Training vs Working

by | Sep 13, 2019 | Uncategorized | 5 comments

This is a concept that I felt I was doing pretty naturally with my own dogs, but really got put into words for me at a Shade Whitesel seminar, or maybe a lecture of hers at FDSA camp. How I relate this concept to agility is outlined in this blog, along with how both students and instructors can use their class time to fulfill this concept.

Training –  as specific of a skill/criteria that I can possibly define. Either adding $ to the bank of a known skill/obstacle or training a new skill (either dog or handler skill). This is also  anytime I'm working on my own handling skills. The emphasis is on precision and reinforcement is available quickly and often. It is on my body during training and accessible easily and frequently. The dog chooses to continue training each and every time they show back up after collecting either food or toy.

Working –  sequencing known behaviors before delivering reinforcement. This is my “competition” practice. I behave exactly as I would in a competition – getting the dog to the end of the sequence/course as quickly as I can and delivering reinforcement that has been stashed off of my body, usually 5-10 feet away from the course/working area. The emphasis is on effort and that the dog opted to complete the work with me and is getting payment (and a lot of it) regardless of the outcome or dog's behavior on course.

You should be doing more training than working*. Working session withdraws from the bank accounts of individual obstacles/exercises because they are not directly reinforced with a primary reinforcer. So, basically, every stopped dogwalk I do in a working situation means I need to plan to put that $ back into the dogwalk bank during a training session.

*Working = competing. I like to work dogs about once per month. So, if I am competing that month, all of my training time is spent on training and keeping my bank accounts loaded and preparing myself for the big spending I'll be doing at the competition (literally and figuratively)!

As an instructor, I try to set up my curriculum to support this too. Three weeks out of the month, my theme for the week focuses on training specific skills and one week out of each month is a working session where students are expected to completed the course in a competition state of mind. If they are competing that month, they can always opt to use the working session I've provided as an additional training session.

Where things go wrong…  In my experience, dogs struggle with going from training environments to competition environments because the training vs working concept is muddied. In each of the following examples, the handler has set out with the intention of running the course start to finish, but has chosen

  1. A handler error occurs and the handler saves the dog by stopping and rewarding, and then continues the course in “training” mode. This isn't a problem if you aren't competing, but this isn't ring sustainable. You cannot bail your dog out of handler errors in a competition. It's a mental skill that competitors need to be able to continue the course even when things aren't going exactly as you had planned.
  2. Dog pops out of the weaves and handler resets the poles and then pays the poles once they have been completed correctly, and then continues on with the rest of the course.  What exactly did you just reinforce? And again, it's not going to happen that way for the dog in a competition. I think you should let your dog see that you'll ask them to reattempt the weaves and that's an ok thing. I would not pay them in the middle of a working session.
  3. Dog does a fabulous stopped contact. Handler returns to dog and pays the dog on the contact, and then continues the course. Once again, a reinforcement strategy that will never happen to this dog in a competition setting. Competition will always be sequecing lots of obstacles together, and will never include reinforcement in the middle. Reinforcing contacts directly is for training sessions, not working sessions.
  4.  Dog and handler working well through the course and the last bar falls. Instead of celebrating and paying the effort immediately, handler turns and resets the bar for the next dog, and then slowly works their way off the course, eventually getting the dog to the reward.

In all of these examples, a working session was attempted, but the reinforcement strategy was not ring sustainable and in many cases incredibly different than what the team will experience in competition, which can lead to potential problems on course.

Students, if you are in a class environment where the sessions are muddied in this way, here are some actionable steps that you should talk with your instructor about trying, that should not disrupt the current format of the class:

–> Take your first turn as a working session and run the course that is set, with the goal of getting to the end and paying the dog for effort. If the course that is set is above your current skill set, ask your instructor if you can do a shortened version of the course, and plan that for your turn.

–> Use remaining turns for training and plan where your reinforcers will be stashed. For example, if your dogwalk needs $$ in the bank, instead of using a strategy like in #3 above, before you start, hide reinforcement behind or under an obstacle near the dogwalk. Run the course up to the dogwalk – the dogwalk is the end of your sequence regardless of your dog's performance, but make sure the obstacles before the dogwalk aren't so complicated that you are likely to have a handling error. When your dog nails their DW contact, mark and reward with the hidden reinforcement, instead of from your pocket. Reward that effort heavily, and then complete the rest of the course as you normally would.

Instructors, if you can, please adopt a class strategy like this one – encourage students to practice as they would in a competition at least once a month, but also give them the time to reinforce obstacles and skills in a way that will hold up in the ring. During a working session, pay attention to what skills they are struggling with, and plan to fo


  1. Diane

    Hi Megan,
    My 3 year old sheltie girl is extremely food motivated, to the point of obsession. I get and like the idea about hiding rewards, but she just becomes focused on finding the reward over running agility. Is there something I am missing? She is pretty drivey, and a good little worker. Is there some pre work I should be doing before this?

    • Megan Foster

      Diane, Yes – you should start with teaching her that leaving the cookie jar = earning the cookie jar. Begin with your dog on leash and the cookie jar visible, but out of her reach. Wait for her to look away from the cookie jar, then say “cookies” (or whatever word you’d like to program), and open the cookie jar together and reward her. Repeat until this is easy, and then you can increase the distance from the cookie jar, and/or ask her for simple behaviors before going to the cookie jar. It’s important that even if she runs to the CJ, she can’t open it on her own – it’s something you do together!

    • Keri

      In your example of using the second part of a working session as a training session eg the DW. You initially say the DW will be the end of your sequence regardless of outcome. However you then say if the dog meets criteria to reward heavily and carry on. Which should you do end the session w/ the DW or finish the course?

      • Megan Foster

        Hi Keri,
        I’ll try to clarify. When I have my students do this, we end their turn at the DW (after rewarding with the hidden cookie jar), but if you’re trying to make this work in your current class format, I would complete the dogwalk, reward with the hidden cookie jar, and then continue the course as you normally would in the class. Of course, if your instructor is ok with ending your turn at the DW, and then coming back again for a third turn, that would work too.

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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.