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 | , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

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