or this other student is going to be the dog for them to practice still in slow motion.

After you have worked on the timing is a great chance to add in the dog, exactly in the way that I described in the first principle. 

  • Remember to help the dog’s behavior match the human’s. 

I just want the dog to match what the handler is doing because the handler has put in this effort to learn the thing and they deserve the reinforcement of the dog following that correctly. 

Next, you can begin generalizing the student’s front cross behavior over time with different sequences and comparing it to what they learned during the acquisition phases of that technique.  

It is your job to explain things. 

If you are the type of instructor that gets frustrated that you are repeating yourself all of the time, or you are saying the same thing to the same student week after week after week, keep reading. It is your job to explain things in as many different ways as your learner needs. 

You decided that you were going to be the expert in the room on dog agility, and you have people signing up and paying for your time to explain dog agility to them. 

When they sign up, they are committing themselves to us and our knowledge for the length of that session. So we owe it to them to make sure that they get the information that they signed up for. 

The student is late for a front cross.

Instructor: rotate sooner

The student is late again. 

Instructor: rotate one stride before take-off 

The student is late again.

Instructor: rotate when the dog lands the previous obstacle and is looking at the next one 

The student is late again. 

Instructor: Consider that this sequence in the middle of the course is a startline sequence. When would you start to rotate for your front cross? 

Student: as the dog is landing obstacle one. 

Instructor: Yes! Exactly. Can you think of how it would feel in the middle of the course? Let’s set the dog here, like a startline, and try that! 


I guarantee you they are not ignoring your instructions on purpose. So it's that either they don't get it, or they haven't been in a place to hear it yet because of some other barrier. Our learners are never getting it wrong on purpose, so assume it needs more splitting and break it down more. 

I also want to point out that our instructions need to be short. They need to be repeatable, and they need to be quick. 

If you're having a lengthy discussion between reps or anything, the last thing that student needs to hear is the action item that you need from them, and it's even better if they can repeat it back to you.

Want more? This blog was written from my podcast, episode 23.

What do you think? 

Which principle will you focus on applying or improving over the next month? Let me know in the comments below! 



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.