- Tackling multiple obstacles in the right order
- Becoming an effective course director
- Finding solutions to specific problems
Have you ever longed to be the captain of a team? A movie director? A conductor? Here’s your opportunity. Of course it would be fabulous if you could take a shrinking pill that would allow you to ride your dog like a pony — steering him to each obstacle as you directed and cheered him along. But alas, that would make it too easy. The challenge of agility is learning to steer your dog with words and signals alone. How can this be done? By following a formula of well-established moves that are easy to learn.
In this chapter you find out about these moves and how to teach your dog to sequence up to 20 obstacles in a row. No joke! Working piece-by-piece, slowly and steadily, you’ll be out there directing your superstar athlete who’ll look to you with eagerness and respect . . . and before you know it, people will look to you with awe and envy, thinking “What a harmonious pair!”
Before we finish, we troubleshoot problems that befall many newbie handlers. The good news/bad news here is that most problems result from human misjudgment and handling errors. But human errors are way easier to correct than dog-related issues, so don’t fear your missteps!
Envision a competitive agility course — 16 to 20 obstacles laid out and prearranged in various positions and angles on the field. There’s one starting point and one finish line. You and your dog come out together, focused on finishing the course in record time. If it’s a true competition, you’re scored; if it’s just a test run, you’re your own judge, using the results to gauge your readiness and skills.
Eventually, your dog — yes, your dog — will move seamlessly through a course of up to 20 obstacles. But don’t get overwhelmed; it’s a building process, and what seems far-fetched now will come together over time. Eventually, you’ll move from the starting gate to the finish line in under three minutes.
Initially, you combine two or three obstacles your dog has mastered. Begin with two or three jumps in a straight line. As your dog masters the straight sequence, angle them in a slight curve. Then add a tunnel. Then a well-honed contact obstacle. Slowly chain more and more obstacles together and vary the positioning as you learn different directing moves. For instance, you may start with two jumps, and then toss in a third — or maybe a tunnel or contact obstacle — increasing the number of obstacles in your sequence.
At some point, you can set up your own mini-course. Please don’t wing this, especially if your aim is competition. Figure out sequencing with the help of your agility teacher before you try it at home. Bad habits are hard to break — no matter how many legs you stand on!
You can visit the Agility Course Maps Web site (agilitycoursemaps.com/CourseMap.aspx) to see a few official sample courses that you can try after you know how to signal and direct your dog from one obstacle to the next. Look for a Novice or Starters level course — it may not be on the first page.
To figure out the spacing of the obstacles, speak to a professional. The distances between obstacles and the heights and measurements of the equipment are determined in large part by the size and breed of your dog.
Obstacle spacing is crucial when sequencing a course. If obstacles are bunched, there will be little flow because much of the dog’s concentration will be wrapped around gauging his speed and approach. Spread them out and time will be lost racing back and forth, not to mention the dogs who can quickly outrun their handlers!
When setting up a practice course, there are a few general rules of thumb. The obstacles should be placed so that the dog has 18 to 21 inches of straight runway to approach all jumping, tire, or spread jumps; when a contact obstacle is presented, the dog should be directed to approach the plank straight on. When angles are added to the course layout, there needs to be a greater distance allotment to allow the dog to direct himself to the next obstacle. There are programs available online that allow you to design a course tailored for the coordinates of your location and the measurements of your dog. My favorite is Clean Run Course Designer 3, which you can explore at www.coursedesigner.com/newcd3;jsessionid=2B356C4442826D69A48A4093E100873F
Directing Your Dog to Do a Sequence of Obstacles
When your dog is eager to practice, reliably consistent in completing an obstacle, and responsive to your directions, you’re ready to begin sequencing, arranging more than one obstacle and directing your dog in a pre-determined order. There are two parts to this process:
– Teaching your dog to perform a series of obstacles, arranged in various fashions
– Learning how to direct your dog and choreograph your motions to minimize your footwork and maximize your dog’s speed
When you begin sequencing obstacles together, include only those that your dog loves on a standalone basis. If he’s having trouble with one, for example, the dog walk, you may begin some sequencing moves that exclude the dog walk as you continue to practice this obstacle individually. Remember, your dog’s success is based on two things: his understanding of each obstacle and your proficiency in giving him clear, understandable directions.
