Lorrie’s Agility Dog Blog

Musings on Dogs, Agility, and Being an Instructor

A Comparison of Agility Venues

Every competitor has their favorite venue.  Usually, it is the one they are most successful in.  Some people train skills specific to a particular venue, and therefore favor it.   I firmly believe in a balanced agility dog.  I want a dog that has the skills to compete in any venue, whether the courses are open and flowing, or tight and technical.  We don’t train “for AKC” or “for NADAC”.  We train for every conceivable course configuration students are likely to encounter.  When students ask which venue they should compete in, the answer is never quick and easy.  It depends on their goals, abilities, and personality, along with the personality and ability of the dog.

I don’t disparage venues that I don’t compete in.  Every venue has its pros and cons.  Some people classify venues as “harder” or “easier”, but my opinion is that to excel in each venue, you have to possess a specific set of skills.  Those who criticize particular organizations either dislike the way they are managed, or do not possess (or want to possess) the skills to be as successful there.

In our area, AKC, NADAC, DOCNA, and USDAA are popular; UKC and TDAA are also available, though less popular.  The first four venues are the ones I have first-hand experience with and are therefore the ones I will be comparing.   I know that in other areas CPE and ASCA are popular.  Maybe I’ll research them for a future post.

I’ll start with the venue I am most familiar with, which is NADAC.  NADAC offers open, flowing courses, a relaxed atmosphere, and numerous games.  Typically, a club will offer five or six runs per day.  Course times are very tight, and there is an emphasis placed on speed and distance.  For example, at the elite level, in the distance class, dogs are expected to work up to 30’ away from their handlers.  Teams that are fast, energetic, and can work at a distance will excel here. 

Pros:  Generally, trials are friendly and relaxed, competitors are helpful, there are no long waiting periods between classes, and dogs love being able to open up and really run.  All dogs are allowed to play, including mixed-breeds and some physically handicapped dogs.  Divisions are offered for those who cannot or do not want to jump full height and for veterans. 

Cons:  There are very few handling challenges in the courses aside from getting fault-free performances at speed, and some dogs are not able to maintain their energy or focus for that many runs per day.  Some people feel that it is difficult to “rein in” a dog once they have learned to run extended on open courses.

Necessary skills:  Teams must have independent obstacle performance, be able to find weave entries at high speed, and need to maintain contact criteria when running full-out.  In addition, the distance game requires the dogs to work further away than other venues.  Discriminations are a common course challenge.  Finally, dogs must be able to safely perform obstacles and judge jumps when running at high speed. 

The next venue to discuss is USDAA.  USDAA, in my opinion, is the most physically demanding venue for the dog.  They have the highest jump heights, the highest A-frame, the shortest contact zones, and relatively tight times.  Courses are usually fairly technical and an emphasis is placed on speed and precision.  They offer several runs per day, including strategy games.  Teams that are in top physical condition and that like a challenge will enjoy in this venue.  This is also the venue to compete in if the goal is international competition. 

Pros:  There are no long waiting periods between classes, the courses are challenging, and the games are fun.  Refusals at the higher levels ensure that a smooth run is required to qualify.  All dogs are allowed to play, including mixed-breeds.  Divisions are offered for those who cannot or do not want to jump full height or for veterans. 

Cons:  Some dogs are not able to maintain their energy or focus for multiple runs per day.  The courses can be overly challenging for brand new competitors with new dogs.  The atmosphere can sometimes be overly-competitive and intimidating for new people. 

Necessary skills:  Teams must be able to switch between extension and collection, must have the ability to turn sharply after obstacles, and the dogs must be in good physical shape.  Moderate distance skills are required for the distance game.  Good contact skills are necessary because of the shorter contact zone.  Discriminations are frequently used elements in USDAA courses, as are wraps and difficult weave entries.

I do not personally participate in AKC, but many of our students do.  AKC is known for highly technical courses, with generous times and moderate jump heights.  They offer two or three runs per day, with one strategy/distance game.  Teams who enjoy solving multiple handling puzzles will enjoy AKC.

 Pros:  The courses are technically challenging and refusals ensure that a smooth run is required to qualify at the higher levels.  Reasonable jump heights and times allow dogs who are not speed demons to qualify if they have the skills required to complete the courses.  The preferred division is offered for those who cannot or do not want to jump full height or for veterans. 

Cons:  The wait times between runs can be long.  Only purebreds are allowed to play, although AKC is changing that policy in 2010.   The atmosphere can sometimes be overly-competitive and intimidating for new people.  Trials are more formal than most other venues, which is a pro to some competitors.  Some people believe that AKC courses are unreasonably hard on bigger dogs because of the tight turns and changes of direction. 

