Starting on the Right Paw

My Dog? Do that? Your kidding!
Age, breed, and obedience questions
Starting the Training
Basic do's and don'ts

My Dog? Do That? You're Kidding?

Age, Breed and Obedience Issues.
Age. Two common questions people have is "Can I start training my puppy?" and "Can my older dog do agility?". The answer is yes to both questions, within reason. To compete in agility your dog needs to be at least a year old, but you can start to train your puppy earlier than that. Keep in mind, however, that your dog's joints are still forming, so jump heights should be about elbow height for the first year. Puppies will also be more awkward and their attention span shorter. So be very patient and keep the lessons brief. The same principles apply to older dogs. Their joints are weaker, and they will tire more easily, so lessons should be shorter. The jump heights might have to be lowered. Many of the organizations now have special classes for older dogs. AKC calls these "preferred" classes, which is a class that feature lowered jump heights. But be careful that you do not get so caught up into competing that you are not sensitive to your dogs aging needs. Dogs are so anxious to please that they may push themselves one day, and pay for it the next.

Breed. You will see all shapes and sizes of dogs (and people) doing agility.... this is one of the wonderful things about the sport! You may think to yourself, "my dog can never do that, he's too small", but in agility classes and trials, your tiny little guy will have lowered jumps, a lower table, and will be competing against other dogs his size. For example, he might be running in the 6" or 8" jump height division, and that class will have lower time limits (because it takes longer for small dogs to run a course than big dogs). Large breeds also can do agility, but their bulkier size requires negotiating some of the obstacles more carefully. Also be aware that some breeds take more patience than others. Even a bull dog can do those obstacles, providing you find the special treat or toy that really motivates him. Some dogs can do great on mostly praise.

Obedience. Can crazy out-of-control dogs do agility? Yes, as long as you make your training sessions more exciting than the other things around your dog that typically makes him go crazy! See the article on "Zany Dogs" for tips on how to do this. It is not necessary that your dog has formal obedience training if you want to just do agility for fun. If you want to be more successful at it, however, your dog must know some basic obedience commands such as stay, sit, and lie down. Heeling is helpful. While taking a class is invaluable, you can (at home) train obedience and agility at the same time. Some people train their dogs to sit for the first time using the pause table obstacle.

Starting the Training

Basic do's and don'ts
There are some basic rules of agility training that will go a long way to starting off on the right paw. The first one is to have fun! If it's not fun for both of you, then something is wrong. Here are some more rules:

1) ALWAYS be positive. Make your training sessions shorter if your dog gets tired or disinterested too quickly, and end on a positive note. If your dog consistently remembers agility training as the best time of his life, he'll want to train longer and please you more.

2) NEVER say "No". Or we should say rarely. If your dog doesn't do an obstacle correctly, say in a positive voice, "Oops, let's try this again", and go back to the beginning. If your dog still doesn't do it right, don't scowl or act all disappointed. Your dog will pick up on your mood and either "freeze", or keep making the same mistake. Try not to let your dog fail more than 2 times in a row. It's better to take some baby steps backwards. If your dog keeps knocking the bar, lower it. If he keeps skipping a weave pole, go slower and guide him better. That way, you're dog will remember "succeeding", and not develop a bad taste for agility. The only time you should say no to your dog is if he gets aggressive towards another dog. It's also a good idea to get your dog used to not going to the bathroom while you are training him. You will literally be "eliminated" in an agility trial if this happens (no pun intended). So even when training at home, it's a good idea to walk your dog around saying "go potty", then when you enter the "training area" of your yard, discourage your dog from eliminating.

3) ALWAYS be verbal and expressive. This is hard for some personalities, but your dog cannot guess what you want. If you are overly shy about this you will find your dog going through the wrong obstacles, because obstacles are not always in a nice "line" at agility trails. They are sometimes set up in a "trap" form to make it more challenging. Body language is very important to your dog, who is picking up on everything. You may say with your mouth "tunnel", but if your body is turned more towards the jump, chances are your dog will get confused and either pass the tunnel or take the jump. Also don't expect your dog to figure out your body language at the last second. This is probably the biggest challenge to agility training - being ahead of your dog enough to clearly show him the next obstacle. Many dogs run so fast to make this really hard to do!

4) ALWAYS give praise for a job well done. This includes giving treats or a favorite toy after doing an obstacle correctly. Then, as your dog seems to have no problem doing an obstacle correctly, add another one, then give the praise and reward. Pretty soon you'll be able to do a whole series of obstacles before giving the jackpot. But if your dog seems to be slowing down or gets easily distracted, go back to giving praise and treats after just one or two obstacles. The key is to keep your dog interested so he will run even faster!

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

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