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Merrill Anne Jordan

Beginner's Agility | How long and how much training?

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Hello! 

My pup Quinn (9mo) and I started our first agility foundations class yesterday. They're an hour long and we're working on short, slow fundamentals to help us learn more advanced things in a few months in Agility 2. Right now, with Quinn still being quite young, I'm not practicing outside of class in order to ensure that I don't do any damage to him til his growth plates are finished fusing. Been reading posts here on that. As a side note, we're also currently completing a Dog Obedience 1 class to make sure we have those proper handling fundamentals down as well. Both classes are about 7 weeks. 

Now, a bit about the agility class and the obstacles:

  • A frame (median/low angle) - Quinn likes to bolt up and down it, so we worked on slowing that down to make sure he doesn't overrun the yellow bit and we get future disqualifications (if/when we trial, way down the road)
  • Tunnel - Q was more tentative but still runs through. Distractions are his worst enemy and someone threw a treat in it so he stopped to sniff... :unsure:
  • Low jump (more like step over height) - Q did very well. 

He's essentially a natural and really loves it. He seriously could watch it for hours and it took him a bit to settle for the class, but once he did so he's focused (usually) and ready to work.

So, to my questions.

How long did it take you and your dogs to get to trialing and what levels of agility did they complete (varying, obviously). At what age did they start and with what frequency do you practice? What should the next 6 months look like for Q and I if I'd like to take him to trials eventually? Do you use a certain type of collar or harness while training on leash (basics)?

Appreciate any and all advice. I want to keep my boy healthy, but moving forward. 

Sincerely, 

Merrill (and Quinn)

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I am by no means an expert, and am still on my first agility dog.  I did not start training in agility with my dog until he was about 18 months old, and that was mainly because he was a bit reactive and I was not really sure about him off lead. I am in Australia, and all the agility I could do would be outside in unenclosed rings, so I was worried about it.  Turns out he adores jumping and agility and is so focussed in the ring I have never had to worry about it.

I trained for about 6 months, but should have done more.  I just entered our local trial for fun.  The first time in the ring, Oscar (my boy) pretty much forgot how to jump, and even what a tunnel was for, but then he strung together a beautiful run for the last 6 jumps home as encouragement. At first I kept my goals small, not to be disqualified, then one fewer fault in the run etc.  It took a year after our first novice pass to get a second novice pass.

I was initially training almost every weekend with a friend, for about a couple of hours (with setting up and taking down the course, running in turns, filming each other and looking at it, letting the dogs have breaks and us catch our breath).  I live in a fairly isolated country town, so only trial about five or six times a year.  My friend trained a lot more, at home and coming out during the week.  She and her dog are now in masters agility and jumping working on those titles.

I am now so busy with work I rarely train at all.  I also do not compete in agility, only jumping (no weavers) because Oscar hates them and completely shuts down in the weaves.  I know I can try to train that out but I genuinely do not have time.  We have never got an agility pass, but are now in excellent jumping (one title, five passes to get there).  We have one pass in excellent, and lots of near misses (single faults, not bad with no training).  We also have one snooker pass.

Whatever you plan to use if you trial, train in.  If you will run your dog with nothing on, train with nothing on (harness, collar etc).  If you will run your dog with a collar on, leave a collar on.  Where I am, you can only have a flat collar on a dog running agility, for safety.  So that is the most you should have on, ideally.  When you start training, and before your dog has a reliable recall etc, some classes will let you use a lead, but if you are training alone, and once you are adding any speed, forget it.  Flat collar only, at most.  Practice sitting your dog in front of an obstacle, removing lead/harness/collar, then leading out past the obstacle.

You need to proof the contact.  Find a long plank of wood, same width as a dog walk.  Lay it flat on the ground. Paint either end of it yellow.  Practise walking your dog along it.  The aim is to reward for touching the yellow.  Some people like a stopped contact, some like a running contact.  Google will tell you how to train each, or someone else on these boards.  You can get two such boards, and nail a half piece of round wood under one, to create a small teeter totter, to get your dog used to the board moving under his feet.  This is all very low, so it is still safe and low impact.

