Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Basic obedience for agility dogs....

One of the most frequently asked questions about agility (usually immediately following the words "my dog could NEVER do THAT!") is "How do I get started?" My answer generally is something to the effect of "a basic obedience class". Which is followed by: Why does my dog HAVE TO take obedience in order to play agility? They're two different things right?

Teller showing off some fancy heel-work earlier this summer.
Not too shabby for an agility dawg eh?
Photo Credit: Colby Images
Well, yes and no. First of all your dog doesn't HAVE to take an obedience class - that's not to say that some instructors won't require a basic class - or demonstration of some basic manners and behaviors - but it IS to say that if your dog doesn't have several key behaviors you're not going to have as much fun in agility class as you probably could. Odds are pretty good that if you're in a group class and we're spending much of your turn on the floor or field working on "puppy come" that you aren't going to get a lot of time on the agility equipment during class. Obedience doesn't mean "AKC Obedience" - you don't need a precise heel position - but your dog does have to sit when you ask them to...

All of the cool kids are obedient. If you spent some time at an agility trial (any venue), you'll see an awful lot of training going on outside the ring - probably as much so with the excellent level dogs as the beginner dogs. Lots of stay/wait work,  fast sits, downs, turns, hand touches, recalls, etc. Tune up and tune in. If you watch a bit longer you'll see that those MACH dogs (and nearly MACH dogs) as high drive, fast and flamboyant as they are in the agility ring are probably some of the most obedient dogs you'll ever meet outside of the rings. The quality of being obedient (if taught correctly) does not diminish your dog's intrinsic "Joie de Vivre" but it will set you up for success later.  

Zoomies Happen. Yeah, it happens - to all of us at one point or another our dogs lose focus. We've all been there, some days your dog is just going to be off. Even the most honest and reliable seasoned dogs have moments where they're just not able to come out and work on the task at hand - that's what class is for, we'll get through it. We as handlers and trainers need to adapt. Yes, I had planned to work A-Frame reps today, but I really need to figure out how to support that weave entry. 

In class, I can give you some tools and tips to work on outside of class as homework for the week, but we focus on the dog of the moment - not necessarily the sequence in front of us. I'm happy to spend my instruction time helping each team be successful, but I think dog and handler will be much happier if we're not spending half of intro class working recalls. 

So, what do I need to work on prior to an intro to agility class?

Relationship. It was Bobbie Anderson who put into words the concept of your relationship with your dog as part of her "Building Blocks for Performance". Your dog should want to be with you - with or without a leash. More than a recall (more on that in a moment), the relationship you have with your dog needs to be built on trust. I won't put you in a situation where you'll get hurt and you need to stay in the game with me while we work and train.

Teller in the weaves.
Photo credit: Bee Ryan
Come. The recall is so important - not only for agility but as a life saving skill. Your dog should come when you call him the first time you call him - every single time you call him. If I hear words like "I can't have my dog off-leash because it takes me hours to get him back" or "Is your fence sturdy? My dog jumps over fences to get away" - this tells me that there's a relationship issue here and the dog doesn't have a good recall. When your dog comes barreling out of that tunnel and you need him to turn - you need him to react to his name and make the turn towards you - not take the next three (random) obstacles he sees in front of him - or worse - out and over ring gating and off to Wyoming. 

Sit. More than a simple sit - can your dog sit in heel position (left side)? How about on the right side? The sit doesn't have to be square (or pretty), but can you reliably (with a single command) have your dog sit at your side. What about a Down? Can your dog down in any position relative to where you are? AKC table performance is now position-less. But to quote from a recent Excellent standard briefing "If your dog doesn't have a job on the table what exactly is he going to do up there?". More so, a  sit is the beginning of a Two-On/Two-Off (2o2o) contact behavior as well. Sit (or down) is the foundation of a startline behavior too.

Wait (and/or Stay). Be still. Just a sec, I'll be right with you. Sure, you may not need a startline stay - lots of people run with their dogs from the line - but it's a nice tool to have in your toolbox if you can leave your dog in front of the first jump and at least get around the winged jump standard or even if you just need to pause a minute to re-think a handling plan in class or run-throughs. 

Settle. Class is exciting, good things happen here. There are treats and toys and friends and other people and...well, it's difficult to hear instruction if you're constantly worrying about what your dog is looking at, what he's getting into, getting pulled of your chair, barked at, etc you aren't getting all that you could get out of class time. You'll learn a lot by watching - and listening to the instructions your classmates receive.

Walk on a leash. Another life-skill -  and life-saving skill. A dog that can walk with his person on a leash and minding his manners is a dog that can walk through a crowded trial venue, keeping his nose to himself and his feet on the floor on his way into the ring. The same is true in a class situation or a walk around the block..

Don't pee on that. There's a lot of temptation on an agility field for mischievous markers. Make sure that you know your dog's signals when he needs to relieve himself and be proactive about taking potty breaks. It's never a good thing to forfeit the rest of your time on the floor because your dog had an accident half-way through your turn.

Seems like pre-agility is a lot like the AKC Canine Good Citizen program and test isn't it? Do you need to take a class to teach all of these behaviors? Maybe. Maybe not. But you will need the discipline (yours) to put in the time on the homework. For some people they need the pressure of the class to keep them honest and to motivate their training. Some dogs need the environment of class to proof through some of the super training they're getting outside of class. Either way, one night of class work isn't going to get you where you need to go - so keep up the work outside of class too.

Keep up the good work. There's a lot of temptation to let the basics lapse over time - we start working the really fun stuff  (and it's really fun!!!) and we don't work so much of the basics. Perhaps not so much loose leash walking or heel work, we don't notice the change right away, but pretty soon dogs are dragging their handlers to the line, running a course beautifully and then their dogs drag them back to the crate (with or without choking, gaggling and gacking sounds).

Put in the time and you will be rewarded. Agility is a fun and addictive sport for both dog and handler, as I tell many of my intro classes: "Agility is intrinsically fun for our dogs and we'll work very hard to keep it that way".

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