Category Archives: How to Train

Clicker Training for Dog Agility

Clickers for Dog Agility Training
We think clickers are so useful for agility training that we give one to each new student.

Today is another Dog Agility Blog Event, and the topic is “Outside the Ring.” Specifically, Steve asked us to write about the things we do that aren’t specific to agility that make ourselves and our dogs better inside the ring.

The first thing that came to mind when I read about this topic was clicker training! I spend hours “clicking” each month. My work as a professional trainer helps me hone my skills for my agility dogs, not to mention my students and their dogs! I am a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, and use clicker training with all of my clients.

Why Use Clicker Training?

Clicker training speeds up the training process so dogs learn new behaviors faster. (Nearly 40% faster than training with a verbal marker, according to this master’s thesis.) It also helps develop your timing and observation skills. Anyone who has trained a dog for agility knows how important those two things are! Agility is a precise sport, and I think all elements of our training should be just as precise.

Personally, I’ve found this statistic to be true. My students who use clickers more often in the early stages of their training get results faster. I understand that it’s difficult to juggle all the different pieces of equipment (toys, treats, a leash or long line, etc.) and worry about clicker timing, but it seems that the effort pays off.

Besides, not much in agility is easy. Most handling maneuvers push people outside of their comfort zone at first, even the basic front cross! Embrace the challenge of learning a new physical skill and perfecting your timing early on. It will pay off as your agility journey continues.

Clicker Training in Providence

Strata on K9 FitBone - Clicker Training
Strata works on a K9 FitBone at Spring Forth Dog Academy.

Speaking of working with clients, Dan and I just opened Spring Forth Dog Academy in Providence, RI, which is an expansion of the dog training business we’ve run in Massachusetts since 2010. At the Academy, we’re doing Puppy Day School (a combo of daycare and puppy kindergarten), private dog training lessons, and group classes. If you’re local, check it out!

In my down time at the Academy, I am doing tricks and physical conditioning exercises with Strata and Spark. (They come to work to help us socialize the puppies in Puppy Day School!)

We installed safe flooring for the puppies to play on, but it also gives us a great surface for agility behaviors. We’re looking forward to reviewing one-jump exercises, tricks, heeling, stays, and Crate Games. These are many of the same things we work on at home, but with the added distraction of puppies!

Get Clicking

If you’re new to clicker training, my two favorite resources are ClickerTraining.com and Clicker Solutions. If you’re not sure what to work on that might be related to agility, check out my recent post on what to practice at home.

If you’re a little more experienced and need help applying clicker training skills to dog agility, the best book on the subject is Agility Right From the Start by Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh. I adore this book, and use many of the exercises for my agility students.

If it’s been awhile since you used a clicker, grab some treats and get started. It’s never too late to start. I think you’ll find that you make even more training progress!

Beginner Dog Agility: What to Practice at Home

If you’re enrolled in a beginner dog agility class, you may be wondering what you can practice at home without any obstacles. Here are some ideas that will boost your dog’s understanding – no equipment necessary!

Click a Trick

English Springer Spaniel Learning to Wave a Paw
Finch learning to wave a paw.

Much like obedience training, trick training is an excellent way to improve your connection with your dog. Many of these tricks will improve your dog’s strength, flexibility, and proprioception (awareness of limbs), which is very important for dog agility training!

  • Spin in a circle (in both directions)
  • Sit up/beg
  • Take a bow
  • Backing up (train this from a stationary position – do not step into the dog)
  • Wave a front paw/shake paws
  • Crawl

Need more inspiration? You can’t beat Silvia Trkman’s trick videos! (They’re free on YouTube – although she does also have a couple of excellent trick training DVDs.)

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3 Ways to Ruin Your Agility Dog’s Start Line Stay

Border Terrier Start Line Stay
(Photo Credit: cswtwo, Flickr)

As a handler, there are few things more frustrating in agility than an unreliable start line stay.

As a dog agility instructor, there are few things more frustrating to me than a handler blaming their dog for a broken start line. Remember that your dog’s behavior is a reflection of your ability to teach and maintain criteria.

Here are three common ways handlers deteriorate their dog’s start line stay behavior. By learning to avoid these mistakes, you’ll keep your dog’s start line strong.