BUT the other biggest piece of advice I can give is to train other things, which I did not do.  Train your dog to wrap around obstacles, so he can turn quickly on a command.  Train him with a rock solid stay.  Train him work at a distance.  Train him to have a drive away from you. Train him to have good core strength and balance.  Train him to have good rear end awareness.  All of these things don't seem to be obvious agility skills, but I promise they are the difference between a dog that can do well in agility but struggles when things get difficult, and one who can keep learning and doing as things get more complicated.

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It's consistently taken me about a year of training to get to trialing, over 3 dogs - though one dog took a year off in the middle.   

 

I COULD have entered trials sooner, but frankly that's getting into risky territory for me on a few levels:   IF the dog does not TRULY understand both the performance criteria of the obstacles (including weaves) and the ground work bits (stay under heavy distractions and in front of a reward, all the crosses, moving away and coming in while not disengaging and running amok) then you risk developing bad habits.   You've also got more risk of stressing the dog the heck OUT by sticking them in a trial ring, with ring crew and/or judge and/or spectators,  with lots of people and other dogs milling around, many of them nervous,  if the dog doesn't have at least a pretty good understanding of the agility performance itself. If the dog then finds agility or trials high pressure, stressful, or unpleasant, you've just bought yourself a load of trouble.

 

There's a lot more to agility than there appears to be on the surface.  The obstacles and criteria yeah (hit the yellow bits/contacts, weaves always start with first pole on the dog's left,  what constitutes a refusal an d so on)  what goes on getting the dog from one obstacle to the next (how to change sides with the dog, keeping the dog out from under your feet, how to make it clear to your dog what you want them to take when there are two right beside each other), and then the environment itself.

 

So, yeah, ended up being right at a year for all 3 of mine - a year of classes, I add.  They all started a few things at home before that.  

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I would really suggest, as a minimum, volunteering to help out at a few trials in your area as ring staff/stewards.  Watch different levels of competitors.  You will see the difference between those who know how to get their dogs around a course versus those whose dogs know how to do each obstacle, as CptJack says above.

It is not all about what your dog can do, it is about what you know too.  You have to learn a new language - serpentines, threadles, front/back/rear crosses, blind crosses, standard course times, rate of travel, walking the course etc.  You need to learn how to run the course with your dog and get him around most efficiently and effectively.  And that is not something you can work out by winging it - you will need a lot of help.

So a year of training sounds about right if you want to do well.  I didn't do that and I wish I had. 

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It's also a year to TRIAL. 


How long it takes the dog to really get it entirely and completely together and be fast, fluid, and truly independent is an entirely different matter.  That I'm not going to talk about because I'll even psyche myself out.  Let's just say  my baby dog isn't there yet :P

Agility truly is a JOURNEY, not a destination.

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I hope we have not scared you off OP!

I really am out there to have fun with my Oscar, and we have an absolute ball every time we are on the course.  He absolutely adores his trials and his runs, even when he decides I am not fast enough and he is going to make up his own course.  Are we going to be a top level competitor - no way!  Am we going to keep having fun - absolutely! I do what he enjoys.

Picture for demonstration of the grin on Oscar's face every time we run a course. (This was just training)

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@Lawgirl @captain jack Much appreciated for the wisdom above. And no, you haven't scared me off! I'm just starting to realize how much work goes into all this. From what I've read in other threads as well it absolutely IS a different language. Our current class is only once a week but when we get there, he snaps to attention (unless there's goose poo, which he then consistently tries to eat. Gross). Distractions are real for a pup his age, and I expect that, though we work on it. 

