Category Archives: Activities with your dog

A Beginner’s Guide to Agility

Dog Doc Question 21: What activities can you do with your dog?  

There are loads of different sports and activities we can now enjoy with our dogs.  Here are some of them:

  • Agility
  • Obedience
  • Cani-X
  • Flyball
  • Gundog
  • Working Trials
  • Scentwork
  • Treiball
  • Rally
  • Hoopers
  • Heelwork to music

Today I am going to talk about my passion: Dog agility

Objective

Have fun with your dog!  It is vital to remember this, because agility is hard!  In competition, the objective is to get your dog round a course of 16-20 obstacles in the fastest time.  Easier said than done!

Organisation and rules

Kennel Club and UKA.  Shows are run by these two organisations, which have slightly different rules and ways of running things.  There are also independent shows, which are generally more relaxed and suitable for beginners.

There are 7 Grades in KC agility, with grade 1 being for beginners.  You need at least one win to make progress from grade 1, with things becoming more complex as you progress to grade 7, where your dog can become an agility champion.  An added complication is that once one dog has ‘won out’ of grades 1 & 2, subsequent dogs of the same owner have to start at grade 3.  Which means poor old Luna and Chris both had to start at grade 3 as Luna is my dog and Sunny won into grade 3. Are you confused yet?

Equipment

There are various obstacles to negotiate.  The jumps are usually put at different heights to correspond to the different heights of dog: small, medium and large.  This has recently been complicated by additional, optional heights being added.  Dogs have to be measured before competing.  We are trying to improve the health and safety of our dogs by improving the rules of agility all the time.  Equipment is being changed and removed as well, to improve safety.

Tunnels provide a bit of light relief for dog and handler.  They are fun to go through for the dog and handlers can usually run at them and shout ‘Tunnel!’ and the dog will go into them.  However, if you change direction before your dog is commited to them, they won’t necessarily go through them, as Aura demonstrates perfectly in this video:

Weaves are the most challenging obstacle for the dog to learn.  This is mainly because (for some reason) they have to start with the first weave on their left shoulder, no matter which angle they are approaching from.  They must then go through all weaves (either 6 or 12) in the right order.  Watch Luna miss the last one in this video:

It takes dogs years to learn to weave correctly and they often go wrong throughout their career.  What’s nice about my run with Aura above, is that she does go through the weaves perfectly AND I manage to run past her ready to get her to nip round the next jump.  I’ve only just learnt to do this.  Usually we tiptoe alongside our dogs while they weave, hoping for the best that they don’t come out.

The two runs above were at a show and we were competing in a JUMPING class.  This only consists of jumps, weaves and tunnels, although the jumps can be made more interesting.  There was a wall in the next ring to this one.  Long jumps can also be used, consisting of slightly raised boards.  There may also be a suspended tyre for the dog to jump through. Sometimes a jump is in two parts, making a spread.  Just like show jumping for horses in fact.

Contact equipment, including Dog Walk, A-frame and Seesaw is added to the mix for the AGILITY class.  These consist of something for the dog to walk over with a painted area at either end that the dog must touch.  This is to stop the dog leaping on or off and hurting themselves.  I’ve already done a post of me teaching Ounce how to get ready for the contacts.  Again, teaching the dog to do these 3 pieces of equipment takes many years and endless hours of patience.

Training Classes

So you teach the dog how to do the equipment and off you go, right?  Well yes in theory.  The challenge is that the judge or trainer sets the course and numbers the obstacles and then you have to persuade your dog to do all the right obstacles in the RIGHT ORDER!  In the beginning, you generally only go up and down, with simple, curved turns and minimal changes of direction.  As you go on it gets progressively harder.  You can see from the videos above that by the middle grades, 4&5, which is what we are doing here, the course is not entirely straightforward.  What we usually have are ‘traps’, where the dog is persuaded that something should be the next obstacle, but we know that it isn’t.  We then have to react in time to turn the dog the right way.

I took videos of six of us doing the same run this morning.  It is really interesting to watch these and compare the different runs:

Busy is an inexperienced dog who is still really ‘wild’.  She is also much, much faster than me, so that adds an extra challenge!  You can see when she emerges from the top tunnel and jumps the next jump that I fail to get her to go in a straight line, because she is turning round to ask me what she needs to do next.  We would have been given faults for ‘refusing’ the jump but might not have been eliminated.

