Category Archives: For New Agility Handlers

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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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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How to Volunteer at Agility Trials: A Primer

Agility Volunteer Ring Crew
Note the ring crew volunteer on the left. Her job is to reset this broad jump if the dog knocks part of it over. (Photo Credit: Jorge Arcas)

I encourage all of my agility students to volunteer when they go watch an agility trial. For one thing, you can’t beat the view of the action! But I also feel that working a class or two at an agility trial really helps to calm many of the nerves they might have about competing in the future. Seeing experienced competitors in the Masters or Excellent ring make mistakes is comforting to them. Watching young dogs start their agility careers in the Novice or Starters ring gives them a realistic idea of what to expect from their own dogs when they enter their first trial in the future.

There are certain jobs at agility trials that are easier than others. My goal is for my students to have a low-stress, fun introduction to agility trials, so expecting them to act as a scribe or a timer at their first or second trial is a bit much.

How to Volunteer: A Primer

To sign up to work a class, go to the exhibitor check-in area. That’s usually where the volunteer information is – if not, someone there will direct you to it. At an outdoor trial, this is usually a BIG tent where exhibitors pick up their armbands and check in for their classes. At an indoor trial, it’s usually not far from the main entrance door.

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Puppies in Dog Agility Classes

I am often asked if I offer a puppy agility class. Potential students want to know how young is too young. The myth of “puppies need to be six months old to begin training” persists. It’s not true for basic training, and it’s definitely not true for puppy agility.

Puppy Agility: Safety First!

Sheltie Puppies Playing Tug
How young is too young to start agility training? Well, it’s never too young to start playing!

Well-meaning veterinarians often advise their clients to wait until their dogs are “done growing” before starting agility classes. The thought is they might damage their growth plates due to excessive trauma or impact. It’s absolutely true that puppies should wait until their growth plates are closed before learning to jump, weave, or perform the teeter. But what these veterinarians are missing is that a good foundation agility class doesn’t focus on jumping, weaving, or contacts.

Bear in mind that I’m talking about foundation agility classes. I define that as a class which builds a “foundation” with the goal of enjoying the sport for years to come, and possibly even competing. My Pre-Agility class falls into this category.

I am not talking about “pet agility” classes designed to be a one-time, four- to six-week exposure to the sport. In many cases, these classes are taught by instructors unfamiliar with the sport of agility who may unknowingly push youngsters too soon. Continue reading

How to Find Dog Agility Trials Near You

strataad2Would you like to watch an agility competition in person, but don’t know where to find one? Here are a few ways to find dog agility trials near you. (If you’re local, last month I wrote an article about Agility Trials in Rhode Island. That has all the 2014 RI trials listed.)

I feel that some of these organizations’ websites are confusing and difficult to navigate. I included a step-by-step guide to three organizations’ trial calendars. If you still have trouble, let me know in the comments section!

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Contact Training Methods: Two-On Two-Off vs. Running

Running or stopped? If you’re having trouble choosing a contact training method, here is a list of the pros and cons of both running contacts and two-on two-off contacts.

Running Contact Training

Strata Running A-frame
To run or to stop? That is the question! (Photo by Smiling Wolf Photography)

There are a variety of running contact training methods for handlers to choose from. Popular methods include:

  • Silvia Trkman‘s method: no props, usually toy reward (she has a DVD)
  • Daisy Peel‘s method: uses a Treat-n-Train/Manners Minder food dispenser
  • Rachel Sanders‘ PVC box method for the A-frame only (she has a DVD)
  • Using a PVC hoop at the end of the equipment, which the dog is trained to run through.

Pros

It’s faster! That’s the most obvious advantage to training a running contact. The dog runs across the entire obstacle without ever stopping or slowing down.

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Where to See Dog Agility in Rhode Island

Most dog owners have heard of agility, but don’t realize there are competitions happening nearby. Here are three places to see dog agility in Rhode Island.

Wide World of Indoor Sports – North Smithfield, RI

 

Dog Agility in Rhode Island
Photo by Smiling Wolf Photography

Wide World of Indoor Sports in North Smithfield is home to almost all the competitive dog agility in Rhode Island. It’s an indoor, climate-controlled soccer facility, with a second-floor viewing area that makes it an awesome place to watch agility. Another bonus? Bob and Timmy’s Grilled Pizza is right across the parking lot and they have downright incredible food!

There are at least a dozen agility trials at this site every year. Here’s a sampling. (An asterisk denotes trials we plan to attend.)

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