Posted by: Adrienne | December 23, 2009

If I could start again…

If I were me, starting back where I started in my agility training, what would I have done differently?  A lot of things actually.  But that would be with the benefit of hindsight and is cheating.  So what would be the one thing that would have made the biggest change in how smoothly we progressed?  Ah, much better question.

I believe the biggest single difference would have been the trainer under which I started out.  For anyone brand new to the sport there is going to be a lot to learn.  In fact, it can be downright overwhelming.  Your trainer is your doorway into this world.  They are your mentor and hopefully a friend to you and your dog.  Someone who will give you the groundwork that will set you up for a succesful agility “career” whether you decide to go all-out or just enjoy yourself here and there.

My agility training started out with learning the obstacles.  One by one, Emma and I learned the tunnels and jumps and ramps.  All pieces of an agility course.  Concurrent to this we started learning some of the various “moves”: here, get out, go/get it.  Today we run in Open Level competition.  And only recently has my inadequate foundation become terribly obvious. 

You see, the obstacles are the “easy” part of agility.  But running a course is not just a series of single obstacles.  A course has a flow.  It is a sequence through which you and the dog move together.  It is a team sport.  Your dog relies on you to know where to go next.  You have to lead the dance.  And how does one do this?

Therein lies the heart of the matter.  This is the proper place to start agility, on the ground.  How do you teach your dog to move away from you, veer in to you, go on straight ahead when you lag behind?  How do you teach them the difference between a tight turn and a wide arc?  This is groundwork, this is foundations.  This is where I would start my next dog.

And there is not just one way to do it.  There are different handling methods and styles. Different ways to train the obstacles.  So just reading books or articles at random can start to look very confusing.  One book has you doing “X” and tomorrow you “find out” that you “should” be doing “Y”.

As a side note, when I first started I wondered why the dogs were not simply trained to take a course on cue with the handler stationary at some point.  Turns out that some dogs can do this.  Most of the agility organizations have some sort class where this sort of challenge is part of the course (part of, not all).  So the training is not the issue.  I believe the bottom line is that running the course with your dog is fun.  A really smooth fast run is a complete thrill, a real rush. The rhythm and flow become a thing of beauty.

So where to start?  If it were me, starting over, I would start by going out to the local trials in my area.  Start by watching the competitors.  You will begin to notice that certain handlers work in a way that you find pleasing.  Not only in how they work their way through a course, but in how they deal with problems both on and off course.  Do they have a style of handling that you would like to imitate?

Take your time.  Look for good sportsmanship.  Shy away from “it’s the dog’s fault because _____.” Watch how the handler interacts with his/her dog. Do they give a lot of harsh corrections?  Do they scream at the dog?  When something goes wrong do they get bent out of shape or shrug and set to work figuring out what happened?

Ask around. Find out where people are training, who their instructor is or if they train at a certain club.  You will pretty quickly find out which trainers to look into and which to stay away from.  Take it from there, go meet the trainers.  Ask to sit in on the classes to get a feel for the instructor’s teaching style.  Not everyone who can do agility can successfully teach it.  This is an additional skill.

This is how I would start over and is my sincerest recommendation for anyone interested in the sport.  Any investment in finding a good trainer and in working foundation skills will pay rich dividends down the road.  It might seem like the unimportant part but will give you the bedrock on which to build a solid future performance. 

Best of luck!

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