Laying the Foundations for Agility

Love Dog

 In This Chapter

  • Giving old commands new meaning
  • Getting started on some brand-new commands
  • Maintaining a positive attitude
  • Choosing instructors and classes
  • Buying or making your own agility equipment

I recently took up yoga. Friends promised I would love it. I’d feel more limber, more relaxed. There was even a pose called Downward Facing Dog. How could I resist? I bought a mat and signed myself up. The first few minutes were fine. We closed our eyes and sat cross-legged — the Lotus pose. “Look at me!” I thought. “Doing yoga! Why, this is relaxing.” And with that, the instructor gently suggested we do a sequence of moves called the Sun Salutation. Then Warrior. Cobra. And the final straw — the One-Legged King Pigeon.

Is there a Woman Fleeing Yoga pose?
Needless to say, my first few yoga classes were anything but relaxing. Struggling to combine new terminology with unfamiliar techniques left me feeling out of step and lost. But I kept at it. In time, the words and movements started to come together and flow. The same can be said for getting started with agility. Laying a foundation of knowledge and skills can seem daunting, but things begin to flow easily if you stick with it.
In this chapter, I discuss some foundational information and actions you need in order to properly get started with agility. I review how basic training skills are adapted for this sport and list new commands you and your dog will learn together. I discuss how various tools and treats are used to encourage your dog’s focus and participation in a sport that will be new to both of you. I provide advice for finding an instructor (for both you and your dog), as well as some pointers for obtaining some of your own agility equipment.

Never fear — soon you’ll be talking agility with the best of them!

Modifying Familiar Commands for Agility

Until now, your interactions with your dog have revolved around age-old familiar dog commands and, if you’ve been learning tricks, some clever cues to prompt her theatrical side. “Sit,” “Stay,” and “Down” have been your grounding staples. “Follow,” “Come,” and “Let’s go” have prompted movement alongside of you. These commands are used in agility too, but each has its own spin:

“Come” doesn’t finish with a solid, reconnecting hug; instead, it’s used to orient and direct your dog as she’s moving through a course.

“Down” isn’t an invitation to relax; instead, it directs your dog to drop like a stone on the pause table.

“Stay” is just a momentary pause in an otherwise adrenaline-pumping race to the finish.

The biggest hitch when working an agility dog is that your dog must be off-leash when practicing and performing. Yes, free — like the wind. Can your dog handle freedom in a social setting? If the thought keeps you up at night, you’ll need to review the basics and hone up on your off-lead skills (see Chapter Encouraging Self-Control before You Launch into Lessons). Meanwhile here’s a more thorough description of how the basics are modified and used in this sport:

“Come”: The traditional “Come” invites a grounded reconnection. Dogs are taught to either sit in front of their person or stop at their side. Calling a dog on an agility course, however, is used to direct and orient your dog as she’s sequencing obstacles. In this case, the command alerts your dog to run in your direction and watch your body cues for more specific direction to the next obstacle. Though some people use the command “Come” on an agility course, many teachers and handlers encourage the use of an alternative cue, such as “Here.”

“Sit,” “Stand,” and “Down”: These commands are staples in every household and a must for trick training, but agility brings each one to a new level. Used on the course, these cues direct a dog to wait her turn or are instructions given on the pause table obstacle. Though agility is generally a fast-moving sport, the pause table requires that a dog come to a dead stop, assume a stationary pose for five seconds, and then be off like a rocket when the judge says “Go!”

“Stay” or “Wait”: A stay is a stay is a stay. Truer words were never spoken — accept in the case of agility. In agility, “Stay” does not signal a dog to relax. Instead, “Stay” used on the sporting field means “Hold still for just a few more seconds, and then explode like a rocket.”

In timed events, your dog may need to “Stay” at the starting line while you position yourself strategically on the course. “Stay” can be used on the pause table, as well. Many handlers use a different cue to highlight the table maneuver, such as “Wait.” In classes or practice runs, this command encourages your dog’s self-control when every fiber of her being is urging her to run and jump!

“Let’s go”: This command is more directional than exacting, regardless of your speed. “Let’s go” urges your dog to move in your direction, though not straight to your side.