I've been thinking about everything y'all have said above and what a year might look like for us, especially within the next 6 months. We'll finish our Agility 1 Foundations course right at the beginning of June and then move directly into Agility 2 where we start to do more off leash work and string the course together a little at a time. After that, we're able to run courses at our leisure when they're available, which will allow us to do more training. Also by this time, he'll have turned 1 (12 months) so his growth should be almost, if not already, complete. After those 6 months.... I'm not sure where we go from there, but I'll figure that out when the time comes. I'm excited to see what Quinn can do and what I can do, since I realize it's also about me as a handler and Quinn and I's working relationship as a duo. 

I've never had a working dog like Q before and so while this is new territory, we're taking it in stride. His face often looks like Oscar's face when he's "working" or "doing a job" whether that's fetch or agility. He's gotten REALLY into fetch and we're tying some obedience training into it as well, which he's not as big a fan of. :D 

15 hours ago, Lawgirl said:

I would really suggest, as a minimum, volunteering to help out at a few trials in your area as ring staff/stewards.  Watch different levels of competitors.  You will see the difference between those who know how to get their dogs around a course versus those whose dogs know how to do each obstacle, as CptJack says above.

Where would I find a trial to volunteer at? I too am in Virginia by the way, outside of DC. What's the experience like?

14 hours ago, CptJack said:

It's also a year to TRIAL. 

How long it takes the dog to really get it entirely and completely together and be fast, fluid, and truly independent is an entirely different matter.  That I'm not going to talk about because I'll even psyche myself out.  Let's just say  my baby dog isn't there yet :P

Agility truly is a JOURNEY, not a destination.

Yes. I'm quickly finding out about the journey! I've seen Q improve dramatically in so many ways over the past month even and I honestly can't imagine how amazing he'll be even a year from now. The best advice I've gotten I think was from you CaptJack. Making sure that I continue to remember that he is a baby doggie, even if he does start to look much more adult. He is still a baby and I need to manage my expectations accordingly. It's done wonders for us in the past month even and helped improve Quinn and I's interactions quite a bit. He's a GOOD boy, truly. 

Another question: I have heard that to be really successful, you need a rock solid stay, sit, down, etc. We're working on these all in a Dog Obedience 1 course, even though he's already gotten most of these commends, it can't hurt to have them reinforced. Which commands did you find MOST useful on the agility course?  Quinn currently knows sit, down, wait/stay, and his recall is continuing to improve as he matures, though, at Obedience class last night he kept chasing leaves in the wind lol. Still a baby doggie :P

I appreciate you both!

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I am currently working with my third agility dog/border collie and I am ridiculously committed to the sport!  For most people it takes about a year to compete as you are figuring out there is loads to learn and I don't think anyone is really ready at the first trial, just remembering those 18 obstacles is challenging :D

Other than the start line, none of my agility commands transfer to normal life. Everything my dogs do on the agility course is specific to the game, even when I use their name there is a specific context rather than away from agility where i use their names for all sorts of silly things. The way I train agility has changed and I now train a lot of very specific verbal commands so my dog can have independence from me and fully understand what he needs to do. As an example we are working on four specific commands for directionals on leaving the dog walk, these will not be used anywhere else.

Start line stays are one of lifespan's great challenges, my young dog has a rock solid stay 10ft from an agility course even when other dogs are running, put him in front of an obstacle and we play "should we stay should we go" 

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What alligande said ^^^^ :P

I think obedience is useful in terms of building a connection between you and your dog, but similarly to alligande, Oscar has a pretty decent obedience stay, but in front of the first obstacle on a course, nope, no way, uh uh, ain't happening.  That was why I recommend working on obedience stay AND agility stay from early!  The idea of having specific agility commands is a very good one too. Recall is also important - not necessarily the formal obedience recall, but the active, proofed-against-distractions recall.  When you are in a trial, with lots of dogs, maybe a thumping teeter totter/seesaw in the ring next door, and a barking dog running the course not far away, you need to be able to call your dog back and get his focus again IF he gets distracted.

And some things from obedience can actually be unhelpful (if that is a word) such as the insistence on working on one side of the body only.  In agility you need to be able to swap sides whenever required and work with equal ease on both.  I would go so far as to say formal obedience is not actually very helpful, but general obedience skills, like recall and stay are helpful.

