- Showing your dog where to jump
- Racing through tunnels
- Exploring chutes
- Mastering the table
Imagine this: You call out a command, point with an outstretched arm, and your partner races to complete a particular task. (“Wow,” you’re probably thinking. “Can I teach these skills to the humans in my life?” Perhaps, but that’s another book. This is about you and your dog.) The extraordinary levels of communication and enthusiasm that exist between humans and dogs are what make agility such an exhilarating sport.
I’ve always believed in the innate intelligence of the canine species, and recent studies back me up. According to Professor Stanley Coren, a leading expert on canine intelligence at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, dogs are capable of understanding up to 250 words and gestures, can count up to five, and can perform simple mathematical calculations.
If your dog has been waiting for a chance to show off his brainpower, agility is the answer! In an introductory agility class, you find out how to direct your dog through a simplified agility course, navigating obstacles with commands and body cues. This chapter gives you an overview of some of the obstacles in an agility course — the jumps, tunnels, and table — and prepares you for the adventures that lie ahead. In Chapter Teaching the A-Frame, Dog Walk, Teeter, and Weave Poles
, you discover other parts of the course: the contact obstacles and the weave.
Is there a secret to starting with these particular obstacles? Well, simplicity is always the rule, no matter what your species. My advice? Start with the routines that are the easiest to master and least challenging for both of you. You’ll get the rush of accomplishment as you inspire your dog’s enthusiasm and cooperation!
Planning for a Good Training Session
Once you’ve decided to take the plunge into agility, you’ll be sharing the journey with other participants in various stages of learning. Some will be way ahead of you, making you feel like an eternal freshman. But in time, you’ll find yourself lending a hand to a new team, and you’ll realize — “Hey! We’re getting somewhere!”
In the meantime, keep the following advice in mind as you get started:
– Make it simple. Many of the obstacles have adjustable heights, so start at the lowest position. This ensures your dog’s safety and success.
– Find a helper. Many of the introductory steps require an extra set of hands. Partner up with another newbie, and you’ll be doing each other a favor!
– Use leash control to start. Keep your dog on-leash in the beginning, and listen to your instructor. Think of holding the leash as holding a child’s hand: In the early days of agility, it will make you both feel more secure. Your dog will need to be off-leash eventually to execute the course, but the leash is helpful when directing your dog in the early stages. Wait until your dog really understands the program and your instructor tells you it’s okay to go off-lead.
– Keep your lessons short and sweet. If you’re taking a group class, chunks of time will be spent listening to your instructor and taking turns with the various participants. Your dog won’t be “on” for long stretches of time. If you’re practicing on your own, a good rule of thumb is to do 3 to 5 repetitions on no more than three obstacles. Use lots of treats and end each practice session with a game. Though every dog is different, and some breeds or personality types might enjoy hours of practice, these dogs are the exception — most dogs burn out (physically and mentally) when pressed to perform!
– Stay positive. Throughout the learning phase, you’ll have days where you feel confused and awkward. Confusion is a little contagious, and your dog may catch it like a cold. He’ll show his confusion by acting up or racing around. If you compound the problem by showing frustration, your dog will misunderstand your displeasure and begin to associate it with the equipment or the activity. He’ll want to go home, where everything is predictable and safe.
– Listen to your dog. Some days, everything will be going right. Your dog will be eager, your signals will be crystal clear, and the sun will be shining. Other days, your dog will bolt, your knees will hurt, and everything will be just . . . muddy. On those days, lighten your practice load: Simplify the routine, end on a high note, and toss in the towel until another day.
– As you practice, be mindful of your dog’s stress signals. Repetitive motions such as scratching, lip-licking, and barking can be a sign that your dog is losing focus or has overexerted himself. If you’ve just started your practice session, see whether a walk, ball toss, or some soothing pats will get him on track. If you’ve been out on the course a while or the weather is extreme, go home and chill. No one — dog or person — likes to be pushed beyond their limits!
– Have fun. Agility is about having fun and being together. Repeat it like a mantra — “Having fun and being together. Having fun and being together!”
– Keep it slow and simple, and smile! Remember the three-part cardinal rule when introducing any new obstacle: Keep it slow and simple, and don’t forget to smile!