“Release” (or an equivalent): Pick a word, any word, to release your dog from a “Stay.” Say it with pop-the-cork sounding enthusiasm: “Okay!” “Free!” or “Release!” Pick one and stick to it.

Tip

Agility will challenge both you and your dog. Don’t be surprised or dismayed if frustrations set in and mistakes happen. When they do, rise above them! Play the role of the all-knowing, benevolent coach. If you’re in a situation in which you just don’t know what to do next, call your dog back to you and stay upbeat. Remember that anger is not your friend — especially when your dog is off-leash.

Introducing New Agility Commands to Your Dog

You’ll be introduced to new commands when you take up agility. Many of them have to do with the new obstacles, while others encourage your dog’s direction and speed. As you’re out there on the course, envision yourself as the navigator telling your dog which way to go, while she’s the executor — bringing your visions to life!
Here’s a master list of new commands — some with games you can begin today, and others with skills you’ll use on and off the agility course.

“Go on”: “Go on” sends a dog in front of you to tackle a specified obstacle. Because dogs run faster than people, you’ll use it more than you can imagine.

Tip

To teach your dog, bait her with a favorite toy. Then hold her collar, tell her to “Stay,” and toss the toy out in front of her. Vary the pause time, then release her with “Go on.”

Consider this game a two-for-one. You’re also teaching your dog to stay while every impulse is riding her to run. It will serve you well when you’re teaching your dog to stay at the starting line.

“Move it”: This is the speed-up cue. Use it or another like it to urge your dog to go faster.

Tip

When walking your dog in an open area, command her to “Follow.” Say “Move it” as you increase your speed.

“Through”: This direction commands your dog to move through obstacles like the tunnels and/or jumps.

Tip

Find some tunnels in a children’s store, lay them out in your living room, and, after reading over the tunnels section in Chapter Introducing Your Dog to Jumps, Tunnels, and Tables, introduce your dog to this game today!

“Weave”: This command directs the dog to the weave poles where she will maneuver her body like a wave through poles set 18 to 24 inches apart. Weave poles are one of the most challenging and fun obstacles you’ll teach your dog on the agility course. Check out Chapter Teaching the A-Frame, Dog Walk, Teeter, and Weave Poles for the lowdown on weave poles.

“Up”: This command directs your dog up the A-frame and bridge obstacles.

Tip

You can begin to use this command whenever directing your dog up on something — a couch, a rock, or a tree. Always be positive and reward your dog for her efforts.

“Cross”: This direction tells your dog to cross in front of you as you sequence obstacles on the field.

Tip

If your dog has a toy fetish, you can place her in a “Stay” at your side or have a friend hold her; then toss the toy at an angle so she must cross in front of you to retrieve it. Shout your release word and the new cue together: “Okay–Cross.”

“Over,” “Hup,” “Jump”: These are commands to direct your dog over jumps. Some people like to use one command for every jump, while other people insist on using a different command for each type of jumping obstacle. Flip to Chapter Introducing Your Dog to Jumps, Tunnels, and Tables for fun ways to get started on this one!

“Tire”: This command has an obstacle all its own . . . can you guess? Yup, the tire (or a tire-like hoop).

Flip to Chapter Jumping and Dancing for Joy to see how a few fun tricks with a hula hoop can familiarize your dog with this obstacle.

“Tunnel”: You use this command to direct your dog through tunnels on the agility course. Turn to Chapter Introducing Your Dog to Jumps, Tunnels, and Tables for the lowdown on tunnel obstacles.

“Chute”: This command directs your dog to a closed tunnel. Don’t worry — she won’t bang her head. Its “closed” end is just an open piece of collapsible fabric that your dog will zip through once she has grown accustomed to it!

“Plank,” “Bridge”: You can use either the “Plank” or “Bridge” command to direct your dog to the teeter or sway bridge.

“Walk it”: Dogs must be mindful of their footing on the bridge and A-frame obstacles. Use this command to slow your dog down when too much speed could lead to trouble.

Tip

Practice “Walk it” with the “Move” command, varying your speed as you walk side by side.