As for finding a trial to volunteer at, you can start by searching for agility events on websites of places such as the AKC, NADAC or other agility organisations (I am not sure about what there are in the US).  For example I just did a search and located an AKC agility trial at Reva, VA this weekend, with more in Chatham, Hampton, Doswell, Mechanicsville and Lynchburg in the next month or so.  NADAC has comps in Blacksburg and Chesapeake in April. I have no idea how close any of these are to you, sorry.  I have found volunteering is a matter of contacting the organiser of a competition, saying you are someone interested in getting into agility but want some experience with trials beforehand, and asking if you can volunteer to help out with their trial.  Maybe someone will say no.  If so, no harm done.  That has not been my experience, however.  Even just going to watch is a very good idea.

I first volunteered to help out at a trial run by my club because they were short of helpers, and I had some idea that I might be interested in agility with my Oscar but had no real idea what it was like.  I helped out over two days and was a lead steward, collecting leads from people at the start of runs and taking them to the exit for the competitors to collect at the end of the run; I was also a ring marshal, getting competitors lined up ready to go in the ring in order and making sure there was always someone ready to go into the ring so there was no delays.  I helped set up and change courses between classes, to change heights for different dogs and to put up bars that had been knocked down between runs.  At one point I was a backup timekeeper for the electronic timing.  In later trials, I learned to be a scribe, to mark up the official score sheets for the judges.  Those are jobs in Australian trials.  US trials may be different.

What I loved was seeing how people interacted, how people cheered each other on, congratulated their competitors on a good run, commiserated when there was a near miss, and how even the best competitors could stuff things up.  It really gave me courage to see that every one had a bad day, could have a bad run, and still go out and try again the next time.  It reassured me that I should have a go. And most of all, the focus on having fun with your dog was comforting for me.

That was my experience with a country trial in Australia, where almost all the competitors know each other and are friends or friendly.  I do not know if the same atmosphere is in every trial in every country.

Hope this helps.

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On 3/27/2019 at 10:04 AM, alligande said:

I don't think anyone is really ready at the first trial, just remembering those 18 obstacles is challenging :D

Other than the start line, none of my agility commands transfer to normal life. Everything my dogs do on the agility course is specific to the game, even when I use their name there is a specific context rather than away from agility where i use their names for all sorts of silly things. The way I train agility has changed and I now train a lot of very specific verbal commands so my dog can have independence from me and fully understand what he needs to do. As an example we are working on four specific commands for directionals on leaving the dog walk, these will not be used anywhere else.

Start line stays are one of lifespan's great challenges, my young dog has a rock solid stay 10ft from an agility course even when other dogs are running, put him in front of an obstacle and we play "should we stay should we go" 

@alligande, this is great and super helpful. It's a completely different ball game for Q depending on the environment, which makes sense. Stay is definitely still a struggle for us and I often use "wait" with Quinn and he's okay with it when we're "on the course" (just in training class). He chomps at the bit and like I said earlier, he absolutely bolts over the A frame. Channeling his excitement and making sure he's focused and not distracted is our greatest struggle right now. Might you have any recommended reading for how those different commands play out?

15 hours ago, Lawgirl said:

That was why I recommend working on obedience stay AND agility stay from early!  The idea of having specific agility commands is a very good one too. Recall is also important - not necessarily the formal obedience recall, but the active, proofed-against-distractions recall.  When you are in a trial, with lots of dogs, maybe a thumping teeter totter/seesaw in the ring next door, and a barking dog running the course not far away, you need to be able to call your dog back and get his focus again IF he gets distracted.

And some things from obedience can actually be unhelpful (if that is a word) such as the insistence on working on one side of the body only.  In agility you need to be able to swap sides whenever required and work with equal ease on both.  I would go so far as to say formal obedience is not actually very helpful, but general obedience skills, like recall and stay are helpful.

