“Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it, there is suffering.”Brené Brown
One of the most challenging things with wanting to do agility when you live somewhere without easy access to businesses/clubs for the sport is: How do I get my dog to do agility?
One needn’t feel isolated and be suffering, unable to play in the sport with one’s dog, just because there isn’t easy access to local trainers. I also know that when someone lives on an “isolated island” literally or figuratively it can be very challenging, but I also have developed tricks to help.
To that end, I’ve put together a list of my favourite recommendations and resources for the sport. This isn’t a comprehensive list, and these recommendations are the best I can provide from my experiences and knowledge at this point of time (August 2021).
I have a puppy and want to play agility! S/He loves jumping and running!
This is one of the most common questions I receive. If you have a puppy and you live in St. John’s, Newfoundland metro area, I recommend you get onto Newfoundland Athletic Dog Association, Inc.’s Notification List. There can be upwards to a two-year wait list to access their classes. You don’t have to register when you are notified, but you cannot register for a class without first being notified. Agility is ultimately a sport done around other dogs, so in this region, this is your best training option for the actual sport.
For agility, the biggest factors for success are the following:
- Trust between dog and human,
- Effective communication between human and dog,
- Dog’s willingness to make mistakes to learn,
- Dog’s ability to focus and think with arousal, and
- Ambidextrous handling (being comfortable on both sides of the human).
Force-based training undermines the first three, and if you only do obedience training on the left side (without replicating it on the right side), you will have some challenges in agility that will need a bit more training. What I recommend to folks is that they do the obedience training (there are a lot of transferable skills to agility), but train EVERYTHING equally on both sides. This helps with the ambidextrous nature of agility and keeps their body in balance.
Next, I recommend you get involved in classes with trainers who exclusively use shaping (e.g., clicker) training – stay away from anyone who identifies as a “balanced trainer,” who uses verbal or physical corrections on the dog (or has photos of choke, prong, electric collars on their websites/social media – these forms of collars are prohibited by agility organizations). Agility requires the dog to understand how to solve problems on their own, and you need to develop training mechanics to get your dog to understand what the problem is they are needing to solve.
My personal favourites for basic dog training in the St. John’s metro area are:
- Dynamic Canines (with Rose Browne)
- A Rock Solid Dog (with Jennie Murphy)
- Newfound Potential Dog Training (with Ashley Gibbons).
There are others, but please ensure they meet the following criteria:
- no pinch/prong, choke, electric collars;
- no verbal corrections;
- they use food, toys and clickers in training;
- dogs are not asked to go over jumps/poles or do age inappropriate behaviours (see below).
A KEY THING TO CONSIDER FOR PUPPIES: No trainers should permit or recommend jumping or doing repetitive spins with puppies. At 4 months of age, puppies should not be jumping over things higher than their wrists. At 6 months, puppies should not be jumping over things higher than their elbows (Zink, C. & Carr, B.J., 2018, Canine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, p. 261). Puppies should not be doing any running directed by their humans. Self-directed exercise only is best for the wee ones. If you are in a class with your puppy/adolescent dog and the instructor is offering / asking you to get your pup to jump – decline and protect your pup.
If you have a puppy and are interested in learning more about age-appropriate activities, Puppy Culture has a nice booklet on this.
ONLINE OPTIONS: If you want to get into sport-specific foundations classes, there are several available. Agility does have some clusters of handling styles, and some of them work really well together (meaning the underlying handling techniques mesh well), and some don’t (the cues conflict with each other, and if blended could confuse the dog). I recommend the following online trainers as I know their underlying mechanics complement each other and with mine:
- Dave Munnings’ Q-Me Agility Foundations Module (always open),
- Susan Garrett’s Crate Games,
- Susan Garrett’s Recallers for foundations.
- Naarah Cuddy & Martin Reid’s Into Shape Agility (foundations for puppies and adults)
- Dan Shaw’s Agility Geek for puppy foundations.
- I also recommend Kim Collins’ Facebook training on jumping grids (age appropriate).
