Lorrie’s Agility Dog Blog

Musings on Dogs, Agility, and Being an Instructor

Balance For Beginning Agility Students

Instructors are faced with some difficult decisions when planning the curriculum for a basic agility class.  Every brand new student comes in with preconceived notions of what an agility class is.  Most people think the majority of the time will be spent teaching the dog how to navigate obstacles.  Many expect to be running courses within a few weeks!  They normally have no understanding of how important foundation is to having a successful agility career.  If students aren’t getting to play on the obstacles with their dogs, they may lose interest or go somewhere that will let them perform the obstacles without providing the foundation.  Knowing how important flatwork and relationship work is to the future, good instructors cringe at that thought.  The way some instructors solve the dilemma is by only accepting students that are experienced competitors or making prospective students take a flatwork or “obedience for agility” course before beginning agility.  Others are able to find a balance by incorporating foundation into the first session and continuing with it throughout all the class levels.

My first lesson for beginning agility starts off with a discussion of operant conditioning.  Our job is, after all, to teach the students how to teach their dogs.  I bring Maxx and a clicker out and show them how easy it is to teach something when you have a dog offering a million different behaviors.  I will ask what basic obedience behaviors everyone already has, and show them how to teach a sit, a folding down, and beginning stay if they don’t already have one.  Then comes the part everyone has been waiting for – we bring out the tunnel and in a very short time, the dogs are doing their first obstacle!  After more foundation, a couple of passes through the open WAMs, and an introduction to the ladder or buja board, the students leave the class with a sense of accomplishment and I get to set the tone for the rest of the 8-week session.  The students understand that we do some foundation work, review what we have done in earlier classes, and introduce a new obstacle or two.  At the end of eight weeks, they have been exposed to weave poles (WAMs), tunnels, the chute, a very low jump, low table, and the tire on the ground.  More importantly, they have learned a slew of “tricks” that are the basis of their foundation, played relationship games, learned how to shape a 2O/2O contact position, overcome any fear their dog has of motion and noise by “banging” the low teeter, and have begun to figure out how to truly communicate with their teammate.

With some thought and planning, beginning agility classes can offer a balance of foundation, relationship, and obstacle training.  Most students are willing to spend time on foundation if they are told how the “tricks” relate to their future handling.  Students that are impatient and want to jump ahead can be dealt with using good humor and solid reasoning, but the majority of students gain an understanding of the importance of foundation and patiently wait for the full-sized contacts, upright weaves, and long sequences.  With some effort on the part of the instructor, it is possible to change the expectations of the students without losing excitement and motivation, and to have a balanced beginning class.


May 4, 2009 - Posted by | Agility, Teaching Agility, Training | , , , , ,


  1. I always thought it would be interesting if you could survey all those students who disappear somewhere between level 1 and level 3 and find out what their expectations were and if they got bored or realized it was too much work, or maybe they found their dog didn’t like it, etc.
    As we know, Agility is built on your early foundation, but how do you juggle that with the “fun” stuff that new students are looking for?!? All new students should have to watch the Novice dogs at a local trial. They could quickly tell the dogs with good foundation from those who just wanted to get out there and compete.

    Comment by Greg S | May 4, 2009 | Reply

  2. Hey, As a student of Lorrie’s who’s somewhere in the level 2 or 3 area I can tell you that for me there is no such thing as being with my dogs and not having fun.

    People drop out of stuff for a multitude of reasons. It could be financial, personal, even physical limitations that have nothing to do with being bored or impatient.

    I will say though..when people watch agility on “Animal Planet” the camera is almost never on the handler. The human is insignificant and hardly anything they do is even mentioned during the show. It’s not a realistic depiction
    of whats happening so it’s no wonder people get into a class
    and soon find out they have to learn way more than their dog does. Just think of the shock to find out you’re going to need as much energy if not more than your hyper-herding breed puppy. AHHHHH

    Comment by Lana | May 15, 2009 | Reply

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