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Sharing ideas and good practice...

With the age of social media age well and truly here, itís not uncommon to hear of 'poor practice' at places which offer Beginners classes. Rather than just complain about it, top trainer and competitor Selena Bray decided to do something to help improve the methods used to train agility newbies so she wrote this articles for Agilitynet. Here are just a few suggestions or games and exercises which can be used to build handler knowledge and canine fitness and confidence.

It's my fear that the agility training profession is in danger of becoming a 'pop up' business. Teaching agility is a great opportunity for some people to make a fast buck. It can be difficult - and potentially dangerous - for new handlers to find good place where they can train in a safe environment.

I don't think we can change things by complaining about them and I hope that this article will help both these people who are starting out and those trainers who are looking for tips on introducing agility to newbie handlers.

My foundation classes are a bit like circuit training. I believe that there should be small short sequences of work - a lot of it kit free. It's the trainer's job to keep the motivation.

Here are a few examples of the sort of thing you could expect from a Foundation class. Always take your toys and treats to be best prepared for the potential activities you might be doing.

Any dog can jump but there are not that many that are good at it! Thereís no rush with the jump heights. We need to teach the dog how to jump well. 

In the beginning, the poles should be on the floor. Once the dog and handler are confidently negotiating them - and the dog is fit enough and old enough - the poles can begin to be raised. This could be over a number of weeks or even months. Itíll take a good amount of time to build the partnership up to cope with handling communication.

Straight lines of jumps help dogs to negotiate at speed, building the energy and will to drive forward as quickly as possible. They are also great for 'send aways' and 'chasers.'

Here are some exercises that can be done.

  1. Poles on the floor
    Put a number of poles in a row to introduce the dog to the fact that they are to be taken above. It helps the dog to become aware of their feet and is the very beginning to scattered poles.

  2. Wings of jumps in a row without poles
    The wings in a row as wide as you like and you do the games listed under homework/takeaway but between those jump wings. Once your dog is becoming good at that start to do the similar versions but to the side of the jump (still inside) then eventually run down the outer side.

  3. Jumps with poles
    Place poles on the floor and do the same games as above.

  4. Send aways
    Practice send aways by using the same straight line of jumps. Put a favourite object at the end of the row and send them in.  The send away can be created by different methods a) Throw the toy, making sure it lands after the last jump and let your dog chase the toy to complete the row. b) Place the toy at the last jump, taking the dog with you to show them where their toy is or c) Return to the beginning of the row, promoting the toy over and over. Then release and send them down the line of jumps.

  5. Recall
    Ask for wait or have someone restrain your dog. Then recall the dog through the row of jumps

To help the dog to understand the art of jumping, we do grids, backend awareness and cavaletti. These exercises help teach handlers how to communicate physically with the dog while, at the same time. ot builds the dog up with the structure to cope with all we ask while doing agility.

  1. Triangle grid
    As the dog negotiates one jump, the next one is already in their sights, so it is easier for them to complete than turn back. As soon as the dog is happily taking these trio of jumps, the handler should not hang around, send in and run the opposite way to draw the dog out faster.

  2. Straight grid
    Much like the introduction to the jump but the poles are purposefully arranged in distances apart to build the dogs jumping ability.

  3. Slice grid
    Same as above but at diagonal angles.

  4. Scatter poles and cavaletti
    This can be an 'on lead' thing, especially at first. The aim is to get the dog to walk through the Chicane without touching the poles with it's feet. Over time, they begin to understand where their feet land without having to over think it and will do so easily without mistake. The same technique can be done using a ladder and working through the steps front and back feet, just front side to side and just back feet side to side, even backwards and reverse down the ladder.

Teaching turns
Our aim is to make the dogs and handlers understand all of the different styles of turn. We can do this using just one obstacle such as a jump, barrel, pole or cone. The severity of the turn taught depends upon the age of the dog. Again, at first there is no need for any height.

Then add another jump in order to teach the dog to run into the turn and be just as tight and effective.

Box work helps the dog to understand the importance of listening to the commands and negotiating the jumps to the left or right or straight ahead as necessary and also builds independence value.

