A Philosophy For Training To Win!
by Monica Percival
In preparation for a seminar
several years ago, someone asked me to put together
a list of what I thought went into "training a dog to
win" in agility. I think the person expected a laundry
list of agility skills to work on; instead, she got
the list below. While many of these principles may seem
to state the obvious or be messages that we strive to
communicate to our students in every class, I find that
it's helpful for students to have a handout like this
to take home and think about from time to time.
* Maintain a positive attitude. You help shape your
dog's attitude with the attitude that you project. A
happy dog is an enthusiastic worker who is willing to
* Have fun. If you aren't having fun, your dog isn't
having fun. Success on the agility field is not a life
and death issue. Have you ever met a dog that cared
whether or not he got a qualifying score?
* Dogs are "only human." Dogs make mistakes and have
bad days just like us. When your dog makes a mistake,
don't jump too quickly to blame him. Look at what you
might have done to cause the error (such as giving a
late command or standing in the wrong position). Think
about what you could have done to prevent the dog from
making the mistake. Evaluate whether or not the dog
really understands what you expect of him.
* Agility is a team sport. You and your dog must work
together. You are the team captain.
* No harsh corrections. Harsh corrections can destroy
a dog's confidence. No praise should be the harshest
correction you ever give.
* A dog in top physical condition has an easier road
to achieving top performance. A top tennis player must
have more than a killer serve and a great forehand to
win-he must have strength, endurance, flexibility, timing,
balance, and coordination. While we're born with some
measure of these abilities, we can enhance them with
regular exercise. The same holds true for dogs ... Agility
requires greater overall physical fitness than what
can be achieved by just working the obstacles. As with
people, a regular exercise program will help increase
your dog's strength and endurance, improve his concentration,
keep him from becoming overweight, prevent injuries
("soft" muscles are more prone to injury), and make
him feel better overall.
* Every dog needs different training. If this isn't
the first dog you are training for agility, recognize
that every dog is different and what worked for your
other dog may not work for this dog.
* Set achievable goals in both training and competition.
Setting realistic goals allows both you and your dog
to achieve success in every training session and every
competitive class you enter-success builds confidence!
If your goals aren't realistic, you will constantly
be frustrated with your dog and the dog may lose interest
in agility. Don't let the success of other people's
dogs cause you to set goals that your dog can't achieve-just
because Fido learned the weave poles in a month doesn't
mean that Rover can.
* There are no shortcuts. Just as a child can't progress
from learning the alphabet to reading War and Peace
overnight, a dog cannot progress from performing individual
obstacles to running courses overnight. Slowly increase
the number of obstacles you ask him to perform in sequence.
Likewise, you cannot start teaching your dog to work
at a distance by trying to send him 20' to the tunnel.
It's important to build good basic agility skills that
you can fall back on when you have a training problem
in the future. If you try to take shortcuts in training,
it will catch up with you later when you try to do more
advanced work with your dog.
* The training process never ends! Just because your
dog did a particular exercise right yesterday, doesn't
mean he'll remember how to do it right today or tomorrow.
Even when a dog is competing successfully, you'll always
run into new problems-such as the dog that forgets what
a contact zone is or thinks it's better to begin weaving
at the second pole. That's the challenge of agility.
* Don't be afraid to go back to basics. If, for example,
your dog is missing contact zones or has started refusing
to perform an obstacle that he's done correctly for
years, don't go searching for gimmicks or magical cures.
Usually, solving the problem requires taking one or
more steps backwards. Figuratively, you need to step
back from the situation and try to analyze the problem
objectively. Literally, you need to go back a step or
more in your training program and make sure that the
dog understands the "job" . Sometimes, you'll even find
that you need to start part of the training process
all over again at step one. Many of us fight going backwards
because we feel that there is some stigma attached to
it or that we have failed in some way. Don't take it
personally and don't fight it! Going back to basics
can often be the quickest and easiest solution to a
* Introduce one challenge at a time. You'll achieve
greater success if you focus on teaching your dog one
skill at a time. For example, if your dog is learning
to weave with slanted poles and you want to teach him
to enter the poles ahead of you, don't try increasing
the angle of the poles and increasing distance between
you and the dog at the same time. Instead, start by
decreasing the angle of the poles to where the dog has
been successful in the past. Run with the dog as he
does the poles. Then on each subsequent performance,
start hanging back a little bit at a time as the dog
enters the poles. When you have built up to the distance
you wanted to achieve (and this may take multiple training
sessions), increase the angle of the poles and start
by running with the dog again and then hanging back
a little at a time.
* Find out what motivates your dog. A few dogs work
just for the sake of working, however, this is the exception
rather than the rule! Most dogs carefully weigh the
cost versus the benefit of performing a particular task.
These dogs need something to motivate them, especially
while they are learning the basics of agility. You'll
need to experiment to find out what turns on your dog-praise,
cookies (and probably liver brownies or Rollover rather
than Milk Bones!), a toy, or whatever works. With some
dogs, you'll need to use a combination of tools to motivate
the dog and you'll need to change the reward from time
* Know when to stop a training session. It's important
to stop each training session before your dog loses
enthusiasm-very often this is before you, the handler,
are ready to stop the training session. Learn to read
your dog and know when his attention is waning. Before
your dog has turned off, set up an exercise to end the
session on a positive, successful note. If you are at
a group practice, put your dog away in a quiet place
and sit back and enjoy watching the other dogs train.
You can learn a lot by watching other handlers and dogs
* Know when you shouldn't start a training session.
If you are having a bad day and aren't able to be patient
and project a positive attitude, don't start a training
session-it doesn't matter if you only have access to
equipment on that particular day. It's better to skip
a training session than to experience failure because
you can't hold up your end of the team or to inadvertently
cause a future training problem because the dog associated
your bad mood with a particular obstacle or exercise.
* You don't need obstacles to train. Many basic agility
skills (such as wait, fast down, easy, and directional
commands) can be taught at home without using any agility
obstacles. Skill building and control exercises should
he part of your daily routine.
* Keep agility stress free. Designing a training program
that emphasizes the principles listed above will help
create a stress-free learning environment for your dog.
Remember, a dog that is stressed will shut down. This
can be seen in the dog that runs laps around the course,
leaves the course, sniffs around ignoring the handler,
or refuses to perform the obstacles. Learn the strengths
and weaknesses of your dog and learn how to get the
most out of the dog without pushing him past his limits
and stressing him out.