General Training


At the onset of obstacle training handlers should be advised to praise correct action enthusiastically. A favorite toy or goodie should be offered the dog when it completes what is asked of it. Dogs should not be corrected for improper action, but encouraged to perform as asked and wrong actions should simply be ignored. There is much for the dog to learn and until the dog understands what is wrong and what is right it should not be corrected for what it doesn't know. At this stage the dog has no idea of what is correct so there should be no corrections, only positive reinforcement for what is right. They will get the idea.

A dog's enthusiasm and courage to work in agility should always be highly praised, and protected. If there are other issues (such as control) they should be addressed in obedience work away from the agility field.

Dogs should always be warmed up for training. They shouldn't run straight from their crates out to the obstacles and be expected to work well. Owners should play with their dogs, throw a ball or frisbee or jog with the dog on lead for a few minutes. Recalls should be practiced as it is very important in agility handling. The dog should be mentally and physically prepared to work. Periodic play is advised while waiting in line for the next turn. Keep the dog happy and enthusiastic for this new game. Boredom is to be avoided. Instructors are advised to provide a play break 1/2 way through the class as new handlers may not keep this in mind in their enthusiasm to play the agility game. It is also important to keep an eye on the dogs during warm months, and take extra water breaks.

Working from both sides should be encouraged by the instructor early in agility training. Dogs should never get the idea that the owner should be in any particular position relative to the obstacles. (The exception to this is the weave poles.) The dogs should be shown that the handler could be on either side when the dog is asked to perform that obstacle. If the dogs are not trained to work on any particular side they usually do not show a preference for the handlers position relative to the obstacle. This is another important element in agility training and should be stressed from the onset. It will be up to the individual instructors to see that the handlers make these side changes as they will probably not be aware of it.

Obedience exercises should be worked apart from the agility session. It is not advisable to mix the exercises during a training session. Any control issues the handler may experience with agility should be worked as separate obedience work. A dogs enthusiasm and courage to work agility should be well guarded.

Include obstacle construction as a part of the lesson, and equipment safety. Check over equipment built by beginners before putting dogs on it.

It is not necessary nor advisable to use obstacle names the first day of class. If a dog is shy of an obstacle, naming it could teach them what it is they are to avoid. They should just be encouraged to come through it or over it with the handler. The obstacle name can be added at the next class. The new handler will have just receive the written material at the first class, and will need the week to figure out what commands they are going to use, also.

As dogs begin to be proficient at individual obstacle training the owners should then begin to add jogging around the obstacles with the dog on lead. As the owner approaches an obstacle they should call come and praise when the dog ignores the obstacle in front of it and comes to the owner. If the dog should ignore the come command and focus on the obstacle the owner should pop the lead gently and then when the dog comes in praise and reward the dog. It is not important what caused the dog to come, only that it does come when called and calls off the obstacle ahead. This is an excellent warm up exercise to perform before obstacle training begins at any level. Beginners should be encouraged to develop this training habit through out their agility training career. (Katie Greer)

A lot of us training agility expect our dogs to learn, seemingly, all the aspects of agility very quickly. It's not uncommon for someone who's taken a couple of 8 week classes to feel that they and their dog are ready for competition. Yet, when you start obedience training, you are probably told that it would be a year and a half to two years before you and your dog are ready for competition. This is accepted without question, yet if an agility student is told that they probably won't be ready for serious competition for about a year, the response is often quite different. Many of us have started showing our dogs before they were ready and when we weren't ready either.

Obedience competition requires a lot of detailed work and attention from a dog, but in obedience the dog always knows what to expect. The patterns are the same every time. Not so in agility. Not only are we asking our dogs to perform obstacles at a fairly fast pace, but to cope with new situations, smells, equipment and a handler who's stressed. Is it any wonder that it takes a while for our dogs to learn to cope with all these things?

Agility, out of all dog sports, requires the most teamwork & trust between dog and handler. Both the handler and dog have their responsibilities. Both must make split-second decisions and respond instantly to those decisions. To build that teamwork and level of trust and understanding of and with our dogs requires hour upon hour of practice.

With some dogs it comes easier than others, but all require it to a certain degree. A lot of dogs can, and do, perform an obstacle, but don't really understand the objective of it. That can be seen in missed contacts, ducking under or around the tire, missed weave pole entries and missed weave poles. Somewhere in our thinking we've confused the two separate issues of understanding and performing. When the dog fails to execute an obstacle the way we think they should, we often assume that they really should know better. We then try to find quick fixes to resolve the action, but often ignore the real problem - that being that they just don't fully understand.

