Lorrie’s Agility Dog Blog

Musings on Dogs, Agility, and Being an Instructor

Standing Up For Your Dog

It’s always disturbing to me when I hear about damaging things instructors have “made” students do.  Disturbing not only because an instructor is telling a student to do whatever it is, but also because students are blindly obeying, even when they think it is not the right thing for their dog.  At times, students don’t fully understand why an instructor is doing something, but when in doubt, ask!  It is your job as an owner/partner/teammate to protect your dog from being hurt either physically or mentally.

From an instructor’s standpoint, I hate the word “can’t”.  I don’t accept “My dog can’t do that” or “I can’t perform that cross” as an answer.  My job is to push students to stretch their abilities, to help them and their dogs gain skills to make them better, and to teach them how to do things they never thought they would be able to do.  To me, “can’t” is almost always a substitute for “I haven’t learned that yet” and can be changed.  However, I am not perfect, or all-knowing.  I encourage my students to speak up if they have a concern or don’t understand something.  While I am very careful not to introduce things too fast, and to avoid doing anything that could give the dog a negative association with agility, I am not the one who lives with the dog every day and knows them the best.  Occasionally, there is a valid reason for a student not to do something I am asking them to do.  In that case, we find an alternative method to teach the same thing without it being detrimental to the dog.

Unfortunately, not all students are bold enough to question an instructor or seminar presenter, or confident enough to disagree with something they are told to do.  Not all instructors are open to being questioned about what they think are the best methods.  I’ve heard of people being told to drag their soft dog by the collar into the contact zone if the dog wasn’t getting there fast enough, to let their shy puppy participate in a play group with rambunctious, rough-playing dogs, to use a shock collar to reinforce stays, and dozens of other things that the student *knew* they shouldn’t do with their dog, but weren’t confident enough to say no to.

So, today’s “message” is to believe in yourself and stand up for your dog.  If there is something you are worried about doing with your dog, say so!  Ask your instructor why you are doing it and let them know what your concerns are.  Maybe their explanation will allay your fears, or they will reconsider and agree that your dog shouldn’t do it.  If they aren’t willing to listen and explain, go somewhere else, or if it is a seminar, skip that exercise.  There are so many methods to teach each skill that an alternative can always be found.  You know your dog best and that makes it your job to ensure that training is a fun and rewarding game, not something to be dreaded.

May 15, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Teaching Agility, Training | , , , , | 4 Comments

Tip Of The Day – Feeding Before Trials Or Classes

There are many varying opinions on whether to feed or not before trials or classes.  Dogs are individuals and the decision should be made based on the dog, not the “conventional wisdom”.  My preference is to feed my dogs half of their normal ration.  That way they have some “fuel on board” but they aren’t running on a full stomach and are still motivated by food.  The other reason I do this is because there are some dogs that become SO focused on food when they are hungry, training sessions become unproductive.

May 7, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Agility Trial, Training | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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 | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Retraining Contacts: Session 10

It was a beautiful day and I got home before dark, so I took the puppies out to play.  Maxx is doing great on his contacts.  I hope he does well at the trial this weekend.  I’m going to try to treat them the same as at home.  He did have one superman moment out of all the repetitions we did.  The video is below.

 Maxx contact retraining session 10

I just had to add this clip of my crazy girl Storm and her sliding contacts.  She is a riot.  Watch her tail – it wags ALL the time.   She’s a happy girl.  I left the sound because it is so funny to hear her slide down.  You would think I’d never have to trim her nails (I wish).

Storm contact training

April 30, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Contact Obstacles, Training | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Choosing a Contact Behavior

One of the important decisions to make when training a new dog is what type of contacts the dog will have.  The decision depends on the goals of the team, their dedication to training, and the trainer’s ability to teach the dog.  Part of the difficulty for new people is that they are making a decision without having any experience.  Their decision is further complicated by the numerous choices including 2O/2O, 4OTF, 1RTO, and several types of running contacts.  It is up to the instructor to tell them what the future ramifications of each choice might be.   Veteran handlers with new dogs have at least been exposed to the various contact performances and usually have an idea of what they want for their next dog. 