Using Positive Reinforcement with Agility

Imagine this: You’re a dog, trying to learn something new. Beside you is your person — the one you trust like no other. It’s all good — you’re calm and happy, attached to the security of your leash. Suddenly, the leash comes off. Okay . . . still good. You’re excited and eager to know what to do next.
Now, one of two things can happen:

Your person guides you, offering clear instructions, rewarding every effort, starting over when things don’t feel right, and ignoring your mistakes. This is a little hard, but you’re a team! It’s going to be great!

Your person grows tense. Instructions are garbled. You’re getting confused, so you look to your leader for direction and reassurance but — uh-oh — not a lot of information is there. In fact, it seems like you might be in trouble. This is a little too hard and you want to go home!

If you were the dog, which scenario would you pick?
Here’s the thing about agility: It’s all off-leash. Have I mentioned that? The off-leash part? You’re going to ask your dog to concentrate and learn, and then you’re going to ask for speed on top of it — all without the assuring guidance of a leash. Establish a bond of trust and an aura of confidence, however, and your dog will be connected to you more securely than with the strongest leash.
Your dog needs to enjoy agility to do agility. If you’re a happy, confident, and encouraging leader, it will come together — probably faster than you think. But there’s no room for dictators on the field, so check your inner despot at the door and get in the game.

Envisioning cooperation

When you’re starting out in agility, it helps to play the Good Movie/Bad Movie game.

Like most people, you’ll probably have a few jitters starting out in a new sport. You’ll spend a lot of time picturing catastrophes and cataloging what might go wrong. We’ll walk onto the course and my dog won’t cooperate! She’ll run away! I’ll look disjointed and out of sync . . . I might even trip or fall and people will laugh and point and . . . STOP! This is the bad movie! Rewind! Rewind!
Go back to the part where you and your dog are entering the course. Your dog nails her performance, clearing every obstacle, following your every graceful move and direction. The crowd is hushed — awestruck! While this kind of mastery takes time to perfect, the good movie lets you experience it now.

Remember

Remember that your dog can’t play the Good Movie/Bad Movie game in her head. She needs to follow your lead and she’s happy to, especially if you’re kind and encouraging. If you’re playing the good movie, she’s playing the good movie. And that’s good!

Practicing positive reinforcement

Believe it or not, sometimes the hardest thing to control in agility isn’t your dog; it’s your temper. The process requires you to learn each obstacle and sequence the course. Your dog needs to focus: simultaneously concentrating and containing herself. And — yes, I’m saying it again — your dog will be off-leash. As in not on the leash.
Sometimes your dog will stay on-course; other times she may fidget or lose focus. Is she being bad? No. She’s learning. People learn the same way: One day you’re hitting a tennis ball like a pro or conjugating French verbs like a native, then the next day . . . not so great. Everyone — dogs and people — has good learning days and bad ones. Be patient with yourself and your dog. Be understanding. Appreciate your dog. Empathize.
Stay positive and upbeat as you explore and learn agility. You’ll need to juggle the social aspects of the agility lifestyle, quell your public performance jitters, manage off-leash expectations, and learn to use unfamiliar and challenging equipment — without losing your cool or freaking out your dog.
Okay, so how do you do it? It’s easier than you think. The key is positive reinforcement training. Not sure what reinforcement training is all about? The following sections detail three simple ingredients.

Spotlighting what’s good

Make a list of things that delight your dog. Treats? A special toy? A game of tug, tag, or fetch? A cheer, a body signal, or a heartfelt hug? Make your list and use all of these, intermittently of course, to praise your dog for even the smallest effort to master an obstacle.

Tip

Think about learning from your perspective. Do you want a teacher who rides your every misstep, or one who praises everything you do right?

Framing the mistakes

Think of your dog’s mistakes as her confusion — not as stupidity or belligerence. Frame her actions or missteps, determine where she went wrong, and then start over, slowly. Think of different things you can do to help her understand the goal. Review the building-block approach described in Chapter Exploring the Fun that Awaits You, breaking each maneuver into small, easy-to-master steps.