As for finding a trial to volunteer at, you can start by searching for agility events on websites of places such as the AKC, NADAC or other agility organisations (I am not sure about what there are in the US).  For example I just did a search and located an AKC agility trial at Reva, VA this weekend, with more in Chatham, Hampton, Doswell, Mechanicsville and Lynchburg in the next month or so.  NADAC has comps in Blacksburg and Chesapeake in April. I have found volunteering is a matter of contacting the organiser of a competition, saying you are someone interested in getting into agility but want some experience with trials beforehand, and asking if you can volunteer to help out with their trial.  Maybe someone will say no.  If so, no harm done.  That has not been my experience, however.  Even just going to watch is a very good idea.

@Lawgirl you are awesome. Thank you! I'll take a look at some of those. Surprised to see some of the areas they have agility trials too, like Mechanicsville and Doswell (my Dad is actually from Mechanicsville, coincidentally). I'll take a look at the websites and reach out to see if they have any opportunities and if not, I'll certainly go watch. Can you bring your pup if they're not competing usually? @captain jack is this your experience in VA? 

Related to formal obedience and working on both sides, yes. That's actually one of the things they did in the class, having us work on both sides. While Quinn knows stay, wait, down, look, etc., he doesn't know heel. So that's the one we're actively working on right now. It's mostly in connection with our morning training sessions and is sometimes around dogs and sometimes not. Our biggest issue is distraction. Is this something you think he will grow out of as he continues to mature? 

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My experience is that the vast majority of trials welcome spectators and their (on leash) dogs!  Be aware not to block the entries/exits to the ring and talk to people who aren't lined up waiting to enter the ring, but otherwise we're a very welcoming group.  We might put you to work (so volunteer opportunities), but we certainly have no problem with people visiting to watch and learn! 

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I have also always found agility folk very welcoming to interested (and helpful!) people who are are thinking of joining the ranks of the agility obsessed.  It is a disease and you will catch it.

I am sure Quinn will grow out of a lot of his puppy distraction.  It sounds like he is already pretty 'switched on' to the fun of agility.  Channelling his drive and focus will be the challenge.

The question of specific cues is a very vexed one in agility circles.  Search the topic of 'handling systems' for endless debate about various different systems, verbal based versus motion based etc.  Some people are wedded to a particular handling system.  Others will go to multiple seminars and take what works for them and their dog from what they learn.  My problem is I get out of breath on the course, or mistime my verbal cues.  Body language is equally easy to mistime, but at least does not require breath, so I tend to rely on both.  Dogs will respond to both, some more to one than the other.  You will find out which as Quinn develops.  Videoing yourself with Quinn as you start to string runs together will be invaluable in working out what works and what went wrong.

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17 hours ago, CptJack said:

My experience is that the vast majority of trials welcome spectators and their (on leash) dogs!  Be aware not to block the entries/exits to the ring and talk to people who aren't lined up waiting to enter the ring, but otherwise we're a very welcoming group.  We might put you to work (so volunteer opportunities), but we certainly have no problem with people visiting to watch and learn! 

Excellent! I'm looking forward to that. I'm afraid the first time we go Quinn is going to lose his baby mind from wanting to participate. We visited a Super Pet Expo recently where he absolutely lost it, pulled out of his collar (I had a harness on him too) and almost got into the ring with the dogs performing (The Marvelous Mutts) because he was so frustrated and wanting to play. Maybe good practice in self-control for him? Food for thought. I'm thinking I might hit up the Mechanicsville event but need to browse the events a bit more. Do you attend these typically @CaptJack? 

11 hours ago, Lawgirl said:

I am sure Quinn will grow out of a lot of his puppy distraction.  It sounds like he is already pretty 'switched on' to the fun of agility.  Channelling his drive and focus will be the challenge.