The Jumps: Taking a First Leap into Agility Training
Most dogs love to jump. Teaching them to do it on command can be the easiest step in agility, but there’s more to a good jumper than meets the eye! Dogs must not only clear the object but also be able to take a jump at any angle and land squarely.
In this section, I give you advice on setting up the jumps for training. I also explain how to get your dog used to clearing these obstacles — at your direction — in different combinations and from various angles. Finally, I give you some quick tips for tackling the specific kinds of jumps you’ll see in an agility trial.
Setting up the jumps for training
Regardless of competition jumping heights, set your jumps very low for training purposes. Make each one easy to clear and fun to do. A jump for a novice jumper should be below the dog’s elbow. Got a toy breed? Set the bar on the ground to start. When arranging a set of jumps, leave enough space between them for a proper five-stride approach and a clear landing.
Repetitive stress on your dog’s body increases the risk of injury.
As you and your dog get more comfortable with the jumps, you should vary the height to keep your dog ever mindful of the jump set in front of him. Lower the jump during routine practice or on days when the workout is demanding.
Choosing your jump commands
“Jump,” “Over,” “Hup”
“Jump,” “Over,” “Big Over”
“Jump,” “Over,” “Big Over”
Of course, your dog won’t care whether you choose these words or others — just say them consistently and with enthusiasm!
If you’re committed to performance agility, wait until your dog is experienced with all the obstacles and fully mature to research competition heights. Each organization listed in Chapter Competing in Agility: Ready, Set, Go!
specifies jump heights based on the various classes and your dog’s measurement at his withers. Determine which organization you’ll register with, and then modify the jump height for competitive practice runs.
Going over: Making the jumps
I remember setting broomsticks on cereal boxes, teaching my dog to jump through my tire swing, and arranging a jumping course out in the side yard when I was a kid. My Husky loved the time we shared together. It wasn’t agility then; it was just plain fun!
To teach your dog the agility jumps, you follow a step-by-step process that ends with your ability to direct your dog to any jump from various locations on the field. Can’t believe it? Time to get started!
Stage 1: Calling your dog over the jump
Your dog’s first introduction to jumping should be easy and fun. Set up a low jump, say “Over,” and trot over the jump with your dog. As you move with him, try to get a feel for his movement — ideally give him five full strides to clear the jump and three more when he lands before interrupting his movement. Praise and reward his enthusiasm.
Now you’re ready to have him jump on his own:
1. Have your helper stand and hold your dog in front of the jump as you walk to the far side of the jump.
Stand, but don’t turn around and face him.
2. Twist back and make eye contact with your dog; wave a toy or treat cup from the hand on the same side.
3. Call, “Over–Come,” as your helper releases your dog.
4. Click or call out a praise word like “Yes!” as your dog clears the jump.
Reward and praise your dog from the side you’ve twisted from when he reaches you.
Practice twisting, calling, and rewarding your dog from either side. This conditions him to move toward either the right or the left side as you indicate, which will become important as you sequence to other pre-positioned obstacles.
Stage 2: Running alongside
Next, your dog will learn to take jumps as you run alongside him next to the jump. Here’s how to accomplish this in jump-training:
1. Hold your dog in front of the jump and let him watch your helper execute the next step.
2. Ask your partner to walk ahead of you, indiscreetly placing a toy, loaded target, and/or treat on the far side of the jump.
If your dog hasn’t been target-trained, review the technique in Chapter Prepping for Training — Mentally and Physically.
Place the reward several strides past the jump to allow your dog to land squarely. Have your helper ready to remove it in case your dog races around the jump.
3. Release your dog as you say “Over!” and run with him towards the jump. Let him run just ahead of you and take the jump as you navigate to either side of the jump.
As you shout “Over,” signal, too, with an exaggerated bowling motion directed at the jump. Your signal arm should be closest to the jump.
4. Click or shout your praise as your dog clears the jump.
As he lands, let him enjoy his reward and/or break for a favorite game!
If your dog runs around the jump, have your helper remove the reward quickly. Calmly return your dog to his starting position, and show him the baited target before you release him. If he still dodges the jump, try trotting over the jump with him to let him see the reward, but don’t let him have it until he’s cleared the jump on his own.
Practice running and signaling from both directions. Your dog should be comfortable jumping with you strategically positioned anywhere on the field.