A couple of passes at a tire or weave poles just isn't enough for our dogs to totally understand their objective, much less to then add them into the scheme of a whole course with all its distractions and challenges. There are really no quick fixes that truly work over the long haul. Some quick fixes can help while you are retraining or teaching the concept of an obstacle, but only if that quick fix isn't one that may damage the dog's faith and trust in the handler. We also need to realize that working your dog on leash is not something to be ashamed of, but rather a sign that you're willing to do whatever it takes to help your dog succeed. (Penny Winegartner)

Once your dog does it right-leave well enough alone and move on to something else!! The dog does get confused and will think that it has done something wrong if you try it again. 15 minutes of practice is a pretty good sized session for your dog. Any more than that could frustrate or burn out your dog. If you are in a class that goes an hour long, practice for about 7-10 minutes, play ball or frisbee with your dog for 10 min., then go back and practice a bit more. Don't expect to train your dog for the full hour, as it just isn't good for your dog. (Karen Canaday)

The most important aspect of any dog training is to learn to read one's dogs and to apply training methods appropriately to each. Learn to be a good trainer and well trained dogs follow no matter the technique, or the sport. There are a multitude of ways to go about any type of training, but nothing beats the trainer's knowledge of the specific dog. Take a little from each and apply it appropriately to the dog's individual needs. Study the dog! (Katie Greer)

With any training problem, try to figure out three things:

  1. Is there anything physically wrong with your dog?
    Never be too quick to assume that a problem is a TRAINING problem. Take the dog in to see a vet.
  2. Does your dog REALLY understand what you're asking it to do?
    Quite often, handlers assume that because their dog has been performing an obstacle that it really understands the purpose of the obstacle. That isn't always the case. This is where a lot of dogs will start shutting down as you add sequencing and raise the criteria.
  3. Why isn't your dog offering the behavior you desire and how can you encourage your dog to want to offer the desired behavior.

(Penny Winegartner)

Agility folks are loathe to put the leashes on their dogs and it's an *extremely* useful training tool, highly recommended by some of the country's top trainers (Karen Moureaux, Nancy Gyes, Jim Basic, and Julie Daniels, among others).

In class if one of your dogs is not listening, or is having a devil of a time understanding what your body language is telling him on something new, don't hesitate to put the leash on and *show* him what you want him to do. The leash isn't used "to correct" in the obedience sense (i.e, not used to jerk his head off), it's used "to correct" in the *nice* sense: to help him be right!

Chris and Jeff Bolton from England also recommend using the leash frequently, liberally, and throughout the dog's career.
(Pam Hartley)

To improve attention in agility:

  1. Pay attention to your dog! Attention is a two-way street. If you are easily distracted when working your dog, don't expect your dog to pay attention either.
  2. Be interesting! If you're boring, why *should* your dog look at you or pay attention to you?
  3. Play with your dog! Whatever that dog enjoys -and it's worth your while to introduce lots of new games so that you always have something "up your sleeve".
  4. Teach a million stupid pet tricks. These are useful for focusing the dog when you're waiting to go into the ring, and many of them are an excellent warm-up in themselves (weaving through legs, twisting in circles both directions, etc.). They also promote a sense of teamwork between you and your dog.
  5. Don't let your dog get too doggy! People who intend to compete in dog sports should not sit quietly by and let their older dogs be the sole entertainers of their puppies. When you get a new puppy, sit down with it and see exactly how people-oriented it is. Some are obviously incredibly people-oriented from the beginning, and you can run them with your adults right away and not worry about it. Some are obviously incredibly DOG oriented, (actually, this kind of puppy might not be the best pick for agility to begin with), and that dog gets separated from the pack, pronto, so that it can learn that people are even more fun than dogs. In either of these scenarios make VERY sure that you are out there playing games *daily* (or more) with that dog. You want the party music to go on in all your dogs' heads when they see you. If you walk out into the yard with 5 dogs, you want 5 dogs looking at *you* saying "pick me!!!", not 5 dogs chasing each other around (which, of course, happens when you're not available, which is fine: playing with other dogs is okay in a secondary position).
  6. If you feel the need for a formal attention program, try Sylvia Bishop from the UK. She doesn't call it an "attention program" but that's what it accomplishes, and she has an incredible rapport with her dogs. You can do a lot worse than watching Sylvia and trying to be exactly like her, voice, body language, and all. Janice DeMello's program is very good for people who have no natural ability to inspire dog attention. It's very detailed; follow *every* step, to the letter, including all the obedience stuff you think you don't need because you won't be competing in obedience!

