Problems at Trial

Dog spent most of his time sniffing the ground

Something that can help you out tremendously is lots and lots of attention work like what is used in obedience training. Once you teach the dog that he needs to keep his attention on you instead of the ground, he should be able to transfer that over to agility. Work on your attention training by starting him in the heel position, use your attention word "READY?" and hold eye contact for about 5 seconds. When he does this successfully, he gets an immediate release, lots of praise, and a really good treat (such as RollOver). Continue to build this until you can maintain eye contact for 30 seconds before the release and reward. Then, and only then, can you start moving. The critical part is to increase the amount of time holding the dog's attention in small increments so as to always be successful. (Kathie Leggett)

Here's a "leadership exercise" that you can try in order to teach your dog to happily ignore distractions:

Have the handler and dog walk anywhere. The instant the dog pulls and/or smells, the handler instantly turns and sprints in the other direction, without saying anything and giving a sharp jerk. As soon as the dog turns and is moving towards the handler the handler praises profusely and rubs and pats the dog. This is very brisk, happy and fun, and dogs usually respond favorably. The hard part is getting the handler to say nothing, quickly move in the opposite direction and praise happily, since this whole problem has probably been a source of much frustration.

This is done, of course, off the agility field. Once the dog can walk around a regular yard some hot dogs are dropped around and the handler just moseys around. The handler does NOT use a heel command or any other command as he moseys. If the dog pulls or sniffs, repeat the procedure. If the dog gets a piece of hot dog, shame on the handler!!!! Once this is established then do it on the agility course but not while trying to do obstacles. Later when practicing obstacles on lead and doing simple sequences the problem should be greatly improved.

This exercise accomplishes two things--it gives the owner back some of the leadership in the relationship and the dog learns that the instant he puts his head down the owner is going to move away silently. It really teaches the dog to watch and happily follow the owner.
(Debbie Sacerich)

For a real dedicated sniffer, rub the dog's nose in the ground, using one hand on the head and one hand on the muzzle. This technique works really well, if done consistently, whenever the dog begins to sniff. A couple of very important points. Of course, you have to be fair to the dog, and not let him sniff anytime he is "agility" mode, i.e. at training or at a show. Also, you should rub the dog's nose in the ground until he resists and tries to pull up. This is the behavior you are looking for - head up. So release IMMEDIATELY and PRAISE, PRAISE, PRAISE, and make play with the dog, be fun. This relieves the stress of the correction so the dog will not resent it, but does not make the correction itself any less uncomfortable, so the dog quickly learns not to sniff the ground, but does not learn to shy away from your hands around his head. (Billie Rosen)

Dogs sniff for all sorts of reasons on course. Sometimes the dog is genuinely looking for food (or whatever else is of interest). Descenting equipment can help here, though often what is on the ground can't be changed and handlers need to train their dogs to ignore it and get on with the task at hand, i.e. agility. Are you able to call your dog off food just as you call him off an obstacle like the tunnel that is trying to suck him up on course? Also, sniffing on course can be active disobedience -- a dominance challenge as to who is the team leader, you or your dog. If this is your problem, you need to fix this or you will soon have all manner of other problems both in and out of the ring. Sniffing also can be a stress-reliever or time-filler for a dog under stress (you aren't giving commands fast enough, conflict between verbal and body language commands, etc.)

If the course has flow and the handler gives his commands well, the dog might not sniff. If the course doesn't have enough flow, the dog may shut down, slow down, and sniff. If your dog has a problem with sniffing, don't just assume that he is looking for food. Instead of correcting the sniffing, what may need correcting is your handling.

Targeting may improve contacts without encouraging sniffing because of a specific exercise done early in target training. Initially, it is done away from equipment and you need friends. You set out several targets and run the dog from one to the other. You need another person at each target. If you say look, take it, the friend at that target makes sure there is food there so that when the dog looks there is food there to get. If you don't say take it, the friend is the evil one who tells the dog that it is wrong to search a target for food when not authorized by the command take it -- and the friend obviously makes sure there is no food there that the dog can get. (This makes you look so much more attractive as an option when you call here, the dog comes and you have the food that time. You maintain a positive relationship with your dog). The friend also tells the dog it is wrong to keep shopping, looking for more food, when you say here.

Also, one thing that should be obvious but is often forgotten at a trial- your dog may genuinely be hungry. Breakfast may be early in order to get there on time and the dog has had a chance to digest the meal before running. The dog is then going to be hungry earlier in the evening. Consider whether you need to give a small lunch at a trial to help the genuinely hungry dog pay more attention to you in late afternoon/early evening runs.

Also, for those new to agility who don't know much about targeting: Don't let the dog get the food if he has not done the obstacle/sequence, or whatever you are targeting correctly. This often requires the help of others and is one reason why the target sometimes is further away from the obstacle -- if the dog has done it incorrectly, you don't take him to where the food is. He gets the food only when he has done it correctly. Using targets can progress to where the target is outside the ring entirely--and you take the dog to it after a successful run.
(Mary Finley)

Sniffing can be a potentially difficult problem, but the training and activity of agility has to simply be better and more interesting that whatever is on the ground. How can a dog possibly enjoy agility if every few minutes they're being told off for something? Very often (but not always) sniffing, running off or ignoring commands is a sign of stress and the dog switching off. They don't go and get out the Valium, but they do look for other things to do if the handler puts them under pressure they can't cope with!

Try teaching the non-agility bit elsewhere, i.e. teach a 'leave' command which basically means "I (the owner) have something much more interesting here if you pay me attention and not what is on the ground" using really good tidbits, and in the agility setting, work on distracting or physically stopping the dog sniffing (by cuddling for example-a nice way, not a nasty one) to stop the habit until the agility motivation starts to really bite. Make the agility more interesting - toys, food, standing on your head, running about, anything! Keep sessions short and praiseworthy. Simply stop and distract him if he starts sniffing. (Paddy Driscoll)

Place many plates of food around and, with the dog on lead (not near any agility equipment), wander around. Do some heeling, drop on recall near a plate, have people offer food as you walk by, etc. If the dog so much as looks at the food give a brisk leash correction and move quickly in the opposite direction. If the dog cannot walk by, run by and do a recall with food on plates, then he is not going to do it on agility obstacles. This is a respect issue between handler and dog, not an agility issue!
(Debbie Sacerich)

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