Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Think or Sink...

For someone that has been doing agility as long as I have, how little I have really thought about the sport until recently. Please understand, I have always read books/blogs/websites, watched DVD's and studied many training methods and handling systems. Eversince I was a kid I have been obsessed to know all there is to know about agility. But there is a huge difference between having knowledge and applying it 'as is' and actually THINKING about agility.

Last year, I had to change training partners and was also forced to train on my own a lot more often. My agility schedule was no longer planned out for the week, no more 'having' to make it on time or having courses/sequences set up, no more having my turn at whatever it was we were practising. I still trained every single day, but it was no longer organised. Most of the time I was too lazy to change the set-up in our yard or I would only focus on one behaviour/obstacle for weeks on end. My routine was very habitual, I would get home at the same time every day, train at the same times, train my dogs in the same order and mostly train them all the same behaviour every day. When time/travel schedules/weather allowed, I would train with friends and fellow handlers, but it was always a hasty affair. No-one would arrive with a plan and we would randomly set up sequences and run them. After a dissapointing start to our show year, I realised that I needed a new game plan.

I started off by dividing my training into three categories (I did a seperate one for each of my dogs): train, maintain and improve. The behaviours/obstacles/maneuvers I still needed to teach myself/my dog. Those that I was happy with, of course continous maintenance is neccessary throughout our dog's agility career. And the things that I had trained, but could do with some improvement. I divide my training time (which compromises of 3 x 5-10min sessions twice or three times daily, depending on my dog) into 50% of what I want to train, 25% maintain and 25% improve. Initially I planned out a month's training schedule ahead of time, but in all honesty this did not work, as that did not take weather or life for that matter into account. Now I do it on a weekly basis. For every week I plan four days of training, the fifth is allocated to refine the things I was not entirely happy with on the other four days. I define what I want to do in great detail, literally thinking about how many times I would like to attempt whatever it is I want to train. Honestly it is sometimes difficult not to attempt the weave poles 'one more time' or do one more back cross, but this way I am forced to THINK about what myself and my dog is doing.

Recently I started running into weave pole problems, my normal training would involve me doing the poles repeatedly and rewarding, but since there was no limits on my attempts there was no reason for me or Chaos to really 'want' to get it right on every time, there would always be a next time. I have changed my ways, before I start training, I will already have the idea in my head that I want to do 4 poles twice and 8 poles three times. So if he fails at doing 4 poles once, I open them up a fraction to ensure that I will have something to reward for.

I specify some things to the finest detail, these days I rarely train my contacts as a whole. Some days I will just train the end-behaviour of the dogwalk, using various approaches to maintain my two-on-two-off position. Some days I will put a jump to the side and ask Chaos to jump over the obstacle into a two-on-two-off, other days I will race him halfway down the ramp. I use different distractions and vary my release times, but no matter what I stick to my '5 x times a session' principle. This applies to longer sequences as well. I try and work basic foundation into my routine as often as possible, yesterday for example, I recalled Chaos to the end of the see-saw and just tugged with him, before picking him up off the end without letting it drop or asking for a two-on-two-off.

This routine works well for both the dogs I am currently training: Quake does not like repeating things, so he loves doing 5 small behaviours a few times and then having a huge game; Chaos is always ready to go and now runs into the training area looking at an obstaclel, then looking at me... what are we going to do first. After each show I watch the video's ov my rounds and this has a huge influence on my training plans for the week. I try and work through the weaknesses I had at the previous show and more often than not, they have improved by the next week. This really helps my mental game for each show as well, when walking a course I can confidently tell which sequences I would excel at and where my problem areas might be.

I keep a regular record of all my training and show results. I also make monthly appointments with myself to watch old videos of my rounds to record improvement/regression. Me and my training partners now have a system that works when we have the time to train together or when we train alone.

Now my training system might differ from others, but the important thing is to have a system in place. This system should definitely include a review/assessment of your progress on a regular basis, this is what encourages you to really think. It is so important to keep a record of your agility career, because regardless of how vivid at that exact moment, memories fade so easily. Making a list of all the possible aspects of agility, will help balance your training program AND ensure that you cover all your bases in training. There is no such thing as too much foundation, so remember to include all of these exercises in the schedule. There will always be new sequences and concepts to add to the list, so this is a proccess of conituous change.

Try not to overthink your problems, rather put the thought into the training!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Have some (dog)sense...

Unfortunately common sense is not as common as one might think. This applies not only to life, but to dog training as well. There is nothing that grinds me more, than having to watch senseless people confuse their dogs to the point of no return.

Let me start off by saying, I have made many many mistakes in agility training and I honestly believe that all of us have and still do. Ranging from small indescretions to major mistakes, I believe that these are inevitably part of our sport. Mainly because of the fact that we are not working with mechanical vehicles or a pair of running shoes, most sports truely have the advantage of reliable engineering, which contributes toward making these sports an exact science. In agility our partners are living breathing mammals, with their own ways and quirks, not only that, but our dogs share our homes and lives, so we influence them every second of their lives. Our agility training does not end outside on the dogwalk or at the end of an hour lesson at our local dog training school, it continues when we are sitting in the lounge watching TV with the dogs lying in their beds, it continues when we go for a ride to the vet, it continues every single second of your dogs exsistance.