Giving commands and hand signals
If you’ve trained your dog in obedience, check your inner drill sergeant at the door. Many of the tried-and-true obedience rules — use commands only once, keep your praise calm or you’ll excite your dog, always work your dog on your left side — simply don’t apply to this sport. On the agility field, you’ll likely find yourself shouting. Excitedly, eagerly! You’ll often repeat commands as you urge your dog through the course. Don’t worry, you’re not making mistakes! You’re simply reflecting the nature of the game — and your verbal encouragement should bring on a canine-adrenaline rush.
When I trained in agility, I liked to think of myself as an ocean current — urging my dog’s enthusiasm with words and motions to help her navigate the way. I knew she was excitable and athletic, and her focus was drawn in 15 directions all at once. It was up to me to keep her attention, to be the powerful current, so she would stay focused and ride the wave!
When you’re out there, you have two tools at your disposal to steady your dog and direct his way: commands and body signals. Use both simultaneously, focus on your timing, and watch your dog looking to you to light his way. Here’s how to use these tools:
– Loud, excited, urgent commands: As you navigate your dog around an agility course, give your directional commands with urgency and joy! Work on clear comprehension and directing body signals so your dog gets the visual on first command — think of your directions as a steering wheel that will . . . eventually . . . guide your dog across an ever-changing course configuration.
Always remember that you won’t be penalized for repeating your command should you need to do so. Agility is very different from everyday life, so say your directions loudly, repeat yourself if necessary, and urge your dog with an excited tone!
– Big body signals: When you want to send your dog off in one direction or another, don’t use a subtle hand gesture — use your whole arm as though it has the power to push your dog in the right direction. Bowling signals — large, theatrical, bowling-like arm sweeps — should be used to direct your dog every path of the way. When you want your dog to race to an obstacle, don’t walk toward it; run fast and keep your eyes fixed on where he should go as you lean toward the obstacle with your whole torso and wave your arms to urge his excitement!
When signaling, use the arm or hand closest to the obstacles.
Commands and signals work in tandem. Your dog listens for your directions — and is powerfully swayed by your encouragement — but he depends on your signals to help him make split-second directional decisions. Think electricity here — the more animation you put out, the higher the voltage. Your dog responds to whatever you send out, so ramp it up!
Getting a handle on handling
While your dog may be eager to learn sequencing, it’s up to you to simplify it. No matter how well he knows each individual obstacle, the new, multi-obstacle configurations will be something completely new — and your dog will be clueless.
Did you think you’d just wing it, running around the course telling your dog which way to go? The problem is that your dog can outpace you in a nanosecond, and if he loses sight of you, he’ll stop in his tracks, utterly bewildered yet still pulsing with adrenaline — a tough combination. That’s why learning to direct him with verbal and body cues is important.
Before you teach your dog how to move about an agility course, study and learn the human moves. Study the commands. See how they differ between the way you use them with your dog in your routine life and the way they’re used to direct your dog’s placement on the course. Once you see the science that belies the chaos, you’ll feel more confident directing your dog.
Fortunately, there are fine-tuned “human” techniques for sequencing agility obstacles, and I cover them here. Take time to envision, learn, and practice them (when possible without your dog and in front of an experienced handler) before you begin! Once you embrace the integral role you’ll play on the field and feel comfortable with the commands and body cues, you’re ready to work with, teach, and direct your dog.
“Here” is similar to the “Come” command — it tells your dog to run toward you. The difference? “Come” invites a reconnection — a stop-and-share-the-moment. Agility requires top speed — so “Come” isn’t the ideal choice.
On the course, “Here” directs your dog toward you — then you need to quickly send him to the next obstacle, for example, “Tire” or “Frame.” Practice your timing — shouting and signaling to the next obstacle before your dog reaches you. Invigorating!
“Here” should alert your dog to turn quickly in your direction. Wave a toy or a cup of treats, and shout “Here” as you step back away from your dog or call to him from a distance. As he runs in your direction, toss the object in one direction or the other shouting “Go left” or “Go right” as you do.