Being a beacon of reassurance

Sometimes a dog needs to be discouraged — if, for example, she interrupts another team, runs off, or gets out of hand. If your dog races off, let her wear a long line. Track the line as she’s bolting, then step on it to curtail the burst. Without you saying a word, she’ll reach the end of the line and, whap! — correct herself.
As your dog recovers from the unpleasant reaction, be her beacon of reassurance — cheerfully call her to your side. Praise your dog the instant she comes back to you.
While you can’t make endless excuses for your dog’s behavior, certain issues can be avoided. Did you forget a feeding or potty run? Have you stayed on one obstacle too long? While you may want to repeat a sequence until your dog gets it right, 30 repetitions may do damage to her understanding.

Remember

Dogs are a lot like kids: They get overwhelmed when there’s too much going on or they’re tired, hungry, or need to potty. Then there’s that attention span thing. If you push them beyond their focusing capacities, dogs (like kids) start to act up. 

The whooped hound doesn’t hunt

This adage was passed down through the generations in my family. Translation? If you keep scolding an animal, she’ll stay more focused on you than the task at hand. No one likes to be corrected. In agility, there’s no place for it. Correcting a dog for missing a contact won’t make any sense. Manhandling a dog who’s missed an obstacle on a sequence won’t help her stay focused and concentrate the next time around. A dog who is jerked, scolded, or corrected will not run a course with joyful abandon — she’ll keep looking over her shoulder to study your mood. Remember, dogs are simple, simple, simple creatures. They live in the moment, they delight in your pleasure, and they freeze up whenever they sense anger.

Calling In Reinforcers: The Tools of the Trade

The sport of agility is starting to make some sense to you. You’re growing more comfortable with agility terminology. You recognize that there are many organizations that host agility events — each with its own classes, emphasis, and games. You understand the importance of a positive attitude and sense how this time together strengthens the bond between you and your dog. What else could there be? Well, there’s one last thing you can’t do without: your reinforcers — treats and/or toys used to bait and encourage your dog’s enthusiasm as she learns how to navigate and complete each obstacle. Though reinforcements aren’t allowed during competition, they’ll urge your dog’s enthusiasm every step of the way, from applying herself on each obstacle to sequencing.

Tip

Visit a pet store and you’ll find novel little gadgets that store treats inside a toy. These clever items create clever canine mind games and can offer a great incentive to a dog learning agility. Check them out!

Following is a list of more reinforcers you can employ to entice your dog to do your bidding:

Treats: Dogs who love food, love food and will do just about anything to get more of it. You may use food as a lure initially to encourage your dog’s interest or guide her into, over, or through an obstacle. While too much food can be distracting, a well-positioned or well-timed reward leaves your dog eager to go around again.

Tip

A lot of people in agility use treat pouches to inspire their dog’s drive. Only food-motivated dogs need apply. Filled with delectable goodies, these bags can be tossed in any direction to override hesitation and set your dog on course!

Tug toy: This is the one time I okay a tug-fest. While it’s not the right game for a dominant dog, it’s a good one to encourage vigor on an agility field. Put the game on cue — “Let’s tug!” — and command release after 5–15 seconds.

Fetching toy: Does your dog like to fetch? My last four did — and there was no better way to reward their learning efforts than to toss their ball or Frisbee.

Tag: Dogs playing tag? It’s not as outlandish as it sounds. They love to chase and be chased. Put the game on cue, and do a few rounds of loopty-loop to reward their stamina.

Clickers: Though clicker training is described in Chapter Prepping for Training — Mentally and Physically, its usefulness in the sport of agility cannot be underestimated. The sharp snapping sound, which heralds food or another reward, helps to target a good performance and encourage your dog’s drive, enthusiasm, and understanding.

Leashes

Though leashes are considered faux pas once your dog is running sequences or preparing for trials, you can use a leash to hold and guide your dog during the introductory stages of learning the sport. Aside from the trusty handheld design, two other leashes come in handy:
A short, hand-held or finger loop lead can be used to guide your dog, hold her between practice sessions, and serve as a weighty reminder that someone’s paying attention.
A 10- to 20-foot-long line can be used to discourage rampant run-offs (see the earlier section “Being a beacon of reassurance”).

Remember

A clicker never stands alone! After each click, immediately reward your dog with a tasty tidbit.

