Today I want to share with you the three BIGGEST mistakes I’ve made in my own agility journey – mistakes you absolutely have to avoid if you want to succeed with your dog in our sport!
I’ve helped thousands of agility handlers over the years, and I’ve noticed the same three mistakes crop up again and again. The best thing you can do now is to save yourself from frustration and heartache by learning from the past mistakes of OTHER agility handlers, including me! Don’t repeat these mistakes – save yourself a ton of pain and frustration! Read on to learn what those three big mistakes are!
MISTAKE #1: Skipping over ‘obedience’ training for agility training
When I first started agility, I didn’t know what I didn’t know! And, foundation training was something that wasn’t really talked about much, and when it was, it was stuff like “you need to make sure you do some obedience first” or “you need to have basic manners first” – and of course, my reaction was that that sounded really boring and lame and I didn’t want to do obedience, darn it, I wanted to do agility!
Well, I’m here to tell you, if your dog can’t walk nicely at your side, there’s just no way your dog will be able to RUN nicely beside you on an agility course! You may be thinking “but my dog is way faster than me and I’m gonna need distance skills.” Well, the same logic applies. When I say your dog needs to be able to run nicely ‘beside’ you on an agility course, that could mean three feet away, or thirty feet away.
When we’re on course with our dogs, regardless of how much space is between us, we need them to decelerate (slow down) when we slow down. We need them to accelerate (speed up) when we speed up. We need them to move toward us when we move away from them, and we need them to move away from us when we start to move IN to them. They need to be able to move in a circle when they’re on the outside, AND when they’re on the inside!
They need to know ALL of that before they are asked to do ANY of it in a super exciting agility environment. They need to know ALL of that before they’re even introduced to a single agility obstacle! One of my biggest mistakes with my earliest dogs, including Solar, who was on the World Team MULTIPLE times, was not paying enough attention to this idea – both at the beginning of our training AND as an ongoing part of our training!
Now I recognize the importance of all of that flatwork, and the coolest thing is that simple stuff like heelwork, inside circles and outside circles, speeding up, slowing down, moving away laterally, etc. – is stuff that requires virtually no space at all, requires no equipment, can be played around with any time, and now that I recognize how IMPORTANT it is, it’s FUN.
MISTAKE #2: Skipping over foundation training to get to the ‘sexy stuff’
As with mistake #1, I can attest to having made this mistake with my own dogs. Many many MANY novice handlers don’t recognize the importance of foundation training until their second, third, or even fourth agility dog or beyond! Running full courses is fun, and a thrill, and it’s something that all of us are looking forward to doing with our dogs at some point! When you’re a novice, or maybe before you even start agility with your dog, you see others DOING agility and think “man, it looks so easy, I want to do THAT with my dog!” – many of us have been told about our energetic young dogs that they’d be ‘great at agility’ – based on their ability to counter surf, jump fences, etc. And so, we dive in, with the goal of getting on a course ASAP!
I was that way too, when I started. Waaaay back in 1998, with Fly, my first competitive agility dog, I was so hot to trot that I just dove in headfirst to the deep end of the pool. Jump training? I’m not even sure I knew about it at the time, and if I had, it would have looked so tedious and boring that I doubt I’d have seen the value in it. Give me agility courses!! I wanna RUNNNNN! Contact training? Who needs to ‘proof’ contacts, and what does that even mean? Faster is better, why would I STOP? Isn’t proofing something you do with bread dough?!
Well, Fly sure could have used jump training. Many a time I would be stuck with “well, he had the fastest time, I guess” when we would have a great run with a dropped bar. Getting our ADCH in USDAA and our MACH in AKC took a lot of trips in to the ring because of so many knocked bars. It was hard on his body, too – not having a solid jump training foundation meant he was more often than not throwing his body around haphazardly, instead of moving with skill and fluidity. We had a lot of will – not as much the skill!
And contact training? Oh man. “But he stops at home” was my mantra. Uh huh. Sure. I got those contacts passable and went in to the ring ASAP. As a consequence, I always had to hover over those contacts to make sure he was ‘in’. I had to be close, almost facing him, to keep him from flying off the seesaw. One time, a judge gave us a refusal for something on course, and when I asked later, she said Fly had stopped after coming off a contact. I had to laugh out loud. That dog NEVER stopped on course, and certainly never on a contact – and yes, he was ‘trained’ to stop on the contacts!
Fly was the first dog I ever went to USDAA or AKC Nationals with, and let me tell you, when just trying to run clean at a local show takes all your effort, it’s not better at Nationals! I had to babysit bars, and babysit contacts, and babysit…well, pretty much everything.
