Step one of each run is the walkthrough. If you’ve ever been to an agility trial and seen a group of people walking around in the ring with one arm out and muttering commands to an invisible dog, you’ve just witnessed the walkthrough portion of the trial. These people may look three fries short of a Happy Meal, but they’re actually hard at work memorizing the course and plotting out how they will run it.
The fur is flying, the noise is at a decibel I've never experienced before and the desire to win is so thick you can feel it. This is agility competition for dogs and Fiona, my soon to be athlete, and I are on the sidelines of an agility competition taking notes. Dogs of every breed, size and shape are jumping hurdles, running up A-frames, scampering across elevated walkways and diving through tunnels. So as not to get lost on the course, each dog is in constant eye contact with their owner who gives directions through hand signals and one-word prompts.
Changing behavior takes time. You need to have realistic expectations about changing your dog’s behavior as well as how long it will take to change behaviors that you don’t like. Often behaviors which are “normal” doggie behaviors will take the most time such as barking, digging and jumping. You also need to consider how long your dog has rehearsed the behavior. For example, if you didn’t mind that your dog jumped up on people to say hi for the last seven years and now you decide that you don’t want him to do that anymore, that behavior will take a much longer time to undo than if you had addressed it when he was a pup. Remember it’s never too late to change the behavior some will just take longer than others.
But wait, there’s more! Agility gives you something cool to do with your dog. This is important if you have a hard time getting your dog to do what you say. It teaches Fido that you are lots of fun and worth listening to. Compare this to another common activity for dogs: the dog park. At the dog park, you let him off leash and he goes off to do his own thing. Returning to you is no fun because it means he has to go home. You’re not Fido’s best buddy. You’re his chauffeur.
There is an ever-growing list of agility sanctioning organizations. The ones you’ll hear about most often in the US are NADAC, AKC, and the USDAA (see below for a more complete list of national and international groups). Each organization has its own rules and style. For example, NADAC courses are spread out and focus on speed. They often challenge the handler to send their dog through the course at a distance. USDAA courses are “tighter” and more technically challenging.
The training takes place around a set course, and if on a competitive level, training is carried out against the clock. At competition level, the dogs compete against others for the fewest faults in the fastest time. For general exercise, not in the competition arena, the dog owner or handler walks or runs around the course and directs and controls the dog while he’s off his leash.
Flat collars are commonly used in clicker training and other non-correction-based training, such as puppy kindergarten. They are also effective in training small dogs, however they tend to lift the dog off the ground when giving corrections while the dog is distracted or in high adrenal mode. They are typically made of nylon or leather, and fasten with a buckle or quick-release connection.
Let your new dog gradually earn freedom throughout your home. A common error that many pet parents make is giving their new dog too much freedom too soon. This can easily lead to accidents relating to housetraining and destructive chewing. So, close off doors to unoccupied rooms and use baby gates to section off parts of the house, if necessary. One of the best ways to minimize incidents is to keep your dog tethered to you in the house and by using a crate or doggie safe area when you can’t actively supervise him.
Even if your pup gets the best start in life, he will still likely develop some “problem” behaviors as he grows up. We put the word “problem” in quotes because most of these behaviors are natural and normal dog behaviors, but they are not welcome in the human world. Behaviors like jumping on you as a gesture of affection, nipping at your hands as an invitation to play, and sniffing you in inappropriate places are all perfectly acceptable behaviors for dogs to do to other dogs.
When observing a class, take note of the dogs; do they look happy? Relaxed? Excited to work? Is the instructor encouraging dogs and owners? Does the class seem to be run in a safe and effective manner? If you don’t feel comfortable at a particular training school, your dog won’t either, and you’ll be setting Fido up to fail. Keep looking for a school where you feel comfortable; you and Fido will do your best work this way!
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In the twentieth century, formalized dog training originated in military and police applications, and the methods used largely reflected the military approach to training humans. In the middle and late part of the century, however, more research into operant conditioning and positive reinforcement occurred as wild animal shows became more popular. Aquatic mammal trainers used clickers (a small box that makes a loud click when pushed on) to "mark" desired behavior, giving food as a reward. The change in training methods spread gradually into the world of dog training. Today many dog trainers rely heavily on positive reinforcement to teach new behaviors.
Feed your dog a high-quality diet with appropriate amounts of protein. If your dog spends most of his days lounging in your condo, don’t feed him food with a protein level that is ideal for dogs who herd sheep all day. The money that you will spend on feeding an appropriate quality food will often be money that you save in vet bills later on. I recommend you always check with your veterinarian for the right diet for your dog.
If your dog is refusing to go over a hurdle, practice in a narrow hallway. Set up a small jump and put your dog on one side with you on the other. Your dog should have nowhere to go but forward over the jump. Encourage your pup with treats and a happy tone of voice. With a little patience and positive reinforcement, your dog will soon be a confident jumper.
Once your dog is ready to start agility training, your best bet is to find a class or group in your area. The United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) offers a directory for agility groups in each state, and many dog trainers offer classes as well. In the classes, you will be able to introduce your dog to the obstacles without the expense of buying or building them yourself.
Money. Therein lies the rub. One of the drawbacks to training competitively is the cost. Between class fees and trial entries, this can be an expensive sport. That doesn’t have to deter you, though. Many clubs offer significant discounts on training and entries if you work at their trials, which was a huge help for me. I earned quite a few free or nearly free classes by working trials. The fees for junior handlers (-18) are also considerably more affordable.
You can start training your dog before they're of age to compete. Begin by working on basic obedience and teach your puppy to sit, lie down, come, heel, and stay. Your puppy will also benefit from attending training classes where they will learn basic obedience and get used to working around lots of other dogs and people. Having your pet take and pass the AKC Good Citizen Test is a helpful step.
Basic or beginner's obedience is typically a short course ranging from six to ten weeks, where it is demonstrated to the handler how to communicate with and train the dog in a few simple commands. With most methods the dog is trained one command at a time. Though there may or may not be a specific word attached to it, walking properly on a leash, or leash control, is often the first training required prior to learning other commands.
Head halters are an alternative to collars that works similarly to a horse halter. The halter fits over the dog's snout and behind its head (leading it to sometimes be mistaken for a muzzle). Halters reduce the dog's ability to successfully pull on the leash, but do not eliminate it. If the halter is used with a sharp jerk on the leash, neck injury to the dog may result, but used correctly head halters have not been shown to cause harm.
There is nothing inherently wrong with telling your dog “no,” except that it doesn’t give him enough information. Instead of telling your dog “no,” tell him what you want him to do. Dogs don’t generalize well, so if your dog jumps up on someone to say hello and you say no, he may jump higher or he may jump to the left side instead of the right. A better alternative would be to ask him to “sit.” Tell him what you want him to do in order to avoid confusion.