It has been quite the year for me and Dan. It was just about a year ago that we moved our agility program to its current home, Once In A Lifetime Farm in Smithfield, RI. Two months ago, we expanded our dog training business, Spring Forth Dog Academy, to Providence, RI and have been very busy there!
It’s time for us to make a change to our agility classes to better reflect what our goals were when we started teaching classes.
Making a Change
As a student, my biggest problem with agility training classes was the lack of feedback or instruction away from class. I paid for six hours of class and that was all I got. No one was there to answer my questions between lessons, or give me feedback on my runs at trials, or make sure I did my homework well.
I grew up riding horses, where lesson programs are much more “inclusive.” Your trainer doesn’t just teach your weekly lessons, she coaches you at shows and helps you find a horse to lease or buy. I wished for an agility training program that mimicked that, but nothing like this existed a decade ago when I got into the sport.
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.
Wondering why the blog went quiet for a little while? I was a busy bee getting ready for the 2014 AKC National Agility Championship in Harrisburg, PA!
We started the journey to AKC Agility Nationals by trialing for a few weekends leading up to the big event. I know some handlers feel better if they focus on training, but I feel that my dogs and I do better the more we compete. So compete we did.
The weekend before the NAC, we showed at the LEAP AKC agility trial in Tolland, CT. This was our first opportunity this year to trial on a surface other than rubber mats, which was nice for a change. The facility in Tolland has field turf, which really lets the dogs dig in and run as fast as they can.
It’s March! Time to start getting excited about Nationals! Time for my agility “season” to begin in earnest! Time for it to stop snowing already! (Mother Nature? Are you there? It’s me, Catsie…)
Well, I don’t have any control over the weather, but I have some degree of control over the start of my agility season and my level of excitement about Nationals, which is nearing “through-the-roof” levels for those keeping track at home.
With three weekends of local trials before The Big Event, my focus with Strata is on laying down solid runs with him to make sure we are on the same page.
I’d like to continue the theme of my last post and share my dog agility playlist that I listen to on the way to the barn and during walk-throughs. Considering that three of my dogs are named for bands, this is a topic near and dear to my heart!
My taste in music is pretty eclectic. At my core, I’m a rock fan – the closer to punk/ska, the better. I also like to keep tabs on what’s on the radio, so you’ll find some top 40 mixed in for good measure, much to Dan’s chagrin. (He likes his rock music as obscure as it gets…)
Many of my fellow dog agility competitors have mentioned on social media that are inspired by watching the Olympics. It motivates them to get out there and train their dogs, to go for the gold – or qualifying score, as the case may be.
I totally get it! I, too, am inspired by watching the Olympics. I also enjoy behind-the-scenes sports shows, like HBO’s “24/7″ hockey series leading up to the Winter Classic and more recently, “Behind the B” documenting the day-to-day trials and tribulations of running a professional hockey team (in this case, my beloved Boston Bruins).
In addition to sports-related inspiration, I’ve also stumbled across a few things over the years that have motivated me to put my backside in gear, and I’d like to share them with you.
Last weekend I attended my first agility trial in three months! I took a much-needed break over the holiday season to give the dogs time off and tackle some training projects, most of which are unrelated to agility. I don’t like entering trials in the winter anyway, due to the unpredictable weather up here, but I wanted to squeeze one trial as a test to see what skills we need to refresh before our main “trial season,” March through October.
There are a variety of reasons for participating with your dog in agility. Here are some that come to mind:
To spend time with your dog engaged in a mutually enjoyable activity
To improve your dog’s physical and/or emotional fitness
To spend time with friends and likeminded individuals
To improve your dog training skills
At trials, to see how your dog’s performance compares to the other dogs’ performances on that day
At trials, to test your dog’s skills at a particular level or on a particular type of course (Gamblers, Snooker, etc.)
At trials, to qualify for a major event (regionals, nationals, international team selection)
At trials, to earn qualifying scores toward a title
At trials, to win
None of these motives are “right” or “wrong,” just different. What motivates me to get up at the crack of dawn, travel for hours, and spend a chunk of change on entry fees for less than sixty seconds in the ring is not necessarily what motivates you, and that’s a-okay!
I’m not going to analyze each of these reasons here, because I don’t want to inadvertently imply that some are better than others. No one goal is more wholesome than another. I encourage my students – all of my students, even those brand-new to the sport – to have goals and to clearly identify what they are so they have something to work toward and stay on the right track.