Target discs: Find out more about target discs in Chapter Prepping for Training — Mentally and Physically. In the sport of agility, a target disc is a terrific way to teach your dog placement on the field and to help her learn mindfulness on contact obstacles.

Though you can purchase target discs, they’re quite easy to make: Use a container lid or cut out a 2- to 4-inch disc. That’s it. You can practice these first moves at home:

  1. With your clicker in hand, toss the target disc on the ground, and click-reward your dog for any interest. Do this 20 times.
  2. Now hold out until your dog paws or noses the disc. Click-reward.

Target sticks: These 3- to 4-foot, tent-like poles are used to steady and direct your dog over an obstacle. Initially introduced like point training (see Chapter Prepping for Training — Mentally and Physically), the stick’s length allows you to distance yourself from your dog as you direct her.

You can purchase target sticks or create them out of a 1⁄2-inch dowel or tent pole.

Finding A Good Instructor to Help You and Your Dog

The best way to learn any new sport like agility is to find someone who is one part master and the other part great teacher. While someone may have a dazzling competitive record and titles up the wazoo, they also need to take your novice status in stride and adjust the course to suit your dog’s beginner needs. An impatient teacher will dampen your enthusiasm and startle your dog. Take time to find the right instructor to introduce you to agility. Meet and interview potential instructors, and watch an ongoing class. Find an instructor who is

Searching for agility on the Web

There are many ways to learn more about the sport of agility. Entire books are devoted to the finer points of learning the techniques and competing with your dog. Web sites abound, as do specialty magazines and periodicals. Scan the Web, check out video reels on YouTube and other sites, and scroll through the following list of Web sites. There are many ways to enjoy learning all there is to know about agility!

Wikipedia: Wikipedia provides a great overview of the sport of dog agility. I love the easy cross references. This is a great place to start. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_agility

YouTube: I could watch video reels on YouTube for hours. Search “dog agility,” kick back, and enjoy yourself. youtube.com

Clean Run: Perhaps the most thorough site on the Web for all things agility, from rules and regulations to classes and events, this site even has a great presentation of training gear and specialty products. In addition, it publishes its own magazine and catalogs a library of books and videos available for purchase on agility and training. www.cleanrun.com/

United States Dog Agility Association, Inc. (USDAA): This Web site highlights USDAA news and events and covers the rules and regulations of this group. Because the USDAA is the largest independent authority for the sport of dog agility, it’s often the sponsor of events throughout the country as well as around the world. usdaa.com

American Kennel Club: Embedded within the American Kennel Club’s site is a great resource for dog agility enthusiasts. Helpful links and articles are offered as well as beginner guides to getting started. In-depth information about their judging standards, class divisions, and breed specifications is well laid out and available for downloading. www.akc.org/events/agility/

Teacup Dog Agility Association: This Web site lists information about competitive agility for small dogs. In many instances, the specifications and time allotment are modified for size. This site is a good reference for you if your dog is a mini-sized sports enthusiast! www.k9tdaa.com/

North American Dog Agility Council: The North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC) was formed in 1993 to provide North American dogs and their handlers with a fast, safe, and enjoyable form of the sport of dog agility. NADAC sanctions agility trials sponsored by affiliated clubs. The purpose of a NADAC agility trial is to demonstrate the ability of a dog and her handler to work as a smoothly functioning team. With separate class divisions for Veterans and Junior Handlers and a variety of games, NADAC dog agility offers something for everyone! www.nadac.com

Positive: Positive reinforcement should be the instructor’s claim to fame. Life is too short to get frustrated at a dog. Dogs are like babies — pure innocence and joy. Find an instructor whose positive attitude is infectious. A happy communication style with people will also go a long way in helping you overcome your jitters. A strong emphasis on the most basic skills, like signaling and focusing exercises, will set a strong foundation for what lies ahead.

Patient with newbies: A good instructor loves beginners! Everyone who starts out in the sport looks and feels befuddled. You and your dog will not be exempt. You’ll feel awkward and need plenty of encouragement. Find a teacher who’s patient and who takes your newbie questions in stride.

Safety-conscious: Safety rules! When you consider a group, look at the equipment too. A good teacher will prioritize safety. Wet or rusted equipment may be slick or loose. A novice dog who slips or falls off unsteady equipment will be emotionally jarred. Safety also includes the other dogs in the class: off-leash, all dogs must be in-control, well-socialized, and nonthreatening to the new students in the group.

