Building an agility career from the start...

Queuing with your rookie dog at a show for the first time could be one of the most exciting - and nervous - days of your agility life. Your expectations of a clear round are high. You've been training for many months and finally feel that your dog is ready for the ring. However, could competition prove too much of a challenge for you and your dog? And could it affect your future in agility? Thank you to CSJ for allowing us to reprint this article, written by Iris Richards, from their web site.

Personally I like the UKA system. It is pro-active and designed to help you and your dog to have a good start to your agility career in the ring. Look at it like a new job. Would you like to be given the opportunity to start with a few basic learning techniques before being thrown into more complex situations? Most would agree to this and take on a new role, understanding that training opportunities would be given, and would be a definite benefit.

UKA, therefore, gives you the opportunity to start in the Nursery or Casual classes, and whilst in these classes you and your dog can benefit from the time to practice specific criteria within a course environment.

Your initial bond with your dog and relationship thereafter are key to your future handling skills. Building a steady solid foundation to your future agility career is a must, but the building blocks can be so easily crumbled during your time in the ring.

This is where the UKA system is so beneficial. Not only are there specifically tailored Nursery, Steeplechase and Casual classes for new dog and handler combinations, but there is also every chance to enter a class and choose to run a dog NFC (Not For Competition).

The advantages of training in the ring
Consider your first ever run with your dog. If it performs a piece of contact equipment exactly as you wished or enter and completes the weaves without fault, using a reward at that most crucial point can prove invaluable. A dog will remember an experience in the ring whether it be a brilliant or an awful one.

So, by having the NFC opportunity to take a toy into the  ring and using it as a reward each time the dog perfects a cue, or completes an obstacle correctly, this enables you to perform your positive reward in the correct manner. Their first exposure to the competition ring will be a brilliant one.

You should both be able to imbed the 'brilliant' round you have just achieved into your memories, and take away from the time spent in the ring, pointers on how your training regime is progressing.

Having taught your dog many skills away from the excitement of the ring, the next progressive step is to enter into the ring environment, which is the perfect place to test these out. Training rounds are increasingly popular throughout the levels, and many handler and dog combinations from Nursery to Champion classes, use these occasions on a regular basis as they are offered at all of the shows UKA hold.

We all often watch competing dogs from the sidelines and feel that encouragement is needed during a round. There are a few lucky ones who at their first ever show, with their first ever dog will achieve that 'brilliant' much sought after clear round. But what has that partnership gained from their first time in the ring? They will be pleased to return home with a rosette or maybe even a trophy for their endeavour, but is this enough? How difficult is it to repeat that success time over, week in week out at regular shows? Taking the time to reward the correct behaviour we expect from our dogs, in the correct place is crucial and so beneficial to continued improvement.

Practice makes perfect
After competing in the ring, timing slips are inevitable, sit waits could fail, weaves can become inconsistent, or missing contacts can be a regular occurrence. These points are regularly trained in the agility sessions attended, but are they regularly re-iterated in a ring environment?

Our own personal eagerness for success can sometimes cloud exactly what we are trying to achieve. Once a bond with your dog has been secured in the training environment and it now understands what is expected, you have gained valuable knowledge about your own dogs' ability. It is then crucial to replicate that bond in a competition environment. After a time, statements of 'my dog does it brilliantly at training, could now be 'my dog understands what I need of it, and regularly does it brilliantly, at training, and consistently in the ring.'

Practice in the ring will enhance your skills, and nurturing these skills will eventually produce the perfect combination of dog and handler. Your confidence will grow, and by using the opportunity given at the UKA Shows over a period of time, your dogs' confidence will improve, too.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing
How many of us would admit to wishing to have another chance to train or shape our dogs in a ring environment. Agility is progressing and transforming all the time. In order to keep up with the changes, I believe that UK Agility is at the forefront of this sport, and understand the necessity to continue offering training in the ring facilities.

About the author...
Iris Richards
has been competing in agility since 1995, beginning her agility career with a German Shepherd dog named Jester. Although a consistent agility dog, Jester didn't have the speed of the increasing 'collie influx' in the early 90’s, and never progressed further than Starters in Kennel Club. Taking over her husband's collie, she competed with Tanic until the middle of 2002, when he encountered difficulties with his hips and was retired.  Taking on a collie from a shepherd stressed the importance of handling from both sides, and many lessons were learnt with Tanic. 

Iris then had  a rest period from agility to start a family. Her son Brandon was taken to his first agility show at the age of 11 weeks at Supa Dogs in Kent, and has now gone on to compete as a Junior handler in his own right. 

Ellie was the next dog Iris would handle and she was a rescue.  Competing with her for a number of years, Iris gained Grade 6 level at KC, and UKA Champ level, too. Ellie is now handled by her son and is semi-retired.  Jai was born in 1995 and Iris helped to look after her from two weeks of age.  She is a typical farm collie and although still Grade 3 KC, she is also UKA Champ, and this year made the Masters Final. Commonly seen on the circuit with the strangest hair style, Iris enjoys competing with Jai, but often feels she lets confidence in her own ability slide under pressure.

 Iris is involved in assisting UKA part-time, working from home. She was involved actively in running the World Agility Championships held in 2010 at Bristol.  In 2011, she assisted in organising the inaugural World Agility Open which was organised by Greg Derrett and Monica Percival in Bristol, and in 2012 went to Belgium as part of the organising committee for this event. Thoroughly enjoying coordinating these events, she also assists with the UKA Grand Finals held in December.

Away from the agility circuit, Iris loves living in Cornwall, spending time with her family and five dogs, living on a beautiful farm. She previously worked as a Personal Assistant in an Insurance Brokers until the birth of her son in 2003. Now she works part–time at a local Pet supplies and greetings card shop and makes the most delicious jam and chutney from produce she picks from her farmland.

From Carol Mortimer...
Iris Richards' article about training in the ring caught my eye and made me even more determined to carry on with the fun training shows that we have been organising over the winter. Their first show is a great big leap for most handlers, often attempted and the experience puts them off for ever or leaving them more determined to figure out a way to overcome their own nerves which puts their dogs off.

As training on our field is almost impossible over winter, we hired a local but small indoor riding school in Louth (Lincs) on four Sundays over the winter. The floor is great, the owners are happy to make extra income and there is just enough room to have one and a half rings. The larger ring is used for standard Agility and Jumping classes run over the day. The half ring is used to set up a training round with small jumps and smaller contact equipment - just right for beginners, veterans or as a warm up for the full sized classes.  We are in the wild depths of Lincolnshire the nearest shows are along way away.

Entries are on the day and competitors are warned ahead of time that it is meant to be a light-hearted affair even though it has rosettes to 4th place. As many handlers are local, it cuts their travel costs and they can decide which runs they want their dogs to do. They can also get back home in the daylight or early evening. Their dogs will be ready for the 2013 season of KC or unaffiliated shows.

As I am not very active in agility competitions, I am always looking for judges. Any offers of help will be gratefully accepted. It is also a great place for novice or aspiring judges to gain experience.

So far we have had nothing but smiling faces although the livery horses looked slightly shocked. It suits me as I do not have much time for going to or running large agility shows.  My heart, time and money are in Heelwork to Music, as are my failing hips which stop me from running. (21/11/12)


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