Dog Agility Training Exercises: Training With Obstacles

This is the second installment, if you didn’t catch my first article on dog agility training, I recommend that you read it.

Essentially, I believe that almost all dog owners, and also all dogs can benefit from dog agility training!  Why?  Because it is FUN!  And fun goes a long way in dog training.  You can even compete with the American Kennel Club or the United Kennel Club.

Dog agility can also help with basic commands, basic obedience, core strength and your dog’s all over skills when it comes to listening to you and obeying your commands!  Because agility is FUN.  And, fun activities and training sessions ensure that we want to continue indulging when given the opportunity, and in order to be successful and to train together as a team the dog must listen to the handler’s commands and cues.

This sets him up to listen and use more impulse control when it comes to basic, intermediate and advanced obedience.  So you will have a better trained dog in the house and on the dog sports field.

Training in and of itself is very symbiotic with other forms of training, competition and dog sports.

For instance, teaching my dog to “stay” at the start line in agility helped her to “stay” at the back of the dock during our dock diving competitions.  American kennel club and obedience training exercises help here.

If you can learn impulse control when you are working on your favorite activity or favorite dog sport, you can better control yourself when you are simply being a pet around the house!

So, there is benefit for almost all dogs to get involved in dog agility and the fun, and stimulation that it provides.

I remember when I was young and had my first dog, this was before I got into dog sports and dog agility, I used to take my dogs to the “kiddie” park at off hours and work on bad, dog agility.  Meaning it wasn’t structured, but it was certainly still good for my dog’s mind and her body.  She used to climb the stairs, go through tunnels and even go down the slide!  I guess it was my first introduction to dog agility and how important it is for their stimulus and motivation and keeping them out of trouble.

I know many parents who get their children involved in sports activities, or buy them horses so that they learn structure, builds confidence, develops focus and gives them something constructive.  Click here for more on that.

I think the same is true for dogs and dog sports.  Dogs that are involved in dog sports are often just simply better behaved and confident, they get a lot more socialization and experience out of the house.

Tackling the Obstacles

So let’s get into the fun part of agility, the jumps and the obstacles.  Training sessions should be fun and short!

Once you have read the first article and focused on some of the footwork you can move on to more advanced obedience and adding obstacles like the dog walk, pause table and other obstacles.  The good news is it also doesn’t matter if you have a Border Collie, German Shepherd, Sheltie or other high drive dog, any dog or mixed breed or mutt can have fun with this sport.

Agility Jumps

Agility jumps are one of the main thing that you will see on the agility field.  There is even a competition that is made up of all agility jumps!  Many dogs simply like to jump and the angle that you approach them jumps at can help aid your dog in speed and skill.  Whether you want to attend agility trials or compete having a basic obedience and understanding is essential.  Training your dog should be full of rewards and focus remember beginner agility takes time for the dog handler and the dog.

Please don’t jump puppies or geriatric dogs at a high distance, this can injure their joints.  If in doubt keep it short.

As weird as this is about to sound, dogs don’t necessarily realize they have back legs!  For them they are a cohesive entity.  We often have to teach them how to lift their back legs to assist them with healthy jumping.  Don’t worry you will be moving through the levels quickly, but this kind of training and competition takes a lot of time and focus.

I like to set up short Cavalletti courses for my dogs.  Cavaletti courses were used in the 1950’s as a way to train horses to jump with more accuracy, balance and to loosen and strengthen muscles and work on core strength  (they have to learn they have back legs too).  It was originally a series of timber jumps that are adjustable in height.  Click here to find out more.

I like to begin by setting up about 5 jumps in a row for my dogs.  At first, the agility jump bars will merely be set on the ground.  Put the dog on leash and walk with him down the middle of the jumps.  This helps with any apprehension he has with the jumps and gets him acquainted to what it might feel like later when you aren’t by his side.  Yes, some dogs are afraid of jumps at first.  Also, if you are using target training you can place your target at any place within the 5 jumps. To learn about targeting, click here.