Getting your dog to lead out
Okay, I’m going to state the obvious. You have two legs; your dog has four. No matter his size, he’ll outpace you. Rather than slowing his progression, teach him to lead out — to race ahead of you and take whatever obstacle you point him toward.
Most people tell their dogs to “Get out” or “Go on.” Use one command consistently, and practice the playful exercises found in Chapter Laying the Foundations for Agility. Taught properly, your dog will grow confident racing ahead of you.
The “Get out” command rarely stands alone. Once you teach your dog to race ahead of you, you need to incorporate directions that send him toward the next obstacle. Use your dramatic bowling body signals to point to the chosen obstacle and a verbal cue to further specify it, for example, “Get out–Tire!”
The command “Get out” has a lot of uses on the agility field. Once your dog has mastered his obstacles and is eager to perform them, you may notice that you’re holding him back . . . it’s the two-leg to four-leg ratio. If your dog is outpacing you on the way to an obstacle, you can use “Get out” to support his initiative and vision. In competitions, you’ll likely use this move at the very end of the course, sending your dog out to take the last series of obstacles and cross the finish line solo.
Call-offs are used on-course to call a dog away from an incorrect obstacle. You may call out the name of the proper obstacle, “Go left or “Go right,” or “Here” if you’re well positioned to bring the dog toward the right one. Envision your dog running a course of preset obstacles. As he finishes one obstacle, he has two choices: run straight and take the obstacle that faces him, or turn and take one that is out of his line of vision. Left to his own devices, he’d probably choose the obstacle facing him, but agility is a team sport . . . and that’s cool. Call-offs teach your dog to inhibit his impulses, turning away from one obstacle and prioritizing your directional cues. The excitement of trial agility is that each course is a maze that you navigate together.
While these maneuvers are generally used in higher-level competition, they sharpen even a novice dog’s concentration.
“Go left,” “Go right”
While this may sound like an exercise for the trick chapters, your dog can learn his left from his right — and you can use these commands to direct him on the field.
1. Set up two low jumps side by side.
2. Walk out beyond the jumps 15–20 feet, while leaving your dog in a “Sit–Stay” facing the jumps.
3. Stand in the center of the two jumps.
4. Command “Here–Left,” as you dramatically signal with your left arm and run across to the middle of the left jump.
If necessary, use a helper to guide your dog.
5. Now practice “Here–right,” reversing your directional cues.
When you’re working a course, use the commands “Go left” and “Go right” to help your dog navigate the obstacles, especially when the layout is tight and confusing.
Traps are never a good thing. An agility trap is set by positioning the exit of one obstacle in line with the entry of another but requiring the dog to completely avoid it. It’s the handler’s job to call his or her dog off-course and direct the dog to another, often less-obvious obstacle. A common trap involves the tunnel placed directly under the A-frame: Because the tunnel is a hard obstacle to avoid anyway, the temptation is compounded! Traps are usually found in higher-level competitions — but practice them early, just in case one crops up sooner than you expect.
Footwork on the field
When working a sequenced course, your dog’s success or failure often depends on your footwork, steadiness, and clarity. If you mix up your signals or blurt out the wrong direction, you dog won’t know what to do — he’ll simply respond. This blind devotion can result in a missed obstacle or a dog who’s off-course and/or out of sync. Before you get nervous, a quick review is in order — knowledge is power, no matter what your activity!
Deciding where to position yourself
As you direct your dog, you want to position yourself to minimize your mobility (too much activity disorients your dog) while staying visible to your dog as he maneuvers each obstacle.
Check out Figure 15-1. Identify the inside line or center footprint of the course versus the outside line, the course path that encircles all the equipment. The inside line keeps you on the inside path of the obstacles so you can direct your dog like the arms of a clock. The outside line puts you outside of the center, or on the periphery of the course. In trials, you’ll have time to walk the course ahead of time to determine the best path for directing your dog during a competitive run.
Figure 15-1: Choose a path that minimizes your movement.
