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Dogs are not naturally Agile they have to learn

Mountain goats are not born with their natural sure-footedness they must learn to achieve the sort of ability to stand on rock pinnacles and then jump from one place to another in a way that looks suicidal. For those thinking the question, the answer is yes some are injured and some even kill themselves if they make a mistake. Agility training is dangerous unless we first allow our dogs the opportunity to learn to improve their dexterity.

For instance, dogs and other animals do not understand the consequences of falling from various heights. If a young puppy falls off the settee, it will learn that height hurts. It then learns that falling is a problem and will then treat height with respect. Gradually as it grows, it will learn to navigate greater heights but still there is always the possibility of a dog falling off a cliff top if it makes a mistake.

Dogs must learn to jump down gradually escalating heights so it knows the feel of what it is like to land and how to land correctly. Even in Working Trials, we would train dogs to use the six-foot high scale board to jump at the board hitting it in the middle then change their momentum upwards to go over the top and jump down the other side from the middle of the board outwards and land on the ground running. This method seemed the best way to alleviate the shock in the landing.

Many handlers though taught their dogs to scale the board by travelling straight upwards and then jump down on the other side landing directly onto their front legs almost crashing into the ground.

Its not just dogs that need to learn about the consequences of falling. Our second Siamese kitten was a terror at 10 pm each night she would charge round the house like a cat possessed. She would shoot up the curtains, across the pole and clamber down the other side with amazing speed then jump from one piece of furniture to another. How she managed not to break anything was incredible.

One evening she slipped and fell off the curtain pole. Luckily, because we had thick pile carpet with double underlay this broke her fall but she never went up the curtains again. Mind you, she had learnt how to come down the curtains backwards.

When she was older, she chased a squirrel up a tree until it jumped across to another tree and then sat there seemingly interested to see how our cat was going to get down again.

Cats have a problem that whilst their claws allow them to climb up they cannot grip to come down particularly a branch with an almost vertical slant. This means cats must start to descend then pivot round so that their claws are pointing in the right direction to gain the maximum grip to lower themselves down backwards as she had learnt with the curtains. Some cats never pluck up the courage to learn this and then it is necessary to call out the fire brigade.

When I started training with Winston, I had him jumping over all sorts of natural obstacles. I also took him down onto the rocky and boulder-strewn seashores. With me wearing non-slip tactical boots, I could walk from one rock top to another to help keep me fit and agile. Winston on the other hand started slowly lacking the necessary skills to do the same. With this sort of training, he learnt to detect, loose, wobbly, or slimy rocks, and can now travel such terrain ahead of me with ease.

Here we see one major difference between animals and humans. Dogs do not look at their feet as they negotiate obstacles they try to maintain looking forward. Humans cannot do this without a lot of training. We cannot remember the picture of the ground beneath our feet as we move forward so we have to look where we place our feet.

Animals can remember the terrain and by using feel and nerve feedback, they maintain their agility over difficult terrain. Rarely do they actually look at the position of their feet.

Knowing this we can understand why dogs can go down open plan staircases that do not have any raisers because the stairs look solid. Yet going up the stairs because they can see through them the dog feels uncomfortable and will not wish to climb up them.

Winston is such a dog. The trick here is to tape paper to block the holes so the stairs appear solid. With the help of a titbit trail, I hope he will soon learn to climb them as easily has he comes down them.

I also take him on to building sites where there are ditches crossed with planks, large drainage tubes and all sorts of odd obstacles for us both to navigate. Initially I do not say anything I simply watch to see how he confronts each sort of “Over,” “Under” and “Through” types of obstacles and then I find ways of making those that he refuses easier for him.

For instance, I walked up a plank up to the ground floor of a villa under construction. The contractors had not yet built the steps so there was no way Winston could jump up to reach me. He would not come up the plank so I made it five planks wide and leaving a trail of food titbits I walked into the house to watch from a window how Winston worked it out for himself.

Eventually he gingerly came up to find me and I gave him lots of praise. Over the succeeding weeks, I removed one plank at a time until he can now come up two planks but only at this one villa.

The first way I taught Winston the “Through” command was to get him to follow me through a hole in the chain link fencing from my garden into the wood next door. At first, he was not keen and worried the fence would touch him as he passed through. After a while, he would follow me and now he jumps through on command willingly and at high speed.
I have also taken him through riverbed tunnels. At first, he was wary but now he goes through large tunnels without any problem.

Hoops, holes, and tunnels are a problem so also I made a large hoop that I stand on the ground but in a corridor so there is no alternative way round other than going through it. He can now jump through the hoop set at two feet off the ground on command.

A dog sees any barrier as an obstacle needing a safer alternative at all costs. Even a fly screen or a door left ajar would stop Winston from coming into the house. Dogs and especially when they are puppies do learn to edge their way through these in time or you can show them by going through yourself or just slightly opening the fly screen or door a little just enough so that it they still touch their bodies as they pass through.

I think Winston must have in the past tried to go through a slightly open door but as he did instead of it opening, it must have closed on him jamming his shoulders or hips. Even today, he still seems to have bad memories of doors that are ajar.

Dogs need to learn agility for their every day life. Jumping out of the way of a car or from dog attacks, agility can be a lifesaver. For me such training helps with agility competitions but also has the application for search and rescue where a dog must negotiate demolished building or clambering into holes in search of injured people. Most of all whatever the application, training our dogs for agility is still lots of fun.

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