Chris and Luna have a great partnership – Luna loves running with her dad.  Chris was focused on getting her into the tunnel at the bottom having seen me go wrong so over-compensated slightly; she goes into the wrong end – elimination.

Mark and Oscar are very experienced and again a great team.  Mark keeps running with great enthusiasm and purposefully gets Oscar to go into the ‘wrong end’ of the tunnel, ie not the end he sees first.  This is hard to do.

Another example of a dog that is faster than his owner!  Elaine handles Django really well, especially considering he is a cheeky Jack Russell with a mind of his own!  She had planned to cut across the corner at the bottom while he was in the tunnel, but a slight mis-timing meant he wasn’t fooled.  She did it perfectly on the next attempt – a great move.

Real professionals at work here.  Smurf is a grade 7 dog and again an old hand.  They work so well together, with Sarah knowing exactly where to go and what signals to give to get Smurf round in the neatest way possible.  Nice job!

Alex and Abi are the least experienced partnership in our class, but by no means the worst.  It is brilliant to see the patience and enthusiasm that Alex shows with Abi and the joy she has in running with him.

As you can see from these videos, there are different ways to ‘handle’ your dog, some more successful than others.  In competition, only around 10% of the runs are successful…

In conclusion

If you want to have fun with your dog, have a go at agility?  I can’t promise trophies and rosettes, but I can promise laughs and the chance to hang out with lovely people.  Everyone is really friendly and helpful, because we all know how hard it is!

NB: It is not always the fastest dog that wins!  

As you can see, agility can be done by all shapes and sizes of dog – Border Collies make up around 70% of dogs competing, but most dogs can have a go.  It can also be done by all shapes and sizes of handler.  I think it is especially great to see young and old, men and women, competing alongside each other.  Of course most of us are not as fast as our dogs, but that is the challenge!

Go to agilitynet for lots more information.

 

Ask for help?

You are very welcome to contact me to ask for my advice.  I can help you with a variety of issues and problems around getting a dog and suggestions for tackling training issues.  Go to the What Dog? page for more information on my new service.

Please let me know if you have found this post helpful?

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How to find a good agility club

How do I find an agility club?

What do you do if you want to start doing something with your dog but don’t know where to go?  It’s really challenging.  Often, when people get their first dog, they don’t know many other ‘dog people’.  Just like with any hobby or interest, if you don’t do it, you don’t know anything about it.

You could talk to people you meet when walking your dog.  Ask them if they do any training with their dog and if so, who do they go to?  Usually people are only to happy to promote their trainer, so that is a good place to start.  Often though, good trainers are fully booked up, but they may well know other people who train.

Anyone with collies should know plenty of dog trainers – collies need to be doing something!

What questions should you ask when choosing a place to train for agility?

  • Do you teach fun or competitive agility?  If you have a collie and are young and fit, you will definitely want to go somewhere that trains for competition.  If you are old and unfit and have another breed, consider going to ‘fun agility’ first.  But be warned!  Fun agility can just mean “I don’t really know what I’m doing.”  This might mean that it’s not safe.
  • How experienced are the instructors?  Again, it’s about safety.  The more experienced the trainer, the better, obviously.  There are qualifications for agility training – KC Accreditation, or the British Institute of Professional Dog Trainers (BIPDT), specialising in agility.  If you want to be taught well, try and find someone who has trained and competed to Championship level, or competed at National or International level.

How old do dogs need to be before starting?

  • How old do dogs need to be?  Dogs should be at least a year old before they start jumping.  Foundation work for experienced handlers can begin earlier, but a complete novice should not start with a dog younger than a year.  Equally, dogs should not be too old; any dog over about five is probably too old to start.  They must be fit – agility is not a way to get an obese dog into shape.  Again, this is about putting strain on joints, agility is a sport for the dogs (if not for their owners!)
  • Do you use reward-based training?  I’d be amazed if you found anyone who said no to this question, but some trainers believe in being ‘firm’ with their dogs and expecting a good level of behaviour.  I would hope that the trainer would have the facility to cope with dogs who don’t like other dogs, or dogs who run off, or who bark uncontrollably.  There should be crates for dogs to stay in, the area should be fenced securely and there should be somewhere a dog can be tied up between runs.

