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.
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
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!
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!
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
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)
Take a bow
Backing up (train this from a stationary position – do not step into the dog)
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.)
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!)