Obstacle Training

Baby Steps
Basic Principles of Training
Advancing to Superhero status
More Detailed Tips

Baby Steps

Basic Principles of Training.
The best way to introduce your dog any of the obstacles is to hold his leash with one hand while holding a yummy treat in front of him (be careful he doesn't get it early!). As soon as he gets to the other side of the obstacle, give him the treat and lots of praise. Another way (better for the tunnel) is to have a friend hold your dog on one side while you are on the other. Call your dog with an excited voice, and when he is focused on you have your friend let go. Then give lots of praise (and the treat) when he successfully completes the obstacle. Timing of the rewards is important. For very hesitant dogs, you may have to give rewards a bit sooner, like at the top of the dogwalk, in addition to the bottom, for example, until their confidence is built up.

It's best to not encourage speed at first. Concentrate on safety and accuracy. Speed can come later, as it's easier to train your dog to speed up than to slow down. Many fast dogs miss "contact zones" and develop bad habits that are harder to break later on.

In the very beginning it's best not to shout to your dog the obstacle names (like jump, tunnel, etc.). You can do so quietly, but don't focus on that too much in the introduction phase. Your dog is just learning the obstacles and if he keeps messing up, you don't want him to associate the obstacle with something negative. Remember to have fun, be patient, go slow, and don't discourage your dog. Go back to baby steps if your dog at any point develops any fears, even if it just means sitting and playing with your dog near the obstacle! Keep his interest with a confident and happy voice (practice making it silly - dogs love this voice), don't over-drill your dog until he gets tired, and always end on a positive note. These are just a few of the starter tips to successfully training the obstacles.

Advancing to Superhero Status

More Detailed Training Tips
1) Bar Jump:
Common words used for this obstacle when training: "Jump, Over, Up, Hup.."
Using an adjustable jump, lower the bar all the way to the ground or just a few inches above. Hold your dog's leash and simply walk him over the jump. If he seems hesitant, let him sniff the jump to get used to it (something you may need to do for every obstacle if your dog is particularly timid) and guide him slowly with a treat. Give lots of praise and a treat when he gets to the other side. Slowly raise the bar over time, but not too high where your dog is knocking the bar. You can put the bar at your dog's regulation jump height later on as he develops a love for the jump. It is also important not to make puppies jump too high, as their joints are still forming.

2) Tunnel:
Common words used for this obstacle when training: "Tunnel, Through..." If you are able to scrunch your tunnel up, this is one way to introduce it to your dog. Attach a long leash to your dog and have him sit on one end (or have a friend hold him). Go to the other side of the tunnel and call your dog through, gently guiding him with the leash. If necessary, reach your hand out to show that you placed a treat on the ground. (Don't put food in the tunnel as you don't want to encourage your dog to ever stop in a tunnel to sniff). Give him a hug and a treat on the other side. Do this at least a few times. Next you can encourage him to enter the tunnel on his own while you "run-by" the tunnel, clapping and talking to your dog along the way. Then you can lengthen the tunnel and eventually curve it too, both to the left and right.

3) Weave Poles:
Common words used for this obstacle when training: "Weave, Snake, Poles.." While many dogs make the weaves look easy, training them is not an overnight project., Every trainer will recommend having a set at home even if you never have any other obstacles in your backyard. Practice frequently for short intervals and always on a positive note. (television commercial breaks are a perfect time for a quick lesson!)

There are a few popular training methods for getting your dog to master the weaves. With all of them, do not rush the process! If you find your dog weaves great one day, then the "pops" out of the poles the next, it's time to take some baby steps backwards. One training method is called the "Wire Method", where wires are clipped onto the upright poles to make a channel path for the dog to follow. At first you place the wires at your dog's eye level, or at a place that will discourage him from going under or over them. Gradually you will raise the wires out of your dog's line of sight until they are taken off altogether. A similar method called the "Chute Method" uses chicken-wire mesh gates to form a path. Another method is called the "Channel Method", which requires a special weave set that is like 2 sets, side by side, in a parallel offset fashion. They start off far apart, so at first your dog is running down a channel, and not weaving at all. When you bring the poles closer together, your dog will start weaving a little. A similar method is called the "Slanted-Pole" method (popularized by the Weave-a-matic Weave Pole sets). The poles are fixed to a straight base, but can be slanted in an alternating "parted waters" fashion. This allows your dog to run down a path without weaving at first, and as the poles pull closer together, he begins to weave. One final method, and of course the cheapest, is to keep the poles upright, and guide your dog in and out with a leash, treats, and gently guiding him with your legs and body language.