Equipment and venue

  • Where is the training held?  A competitive agility arena is 30m x 30m, so that’s roughly the amount of space needed as a minimum.  Most agility is done in a field or an indoor school at an equestrian centre.  Either way, it should have a good surface for running about.  Outdoor training areas can become slippery when wet, so trainers should take account of this.  What cancellation policy do they have?  You shouldn’t have to pay if it is too wet to run safely.  However, be prepared to train in all weathers!  Dogs don’t usually mind the rain.
  • Do you have all the equipment, and is it professionally built?  This is very important.  Items should be reasonably heavy, so they don’t blow over.  Tunnels should be weighted down at either end so they don’t move.  Competitive agility includes the following items:
    • 16-20 items
    • Jumps with four different height settings and wings
    • Tunnels
    • Dog walk, A-frame and seesaw
    • Weaves
    • Optional items include a tyre, a long jump, a wall, other types of jumps

Details of classes

  • How many people in each class?  You want a small group only; 4-6 people is ideal.  Any less than that and you are on the go all the time, which can be a bit full on when you start.  More than that and everyone gets bored.
  • How long are the sessions?  Typically training classes last an hour.  After that, the dog gets tired and can’t concentrate.
  • How much are the classes?  Fees vary enormously, particularly by region.  If it’s too cheap it probably means the trainer is not qualified, or insured.
  • Do you have insurance?  Essential.  It’s a sport – both people and dogs can be injured.

Go and watch a class first

If you like the sound of it all, please go and watch a session first, so you know what to expect.  Dogs get very excited by agility, so your dog may not behave as you expect them to!  You might need some help managing this.  Some dogs are so focused on whether or not it is their turn that they don’t mind other dogs barking right next to them.  Others will react to this aggressively.  So be prepared to give other people space.

Agility is fun!

I cannot stress this enough.  It is fun for your dog and fun for you.  Do not take it seriously, you will be sorely disappointed!  This is a life lesson I took a while to learn.  I am a competitive person who likes to do well, so being so bad at something for so long was demoralising and uncomfortable.  Eventually I realised that it was not about winning or losing, or being better than other people.  It was about me and my dogs, being out there and enjoying ourselves.  It is also great spending time with other ‘dog people’ who are all as lovely as their dogs!

I am now training with Emma Conlisk at Beancroft Agility. I can’t recommend Emma highly enough! She is a great teacher, so positive, thorough and focused. Very professional, with a great setup.

Ask me for Advice?

You are very welcome to contact me to ask for my advice.  I won’t necessarily know the answer!  But I can help you with a variety of issues and problems around getting a dog and suggestions for tackling training issues.  Please let me know if you have found this post helpful?

If you want to know more, why not FOLLOW ME?  Then you will receive an email when there is a new post.  Please CONTACT ME if you would like help with a specific topic?  And feel free to COMMENT if you want to tell me what you think?

Ounce’s agility training – preparing the contacts

Puppy agility: what can we teach now?

Dogs cannot do agility until they are a year old; we don’t want to damage their joints and it’s better to wait until their bones have finished growing.  However, there is a great deal we can do if we know we want to do agility with them later on.

Wait – teaching a good solid stay and release

This is one of the first things you will need your dog to do.  They need to be able to wait while you get ahead of them.  Many people with slower breeds of dog start with their dog and run around the course with the dog beside them.  It looks so lovely and I am often jealous of this great bonding experience.  Not with a collie!  The faster you run with a collie, the faster they will try and beat you!  They like to be ahead of you.  They have great vision, particularly their peripheral vision, which means they can see you coming!

Therefore, if you want to have any hope of getting your dog round a course, you will need them to wait for you to get a head start.  Fortunately, I have been teaching Ounce to wait since she was a tiny puppy, so her wait is not bad at all.  Of course I need to continue to practice it, but we have the basics solidly in place.

