Beginning Agility Training

There was a time when I didn’t know what “Agility Training” was. I think I’d heard the term used before, but I seriously had no idea what it meant. Just another form of dog obedience I’d assumed. In the beginning, I was just looking for effective ways to train my new puppy. I wanted her to be housebroke. That was my major concern. I didn’t know there were different styles of training. Different philosophy’s. Oh how naïve I was.

While doing web searches for dog training I ran across and  “like”d  a few dog trainer’s Facebook pages.  I started to see a few posts from the different trainers show up in my news feed and the one that caught my attention was from Susan Garrett. She was showing a video on how to teach your dog a quick game called “It’s Yer Choice”. You teach the dog not to grab at food by allowing them to learn that they are rewarded for making the right decisions, but that nothing happens when they make the wrong decisions, thereby teaching them to “make a choice”.  I tried it on my dog and within mere minutes, she had the concept. I had a handful of food closed in  my fist. She was allowed to sniff at, paw, lick, etc. at my hand to try to get to the food. As soon as she backed away, I would open my hand a little, closing it again when she came in close, then opening again when she backed away.  It was so funny to see her trying to figure out what was happening. You could just tell she was thinking. It was awesome!

I was hooked and in my opinion, Susan Garrett was a genius.  Now, I didn’t just want a housebroken dog, I wanted a dog that could do tricks! So, more internet research. That was when I started to learn what agility training was. Watching her dogs run the courses and getting a snippet here and there of the kind of training she used had me wanting more. Charlotte was learning so much, so fast, it was AHMAZING. At least, to me and my husband it was.

It was also during this search that I ran across Karen Pryor’s Book “Don’t Shoot the Dog” . That was when I was introduced to B.F. Skinner. I remember hearing the words “operant conditioning” and other such terminology in my Psychology classes, but that stuff never really stuck. Until now. Now, I couldn’t get enough of it. And I can’t recommend her book enough. It’s a great read and really lays out the way positive reinforcement works. But that’s another blog.

So we taught Charlotte the basics, “sit”, “lay down”, “Bang!” and “hit your mark”. She had “It’s Yer choice” down pat, and I was running out of ideas on tricks to teach. I’m not that creative. But I needed to keep making her think so that I was exercising her brain, and not just her body. See, I’d found that during training sessions where she had to think, she tired out quicker than a 2 mile walk. When you’re dealing with a 50 lb puppy, you want them tired, not bored and chewing on your furniture. So I bought a hula hoop and started trying to teach her to jump through it. The clicker was a HUGE help in this department. Without being able to mark any forward motion through the hoop, she’d probably still be veering around it. Rather than stumbling through it. Her back legs often get hung up. Apparently you have to teach a dog to become aware of their back legs. Weird.

But honestly, I never gave agility a serious thought. It looked like a HUGE time commitment that I don’t have. But it also looked awesome. Watching a dog fly around the track is prettying amazing. Their drive and how they now where to go next? Very cool.

It wasn’t until I stumbled across this book “Teaching the Dog to Think” that I began to change my thinking. This is another GREAT read by the way. I don’t pay for many books (I’m a library and free book addict) but I bought this one.

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This is a regular person’s story about stumbling into the world of Dog Agility. I could totally relate to the author and her story. Even the less glorious parts, like wanting to choke your dog into submission. I don’t. But I know the desire. And through her storytelling, I began to get a feel for what an agility lesson might look like. Instead of the whole thing becoming more intimidating (like it was whenever I researched “agility equipment”), some of the lessons seemed doable. Like the beginner levels of walking the plank.  This is a board only a couple of inches off the ground that the dog learns to walk along so that she can eventually traverse a long plank much higher off the ground and preferably at top speed.

I thought to myself “I think I might have a board at home. I know I have some blocks. I could make a beginner level plank and not spend any money!” They worked on this weeks it seemed in the book so I figured this would take a while to learn. Here is my plank.

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I drug the board and the cinder blocks out of the pile by the garage and set them up while Charlotte roamed the yard. Then I headed into the house to get some tasty hot dog to start the training with. “Use high value treats” Susan says. “It’s like working for a paycheck” Kimberly Davis said. Well Charlotte LOVES hot dogs. “INSIDE!” I yelled and clapped my hands. She came tearing toward the house, vaulting the plank rather than going around it. Well, I guess learning the jumps won’t be a problem.

As for the plank. We had some success this morning. I actually got all four paws off the ground briefly. Crap. I may have to find the time to consider agility training.

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