happy dog

Training Tips

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 accept challenges!

* 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 problem.

* 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 to 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 work.

* 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.
Mindy Cox.


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 on you.

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 can't attend.

Release Cues

Come to Side 1

Teaching the Front Cross

Teaching Targeting

Shadow Handling


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!

Jump Training- Linda Mecklenburg

Come to Side- Three Positions

Call to Heel- Linda Mecklenburg

Come to Side 2

Contact Training


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 next class.

Front Cross Exercises

Come to Side 3

Moving Control

Rear Cross Fundamentals

Jump Training 2- Linda Mecklenburg

Adding Distance


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 your dog)!

Come to Side 4

Rear Cross With Drive

Jumping Training 3- Linda Mecklenburg


Rear Cross Practice Exercises

Changing Direction Over Obstacles

Teaching Directionals


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:

Training to Win!

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 wind sprints!

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 Agility?

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