Make sure that you walk through your jumps and make sure that they are spaced appropriately.  They shouldn’t be too close.  It should give your dog enough time to gather his stride for the next jump.

From there adjust the height of the jumps slowly.  First, keep them at the same height and easy enough to step over.   As you adjust the height and he adjusts his speed, make sure that you adjust the distance and take into account his stride.

Next begin to adjust their heights to be mismatched, this will help the dog to pay more attention to what he is doing.  For several attempts you will have to walk him on leash with you to encourage and teach him.  You can adjust your speed as he gets more confidence through understanding.  I strongly encourage target training and clicker training and some advanced target training to help build speed.  My dogs have learned to race to a target and patiently wait for me to arrive with their treat.   Beginner agility takes time but is worth it in the end.

Remember that in order for your dog to be successful in the actual dog sport of agility, he has to often work several feet to yards away from you.  Also remember that your commands must come BEFORE the jumps in order to help him know when to turn and manage.

Agility training isn’t all Cavaletti.  Eventually you are going to want him to “switch” and change his directions away from you and toward you during those jumps.  More on that in my first article.

Your feet and your hands and of course your voice tell the dog if he needs to run in one direction the “Switch” to another.  You also need to learn to keep up with him or teach him how to take cues from a great distance.   This is DIFFICULT by the way!

So, I begin by actually getting some of the footwork down by myself with no dog at my side.  Let me just tell you how long it takes to master traveling in a line with your feet pointed correctly and using the correct hand for information!  It is better to make a ton of mistakes alone, than to make mistakes that will screw up the training for your dog.

Think of this like a “dance” choreographed with your dog.  You don’t want to let your partner down, so you must practice on your own before you come together to work so that the dance can be efficient.  Be certain to do the cone work in the first article before moving on to jumps.

Once your dog masters cavaletti, which have nearly unlimited ways that they can be configured.  You may begin combining what we did with the cones, with a jump or two.  Remember your footwork and start easy!  I like to begin by keeping my dog on a congruent side and simply making him do “u-turns” around a jump and then follow him down to the target.  Remember to work him on the right side and the left side.

Working on Lead Outs

In order to be successful in agility your dog HAS to have a good basic training “Stay” command.  Dog agility requires you to work several jumps or obstacles ahead of your dog.  Basic obedience is essential!  For help teaching your dog to stay, click here.

Begin by leaving him on a stay and then going out for one or two jumps depending on his proficiency.  Point your feet in the correct direction and use your lead hand to catch his attention; he will need these cues later as he races a course.  Give an excited command “GO”, and BE PREPARED!  Often your dog will move a lot faster than you are expecting or able!  Don’t worry about this at first, you will learn to work together if you put the time in basic training with one another.

Once you start adding turns and “switches” you take training your dog to a while new level.

Again, put in the time and effort into cones and jumps prior to moving to the more fun obstacles.  The last thing you want is to skimp on his training or end up with a dog that doesn’t want to perform the jumps and turns proficiently!  Because the majority of agility is turns and jumps!

Here is a great link for making jumps by yourself!  Even though it is geared more for rehab, it is a cheap way to build jumps.  Click here.

A Frame, the First Obstacle

I like to teach my dogs to master the A Frame as the first agility obstacle skill we learn.  Typically it only requires one person teaching and it is wide, so it is more safe than obstacles like the dog walk (which should require one person on each side, to ensure safety).

A good solid A Frame can be lowered to only a foot or two off the ground.  If you are ever going to be serious about competition with a kennel club or taking your dog to a trial, I recommend finding a book that will help you with specs that match whatever organization you will choose to compete with.  United kennel club is often the most stringent, so I would look into the requirements for their obstacles.  Of course all equipment can be purchased but most can be made with some basic parts and ingenuity.