Release With a Flourish

In this scenario, the handler moves her hand (usually) or head at the same time she gives her dog’s release cue.

This deteriorates your dog’s start line because all dogs pay more attention to our body language than our verbal cues, unless they have been explicitly trained to ignore our bodies and only listen. (This is why it’s so difficult to train reliable verbal cues in agility that override our physical cues.)

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Solutions for the Ring Wise Dog

Ring Wise Agility Dogs
(Photo Credit: Katherine Martucci, Flickr)

Recently, I was asked for advice on dogs that shut down on the start line, or shortly before entering the ring, only at agility trials: commonly known as “ring wise” dogs. I think this is a topic worth discussing, so here goes.

Let’s start by assessing your dog’s behavior. You might observe your dog turning his head away from you when asked to do a cue that he “knows.” He might sniff the ground, lick his lips, pant excessively, get the “zoomies,” and/or whine.

Your dog is telling you that he’s not comfortable performing in a trial setting. The sniffing, yawning, sneezing, etc. is a stress response. These behaviors are often called calming signals.

It’s important to note that your dog is not “blowing you off.” Your dog either does not understand what you are asking him to do, or is too overwhelmed by the environment to respond. Blaming stress on the dog absolves the handler of her responsibility to improve the dog’s training level and/or work to make the dog more comfortable in a show environment.

(If there’s one thing I don’t tolerate, it’s blaming the dog for mediocre training. Around these parts, it’s “Train, don’t blame!“)

Now that we’ve taken a good guess at our dog’s internal state, let’s backtrack and try to figure out why he feels that way.

Considerations at the Trial

First, how is your dog outside of the ring at agility trials? If he will eagerly perform cues that he knows well, with few to no calming signals, right until you enter the ring, then your dog has made some sort of association with being “in the ring.”

From the dog’s perspective, “in the ring” might mean one of many things:

  • the physical act of entering the ring (generally marked with obedience ring gates or snow fencing)
  • lack of visible, available rewards from his handler
  • his handler acting strangely (generally because the handler is experiencing some ring stress herself)
  • leash/collar off, when he is generally not “naked in public”

If your dog has discovered there are no rewards in the ring, you have a couple of options. If your dog will tug, you’re in business – teach your dog to tug on his leash, and use that in the ring. If your dog is only motivated by food, clever use of matches, run-thrus, and drop-in classes can change your dog’s feelings about entering the ring.

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Distracted Agility Dogs: Environment Focus

Finch Distracted by Sniffing the Table
Finch sniffs the table during a training session. (Photo by Katie Rogers, Smiling Wolf Photography)

Is your dog too distracted by the environment during agility training? In my last post, I compared and contrasted handler focus and obstacle focus. But in a way, there’s a third type of “focus” to consider: environment focus.

In the context of training, dogs that are displaying environment focus are distracted by what is going on around them. They could be looking for birds, sniffing the ground, or leaving work to visit other dogs.

Just like the other two types of focus, this is a training issue. Our goal is to get the dog’s environment focus as close to zero as possible while he is working with us. We want the birds, other dogs, and squirrels to fall by the wayside because he is so focused on his task that nothing else matters.

If that sounds challenging, read on – it’s not as impossible as it sounds! In this post, I outline a few things that I would have loved to have known back when I was training my first agility dog, Tessie. She had a lot of talent, but also an incredibly high level of environment focus!

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Handler Focus vs. Obstacle Focus

Finch on the Table: Handler Focus

Is your dog too focused on you? Or, does your dog ignore your handling as they race to the next obstacle they see? Developing a balance between handler focus and obstacle focus is an important skill for every agility dog.

Regardless of your handling system, the goal of most handlers is to get the two types of focus as close to 50-50 as possible. Actually achieving this is rare, but thinking about focus in the context of “keeping the balance” will improve your training.

Mobility-challenged handlers are the biggest exception to the 50-50 goal. They typically need a greater percentage of obstacle focus to keep the dog aiming for obstacles despite their distance from the dog’s path. The trade-off is that these dogs are more likely to take off-course obstacles.

