So, you have a dog, you think your dog would like to do some agility, but you’re not sure where to start (apart from signing up for one of our classes! 😉 ). Here’s 5 tips for getting your dog agility-ready.
- Clicker train! Yep, not all our tips are going to be agility specific but they’re all going to be really useful. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, do a quick google-search for clicker-training. Basically, you have a little ‘clicker’ that makes a noise. That noise marks the EXACT moment that your dog did something wonderful and that a reward is coming. The brilliant thing about clicker training is that you can be so much more precise. You’re saying THAT is the behaviour I want, rather than rewarding whatever happens between the dog doing the behaviour and getting to you for its reward (or you fumbling in your treat pouch to get a treat, etc). For example, when I train my dogs to do running contacts, I need to click them for their feet hitting the contact zone. If I didn’t clicker-train, how would I tell them which attempts were right, and which weren’t, and what part of their performance am I rewarding if they run down the plank and there’s no indication that they’ve done the right or wrong thing until they get back to me? By clicking, they are reinforced over and over again for striding in a particular way, for not leaping and for having their feet in a certain place, rather than being rewarded for fetching the ball after the dogwalk, or doing the tunnel, or any of the behaviours that come after that very split-second action. Clicker training is SO important to understand for agility, I can’t stress it enough.
- Play. Play with your dog, find out what motivates them. Some dogs are easier to motivate (Loki!) than others (Lumen). But most dogs love something. Maybe they love sausages, maybe they love tugging, maybe they love chasing a ball, maybe, like Lu, they love chasing water that comes out of a hose, or a broom! Whatever it is, find that thing and start using it. Ask for a sit, play. Ask for a drop, play. You want your dog to start working to play, and playing to work. For my border collie Loki, it’s all the same. Play is play and work is play and everything is awesome.
- Socialize your dog. I know, you’re thinking: “but socialisation is for puppies” – well, yes, and that’s the very best time to do this, but you shouldn’t stop there. Whenever I’m near a playground (when there’s no children on it, of course), I get my dogs exploring. They put their feet on swings, they go through weird tunnels, they climb on platforms, they balance on beams. So much of agility is about confidence on and in obstacles, so why not start it in the real world and get your dog to LOVE interacting with different things.
- Teach your dog to wrap an object. I have a video of Lumen learning to do this with a stool here. She already knew how to wrap but hadn’t done it with this object before so you can kind of get a sense of what I’d be looking for when training it. This might seem like a bit of a strange one but hear me out. Once your dog can wrap an object, you can start sending it out to wrap trees. Then you can do little sequences and figure-8s with tree-trunks. This translates REALLY well to jumps and jump wings. I taught Loki how to do sequences just by wrapping trees (see a video below). Once he got to jumps he was already looking for obstacles so beautifully that I never had to try and get him to go over a jump – he just looked for an object and went and did it. This also helps later on with your dog turning tight and doing distance work independently of you. There are so many benefits to doing wraps.
- Play some running games with your dog. Have a toy- tug or tennis ball, whatever your dog enjoys, but toys are easier to use than food. Put your dog in a stay or have somebody hold the dog. Walk out a few meters, release the dog, and run! As the dog catches you, play a great game. You can do this but instead of playing straight away, throw the toy ahead of you and say “Go go go!”! This teaches the dog to run on without waiting around for you. Eventually, you could wrap your dog around a tree and run off, with your dog chasing you down. Agility is so much about chasing and running together that you can build that sense of playfulness in these games. Also you’re working on your stays, building that anticipation for the release, and that bond through playing.
Here is a video of Loki putting so much of this together- the wraps, the running, the playing.
6. Bonus tip. 😉 Getting your dog to learn tricks through clicker training will help them immeasurably in agility. Doing tricks helps them learn how to learn, and to love learning. Tricks that are particularly useful are those that help the dog learn about his body, so targeting with front and rear feet, lifting side legs, balancing on wobble boards, sitting pretty. If your dogs know how to use their hind-end, and how to move their bodies, they’ll be much better able to understand what you’re asking them to do when you want them to turn, or target something, or kick their feet over a bar!
Hopefully this has given you some ideas. The great thing about all these tips is that they’re easy to do with puppies or young dogs. If you’re looking to take a class with me or anywhere else, these are some easy, fun things you can do with your dog. Practise your stays and your recalls as well, and you’ll be all set not only to get into agility, but also you should have a stronger relationship with your dog, too. And that’s the coolest part!