Stage 3: Encouraging your dog to run ahead
A happy agility dog looks for jumps to clear and obstacles to perform. To condition this level of enthusiasm from the beginning, teach your dog the “Go on” command (see Chapter Laying the Foundations for Agility
), and use it in this step.
The description Velcro dog refers to a dog who clings to his owner and can’t think well or enthusiastically on his own. While your dog’s affections may reassure you, discourage over-dependence by teaching him to go forward and tackle life . . . one obstacle at a time.
Set the jump very low or lay it on the ground. Then follow these steps:
1. Have your helper set the lure just beyond the jump or set the target on the other side of the jump yourself.
2. Send your dog out with “Go on over” as you let him go.
Click or mark the moment he clears the jump. If your dog races around the jump, have your helper remove the reward before he reaches it.
3. Follow your dog past the obstacle and then turn to play with, praise, and reward him for his efforts.
Phase out placing the target on the far side of the jump. But don’t forget to praise and reward your dog enthusiastically when he clears the jump.
Stage 4: Setting up multiple jumps
Now you’re ready for multiple jumps. Lay them out in a direct line, allowing your dog five paces between each one.
Go back to Stage 1, working with your assistant to help your dog understand your new focus. Place the treat at the end of the jump sequence and keep the hurdles low to ensure success and safety!
Stage 5: Adding angles
Enter “dog agility” in the search box on YouTube (www.youtube.com
), and watch a competitive run. Notice how each jump’s placement sets up the overall performance.
Before you think sequencing, however, practice your jumps one at a time. Teach your dog how to approach and clear each one from any angle, as you encourage him to watch you for direction. Send or run your dog over jumps at different angles, varying your position to the left or the right to simulate a competitive agility experience.
Working on specific types of jumps
A professional course includes many different types of jumps (I describe them in Chapter Considering Agility Training
). Here are some tips on approaching specific kinds of jumps:
– Single jump and panel jump: These jumps are straightforward: A single bar or flat, wall-like board is positioned for your dog to jump over. Your main goal is to build your dog’s success rate and enthusiasm so he doesn’t become a “bar knocker.” Dogs who clip the jump or dislodge a bar lose points or, worse, are disqualified in competition.
Keep the jumps low, giving your dog room to clear each one. Positively reward each stage of this learning phase. Your enthusiasm and patience will ensure your dog learns to jump high and clear!
– Spread jump: Spread jumps are a spread-out arrangement of several ascending bar jumps that your dog must clear. When practicing, keep the bars low to ensure your dog’s success every step of the way!
– Broad jump: These low, angled boards are spread out on the ground to simulate a wide environmental obstacle that your dog must jump over (see Figure 13-1). If you’re experienced in trial obedience, you’ll notice the similarity right away!
Tip the boards on edge so they’re progressively more pronounced and harder to walk over. Once your dog is jumping up and across them, you can lay them down one at a time, from back to front, until the series is laid flat.
If your dog hits the boards, try laying an uncomfortable surface over them, such as chicken wire.
– Tire: A “tire” obstacle is usually an elaborate hoop suspended in a wooden frame. This jump may jar your dog’s concentration. When first introducing the tire, make sure it’s braced tightly to prevent both motion and sound as your dog acclimates to it. Stay positive, and use plenty of tantalizing food lures and toys. Lower the tire to floor level and kneel down as you bait your dog to come through the circle.
If your dog’s still resistant, use a leash to steady him and lead him through. Toss a toy or treat ahead of him, or let him watch a favorite friend manage the obstacle. Leash him and cheerfully guide him through several times. Once he’s coming through when you call him, raise the tire slightly. Good with that? Go back and practice Steps 1–4 in “Going over: Making the jumps.”
Never force your dog through this obstacle. Frustration will ensure one thing, and one thing only: He’ll never get near a hoop again. Watch your temper!
Figure 13-1: Broad jumps are laid out flat to encourage a dog to jump across them.
Going through Tunnels
Zipping through a tunnel at top speed reminds me of being a kid. The difficulty isn’t so much teaching a dog to run through a tunnel as it is teaching him to avoid it to work on other obstacles!