If your dog will “Stay” at the starting line, you can walk out and stand right next to the first set of obstacles. In this instance, you can call your dog right to you using the “Here” command.
As your dog is running forward, position yourself to direct him to the next obstacle. If you’re able to stand next to a jump, for example, you can shout “Here–Over” to signal the jump. If the tunnel is next, you can just shout “Tunnel” as your dog clears the obstacle. With agility, you never know what configuration you’ll get, but you’ll have fun piecing it all together.
Practice your timing: As your dog is taking the preceding obstacle, move toward the next obstacle and command the next move. No time for a hug!
Working on both sides
At home, my dog Shayna always followed on my left side. When she approached me on the couch it was always to my left. When practicing tricks, she skewed her posture to the . . . you guessed it . . . left. But on an agility field, she would work on either side of me. As we moved quickly around the course, I would sometimes be in front of or behind her, often maneuvering my position to the left or right depending on the path of the prearranged course. As both of us moved through the obstacles, my positioning helped her orient her next move. From her perspective, my positioning was unpredictable, but watching me would help her orient herself on the course.
Throughout the learning phase, mix it up: Stand both to the right and left side of an obstacle. Use your vocal cues and body signals to guide your dog from one obstacle to the next.
Crossing your dog’s path
As you learn to handle more obstacles, you may see a course configuration that shifts the inside line. To make the most of your footwork, you may need to cross your dog’s path in order to direct him to the next move. Here’s how crosses work:
– Crossover (cross-in-front): If you need to cross in front of your dog, the only thing to practice is timing. If you’re too late, you may ram into your dog or pull his attention away from the next obstacle in the progression.
Study each course before running it with your dog. When you determine a crossover is the best move — perhaps the tunnel is curved away from the center and upon exiting your dog will need to change direction, or the jump/contact obstacles are lined up so that your dog will have to turn off the center line to take it — envision making the cross the moment your dog has committed to the preceding obstacle, but long before he’s completed it. Of course we’re talking about milliseconds; nevertheless, cross early and cross quickly. Call out the next direction as your dog completes each obstacle — he won’t skip a beat!
– Cross behind: Some courses change their inside lines in other directions that necessitate a cross behind. Here you would cross behind your dog as he took an obstacle in order to position yourself to direct his next movement. This would be a good move when your dog must turn 180 degrees to move to the next obstacle. The tunnel is the ideal obstacle with which to make this shift because it gives you that extra millisecond to make your shift, though you may need to make this move elsewhere as well. Similar to crossovers, steady your timing. Once your dog has committed to the obstacle in front of him, make your cross. Shout your next direction as your dog completes the obstacle and make sure he can find you the instant he reorients himself on the field.
Believe it or not, the hardest thing to manage on an agility field isn’t your dog . . . it’s yourself: your handling techniques, your footwork, and your temper. You’ll have good days and not-so-good days. Like you, your dog will also have on days and off days — days he’ll be steaming up the car windows and days he’d probably rather hang out at home. But the difference between you and your dog is that you can articulate your feelings. You can pop a couple of aspirin and call off the show when you’re feeling under the weather. Your dog can’t tell anyone anything — it’s up to you to know your dog, to “listen” to him, to dissect his behavior, and to trace any inconsistencies to their root causes.
In this section, you discover how to read your dog’s physical discomfort signs as well as how to troubleshoot problems like missed contacts and incomplete jumps. You also learn to take an up-close look at yourself to discover if, by chance, your handling is creating confusion. Many times it’s important to ask what you’re doing wrong!
Respecting your dog’s physical inhibitions
If your dog is having trouble on the agility course, physical limitations are some of the first things to watch for. In this section, I discuss illness and injury as well as breed limitations, whether they’re related to your dog’s body shape or demeanor.
Watching out for illness and injury
Think of the last time you had an ache or a pain . . . perhaps it was that awkward misstep that tweaked your ankle, something you ate, or a sporty excursion that left you zapped of your normal get-up-and-go. You can’t control everything; like everyone else, you learn to roll with the punches. Well, your dog is no different: He’s not a machine. Trapped in his mammalian frame, his body can and often does suffer similar shutdowns.