With all these methods, you should start on 6 poles and add more poles only after your dog masters the 6. Your dog must ALWAYS enter at the right side of the first pole. It's not as difficult when your dog is heeling on your left side, but entering the right pole can be more of a challenge when your dog is running on your right. The challenge is to get him to do this consistently, and you may want to spend a little time on just entrance training, giving a treat just after the first pole, when he does it right.

If your dog occasionally "pops" out of a pole, or skips one or more, don't reward him at the end. Simply take his leash or collar and say "oopsie, let's try it again", and take him back to the beginning. Take friendly to him, as he most likely tried to please you and knows something is wrong in that he didn't get a treat. Start again more slowly, guiding him with your hand and knees as necessary to make sure he doesn't skip a pole again. If he does, then you will need to take some baby steps backwards, either holding his leash when he goes through, or slanting the poles more/lowering the wires (whatever method you used). Just try not to let him make any mistakes more than twice in a row or it might become a habit. As soon as he does it successfully, go especially crazy with the praise and treats.

4) Tire Jump:
Common words used for this obstacle when training: "Tire, Through, Hoop.." Training the tire jump is similar to training the regular bar jump. The trickier part of it is to get your dog confident to jump through a narrow opening. Go slow and lower the tire all the way to the ground to start. Tap inside the tire to encourage your dog to go through, or have a friend hold your dog on one side while you are on the other and gently guide him through the tire with the leash. When he is confidently doing this, try walking along side as he jumps through the tire. As always, greet him on the other side with all the silliness and excitement you can muster. Don't rush the process of raising the tire or your dog might run underneath, and never treat your dog if he does this. If you recently raised the height, lower it back to where you were and start again. Then raise it after he is doing good at that height. However when your dog is used to jumping the tire at full height, don't allow your dog to jump at a lower height (like in a training class). After a while your dog will start to "memorize" what's necessary to get through the tire accurately. If you surprise him with a lower height he might miss the opening and hurt himself.

5) Closed Tunnel:
Common words used for this obstacle when training: "Chute, Tunnel, Through.." It's best to teach this obstacle after your dog is confidently going through the regular open tunnel, both straight and curved. When teaching the closed tunnel, roll back the fabric chute until it is only about 3-4 feet long. Train your dog to go through the same way as the tunnel, making sure your dog sees you through the chute. (you will need a friend to hold your dog if he doesn't stay well). When your dog sucessfully runs through the chute, slowly start to lower the chute on his back so he feels it. Then you can lower it almost all the way, but stay at the exit to greet him. Soon you should be able to send your dog inside while you run along. It is important as you begin to lengthen the chute, and especially to full length, that you cheerfully talk your dog through the chute. It's dark in there and your voice will help assure him that everything will come out okay in the end! Also, this is a great obstacle to practice in the rain, as it will feel different to a dog when the chute is soaked. Many handlers wait until it rains at a trial, and are surprised at how their dogs react to wet obstacles!

6) Pause Table:
Common words used for this obstacle when training: "Table, Up.." The key to the pause table is to get your dog to like the table, not jumping off. He will need to sit and stay on it for 5 seconds, and to a dog who was enjoying a fast run, the table can be an unwelcome interruption. Start by lowering the table as much as you can. Run with your dog up to the table (holding his leash) and when you get to the table, say "table" or another word (just not the same word you use for a jump) and tap the table. When your dog jumps up, give him a treat. Spend about 5-10 loving on him. Then repeat a few times. Then you are ready to teach him to sit on the table and give the treat then. Don't release your dog immediately. Count out 5 seconds then say "okay!" or "let's go!" then lead him off. Don't treat him when he jumps off the table. You want him to love the table, so he doesn't "slide off" when arriving to it. You will also want to teach your dog to lie down on the table as well. The organizations have different rules on this, including AKC, whose judges will surprise you with one or the other at a trial. Eventually when your dog successfully stays on the table for 5 seconds, practice walking away from your dog, standing farther and farther away from the table as you count to 5. You can release your dog from wherever you are standing. This will give you a "lead-out" to the next obstacle.

The "Pause Box" is an obstacle used in advanced UKC and occasionally in USDAA. It is similar in concept to the pause table, except it is a square made of pipe that lays on the ground. Your dog must walk inside and sit or lay down without having his feet inside the boundary. With this obstacle, a "tuck" command is helpful.

