Agility Training: an Introduction

Agility Yard at Paw Prints Dog Club

If you can't hike with your dog every weekend, try another activity to keep them engaged and fit. This weekend I went to observe a novice level agility course at a local dog club.  I say "local" but it was actually in the high desert, about 30 minutes from me, off a dirt road.  But the yard and equipment was top rate!

A couple of things that I learned from my initial introduction into agility:

1. Positive reinforcement
These owners were able to motivate their dogs with promises of great treats or playtime with their favorite toy to learn to navigate the objects in the agility yard.  to an untrained eye, it looks pretty easy, but if you've ever tried to work with your dog to do activities as demanding as these, it takes WORK.

2. It teaches you patience and consistency.
Your dog won't learn all the equipment overnight. They won't learn how to really focus on you in one session. What this teaches you as the handler, is patience to let the dog learn, how to break behaviors down into parts and to repeat the same action time after time, until your dog builds the muscle memory to do it without even thinking.

3. Foundation work, or beginning classes usually happen without equipment.  
This is engagement work. What does that mean? How do you keep your dog engaged and focused on you, with all the other dogs around you, and away from all the smells around the agility yard.

The answer is easier said than done sometimes.  YOU have to become more interesting than the environment. In agility, your dog will learn that focusing on you pays off in fun stuff to do and discover!  It means motivating your dog so that everything else becomes a blur and you are the center of the universe. If you are lucky enough to cross this threshold, you will know that your dog will do almost anything for you.  

This work is not correction based, but rather on spoils of the promised land. What dog would want to go for a walk if they are getting yanked or choked all the time? What dog would go to its owner if they are in fear of being reprimanded?

4. Agility builds confidence in your relationship with your dog.
As you become better at engaging and training your dog; as you continue to work with your dog in various exercises; and as you continue to positively reinforce your dog's behaviors; you start to develop a language with your dog. Your dog starts to understand the rules of being in the agility yard and starts to expect fun stuff - like play and treats! As a result, your dog will start to offer you behavior, in anticipation of the fun to stuff to come. This builds confidence in your relationship for both you and your dog.

I've been looking for an activity for Nanook, who is always eager to please and has a lot of drive. I think she will have a blast doing agility.  What type of activities do you do with your dog to build cooperation and confidence in your relationship?