One of the best ways I have found, over the years, to make a good A Frame is with 3 doors.  Two doors provide the top, with a hinge and the other door is cut in half to make it high enough.  The half doors can be screwed on to the original doors in multiple places using a 2×4 or 4×4 to reinforce the length.  One piece of ply wood can cover the finished A Frame.  1×2 rungs can cut and screwed in every 12 inches.    2 heavy duty eyelets and strong chain will hold the A Frame in place and allow you to adjust it’s height. A 2×2 can be cut to finish the top and allow for no breaks in the frame.  Be sure to paint it a fun color and yellow for the safety zone.  You can even get no slip paints at your local hardware store.

Once your A Frame is constructed, be sure to put your dog on a leash and provide ample treats and food rewards.  The leash will help you to keep him in the center of the frame.  Be sure to approach it head on and straight in the beginning to give him the skills that he needs to build confidence.

I like to put a treat on every 2 to 4 rungs on the way up and every rung on the way down.  I want to teach him early on to slow and be safe when exiting any contact object.  From here you can either click and reward your dog for two feet on and two feet off of the A Frame or reward him at the bottom for all four feet on the frame.  There are different theories.  2 feet on and 2 feet off provides more quickness, but 4 feet on helps to prevent jarring the shoulders on dismount.  Either way you should be jack potting at the end of the contact obstacles to teach your dog to slow up and wait for commands and further instruction.

As your dog gets better at a short A Frame you may begin to raise it.  As he gets confidence you may begin taking the leash off.  But still always teach the dog to slow up and wait for his jackpot at the end of the contact obstacle.  This is critical for safety and competition.  And, a dog with good habits will slow up even without the target or clicker while competing.

The Pause Box or Pause Table

A pause box can be fun and simple to make!  Not only can you use just about any box that will safely support your dog.  You can just fashion a few pvc poles together into a box.  This is also considered an agility obstacle!

The joy is getting your dog to run to the box and perform the command that you ask.  In the beginning, like anything else this requires a leash.  Make it as fun as possible!!  Use lots of treats, sometimes I even use my dog’s food to motivate them to run to the box.  This skill also helps teach your dog the “place” command, for more on that click here.

I like to begin by asking my dog to “down” because I think it is a more reliable behavior to maintain especially from a distance sending them.  Once my dog has conquered the send and “down” in the pause table from many different angles and distances, I can begin to work on “sit” and “stand”.  Again, make it as fun as possible!

Weave Poles

Weave poles are one of my favorite agility obstacles and one of the most difficult dog agility training exercises and skills that you can teach your dog.

It is pretty simple to add stakes to pvc pipes and insert them in the ground outside.

I also have used toilet plungers in the house.  Toilet plungers have great give after you have plunged them onto a hard floor, plus this is great for working indoors when it is to inclement outside to work!

There are so very many theories when it comes to teaching the weave poles to your dog.  Interestingly I have tried a few, with different dogs, over the years.  I think my favorite is to form two sets of weave poles and offset them just a bit, sending your dog down the middle to a target.  At first, they should just allow the dog to run down like a shot.  After he is comfortable running to his target, begin moving them closer and closer so that the dog weaves naturally to avoid slamming into the infringing poles.  Eventually you can bring them together and you have taught your dog how to weave his body.

The weave poles are one of the most difficult thing to teach a dog with precision.  This is NOT quick work, devote the time required to solidify this before moving the poles together too quickly.  It is better to take a while and build a firm foundation, than it is to build too quickly and lose precision or have to go back later.  Check this out here.

Dog Walk

I just want to touch on the dog walk before concluding this article.  This is one of the most dangerous pieces of equipment when working your dog.  The height and short footing make it possible for handlers to make mistakes that wind up with dogs falling off.

The dog walk is simple to build, a few 2x4s and a couple of saw horses and you are on your way to set up.

My caution is to be very careful with this piece of equipment and to use two handlers when teaching; one helper who can hold the dog’s collar and his owner closely footed on the other side.  Tackle this slowly and methodically, speed will come with confidence and diligence and trust in each other!

Agility is fun!  There are many more aspects to visit at a different time but this gives you lots of homework and levels to get your dog ready for an advanced class or the trial or competition floor.

As always have fun, and keep training and practicing.

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