Obedience Training and Agility

Here is a summary of this topic on agility-l:
Obedience training is an important foundation for agility. It teaches the dog to learn. It gets the dog to pay attention. A reliable sit, and a solid down are certainly assets. Agility training often improves obedience performance. Positive training methods in *both* obedience and agility allow greater success than negative (force) methods. You have to know this if you want to compete.
(Bud Houston)

If you wonder if a dog can compete in agility, and still be competitive in obedience, the key lies in the definition of competitive coupled with the amount of time and energy the person has to train and the qualify of the dog the person is working with. Certainly one can be successful in both sports.

Some say that doing agility will ruin a dog's obedience performances. Does anyone really believe that a dog trained in both sports will ever walk in an obedience ring and "think" he is on an agility course? What about a dog walking onto an agility course and "thinking" he is in an obedience ring?

If the time you spend on agility is causing you to train formal obedience less, concentrating only on what you need for the agility ring (Yes, you need obedience in the agility ring, but not formal obedience exercises), then you will obviously be less successful in the obedience ring. Your dog can do both...the real question is whether you can.

If you find a successful obedience competitor who tells you that you can't do agility with your dog without ruining the dog's obedience, he is making a personal statement. If you find a successful agility competitor who tells you that he does not believe in obedience training, question him carefully. You may find that he is simply saying that he does not believe that FORMAL obedience (such as is seen in the ring) is required, but you will also discover that obedience in the true sense of the word is something that competitors train for and expect from their dogs.

Obedience provides the working relationship needed for agility and there is no reason to not seek titles while working on that. To fine tune to the extent necessary to win consistently in either sport takes a combination of a trainer who reads dogs very well in regard to the type of training that will achieve those results AND a good dog. If you are the right kind of trainer and you have a good dog you can be competitive in both sports. Even if you don't have the time or the best of dogs you can be successful in both sports. Set realistic goals and "go for it" if you enjoy both sports.
(Carol Burt)

The following are some fundamental skills that may help those whose training in obedience has produced a dog whose intense attention on you is counter-productive to the outward focus needed in agility. Many of these can be trained indoors without agility equipment, and would be beneficial to anyone in agility.

  • Teach a command to turn off that look-me-in-the-face attention. An example would be "at ease" which would mean that the dog is off-duty and may relax including lying down, but is not released or free to do whatever he wants (no tugging on the leash, sniffing other dogs, etc.). "At ease" is a very useful command for when you are listening to the instructor in class, or talking with a friend ringside. Try to only ask for attention when you're focused on your dog and what you're training. It is counterproductive to have him getting unintentional training, such as that he can look away just because you're looking elsewhere. When you're no longer working at all, use a release command like "Okay", then he is free to just be a dog.

  • Teach a command for focusing forward. Back-chaining is a way to do this in an agility setting. For instance, use "Go ____" to mean do the obstacle in front of him. The command can be just "go", "go table", "go hup", "go tunnel", etc. A "go" or obstacle command is NOT required; the dog should do the obvious obstacle without a specific command. "Go" is a reinforcement, an indicator that the obvious obstacle is correct. On course it's your responsibility to read what he thinks is the obvious obstacle.

  • Develop rituals. Pay attention to the cues you use to distinguish the various dog games you play, *especially* when teaching a new one. Do you have a particular warm-up routine, wear certain clothes, or use a special collar? Take what you already do or what your dog already picks up on and make it a regular ritual to prepare *both* of you mentally. Consider a key word or phrase - "Do you want to play agility?"

  • Dogs that have great attention also have already learned long concentration spans. Look at the problem as one of shifting that concentration to the obstacles. Having a work ethic is a great thing, just give your dog a break while they learn how you want them to apply it in a new setting. The second dog sport is hard to learn because there are a number of expectations to unlearn. (On the plus side the third, fourth, and fifth will be increasingly easy.) The more ingrained the old habits are, the longer it will take to overcome them in the new situation.

  • Another skill you may want (or need) to nurture is the dog's ability to generalize, i.e. to understand that even when the situation is somewhat different the basic skills are the same. Obedience does not stretch this skill very much - agility, tracking, and field work do. The innate ability to generalize varies greatly between breeds and individuals. You may never have to worry about this, or it may require careful nurturing. Field trainers encourage generalization by running retrieving drills in many different settings *after* the dog knows the fundamental concept. In agility you teach the dog a skill (say to focus forward, do an obstacle and move on away to the table), then work the skill in many settings, directions, with different set-up obstacles to teach generalization of the skill.(Sally Sheridan)

Many handlers have similar problems transferring obedience to agility. The first problem is getting the dog to work on their handler's right. The second problem is dogs that have been so carefully trained to heel with focused attention that they do it all the time.