There are two different types of tunnels:
– Open-ended: A 15- to 20-foot-long open-ended tunnel that can be positioned straight or curved
– Closed: A 12- to15-foot-long closed tunnel or chute with a barrel opening and a collapsible fabric tail that a dog must push through to get out
Make sure each tunnel is secured: Flexible tie-downs are best. You can make one with an overlying strap or tether that’s affixed to sand-filled water jugs on either side.
Does your dog get jazzed up when he sees the tunnel? If your dog is obsessed, he’s not alone: Dogs who prioritize the tunnels are called tunnel suckers. I love that! If I were a dog, I’m sure I’d be a tunnel sucker too.
Introducing your dog to open-ended tunnels
Begin training on the straight, open-ended tunnel. Let your dog explore the tunnel as you walk along the outside of it together. Look down the hollow as though you were exploring a cave. If your dog grows wary, avoid looking at or reassuring him — your attention will reinforce his concern. Instead, crawl into the opening in sheer amazement, rewarding any sign of confidence.
Two unusual-looking tunnels are used to compete for UKC titles. The hoop tunnel and crawl tunnel are open frames that your dog must learn to navigate in the same way he learns to move through the tunnels I discuss in the following sections.
When practicing your tunnel runs, direct your dog from both the right and left side. Later, your position will help orient him toward the next obstacle.
Stage 1: Calling your dog through
Ask a helper to assist you. If possible, scrunch up the tunnel to shorten its length. Then proceed as follows:
1. Ask your helper to hold your dog at the mouth of the tunnel.
2. Walk around to the opposite end, kneel down, and wave toys or treats as you call out to your dog.
3. Have your helper release your dog when you shout, “Tunnel!”
If your dog shoots through, reward and praise him enthusiastically.
If he balks, stay calm and do whatever it takes to fan his enthusiasm . . . find more tasty treats, use a host of favorite toys, or position his favorite dog friend at the far end of the tunnel.
Super-sized tall breeds will need to scrunch to get into the large tunnel. They can do it — I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes! To encourage your large breed into the tunnel, make it as short as possible. Lure him in with a tantalizing treat or favorite toy.
Stage 2: Running alongside
The next step is to teach your dog to run through the tunnel as you run alongside it.
1. Set up and secure the tunnel in a straight line.
2. Hold your dog at the mouth of the tunnel while your helper maneuvers to the far end with a baited target.
Once your helper has your dog’s attention, ask him or her to set the target on the ground.
3. Release your dog, saying “Tunnel!” with enthusiasm. Thrust the arm closest to your dog forward in a bowling motion.
If your dog ducks in, run alongside him, cheering him on as you do, so he can better orient himself to your position as he exits. Reward him enthusiastically!
If your dog runs around the tunnel or is otherwise confused, ask your helper to remove the reward, ignore him, and start over again.
Practice running along both sides of the tunnel. As you learn sequencing, the side you’ll stand on will depend on the location of the other obstacles.
This obstacle is very, very exciting. Some dogs get wound up and forget their manners. To help ground your dog, let him drag a light leash. Should he start to zoom off, you’ll have an easy way to stop him. Laugh it off; then up the quality of your food rewards or practice just before mealtime, and stay positive!
Stage 3: Sending your dog out
Next, you teach your dog to race ahead of you to take the tunnel:
1. Keep the tunnel straight and shortened.
2. Stand way back, and run toward the tunnel saying “Go on–Tunnel!”
3. Slow your pace so that your dog gets ahead of you.
4. Ask a friend to toss a treat pouch or a toy to your dog as he emerges from the tunnel (or, if you’re fast enough, greet him yourself!).
The chute: Introducing your dog to closed tunnels
The closed tunnel is slightly more complicated than the open version. Here your dog must run into an open barrel without being able to see his way out. What’s blocking his view? A collapsed fabric tail, known as the chute. Hmmm . . . this obstacle requires trust!
Make sure your dog doesn’t get tangled in the chute. Fluff it before and after each use.
The steps to getting your dog to navigate a closed tunnel are similar to those in the preceding section on open-ended tunnels, but with the following variations.