Recall – working off lead and coming back at the end

You can’t do agility on the lead!  So we need to be able to let them off, run around with them and then get them back again. Getting them back at the end of an agility run is a bit different from the ‘formal recall’, but if you have the latter, the former should be straightforward.  Here’s a reminder of Ounce’s formal recall training.

Still not quite sure why I thought it was OK to wear my pyjamas to do this video.

Other moves to teach

Once we have a wait and a recall in the bag, we can start to work on other commands.  These include:

  • round – go around an obstacle and come back to me
  • left and right – yes really!
  • on it – get onto something, ie a piece of contact equipment
  • touch – stand with two feet on the equipment and two feet off

The last two are what I am trying to teach in this video.  I am using this box because it’s nice and sturdy.  I am trying to ‘shape’ her behaviour.  This means I am trying to get Ounce to understand what I want without me having to show her each time.  She is already familiar with the moves and you can see how eager she is to show me!  If you look carefully, you can see that near the start of the video, I reward her for getting ‘on it’ and then ask for a ‘touch’.  She does it immediately, but is so excited that she then jumps at me, so doesn’t get a reward.  I am being critical and I want her to stay in that position until I release her.  So I have to show her and encourage her.

NB: This is the whole of her training for today.  I do not want to spend ages with her in this position because again, I don’t want to put undue strain on her joints.  But as with all training, consistency and practice  are what pays off.  If we spend a few seconds doing this a few times a week after our walks, Ounce will be a long way towards her contacts when we transfer this skill to the field.

Why do we teach contacts in this way?

It seems a bit odd that we want our dog to stop at the end of the contact equipment (dog walk, A-frame and seesaw), with this very specific requirement of ‘two feet on, two feet off’.  We do this to stop dogs jumping off the top, which can cause them serious injury.  All the contact equipment has painted sections at the bottom which must be stepped on before the dog moves on.  If we teach the dog to get down to the bottom and take a treat from ground level, waiting until we release them before moving off, we ensure that they are safe, which is better for their health.  It also stops them being given faults.

There are other ways to teach contacts; a ‘running contact’ is when the dog goes down to the bottom but then carries on without stopping.  If you have a fast dog though, this just means you have to keep running!  It’s a bit of a mystic art anyway, not something I am familiar with!

Why do agility?

The same reason we should do any form of training or sporting activity with our dog – for fun!  Agility is great fun for the dog, they find it really exciting and stimulating.  Generally it should be safe and should build their athleticism, while giving them something to think about.  It can even improve your athleticism, although this is a bit debatable!

There are many different activities you can do with a dog.  It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you are spending focused time with your dog, enjoying each other’s company.  If you have several dogs, it becomes even more important that you focus on each individual dog for a set period each week.

Remember..

If you enjoy hearing about Ounce and want more, why not FOLLOW ME?  Then you will receive an email when there is a new post.  Please CONTACT ME if you would like me to write about a specific topic?  And feel free to COMMENT if you want to tell me what you think?

First Agility Steps

When should you start agility training?

This is Ounce’s second agility ‘lesson’.  Five minutes playing, then a break, then five minutes more.  Last time she just learned about tunnels, so now she knows that they are super fun!  Please try not to pay too much attention to my delayed reactions.

Today she also had a go at walking over some poles, a bicycle tyre and a plastic bag, in order to get her to think about placing her feet and coping with obstacles.  She looked like a prancing pony lol.  Ounce also did some ‘shaping’ around a wing.  This involved her looking at the wing and receiving a reward.  Not too taxing.

Why do Agility with your dogs?

Because it is fun!  Dogs absolutely love doing agility, on the whole.  If they are collies they do anyway.  Some dogs are not motivated by it, but it suits collies perfectly.  Running about, doing stuff with you and then you throw the ball – fantastic!

Officially, dogs can compete in agility when they are 18 months old.  Which means by that age they need to know how to do it.  They are generally not meant to start jumping around at around 1 year of age, although no-one has told Ounce that.  She loves to fly on and off the sofa and treats the footstool as a trampette.

Before they are a year old, there is still a great deal they can learn and that is what we have been starting.  Maybe in a few years’ time, she will be as good as her cousin Aura…