The best way to get an obedience dog to learn to work away from their handler is to start utility work, specifically go-outs, and directed jumping.

For the dog that wants to heel on the agility course:

  1. Have the handler lead out ahead of the jumps.
  2. Set the dog up on one side of the dog walk and put the handler on the other side and have the handler call her dog over. Make sure the dog has a spotter.
  3. Have someone put a treat on the table, let the dog see it and have the handler send the dog to the table from her right side. Start at very, very short distances and work your way out then put one jump in between, etc.
  4. Avoid having the dog set up on the handler's left. Start the dog at a stand to help the dog to distinguish between agility and obedience. Do anything necessary to make the picture look less like an obedience exercise to the dog.
  5. To help the dog focus on a contact treat, have the handler stand in front of the dog at the end of the dog walk while looking and pointing at the treat. If the handler is looking at the dog, the dog will naturally feel compelled to look back, but if the handler focuses on the contact treat the dog will most likely look down as well.
  6. If #5 fails, hold a treat out in front of the dog's nose and then move the treat down to the contact. If the dog needs more assistance you can use your hand on the top of the dog's head to GENTLY push the dog's head in a downward direction.

To help the dog become used to working off the right:

  1. Have handler sit dog in a front position. The handler then moves around to the dog's left (handler's right) and releases the dog with a toy thrown out ahead to encourage the dog to move ahead of the handler.
  2. Give the right side of the handler's body a name (just like the left side is called "Heel"). Use this name and encourage the dog to move around to the right with a toy or food.
  3. If you can find an obstacle that the dog really likes, use this to start your "right side" work. This way you are not having to deal with "new obstacle" stress while your trying to deal with "wrong side" stress.
  4. For example, if your dog loves the dog walk, as he crosses the dog walk, get along his left side and walk along side of him, after he exits the dog walk, release him from your right by making a left about turn and throwing a toy from your right hand. Since the dog walk is a no stress obstacle for your dog, you can use it to get him comfortable working off the right.

Once your dog gets some clue as to what you're doing, work your dog exclusively off the right until he masters the idea. This only takes a few sessions but definitely pays off in less stress for both you and your dog.
(Chris Parker)

Do consider the breed involved and the age at which it begins either or both sports. Some breeds work away from their handler more readily than others so it comes more easily to them. You have to work with the material you are given. Dogs with an intensive background in obedience sometimes need extra time to catch on to the agility game. Dogs started in multiple sports trained separately, but at the same time in their life catch on to each quite rapidly. Dogs are context specific, if the material is presented during separate training sessions.(Katie Greer)

Obedience does not conflict with agility. A dog understands the difference between "let's go," which is walking on the handler's left side with the lead loose, not stopping to sniff, but not watching the handler or worrying about turns, either- and "heel," which is competition heeling- and running an agility course, which is entirely different from both! Dogs aren't robots who have to be programmed to do one thing -- they understand that if the CONTEXT is different, the expectations are different. Granted, it can be difficult to train that running on the handler's right side is not unnatural, though the problem can be more that of the handler than the dog. Walks are a pain unless a dog understands that MOST of the time they walk on the handler's left.

One of the MANY advantages of agility is that you can cheer your dog on, encourage her, praise her -- TALK to her. She's "on" the whole time, with eyes only for you. You're really working together. Obedience exercises are valuable in and of themselves, and learning them is good brain exercise. The control of obedience bleeds over to agility -- the fun of agility bleeds over to obedience.

A dog's safety could depend upon a 100% reliable recall (taught formally by using the traditional obedience exercise and then gradually extended to include off-lead distracted recalls), a drop on recall, a rock-solid stay, and the ability to walk on lead, on the left side, without pulling. These things can't be accomplished without teaching them formally. Dogs thrive on and learn from routine, which is why formal repetitive stuff works with them (as long as it's also fun!). Dogs need to keep having different kinds of challenges throughout their lives -- need to keep learning all kinds of things,not just one thing.
(Elizabeth TeSelle)


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