That having been said, I am NOT advocating handlers to over-analyze their dog's every step, nor am I saying that you should be a control freak and manage your dog's every move. I am merely reminding you that your dog's entire life is actually one big learning session. As dog owners, handlers and trainers, we need to have the sense to enhance this long lesson as much as we can, but most of all we need to have the sense to know when we have made a mistake and try our very best to correct it and never repeat it.

In one of my beginner classes a few nights ago I was doing some basic exercises. Due to the varying levels of the handlers and dogs in this class, I treat each student individually and might adapt whichever exercise I am doing to the specific team that is running. Of course this means a lot of work for me, because, in between each dog, I run around, changing jump heights and angles. I don't mind whatsoever, to me this is part of building a team that can run to the best of their ability. One specific handler (who has only been training in my class for a couple of months) stopped me from simplifying a particular sequence for him, insisting that he can do the more advanced exercise and quoting his obedience trainer to justify his decision. His dog failed miserably with its first two attempts and subsequently started running under the jumps. I quietly pulled him aside and explained that I would rather create a situation for his dog where it could succeed and get rewarded, than break its confidence, we could then gradually advance the exercise to the advanced version. I further explained that it is not ideal to push a young dog (his dog is 18 months) too much and creating problems for the future. The handler went quiet, but ran the simpified exercise and succeeded, even though the dog was less confident than it was at the beginning of the class. I thought I had resolved the issue, so imagine my surprise when the handler reset the advanced exercise after class and attempted it NINE times with no success. I eventually asked the handler to leave the course, as I could not stand watching the dog shut down. I doubt if this pupil will ever return to my class, but I still hope that he will one day find some sense.

This is just one example of a subject very near to my heart. I wish there were rules of when to stop, when to start, when to simplify, when to advance, when to take a break, when to push, when to hold back, but since we are working with living creatures there is not. We need to observe and respond, that is the only way to apply sense in agility. Here are a few thoughts on some of the senseLESS excuses I have heard:

- If your dog is jumping up/biting/nipping/scratching you when you let him out for a run on the
or when I arrive at your gate, how can you expect the dog not display the same behaviour on
agility course. If your dog displays this behaviour, recalling him, rewarding and watching as he
turns around and does exactly the same thing is NOT the solution.
- If your dog has a 'perfect startline wait' at home or a training school, but is a rocket with an
outboard motor attached at a show, remembering how you started training this behaviour in
BACKYARD or at the TRAINING SCHOOL is a good place to start. Reversing away from the
screaming WAIT at the top of your lungs, drop and run or setting the dog up 20m from the
start line is NOT a solution. Trust me on this one, I have made this mistake with more than
one of my dogs.
- If you are saying 'my dog has perfect contacts, but only if the next obstacle is in a straight line',
then your dog actually does not have perfect contacts. Go back to basics and proof your dog's
behaviour, or retrain, or accept the fact that you will only have success on courses suited to
your 'method of training'.
- There is no need to tdo the same exercise fifteen times one after the other. If your dog got it
right twice, why did you have to do it again. If your dog got it wrong twice, he is not under-
standing what you are asking and he probably won't the next thirteen times either.
- If your dog runs out of the ring to attack another dog or handler, it is actually NOT the other
person's fault for 'being too close to the ring'. Your dog's biggest desire should be to work with
and please you, it's time to build the bond with your dog.
- If your dog does not have a recall, he should definitely not be off-lead at a show or any
other crowded public area, nevemind in an agility ring competing.
- Other people might not appreciate your dog screaming at the top of its lungs as much as you
do, when someone is trying to speak to you at least attempt to keep your dog quiet or put him
- 'But (insert famous agility trainer's name) says/does/trains it this way...' Fair enough, there
are some spectacular dog/handler teams in the world, but if you watched the dvd five times,
read the book twice, applied every single step of the method and you are STILL failing, what-
ever you are doing is not working. Remember each handler and each and every dog in this
agility game is different. Take in the knowledge spread by others, THINK about it and then
apply what is suited to you and your dog.
- Screaming is not a training method.
- Letting your dog get away with murder is murdering your dog's potential.
- There is nothing wrong with stopping after every four or five obstacles to reward. You dont
HAVE to run a full course every time you train, even if the other handlers in the class do. 'But'
Johnny does it' got old when I was five.
- One of the best ones I have ever heard, was when I advised a student to open up her channel
poles a slight bit again (she had trained this method from the beginning), to resolve the prob-
lem of the dog missing entries, doing 'hit and miss' poles (the dog would do four, pop out, skip
three gates and then go back in etc) and being unable to find his stride in the poles. She said
that she had already packed away her set of channel poles and she was way too lazy to take
them out again. The handler then regressed to the good old 'wave my band back and forth
the poles while yelling 'in' 'out'' method. The point is not which method was used, but rather
why she took the time to teach one method (channel) and then 'retrain' another method,
merely because she was apparently too laze to move one piece of equipment again.
- NEVER forget to reward, if your dog does the poles wrong, you redo them and your dog gets it
right but you just continue with the sequence without rewarding your dog has learned nothing.

These are just a few examples and thoughts, as I said there are no rules when it comes to sense and many of you might dissagree with me. All I am asking is for everyone to THINK in agility.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Walking the Course

I wrote this article for a beginners workshop that I ran a couple of years ago... So if you are an uber-agility nerd, it may well be a little too basic for your liking...