Necessary skills:  Teams must be able to turn sharply after obstacles, run collected for sequences, and the handlers must have very good technical skills.  Discriminations are frequently used elements in AKC courses, as are wraps and difficult weave entries.  Threadles and 270s are fairly common elements as well.

DOCNA is a relatively new venue.  DOCNA combines flowing courses with some technical challenges in a relaxed atmosphere.  The course times are relatively tight.  Clubs typically offer 5 or 6 runs per day, including some strategy games.  Teams that enjoy challenges but don’t like the sudden turns and abrupt stops will enjoy DOCNA.

Pros:  There are no long waiting periods between classes.   The courses provide a good balance of flow and technical challenges and the games are fun.  All dogs are allowed to play, including mixed-breeds and some physically handicapped dogs.  Divisions are offered for those who cannot or do not want to jump full height and for veterans.

Cons:  Some dogs are not able to maintain their energy and focus for multiple runs.  The venue may not be challenging enough for those who like extremely technical courses. 

Necessary skills:  Dogs must be able to switch between running collected and running extended.  DOCNA courses frequently have contact to tunnel flips in them as well as discriminations.  They also use wraps, serpentines, and sequences that encourage the dog to build speed before having to collect for the weaves.  A moderate amount of distance is required for the distance game.

 Deciding on a venue is a very individual choice.  Each person has to determine what their goals are and what they enjoy.  Tastes can change over an agility career as well, with people desiring more technical challenges, or looking for a venue that will allow their veteran to play with minimal physical impact.  Hopefully this comparison will give you a starting point for your research so you can make the right decision for your team.  Happy trialing!

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May 6, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Agility Trial, Agility Venues | , , , , , | 14 Comments

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

Adding Adrenaline

Instructors sometimes have a difficult time keeping students energized and motivated.  At various points during their agility careers, students can become a bit “ho-hum” about training.  It is sometimes difficult to get beginners to show enthusiasm after the initial thrill of a new activity wears off.  Many people are too embarrassed to be animated in class.  More experienced students have a difficult time reproducing anything resembling the excitement of a trial.  The result is training that is far different than what will occur at a trial.  When classes slow down, it is time to add some adrenaline!

When students are learning handling, they need a lot of practice on crosses.  Here is a way to make that practice fun.  Set up three cones, tunnel bags, or something similar as shown in the picture below.  Create a start/finish line about 15’ back from the cones.  Now it is time for agility barrel racing!  Have each handler do one round with front crosses and one round with rear crosses.  Time each round.  The dog and handler with the lowest combined time wins.

barrel-races 

For more advanced students, set up two mini courses that are exactly the same.  There is an example below, but you can use whatever arrangement you want as long as the start/finish line is the same.  Divide the students into two teams.  Try to make them as even as possible in terms of speed, skill, and experience.  Run a simultaneous relay.  If you have any dogs that might get overly excited when another dog is running, put up a ring gate between the two courses.  The team that finishes first wins.  You can make rules about dropped bars (i.e. someone else on the team has to reset them).

relay

For the students who are trialing, set up a full course, or as close to a full course as you have room and equipment for.  Tell the students that the course will be run just as if it was a trial, with an unnamed prize going to first place.  Time each student and keep track of faults.  You can decide to score time plus faults or use standard scoring.  Present a prize to the winning team.

Prizes for winners do not have to break the bank.  I hand out bags of “good” treats (Zuke’s or something similar), stuffed toys, small bags to carry training supplies in, journals, and everyone’s favorite – chocolate bars.  The idea isn’t to have a huge prize for the winner; it is to spur the competitive spirit of the class so they push like it is a trial rather than “only” a class.  Just one of these sessions every other month or so can energize the class and motivate students to practice more at home so they can keep up with their classmates.  Add some adrenaline to your classes and see what your students are really capable of!

April 27, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Mental Management, Teaching Agility | , , , , , | 1 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

Retraining Contacts: Session 6

I took Maxx out for a short training session again today.  He is still running all the way down the dogwalk at half-height.  I raised the A-Frame about a foot, and he ran all the way to the bottom of that one too.  I am harboring no illusions that I will get this same behavior at trials yet, but at least I think there is hope for the future!

The link to the video is below.  It is very short (20 sec or so) because the camera died after the dogwalk section.  The mountains aren’t so pretty today – sorry!

Maxx session 6

April 22, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Contact Obstacles, Training | , , , , , | Leave a comment