Stage 1: Variations on the call-through
If possible, get your dog used to going through the tunnel without the cloth section attached. Remove the cloth section and call your dog through the barrel. Repeat Steps 1–3 as outlined in the preceding section on open tunnels. When your dog’s familiar with the equipment, place the collapsible section on the barrel and proceed:
1. Fold the fabric section back like a pant cuff, making it as short as possible.
2. Hold the fabric open so that your dog is able to see through the tunnel.
3. Have your helper hold your dog back, then call your dog through as described in the earlier section, “Stage 1: Calling your dog through.”
Praise and reward him enthusiastically as soon as he enters the chute.
4. Once your dog is confidently racing through the tunnel, drop the fabric on his back gently as he exits the chute.
5. Gradually drop it earlier and earlier — using your cheerful enthusiasm to reassure him that everything is okay.
Some dogs freak out when the chute covers their head. Delay this as long as possible — when you’re first dropping the fabric, make sure it doesn’t cover his eyes.
You can practice a game of peekaboo with a lightweight towel and some favorite treats. Toss the towel over your dog’s head and say, “Peekaboo,” as you whisk it off and reward him!
Stage 2: Variations on running alongside
Here you repeat Stage 1, but you enlist the help of a friend, freeing you to run alongside your dog.
1. Ask your friend to fold back the chute and hold it open.
2. Have him or her wave the baited target so your dog sees it, and then drop it on the ground at the end of the opening.
3. Shout “Chute” and signal with your full-arm swing (the bowling motion) as you release your dog and let him race through.
4. Run out to meet and congratulate your dog with praise and play.
5. Have your friend lengthen and drop the fabric as you did in the preceding section.
Run on either side of the chute to condition your dog to locate you as he moves through.
Stage 3: Variations on sending your dog out
Once your dog is comfortable moving through the chute, you’re ready for the last stage. Ask your friend to hold the tunnel open for the first couple of send-outs.
1. Stand back and run toward the tunnel, shouting “Go on–Chute” as you signal and release your dog from your grasp.
2. Slow your pace to let him race on ahead of you.
3. Ask your helper to toss a toy or treat bag down, so that your dog is rewarded the moment he emerges.
Alternatively, run alongside the chute and do this yourself. When you reach your dog, play with and reward him some more!
Modifying tunnel positions
In competition, your dog will have to navigate the tunnel on course. At higher levels, the open tunnel may be curved so that your dog will have to run to an opening that’s out of sight. Here are some exercises to challenge your dog’s tunnel comprehension:
– Curved open tunnel: Curve the tunnel, both to the left and right. Send your dog from either side, conditioning him to take your direction from anywhere on the field.
– Hidden opening: From the same curved layout, gradually angle back away from the curve so you’re sending your dog around the tunnel to enter it. Use dramatic bowling signals to urge your dog to navigate around to the opening. Toss a toy/treat out as he races through. Bend the tunnel the other way and work the same exercise from the opposite side.
Waiting on Tables
The table obstacle tests your dog’s ability to put on the brakes. While the rest of the agility course is pure form, function, and speed, the table is the one obstacle where your dog must come to a complete stop and hold a specific position for a full five seconds.
If you’re planning on getting some equipment to practice at home, put “table” near the top of your list. Why? The skills you teach here have side benefits in everyday life: For instance, when the doorbell rings or your dog sees a squirrel, the table can help ground your overstimulated dog.
A dog who has mastered the table has been taught the obstacle with a fine balance of patience and enthusiasm. You can spot this dog a mile away! He will
- Run directly to the table without hesitation.
- Quickly respond to “Sit” or “Down” as directed.
- Stay steady as a rock, yet be poised to spring when he hears his release cue.
- Fly off tilt and onto the next obstacle, when given the cue.
But aren’t you supposed to be teaching your dog to stay off the table? Well, yes, when it comes to your furniture, but the agility table is a different type of table. It’s low and square with a roughened surface area to prevent slipping (you can even jury-rig a table out of a low, sturdy, resurfaced coffee table — sanded and coated with sand-textured paint or non-slip vinyl strips). The height of the table is fully adjustable, and you can modify it depending on your dog’s height.
This section covers four stages to teaching the table. Practice each stage separately before chaining them together.