7) Teeter Totter:
Common words used for this obstacle when training: "Teeter, See-saw.." Also called the See-saw, this is one of the more difficult obstacles for dogs to become confident on. To them it looks like a dogwalk plank, except they should (if the teeter is built right) be able to see a part of the base extending on each side in the center. This helps the dog (in addition to you telling the dog it is a "Teeter") to remember to slow down on this obstacle. To introduce your dog to this obstacle, it is best if you can lower the plank, and slowly raise it. But if you don't have an adjustable teeter, you really need to have a friend on the other side, to help steady and guide your dog over the plank. Hold the leash tightly close to the neck, and guide his nose low to the plank with a treat. Stop in the middle, and have your friend use their free hand to keep the plank from falling too fast. Edge your dog inch by inch, telling your dog to wait, while the plank slowly moves down. It will be a bit awkward at first, and if it helps, a third person can control the plank. As your dog gets more confident, allow your dog to control the pivot, and not you. But still guide the board down so it doesn't "bang". Soon you should be able to let the board hit harder. It is also important that your dog pauses and waits at the top of the plank, after controlling the pivot. This will prevent losing points on future "fly-offs", a common problem, in which dogs jump to the bottom and off the plank before the plank hits the ground.

CONTACT ZONE TIPS: In the beginning your dog won't have any problem making the contacts, but watch out, unless your dog is small, it most likely will become a problem later. Don't let missed contact zones become a habit. If your dog seems to have difficulty making the contact zones, you can use "honers", either chicken wire mesh gates, wire hoops, or even simple orange cones, to mark the sides better. Many trainers also encourage you to teach your dog to "target", which is to have your dog stop just at the bottom of the contact zone (with his feet still on the plank), wait for your treat (or click, if clicker training), then release your dog to the next obstacle. Most people with fast and large dogs would benefit from teaching their dog this command. It is important to be consistent with target training, however. Another method is to teach your dog to slow down with the "easy" command.

8) Dog Walk:
Common words used for this obstacle when training: "Walk, Plank, Dogwalk.." When training the dogwalk it is important to keep your dog steady with a tight hold on his leash. It is best to have another person on the other side, to keep your dog from falling off. It will also help your dog feel more safe. If you can lower the height, this is also ideal. Use your hand (and the treat) to keep your dog's focus on the board in front of him. Your friend can help pat the board a foot or so ahead, to encourage your dog to walk ahead, and give your dog encouragement along the way. At the bottom, make sure your dog does not jump off the side too early, but walks all the way to the bottom, touching the yellow contact zones. Give your treat at the bottom, when your dog's feet touch the grass. If your dog is having trouble with making the contact zone, see the tip above, under the Teeter-Totter.

9) A-frame:
Common words used for this obstacle when training: "Frame, Aframe, Up..." You can train a puppy on the A-frame, providing you lower it to the ground or slightly inclined. Remember: it is for the dog only. If you or your children walk over it, the chain will most likely break. Raise the A-frame as your dog gets more confident. Don't worry about speed over this obstacle, as dogs will naturally get a good running start and will come down fast enough. Safety should be your biggest concern, and that your dog hits the yellow contact zones. Note: in AKC agility, your dog has to touch the contact zone on the downward side only (allowing for a big dog to leap and skip the upside).

10) Other Obstacles:
There are other obstacles used in agility, such as the "Broad Jump", which is a jump that lays flat to the ground, and consists of a varying amount of boards (depending on your dog's jump height). The amount of boards used depend on your dog's height. This jump is similar to obedience jumps. There is also a "Double Jump" and "Triple Jump" used in the sport, which is a bar jump that has more than one bar for your dog to jump across, so not only is your dog jumping in height, but also in breadth. One other jump is called a "Panel Jump", which is like a wall that your dog jump over, with removable planks, to adjust for height. It is also the same kind of jump used in obedience training work. Other obstacles used in UKC or USDAA is the "Cross-Over", which is similar to the dogwalk, except in the shape of a cross, so that your dog has to come to the center, and then change directions (whichever direction you tell him). In other words, there are 4 possible planks to enter, and 3 possible planks to exit (3, because your dog wouldn't turn around and exit the same way he came). There is also the "Sway Bridge" and "Sway Plank", which are two obstacles in which you definitely want your dog to take it easy on. Slow and patient training is required, a helper, and lots and lots of treats and encouraging words. If you have ever walked a rope sway bridge, you know how it feels! UKC has two additional obstacles unique to them. The "Hoop Tunnel" is like a tunnel skeleton, without the material. So your dog could, if it wanted to, exit the tunnel along the way. The "Crawl Tunnel" is a short squatty tunnel, that causes your dog to crawl at a slower pace.

By Pamela Spock / 5101 State Rt. 64, Canandaigua, N.Y. 14424

        © 2005 A1Agility.Com. All rights reserved. support@a1agility.com