The question of specific cues is a very vexed one in agility circles.  Search the topic of 'handling systems' for endless debate about various different systems, verbal based versus motion based etc.  Some people are wedded to a particular handling system.  Others will go to multiple seminars and take what works for them and their dog from what they learn.  My problem is I get out of breath on the course, or mistime my verbal cues.  Body language is equally easy to mistime, but at least does not require breath, so I tend to rely on both.  Dogs will respond to both, some more to one than the other.  You will find out which as Quinn develops.  Videoing yourself with Quinn as you start to string runs together will be invaluable in working out what works and what went wrong.

Q LOVES it. And I do agree and think he'll continue growing out of his distractions. His recall, for example, has actually improved dramatically even in the past few weeks to a month. So, like Quinn, I think that this will help me get into shape running with him on the course. I think it'll be good for us both, ha. Though his stamina is something else. So I'll likely use a mixture as well. I'll have to figure out how to video once we get to that point to see what's working and what's not. I appreciate the insight and will do some googling. :D

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@Lawgirl I almost cried when I saw this YouTube. Not because it's sad or anything, but because it's SO DARN EXCITING to watch dogs do this! I think I've got the bug.... 

 

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I typically attend trials further west - New River Valley, Roanoke Valley, and Northern North Carolina.  I also mostly - not exclusively but mostly - participate in NADAC

 

and, yes, attending trials can be GREAT work re: self-control for the dogs.  Good to learn to chill in a busy environment.  It's good prep for lots of things, including competing in trials.

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It was an absolutely great final at Crufts, especially in the medium grade.  That 12 year old dog! .008 difference in the final placings!

It is hard to see if you don't really know what you are looking for, but try watching the video again and there are a couple of places to watch how the different handlers dealt with places in the course. 

The entry to the first tunnel was a tough one, and was handled quite differently by people, depending on what best suited their dog and them. 

The move between the jump and the tyre was also interesting.  I think I saw one person right at the end do a front cross (change handling sides by turning towards and in front of your dog).  Pretty much everyone else did a blind cross (change handling sides in front of your dog with your back to the dog).  A blind cross means you have to trust your dog to pick up the change in handling side.  And they all did.

Also I found the handling interesting in the jump coming out of the second tunnel, where they had to call the dog past a jump.  One lady was on the opposite side of the jump from the tunnel, called her dog to come to her over the jump and the dog came to her and then jumped back over the jump, and was disqualified.

You will also notice that some handlers are more verbal when running their dogs and others are far more focussed on their positioning and body language.  It can be hard to tell with the commentary though.

If you watch it again, I thought most of the faults/disqualifications were either contact errors by the dogs, or were handling errors where the handler moved too far, was in the wrong position or mis-timed the cue for the dog.

It is so easy to stuff up, it is amazing so many actually get clear runs, to be honest.

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You've gotten some good advice here, and also that temptation to get addicted!  (It's pretty easy to do....)

Suggestion:  to go to a trial to observe, you might want to leave your dog at home.  I know it's hard!  But you will get so much more out of attending, if you don't have to think about/worry about/pay attention to your dog.  And that last thing?  Yeah, you would have to be doing that!!

I'll also second the idea that it takes a LOT of foundation to get proficient.  Did I always do that?  Nope!  Two dogs started with very little - and it showed!  By #3, I was a little better myself, but even with that one, I could (later) see bits and pieces of things I  should've worked on before trialing.

Last dog, adopted/rescued at six months of age with essentially no training, took a good two years to get ready.  She was a little nervous for several years (never wanted to be wrong), but now is doing amazingly well.  I just adopted another one who is 1-2 yr old, also with little training.  I think he'll be a work in progress for awhile, so it'll likely be a year before he even sees agility equipment.  But he may prove me wrong!

Good luck - and remember it's the JOURNEY that counts, not the DESTINATION!

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Google agility fundamentals, or agility foundations.  It sounds like you are doing the fun agility basics, but a lot of the foundation work is less showy, but more essential. 

That does not mean they are not fun for your dog - it will still challenge his mind and if trained in a positive manner, be loads of fun for him, but will be the building blocks that mean when he needs to learn something new, it will make sense to him.

To be honest, I have never trained them properly, so can't explain them well.  I just wish I had...

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