Other obstacles

Thus far I have only looked jumps although there are obviously other pieces of equipment to teach. 

  • Tunnels
    Start off with fantastic tunnel games, using shorter and straight tunnels.

  • Contact
    The contacts should be on the floor or, even better, just concentrate on end games . Wobble boards can be usedto prepare the dog to negotiate the surface and understand the expectation at the end of the contact.

  • Weaves
    If weaves are taught, it is
    a good idea to start with channel weaves. Open them very wide so as not to touch the dogs sides at all. Basically just recall the dog between the two rows of poles. Other methods can be used but probably should be started later as it takes time to build a dog's muscles up to cope with the movement.

Introducing distractions 
Part of foundation training for pups and young dogs is keeping the dog's attention while other dogs play and move around the area -not dissimilar to the show atmosphere.-These games should be fun and kept short to make sure they are maintaining attention.

  1. Ask the group to form a circle with a good amount of room between each person. While everyone plays with their dog and having fun, one handler will attempt to weave between the others, trying to keep focus and attention.

  2. Organise the handlers into two lines with a gap between each person. Then one at a time, get them to do the chasers from the top, again maintaining focus.

  3. Pole work is a great way to teach various turns. Pole turns are great fun and help the person understand the handling elements on the agility course. Get everyone into a circle. The handlers and dogs negotiate a pole at a time to do one type of turn, and then move onto the next one to continue each do the same. It should look like organised chaos.

  4. Get everyone in the group to play tuggy games with their dogs. Then ask them to move closer and closer - step by step - in towards each other. If a dog loses connection with the handler, they should move back out to gain focus before attempting to return.

Homework / take away!
The following games should be fun and kept at short time elements to make sure they are maintaining attention. Make sure to steer clear of boring activities. We always celebrate and reward with the dogs.

  1. Chasers
    The idea is to get the dog to chase the handler, really wanting to get them to play. This can be done by one person holding the dog while the other person runs away with something of interest to the dog. As the dog is released and approaches, the handler makes connection with the dog and celebrates.

  2. Chasers with treats / toys
    The handler begins to run out, as above, however, they have the right arm out with items of interest in it. As the dog is released, they bring the right arm in and put the left arm out instead, attracting the dog to the opposite side. This would be training the blind cross in front of the dog and helping them to read the correct side to come to.

  3. Chasers with a front cross
    This time we are going to do a front cross instead which that means we will do a full 180í turn in front of the dog to bring them to opposite side. This exercise helps them deal with confrontation, which a lot of dogs really dislike.

  4. Hide 'n Seek
    This time while the dog is being held, the handler (runner) will go and hide. When in place, release the dog to go and find, keep it simple and obvious at first and increase the difficulty level, once they get the idea of the game. Remember massive celebration on finding! I used to love playing this game when I was young with our German shepherd, I think I found the best hiding places because my dad always had to help her find me!

  5. Send away and chase to toy
    Make the game fun and ensure the dog regularly wins. Keep it upbeat especially if you have a dog which lacks motivation.

All of these games help to build the value for the equipment and can be recreated at home or even on general walks when on the lead - the only difference being that they are on the lead. We want our dogs to really throw themselves into to exercises and have a lot of fun but also safe.

Most of all, prepare to have a laugh and you'll get the best out of each dog and handler partnership. The biggest must in any good training centre is play, reward and celebrate!

About the author...
Selena Bray
has been doing agility for over 30 years, coming through the KCJO (now known as YKC) as a young nipper! 

She's always managed to adapt and compete to the highest level even though the skills of agility have vastly changed over the years. She has trained and handled quite a few different breeds and sizes of dog since 1993.

In addition to her day job - like a 'real' job - she loves training people and their dogs and watching them flourish. She runs her own club Fox Agility, featured in The Agility Club Premiership League. She is known for her foundation work, motivation, distance/ independence, weaves, contacts and sequencing skills. She never loses sight for longevity of the health of the dog as well as building abilities in a natural way, utilising games to build a fantastic relationship between dog and handler.

Selena and her family live in Hinckley, Leicestershire.

First published 21 May 2018


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