As an instructor, my job is to consider the team and guide them in the right direction or make sure that their expectations are realistic if they already have something in mind.  Everyone thinks running contacts are wonderful, but new students don’t always realize the effort required to train and maintain them.  I only recommend that students train running contacts if they meet the following criteria:  they can keep up with their dog well enough to direct them at the end of the contact, they have equipment or are willing to make something resembling equipment to practice on at home, and they are willing to practice almost every day.  If these criteria aren’t met, I recommend a different method. 

For beginning handlers, we almost always start them off with 2O/2O.  The criteria for that type of contact are very clear.  The dog has two feet on the floor, and two feet on the contact.  It is easy for both the dog and handler to understand, and it is easy to determine if the criteria have been met.  2O/2O contacts can be transitioned fairly easily to “quick release” if the student later decides their goal is to compete at the national or international level.  For long-backed dogs or large dogs with straight shoulders, I generally recommend a different type of contact behavior, like 4-on-the-floor (modified running contacts with a down at the bottom of the contact), a modified 2O/2O, with the dog stopping right at the bottom of the contact, or running contacts.  I discuss the reasons with the handler, give them the options, and let them determine their choice.  

For experienced handlers, the contact method depends on their goals.  Teams that want to have fun at the local level and qualify consistently usually choose to teach 2O/2O.  Because the behavior is so clear-cut, as long as they maintain their criteria at trials, it is very reliable.  If they want to be competitive at a national or international level, they generally choose running contacts. 

Part of the difficulty with teaching running contacts is that the criteria are not always clear.  With a 2O/2O or 1RTO, the answer is very black and white.  4OTF are a bit gray, only because the dog may lie down 6″ from the bottom of the contact, or 2′ away and the handler generally will accept either.  Running contacts are more difficult to define for the dog.  Many methods have been developed to try to “tell” the dog what the criteria are.  Things that promote foot touches are black and white, but it appears that the dogs concentrate more on the target than they do on the contact behavior.  The same is true with the box method or stride regulators.  If you can do enough repetitions, it can be argued that you build muscle memory, but what have you actually taught the dog?  Will it hold up on slatted and unslatted equipment?  How do you clarify your criteria if you are just teaching them to run into the yellow?  Do you reward 1 foot 1 inch into the yellow?  Do you only reward all four feet in the yellow?  Does the dog understand the difference?  How do you tell for sure if the criteria were met when the dog is running at full speed?

Deciding on a contact behavior doesn’t have to be difficult.   If you want to compete at the national (or international) level and you are willing to work through the gray areas, running is probably the way to go.  If you are going to compete locally and don’t have the inclination to spend large amounts of time on contacts, 2O/2O is a smarter choice as long as your dog is built reasonably well.  The most important consideration is to be sure that your choice is one you are willing to stick with.  Retraining is much more difficult than training and takes more time with less consistent results.  That’s the voice of experience talking!

April 29, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Contact Obstacles, Teaching Agility, Training | , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Goodies!

My students hate me.  Any time they are having trouble motivating their dogs or keeping their attention, I pull out the big guns – home made liver treats!  The problem is that as soon as their dogs know I have them, they become my dogs :-).  Actually, I get them out and let my students use them, after they see how much better their dogs perform for something special.  They have been so popular that I have shared the recipe with all of my students and friends. It seemed like a good subject for a post!

These treats are something you can feed your dog and know they are not unhealthy like the “doggie junk food” you buy at the store. The other nice thing about these treats is the consistency. I experimented with the recipe until I got something that was soft but not crumbly or gooey. The secret, I think, is the gelatin.