In the beginning, it can be tough to see the trees for the forest – a lot of the time foundation training doesn’t seem sexy, and it doesn’t seem fun, and it doesn’t LOOK like real agility. But, take it from me, if you want to GET to the sexy stuff (and look smooth doing it), don’t skip over foundation training! Nowadays, I know from experience that if I spend 90% of my time on foundation, instead of on running courses, when I DO run courses, my dogs and I are a lot more likely to enjoy the smooth and connected teamwork that translates to success on a course!
MISTAKE #3: Not making it worthwhile for your dog to play the game with you
Regardless of the breed of dog you’re training, assuming that your dog will just learn to love the game on his own is a mistake – and it’s a mistake that can be easy to make, and here’s why.
When you see a skilled handler at a competition, they’re making it look easy. Their dog looks effortlessly focused on them, watching their every move. The handler isn’t begging the dog for attention. They’re not jumping around or dancing like a crazy person or making crazy noises. So, the easy assumption to make is that without ANY effort, their dog just LOVES the game.
That is SO not true. Just because you don’t SEE that top handler putting in a lot of visible effort to help their dog love the game at a competition doesn’t mean that they haven’t already PUT in a MOUNTAIN of effort. When you me at a competition, for example, I’m pretty chill. I don’t spend a lot of time amping my dogs up. I might be moving around to make sure we’re getting warmed up physically, but I’m not trying to get my dogs MORE excited, in general.
- This is because for MONTHS prior to our first steps in a ring together, I’ve been spending time behind the scenes doing all of that stuff you DON’T see at the show, like:
- Running around my arena screaming like a wounded ground squirrel to make sure my dogs LOVE chasing me (this involves a lot of sweating and sore throats!)
- Playing all kinds of structured and unstructured games with and without toys to make sure my dogs LOVE playing with me with toys
- Teaching my dogs to play with toys even if they prefer food
- Teaching my dogs to play with me without toys at all!
- Doing thousands and thousands and thousands of recalls that end in tasty treats, lots of affection, a fun game of toy play, or anything else my dog really loves
- Learning what my dogs’ likes and dislikes are – making lists, ranking treats according to value, ranking toys according to value, and working to equalize all those treats and toys as much as possible, so that even the most uninteresting treats and toys can be MADE interesting by me
- Breaking down behaviors in to tiny rewardable bits so that my dogs’ rate of reinforcement is always high
- Working on cognitive skills games to ensure that my dogs have a love of learning and problem solving
- I don’t like calling all of that stuff ‘work’ – work is something you do for a paycheck. BUT, it does require EFFORT. It’s an effort, a labor of love, to get a dog to love the game so much that when we get to a competition I can ‘coast’ a bit on the effort I’ve already put in to motivation and relationship building, so that I can focus on all of the other things that require my focus and attention. Stuff like course memorization, strategy, and oh of course the actual EXECUTION of all my plans on course!
This can be a big problem because we don’t SEE all the behind-the-scenes work a handler may have put in behind the scenes to develop their dog’s love of the sport. But I assure you, even if I have a puppy with a world class pedigree, who comes from a family of high performing dogs, I’m STILL going to put in a TON of effort to help my dog love, love, love the game, and that effort is messy, and sweaty, and silly. It involves a lot of rolling around on the ground, silly noises, and there’s no room for pride that might keep me from doing any of that silly stuff!
I have seen people commit these mistakes over and over again…and the first step to improving your agility game is to be aware of what you’re doing and make a commitment to move forward.
You may be thinking now: “OMG, your’e right, I need help to avoid these mistakes!”
First of all, this blog post is a great starting point because you’ll learn proven tips that will save you a lot of frustration as you work toward your goals with your current agility dog.
For those of you that want something more, let me take a moment to quickly tell you about The Agility Challenge – it’s an online program that I’ve used to help thousands of agility handlers over the past three years. Not only do I provide content every month that will help you address all of the three mistakes above, I provide FEEDBACK on your efforts that will help you continue with your handling and training well beyond the above fundamentals. The Agility Challenge includes content for all stages of your training – from motivation and relationship games all the way through international level handling challenges! BUT, it all starts with a solid foundation, and of course a solid foundation relies on constant attention being paid to keeping those fundamentals strong!
Thank you for reading this email, and for reading that quick introduction about The Agility Challenge! I really appreciate it.
That’s all for today! I hope you enjoyed learning about the three mistakes above will help you on your agility journey with your dog!