Learn to read your dog — watch his movements, expressions, and behavior. If he’s having an off day, consider why.
Take some time to know your dog. Watch him on his best day. Look at how he moves; count his strides as he approaches the single-bar jump; note the happy gleam in his eye as he watches you for his next cue. Record these moments in your head for comparison purposes. Also take his resting temperature, and pass your hands along his legs, hips, and joints. Notice how he reacts to your touch.
If you suspect injury or illness, caress your dog, speak to him calmly, and slow down. If you push him through or force him to practice, you may damage his enthusiasm for the sport, and thus your agility career. In my mind, it just isn’t worth it. Treat your dog as you’d like to be treated.
Many injuries and illnesses require a veterinarian’s attention. Reference Chapter Top Ten Sports Injuries for Dogs for physical conditions, and note those that do.
Recognizing breed limits
More dogs can think like a Border Collie than move like one. No matter how eager your dog is to do agility, respect his breed restrictions (see Chapter Considering Agility Training
). Place obstacles at heights and angles that limit joint stress and maximize your dog’s success rate.
If your dog is refusing ramps, balking at jump heights, or refusing to follow your lead, consider the obstacle’s position: Has it changed or been raised? Your dog’s physical stature dictates how obstacles are set for repetitive practice.
Next consider your training approach. Some dog breeds, such as the Border Collie, the Australian Shepherd, and the Golden Retriever, thrive on repetition. These breeds have their own inner dictator pushing them to strive for perfection. Repetitive practice helps them to nail a performance strategy.
Other breeds are not bred for repetitive work, including many instinctively driven breeds like Terriers, Nordic breeds, and Hounds. These dogs snub routine practice. When working them, the best reward for a breakthrough performance is a few days practice-free. They seem to encode success better when they’re allowed to sleep on it!
Handling the dog who acts up
My daughter’s a ham. She’s delightful, funny, and loves a big audience. Why talk when you can shout? Why stand when you can dance? Why sit still when you can make a funny face and scratch your dog’s head with your big toe?
Dogs have personalities, too. Many of the dogs who act up are comics: smart, energetic dogs that dance on the edge of good behavior. These dogs hear laughter like praise — a chuckle guarantees a repeat performance. Personally, I find it hard not to be jealous — what a wonderful way to deal with life’s stress.
So how can you manage your comedian? Try the French-fry cure. Find an über-treat that your little jokester will do back flips for: a mind-bending reward that he only gets on special days. Use your chosen tidbit to keep his attention: He’ll soon learn to focus on you no matter what the distractions.
Treat rewards are allowed during practice runs and match competitions. Though you can’t reward your dog in the midst of a trial run, you can certainly give him a jackpot at the end!
If your dog acts up and you’re left empty-handed, remember that a dog who acts up is still a little stressed. While having all eyes on you is a bit of a thrill, it can be jarring! Though he looks like the life of the party, he’s jumbled up inside. Stay calm and remember these cardinal rules:
– Don’t look at him. Any attention — negative or positive — will egg him on. Let him freak out and keep a watch out of the corner of your eye, but don’t shout or track his movements.
– When your dog calms down, sit down and tie your shoe (or pretend to). If he’s still wary of you, try the “Ouch — I’m really injured” move. Shriek like you’ve been shot. When he looks to see what happened, fall on the ground and clutch your leg in pain. When he runs over, calmly reach up and grasp his collar; then put his leash on and walk off the course. Keep your cool, lower your head, and look at the ground. Don’t reconnect or let him have anyone’s attention for at least five minutes: No attention or treats for that performance.
Of all the things that can happen during a trial, having your dog go wild is perhaps the most embarrassing. While controlling one’s temper is a tall order, lashing out at a dog only guarantees more stress and an inhibited agility performance.
Fixing obstacle errors
Your dog may be having trouble with the obstacles — flying past the contact zones, refusing to do an obstacle, knocking down bars on the jumps, or choosing to do an obstacle out of order. In this section, you find out how to get your dog back on track.