Liver Treats

  • 2 lb. chicken livers, drained & put through the food processor until soupy (yuck!)
  • 3 eggs
  • ~1/4 cup salmon oil or similar supplemental oil
  • 2 pkg. unflavored gelatin
  • 24 oz. (3 cups) brown rice flour
  • Optional – ¼ c Parmesan cheese
  • Optional – 1 Tbsp garlic powder
  • Optional – ~3 Tbsp. liquid glucosamine (not necessary – just a nice added ingredient)

Beat the liver, eggs, oil, glucosamine, and gelatin until thoroughly combined.  Slowly add the rice flour (and garlic or parmesan).  The mixture should look kind of like thick cake batter.  Pour into two well-greased (or parchment paper-lined) 9X11 pans.  The mixture will be about 1/2” – 3/4“ thick.  Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.  It should have a spongy texture and bounce back if you press on it.  Let it cool for a few minutes, then turn out onto a cutting board and cut into 1/4″ cubes with a pizza cutter.  Let cool before packing into plastic bags. 

I use either Bob’s Red Mill rice flour (you can get it at the grocery store) or I use stuff from whole foods.  They sell it in bulk and also near the regular flour. 

I always freeze the treats I make because by the time we get to class, they have started to thaw, and the dogs like them either way.  I don’t know how long these would keep in the fridge, but I’m guessing they would be fine for a few days.

Enjoy! (Or rather, let your dogs enjoy!).

April 28, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Teaching Agility, Training | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retraining Contacts: Session 9

The weather wasn’t as nice today, but we are still plugging along, working on Maxx’s contacts and Dash’s weaves.  It started raining before I got to Storm, but she will get her turn eventually.

 My dogwalk only goes ½ height or full height, so I took the plunge today and raised it.  I also raised the A-Frame to about 4 ½ feet.  This weekend is a NADAC trial, so it will only be at 5’.  We did 10 A-frames and 10 dogwalks.  The good news is that he is still running all the way down the dogwalk and A-frame with the hoop.  The bad news is that he bailed off of the one A-frame that he volunteered when my back was turned.  Hopefully it was just because I wasn’t paying attention.

I’m teaching tomorrow night, and attending class Tuesday, so we probably won’t be able to practice at home again until Wednesday.  

April 26, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Contact Obstacles, Training | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tip Of The Day – Explaining The Importance Of Tricks

It really motivates students when they are told how the little “tricks” they are using will translate into agility behaviors. Show them how “spin” evolves into a “walking spin”, and then into rear crosses. Explain how important their “stay” is if they want to be able to have an advantage at the start line. Demonstrate the importance of having a dog that will pay attention and stay next to you by running your dog through obstacles without him taking them (hello Snooker!). Tell them how playing “leave it” games can be used to distract a dog from sniffing or going to visit another dog. New agility students are much more likely to practice foundation when they see how it relates to agility.

April 26, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Teaching Agility, Training | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Conditioning Tip

To strengthen the hindquarters, teach your dog to sit up, stand, and move back to the sitting up position without their front feet touching the ground.  Start with the dog in a sit.  Raise a treat slowly above her head to get her to sit up.  Mark and reward.  When she has this step down, have her sit up and then bring the treat straight up so she stands.  Mark and reward.  For the last step, very slowly lower the treat so she sinks back down onto her hindquarters.  For longer-backed, out of condition, or heavily-built dogs, you can teach them to sit up while bracing them against your legs (they will have to sit with their backs facing you).   Dogs with very long backs like Corgis may always need support to sit up safely.    

April 24, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Conditioning, Training | , , , , | 1 Comment

Retraining Contacts: Session 7

No video today, but I went out and had Maxx do contacts for his dinner.  We did 10 repetitions each of the lowered dog walk and lowered A-frame with hoops.  On each obstacle, when I was standing right at the end of the contact, I got one unwanted repetition of the old 2o/2o behavior.  Otherwise, he ran through with decent speed.  I’m going to continue to use the ball, though.  Surprisingly, he runs faster chasing the ball than he does for the food.  Pretty amazing for a dog that didn’t play with toys at all for the first two years I had him :-).

Dash and Storm worked for their dinners as well, so everyone was happy to get a chance to play.

I’ll continue to keep you posted on our progress.  It will be interesting to see what happens the first time we trial after this retraining phase.  We will find out May 2 – 3!

April 23, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Contact Obstacles, Training | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment