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.
Homework- Beginning Agility •
Welcome! Here are the weekly handouts and my
advice for each of the 6-weeks of your Beginning Agility class.
You and your dog will get out of it what you put into it. Practice
what you've learned every day but keep it fun. Don't drill,
play! If you are serious about doing well in agility, you need
to consider making, buying, or having access to equipment.
I am very happy to have you in class! Let's get started.
I know how challenging it is to keep your dog's attention with
so many distractions. When you are waiting for your turn at
practicing or learning a new skill, keep your dog's attention
by doing little obedience exercises, or games such as hand touching
or tugging. Give your dog brain breaks sometimes by putting
your dog in a crate to relax. You can and should also work on
your own on the different stations such as plank, weaves, and
any other obstacles we have worked on. Practice ground work
including come to side and turns on the flat. Be very generous
in your rewards. All of things will help keep your dog's focus
It's really important to practice in many different environments.
If you would like to use the Lucky Dog agility field and equipment,
please consider a membership.
Please keep me informed if you have any questions or I am not
covering the things you are most interested in. I am here to
serve you. If you need to reach me before class, please call
561-427-6700. Please let me know by phone or email when you
to Side 1
the Front Cross
Read the article about jump training for collection (you start
with sitting next to the jump). Please continue to work on these
exercises in the attached Mecklenburg handout. It is extremely
valuable to teach your dog your body cues and proper jump form.
Next week we will continue to work on jumping, adding in the
come to side exercises over a jump, as well as front crosses.
Please work continuously on targeting and contact training (see
handouts). Contact training will come in later on the contact
equipment: dogwalk, a-frame and teeter. Practice on stairs or
a travel board (plank). You want your dog to quickly get into
position leaving their back feet on the equipment and their
front feet on the ground. Click as soon as their nose touches
the target and reward low. They should eventually be able to
maintain this position regardless of your body position or distance
from the equipment.
I know that I have included a lot of handouts. Please print
them out and at least skim them. They will help you keep organized
on what you need to work on. Most important, keep training fun
for you and your dog!
Training- Linda Mecklenburg
to Side- Three Positions
to Heel- Linda Mecklenburg
to Side 2
Learning the fundamentals in any sport is always the most challenging.
Hang in their and continue to practice. If you have equipment
(at least jumps) that's great. If not, there is a lot of groundwork
laid out in class and in the handouts that you can be working
on (though everyone should have at least a couple of jumps).
Continue to practice your jump training; it makes up the majority
of agility. If your dog does not understand his job at jumping,
he will not be able to do the more advanced exercises in the
coming weeks. We unfortunately don't have time in class to practice
as much as I'd like to, so read the handouts I send every week
and work through the exercises. Your future agility star should
be able to take a jump on cue no matter which side of the jump
you are on (takeoff or landing side). He should be able to work
a little ahead of you taking jumps that are in his path that
you indicate (not only with your body language, but with a verbal
"jump"). The work on the rear cross, as well as on multiple
obstacle sequences, will be most difficult if this basic jump
work is not done first and understood by your dog.
Though it's not as much fun as jumping and running through tunnels,
a strong target response, as well as the two on/two off (2o/2o)
behavior are both very important since we want to work on perfecting
our contact obstacles (a-frame, dogwalk, teeter). Continue to
work on come to side to be sure your dog does not run ahead
of you unless you cue him or her to do that. They should be
ready to stop at your side and not do anything on their own
at this point.
Practice your front crosses. Read and work the Mecklenburg article.
She is awesome and always writes great articles. The Moving
Control article is also very good and will show you how to teach
your dog to follow your body and move with you. We will work
on the rear cross over jumps as well as adding some short sequences
to Side 3
Training 2- Linda Mecklenburg
Here are some things to think about during your practice sessions.
--Clues that you dog has questions when doing a sequence:
* head turn over obstacle (with no expected change of direction);
* slowing down;
* coming down hard after a jump;
* sniffing or zoomies;
* off course;
---Before starting, you need to get high arousal in your dog.
Try different things to have the dog very attentive and excited:
* crouch down
* count 1-2-3-Go!
* audible inhalation or exhalation
* use phrases that excite: "Wanna cookie?"
* reward after single jump or short sequence.
I know some of the new skills, such as front and rear crosses,
are confusing and difficult, but you have to trust me when I
tell you that they will begin to come naturally after more practice.
We all had to start at this point and eventually we learned
to perfect these maneuvers; so will you. I think you are doing
very well and are continuing to show motivation and a strong
desire to learn. Don't forget that you have a dog at the other
end of the leash that requires a lot of confidence building
(praise and food rewards given often). Your
dog never knows when he or she makes a mistake and at this point
you shouldn't tell your dog. Don't do a lot of drilling of the
same thing that your dog keeps getting wrong. It's demoralizing.
Intersperse with easy things that are enjoyable and highly rewarding.
It can be demoralizing to you as well, but list it under things
to work on and stop being so hard on yourself (it rubs off on
to Side 4
Cross With Drive
Training 3- Linda Mecklenburg
Cross Practice Exercises
Direction Over Obstacles
Read the article in the column on your left and
be sure to keep these important training philosophies in mind
everytime you work with your dog. Here it is in an easy to read
format to print and keep:
Here's one more fun exercise to work on to increase
speed and get your dog to move out ahead of you. Have fun with
You have graduated! Job well done. Keep practicing
and learning. Continue to challenge you and your dog with new
skills. Take another class. How about Novice