Over-coming Amnesia – How to remember the course

Handlers that struggle to remember a course have been a stumbling block for many agility teams. There is no ‘quick-fix’ to solve this problem, but here are some pointers. You generally have about 8min to walk the course, use them wisely. And remember, ‘walking the course’ is also something that can be practised at training, during your agility classes. Make sure that you are in the marshalling area on time. Don't get caught in a situation where you only have two minutes to walk.

When walking the course the first time, just follow the numbers and make sure of the route you have to follow. Try and find the flow of the course. An agility course is like a big doodle on grass, instead of paper. Close your eyes and try to see the pattern.
When walking the course a second time, walk it from your dogs pint of view, notice what your dog sees as he approaches an obstacle. Make a note of the obstacles your dog sees when he is coming out of a tunnel. Remember, what might seem obvious to you from your birds eye view, might look completely different for your dog from his point of view. You know both your and your dog’s weaknesses. Think about these as you walk the course. For example, if your dog struggles clearing a jump on a 180 degree, make a note of how much space he will need to complete the hurdle successfully. Or if you have a dog that is difficult to call off tunnels, try and find a position where you can pick up the dog without having to scream at the top of your lungs.
Now turn your back on the course and see your dog running it. See the exact route you would like your dog to take. Exactly where you would like them to take off, the precise line you would like them to take into the tunnel. Visualise your dog’s ‘perfect round’.
Keeping that in mind, walk the course again. Now you have to figure out where you need to be to create this ‘perfect round’. Where exactly you need to do that front-cross. Find yourself landmarks for your movements. For example ‘ front-cross, directly in line with the dog-walk, in front of jump number eight’. In reality you are likely to be out of place quite often, but this just gives you a sense of three dimensional direction. If you have performed something in training then run it like that on the course. Don’t suddenly try to compromise or ‘baby’ your dog around the course. Instead of being ‘safe’ you will only confuse your dog to what you have taught it to do. Repeat walking your route on the course a couple of times. Remember, the show aint over ‘til the fat lady sings, so walk the course right up to the last jump. Run it at the pace you would be running at with your dog. You are now conditioning yourself to run this specific course.
Again turn your back on the course, close your eyes, and now visualise your and your dog’s perfect round. See your ‘perfect team effort’.
Once you are sure of your route, walk the course again. This time checking where al the obstacles are positioned, where you are in relativity to everything else on the course. This is called course positioning. It is heart-breaking when a clear round is forfeited when the handler reverses neatly into the wing of a jump, or trips over the edge of the dog-walk.
To make the flow of the route easier, find the manoeuvres that you have done so religiously in training, within the course you are walking. Find pinwheels, slaloms, straight-lines and boxes. Sometimes they are obvious, sometimes they are harder to find. If you have trouble remembering the numbers of the course, then lay out the patterns for yourself. For example, straight line, pin-wheel to my right, straight-line onto slalom, straight line into tunnel, go-round, straight line into pin-wheel on my left. Repeat this to yourself, while walking these movements.
If you do need the advise of a trainer or friend, do not interrupt them while walking the course for their own run. Wait until they have finished walking the course. Don’t spend all your precious time discussing one or two problem sections with them, listening to their advise, consider the alternatives, make a decision and stick to it. At the end of the day, they are not running your dog, nor do they handle exactly like you. They can advise you, but only you can run your round. If you spend 6min changing your mind about one little section of the course, you are more likely to forget where you are going. By repeating the exact movements you want to do, you are conditioning yourself to run it in exactly that way.
Agility is a very fun and social sport, but you do not need to catch up on all the gossip while walking your course. At one show you will only get eight minutes to walk the course, while the show is more than likely to continue for a good few hours. You have more than enough time to catch up on your social.
Try not to copy your fellow competitors while they are walking the course. Once again, they don’t handle like you and their dogs don’t run like yours. Besides if you are concentrating on a fellow competitor, you’re not giving your full attention to the course.
Once all the handlers have cleared the course, before the first dog runs, stand outside the ring and trace the course with your finger, in the air.
There is such a thing as 'over-walking' though, once you feel comfortable with the course and KNOW where you want to go, go and relax until you have to prepare for your run.
If possible, watch the first couple of dogs run. DO NOT change your mind about your own handling. Just observe how a dog is actually running the course.
Through out your agility career, you are bound to get caught off-guard many times. Off-guard and out of position, there will be many times that you will either succeed or fail at thinking on your feet. But by walking the course correctly, you are just minimizing the chance of this happening.
Having said that... from a judges point of view, do not linger around on the course once the marshal/judge has cleared the course. There is nothing more frustrating than having to repeatedly ask competitors to get of your course when the walking session has already finished.
At the end of the day this is all supposed to be fun, but inevitably the nerves will spoil this a bit on occasion. Beware of your nerves affecting your dog.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Targets and Contacts - The way I train it

1. Introduction
2. Keep in mind
3. Stepping it up
4. Almost There
5. Putting it all together


First things first, before training any specific behaviour we need to take a time-out and think it through. Every agility handler in the world wants quick and consistent contacts that do not require screaming nor luck. But of course the method you use ultimately depends on you and your dogs. So among many these are some things you should consider before choosing two-on-two-off target contacts as your method of choice:

- My dog's build: Is my dog slight/heavy/stronger in the back legs or front legs/is the breed prone to hip dysplasia or elbow dysplasia
- My style of handling: Am I a sprinter/do I often lag behind
- My commitment: Am I ready to do what it takes/have the patience

I think of those three, the last may be the most important. I cannot stress enough that if you are planning to train contacts correctly you cannot skip a step or rush your training. This in my opinion is regressive training because without a proper foundation you may just as well not train contacts at all. This may sound harsh and I can already see some eyebrows lifting, but ladies and gentleman it is the truth.

