Wednesday, April 6, 2011

ABC's: Critical Core and Foundation Lessons

Before even beginning the daily lessons in Susan Garrett's dog training course, we were supposed to work on what she calls her "Critical Core" games. From a training system standpoint, these bear a striking similarity to Alexandra Kurland's Foundation Lessons. I don't mean that they are the same exercises for both horses and dogs, but they serve the same purpose.
  • they are designed to keep both animal and handler safe
  • they begin to build a positive relationship with the animal
  • as their names imply, they are the foundation and core of all the other work to follow.
I have ridden with many different instructors over the years and observed even more. The good ones have a system. Some pieces may have been created by this individual but many are exercises which they picked up from coaches they rode under, although they may have tweaked them to their own unique format. The point is, they don't just start training willy-nilly without a planned progression for which each ingredient has been carefully assessed, measured and put into place.

For Susan, the safety leans toward keeping the dog safe while for Alex, it leans more toward keeping the human safe, although I'm sure they would both agree with me that they go hand in hand. It's just that with dogs, some of the most frequent dangers are when they get away from us- so two of Susan's Core games focus on getting the dog to come back to us and then being able to get a hold of them when they do. With horses, we're back to the size factor. Head down and backing out of our space keep the horse calm and prevent them from running over us.

Managing the food is another component for both of them. Each of these masters have a game to address teaching the animal self control around food and how to take food politely. Both horses and dogs have teeth! But self control carries through into so many other areas of our training and management that it isn't just about the food.

By beginning with these games, a relationship is budding. Animals love to think, to learn, to interact with others and certainly to be rewarded for doing all of these things (learning isn't fun when it includes punishment). They look forward to the lessons and will come running to their person for more. The importance of having this type of relationship cannot be underestimated whether the long term goals are to have a competition animal or a companion animal.

Many trainers use clicker training to teach tricks or improve the quality of certain skills, but the real genius in the formats of both these women (as well as other professionals) is how their introductions serve as substructures for everything they do after this. While I do not compete in agility, I have already heard many references to start lines, contact points, front crosses and other mysterious terms and how a particular game relates to these skills. Likewise, I continue to be amazed at how Alex's work builds a well-balanced and physically stronger horse which helps no matter the future career path of the animal. The physique of young horses who have been started under her program is amazing...and they've not had restrictive tack put on to accomplish it.

Both individuals stress the importance of revisiting these basics regularly. Many times we can (and should) build these basics into our daily routines. Certainly food manners are given ample practice opportunities. The problem is that I, for one, tend to get sloppy in my daily habits at times. I let less-than-ideal behavior slip by in an effort to get chores done and get on with life. Pretty soon, I see pushiness and impatience creep into the picture. A horse who grabs for the hay as I walk by, a dog who bursts out the door when it's open. I have no one to blame but myself. Fortunately, I have core foundation lessons to return to and if I'm smart, I'll not wait until things fall apart to do so.
Eloise showing self-control by staying in her crate with the door open and me lying on the floor with food! (sorry for the sideways...took it with the phone and too lazy to go through the hoops of importing it into a program to edit it!)

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