I don’t have any access to local trainers (or there are no local trainers)
Refer to the above list for online options. I highly recommend that for your adult dog, you use video and share your videos for feedback from your online instructors. This involves the investment of a tripod, but your smartphone and a couple of apps make this easy to do (I use iMovie, YouTube apps with my iPhone for seamless editing and posting).
Join online social media groups who are involved in the sport and develop some friends that way to share your videos.
Once you get past the foundations with your dog, you will eventually need some equipment. For backyard training, I still recommend you get quality equipment for safety and durability reasons. Most folks start with a set of weaves, a few jumps, and a tunnel for backyard training. You can do a lot of the skills required with those. For safety, tunnels need to be properly secured with tunnel bags. My favourites are:
- 2×2 weave bases (6 bases for 12 poles) – not the plastic accordion weaves available at various retailers – they can create performance problems for medium to large dogs.
- Wing jumps – examples are Galican lite, Clip and Go wing jumps. – I do not recommend the one-piece wingless jumps (where the base and the stands are one connected piece).
- 5m Galican sure-grip 6″ pitch tunnels with 4-6 sets of tunnel bags – these are great bang for the buck and store well. There are other options as well within Canada, but I’ve been happiest with these ones.
I’ve finished foundations with my adult dog, now what?
After your dog has solid foundations, the rest will go a lot more smoothly (see my blog on Foundations). It’s like building a house – with a solid foundation, the house is more likely to be solid too. No foundation means you will be continually rebuilding walls, repairing cracks and leaks…
Once you are past foundations, there are four main components of agility training:
- Dog Skill Training: the dog needs to learn how to navigate each obstacle safely, accurately, and independently of the handler. This includes the jumps (there are 14 different ways the dog needs to navigate a jump), tunnels (there are 6 different ways a dog needs to navigate a tunnel), weaves, table (for some organizations), contact obstacles (A-Frame, dogwalk, teeter), and start lines.
- Handler Skill Training: the human needs to learn how to navigate a course safely, accurately and clearly to for the dog. This includes: running (or lateral and distance handling), front cross, rear cross, blind cross, pivots, proprioception on course.
- Handler Strategy Skill Training: the human needs to learn how to read a course, find the dog’s path, find the handler’s path, and what handling choices are optimal for their team and the course. It can also mean learning the rules of the game(s), and how to strategize for those.
- Team Communication Skills Training: the dog and human team need to learn how to communicate and respond to each other before, on and after a course. In my experience as a coach and also as an agility team mate it takes approximately 2-4 years for this set of skills to really gel for agility teams. The length of time is dependent on how good the other three components are, but also due to the unique qualities that each dog brings and the handler brings at that point in their life.
At DPF Leading Agility, I provide online training for Dog Skill Training in Weaves, and Threadle Jump skills. I provide Handler Skill Training with my Handler Mechanics Training Group (6 week online course). I provide Handler Strategy Skill Training with my online Course Analysis & Memorization self-directed course, and my Gamblers course. Finally, I provide in-person workshops and online private coaching for Team Communication Skills Training. I don’t provide foundations and very basic dog skill training through my business as I do that as a volunteer for NADA, Inc. which I co-founded.
Then there is an additional skill which isn’t discussed above and I’m the only person teaching this that I have been able to see/find: The Skill to Design Training Sequences. A few times each year, I offer live classes through Zoom and Facebook to discuss how to design and plan your training set-ups to accomplish your training objective for that session, with safety and effectiveness in mind.
If you are interested in registering for any of these, please let me know as I open them when there is sufficient demand for there to be a cohort to support each other through the experience.
Aside from me, there are many other excellent online resources available to work these four component skills – most focus primarily on the dog skill and team communication skills training. At this stage of the training, it becomes more important to understand where your instructor’s mechanics and underlying assumptions in communication are so that you don’t confuse your teammate as you introduce incompatible techniques. So if you are new to the sport, find someone and stick with them until you are at the level you can gauge fit or conflict with your communications.