Once you have read the above, stop, read it again. Go to bed thinking about it, read it again tomorrow morning then hop onto Google and find as many articles about agility training as you can, read those. Borrow books and dvd's. Make a list of your options, think carefully about each one. And then make an informed decision.

That out of the way, I will now explain step-by-step the method that I have chosen and tweaked to teach my contact. My method has been influenced by many books, dvd's, handlers, trainers and most of all dogs, so I cannot call it my own, but it has been an interesting journey. Those who have read Shaping Success will immediately see that ALOT of my content is based on Susan Garrett's work and I reccommend this book to all agility handlers.

Keep in Mind

This article assumes that your dog has mastered some basic obedience. Without sits, stays, stands, waits etc. you will struggle in your agility career. It also assumes that you have a reliable release command.

Each dog is different and if you do decide to follow my method you will occasionally run into a problem. Here you need to use your own creativity to solve and overcome the obstacle. Feel free to ask questions and I will do my best to answer.

Never be afraid to go back to basics for a day or two to refresh your dog's memory.

Training IS patience. This will take a long time, do not try to rush your dog, because you WILL regret it.

Always keep it fun. Never train when you are angry or irritated, you will only shoot yourself in the foot.

I use a clicker for my contact training, hence the article is written in this context. But it is possible to teach it with a clicker. Do not start training the method until your dog (and you) are comfortable with the clicker and its purpose.

The Beginning

Initially my training starts in three completely independent steps, that can be trained simultaneously: The target; The obstacle; The position.

The Target

First of all is of course the start to my target training. Feeding time is the perfect opportunity to initiate this concept. I sit in a chair with my dog in front of me and his bowl of food in my lap. At his stage I am not too worried about my the position my dog chooses. Use an obvious target (A margarine or feta container lid should do fine) and place some of your pup's dinner in the palm of your hand with the lid covering the food. Most dogs will immediately come sniffing, but if he is unsure, hold out your hand slightly. By sniffing for the food your dog's nose will inevitably touch the lid. This is the behaviour you want to click for. As most trainers will tell you, the timing of your click is very important. You want to click as your dog's nose is touching the target. Your ultimate goal for this exercise is that an enthusiastic dog that lunges at the target the moment you take it into your hand.

Your next step is of course to hold out the target with no food in your hand. If you stuck with step one for a while your dog, should not hesitate to confidently touch the target and wait for his reward. To proof this exercise, change the positioning of your hand (holding the target of course), hold it out to your side or behind you. Use both hands to hold the target. Stand up or sit on the floor while holding the target. This ensures that your dog realises that the ultimate goal is to touch that little lid, no matter of the circumstances. Remember to change your environment (not too drastically mind you), so use different rooms or even give it a try outside.

Once you are happy with your dog's behaviour of touching the target in your hand, you would of course like to him to start touching the target in any place you might like to have it. This is the most difficult step to initiate, as it is quite a leap from your hand to the floor. Here is my solution: With your dog in front of you, drop the target on the floor. Now most dogs will immediately give it a quick sniff, to establish what had just rained down from the sky. I cannot stress the importance enough of getting your timing right on this specific click. You will only have a split second of curious investigation to click for the correct behaviour. If your dog does not sniff the target again after receiving his reward, you may pick it up and drop it in a different spot, or even just give it a nudge with your foot to draw your dog's attention back on the target. Always remember to look at the target yourself and face your body toward it. Body language is important even in a basic exercise like this. If your dog is very 'mommy-focused' you may need to hold out the target (as in step two) and drop it just before the dog comes in to touch the target, hopefully his nose will follow the flying lid all the way to the ground. This step will take some time to master. Your goal is to have a dog that will voluntarily touch the target that you put down without any encouragement necessary.

Before I continue I would like to clear up two things. You may have noticed that I make no mention of commands up to this stage. I never teach my dog a command before I am not 100% sure that they will perform the behaviour. Since my 'touch' command will never apply to my dog touching a target that is hand-held, I never associate my command with it. Of course if you want a different command (from your eventual command you will be using on the contact) to be linked to the hand-target touches, you may add this. BUT only add a command once you are confident your dog will perform the behaviour. The order goes something like this: Dog consistently performs behaviour; Add command simultaneous with click AS the dog performs the behaviour (NOT BEFORE); Eventually attempt using command (ONCE and ONCE only) if dog does not perform behaviour go back to adding command as dog performs behaviour. Rinse and repeat. So once I am confident my dog will touch the target on the floor, I add a 'touch it' command, simultaneous with the click and follow the steps above.