Certain breeds or types of dogs veer one way or the other. In my experience, herding dogs tend to be more handler focused, whereas hounds and terriers tend to be more obstacle focused.

Which Do You Have?

Your dog is more obstacle focused if he…

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Strata’s Contact Training Journey

Mr. Strata! (Photo by Katie Rogers/Smiling Wolf Photography)
Mr. Strata! (Photo by Katie Rogers/Smiling Wolf Photography)

In my previous post, I wrote about common stopped contact training mistakes and promised to share some of the errors I’ve made along the way with Strata. Learn from my mistakes! :)

Strata is my six-year-old Shetland Sheepdog. He’s earned his MACH and a USDAA Performance Tournament Master title, and has competed at two AKC Nationals as well as International Team Tryouts last year. So, he’s a pretty experienced competition dog.

I originally wanted to teach Strata a running contact using Silvia Trkman’s method, but after a couple of months realized that I did not have enough access to equipment to pull it off. (At the time, I was traveling 45 minutes each way to do ring rentals.)

Begrudgingly, I started teaching him two-on two-off for the dogwalk and teeter. He already had a pretty consistent running A-frame, so I didn’t need to change that.

Our first contact training problem had nothing to do with the end position. Strata is afraid of heights, and it took a lot of work to get him over his fear of the middle plank of the dogwalk. (Yes, really. Here’s a video of him trotting across the dogwalk in an Open Standard run. And this was an improvement over where he had been for some time!)

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5 Common Stopped Contact Training Mistakes

Dog Jumping Through Contact
Are you confident in your dog’s contact training? Or are you hoping, wishing, praying he’ll hit every contact? (Photo Credit: Lil Shepherd, Flickr)

As I prepare Spark for his Standard class début, I have spent a lot of time watching the Novice and Open classes at local agility trials. I am trying to find the “holes” in those dogs’ training. What is causing them to NQ? Does Spark have that skill? (Do my students’ dogs have that skill?)

Contacts are a huge trouble area for dogs competing in agility. Some handlers haven’t really trained contacts at all, and are just relying on luck to get them through. More troubling to me are the handlers who think they’ve trained their dogs to understand correct contact performance, but don’t realize the dog’s behavior is still very much depending on what the handler is doing.

Here are five common stopped contact training mistakes I have identified.

1. Multiple Cues (Physical & Verbal)

Scenario: The dog charges up and across the first two planks of the dogwalk with his handler racing beside him. As the dog begins his descent of the third plank, the handler slows down, turns to face the dog, places a hand in front of the dog’s face, and/or points at the contact zone. This is often accompanied by multiple verbal cues (“touch! touch! touch!”) or reminders to stay (“wait! you wait! WAIT!”).

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My Crew’s Favorite Dog Treats

Do you have trouble finding great training treats for your dog? In today’s post, I share which dog treats work best for my three dogs in training.

Strata’s Favorite Dog Treats

Strata Gets a Dog TreatStrata is by far the easiest dog to find treats for. He will eat almost anything with a smile on his face and song in his heart. He wasn’t always this way! As a young puppy, he was so picky and I was always offering him new things. Once he hit about 8 months old, his “sheltie stomach” kicked in and he started eating anything and everything, including fruits and veggies!

Strata has some food sensitivities, so anything with feathers (not just “conventional poultry” but also duck, ostrich, etc.) is out. Previously, we thought his sensitivities included beef, but recently we’ve reintroduced it without a problem. We generally stick to the protein sources of fish, lamb, and pork for his dog treats.

Strata’s favorite treats are…

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Cat Food for Dog Training? Yes!

Today I’d like to let you all in on a little secret. My go-to high value training treat is…

cat food. 

Yes, really.

Why Cat Food Makes a Great Training Treat

The more I use cat food – specifically, wet cat food that comes in cans or pouches – for training, the more I love it.

First, it’s extremely portable. Small cans of cat food are just 3 ounces. The pouches usually weigh even less than that. It’s easy to throw a few cans into your training bag and you don’t have to worry about them getting crushed or spilling. (Is there anything worse than cleaning the “powder” from freeze-dried treats out of the nooks and crannies of your bait bag? If you get it wet at all it just melts… ugh.)

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