Stage 1: Encouraging quick positioning
Use your dog’s favorite lures and a clicker or word cue to highlight his speediest renditions. Begin with the speedy “Sit.” When your dog gets the knack of that, move on to the speedy “Down.” Follow these steps:
1. Give the “Sit” or “Down” command as you lure your dog into position.
2. Reward your dog’s initial cooperation — no matter what his speed.
3. Then, withhold the treat for faster positioning, urging him with faster luring motions and more urgent tones.
4. When he nails his first speedy posture, give him a jackpot reward — a fistful of treats!
Stage 2: Going to the table!
After your dog has mastered the speedy “Sit” and “Down,” teach him to run to the table and get on it with eager enthusiasm.
Make table time special by pulling the table out when practicing, but storing it away when not in use.
When you first approach the table, let your dog explore it . . . allow him to sniff it, put his paws on it, jump on it, and so forth. If your dog gives you a double-take, do your best to erase his skepticism by staying enthusiastic and encouraging your dog to climb up. You’re ready for the send-off!
1. Ask a friend to stand behind the table with a loaded target disc — a target disc laced with a treat.
Have your friend wave the disc to get your dog’s attention.
2. Stand back 5 to 10 feet. Shout “Table” as you let your dog go.
3. Mark the moment he lands on the table with a clicker or a praise cue such as “Yes,” or “Good!”
Let him have the target reward by approaching behind him and praising galore.
Always use your release word, for example, “Okay,” to end the praise fest. You’re conditioning your dog to get off when he hears the word cue.
Increase your dog’s understanding by practicing from different angles and increasing the send-off distance.
Once you’ve accomplished all this, try practicing solo:
1. Show your dog the target and place it back and slightly off the table’s center.
2. Bring your dog back, and then release him with the command, “Table!”
3. Run with him to the table. If he leaps on, mark it with your word cue and/or clicker, and stop in front of the table and praise him.
If he’s hesitant or runs by, move to the opposite side and encourage him to get on from the front.
If he ducks behind and tries getting up on the far side, put him on a short tab leash and calmly maneuver him back to the front side.
4. Once he has mastered jumping on the table, send him from different angles and distances.
Always release your dog from the table with “Okay.”
Some dogs approach the table with such force and excitement they slip off. If this happens to your dog, shout his name as he nears the table.
Now phase out your use of the target:
1. Put the target up on the table without lures.
Mark the moment he hits the target, and then run up and reward him by hand.
2. Remove the target altogether.
Reward your dog instead with a marker cue (click or word) and treats.
Stage 3: Practicing table positions
Once your dog is super-happy about the table, you’re ready to introduce your stationary commands, combining quick positioning (Stage 1) with going to the table (Stage 2):
1. Bring out the table. Practice a few familiar runs (see the preceding section) to stoke your dog’s enthusiasm.
2. Send your dog to the table by commanding “Table!” When all four paws hit the table, direct “Sit.”
Verbalize clearly and with urgency.
Command from an upright posture — your dog may misconstrue any bending forward as threatening.
3. Cue or click and reward your dog the instant he nails the posture.
At this stage, get close enough to your dog to treat him while he’s in position. Otherwise, you’ll be conditioning a position-pop-up — a big no-no in this sport!
4. Work on the quick “Down” the same way you approach the “Sit” cue in Stages 1–3.
Your only focus at this point is to teach quick positioning.
Stage 4: Holding — 1-2-3-4-5 GO!
Once your dog will assume whatever posture you direct on the table, you’re ready for the final move: holding still! In trial, the judge will stand near you and count to five: Initially, vary the holding time from 5 to 10 seconds.
You can practice this move at home with or without a table. Do your quick “Sit” or “Down,” count out loud, and then release with “Okay!” Use a more urgent tone than that of your everyday command voice so your dog will know these short counts to five are different than your other, lengthier, expectations. Follow these steps:
1. On every third “Table” run, add the command “Stay” after your “Sit” or “Down” positioning cue.
Vary the stay time from 5 to 10 seconds.
2. Hold the treat in your hand while your dog holds the position, giving him the food just before you release with “Okay!”
3. Is your dog holding his “Stay”? Ask someone to volunteer as the judge — standing next to the table and counting “1-2-3-4-5 GO!”
The bottom line? You don’t want this obstacle to dampen your dog’s enthusiasm for agility. Make it a fun and exciting challenge, and your dog will look forward to it as much as the other obstacles on the field!
by Sarah Hodgson