The second aspect that I would like to clarify is a sensitive point where many trainers and handlers disagree with me. You may have noticed that never under any circumstances do I ever place food on the target as encouragement. This is done for two very important reasons. First of all, I don't at any point want my dog to associate the target with food. The target should be associated with a behaviour for which the dog gets rewarded, thus the food is a REWARD not a MOTIVATION. This will only become a problem in advanced training once you are trying to fade your target, but it is of utter importance to me. My second motivation is my belief in training sequence: Command; Motivation (if necessary); Behaviour; Confirmation; Reward. Motivation is a funny thing in dog training, because inevitably all food and toy motivation is absent in a show environment, so it is always advisable to keep your motivation to verbal and body movements rather than toys and food. If you place food on the target, you will be saying okay now I am asking you to do something, then you are getting rewarded and then I will give you confirmation that is the correct behaviour. In my experience, dogs that are trained with food on the target (all the way through advanced training), have a very low consistency rating in the show ring... 'Hey, mom, there is no food on here, so I will just jump off and go and do my own thing.'

There is a third reason, which is for pure selfish reasons. I always ween my dogs off a food reward and all reward becomes play and toys (yes even clicker rewards), for the simple reasons that food is hard to handle while training on an agility course and it is easier to promote the fun aspect of agility using toys.

The Obstacle

This part of my training is dependant on my dog's age, as I don't recommend introducing full sized contact equipment until your dog is AT LEAST 12-months old. Also keep in mind, that this part is much easier in confident dogs. First I will discuss the Dog walk and A-frame and then some exercises on the see-saw.

To be able to perform a contact obstacle at high speeds, it must gain the confidence (and of course receive the reward) for doing just that. So while my dog is still in-target-training, I introduce the obstacles. I do so by employing a combination of various techniques. Even though we are not too worried about whether our dog touches contacts at this particular moment, we do not want to teach our dogs to jump off from the middle of the dog-walk or the apex of the A-frame. Please not it is ideal to start these exercises on 'baby' contacts, but can be started on full sized obstacles. Hence I use back-chaining to teach the initial obstacle. Place a toy at the bottom of the obstacle (appr 1m after the end of the down-ramp), pick up Fido and place him just above the contact area of the obstacle holding him back and focusing his attention on said toy, get him nice and excited and let go... Ideally Fido will race down the contact and go and grab his toy. The secret to this exercise is getting some form of Independence between dog and handler... Initially you will obviously running with your pup, but soon he will realise that this is a big game and will be rearing to get the toy, whether you are with him or not. This is the ideal time to build up some independence on the obstacle, start off by giving your 'fetch it' or 'get it' command, let Fido go, but do not follow up all the way. Once your dog is confident enough, you can even stand still and watch in awe as Fido flies down in rocket speed. To really proof this exercise, try running the opposite way and see what your dog does.

By placing your dog just above the start of the contact, you are almost guaranteed that he will touch the contact in some way, shape or form, but of course we have to progress. For the next step you will be placing your pooch halfway down the down ramp of the obstacle and doing the exact same exercise. So here is a bit of trouble shooting advice for those that may own the same kind of hooligans I do... the kind that is more than happy to leap from the top of the down ramp of the dog walk if it means getting to the squeaky toy. Teach your dog how to perform a hoop. Start off with the hoop on the ground, hold your dog with his nose already through the hoop and throw the ball (you are welcome to throw in a click as his back legs passes through the hoop to confirm the behaviour). Progress this exercise until your dog confidently shoots through the hoop en route to pick up his beloved toy. So if your dog develops a tendency to leap of the obstacle rather encourage him to run down through the hoop, it will make your eventual two-on-two-off training so much easier.

This back-chaining exercise can be progressed at your dogs own pace: Just above the contact; Halfway down the ramp; Top of the ramp; Middle of the dog walk/A-frame and eventually you can ask your dog to run over the entire obstacle. Your ultimate goal is to have a dog that runs full-speed over the obstacle without thinking twice and as long as you have safe regulation equipment on even ground there is never a reason to slow your dog down. Your dog will perform this at a speed he is comfortable with, always remember this, by screaming wait and stop from 10m behind your dog, you are risking its safety by encouraging Fido to look back at mom instead of where he is going.

As far as the see-saw goes I don't do much back chaining... here I have a different exercise, which unfortunately requires two people. You need an assistant to hold your dog at the bottom of the see-saw, while you stand at the other end, firmly restraining the plank (with your hand or chest). When you call Fido, your assistant may let go (hopefully this sees Fido speeding full-out up the plank towards mom), once your dog reaches you a verbal or food reward can be given before you very gently let the plank tip (100% controlled) and then allow Fido to run off the see-saw for another reward. The goal is to lessen your resistance over time, in order to acclimate Fido to the speed the plank will be tipping at. So eventually you will have a dog that speeds toward the end of the plank and then waits for the tip before releasing from the obstacle. This method prevents inconsistencies due to the weighting of different see-saws, your dog has no need to search for the tip-point of the seesaw and wait there. Please note that it is always a good idea to bomb-proof the dog to the noise of a banging see-saw before proceeding onto this obstacle.