(Pam Hartley)

Style is more than just flow. Class might also be a suitable word. How do we get this precious commodity?

Getting some coaching would be one approach to attaining style. We are very lucky in Agility in that we can actually get hands on experience with the top people. You could spend a fortune on seminars with the top handlers and not achieve as much as you should unless you approach it in the right manner.

What I am going to suggest is not a substitute for attending the right seminars where you can have your style analyzed by an expert, but it is a lot cheaper and might provide you with insights that you would miss otherwise.

If we borrow a couple of ideas from Neuro-Linguistic Programming (not as painful as it sounds), style will be easier to attain. As children, we all learn by emulating our heroes. We learn everything from how we speak to how we use our knives and forks or chopsticks.

The first thing we need is a role model or our "hero." This is not to say that you want to become a clone of your favorite agility 'star'? You probably don't want to wear the same trainers, the same color lycra, etc? You have some areas of your own performance that are working perfectly well. Remember, if it ain't broke don't 'fix' it!

Secondly, some of your idol's thought and action programs will work fine for them but would result in any other handler tripping over his own feet. You need more than one role model since everyone is better in one area than another and no-one is supreme across all areas. So pick n' mix from a bunch of handlers that you would like to emulate -- running methods from a handler with a similar dog to your own, concentration techniques from another handler, keeping cool under pressure from another, motivating your dog from another and so on.

How are we going to obtain what we want from our role models? If we are going to be able to emulate their skills we need to first study them in great detail.

Take a few minutes to REALLY look at something that you use every day -- a clock or your watch is a good thing. Look at the scratches and dents in it. Take a look at the maker's name. What font is it in? Is it the same font as the numerals on the dial? If you take a really close look you will be surprised at how many details there are that you have never noticed before. We need to study our role models in that kind of detail if we want to emulate them successfully!

If you study a successful handler for some time you will find that they follow the same pattern for every run. For example, a successful handler will be giving their dog clear indications of what she wants the dog to do while a poor handler will probably be late with his commands. OK, so you have the pattern of your idols off pat?

Next you need to get into the details. Don't skimp on this stage because it is often the details that separate the really great from the merely good. Details can mean the difference between winning and being an also-ran!

For instance if you are trying to emulate a handler's power of concentration, take a look at how they relax. If there is a long queue to run and the judge takes a break, do they sit down and play with their dog? Relaxing like this helps conserve energy and you need that energy when you enter the ring and need to concentrate. Perhaps the fact that they relax when possible is what helps with their concentration when it matters?

So far this is all fairly obvious and mundane but now we need to step into their shoes. Not only do we need to do what they are doing, but we need to see what they are seeing and think what they are thinking.

Again this is all down to observing the details. What do they see when they are getting ready to start a run? Do they look at the ground? Do they look at their dog? Do they look at the course? Do they look at the judge or the timekeeper or do they close their eyes?

Thinking is the most difficult thing to study, but it is no less important. Listen to how they talk. Are they always positive? Are they loud or quiet? Do they have a sense of humor? Their inner voice will be following what the outer voice is doing. By doing what they do you can pull yourself round to thinking in a manner that will help you emulate the handler you want to become. If you talk positive, then you will think positive!

Ok you have all the details down pat? Now go out and become the person that you are going to emulate. Act as they act. The little details will start to make sense. The little things that you observed but didn't understand should come together.

It is difficult to put this down on paper. People earn small fortunes explaining this in the context of business and politics. Perhaps the nearest stab is "that to be a champion you need to act like a champion and the best way to act like a champion is to know what a champion does, sees and thinks."

When you have taken all of the skills from your favorite handlers you should be better than all of them. See who is videoing you then -- they may be the up and coming stars of the game...

(Tony Dickerson)

One of the things I insist on in class is that EVERY exercise, no matter how long or short, ends in a recall to the handler where the biggest reward is given. (I am not espousing recalling the dog between obstacles... just at the end of each exercise.) In my opinion, this accomplishes 2 important things:

- It allows for the use of targeted treats and/or a bait person (with the aim of keeping the dog working ahead over a number of obstacles rather than constantly turning back to the human for commands for each obstacle) while still reminding the dog that the "best" person there is its human.

- It develops in the human a response of calling the dog back at the end of a course run in competition so that the dog is not allowed to run freely out of the ring. It reminds the human and the dog that they are both part of a team! Even with 2+ years of doing this in training with my dog, I am amazed at how easy it is to celebrate at the end of a run and forget that last recall.
(Kathryn Horn)


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