Experienced: A good instructor should be experienced in competitive agility. Hanging out at weekend trials, he or she will have experience troubleshooting, and be versed in the lingo and the finer points of competing at each level.

Flexible: No two dogs are alike! A good teacher adjusts the obstacles according to the size, breed, and experience of each of his or her four-legged pupils. While a dog’s height has bearing, it’s not the only factor! A dog’s experience, personality, and body type must also be taken into consideration. Some dogs have agile, athletic bodies, while others lumber and need more motivation to participate. Finally, different breeds react differently on the course. Some dogs are prone to return to their person’s side, while others are perfectly comfortable running ahead. A good instructor should be well-versed in the ways of dogs.

Creative: Many techniques are afloat to help troubleshoot a dog’s confusion, if, for example, she’s prone to leap off a contact obstacle too soon or tunnel when she should weave. Find an instructor who’s eager to vary his or her approach to meet your dog’s individual challenges.

Choosing between private and group instruction

Everything in life has pros and cons. While private training may seem invaluable — who could argue the perks of working one-on-one with a master? — individual lessons don’t simulate a true agility experience. Organized agility events are loud and chaotic. If your dog’s used to her private course in your backyard, she won’t be able to concentrate. While private lessons can fine-tune your techniques and troubleshoot your dog’s moves, you need to find a class or practice group if your hope is to earn titles and challenge yourself on a timed course.
Group classes also come in flavors. A regimented class begins on a specific day and introduces you to agility in a well-organized fashion. These classes are ideal for beginners, but you should still observe a class before you sign up. Because you’ll need some individual attention, the dog-instructor ratio should be no greater than 6:1.
Drop-in classes and practice groups are also available. These are better choices after you’re familiar with the obstacles and can narrow your questions to a specific technique as you use your time to practice your moves.

Tip

Perhaps you’ve discovered a few different instructors in your area. Check them all out. If more than one catches your fancy and you’re wondering whether more might be better, here’s what I recommend: Start with one instructor. Learn the basics, read some books, and get familiar with the obstacles. Once you get the gist of agility and you’re comfortable handling your dog in a group setting, explore other options. As long as everyone is positive and you can filter through instructions to decipher what makes the most sense for you and your dog, you have nothing to lose by taking multiple classes.

Considering specialty camps and agility retreats

For a sport that’s relatively new on the scene, agility has sparked a passion that’s quite phenomenal. If you feel the obsession rumbling, consider a weeklong camp or weekend seminar retreat where you can surround yourself with other enthusiasts and learn from the experts.

Getting Some Agility Equipment of Your Own

While an instructor helps you learn the sport of agility, practice on the obstacles helps you master it! If you live in an urban area, you’re likely to find an agility club that has a course to work on during your off days. If you’re fortunate enough to have your own yard, you may choose to buy or make some basic equipment.
What’s the best equipment to get started with? Jumps, for sure. You can make or rig some very basic jumps from a few rolls of toilet paper and a broomstick. Pause tables can be simulated with a square blanket laid on the ground; and a low version of a crosswalk can be created by placing a 12-inchwide board on a couple of phone books.

Purchasing agility equipment

Many companies sell agility equipment. Your only concern in purchasing equipment should be for your dog’s safety. Decorative taping won’t hold its weight if the bearings are loose and threaten your dog’s stability. Anyone can pretty up a weave pole, but if it falls over when bumped, it’s no good. Here are a few reputable places to find agility equipment:

Making some standard pieces

Are you handy? Take a look at CanineCrib.com’s Web site at www.caninecrib.com/dog/training/agility-course.asp for instructions on how to build your own agility obstacles. Copy the instructions, and head to your local home improvement store. Within an hour, you’ll have all you need to start making your own agility course! Of course, only you can assess your carpentry skills. While the jump plans are pretty straightforward, if the poles fall over or the teeter is unstable, your dog may grow wary of the sport. If you’re unable to make your own equipment, see the preceding section on purchasing reputable equipment.
by Sarah Hodgson

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