As far as commands got it is once again important to only incorporate the command once you are sure your dog will perform the obstacle. There is no harm in adding your final command for the obstacle at this stage, since your contact command will be separate. My command for all the contact obstacles are the same ('walk it') but in recent days I have seen the advantage in having a separate command for each one ('frame' ' dog walk' 'seesaw' etc), this choice is ultimately up to the handler. But it is important that you only add the command after your dog is performing the ENTIRE obstacle at a speed that you are happy with. If your dog initially performs the dog walk at a slow pace on command and gets rewarded for it, you are teaching your dog that it is okay to do it at that pace, so rather wait until your dog is living up to your expectations before you add a 'forever command'.

Another tip: Once your dog is VERY confident on the obstacle, place tunnels underneath and obstacles nearby, to introduce normal course conditions.

The Position

We can all agree that our it is rather unnatural for our dogs to stand with their bum in the air. So I include an exercise in order to get my dogs used to it.

Hopefully all of you still do some basic training sessions regularly (no matter the level of your dog). Things like waits; circles for directionals; front- back- and blind crosses on the flat. This is a part of training that NEVER ends as long as your dog competes. You can add to your contact training in these training sessions by finding a step (of any kind as long as it is not too high) and asking for a stand stay with their back legs positioned on the top of the step and front legs at the bottom. This exercise has two benefits for our dogs, the most obvious is practising our wait command and the second is to introduce our dog to the position that they will be waiting in.

While doing this exercise I will vary my release as much as possible: Sometimes I will return to my dog before I release, I will release them form the wait standing in front of them, behind them, to both sides. I will place a jump at some distance, release them and ask them to take the jump... These are just a few ideas, but I am sure you get the idea, your goal is to be have the ability to have your dog wait in a two-on-two-off position regardless of your position and release only on command.

Stepping it up

During the next level of our training we will stick to the same routine on The Obstacle and The Position, our only advance will be in the The Target sessions. We have now established that little Fido will touch his target on command, we are yet to set boundaries on how this behaviour is to be performed. We will do this in slow progression. First of all we want to ascertain that this command can be performed at a distance and then we will teach our dogs that the behaviour is to stay at the target rather than return to mommy after they have touched.

Gaining the distance

This step is simple enough, we will start by placing the target 1m in front of us, get Fido on our side in a nice heal position, next get Fido focused on the target. The same principles apply as in our initial target training, the handler should be looking at the target and facing the target with their body, once you feel Fido knows where the target is, give him the command to 'go touch' and start off with him. If you need to follow up all the way to the target this is no problem at all. Eventually Fido will know where the target is and be quite happy to 'go touch' on his own, but be sure to give your initial rewards in the vicinity of the target, hence the sequence goes like this: Command; Behaviour (Fido touches, while mom stands still); Confirmation (click) and while you are busy clicking, move forward and give the reward. Your next step will be to start teaching your dog to remain at the target, there are two exercises to initialise this behaviour.

The Target Remains

First of all we are going to start asking for repeated touches: As Fido performs his first touch, click and immediately ask for a second touch, move in and reward near the target. You can ask for anything between 1 and 4 touches on one exercise, remember to vary it often. Your dog will start hanging around the target to perform more touches if you happen to ask for them. Remember not to use the dog's name with each touch command, because calling our dog's name, means come here.

Our second exercise is where our release command becomes important. Since we don't want to teach a WAIT command for this exercise (ie that our touch on the contact requires a second wait command for our dog to remain the requested position), we will use our release command to create the illusion to our dog that he has been waiting. As before, place your target at a short distance and ask your dog to 'go touch' as he touches do your normal click and immediately give your release command and click for the release (most dogs, will come to you when they are released since they haven't been asked to do anything else, but click for the release even if they move in another direction). This exercise has the dual purpose of teaching our dog to stay at the target as well as being able to release the dog from a distance.

Once your dog is hanging around the target to wait and see if he is expected to touch again or come back to you, you can start integrating these two exercises. Ask Fido for repeated touches and then give your release command and only then will he receive the reward. You can start building on this exercise by placing the target after a hurdle or tunnel, asking your dog to perform the said obstacle and then to 'go touch'. Of course it is also important to build the distance until you can ask your dog to 'go touch' a target that is 10m away (this is not unrealistic, as the dog walk is longer than that). This step of training creates a completely independent performance of the target and that is the essence of successful target contacts.

If you choose, you may start reducing the size of your targets at this level of training. As will be demonstrated, it is advantageous to fade targets gradually to obtain your eventual goal.

Almost There

Since your targeting should be spot on in this stage, we will integrate another step into our training. We will teach our dog the correct body position, since we do not want Fido swing his bum around and facing mom while on the contact obstacle. We will do so by integrating our The Position exercises and our targeting. We are now going to move our target ONTO the step.

Ideally you want to find a spot where you have a step situated next to a wall. Place Fido with his side right up against the wall (obviously with you on the other side of Fido) in his two-on-two-off wait position, do not give a wait command, but place the target on the bottom step and ask for a touch. Reward and release. Initially it may be necessary for the handler to restrain the dog from moving his bum from the top step by holding his back legs gently yet firmly in place. Once the dog is willingly touching his target in the two-on-two off position, it is time to build the distance. With the target in place on the bottom step, hold Fido side to the wall (handler on the other side) about 1m from the top step and ask for a 'go touch'. As Fido touches, before he even has a chance to move his back legs off the step, click move in and reward. If his back legs happen to pop off, just help him back into the correct position and reward. This exercise can be very trying, but it is essential only to reward if both requirements are met: two-on-two-off position as well as the nose touch.

