Reprinted with permission from Terry Long from the June 2005 issue of Dog World.
Copyright 2005 Terry Long. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or in part is strictly prohibited.
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Nowhere is the popularity of agility more evident than in the number of waiting lists for beginner classes. Once an off-shoot for obedience competitors, agility now attracts a vast spectrum of dog owners, from novices to veterans training their fourth or fifth agility dog. Whether you're a beginner hungry to experience the adrenaline rush of a fast, dean run in your first competition, or a seasoned handler starting a new pup, there are two fundamental prerequisites for success in the agility ring. Mastering these fundamentals before introducing your dog to agility equipment will vastly improve your enjoyment - and success - when you do start training on equipment.
| Before setting paw on an obstacle, a dog must learn how to learn,
and how to remain focused on his handler
despite the distractions encountered at an agility class or trial.
First, your dog must have a solid and unshakable work ethic. This means that he engages with you instead of with what's going on in the environment - in a variety of locations. For example, can you drive your dog to a park, and immediately get his focus on you without relying on leash prompts? Will he play with you? Will he resist the urge to investigate the park and, instead, respond to your cues? The ability to do so is what is called a strong work ethic. It is also a reflection of the relationship you have developed. Both work ethic and relationship are critical to the successful agility team.
Many schools have created "preagility" classes to develop these two critical skills. Jump Start Dog Sports in Yorba Linda, CA, co-owned by Kathy Morris, is one such school. "Many students came with nothing other than a very nice dog that may know how to sit, probably did not come when called, and sniffed the ground a lot. After a while, we required that the student and dog take a home manners course to at least get some attention and learning activities going for the team," Morris says.
Some pre-agility classes focus on building the working relationship first, and specific behaviors second. This doesn't mean that the instructor does not care what a dog is learning; rather, what is most important is that the dog finds its handler "relevant," or key to all the good things in life. For example, students in such a class are encouraged to hand-feed their dogs at home, using the dog's normal rations in training. Students might also train impulse-control behaviors such as waiting at doors and making eye contact before being released. They may also train their dogs to do a sit-stay before launching into a favorite game, or perform simple hand targeting exercises for valued rewards.
Integral to building a strong work ethic is that all interaction is strategically manipulated so that an interactive partnership results. Popular terms for this approach include "nothing in life is free," "say please," and "no free lunch." All of a dog's resources (petting, praise, food, toys, going for a walk, chasing squirrels) are controlled and strategically used as rewards to encourage the dog's focus on the owner first. The end result is a dog with a strong work ethic that learns to interact with its owner instead of the environment.
Susan Garrett is a 14-time U.S. and Canadian National Agility Champion, and owner of Say Yes Dog Training in Alberton, Ontario, Canada. "We run 16 weeks of foundation training classes that are a prerequisite for our agility program," she explains. "During this class, we cultivate the dog's toy drive. All dogs will play with toys but, unfortunately, a lot of times this drive is allowed to diminish. We feel toy drive is an important asset to agility training. As this class progresses, the dog develops a great working relationship with its owner, which gives amazing focus for work."
Learn to learn
The second fundamental prerequisite actually has two goals: a) for the dog to learn how to learn; and b) for the handler to master learning as a team.
First the dog. Puppies are not born understanding human communication and rules, nor how to learn them. Allowed to pursue their own interests, most puppies would (and some do) turn into chewing, digging, barking nuisances. It is only training that turns them into the companions we envision. For many trainers, whether they specialize in pet manners or performance, teaching a pup how to learn is the top priority. Very similar to sending a child to kindergarten, the main focus is simply to get the student to learn to learn. Early experiences for puppies in targeting (touching his nose to a hand or other target), shaping (reinforcing small pieces of offered behavior until a predetermined goal-behavior is achieved) and free shaping (shaping with no particular goal-behavior in mind) all reinforce a puppy's willingness to try different behaviors in order to earn reinforcement. With these skills under his collar, it is much easier for the puppy to then learn a variety of skills throughout his life, whether that be bringing in the newspaper or accurately performing a two-on-two-off position on the A-frame.
Garrett, who starts each of her own pups on these learn-to-learn exercises, is a strong believer in developing these skills in her foundation classes. "Before the dogs can move forward with their training, they must be willing to offer responses so they can be 'shaped.' We use no food lures to train dogs at our school, so it is important that the dogs understand it is okay to offer responses without prompting from their owner," says Garrett. (Many trainers eschew luring because they believe it inhibits true learning and makes training of complex behaviors more difficult down the line.)
The human member of the team also has a lot to learn, especially if he has no prior experience as a member of a canine-human team. He has to master taking directions from an instructor, implementing his own behavior (how to hold a leash, which hand to use for rewards, footwork, etc.), and also teach the dog separate behaviors, working to instill cues to which the dog can reliably respond. This takes effort and concentration from both members of the team.
Stephanie Spyr of El Segundo, CA, is a Jump Start Dog Sports instructor and was a finalist at the 2004 USDAA Grand Prix of Dog Agility World Championships. She stresses both basic obedience and focus with her beginning students. "Key skills in agility include a great working relationship between the dog and the handler, functional [basic] obedience, and attention and the ability to focus in a group of dogs (on the part of both handler and dog)."
Some agility instructors, recognizing the difficulty that many people have in learning handling skills at the same time as teaching the dog, have developed classes that break down the exercises. Garrett, with extensive experience in clicker training, has changed her teaching style over the years to better address this challenge. "I used to be more concerned about the dogs ... Today I recognize if I can reach the students and change their behavior, the dogs will eventually change as well. Our team of trainers is continually searching for ways to break down behaviors ... An exercise that may have been trained in three steps may now be taught in 10. More steps mean more success, and therefore, less frustration for the dogs and the students," she says.
Expect change for the better
Having fulfilled your two prerequisites - a strong work ethic, and a dog that has learned to learn - you are ready to begin. But don't be surprised if your instructor or school often changes its curriculum. Our sport is evolving, with a constant flow of new ideas about how to make training better - easier, more fun, and more reliable - for both human and canine.
Morris, whose agility school has seven instructors and 45 weekly classes, says, "We are constantly looking at our curriculum to ensure we are giving competition students the best possible instruction. Our recreation classes change as well, so that someone who thinks they just want to do this for fun can transition to competition classes relatively easily. We have also added a Handler Conditioning class. There are no dogs in this class; the focus is on handler agility and conditioning, to make the human better equipped to keep up with the canine partner."
The successful agility student is adept at changing his behavior to keep pace with the sport. Combined with a strong work ethic, an engaging relationship with your dog, and a mastery of the fundamentals of learning, you might just get bumped to the top of that waiting list.
Terry Long, CPDT is a writer, behavioral specialist, and agility trainer in Long Beach, CA She can be reached at email@example.com.