Some dogs dream of flying. Fast-paced and excitable, these dogs love a sequenced course and race to beat the clock. Contact zones — on the A-frame, dog walk, and teeter obstacles — slow them down. While the mindfulness exercises found in Chapter Teaching the A-Frame, Dog Walk, Teeter, and Weave Poles
can help a dog to gain more awareness of your expectations and condition muscle memory, touching the contacts can still be a struggle in the heat of the moment.
If you’re having trouble, try teaching your dog a cue word during your practice runs: a word you can repeat during trials, such as “Easy.” This word can help remind your dog to slow down just enough to nail his targets!
Refusing an obstacle
Dogs always have a perfectly good reason for refusing an obstacle. If only they could speak! The most common refusals happen when
- A dog is sick or injured.
- He doesn’t have enough runway space.
- The obstacle is raised too high.
- The signals or directions are unclear.
- He makes an unsteady entry onto a ramp or tunnel.
He’s momentarily confused as to which obstacle to take.
Many of these faux pas are handler’s errors, and this is good news. If you’re having these issues, look at how you can change. No one can learn these steps overnight — it took me a long while! Find a master to watch and critique you. Listen and learn — your dog will be so glad you did!
Double check to ensure your dog is in good physical condition and the obstacles are set to ensure his success: Nothing is more frustrating for dogs than being pushed beyond their limits. They want a clear run too!
Knocking down bars
Dogs can get in a bad habit of knocking down bars as they clear jumps. Some nick the bar with their hind legs, often not even realizing what they’ve done. Other dogs push off with their hind legs or bump the bar on the way up. What to do?
First, stay calm when it happens. If you rush in and give your dog attention — negative or positive — he’ll often do it again just to get you to come near him. Retrieve your dog, review the jumping section in Chapter Introducing Your Dog to Jumps, Tunnels, and Tables
, and follow these tips:
– Consider your practice jumping height. While you don’t want to work at competitive heights full time, it’s important that your dog be able to clear this height reliably. Set the jump to this height every fifth run to ensure your dog can clear it.
– If your dog is oblivious to the fact that the bar is coming down, check the bar itself. Is it made of lightweight plastic? Fill the bar with sand, and plug the ends of it. If it’s already weighty, toss some screws in a soda can and tie it to the end of the bar. When your dog hits it, he’ll know.
– Each time your dog knocks down a bar, ignore the mistake and set your sights on teaching him a better approach. Set the bar low to encourage full clearance, and reward him like a newbie. The contrast will make it clear. Slowly raise the bar to its appropriate height.
A dog is off-course when he takes an obstacle out of sequence or takes one that’s not included in the course. When this happens, always stay calm. Consider whether your dog is mature enough to run a sequence.
Another mistake that can lead to an off-course reaction is a habit that’s created during practice runs — when a handler either calls or sends his or her dog back over a missed obstacle. Always approach obstacles from a predetermined direction. If your dog misses an obstacle, step away and call him to your side. Take him back and start from the top.
Reining yourself in
Sometimes, you just have to let your dog go — to run the course, that is. Playing the role of an overbearing parent causes your dog to become too dependent on you, and it can get you and your dog disqualified in competition. In this section, I discuss problems with guiding your dog too closely.
Overhandling is a term used in competition where the handler uses his or her body or voice to over-direct a dog or to prevent the dog from making a directional mistake. Often when dogs are first learning how to sequence a series of obstacles, a leash is needed to guide them through the equipment. Initial off-leash maneuvers often involve physical direction too. Hands are used to manipulate motions, spot efforts, and reassure insecure dogs. Praise and rewards are doled out on a regular basis.
This newbie involvement can lead to interactive dependency and insecurities if overused. When dogs aren’t weaned from this constant reassurance, solo performances can be hard for them to manage.
To envision a blocking move, imagine a dog racing out of the tunnel and having two equally distant obstacle choices. Instead of guiding him with a command or signal, the handler simply stands in front of the off-obstacle’s entry path. That’s blocking — it’s fudging with a capital “F.”
Blocking is another form of overinteraction. Though slightly more subtle than overhandling, no one can fool a judge. If practiced too often, a dog will grow mindfully aware of the body position of his handler and use it to determine his course.
by Sarah Hodgson