As before once Fido has this exercise down pat, we are going to start building the distance as well as varying the handler's position as long as the golden rules (Position and Touch) are followed, you need to proof this step to beyond reasonable doubt.

Putting it All Together

The dog walk and A-frame

Most handler's would expect this to be the hardest part, but if all the above exercises are in place and you have not rushed through all the tedious basic training, this is the part that will be as easy as pie. You can start training this step on a contact trainer, but there is no harm in starting off on the contact obstacles either.

Up until now, we have allowed our dogs to perform contact obstacles to gain confidence, but as soon as you start integrating your contact training onto the physical obstacles it is essential that we discontinue our 'free runs' on the obstacles to ensure that no confusion steps in. We will teach our contact behaviour as a back-chaining exercise again. It is recommend that, to start off with, you raise the bottom of the ramp ever so slightly (you may place bricks under it for example - just be sure that the obstacle is completely stable) to imitate the height difference of the step that we were using in the previous level of training.

Pick Fido up and place him in his two-on-two-off position on the bottom of the contact, with the target a comfortable distance from the nose (this is dependant on the size and build of the dog, personally I place the target so my dog has his back legs on the very bottom of the contact) and ask for a touch, click and reward. It is very important to do this on on both sides. Of course this is where the importance of your release comes in, once released, your dog should get off the contact and move away from it, by now you should be guessing that we will be varying our release position until we have all angles covered. Release Fido while standing behind him, in front of him, next to him etc. Place other obstacles close by and ask him to perform them after release and before rewarding or ask him to ignore the obstacles to come to you, just remember that proofing a dog's performance is up to his handler and his handler alone.

Once your dog is confidently touching his target when place on the contact it is time to start the back chaining process as before. Start by placing the dog just above the contact area and ask for a go touch and once again remember to only reward for the correct behaviour (two-on-two-off position and a nose touch. I will stop repeating myself by stressing the importance of varying your release position. Once Fido is confident with this step we will continue the back-chaining as normal (Middle of down ramp; top of down-ramp; middle of dog walk, top of up-ramp). Your obstacle's down ramp should be raised during the entire back-chaining process and only once your dog is performing the obstacle consistently can you gradually start reducing the 'height of the down ramp' by removing the bricks (or whichever material you were using) until you have your dog performing the normal dog walk.

When you are ready to attempt the full obstacle, you can ask Fido to 'walk-it' and immediately to 'go-touch', since the essence of our training has been to go touch the target as quickly as possible, the timing of your touch command should have no affect on Fido's speed or performance of the obstacle.

The see-saw

It is essential to teach the dog walk before the see-saw is attempted.

The see-saw is taught in a slightly different method, we need to go back to our initial see-saw training. Before Fido comes into the game, push the see-saw down and place the target the same distance as for the dog walk, get an assistant to hold Fido while you restrain the obstacle. Once Fido reaches you at the end of the ramp, let the ramp down slowly and ask for a touch immediately. Please note it will take Fido a second to observe the target. Once again you will gradually lessen your resistance on the see-saw until your dog performs it confidently.

A note on fading targets

This is not a subject that I have discussed in depth, but the ultimate idea is to reduce the size of your targets very gradually through out the training process. Hence by the time you reach the final stages you will be working with a target of about 2cmx2cm. Once your dog is performing the obstacles with his eyes closed, you can completely fade the target, as by this stage your dog would have learnt the entire behaviour for a contact obstacle: Run it as fast as I can; Stop with my back legs on and front legs on the grass; Touch my nose to the ground and wait for my nest command.

The End

I haven't made one mention of the up-contacts as that is a completely different subject for a different day and has nothing to do with the behaviour we just taught.

Reading this article back to myself, the few short pages, it is hard to think that this process takes months and even years to perfect. It reminded me that the essence of dog training can be so simple but it is the conviction and commitment that counts. The secret is never to lose hope and patience, but most of all, if BOTH your dog and you are not having fun, it is time to do some serious soul-searching and decide on your course of action before either of your spirit's gets broken.

Through the Eyes of your Trainer

I thought I would share with you a little secret Ladies and Gentleman... It is a secret not because secrecy is neccessary, but rather because trainers are never able to announce this in a class full of paying students.

First off, let me start by saying that most trainers learn as much from their students as the situation vice versa. Often as I watch my students, I will take notice of their solution to a specific problem and adopt their strategy for future agility dogs. Since I especially have a keen interest in the relationship between anatomy and agility (ie the styles of jumping, running, striding etc dogs adopt to accomodate their physique or specific quirks), I watch every dog that crosses my path from a completely different point of view. And so many trainers have their quirks and concentrate on these specific qualities. Often, while training a beginners class, I will remind students of some basic techniques, methods or excercises and realise that I haven't applied these to my own dogs or more advanced students. The point is, that I learn along with my students, so if you for one second, that your agility trainer has capped knowledge on the sport, think again...

