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Summing up agility-training

Like all types of training dogs, the instructor taking training classes only teaches the handler how to train their dog. In working trials, training classes organised by John Rogerson for the North Eastern Working Trials Association at Tow Law in Durham we expected that those who came along to train also trained everyday of the week. Such classes were only for fun and fine-tuning that would make the team better able to compete.

As John would say a teacher does not tell students all the answers only how the methods work. It left handlers to work out their own answers to their own individual problems.

Each dog and handler teams are different and have their own idiosyncrasies so there are times when there are no standard answers. Handlers must learn to think for themselves and for this; it is very often for them they must return to basics and understand dogs as wolves and not as a humanised pet.

When we do this then answers simply fall into place. Dogs are still domesticated wolves and all their survival skills are still working away in the background. Even humans have their daily survival controlled by our old brain and we on most occasions we are not even aware that this is happening.

One question I received last week is an excellent example.

Hi Alan,

I have been training for many months and have been following your method of using body language, arm directions, as well as verbal commands but I still have a problem. If I send my dog over a hurdle with me standing on his left he will turn left correctly to then jump a further hurdle that is on my left. This is fine but as he jumps this second hurdle and I indicate with my arms and tell him "Right" to make him turn right for the next jump but he still turns left and I must tell him to go right again meaning he must turn through a further 180 degrees, which is taking up time. Where am I going wrong?

I have written that dogs will look at our body language and in time will learn to spot our signals that are almost impossible to see by humans. Dogs do this as they can only use our body language and if they are enjoying what they are doing they will try to anticipate by spotting the handlers slightest signal. For instance if you are going to raise your arm to indicate the Away command handlers will notice that after a while their dog is already off at the mildest twitch of our arm.

All such commands take time and constant repetition in order to achieve such a level. Unfortunately, we humans are often impatient and try to run before we can walk. Very often, dogs do appear to understand our verbal commands or our arms but at times, they seem, as in this case, to revert to looking at where the handler is standing, in order to return to the pack.

To solve many problems we must go back to basics and look at animals and their genetics laws of survival. Look at a shoal of fish swimming almost in unison and then watch what happens when a barracuda swims through them in attempt to catch a fish. It is almost like a unified dance as the fish move away from the predator and then regroup as if nothing had happened. They do not bump into one another because with their lateral line they can sense where all the other members of shoal are at any one time for their safety. Being alone is not an option, as predators would pick it off with ease.

Wolves hunting work in a group and are aware by their senses where the pack is. Again, if the pack were to move to the left a wolf on the outer edge if were it were to move to the right would find itself on its own. When this does happen the pray the pack was hunting will on occasions attack such a lone wolf. It is therefore natural that when the pack moves all the pack will move as a group.

The application to this query is that the handler is currently training their dog but it is not taking arm or verbal direction every time so when in doubt it will revert to where its handler is standing for the safety of the pack.

In order to cure the problem the handler should after giving the command over immediately move behind the dog and across to the right once it was jumping the hurdle then the dog would turn to the right.

There is a second option for this problem if the handler praises the dog after jumping each obstacle. This teaches a dog that having completed the hurdle it will try to come back the handler to have the ball as a reward. If you read my article when I worked Bruno’s dog he too came back round the jumps to me expecting the ball because I did not know Bruno’s body language that would indicate to his dog to continue working.

It is important that you gradually increase the number of obstacles the dog has to negotiate before given your dog the ball. A further point is not to make the dog come back to you once it has got to the end otherwise the dog could keep repeatedly trying to come back to the handler when it thinks it has finished just to have the ball or toy. The handlers must decide when it is finished, not the dog.

Once handlers are moving onto the actual agility equipment, do not set them out as a simple circular course but set them in a straight line. It then needs the dog to jump each obstacle and the handler to move up with the dog until it starts to go ahead of its handler. Once the dog finishes the line of jumps throw the ball past the dog so it leans not to come back to the handler for its reward. This will also encourage the dog to go ahead of the handler.

The next step is to set the jumps out by staggering them with one on the left and the next on the right. As your dog goes forward give all the indication commands and sidestep towards the next jump that may be on the right. Once completed then move with all the signals over to the left so the dog is navigating the obstacles and watching the handler. Do this repeatedly so that your dog will follow your verbal or arm commands without the having to move very far in comparison to the distance covered by their dog.

It is important that handlers look at agility equipment as their dog sees them as well as to understand how their natural instincts affect them. If you do this, it will make teaching your dog agility very easily and more quickly.

The one most important thing to remember is that in all training and competing is it should always be for fun.

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