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Winter fun and games for agility dogs...

This year saw Nicola Smith and her typical craxy Collie unfortunately in a familiar position, having to be on agility break due to injury. Kiah (Ki) has no fear - or respect - for her physical wellbeing and is hell-bent on turning her owner prematurely grey! Unsurprisingly, restricted exercise doesn’t suit Ki so Nicola always has a challenge on hand to make sure that her dog is as tired as possible on her enforced agility breaks and this gives her a push to be extra creative in her training!

Even before I fell in love with agility, I loved training tricks. I am constantly amazed at the brilliance of our dog's minds and their capacity to learn, despite the hindrance of having us as their trainers.

Besides teaching the dogs useful skills and confidence, trick training is such amazing education for us about our dogs, how they think, how they learn and how to communicate what we would like from them.

I feel that trick training is, at times though, a little undervalued in the world of agility. It is seen as a fun to have but not very important. And I would like to challenge that.

Teaching a good foundation of 'trick' behaviours makes teaching almost everything else so much easier. Once the dog understands the basic skills (go to a place, touch with paw, touch with nose, grab with their mouth etc. etc.) it becomes very simple to teach behaviours which stem from these, whether they be agility related or for everyday life. Above all, teaching this way helps the dog to figure out solutions and engage their brains, which not only tires them out but creates faster, more independent learning in the future.

All behaviours are 'tricks' to our dogs
No matter what is on your winter agility training plan, it is likely that some of it is related to trick type behaviours. Whether it be improving turns, teaching verbal discrimination or working on your dog's contact behaviour, all can be improved with trick training.

I have also known dogs who were lacking in motivation or confidence in agility to improve radically after the introduction of more trick training, giving them more ownership of their learning.

Not every trick suits every dog though. For example, if you have a Great Dane you might not want to teach them to jump on your back! One of the great things about trick training is how easily it can be tailored to each partnership.

We all have rest periods for our dogs whether due to injury or scheduled down time and keeping active dogs calm at these times can be a real challenge. I find a good mental workout is far more tiring than a physical one, and this is especially useful if the dog in question is carrying an injury. So many tricks can be adapted to suit young dogs, injured dogs and even elderly dogs, not something that we can necessarily say of many areas of dog training or sports.  It can be done in the comfort of your own home, no matter the weather, and usually involves nothing other than you, your dog and plenty of treats! And the list of tricks to teach is endless, only limited by your imagination

Early in 2018 I started my Trickstar on-line trick training programme, a course where I provide video breakdowns of each trick and participants post their videos for feedback and celebration. The course has been far more popular than I ever could have imagined, especially amongst agility dogs. To date my dogs and I have filmed around 50 trick demos for the various levels and it keeps growing all the time.

This year I decided to create a Christmas trick video to give my girl and me something to work towards. I tried to use a lot of different dog skills so that she would have plenty to learn but because she had all the tools already we managed to film A Christmas Tail all in a couple of days!

It started off with the idea of having her dress the tree and then took on a life of its own from there. All of the behaviours in the video are just variations of a few key tricks, meaning that it was actually very quick to train and film. 

One of the things I train in almost all behaviours is independence. I always like to see that the dog can perform the behaviour with minimal involvement from me if possible. This is very useful in agility for distance handling, but it was also helpful in filming this video to give the idea that she was doing all these things by herself!  Now we are moving on to our next exciting video project.

Now we are onto our next project.

About the author...
Nicola Smith runs Lucky Dog Training, based in Goldhanger, Essex where she teaches agility and obedience.

She also runs the Trickstars on-line trick training programme.

Nicola has three dogs, Lucky, Jenson and Kiah. She competes with Kiah at Grade 7 - when she's not injured!

First published 11th December 2018


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