We Need to Take Care of Our Human Learners, too.

by | Mar 15, 2020 | Uncategorized | 2 comments

My least favorite thing about agility is that the standard practice is to teach the humans and the canines at the same time.

Not only is this incredibly inefficient, it can be frustrating for all involved: instructor, handler, & dog. It’s time to change this standard, and I hope to set my human learners up for success by applying loopy-training to their sessions as well:

New to dog training? Let’s work on your click – then – treat mechanics without your dog present. Let’s make sure you understand why the mechanics work the way they do.

Are reinforcement cues brand new to you? Let’s work on those differences without your dog present. Let’s make sure you understand where and how to apply multiple marker cues.

Ready to train 2o2o for the first time? Why don’t we practice that situation without your dog present? Training new behaviors to your dog goes a lot faster when you know what you are looking for, how you will reward it, and how to increase criteria over time.

Want to learn that new fancy handling move? Let’s work on those movements without the dog! When you can execute a handling move at full speed without the dog, it makes adding the dog much easier later on in the process. If you need to practice a front cross 20 times to get it right, the first 19 times should be without the dog.

I am focusing on breaking skills down for my human learners to understand first, because it makes them better trainers to their dogs. At the end of the day, I am teaching humans to train their dogs, so I am most responsible for what the human learner takes away from my class.

When it comes to handling skills, many elements are the same for different moves/techniques. If those common pieces were taught to handlers first, it would be easier for them to learn new techniques, because it would just be a different application of the basics.

The problems I’d like to avoid by leaving the dog out of the picture:
1. Dogs that don’t like repeating. In fact, they won't learn to dislike repetition in the first place.
2. Dogs that guess/change their behavior frequently.
3. Dogs that slow down, check out, or leave training sessions.
4. Dogs that ramp up, take random obstacles (aka tunnel suck!) spin, bark, and bite their handlers. 

Does that list look familiar? It’s because it is the same list I used in a previous blog post. When we separate the human’s learning from the dog’s, it makes it possible to have thoughtful reward patterns, rather than disjointed and random reward patterns.

Regardless of what handling system you use, there are basic skills that are consistent throughout that should be learned to fluency before making the handling more complicated.

For example, we use the same hand and foot together when committing a dog to an obstacle. However, this isn’t natural for humans: when we run, our left arm is forward when our right foot is forward.

I’ve been doing agility since I was a little kid; I learned to handle dogs this way before anything else, really. So, when I went to a running coach in 2015, I couldn’t complete normal running cycles. I used my same hand and foot instead of opposites, like I was supposed to. Did my coach ask me to just go running and I’d figure it out? Nope. He broke it down for me and helped me to learn to use my body in this new way. And now, I can do running cycles as a normal human and I can still use my same hand/foot when handling my dogs on the agility course.

So, assuming you learned to run like a normal human before you learned how to do handle a dog on an agility course, same hand-same foot is difficult at times, especially at speed. That’s why I break these skills down for the human learners first. When they can use the same hand and foot without thinking about it, it’s MUCH easier to apply this skill to a handling technique later on.


  1. Marian Snapp

    It took me a long time to learn to do this. Wish I’d had the exercise back then. I’ve also shared this with my students in both my classes. 🙂

    • Megan Foster

      Super! Thanks for sharing 🙂


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.