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.
Modifying Familiar Commands for Agility
– “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.
– “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.”
– “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.
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
– “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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Practice “Walk it” with the “Move” command, varying your speed as you walk side by side.
Using Positive Reinforcement with Agility
– 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!
When you’re starting out in agility, it helps to play the Good Movie/Bad Movie game.
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
Spotlighting what’s good
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
Being a beacon of reassurance
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
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!
– 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.
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.
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”).
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:
- With your clicker in hand, toss the target disc on the ground, and click-reward your dog for any interest. Do this 20 times.
- 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
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!
– 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
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.