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Initial Training for Agility

I wrote last week that we need our dogs to work like being remote controlled but the closest you can come to that is to purchase one of the those Sony robot dogs and where is the fun in that.

What we need are two things. The first is for our dogs to accept our guidance willingly and the second is for them to enjoy negotiating all the various types of obstacles.

You may think that to do this you must first join an agility-training club where they have all the equipment and an instructor. This is in fact the last place you need to go. Agility training is not obedience training and such classes in the early stages are too stressful for both the handler and their dog. There must never be any pressure to make a dog use any piece of equipment and the actual agility equipment used in competitions is in fact dangerous for your dogs unless you can influence your dog to a reasonable standard.

A cautionary tale

Tip was my last Working Trials dog and the easiest to train. I had learnt so much over the many years of dog training and as I had him from birth he was in training from the beginning but never the less I made a big mistake.

I had entered a Championship competition at Ollerton and I knew they used a high long jump in the agility section. Tip was moving through the competitions quickly but I did not resist the temptation to push him too far.

With all our equipment, we had a number of long jumps but not one as high as this one. I therefore built one, set it out in our field, and started to train Tip by setting it out to six feet then gradually increasing the length to the required nine feet.

I only had a few days to go and I was apprehensive watching Tip only just managing to clear the jump. Seeing this I still lengthened the jump to the required nine foot and made him jump it.

I ran with him but as I stopped, he hesitated but then continued. That hesitation slowed his take off speed and he hit the last board bringing his heel down on the far edge. He squealed and limped with his heel almost down to the ground. I was devastated and feeling very guilty. His leg looked horrendous so we immediately phoned our vet David in Boston Spar who looked after the Easterby´s racing horses.

David checked him over and told us he would call us in a few days. From all the guilt feelings, I knew I had hurt my dog just to compete ahead of his current capability. I had pushed him too far.

During the next few days, I put hose piping on the sharp edges all of our long jumps but this is closing the stable door stuff and did not help other than to learn from my mistakes.

When we went to collect Tip, he looked fine and walking with only a slight favour to his back leg. David told us the jump had grazed his back leg but had snapped a tendon. I thought Tip was now out of competition but it was not the case. David had joined the tendons with a titanium tube crimped to both ends of the tendon running in a special sleeve. Tip was effectively a bionic dog as the join was now stronger than before.

Please do remember agility equipment is dangerous.

Positional and directional training

You do not need agility equipment in order to start your training. What you do need is to teach positional commands and create reactions from your dog without applying force but make it fun with lots of praise.

If you have a young puppy, it will follow you everywhere so it is easy to teach your dog to go left or right, to come to you or as you walk towards it to go away from you. All it needs is repetition of moving your body in the direction along with arm signals and verbal commands.

Many people who do this soon give up because there is no immediate result and where their dog seems to take not notice of them. They assume the dog is not learning when it fact it is. There is also a feeling of looking foolish when they point to their dog to go right and it goes left. All it takes is to persevere.

Owners are not learning dog language so dogs need to learn ours. They are always watching all our body movements and so they soon learn to recognise our signals and to interpret what they mean. As you walk point with your arm the direction you are going to go when your dogs is watching you.

If your dog wishes to go left at a junction, you point to the right and go right and he should go right too. As you progress, you can try pointing and say “Left” before you get to the junction and you should begin to see your dog go in the required direction.

One excellent way to teach left, right, away and back is if your dog swims to retrieve something. In the puppies early weeks it is important to teach them trajectory along with improving agility and speeding up their and reactions. Initially they do not keep their eyes on a thrown ball they try to see or hear where it lands. Bouncing balls off walls for our dogs to catch is also excellent training for this improvement.

In the sea or river, moving through the water it slows dogs down considerably so if you throw a ball into the water it is important for you to keep your eye on the ball so as your dog swims out you can walk to the left or right to help manoeuvre your dog in the correct direction. If your dog has gone too far say “Back” and move backwards a little. If your dog has not gone out far enough to reach the ball move forward at the same time as raising your arm saying “Away.”

Do this repeatedly; your dog will quickly learn to accept your help as the reward is it find the ball more quickly. This method only works for a few weeks before they learn to watch you throw the ball and are able to calculate the trajectory and watch it land.

Once you have some measure of directional influence try throwing the ball into longish grass but watch where it lands. Again, your dog will think it knows where it is but will eventually accept guidance from you to come close to the ball before its sense of smell takes over.

For the away command, just before you throw the ball say “Away” and move your arm forwards and upwards then throw the ball. Your dog will soon get the message so as you start to raise your arm; your dog will be off.

The reward here is the ball so it is necessary for you to find a toy your dog loves to play with. Squeaky toys are brilliant if a little destructible. What you can do in such cases is to get them to fetch a stick and as a reward for bringing it back, you give your dog the toy for a short while.

Do not allow your dog to keep the toy or it will become bored with it. Put it away when you are not playing so that it is your toy that you allow your dog the privilege of playing with from time to time. This way your dog will begin to do anything for you just to have the toy as it becomes addicted to it.


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