At the risk of making a terrible generalisation, I have to sort my students into three categories though and this is where the problem arises. I make a point of asking my students on a regular basis what exactly it is they want from agility. Of course there are a wide range of answers: to win the Agility World Championships; Make their dog up into a champion; Reaching the top level of agility; Just being able to compete in a show; Some only want to do agility on a informal level and have fun coming to training every day. Of course there are always the more specific answers: Perfect contacts (and here I sigh... who doesn't?); to solve a knocking problem; to speed up around the course; learning proper directionals. Those are just a few, but there is always one common denominator: Every student I have ever trained wants to do it RIGHT. Now of course this as such is a vague answer, but I think we all get the idea. None of us want to teach our dogs bad habits and want to be able to run an exercise or course or even just a simple obstacle to the best of our ability. But the execution of this vague statement is what seperates my students into three groups: The Executors; The Ignorant and The Feisty.

The first group of students are every Agility trainer's dream. They listen intently to their trainer, watch their fellow learners and do research, not only do they train at home, but they do so correctly. This group will come to training merely to get a regular input form others in order to solve their problems to the best of their ability. If, for example, a student has developed a problem with their contact behaviour or are still teaching the basics of the method, I will advise them NOT to incorporate the obstacle when we are training a course or exercise that does not have the sole purpose of teaching contacts. Obviously all my students are on different levels and so I cannot accomodate one student by training non-contact exercises until said student has corrected his problem. Thus the onus rests on the handler to have the sense, to miss out on some of the class. As a paying student this is hard and since Agility is not a dictatorship I cannot fban anyone from engaging in any activity. The Executors will do just this. With the knowledge that by rushing their dog or by allowing an unwanted behaviour to continue, they may potentially be creating far worse problems for the future of their agility career. With the proper training at home (their are always little exercises you can do without equipment) and some dedication you can solve your problems and be good to go in no time. Often these students do not follow my exact advice, but will think about the obstacle in their way (no pun intended) and then discuss a solution with me. Since there are so many options, their method may hold just as much credit as mine. Whatever the situation may be, I appreciate the student that is willing to work and to LISTEN and they are always the ones that have a good Agility future ahead of them if they choose to do so.

This brings me to the second type of pupil. The Ignorant. This handler is always enthusiastic, in fact their enthusiasm may contribute to their downfall. Despite all the knowledge that have been imparted on these handlers, they will continue to fall back into their bad habits. These students will come and ask for advice, lets use our contact example again. They have taught a four on the floor contact, for example, but the dog is still leaping off the dogwalk. My first reaction would be to test the dog's downs independantly, 'drop-downs' as we call them around here. I will suggest target downs and a whole load of exercises. I will create an ideal mental picture with the handler in order to create an end goal, yet next week in class I will have to watch the same student repeatedly attempting the dog in exactly the same manner. It breaks my heart to see a dog so utterly confused by what is expected of him, that he shuts down to the training completely. Here is a harsh newsflash for you: If your dog is not doing what he is supposed to consistently and independantly, you have failed. If you taught your dog correctly, done the BASIC training that IS agility and your dog still fails to do what you ask, then he does not understand. And if your dog does not understand, the problem lies with you. Please note that I do know we are not working with machines and some days your dog may just ignore all his training to please himself and have fun, but if there is a pattern, then there is a reason for the pattern. Often people argue habitat, but since we are talking about a training sitation, which implies that it is something you do on a regular basis, then the habitat argument becomes invalid.
And if habitat is the case, bring all your training tools to training and do all your exercises until the dog DOES understand.

My third and least favourite students are The Feisty. These individuals, will attend trainig and also ask their questions, in fact they are very similar to the Ignorant. The difference is in their reaction, once you have answered their query, they will jump on their high horse and argue with your (or anyone else's) advice. The argument is often compiled from a large variety of excuses, but their closing argument is always the same: They are right and everyone else is wrong. Quite frankly, in my opinion of course, if you ask for advice, you have to be open to at least consider it. Once again I cannot force my agility students to listen to me and I don't want to, I enjoy nothing more than someone doing some creative problem solving in Agility. But those who stick to their out-dated or ineffective methods and then have the audacity to complain week after week, these are the handler's that break any trainers heart. You have to believe in your training, but if it does not work, you have to be willing to try alternatives. It is as simple as that.

I realise that this article is harsh and since agility is a hobby to most and depends solely on the dog's and handler's enjoyment, alot of you may frown upon what I write. But at the end of the day, doing it RIGHT (as most agility handlers claim they want to do it) results in complete enjoyment of agility. I would like to appeal to all inidviduals that attend a dog-training class of some kind somewhere, to take into consideration that your trainer is trying to help and if you are open to this and willing to engage in the hard work that it takes, you may just find yourself having fun while getting the best results possible.

If you want to attend my agility class for the sole purpose of doing your own thing on the obstacles, please feel free to tell me this. I will happily ignore your short-comings and both of us can enjoy what we are doing. And maybe even salvage a friendship or acquantance. If you do not want advice, if you are not willing to follow advice, if you think that you are right regardless of... well anything, please do not ask for advice. If you are not in my class to learn, please inform me of this, then I will avoid any expectations that I may have had. Because the reality is that I can see the potential in each and every dog and handler that I train and it breaks my heart to see this potential fade away because of an unwillingness to learn.

In short I am asking all Agility pupils in the world, to have some consideration for their trainer too.